Daniel Silva on his brand new novel, The Defector
HH: One of the reasons it was easy for me to travel back and forth to Kosovo last week to meet with the Army National Guard there is because I had along with me the uncorrected proof for Daniel Silva’s brand new novel, The Defector, which appears in bookstores tomorrow. It’s at www.amazon.com right now. You can order it. And so the time flew as I made my way in and out of Pristina. Welcome back, Daniel Silva, and congratulations on, well, you did it again.
DS: Well, thank you so much for having me back. It’s such a great pleasure to hear your voice again.
HH: Now how, have you noticed a spike in the interest in these Gabriel Alon novels? Because I’m getting so many e-mails from people who were happy we replayed our original interview two weeks ago, and told people that you were coming back.
DS: If there’s a spike in the interest of the Gabriel Alon series, it is because of you. When I went on book tour last year, it was as if, you know, 800 million people had heard that program. I’m sure you have the statistics that bear this out, but you have a tremendous audience and listenership, and they are all passionately devoted to you. I am living proof of that.
HH: Well, they are also passionately devoted to good thrillers, and this is another one.
DS: You know, Moscow Rules, the book that you referred to, was my first number one, New York Times number one bestseller. And I must say, I really, I’m not, all kidding aside, I think it had to do that you had a tremendous role in helping bring that about, so I cannot thank you enough.
HH: Well then, we thank the audience jointly. How about The Defector? Is it debuting up high on the New York Times list?
DS: Well, we can only hope, because we are speaking on the even of The Defector’s release. It actually comes out at Midnight tonight, or it’s released on Tuesday the 21st, so it’s not for sale, although I have heard that people who ordered it online through Amazon and BarnesandNoble.com and other online booksellers actually started receiving their books early.
HH: Well, I want to assure everyone…
DS: But the on sale date is tomorrow.
HH: Go, if you’re headed out on the road, and you’re traveling somewhere, take this book. It will fly by. I was riveted. And I do believe people should get Moscow Rules first, even if they don’t want to start at the beginning of the Alon series. They should read them together, because they are of a pair, and that’s my first question for you. When you put down the pen, Moscow Rules was so fabulously successful, I didn’t expect some of the characters in it to return, even though I expected Gabriel Alon to be back sometime if you took up the pen again. Did you anticipate that would be a two-part series in essence, Daniel Silva?
DS: I did not. You know, when I walk around with a list of books that I want to get to, and my first instinct after finishing the book was I’ll set it aside, I’ll do something else. And I found that the characters and the scenario that I had created would not leave me alone. You know, I use this quote from Machiavelli as the epigraph for the book, that if injury is done to a man, make sure that it is so severe that his vengeance need not be feared. And just to bring readers up to date as to what happened in Moscow Rules, Gabriel Alon brought down one of the world’s most dangerous men, a man named Ivan Kharkov, a Russian oligarch and arms dealer. And he made one mistake in that operation, and that was leaving Ivan alive. And you know what happens when you harm a bad Russian? They come looking for vengeance, and that’s certainly the case with Ivan Kharkov.
HH: Now the backdrop, Daniel Silva, to my reading this was the very sad news that a Chechnyan human rights activist had been in essence murdered. And it must be odd for you to have a novel of Russia and Israel and America and Great Britain that features ruthlessness, that they are in common with all things Russia, at the same time this major story breaks last week.
DS: You are referring to Natalia Estemirova.
DS: She bears an uncanny resemblance to a character…
DS: …that is in Moscow Rules and The Defector, named Olga Sukhova, but Olga is a journalist and a Kremlin critic. And in case the audience doesn’t know, she was kidnapped, plucked off a street in Chechnya, and her body was found a copy of hours later, shot in the head and the chest, murdered. And I’m afraid that this is yet another example of what happens if someone stands up and dares criticize this Kremlin. A few months before, one of her colleagues, Stanislav Markelov, was, gave a press conference in the heart of Moscow, stepped into the street, and was shot in the head twice and left for dead on a busy Moscow street. His killers were not found. There is a, in my opinion, the Kremlin has created an atmosphere in Russia in which people feel free to take matters into their own hands and kill whoever they want. And I also believe that many of these killings are if not directly ordered by the Kremlin, they are green lighted by the Kremlin. And it is that very scenario that I deal with at the beginning of The Defector.
