Daniel Silva On His Latest Gabriel Allon Novel, The English Girl
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HH: Just remember this. The summer reading season is upon you, and on this, Monday, July 15th, I’m telling you the book that you can buy tomorrow, July 16th in bookstores across the United States that will make your summer vacation as wonderful as mine was when I took it in June, and that is The English Girl by Daniel Silva. It is that time of the year when Daniel Silva joins me to talk about his annual Gabriel Allon novel. Daniel, welcome back, always a pleasure to speak with you.
DS: It’s so nice to hear you voice. Thanks for having me back.
HH: www.danielsilvabooks.com, or Amazon.com. It’s number 13. Let me begin by saying I didn’t see it coming, the end of the book.
DS: Well, let’s not talk too much about the twist.
HH: Oh, we won’t. We will not talk about it. You know, I always do these things with mystery and thriller writers with an eye on not ruining a thing. But I do, I am not often that surprised. So in the era of Game of Thrones, people are getting used to that. Do you watch that series, by the way, Daniel?
DS: I have to confess that I do not watch that series, actually. I’m one of the few people in America that does not watch Game of Thrones. I’m sorry.
HH: You are, but it is getting people used to plot twists, and they will already have been used to plot twists. But this is number 13, and The English Girl is the 13th Gabriel Allon novel. And like you, when you come up with a new audience, every year I add bunches of stations that weren’t here when we have talked in the past. And so whether we’re talking about Columbus on 98.9, or upstate, 94.5 in South Carolina, or Grand Rapids or Albuquerque, wherever they are, new people haven’t heard you talk with me before, so I always like to begin at the beginning. Tell them how you got into the business of writing thrillers.
DS: It was a childhood dream, without question. I was a rather well-read little boy, always thought that I would like to try to write a novel. And I waited until I was in my early to mid-30s before I really settled down and started to work on my first manuscript. At the time, I was working as a producer at CNN in Washington. I was in charge of producing all of the political talk shows that were on CNN at the time, from Crossfire, Capital Gang, Inside Politics, all the public affairs programs. So I had a huge day job. And every morning, I would get up very early and go to my home office and work for about two hours on a novel. And I kept it completely secret. I really wanted to preserve the right to fail in private. And that actually, that manuscript went on to become my first novel, the Unlikely Spy. And I had to have a very strange meeting one afternoon when I knew I was going to actually sell it. And I had to call my bosses into my office and confess to them what I had been doing in my off hours.
HH: Well, no one gets upset, but very few people believe it will work, right? Everyone indulges the first time novelist, and they wink at you and they say oh, that’s going to be great.
DS: Yeah, right.
HH: But then 15 novels later, because you’ve written 16 total, three of which are not in the Alon series…
HH: You’re of course incredibly successful. Would you give the audience just listening in for the first time some sense of how many of the Allon series have sold in the 13 different novels that have featured him?
DS: You know, I actually tried to figure out, to calculate it in some way. It gets difficult when you’re talking about trying to get accurate numbers from some of these countries around the world. But we’re talking about tens of millions worldwide.
HH: It’s really incredible, the reach, and when I go abroad, I find people, I was reading the galleys of The English Girl on board a cruise ship, and someone stopped. And they didn’t offer me money, but I think they might have if I…it was clear I wasn’t giving it up. So it’s…
DS: I am blessed with a passionate fan base. I call them Alloniacs, and I long ago discovered that they like the character a lot more than they like the author, and that’s okay. But I am very blessed to have passionate readers. And I’m reminded of that every, you know, every time I go to do a bookstore event, I’ll walk in the owner or the manager will say boy, your fans are crazy about you. They’ve been calling in all month about looking for information on this. And they’re, what they’re really passionate about is Gabriel and the stories.
HH: Well, but you know what’s interesting, Daniel Silva, at the beginning of this, there are only three or four authors that I have on every year, and have had on every year for many years, one of whom died this year. Vince Flynn was a friend of mine. I’d actually met Vince. I haven’t actually met you. But even if I had never met Vince, I still, it was a shock, it was a loss, and we had an occasional email exchange, Vince and I would, and I haven’t imagined, I had never really thought of it before. It’s like losing a friend when someone produces a part of your annual routine. And I’m quite certain, did you watch the reaction to that when Vince died?
DS: Well, Vince and I were actually very good friends. And I’d gotten to spend some quality time together over the years. Our families had gotten together. And when he was, you know, when he came through Washington on book tour, he would come over after his event, and I’d throw a streak on the grill and feed him at home, and same thing when I was in Minneapolis. And I knew early on that Vince was sick. I knew that he had taken a turn for the worse. I was stunned that the end came so quickly.
