Wednesday, May 18, 2022

David Adams Cleveland Interview - Gods of Deception


Photo Content from David Adams Cleveland

David Adams Cleveland is a novelist and art historian. His previous novel, Time’s Betrayal, was awarded Best Historical Novel of 2017 by Reading the Past. Pulitzer prize-winning author Robert Olen Butler called Time’s Betrayal “a vast, rich, endlessly absorbing novel engaging with the great and enduring theme of literary art, the quest for identity.” Bruce Olds, two-time Pulitzer-nominated author, described Time’s Betrayal as a “monumental work . . . in a league of its own and class by itself . . . a large-hearted American epic that deserves the widest possible, most discriminating of readerships.” In summer 2014, his second novel, Love’s Attraction, became the top-selling hardback fiction for Barnes & Noble in New England. Fictionalcities.uk included Love’s Attraction on its list of top novels for 2013. His first novel, With a Gemlike Flame, drew wide praise for its evocation of Venice and the hunt for a lost masterpiece by Raphael.

His pathbreaking art history book, A History of American Tonalism 1880 – 1920, Crucible of American Modernism, has just been published in a third edition with a new sixty-page introduction by Abbeville Press; this bestselling book in American art history won the Silver Medal in Art History in the Book of the Year Awards, 2010, and Outstanding Academic Title 2011, from the American Library Association. David was a regular reviewer for ARTnews and has written for The Magazine Antiques, the American Art Review, and Dance Magazine. For almost a decade, he was the arts editor at Voice of America. He worked with his son, Carter Cleveland, founder of Artsy.net, to build Artsy into the leading art platform in the world for discovering, buying and selling fine art.

He and his wife split their time between the Catskills and Siesta Key, Florida. More about David and his publications can be found on his author site: davidadamscleveland.com.

      
  

Greatest thing you learned at school.
Love of good books especially Joseph Conrad and Robert Penn Warren.

When/how did you realize you had a creative dream or calling to fulfill?
After reading the works of another Joseph, Joseph Campbell and his books on the power of myth: a world of wonder (the sheer majesty of humankind’s journey) just opened up, which I felt compelled to explore in fiction, as well as art history.

Beyond your own work (of course), what is your all-time favorite book and why? And what is Your favorite book outside of your genre?
Marcel Proust’s novels, Swann’s Way, or Remembrance of Things Past through Time Regained, which touch on so many of the great literary and philosophical themes about how memory seizes our lives and leads us on a journey into the strange and wonderful byways of the past, while engaging our present and tempting us to a future beyond imagining.

I read a lot of history and art history (since I’m also an art historian), and I need to do a lot of research for my books, and most recently reading up on the Alger Hiss spy trial and all the new information that has come out on Stalin’s spies, and how they infiltrated the US government in the thirties and forties. I just finished Carl Bernstein’s Chasing History, about his days as a copy boy at the Evening Star in Washington, DC during the early sixties, a poignant and nostalgic read for me since I, too, was once a copy boy at the Star when I was seventeen, a great paper founded by my great great grandfather, George Adams during the Civil War.

Tell us your most rewarding experience since being published.
Believe it or not, sitting with a pile of books at over 30 Barnes & Nobles—and a bunch of Indies—with my last book and having a chance to talk to readers, and the satisfaction of signing a book that I know they will enjoy.

What was the single worst distraction that kept you from writing this book?
I suppose the impact of covid, in that for almost a year my sons were sheltering with us, but it was a distraction that I wouldn’t have missed for the world!

If you could have written one book in history, what book would that be?
Well, my favorite would be Proust, see above, which is the greatest fictional achievement of all time in my opinion, but I’m also a great admirer of the novelist, Elizabeth Bowen, who wrote a near perfect little novel, A World of Love, set in a moldering Irish country house, so rich with landscape, the smells and sounds of a warm summer, and rumors of a lost love that it always makes my heart beat faster upon rereading. I’m also a huge admirer of Bowen’s short stories and those of Alice Munro.

If you could introduce one of your characters to any character from another book, who would it be and why?
I would be fascinated to overhear a conversation between George Altmann (Princeton astrophysicist and main protagonist in Gods of Deception) with Marcel, the protagonist in Remembrance of Things Past. They would have a fascinating discussion on the nature of time and memory, since Marcel was very much up to date on the scientific advances of his day, and George would be able to discuss Einstein’s theory of relativity, much less all the spectacular developments in cosmology since the deployment of the Hubble telescope—allowing us to gaze back billions of years in time, something Marcel would find astonishing, since he’d found a complete cosmos in memories of his childhood.

