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Kanon returns to Cold War in second thriller

Tuesday, February 09, 1999

By Caroline Abels, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

When a former publishing executive takes up the pen and writes a novel himself, he has to be careful, says author Joseph Kanon.

"What's more embarrassing than a publisher who can't write?" he says.

Kanon, a former editor and business executive at Houghton Mifflin, never found out. Instead, his first novel, "Los Alamos," was picked up by Bantam Doubleday a few years ago and he learned that he wouldn't be yet another aspiring author rejected by a publisher.

Kanon had submitted his manuscript anonymously, which was fitting, given that his first book was about the ultra-sensitive Manhattan Project.

His second book, "The Prodigal Spy" (Broadway Books, $25), is also full of intrigue. It details the reunion between a 1950s American spy who fled behind the Iron Curtain and his son in 1969 Czechoslovakia.

Kanon says he centered his two novels around the early Cold War years because the period so influenced how the rest of the century was played out. Though Kanon, 52, was a child during that era, he says: "We all grew up under the mushroom cloud - how could you not be interested in who put it there?"

Kanon calls Los Alamos, N.M., "an extraordinary place." It was little more than a site for a boys school when the government installed the Manhattan Project there during World War II.

"Nothing of 1945 exists anymore. It's a modern, prosperous, suburban town. So you have to mentally reconstruct what was there. It looks so placid and ordinary, but 50 years ago it was the most secretive place in the world."

A hiking trip through the Southwest first led Kanon to Los Alamos. In his second book, he employed his memories of a 1969 visit to communist Prague.

In fact, Kanon was so intent on re-creating the city from his memory that he decided not to revisit it after communism was toppled in Czechoslovakia in 1989.

"Place is very important in my books," the Wilkes-Barre native says.

"But I don't think you can write about a place you haven't experienced."

In his latest book, Kanon even draws on the one-time labor unrest in the hard coal regions around his birthplace

Kanon, who will appear at Mystery Lovers Bookshop in Oakmont tomorrow, is mum on his next book. But he says a film of "Los Alamos" is "in development" at Twentieth Century Fox.

As for what he enjoys more - writing or publishing - it's writing. But he doesn't find himself taking any of the advice he gave the authors he worked with when he was a publisher, writers such as Muriel Spark, John Kenneth Galbraith and Irving Wallace, among others.

"When you sit down in front of that blank sheet of paper, you're just like anybody else."

Kanon will sign his books tomorrow at 7 p.m. at Mystery Lovers Bookshop, 514 Allegheny River Blvd., Oakmont. Phone: 412-828-4877.

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