The story behind the story in 'City of Thieves'

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 10, 2010 

It's so interesting to see what can be imagined from a plot idea of a few words.

Years ago, screenwriter and novelist David Benioff began with only this: "two guys looking for a dozen eggs in a city under siege."

It wasn't much, not even a complete sentence.

Benioff needed to pick a city, a siege and a century, for starters. He decided on the Nazis' brutal encirclement of Leningrad in World War II.

From that dark history, Benioff created his second novel, "City of Thieves" (272 pages, Viking), which stars two uncommonly likable and literate characters, Lev and Kolya, a teenager and a young soldier, on an absurd quest. They maintain their humor and humanity during a six-day odyssey, a road trip through war and its monstrosities visited upon a hardened population.

"City of Thieves" was issued earlier this year in paperback. Here are excerpts from a phone conversation with Benioff, who was at home in New York.

How long was "City of Thieves" in the works?

I wrote the first line in 2000 and the last line in 2006. I had a lot of other work going on during that time, but I came up with the story in 1999 and started doing research back then.

Ultimately, I read "The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad" by Harrison Salisbury. I got 100 pages into the book, and I knew it was going to be about this city and this siege. I think it's the best English language book on the siege. Salisbury was the first Western journalist to have access to Leningrad after the siege. His book is based on first-person accounts.

For me, doing the research also meant going there. I just needed to be there, even though it's a very different city than it was, to walk the route the characters walked, to talk to people who had lived through the siege, to read the diaries.

They lived through an experience completely different from anything I've experienced, which is part of what made it so appealing to write about. It was definitely a lot of work. I'm sure the next book I write won't be historical.

There's been much talk about the way you open the story, with a narrator who sounds like you asking to hear war stories from his Russian grandfather (Lev Beniov in the book). But that's just part of the novel, right?

My grandfather was born on a farm in Delaware and was a furrier in Allentown, Pa. I always had that first sentence in mind - "My grandfather, the knife fighter, killed two Germans before he was eighteen" - so that became the framing device. I start in contemporary United States with someone very much like me, explaining how he got access to the story.

The story moves quickly and covers a short period of time, with few digressions. This novel could have been much longer.

Yes, it could have been 800 pages. There were earlier drafts with more digressions, and they got thrown out. Partly, I have a short attention span. It would be hard for me to write a very long novel.

And this was partly inspired by European fairy tales, with the classic story line in which a young boy or girl sets off on an impossible mission, a quest, and encounter all sorts of obstacles, people or animals who will be their allies or adversaries. That's very much the structure here. Because of that, it's very appropriate to make this a straight-ahead story with that narrative propulsion. It's a very dark fairy tale, but European fairy tales were like that.

I love the punch of the shorter novel. I think of novels like "Darkness at Noon" and "Heart of Darkness," books you can really read in one night.

How did you come upon two such likeable characters?

I hear from people that the one they're really drawn to is Kolya, although Lev is the one who is more autobiographical, much more the way I was as an adolescent, so I'm a little bit wounded by that.

They have such a great repartee, this odd couple.

It's not something I put a lot of thought into. They are an odd couple, as you say, and this is a little bit of a road movie, these two young men wandering the city and through the forest covered with snow and talking to each other. But that's one of the interesting things about Leningrad, even during the siege, the way the city never abandoned its culture - continued to print books on salvaged paper, putting on plays - but most of the time, people were in their apartments, and besides the radio, there wasn't much to do but read and talk.

Did you struggle with the tone of the dialogue for these two young Russians in the 1940s, not too formal but not too American?

That's always the trick with something like this. For me, it was trying to find the spirit of it, the tone that didn't sound 21st-century American and at the same time wasn't stilted or historical sounding. I wanted the dialogue to flow. I wanted there to be a rhythm.

One of my favorite short stories is Wells Tower's "Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned." I loved that the Viking characters didn't sound like ancient characters. Tower took it more to an extreme than I did, but it was inspiring to read that story.

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