HH: I’m talking with Daniel Silva, whose brand new novel, The Defector, comes out tomorrow. And I can’t recommend it highly enough. Daniel Silva, the central character, people were talking to me about this, and I was, people wanted to take the book from me. I couldn’t give it, I said the central character in this, yes it’s Alon, but it’s really Putin, even though he’s never named. It’s always the Russian president.
DS: He’s never named, no.
HH: Never named, but is that a fair assessment, because he looms over the entire book.
DS: It’s one way of looking at it. I think that Putin’s Russia, and the atmosphere that Putin had created in Russia, is definitely the spine and theme of these novels. And the novel begins with the disappearance of a defector from the heart of London, a defector who dared to criticize the Kremlin. And you do not do that now. Anyone who dares to criticize the Kremlin might as well paint a target on their back.
HH: There’s a reference very early on to a Hitler in the making, to the unnamed Russian president. And then at the conclusion of the book, in a very touching author’s note, you pay homage to the number of human rights activists and journalists who have been murdered in Moscow. But I don’t know that the West takes Putin that serious. They might view him as a strong man, but do you think we really sense him as a threat?
DS: No, I don’t think that we sense him as a threat to our own security, or the security of the American homeland. What he represents is a resurgent Russia, a Russia that went through the unimaginable humiliation of losing an empire, and then this decade of the 90s where it was just chaos and one financial collapse after the next. And out of the ashes of that decade, and the Yeltsin era, there arose a man who wanted to restore Russia’s might, to restore stability, that is the key word, stability, and wants very much to restore Russian honor. He’s a czar-like figure. That’s what I think of him. I mean, Hitler in the making is, was…I don’t support that view, although I do think it’s fair to characterize the current Russian regime as fascist. It is a corporate, one-party state.
HH: Daniel Silva, how much time do you spend…this one is a very difficult novel in terms of you’ve got to know what you’re writing about like as in Moscow Rules, when you talk about, for example, the brotherhood of the former, or the current Russian security officers, and you use the particular terms for them, the slang. How much time do you have to put into following all things Russia now, in addition to all things Israel?
DS: I…while I’m writing a book, I really live in my head, 24/7, to use a terrible cliché, the materials that I’m writing about. So I’m reading deeply of the subject matter. I’m in tune to what’s going on in Russia on a day to day basis. I follow events very carefully. I look at Russian websites. And so I just immerse myself in it rather like an actor in a role. And so I…
HH: Do you have training in Russian language, though?
DS: I do not. I have very little, actually.
HH: Oh, you fooled me.
DS: Very little.
HH: And have you hear from people who’ve read this that it is less in the artistic world than your previous novels? That’s what I sense, is that there was…
DS: That this book is less artistic?
HH: No, no, less in terms of, you’re not, there’s no focus on a particular painter or sculptor or something like that.
DS: Well actually, if you look very carefully at the painting that Gabriel is early on in the novel…
HH: Very early, yeah.
DS: He is restoring a…
HH: A Reni.
DS: A 17th Century altarpiece for the Vatican. But if you look at the subject matter of that painting, the crucifixion of St. Peter, and the way that that painting is portrayed, and the way Gabriel views the painting, it gives some very substantial and important clues about what’s going to follow in the story.
HH: I’ll be right back with Daniel Silva. Now I’ve got to back and reread that paragraph or two during the break.
– – – –
HH: Backdrop here, Daniel Silva, I was traveling last week. I ended up going into Dublin, went to the national museum, saw the Taking of the Christ by Caravaggio, irony number one. Irony number two, had to go into…
DS: Not sure it’s a Caravaggio, to be honest with you, but go ahead.
