SASGEN on SASGEN: So, where were you born and raised? Evanston, Illinois, then a year here, a few years there, Philadelphia mostly.
You’re a visual artist who also writes. Yes, I graduated from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia with a degree in design and illustration. In the U.S. Navy I used my art training to prepare for a civilian career.
And then? And then, with my wife, Karen, I had a design studio for thirty-five years. We produced print materials for corporate and institutional clients.
You’re also an art photographer, aren’t you? And an artist. Yes, my photographs have been in exhibitions throughout the United States. Some are in private and museum collections in the U.S.—the Library of Congress, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and others—as well as in Europe. I’ve taught photography, and have curated exhibitions in northeast Florida where I live. The large-scale drawings shown here are based on my photographs. They too are part of my war stories. Click on the links to see them.
Okay, so why did you start writing? Well, because my dad served in submarines in the Pacific during World War II, I’ve had a lifelong interest in submarines. After he died I saw that his experiences had the makings of a great adventure story. I started writing about them in what became Red Scorpion, my first book published in 1995. After that I just kept going. I’ve since written works of naval fiction and nonfiction set in both World War II and the cold war, including a novel about a German U-boat.
Is it hard to write about submarines if you aren’t a submariner? Sure, but that's where the passion and demanding research come in. Knowledge of how submarine operations are carried out is essential. I pride myself on getting the details right. You can’t fake it. Guys who have served in the boats will spot mistakes in a second. You also have to have a feel for the subject and imagine yourself aboard a submarine as a member of the crew. In fact I received the coveted submarine Twin Dolphins in recognition of the work I've done.
What’s the hardest part of the research you do? Untangling conflicting information. Also, finding documents that can explain issues that aren’t clear, entails sorting through different points of view and filling in missing details. When you can't find the missing parts you have to use your judgment and intuition and go with what you think is right. In that case experience is the best guide.
Okay, you’ve written books about subs, what are you working on now? I’ve completed one of three novels set in post World War II Berlin and Eastern Europe.
Why such a radical change in subject and locale? I wanted to write a long, complicated, multi-layered work of fiction that would challenge me. One that would force me to develop in greater depth characters and concepts that my previous books couldn’t support. The wreckage of Berlin and face-off with the Soviet Union seemed the perfect place to start a new story.
Did the experience you gained researching submarines help with the research you did for these new books? Yes. These novels require enormous amounts of research to bring the story and characters to life, to make, for instance, postwar Berlin a fully realized setting in which the characters live and die.
Then, I should ask, did you write the book you wanted to write? And what’s the title of the first new novel? Yes, I did. The Days of Killing.
What’s it about? A Russian army officer, Yuri Nosenko, is caught in a web of betrayal and murder, especially the murder of 15,000 Polish officers in the Katyn Forest in 1940. Stalin approved the killings then tried to blame it on the Nazis. Nosenko is a guilt-ridden survivor of war on the Eastern Front, who plays a pivotal role in proving the Russians were responsible. In the end he comes face-to-face with his past deeds, and with a future that possibly holds the key to his redemption.
Sounds like there’s a sequel in the works. There is. The Latent Image. Nosenko seeks redemption through his attempt to find a female war photographer missing in the Soviet occupied territories at the end of the war. The story, aside from providing a look at Eastern Europe in 1946-47, is an opportunity to incorporate photography and its processes into the narrative and to show how war photographers do their work under fire, so to speak.
Anything else? A novel, The Blood of Lost Empires. The background setting is today—Ukraine and Russia. A Putin confidant is murdered in Paris. Why? What did he know and who was he trying to tell it to? Who else is involved? Well, naturally, the Russian FSB, SVR, the CIA, also ex-KGB, ex-Stasi. Like the other novels it deals with real life, you know, love, treachery, deceit, death. What else is there?
All images copyright Peter Sasgen 2014