HH: Ditto. And the reaction, though, did not stun me, because he was a friend to his readers, as you are. And I just, it was very illustrative to me that that novelists enter into your life in strange ways, because their characters make you think, when you’re good at it. I mean, there are a lot of bad novelists who, God love them, and I hope they go to Heaven, but they’re not, I’m not going to miss them that much. But when you get something like Gabriel Allon going, part of it is, of course, Gabriel Alon’s gotten old. He’s gotten old along with those of us who began reading him in 2000. He’s 14 years older now.
DS: Now be careful about using the O word.
HH: (laughing) Well, he has to be…
HH: He has to be at least old enough to have participated in operations following the Munich massacre.
DS: Exactly. He was, let us say that he was a youth of about 20 or so at that time. So he’s about 60-something, and that’s not old.
HH: Right, but it’s not old, and he is…
DS: And I think, you know, preface it by saying that you know, I never intended the series, for Gabriel Alon to be a series. He was supposed to appear in one book. So when I created him, he was a late 40-something guy who was out of the business, in effect taking care of his gravely injured wife who had been terribly burned in a terrorist attack. And then he is drawn out of this seclusion and retirement to take up a mission. I never expected that this, at that time, appropriately aged man was going to go on and continue for so many years.
HH: But what’s believable…
DS: And so I find myself in the situation that many writers of long-running series have confronted, and I have allowed him to get a little older, and the stories are told somewhat chronologically. I mean, Gabriel’s universe doesn’t necessarily match up with our universe. But the most important thing is that I think that at a certain point, the great characters, continuing characters, I should say, of fiction, they really do sort of freeze in our mind at a certain point. and they really, in a sense, stop aging on the page, and they just are who they are, and there’s nothing I can do about it.
HH: Well, I think he’s marched on with time and doing age appropriate things. He is not Mikhail. He is not Christopher.
HH: He is what he should be, and of a generally understood age, and that’s a bit of art there. Actually, it’s a lot of art to have aged him the right way. I am curious, though, if in your mind when you are writing, do you see him when you’re writing?
DS: I have a very clear picture of him, sure.
HH: And so has he, well, when I come back from break, the first question is, as that book has gone on, from The Kill Artist, the first book in 2000, to the most recent book, The English Girl, by Daniel Silva in bookstores tomorrow, and available at Amazon.com tonight so it can be arriving tomorrow, if you go over there, it’s linked at Hughhewitt.com, has he gotten older in the author’s mind. I’ll be right back with Daniel Silva.
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HH: I believe that, and you will thank me for this, you ought to just order them all at once. Start with The Kill Artist, and just read your way through to The English Girl. But what’s nice about each of these novels is they stand alone, and they do not give away either too much of the past or too much of the future. You can pick up the most recent one and read it, and then you can go back and start over. Daniel Silva, the artist this time, and well, explain to our audience what that means to people. I’m assuming evidence not yet before the audience, of what the artist this time.
DS: In terms of painting that Gabriel’s working on at the beginning?
HH: Yes, Susanna and Jacopo Bassano.
DS: It’s just an image from the Bible that has been created, or recreated and painted numerous times by many different painters. Rembrandt painted a version of Susanna and the Elders. Bassano’s of course an Italian painter. And the reason why I chose it for this novel…
HH: I thought it was wonderful for this novel after I read the novel. Then, I figured it out.
HH: But tell people.
DS: Yes, that the painting obviously depicts a woman in peril, and it was just sort of a perfect little thread and sort of backdrop for the case that Gabriel is about to take on.
HH: And the Biblical story of Susanna involves truth telling, and whom to believe.
HH: And Daniel the prophet has to figure out whom to believe, or to persuade people whom to believe. And it’s just very, very appropriate to this, although I must say there is less of the art in The English Girl than there is in previous…have you heard that from people?
DS: Well, you know, there’s a couple of my books with Gabriel have had very little art in the actual plot. I think if you look at The Secret Servant, for example, a very successful entry into the series, had almost, virtually none. In fact, I’d have to go back and look at that manuscript, but I’m not sure he’s ever actually standing in front of a canvas in that book. I could be wrong. But this one is just not a, art plays no role in the plot of this novel, is the way to put it.
HH: That’s what I mean, which is interesting. And was that a conscious decision on your part? Or was it just this particular story, which fits very well into the weave of the series, did not have that particular hook?
DS: It just didn’t have that component. It’s a question that I put on the table at the beginning of the creative process. You know, can I work art into the mechanics of the plot structure, or is it going to be just simply setting, background, or that sort of thing?