HH: Not a great, but wonderful…then I’m in Piccadilly surrounded by Russians. It’s like Russian central. And one of the things you capture so well in The Defector is, and I hadn’t really put my finger on this, London has become Moscow west.
DS: Well, as I refer to it in the book, it is the Russian city sometimes referred to as London. And there are 200,000, probably more, Russians that live in metropolitan London these days. And amid those 200,000 or so Russians are several hundred intelligence officers and spies and informants. And you know, MI5 was completely caught off-guard, and caught a little flat-footed, and they’ll be the first to admit that, by the resurrection of this cold war, and the amount of intelligence collection and intelligence activity that’s going on on the soil of the U.K. right now. I mean, they were quite obviously focused on the threat of Islamic terrorism for years and years. And so when Litvinenko was murdered, it told them that they had another problem on British soil, and that was the Russian intelligence services.
HH: And let’s pause on Litvinenko for a second, because it’s a central argument in your book.
HH: …where you point out, when the Brits did not respond to the poisoning by plutonium of this defector, they basically invited more. If they don’t resist, you get more of it.
DS: This is Gabriel’s take.
DS: They will tell you that they did respond, they did engage in a small, diplomatic expulsion, that they did bring charges against, and tried to seek the extradition of Andrey Lugovoy, the man that they believe carried out the killing. But look, Britain and Russia have extensive trade and financial ties, and Britain, with its economy, I mean, Britain is probably among the hardest hit of the Western European countries right now, as Gordon Brown is in terrible trouble, the economy is God awful. They’re just not in a position to damage very lucrative ties between London and Moscow. The British financial sector is really the engine of the British economy right now, and a lot of Russian money flows into the banks of the city, and they need it to make sure that that continued.
HH: One of the more interesting aspects of The Defector is the portrait of a fellow named Orlov, who’s an exiled oligarch, of whom there are not a few around the globe right now.
DS: Right, right.
HH: And you’re ambivalent about them, Daniel Silva.
DS: Oh, I am extremely ambivalent about them. He is a, the man portrayed in the novel is one of the original oligarchs, the original robber barons who figured out how to turn the assets of the crumbling Soviet Union into major financial empires. And Vladimir Putin got rid of those folks for the most part. If they were not going to be loyal to him, then they were shown the door. And so I have a man named Viktor Orlov, who lives in London, who plays a major role in the outcome of the story, and yes, I am. I think that their conduct and their behavior had a lot to do with the say things would unfold, eventually, in Russia, that their greed and their avarice helped bring about the rise of someone like Putin.
HH: How important are their figures now on the world stage? They’re obviously important to the novel, and it drives, it’s a central part of the novel, but in terms of the oil and gas execs who are in exile now, how important are they to the societies in which they’re now finding refuge?
DS: You know, I think that in the case of Britain, they are, a number of very well to do Russians reside there, and for the most part, the British would like them to in exchange for residing on British soil, to mind their manners, and mind their P’s and Q’s, and don’t cause problems. But look, they are important in terms of bringing about investment in the British economy, but there are, there is a new class of oligarchs, the loyal oligarchs. And the villain of my story, a man named Ivan Kharkov, is one of the loyal oligarchs.
DS: These people, you know, swear allegiance to Putin and the Kremlin. And Russia is truly crony capitalism. It is a kleptocracy, as the Economist pointed out in its cover story last week. And Vladimir Putin is rumored to be one of the richest men in Europe these days.
HH: Yeah. Now Daniel Silva…
DS: And he didn’t get that way on his presidential salary.
HH: No, and not honestly. Now one of the contradictions of the book, it’s not a contradiction, I’m just putting out there that I was mulling on, is there’s a closed circuit television system in London which is extensive. And at one point in The Defector, you write that is just hasn’t delivered on the promise that it made to British people, because what a surprise, people wear masks. On the other hand, one of the central turns in the plot comes from Gabriel watching that footage repeatedly, again and again and again. So what’s the real Silva take? That it’s good to have but it’s not being mined? Or that it’s a bad idea?
