After spending two rigorous years at Emerson College in Boston studying creative writing, I had done all right—a handful of short stories and poems, some better than others, but all at least showing signs of progression. When it came time to do my thesis, however, I wanted to write a novel—the form that had always most transported me as a reader. This work, called Tzara’s Monocle, was my attempt at a sprawling epic which concerned the Romanian Revolution of 1989. I wrote the first third in Boston, received my degree, and was then awarded a Fulbright grant to go to Romania and research the rest of the book.

My year in Romania was a life-changing experience. The country is a remarkable and contradictory place, full of beauty and misery, hospitality and suspicion. In short, the perfect setting for a complex novel. So I wrote feverishly, and by the end of the year had the sprawling epic I had set out to write. I returned to the US—to New York—with my tome under my arm and the intention of finding an agent to sell the thing.

The result was a mix of success and failure. Tzara’s Monocle was good enough to get interest from a few agents, but its sprawling nature was part of its problem. The inevitable comment was, “This is good stuff, but it’s going to need a lot of work. Are you writing anything else at the moment?”

In fact, I was. A crime novel.

That answer interested them even more.

Upon returning to the States, I’d begun to suspect the book had the problems it ended up having, and so, frustrated (I’d spent, on and off, 4 years on Tzara’s Monocle), I wondered if I even knew how to write a “straight story” anymore. I mean, a story of sufficient length with a clear beginning/middle/end that didn’t try, as I’d been trying most of my writing life, to be experimental. A story without overt literary pretensions, one that was first and foremost interested in engaging a reader.

And so, as a way to answer this question, I wrote The Bridge of Sighs, using a lot of my Romanian research, my growing obsession with communist-era Eastern Europe, and my recent interest in the writer Raymond Chandler. The idea was to take some elements of the typical hard-boiled thriller and place them in the dreary world of communism.

And it seemed to work.

I’ve been asked often why I place the series in a fictional Eastern European country. The answer goes back to Tzara’s Monocle. In that book, because I was dealing with a real country and real people and events, I found myself paralyzed with fear. There was a whole country full of people who might read the book and hate me for misrepresenting their nation, their culture, their history. As a result, I poured every ounce of my research into Tzara’s Monocle. The story, which moved along nicely at times, was suddenly stopped in its tracks so various characters could give lectures on Romania, communism, Romanians, and the infamous Ceausescu family. The story kept falling flat on its face.

So with Bridge, I resolved to avoid this trap. I wanted to answer to no one, so that the story could be just that—a story. With the books that followed, I’ve realized the choice was right, for in my fictional country I can use elements of all the rich and varied nations of this region in order to focus on the themes I’m most interested in.