HH: You know, I don’t know if you’ve ever written about this, but in the White House, obviously, and in my tenure, my brief tenure there, President Reagan decorated it with Western art and Autobahn. Other people picked different things. You can borrow whatever you want from the Smithsonian. So if it turns out that Gabriel Alon takes over the Office, you’re going to have to decorate the Office. And so I’m just pointing out you’ve got quite a lot to do in the next book. The next question takes us on to regrets, and before I go to the actual moving around about some of the characters, and again, America, don’t worry, no spoilers. No spoilers in the course of my conversation with Daniel Silva. After 13 books, looking backwards, is there something that you regret having done or not do Alon in the course of developing him? I asked you when we went to break if he’s aging in your head, and I want the answer to that. But before that, is there some part of it that you wrote yourself that he has to live with that you wish you hadn’t?
DS: No, I don’t. I’ve taken pretty good care of the core characters around him. I find it very difficult to bring lasting harm to anyone that he deeply, deeply cares about. I guess that’s, I’m so attached to them as well. I have allowed the series to progress organically, for lack of a better word. I mean, there is no grand scheme, no grand plan. There is, as I said, there was never supposed to be, and so his life is, can be as unpredictable as all our lives can be. And that’s the way I intend to do it in the future.
HH: And so has he changed as you imagine him when you write when you see him? Has he changed over those years? Does he have gray in the temples? And does he have lines…
DS: Well, he always did, remember.
DS: He went prematurely gray from his first operation. In fact, Ari Shamron famously called them smudges of ash on the Prince of Fire.
DS: And so he was always gray at the temples. You know, I have to be honest with you, I picture sort of the same person. And as for him getting older, a dear friend of mine is General Doron Almog, retired general, Doron Almog. He’s this Israeli paratrooper, head of the southern command. He was involved in the Entebbe raid. He was the last person to get back on the plane at Entebbe. And at 60-plus years of age, he is not someone that you would even want to think about messing with. And he looks strikingly like Gabriel Alon, same size and build. And you would not even think about messing with this guy, and I think that’s how Gabriel is, too.
HH: Now I also have to tell you a funny thing that happened to me. I just finished a manuscript when I read The English Girl, that will come out the end of the year, beginning of next year, and it’s not a fiction book. I don’t write fiction, but it’s non-fiction. It writes about happy surprises in people’s lives, and I write in there about finding Hewitt Farm in an earlier Daniel Silva novel. So imagine my surprise when I find the press secretary to the English prime minister is named Simon Hewitt. And so I’m very pleased that that’s the case, and he’s a very interesting character. But I also thought to myself putting vanity aside, you probably have known Tony Snow, who would have fit that mold, and Jay Carney, who would have fit that mold, of political reporters who go over to work for political people. Did you know both or either of those men?
DS: I knew Tony. I know Jay in passing, but not well, and have always found it to be a fascinating thing to watch someone like Jay, who is obviously a very prominent political reporter then have to go stand at the podium and, on several occasions, and I don’t think I’m going out on a limb here, he was obfuscating to put it politely.
HH: Yes. Oh, I think press secretaries…
DS: And so when you have to speak for someone else, I’ve always found that to be a strange transition.
HH: I think press secretaries are going to love The English Girl. I did.
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HH: By the way, what percentage of sales are you now seeing, digital versus hardcover, Daniel Silva?
DS: It is crossed that line to where it’s, I’d have to look exactly at last year’s, but I’d say it’s a little more than one to one now. I think the needle has moved over there.
HH: Well, one of the…that’s amazing.
DS: The same, the years of explosive growth, which were in the last sort of five year period where every single year, the pie just got consumed more and more by e-books, that big spurt seems to have leveled off.
HH: You see, it’s interesting…
DS: And we’ll see how it is this year, but it seems to have sort of found an equilibrium, but we’ll see.
HH: On a couple of occasions, I talked to Vince about this, and a couple of other huge authors about that transition, and you’ve lived through that transition.
HH: And it’s a very unusual time in the history of publishing to see books vanish and your audience increase. That’s hard to do. One of the interesting people I’m talking to this week, author of non-fiction, is a guy named Mark Leibovich. And I don’t know if you know him. Do you know him?
DS: I do not.
HH: He’s written this new book, This Town, which is very, very satisfying, it’s very, very disturbing, and it’s very, very accurate about the incestuous nature of your town, Washington, D.C. And to a certain extent, your book, The English Girl, the beginning of it is about the incestuous nature of British politics. Now you’ve lived on the fringe of this. You used to book all those things in these days, and how much of your snapshot of English politics and the rise, and for example, I have a little quote here about Fiona. Poor Fiona, “deceitfulness being one of Fiona’s most redeeming qualities, thus her interest in party politics.”
DS: In party politics.