DS: No, my, I am, I have a bit of a libertarian streak about me. And you know, London has problems. London has security problems. And I don’t think that the Home Office and the Metropolitan Police are going to roll back CCTV anytime soon. But for those in the audience who’ve not traveled to London, or who aren’t aware of it, basically every square inch of central London is under constant closed circuit monitoring, that an average Londoner, there’s a statistic that escapes my memory, but he gets captured, he or she gets captured, thousands of times in the average day. And so you know, I think that there are some real privacy issues. It’s a bit Orwellian for my take. And in terms of its ability to combat and prevent acts of crime, it is not working all that well. As you know, someone who travels there a fair amount, Britain is becoming a more dangerous place. And there is actually an epidemic of knife crimes and violence and street robberies.
HH: Yeah, but I must say it was a fascinating scene when he obsessively replays, sort of a working portrait of how you use it.
DS: Well, he has certain visual gifts because of his talents as a restorer and an artist, and so he saw some things in the CCTV that escaped the notice even of MI5.
HH: But I tell you on Saturday night, I was counting them as I went to the theatre, and you’re right. They’re everywhere, and I had never noticed them in that number until Saturday.
– – – –
HH: You’re going to love it, and you’re going to end up being mad at Daniel Silva. You’ll be like my friend, Michelle, who is an AP arts/history teacher, who’s now addicted to your work, Daniel, and is just…I wondered, you have like a secret society of AP art history teachers who just celebrate your books?
DS: I don’t know about that, but I hear from them. And one of the things that I’m very careful about, and I have a very good pair of eyes looking over my shoulder named David Bull, and I try to get the restoration as real as possible, and the art history, because it’s one of my passions. I’m an amateur art historian at best, but I do, it’s wonderful that Gabriel has followers among many different walks of life, be they people who like spy stories, people who like, are interested in art and art history. So that’s one of the great appeals of the character.
HH: One of my favorite characters in this novel makes a return appearance. He’s a Zurich banker, and I don’t want to give too much away here.
DS: Herr Heller.
HH: Yeah, and so what do Zurich…
DS: Poor Herr Heller.
HH: What do Zurich bankers think about your novels? (laughing)
DS: (laughing) I don’t know, but Herr Heller is one of my favorites. He’s a small character who makes, who pops up in a couple of different books. He had a real star turn in a book called A Death In Vienna, which is one of my favorites.
HH: Yes, yes.
DS: And he comes back in this novel, and is basically coerced by Gabriel…
HH: Long-suffering Herr Heller.
DS: …into helping get someone who needs to be caught and interrogated.
HH: How did you, as a matter of craft, do you put these people on a shelf? Do they exist in your memory so that they’re there, and then as you’re writing, you just say ah, time for Herr Heller to appear? Or is it outlined from the beginning?
DS: It is not quite outlined from the beginning, although the book I’m working on now, I say that, and this one, the one I’m working on now, is probably pretty well outlined, beginning to end, at least a mental outline. But what happens with a long-running series is that it does become something of a parallel universe, where this group of characters exists. And all I have to do is sort of act like a stenographer, and write down their adventures. And that’s when the magic happens.
DS: You know, when I do my job correctly, if I’ve set up the story and get it halfway done, I really just sort of have to stand back and let Gabriel finish it for me. And that’s just the magic of a series.
HH: You also get to bring in, however, a lot of little commentaries along the way – two of them in this book in particular. There’s a little riff on Berlusconi, there’s a little riff on the Italian birthrate. There’s a little riff on the mullahs in Tehran.
HH: How much do you have to pace yourself on this? And how much of those reflect Daniel Silva? And how much of those simply reflect the reality that you imagine Gabriel Alon living?
DS: I try to reflect what Gabriel and Ari and Uzi think. You know, Thomas Harris writes a series, or has written a number of books about a character who likes to eat people. But no one, I think, ever asked Thomas Harris whether he likes to eat people. And my point is that every word or every thought that runs through Gabriel’s head, or Ari’s head, or Uzi’s head, I don’t necessarily share those opinions. But I have to make them feel credible. I have to make them operate by a belief system, and in a personal experience that is credible. And these are tough, fatalistic people who live and work in a very dangerous part of the world, and they walk very dangerous neighborhoods, and that’s the way they are.
