I was born to a family of Romanian, Hungarian, and German descent and grew up in Fagaras, a small town in southern Transylvania. I’ve been writing stories since I was like ten, although I did a lot of different things before deciding, five years ago, to throw my hat across the creek and become a full time writer.
I graduated from Bucharest’s Academy of Economic Studies in 1988 and then worked as an economist in my hometown for a couple of years. I joined the press in 1991 as a financial reporter for The National Courier, a daily newspaper created immediately after the huge changes brought about by the Romanian Revolution against the communist regime.
Between 2000 and 2002, I was a project manager with a TV news channel called B1TV. In the 1990s, I was a contributor to BBC Romania and Radio Free Europe. I was an adviser to the Prime Minister of Romania for a year in the early 2000s, and then an adviser to the Governor of the National Bank of Romania for another three years.
As a writer, I published my first short story in a Romanian literary magazine called Vatra in February 1989, and my first novel in June 1991 at Calypso Press in Bucharest. The book, whose title is The Massacre, is set in Brazil, and it was a huge success, selling over 100,000 copies in less than a year. It was followed just a couple of months later by another bestseller, Commando for the General, a political thriller set in Italy in the early 1980s. But after that I haven’t published fiction for the next thirteen years. Why? Please read the paragraph above one more time. I guess that sometimes you forget who you really are and what career you’re cut out for.
However, I published ten novels and five non-fiction books (History, Economics, and Foreign Affairs) in Romania before I left the country and moved to the UK in 2012. My son had graduated from the University of Cardiff and wanted to stay in England, and my wife had received a good job offer from a multinational company headquartered in Reading, Berkshire.
In December 2015 my wife and I moved to Brussels, Belgium, where we live now.
I like painting, reading a good book—although good books seem few and far between nowadays—walking down the streets of small towns that are new to me, chewing the fat with my friends, and watching movies. I don’t have any taboos or superstitions or eccentricities or expensive habits. I’ve been married for thirty years to Mihaela and we still loved each other. Eugene, our son, who’s now a young man, is a great guy and I’m glad he’s my boy.
About The Book of Mirrors
I wrote the first draft between February and May 2014. I polished the manuscript a couple of times before sending it to a dozen literary agents. Seven of them or so asked for the full manuscript, but finally rejected it, without telling me why. I polished it again one more time and decided to sell it to a small press, so my book landed in a couple of slush piles.
Robert Peett, the owner and director of Holland House Books, a small press in Newbury, about twenty miles from Reading, replied very fast, telling me that he loved my book, but that we should meet and have a talk before working out a deal. We met two weeks later and he told me over a coffee that the book is very good, but he couldn’t afford to pay an advance, and the distribution wouldn’t be spectacularly. He asked me why I hadn’t sent the manuscript to literary agents. I told him that I had, but that it’d been rejected. He said that I should try again. He insisted and finally convinced me to do so.
That was on a Thursday. The very next day, I sent the manuscript to three more British agents. One of them was Marilia Savvides of Peters, Fraser & Dunlop. She asked for the full just two days later, and offered me representation three days after that. I was walking on air, but still a bit sceptical.
I met Marilia and the rest of the foreign rights team—Rachel, Alexandra, and Rebecca—and they told me that the project was going to make a splash. I was still a bit sceptical. But then we received extraordinary offers from about ten countries in less than a week. Now, I was no longer sceptical, but scared, because everything was happening too fast. Finally, we received offers from forty countries.
Even as an author, you’re never sure which corner of your mind is capable of producing a story and how that might happen. But I guess that the idea for this book started to germinate in 2013, over a conversation with mom, who visited me in Reading. I told her that I could remember the funeral for a local football player, who’d died very young in a car crash when I was a kid.
She said that I’d been just a toddler at the time, so I couldn’t have been there, at the cemetery. I went on, telling her that I could remember that the coffin was open, and there was a football placed on the dead guy’s chest. She said that the detail was true, but that I probably heard it from her or my dad, after they’d attended the funeral. “But you definitively weren’t there,” she added.