DS: (laughing) I’m sorry, I still laugh every time I read that line. Look, our little town here on the Potomac, our little village here, humid, sultry little village this time of year, is very tight, close, small community of lawyers, lobbyists and politicians, and of course, journalists. We all know each other well, we socialize together, our children go to school together. It’s just a small, insulated, strange place. And more and more, in my opinion, the intersection of politics and money is troubling.
HH: What’s interesting is that you’ve captured the English version of what is the American phenomenon, and I only lived there six years, and so I only see a little bit of it now. I got out for reasons that I didn’t want to be consumed by it. There aren’t many novelists living in Washington, D.C., number one.
HH: But in your novels, you don’t really go into the Israeli political world in the way that you do the English and the American political world. Is that because the Office stays away from it as more than…
DS: Well, occasionally, I do. No, it’s just, look, when I decided to turn Gabriel into a continuing characters, and turn it into a true series, I knew that I could not write the Israel, Arab-Israeli conflict book after book after book after book. And so what I did slowly over years of developing the character in the series is that he has relationships all over the world. He has very close relationships with the United States, which rings true, because Israeli intelligence and American intelligence operates very closely together. He has close ties in Britain, where he once lived for many years. He has close ties at the Vatican…
DS: …because of operations and investigations that he’s carried out. And he restores paintings for the Vatican on occasion secretly. And so what I did with Gabriel is in effect turn him into a spy for the world, a good guy for the world. And it allows me to do all kinds of different plots. In The Fallen Angel, my last book, he was investigating a murder at the Vatican. In one year later, he’s looking for the kidnapped mistress of the British prime minster. Only in Gabriel Alon’s world is that possible.
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HH: It’s set in Corsica at the beginning. Don Anton Orsati is the latest lovable rogue edition. I’m not sure he should like him at all, Daniel Silva.
DS: Oh, how can you not like Don Anton?
HH: Yeah, well, you’d better like him if you’re going to be on Corsica. But have you spent, they’re going to love you, because you’ve done a lot for their tourism business. I’ve never been to Corsica.
DS: Well, he is, Orsati and his sidekick, Christopher Keller, appeared in actually the second novel in the Alon series, and so this is a reemergence of two beloved characters from the series. And for those listening who have not read the entire catalogue of Daniel Silva books, and you’re to be forgiven for that, Christopher Keller is a renegade British commando who deserted the army in the middle of the first Gulf War and ended up in Corsica, where he now works as a professional killer for Don Anton Orsati. And he and Gabriel had an encounter many years ago. Keller was hired to kill Gabriel. And now I pair these two together in The English Girl. And I had great fun writing it.
HH: And do they actually…
DS: I had great fun writing it.
HH: Oh, it’s a wonderful read, and Keller is back, and he says I’m regiment, love. Do they really say that?
HH: Do they actually have that, I’m regiment loved?
DS: No, that’s all me. I mean, you refer to the SAS as the regiment.
HH: Yes. Well, that is just perfect. It’s a very, he’s an interesting character, and I had forgotten him completely. That’s the interesting thing about the series, and I’m sure people will walk up to you at cocktail parties and they will have their favorite characters. And some will celebrate the return of Keller and the Don. But all of the supporting cast, and we take out the wife, and we take out Shamron…
HH: Who do they like the most?
DS: Oh, boy. You know, I can’t answer that question. Sometimes, even I sit back and sort of marvel at this bizarre cast of characters that is around him. I mean, popes, presidents, prime ministers, art thieves…
HH: Historians and dealers.
DS: Historians, archaeologists…
DS: Operatives in services around the world, they are like a big, extended family, and I reach into the basket and grab whichever ones I need to make the story that I’m working on work.
HH: I have to tell you another story. Since the last time we spoke, I visited Vienna, and I went to the Stadttempel because of your book.
HH: And I had the strangest experience. It’s beautiful and it’s moving and a wonderful guide, but the guide I got for Vienna who led us to and from there and around there, but not in there, turned out to be actually, I think, a crypto-fascist, who was, I mean, the Austrians are really, they deal with this legacy that was terrible. There is no place in this book, specific place, that I feel like I have to go to after this other than Corsica. That’s an unusual aspect of this as well, because I ain’t never going back to Russia. I’m done with Russia. Did you go to Russia to write this? Or had you been enough to be able to write it?
DS: I’ve been enough, and probably not wise for me to go back there.
HH: I’m going to guess that. That was my next question. How does it sell in Russia? And there are some people who are not going to like this book.
DS: Well, I’m actually not published in Russia anymore, and that’s fine with me. I mean, the publishing houses there, at least the one I was with, was owned by a, in effect, a loyal oligarch to the Kremlin, and that’s fine.