HH: Page 118, at least in my page proofs, “Perhaps it’s escaped your notice, but the mullahs in Tehran are about to complete their nuclear weapon. Our new prime minister and I share a similar philosophy. We don’t believe in sitting around while others plot our destruction.”
HH: Now Daniel Silva, we’re living on the knife’s edge here. I’m not sure how many Americans are really watching this.
DS: Well, I would, I think that those words are absolutely, 100% accurate about what’s probably going on right now. I just do not expect this Israeli government to sit around and let this happen. Do they think that they can end the program by hitting it? No. Do they think that they might be able to delay it some? Yes. Are they going to be willing to take that chance? I suspect they will be.
HH: I thought you captured the situation which must be happening in Jerusalem exactly right.
– – – –
HH: Daniel Silva, have you published a list online somewhere of where your appearances will be so people can check it, come, and get a chance to meet you and get an autographed copy of the book?
DS: I have. It’s at www.danielsilvabooks.com, which is my official website, and there are all the tour dates, and the times and the places are all there.
HH: www.danielsilvabooks.com. Now just a curious question, did any of the other review copy recipients tell you that there is a couple of missing pages from the very famous audio recording of what transpired next? This is the arena debrief. Anyone tell you that?
HH: Yeah, it’s…
DS: It might be your, oh, I’m sorry to say…
HH: Oh, it’s one of those great bait things that have ever been done, because it’s set up as being one of the great interviews of all time? And then I get about three lines of arena, and then it’s gone.
DS: I’m so sorry.
HH: No, not to worry, I just thought, I was wondering if anyone else had, if it was intentional on the part of your publisher to bait the hook.
DS: No, we rushed those arcs into print as soon as my manuscript is presentable. And so it’s a rush job.
HH: Oh, how interesting.
DS: And sometimes, things…yeah, that version of the book is, I make substantial improvements after that.
HH: Oh, doggone it, now I’ll have to read it again. Now let’s get to the serious stuff, and there are two pressing issues on my outline I want to make sure I cover before we run out of time. The first is the interrogation issue, into which you wade in a way that would make Jack Bauer proud. And then the Stalin issue, which is ever more important than the former. How long did it take you to decide okay, I’m going to walk into the middle of the interrogation debate?
DS: You know, I guess I walked into it a little more, there’s very little morality in terms of the way Gabriel Alon conducts these interrogations in this novel.
DS: I think that this book was inspired in many respects by a dear friend of mine named Henry Winkler, the Fonz. And he’s a big fan of this series.
DS: And he said once after reading Moscow Rules, he said to me you know, Gabriel, I love Gabriel Alon, but sometimes I think he’s a little too cool, a little too calculating and detached. Just one time, I want you to do something to make him really, really mad. I want you to, because I want to see what would happen if Gabriel got really mad. And this is what inspired the plot of this book to a large extent. And so there are no niceties in the way that this man is conducting these interrogations, because he needs information very, very quickly. Without giving anything away…
HH: Right, we don’t want…
DS: I did deal with it more in a book I wrote a couple of years ago called the Secret Servant. And I actually do have some real qualms about the use of enhanced interrogation and rendition. And as you can probably guess in our previous conversations, I’m someone who takes the threat of terrorism extremely seriously.
DS: But I actually know a dear friend who carried out an interrogation of a high value target. And I’ve seen the effects that it’s had on him. And we did do some things under pressure, and not knowing exactly what was coming next. And it’s hard to remember what those days were like.
HH: Well, it’s interesting, there’s passage in The Defector featuring Adrian Carter…
HH: …who is a recurring…where you point out that now these public servants, and they’re not paid well, and they’re not glamour jobs, especially in director of operations…
DS: No, they’re not.
HH: …are living in fear of prosecution for doing things that no one would have said boo about five years ago, seven years ago.