It was just a silly story about the human mind’s capacity to modify and even falsify its recollections, but it planted the seed of my novel. What if we really forgot what had happened at some point? What if our imagination is capable of transforming so-called reality into something else, into our own separate “reality”? What if somebody isn’t merely a liar, but rather his or her mind is capable of rewriting a given event, like a film director?
As Emperor Marcus Aurelius said in his Meditations, “Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.” Well, that’s what The Book of Mirrors is about.
One might say that my book is a whodunit, a crime novel. Probably, but I’d say that it’s rather a whydunit. I’ve always thought that after three hundred pages the reader should get something more than just finding out who killed Jane or John. I’ve also always thought that a writer should aspire to reach the magic land of stories characterized by a strong sense of mystery, but with a real literary bent at the same time.
I think that the process of storytelling hasn’t changed much over the last three or four hundred years. I don’t think that being a storyteller means something different today in comparison to what it meant a couple of centuries ago. Granted, we use laptops rather than quill or typewriter nowadays, but an author still needs a vivid story, a few three-dimensional characters, and good language skills—and that’s all. Sure, we have modernism and postmodernism and structuralism and textualism, and all the rest of these precious “isms.” But just between you and me, this stuff is for critics, not for writers. They aren’t even for readers, probably.
Someone once replied me long ago that Hemingway is old-fashioned, and that the same went for Falkner, Steinbeck, Salinger or Camus. Okay, but what about Cervantes? What about Shakespeare? Are they old-fashioned too? If you reread a couple of lines from Don Quixote or Hamlet, you’d see how modern they are even today. So, I think that great literature, from ancient Greek tragedy to Salinger, from Cervantes and Shakespeare to Camus or Golding, can still be the main source of inspiration for a writer today.
Why is this novel set in the US?
Well, it’s a long story. I had a great-aunt in New York City—she passed away in the early 1990s—and she used to visit her relatives back in Romania when I was a kid. She’d married a famous Jewish-Romanian architect, Harry Schonberg, and they left the country in 1938, before World War Two.
I remember her in the late 1960s and early 1970s, sitting in an armchair, surrounded by admiring people, smoking long cigarettes and talking with a strange accent. There was something of a movie diva about her. She used to bring wonderful gifts, things you couldn’t find in Romania during the communist regime, when the whole country was drab and grey.
So to me America gradually became a kind of magical land, and the city of New York was, of course, the epicentre of that fantastic realm. Later, I learned everything I could about American history, culture, and civilization. Then the rock music and movies were yet more bridges between me and the English-speaking world, even though I was living behind the Iron Curtin.
At the same time, I was in love with English-language literature since childhood, from O’Henry and C.S. Lewis to Salinger and Golding, and from Mark Twain and Walter Scott to Hemingway and Fowles. Of course, I’ve read hundreds of non-English great writers—Camus, Sartre, Boll, Grass, Mann, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Sholokhov, Kazantzakis, Llosa, and Durrenmatt being only a few of them—but I’ve always felt that the American school of prose is the one closest to me and which speaks to me the most.
My first novel, called The Massacre, is set in Brazil—I’d never been there up until then, in 1991—and the second in the States and Italy. Three of my books are set in New York City as well, and one of them in the Ozark Mountains, Missouri.
Why and how a writer chooses settings for his or her story, it’s difficult to explain. Hemingway was born and raised in Illinois, but his novels are set abroad, in France, Cuba, Spain, and Italy. On the other hand, Mario Vargas Llosa left his native country, Peru, when he was just nineteen, living in Spain, France, and Britain, but the large majority of his books are set in Peru, though.
For example, my writing encompasses historical fiction as well, and is even more difficult to explain why and how I choose a specific time frame for my books. One of my historical books, The Second Death, is set in Bavaria, Germany, during the Great Plague, in the mid-fourteenth century, for example. The French Maze, another historical book of mine, is set at Hampton Court, England, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. For a writer, the strongest weapon is his or her imagination, not the so-called experience.