Has reading a book ever changed your life? Which one and why, if yes?
Yes, Joseph Campbell’s four volumes, The Masks of God, which details how mankind developed various myths and religions to satisfy humankind’s need to explain the nature of existence, why we live and die, how the world came into being, how things grow and change, and how we are related to all the other creatures and living things with which we share the planet. Campbell is an inspiring guide to the history of different cultures and a deep dive into the human need to find meaning in life, and how that need is shared by all humanity, even if it manifests itself in different ways and seemingly strange departures. All of which has provided me with a sense of the mystery and awe—an ongoing fascination with the human instinct to create and find meaning, which remains at the heart of my storytelling.

Why is storytelling so important for all of us?
Writing to me is more than just telling great stories, it is a way of probing for the things that really matter to us as human beings. My characters, like all of us, are struggling to discover some kind of truth, to answer a fundamental question about themselves as they confront life’s dilemmas. Having been involved in the art world most of my life as a historian, connoisseur, and collector, I find that the visual arts inform my writing, both in terms of description, the physical setting (always a character in its own right), and the struggle artists endure to explore the world from every angle. Great art, like great literature, must never give up all its secrets: there must always be enough mystery and ambiguity to keep the thing fresh and alive. Whistler and Joseph Conrad understood this well, as do such modern greats as Richard Ford, Alice Munro, John Updike, and James Salter: the most profound art is all about conveying feeling and the sense of spiritual quest—the fluttering glimpse of the unseen at life’s ecstatic heart. As Proust knew: we exist in thrall to the spell of memory infused with the metamorphic glories of the visual world.

Can you tell us when you started GODS OF DECEPTION, how that came about?
The novel came out of the research I did for my previous novel, Time’s Betrayal, which touched on the world of spies from the Second World War era and the early days of the Cold War, mostly dealing with the Cambridge Five, the British spies Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt, Kim Philby and Donald Maclean—who had walk on roles in the novel. Well, I thought the damage they did during the Cold War in pursuit of Stalin’s stab at world domination was pretty bad; but little did I realize that our spies, the likes of Alger Hiss and Harry Dexter White, actually did more damage to Western interests—think: giving away the atom bomb secrets, the disastrous settlements at Yalta (where Alger Hiss sat at Roosevelt’s right hand), and even Pearl Harbor and the Korean War—all abetted by Stalin’s agents of influence. How could this be, I kept asking myself? And so, I decided to explore this untapped literary territory and see if I could come up with some answers through the lives and memories of characters who lived through the era.

TEN RANDOM FACTS ABOUT GODS OF DECEPTION
  • The US government, war industries, and media were infiltrated by about 500 of Stalin’s spies.
  • In a secret Moscow ceremony in 1944, Alger Hiss was awarded the Order of the Red Star by the head of Stalin’s KGB.
  • Treasury Undersecretary Harry Dexter White in a secret meeting with his KGB handler signed on to Operation Snow, a campaign to provoke Japan into its ultimate attack on Pearl Harbor.
  • Decrypted Soviet cables confirmed the conviction of the Rosenbergs for passing atomic bomb secrets but were not entered as evidence in their trial due to security reasons.
  • Soviet Spy William Weisband, working in army intelligence, tipped off his KGB handlers that the US had broken Soviet military codes and so knew about Stalin’s disposition of military assets. When the Soviets then changed their codes, the US was left in the dark and was blindsided by the invasion of South Korea—a war that could have been avoided if the US had known about the sending of weapons and supplies to North Korea—and so warning Stalin that the US would respond with force to any invasion of the South.
  • Alger Hiss sat at Roosevelt’s right hand at Yalta and each morning was debriefed by his Soviet handler, giving away all the nuances of the US negotiating strategy and so sealing the fate of Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe behind the Iron Curtain.
  • If it wasn’t for the wartime decryption of Soviet cable traffic (Venona) many if not most of the KGB’s spies, including the Rosenbergs, would never have been revealed.
  • As early as 1939, Whittaker Chambers gave a long list of traitors (Stalin’s agents)—including Alger Hiss and Harry Dexter White—to the top State Department security officer, Adolf Berle. Who relayed the names on the list to his boss and friend, FDR. Who told Berle this was a bunch of horse shit and he didn’t want to be bothered again with this kind of stuff. And so, for another six or seven years, KGB agents did everything they could to undermine American interests.
  • The penetration of the Roosevelt administration—and even the Truman administration—was so deep and so widespread that the likes of Alger Hiss at State, Harry Dexter White at Treasury, Lauclin Currie in the White House could act as agents of influence and so promote Stalin’s plans for the post-war world we inherited.
  • Without the Rosenberg’s and Claus Fuchs’ betrayal of atomic bomb secrets to the Soviets—hastening their development of an atomic bomb by years—Stalin would most likely not have felt confident enough to start the Korean War.
What was the most surprising thing you learned in creating your characters?
As my characters developed and grew, as good characters always do in fiction, I discovered their fundamental humanity, and even those I didn’t really like in the beginning (spies for the KGB and such like), I came to better understand—how their early beliefs in aiding Stalin and the Soviet Union evolved from a misplaced idealism. And so my sympathy for their wrong-headed decisions in a very bad cause. I was reminded of Grant’s view of Lee: Never had a good man enlisted himself in a fight for a worse cause.