HH: And doesn’t that say it all?
DS: This book has, like in all my books, very carefully rendered settings, and I go and visit all of them, and do as much work there as I can.
HH: That is why, and in fact, the portrait of Russia, new Russia, today’s Russia that emerges in The English Girl, is one of the reasons I like the Silva novels so much, is it educates people as to how I think the world works. For whatever reason, I’ve got a worldview that is very similar to Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Alon. I’m not sure it’s Daniel Silva’s worldview. And therefore, I like it all. Let me ask you, though, about the weirdest thing in this book. It almost always happens that you anticipate strange events. When did you finish this manuscript?
DS: I finished it, the first draft of the manuscript I finished on about March 31st.
DS: I just finished editing the galleys right around June 1st, believe it or not. We are really good at turning electronic PDF’s into books very quickly these days.
HH: Well then, you might have known. I don’t know that it was in the first draft or in the later draft that the missing persons report that figured prominently in the beginning of the book did not lead the police to circulate a photograph for 72 hours, and I immediately thought of the Boston Marathon bombers, and the police sat on the photographs. And so I was sitting there reading The English Girl and thinking to myself, I wonder, because you wrote the police had to ask for help.
DS: Yeah, totally, totally coincidental. But it, I did it for the reasons that police officers do it, I mean, withhold. I mean, you just don’t want to necessarily, if you’re not sure about something, or if you are sure and you don’t want to alert a suspect, for lack of a better word, that we’re on to you and cause him to flee or go into hiding or go underground, and so it was just completely coincidental.
HH: And the backdrop, of course, of the Boston bombing and terror around the world, it’s got to be a grim reminder that that which on which you work is always occurring around the world. These secret services are always at work, and they have to be, or the carnage would be so much greater.
DS: And we’ve learned that they have a lot of sophisticated intelligence gathering tools at their disposal, and we now know, as I always knew, but now we have had it thrown in our face by Ed Snowden, that the NSA has is basically downloading and storing all our email and everything we do online. I always knew that this was taking place, but it does, it was sort of a little sort of punch in the jaw to have it put out in public like that.
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HH: I mean, I hope you don’t watch the Zimmerman trial. I know that your family is in news, so you might be obliged to. But it’s very depressing when there are real things in the world, Daniel Silva, worth knowing about that we’re spending that much time on trials of one person.
DS: Well, I’m going to say that there have been moments where I was unable to look away from the Zimmerman trial. I will confess that. There was one very frustrating day when the Egyptian government, or that the Muslim Brotherhood was about to be overthrown…
DS: …in Egypt, and the entire order of the Middle East was about to be upset, and there was a little, tiny box in the bottom of all the networks showing this gigantic crowd in Tahrir Square while the testimony was going on. That said, I’ve been watching the Zimmerman trial with a lot of concern, basically, in that this case has been blown completely out of proportion by the media, and I worry about what could happen if the verdict is controversial.
HH: Well, it is a very unfortunate use of time in my view when 50 people are mowed down in Egypt as the Brotherhood makes a comeback and we’re watching it. Now this is a short segment. I just wanted to ask if you’ve ever a chance to read the essay, The Inner Circle, by C.S. Lewis, which is really about being on the inside, the seduction of being on the inside. Have you ever read that?
DS: I have not.
HH: Well, that is what the allure of all these secret services are, and I’m curious as to, and I ask you this repeatedly, but I want the audience to hear, how the people in the secret services like your rendition of their world.
DS: They, I can speak to the Israeli perspective.
DS: And that is that I have, I know lots of people who work in Israeli intelligence, and they like the books. And they argue about who’s Gabriel. And you know, I’m Gabriel, no, I’m Gabriel, I’m Gabriel. And so I get a lot of positive feedback.
HH: And in terms of when you go to Israel, do you do book signings there? Are you as popular there as you are in the United States?
DS: I don’t do book signings. I have a lot of readers and fans in Israel, obviously.
HH: Ditto England? Do they also, this book especially, I would imagine…
DS: I have a very nice audience and readership in the U.K. I don’t actually tour there. In fact, fortunately, my book tours are getting shorter and shorter.
HH: We’ll talk about that when we come back.
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HH: But you could take this one as a standalone, even perhaps more than any other, because it’s really discretely about a new political figure, Jonathan Lancaster, a fictional British prime minister who is elected to Number 10 Downing Street having outlasted the previous incumbent as the Hamlet of Number 10. Was that a little blow at Gordon Brown there, Daniel Silva?
DS: No, I very carefully did not say which party…
HH: Yes, you did. That’s right.
DS: …Jonathan Lancaster belongs to. And so no one in my novel is meant to be representative of anyone in British politics.