DS: That’s right. And I do not want to see anyone prosecuted for what we did, and that goes from the lawyers to political figures. If some rogue CIA officer or contractor went outside the boundaries and committed some heinous act or war crime, then perhaps this person should be prosecuted. But there’s a real air in Washington where one side wants to get some scalps from the other side, and I’m just not sure it’s going to help the country and keep us any safer. And I hope that we can put this sort of season of retribution behind us as quickly as possible. And I think that these decisions, as difficult as they were, were made in good faith, and with the best interest of the country at heart. And not knowing what was coming down the pike next is something we have to keep in mind.
HH: I hope a lot of critics of those days read this book for that message among others. But let’s talk quickly about Stalin before we go to break.
HH: Robert Service, I haven’t seen him mentioned glowingly for a long time. Are you on a mission to make sure that the monster Stalin isn’t forgotten for the extent of his monstrosity?
DS: He needs to be remembered, because the Russians are doing their best to sanitize and air brush the most repulsive aspects of their history. They are quite literally rewriting their history books as we speak. And one of the things that they are trying to get across is that the United States is the source of all evil in the world, and that Stalin really wasn’t such a bad guy, and he took the steps that he took because he had to. And for the record, Stalin was a bad guy. He killed millions and millions of his own people. He, I think it’s fair to say, that he brought about the Second World War with the non-aggression pact with Hitler. Without that non-aggression pact, there could have been no invasion of Poland, no Holocaust. This man committed terrible, terrible crimes. And yet he is among the most popular historical figures in Russia today. And I think that until Russia faces up to its history, that there is a chance that certain aspects of it are going to be repeated. And I think that in very small ways, it is now.
HH: And that is one of the more moving passages in this book when you get your taste, your whiff of Stalin through the years, reader. You’re going to love it.
– – – –
HH: Daniel, I’m glad to hear that 1789 is going strong. It is my wife and our favorite restaurant in Washington, D.C., so I’m glad it’s still cooking.
DS: Oh, it’s just, my wife’s and my favorite restaurant as well. We don’t get there as often as we want to, but I had to set a scene there.
HH: What happens when you do this to someone, though? Do they get overwhelmed with Daniel Silva readers coming in and booking reservations?
DS: There’s a couple of spots around the world where people will go, in Rome, for example, and they’ll try to explain that the waiters, or in Venice as well, that they read about this in one of my books. And the waiters will sort of shrug, you know, who is this crazy person, Daniel Silva, and why are they coming here?
HH: Well, I think 1789 is going to be very happy with you. Let’s conclude by asking what’s the next book about?
DS: Well, I think it’s going to probably have something to do with that question you asked me a few minutes earlier about “on Page 118”.
HH: Oh, I hope so. Oh, that’s great news.
DS: And I’ve been wanting to deal with Iran and the nuclear threat in a way that I want to deal with it in a story and a format. And I’ve finally settled on it, and I think that the next book will almost certainly deal with that as a backdrop.
HH: Now tricky question, though. You’re then writing against, I mean, really rapidly changing events in the world. Doesn’t that give you big angst?
DS: No, because I will be able, the way I’ll tell the story will be completely different. And it will not look like the typical fare of you know, the planes in the air headed towards the Iranian nuclear facilities, and the mullahs talking about how they’re going to respond. I’m going to do it in my way.
HH: Well, good luck on that. When’s that going to come out? A year from now?
DS: Well, it better come out on the third Tuesday of July in 2010, or I’m in big trouble.
HH: Big trouble. Hey, congratulations, good luck. This is pretty back-breaking book tour, so stay energized and…
DS: I’m going to single-handedly keep the airline and hotel business afloat for the next few weeks.
HH: Oh, I do not envy you this at all, but I do envy you just the ability to write this way. Daniel Silva, thank you.
DS: Thank you so much.
HH: The brand new book is The Defector. It’s available in bookstores tomorrow. You will enjoy it as you’ve enjoyed the other Alon books.
End of interview.