What part of Edward and George did you enjoy writing the most?
I think the verbal and intellectual sparing between Edward Dimock and his grandson George Dimock Altmann was fascinating to me: one of an older generation, a man of the law, dedicated to reason and fairness—and a passion for truth and justice; the other a passionate astrophysicist, a man of science who grew up in the digital age, who comes to the passion for truth telling from a very different angle. How these two joust over questions of Alger Hiss’s guilt or innocence, and larger issues of what constitutes a well-lived life, and where are ultimate loyalties lie, became more and more fascinating as the novel moves on: through their eyes and conversation the past echoes down the wind and we glimpse insights into the nature of time and memory—not to mention the modalities of spacetime and parallel universes!

If you could be a character in any novel you’ve ever read, who would you be and why?
I would probably go back to my earliest love, Joseph Conrad’s tales of the sea, and a character like Marlow who has sailed the seven seas, and seen the world from top to bottom; and into the bargain: the heart of darkness and the souls of many characters—something, as a writer I envy for all the great material, and perhaps a little wisdom as well.

Your Favorite Quotes/Scenes from GODS OF DECEPTION
  • “All our suspects are dead and gone, Wendy, even those deaths, like the Judge, marked in limbo.”
  • “No, they’re not.” Her eyes were an electric blue as she found his. “I came to that conclusion the morning after the Altmann opening, standing here with my cup of coffee, watching the mist rising over the graves. They’re just like us—staring back at us, wondering, What was it all about? We owe them that much, George. We owe it to George Altmann and all the others . . . the truth. Without meaning, just being is pointless.”
  • Her blazing certainty sent a chill through him.
  • “But what chance do we have without data, witnesses, facts? I still cling to that, maybe more than ever. My faith in the scientific method—‘my fat head,’ as you call it . . . doubt. Not all of us can be fucking artists, you know.”
  • “There are facts and there are facts.” She lifted her eyes once more to the marble halls and inky-hollow porticoes, as if to scrutinize those endless but invisible lists of carved and inscribed names and dates that populated her vision. “Oh, they left more of a mark on the world than just this”—and she waved from where they were standing by the window to her stony canvases—“in the underground—you see, where they always find their way back into other people’s lives, especially the children’s, George. Trust me, I know, I know they’re calling out to us, George, like your grandfather’s paintings called out during your childhood, like your grandfather’s memoir does now, to give their lives and struggles meaning, to give them rest, to give us rest, to allow us to go on. We owe it”—and she reached for his hand—“to their children, or their children’s children if nothing else.”
  • He turned, not a little bewildered, but gave way and, smiling, as if in thanks, laid a gentle hand on her shoulder.
  • “You ask too much of life.”
  • “Or not enough.”
  • “Funny, you kind of remind me of him, the Judge—or his alter ego, on our hikes as kids, standing in this abandoned homestead deep in the woods—Handytown, we call it. We’d linger there to listen for the hermit thrush and help him repair the bluestone walls. And when we complained and asked why bother, he’d hold up an admonishing finger, smile sweetly, and tell us to listen, listen. He’d whisper as a breeze played in the lilacs by the crumbled cellar hole, ‘They’re still here, waiting to tell their stories . . . our blood offering.’”
Meet the Characters
George Dimock Altmann is a Princeton astrophysicist, boyish and brilliant, but so overwhelmed by the immensity of the cosmos that he retreats from the field to start a NY city art gallery, Dark Matter, where he opens a show of his grandfather’s paintings, an exhibition which go on to become an unexpected hit. And so begins our journey into his family’s difficult past.