HH: In my last hour conversation with Silva, I mentioned that he had named the prime minister’s press secretary Simon Hewitt. And here’s a little description of Lancaster from Hewitt’s perspective. “At first, Hewitt didn’t think much of Lancaster. He was too polished, too good-looking and too privileged to take seriously. But with time, Hewitt had come to regard Lancaster as a gifted man of ideas who wanted to remake his moribund political party, and then remake his country. Even more surprising, Hewitt discovered he actually liked Lancaster, never a good sign.” Now the reason I like that as a political commentator, primarily, is you really do cover the tracks of who that could be. There’s a little of Obama in there, there’s a little bit of David Cameron in there.
HH: There’s possibly, possibly a little John Thune and Marco Rubio in there. It’s a very interesting way to mix up your signals.
DS: Well, I mean, I think that it’s very reflective, though, of sort of where Britain is right now. I mean, its economy, like the rest of Europe, is stuck in neutral, for lack of a better word, and it’s a country with deep social problems, family structures that are under strain. Britain is facing challenging times right now.
HH: And they have an interesting electoral system where huge sweeps can occur, and elections can be called on a moment’s notice. A very important character in the book is named Jeremy Fallon. He’s a powerful chief of staff.
HH: And I asked you last hour if you knew press secretaries. Have you known chiefs of staff to presidents?
DS: I have.
HH: And so you have some, because I thought there was some sympathy for the job. It’s a very difficult job to do, whether it’s prime minister or president. And in putting this character together, at the beginning of it, how political do they have to be? And how policy wonkish do they have to be?
DS: Well, a chief of staff in the British sense, I sort of looked at the way Tony Blair structured his operation at Downing Street, where you had a very, his chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, was given tremendous authority. He was given the authority to issue instructions directly to civil servants, which in the British system, is extraordinary. And so I’d sort of created the brain that had brought the party back to life, and then placed him in the center of Downing Street, and given him a tremendous amount of authority that made him almost a deputy prime minister. And look, one thing that I’ve learned that whether it’s in British politics or in American White Houses is that these relationships and these offices, they are like pressure cookers. And friendships and alliances become strained. And there’s a lot of backbiting. There’s a lot of infighting. Tony Blair’s Downing Street operation was rife with fights, constant fighting between Gordon Brown, Tony Blair, Mendelsohn, all the people around them.
HH: Now how did you get smart about that, because I thought it was, you know, I know a little bit about British politics, nothing like American politics, but I thought oh, he’s been doing his research. How did you get smart about the PM’s operation?
DS: Well, I read British papers on a daily basis. I read the memoirs of Blair and Major, and Thatcher. I have a friend who served as a minister in the Major government, friends in British journalism. So I have a multitude of sources to draw upon.
HH: Okay, now you have a fictional British prime minister and his staff, and you have an unnamed Israeli prime minister, and an unnamed Russian president. These are important distinctions between a fictional character and an unnamed name so that people can fill in blanks if they care to, though you don’t oblige them to.
HH: Do you know Netanyahu?
HH: What do you think of him, though you don’t know him?
DS: I’ve been generally an admirer of Benjamin Netanyahu. I think that he’s made some mistakes and miscalculations over the years, but in a general sense, I am an admirer of Netanyahu.
HH: And you are obviously a student of Mossad. Between the last time we talked, I spent a lot of time with Daniel Raviv on the radio talking about his new book, Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars. And I’m not sure how much he gets right, or you don’t have to be right right in the way that he tries to be right right. But it seems to me that there’s an awful lot more known about the Office now, or Mossad now, than used to be. Is that your impression as well?
DS: I would say that Mossad has a handful of journalists and writers that they’re willing to talk to. But I still think that if you compare it to what’s written or known about the CIA, and what’s written and known for certain about the Mossad, it’s, I’d still say that their operations are far more cloaked in secrecy than here in the United States. It’s just sort of a different culture, but they do have a couple of people who they speak to on occasion.
HH: Now there is a compelling backstory that has gone through three or four of the books, and is really moving to the fore…
DS: I want to add one more thing to that if you don’t mind.
HH: Go ahead, please.
DS: You know, you should always take with a grain of salt every time you sit at the feet of a spymaster or an intelligence office when it can be sometimes difficult to verify what really happened in a situation, whether you’re actually being told the truth.
HH: Well you know, it’s interesting, they’ve got to understand you, as someone who communicates with millions of people about them, and therefore, because who they are, they have to act towards you with that knowledge in the front of their mind, don’t they?
DS: Well, no. I mean, I don’t turn to the Mossad for help on my novels. I mean, I have relationships with people, and friends, but in terms of sitting down with someone and say how would you do this, you know, I don’t need to do that. I frankly can make that up.