For a writer, to change the language is probably the toughest test in the world, because you have to abandon more or less your entire toolbox: vocabulary, grammar, and so on. On the other hand, even though you decide to express yourself in another language, you’re still the same writer, neither better, nor worse. I mean you can carefully transfer your entire capacity of storytelling into your new “home,” which is the language you’ve chosen. Of course, you have to reconstruct you toolbox, and that’s not an easy task at all, because it takes a lot of time. But if you’ve enough patience, the result will be wonderful: you’ll discover a new world, with new rules, and, of course, new challenges.
Well, starting a project means to decide what story are you going to tell and how are you going to tell it. Sometimes the second aspect might be more important than the first one. Maybe the story’s good, but if you chose a pedestrian way to tell it, the project would be stiff and unattractive. On the other hand, a dull plot won’t be saved by a great style, even if you’re an extraordinary writer.
Many critics forget, I think, that great novels like Crime and Punishment or The Stranger are, basically, crime books, or books about crimes. A crime book isn’t necessary a dull story about who killed Harry or about the adventures of a dashing private eye facing the villains and getting the girl or about a super-smart serial-killer playing with the special agents’ minds. If your ability of storytelling is poor, your books will be poor, whatever you’d write, literary fiction, crime, sci-fi or fantasy. Of course, the plot’s important, but sometimes the readers come less about the actions and more about the characters and their feelings and thoughts.
Maybe you can’t remember The Long Good-bye’s plot, but for sure you remember Philip Marlowe. And in a well-done mystery or crime book you can express those feelings and thoughts better than in a so-called literary work, and I’m talking about greed, bravery, pain, cruelty, compassion, fear, love and death.
Since the story of Abel and Cain, the murder— meaning the circumstances under which somebody is capable of killing his fellow men—have been tremendously important for philosophers, psychologists, forensic scholars, and last but not least for writers. Ever since crime was extremely important because of its irreversible character—once you kill somebody, there’s nothing you can do to repair it. Our fear of murderers is one of the profoundest expressions of the biggest fear of all, the fear of death.
On the other hand, killing is completely unnatural: we, as beings, aren’t created to kill, and many of us cannot commit a murder under any circumstances, even for protecting his or her life. So what happens inside the mind of someone who in the heat of the moment or in cold blood commits a murder, what barriers are suddenly broken and why?
During the 19th century, a new meaning of the term “talent” was coined, underlining someone’s natural ability to do a certain thing better than others. But this term is tricky, because we still cannot precisely define it even today. After two hundred years, we know next to nothing about talent, and we cannot put a finger on that part of human brains that is supposed to nurture one’s superior capacity of painting or telling stories.
Before that, in the Middle Ages, someone became a painter or a composer in the same way another one became a cobbler or a carpenter: learning the trade in a master’s shop. It wasn’t supposed that someone should be gifted with natural abilities for becoming a poet, an actor or a painter. Before becoming one of the famous writers of all times—almost by chance—Cervantes was a foot soldier. Shakespeare lived his entire life in a demi-anonymity, working hard to make ends meet. Vermeer often pawned his paintings for daily bread, and Rembrandt filled out for bankruptcy.
Nowadays, is supposed that only a chosen one, a talented individual should embrace a career that theoretically depends on natural abilities. But who’s the person that might measure his or her talent on an imaginary scale, when they are seven, sixteen, twenty, or forty-year-old? A publisher? A literary agent? An established critic? A highly acclaimed author? Actually publishers and agents assume they can do that, by accepting or rejecting a manuscript. But we have so many examples of famous books that were initially rejected by dozens and dozens agents or editors.
So I think that the only criteria one should use when choosing his or her career is the inner voice, and not a subjective diagnosis on his or her talent put by somebody else, no matters how apparently qualified that somebody might be. Nobody can tell you for sure, not even the best profiler in the world, if you’re cut out to be an engineer, a writer or a doctor, except yourself.
Talking about literature, if you really feel that you have a story to share, you should write it down, even if all the publishers in the world will reject it. Why? Because, just between you and me, you don’t have any other choice, if the little voice that whispers in the back of your mind is really there.