Wendy Bradley, the youngest woman to ever climb Mount Everest, a professional climber and artist, meets George at the opening of his grandfather’s show. She is a tall and muscular athlete, with confidence to spare, and a riveting intellect honed on literary classics as taught by Harold Bloom at Yale, which she unleashes (but in a witty and often profound way) on George as their love affair grows, spurred on by a quest, not just for the truth about Alger Hiss, but about what happened to George’s artist grandfather and namesake, who died in a sinister fall (suicide?) from Woodstock’s Fishkill Bridge. Yes, there is a connection!

Presiding over the riveting love affair of George and Wendy is Edward Dimock, patriarch of the clan, the man who defended Alger Hiss in the 1950 “trial of the century.” The Judge, trying to finish his memoir at ninety-five, inveigles George and then Wendy into a search for the truth about Hiss, a truth that will impact their lives in many unexpected ways.

On an old corkboard in his grandfather’s office at his fabled Catskill retreat, Hermitage, George discovers nine exquisite pencil sketches by Altmann from the late 1930s, portraits of Alger and Priscilla Hiss and seven other Hiss associates, State Department, Treasury, and White House officials—some accused spies—who conveniently died or disappeared behind the Iron Curtain and so were unavailable to testify at the trial. The sketch of Alger Hiss has his home address, Volta Place, just visible on the back. Was this a Communist cell study group of which Altmann was a member? And how, exactly, did the Judge come by the sketches—damning evidence—in the first place?

Stunned at this unsettling revelation and its implications, George is drawn deeper into the series of ambiguous deaths (a KGB specialty) surrounding the Hiss case. This case, he soon realizes, affected not only the Dimock family but his own unhappy childhood growing up in Woodstock in the shadow of a forgotten artist. His largely absent alcoholic father, Jimmy Altmann, a techie electrician haunted by his father’s supposed suicide, built the sound systems for the Woodstock festival and the studio where the album Music from Big Pink was recorded, later becoming the head roadie touring with the Band.

George’s quest for the truth (not unlike his search as an astrophysicist for answers to the deepest questions about the universe) further complicates his fraught relationship with his father, who deserted his dancer-musician mother, Cordelia, youngest of three Dimock sisters, who now runs a bookshop in Woodstock. Word of the Judge’s memoir also stirs up trouble among George’s aunts, civil rights activist Alice Dimock and celebrity Upper West Side psychiatrist Martha Dimock, who have avoided their father for years due to real or imagined issues of abuse. All three sisters have very different stakes in discovering the truth about Alger Hiss, not to mention their father’s sterling reputation as a second circuit appellate judge (for many years on a short list for a Supreme Court nomination). All have something to hide; all fear revelations their father’s memoir might contain.

Through the Judge’s memoir, we see into the heart of a brilliant but flawed family, especially the talented pianist Annie, the Judge’s wife and great love, who played Carnegie Hall at sixteen and whose luminous musical spirit still haunts the great room at Hermitage, where her Steinway concert grand stands guard over a glittering, if flawed, reputation. Although a woman of profound talent, Annie was willing to sacrifice love and family for a career and her worshipful students and fans. Teddy, the Judge’s beloved son and family golden boy, who was killed in Korea, still captivates the imagination of the older Dimock sisters with his woodland exploits, rowing prowess, and sexual escapades over the long lake summers of their youth. None of the sisters or their children felt able to live up to the lager-than-life Teddy. Annie blamed her husband for Teddy’s death in Korea, as she blamed him for defending Alger Hiss and smearing Whittaker Chambers in the trial. Chambers’s memoir, Witness, about his days as a spy for Stalin, transmitting secrets from Alger Hiss, serves as a haunting leitmotif throughout Gods of Deception.

Edward Dimock’s mentor, Oliver Wendell Holmes, looms large in his memoir as the lodestone of his probity and allegiance to the law. Edward, fresh out of Harvard Law School, clerked for the great Supreme Court justice just a year after Alger Hiss’s clerkship with Holmes—yet another tie he and Alger Hiss share. Edward Dimock, his memory beginning to fail, claims to hide nothing from his grandson, even as the story of how the Altmann sketches came into his hands keeps changing as he drops hints of his college love affair with Alger Hiss’s wife, Priscilla. Yet, as George turns up a cache of Priscilla’s affectionate letters written over many years, more secrets emerge that throw doubt on the Judge’s veracity about his role in the Hiss trial. Was he just an unwitting client of Hiss on the defense team—taken in like so many by Hiss’s establishment credentials and earnest denials of guilt—or did his allegiance to Hiss run deeper?