HH: I know you can make that up.
DS: And I do pretty, I’m pretty good at making it up, actually, and I’ve heard that from them. You know, this operation that you did in this book, we would have done it exactly the same way, an operations chief told me a couple of years ago.
HH: Oh, that is a high compliment.
DS: And so what I like to get from my contact with Israeli, be it someone who works in intelligence or the military or politics, or anyone, just a sense of who they are, and what makes them tick, and how they talk, and how they talk to each other. And I hope that that comes across in my novels when you have these conversations between Gabriel and the people around him, because I work very hard at trying to make them sound and feel true to life.
HH: Life in a safe house, or life in a house in which an operation is being planned…
DS: Oh, boy.
HH: Has anyone commented on whether or not you get that right, because that’s very interesting stuff.
DS: Oh, yeah. Yeah. And I know about the way they sort of go about things, and how they do things in the field. And I think that it’s not something that I would ever want to do, to be honest with you.
DS: I mean, to be cooped up for days and weeks in the field in a safe house…
HH: No, it’s a reality show without cameras, and it’s just…
HH: …but very well rendered.
— – – –
HH: Daniel Silva, we were talking before the break about scenes, and there are no spoilers, America, don’t worry, you get The English Girl, you won’t know anything that’s going to happen other than it’s going to entertain you. There’s a scene in a safe house or an operations house in which a conversation is happening. Yosi, it’s on Page 297, deeply read in classics and history, served as their guide to a review of the world. He saw a world spinning dangerously out of control. The promises of the great Arab awakening exposed his lies, he said, and soon, there would be a crescent of radical Islam stretching from North Africa to Central Asia. America was bankrupt, tired, no longer able to lead. It was possible that this turbulent new world disorder would produce a 21st Century axis led by China, Iran, and of course, Russia. In standing alone, surrounded by a sea of enemies, would be Israel, and the Office. So how much of that is a little melodrama, and how much of that is what Daniel Silva sees happening?
DS: So it’s a tiny bit of melodrama, but only a little bit. And I think that the Egyptian military took a small step towards interrupting the march of Islam in the Middle East. Who knows what’s going to happen next in Egypt? I certainly don’t pretend to know. But I think that there’s no doubt that we intend to, it looks like we’re coming out of Afghanistan in the very near future. We’ve had so little visible input into what’s going on inside Egypt during this turbulent period. And you know, this is perhaps our closest Arab ally for many years. And I think it’s difficult to argue the case that America is not in a kind of retreat after years of being incredibly active in the Middle East. And I can’t predict the future. I certainly don’t intend to try to predict the future, but it’s not going to be a placid one, in my opinion.
HH: No, and it’s an accurate summary in a paragraph, not overweighted, but just sort of an accurate summary of where we are.
DS: No, it’s not actually. And there are alliances being formed between countries that do not have our best interests at heart.
DS: And we need to be aware of this. And we need to have, take the blinders off about Vladimir Putin and Russia, and reach the conclusion at long last that this regime, and this man, is not a friend of the United States. A friend does not keep our secretary of State, our brand new secretary of State, waiting in his anteroom three hours in the Kremlin. He intervened in Syria on the side of the Baathist regime with Hezbollah and Iran, okay? The Russians are on the same side in Syria as Hezbollah and Iran.
HH: Right, and they are…
DS: And that says a lot right there.
HH: And they are sheltering, obviously, a criminal from us. They are keeping Snowden, temporary asylum. Maybe he’ll be back today and we don’t know that he’s flying over, but…
DS: Yeah, and they allowed human rights activists to have access to Ed Snowden. Too bad they didn’t allow human rights activists to have access to all the people who are rotting in Russian jails on trumped-up charges because they dared to oppose the Kremlin.
HH: But you know, in the campaign just finished, when Mitt Romney made a point of saying Vladimir Putin was our greatest challenge, people laughed at him.
DS: Yes, they did.
HH: …Daniel Silva, and he was actually, they may not be our only opponent in the world, but they are certainly among the most vigorous, and they are playing the game. I think part of the reason I like The English Girl is it’s connecting the dots back for those of us who used to read Le Carre and the rest, and say oh, well, the old Soviet Union, the old KGB, they’re all gone. No, they’re not. They have better suits and better cars, but they’re still there.
DS: They are still there. In fact, they’re running the place, and don’t ever forget that. Vladimir Putin is ex-KGB. The men around him, known as the Siloviki, are ex-KGB, or ex-FSB. They run Russia, they own, in effect, the Russian energy companies. They’re in effect Kremlin-owned, part of Kremlin Incorporated. And so in effect, the KGB…
DS: …has their hand in the global energy supply. This is something I talk about in this novel.