Your Journey to Publication
A lot of G0ds 0f Deception was written and edited during covid, so my family was around, including my two sons. Distractions but good ones. I spent over four years writing the novel and very little changes in the routine of a writing life: like Woody Allen said—90% of creating stuff is just showing up.

Writing Behind the Scenes
Much of the setting of the novels, the Catskills, is near and dear to my heart, a place where I grew up and spent many summers. I was delighted to finally include some of the local life and history of our neck of the woods: the Delaware & Hudson Canal and the lore of the tanneries and blue stone quarries that once proliferated among the endless foothill of the Catskills, including the names of the long-gone farmers who have left us their fieldstone walls to remind us of their time, or as Thoreau put it: what they have scribbled across our woodlands.

What is the first job you have had?
A delivery boy and later a copy boy for the Evening Star.

Best date you've ever had?
With my wife after we got out of ballet class. I once danced with the Washington Ballet.

What is the first thing you think of when you wake up in the morning?
How to write the next paragraph and where the story is going.

What is your most memorable travel experience?
Venice, where I have set many scenes in my novels.

What's your most missed memory?
Walking the streets, calles, of Venice in the morning: the smells, the light, the art!!

Which incident in your life that totally changed the way you think today?
9/11 which features in Gods of Deception. My wife was almost killed.

Which would you choose, true love with a guarantee of a heart break or have never loved before?
To quote Samuel Johnson: Love is the wisdom of fools and the folly of the wise.

What do you usually think about right before falling asleep?
The next day’s writing.

If you had to go back in time and change one thing, if you HAD to, even if you had “no regrets” what would it be?
Tell my father more times how much I loved him.

First Love?
She played the piano like Annie in Gods of Deception.


At age ninety-five, Judge Edward Dimock, patriarch of his family and the man who defended accused Soviet spy Alger Hiss in the famous 1950 Cold War “trial of the century,” is writing his memoir at his fabled Catskill retreat, Hermitage, with its glorious Italian Renaissance ceiling. Judge Dimock is consumed with doubts about the troubling secrets he’s kept to himself for over fifty years—secrets that might change both American history and the lives of his entire family. Was his client guilty of spying for Stalin or not? And if guilty, did Hiss’s crimes go far beyond his perjury conviction—a verdict that divided the country for a generation?

​Dimock enlists his grandson, George Altmann, a brilliant Princeton astrophysicist, in the quest for truth. Reluctantly, George finds himself drawn into the web of deceit that has ravaged his family, his curiosity sparked by a string of clues found in the Judge’s unpublished memoir and in nine pencil sketches of accused Soviet agents pinned to an old corkboard in his grandfather’s abandoned office. Even more dismaying, the drawings are by George’s paternal grandfather and namesake, a once-famous painter who covered the Hiss trial as a courtroom artist for the Herald Tribune, only to die in uncertain circumstances in a fall from Woodstock’s Fishkill Bridge on Christmas Eve 1949. Many of the suspected spies also died from ambiguous falls (a KGB specialty) or disappeared behind the Iron Curtain—and were conveniently unable to testify in the Hiss trial.

George begins to realize the immensity of what is at stake: deceptive entanglements that will indeed alter the accepted history of the Cold War—and how he understands his own unhappy Woodstock childhood, growing up in the shadow of a rumored suicide and the infidelities of an alcoholic father, a roadie with The Band.

In Gods of Deception, acclaimed novelist David Adams Cleveland has created a multiverse all its own: a thrilling tale of espionage, a family saga, a stirring love story, and a meditation on time and memory, astrophysics and art, taking the reader on an unforgettable journey into the troubled human heart as well as the past—a past that is ever present, where the gods of deception await our distant call.


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3 comments:

  1. "What is the one, single food that you would never give up?" Let's say an apple pie with a thick, crusty top made of cheddar cheese, etc. Use three times what the recipe calls for--you can't have too much of that top crust!

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  2. I love apples. I eat at least two of them every day. That's a food that I would really miss.

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  3. Eggs for sure! They're awesome.

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