HH: Yeah, one of the great takeaways from the novel is what a waste the 90s were.
DS: In Russia.
HH: Russia was free. Yeah, it was free for a time. It was chaos, it was terrible, but it was free. And then it was taken back, and the oligarchs blew it. and Viktor Orlov is an interesting character. Tell people about Viktor Orlov, because he’s not someone for whom you have a lot of sympathy, because he’s part of the problem, although he’s also part of the solution.
DS: Viktor Orlov is a character who appeared in a previous book of mine called The Defector. He was one of the original oligarchs. He made billions in oil and steel under Boris Yeltsin when the new crowd came to power. I never say Vladimir Putin by name, but when Yeltsin was out, and the new crowd came into power, as I write in the book, they believed that the oligarchs had stolen the assets of Russia, and it was their intention to steal them back. And so Viktor Orlov has to flee Russia, has to leave much of his fortune behind in Russia, flees to Britain where he lives in grand style in Chelsea, and it a vigorous opponent of the Russian government. And he gets mixed up with Gabriel Alon in this novel.
HH: And very useful to understand what happened in Russia in the 90s, and goes on today. Also note in the Afterwards you note that the FBI provided proof in June of 2010 that there were ten Russian spies who had been living in the United States under non-official illegal cover for several years. Out here on my side of the world, in California, in 2008, there was a conviction of a Chinese sleeper agent who had been here for 25 years.
HH: And people don’t believe that, but they, both of those governments do that.
DS: That’s right. And I was not surprised that they had a network of sleeper agents in the United States. I assume that they’re, they have other networks of other sleeper agents in the United States. But this came as a great shock to a lot of people in Washington. I was not shocked by it. And it says a lot about who they are, how they go about their business, and what their intentions are. I mean, they intend to spy the daylights out of us. And much of the focus of that espionage is, of course, economic intelligence. You mentioned the Chinese a moment ago. They are obviously hacking into our computer systems, trying to steal secrets, trying to compromise our networks. But the second most active country on that list is Russia.
DS: And they are right behind the Chinese in terms of hacking us.
HH: I’ll be right back with Daniel Silva.
— – – –
HH: I mentioned earlier in the hour, Daniel Silva, one of the backstories that have gone through a few of the books is the succession issue within a secret service. And Shamron is the old man, and he has been succeeded, although he remains hovering in the background. But tell people about Navot, and sort of the tension both going forward and backwards in an organization like this.
DS: Well, I want to speak about it in terms of my real world, and I guess excuse me, in my fictional world, and then we’ll talk about the real world. In my novel, Ari Shamron, who is the great gray eminence, the man who basically built the Office from nothing, and you’re right, he hovers over it. He was, served as chief twice. He’s now formally retired, long retired, but he runs the Office as though it’s a private fiefdom for him. He runs it from a distance. He has always wanted Gabriel Alon, his prodigal son, to be the chief, and Gabriel doesn’t want to be the chief. And so for a few books now, an old rival of Gabriel’s, a friendly rival, but a rival named Uzi Navot, has been the chief of the Office. And look, the Israeli intelligence is not like American intelligence in terms of who necessarily becomes the chief. We have lots of people who have been chief of the CIA, director of the CIA, that have not actually ever worked for the CIA before.
HH: Right. David Petraeus.
DS: …or had very limited experience with the CIA. That can be the case with the Mossad. Sometimes, they bring generals in from the outside to run the place, but I know, for example, that some of the people who think that they have a shot of being the next chief. And it’s, there’s a lot of politics involved.
HH: And it’s a fascinating, you don’t get this in many other, in fact, I don’t think other than the Le Carre books do you get office politics when you’re talking about the spy agencies.
HH: But they’re real.
DS: It’s something I’ve really tried to focus on. First of all, I think that people, anyone who works in an office knows about office politics. And I think that office politics, be they in intelligence service or an insurance company, I mean, they’re very similar.
DS: …at their core.
DS: It’s a fight over turf and money and power. And so I think that in general, people enjoy reading about office politics, if it’s done in a sophisticated manner.
HH: I agree. And I also found the introduction to the oil business, as I said, I was reading this on a cruise ship. It was a cruise from Iceland to Norway, and we went through the oil fields of the North Sea.
HH: Of course, it’s daylight all day long, and you see these enormous platforms pumping out the crude that you just don’t, even if you’re driving up and down the coast of California, you don’t see anything like it, because you can’t get that close to it.
HH: And you bring this business in a few meetings, and you create newsletters and different covers for your people. It’s really a fascinating business.
DS: Well, it was the operation that I did, and I’m not going to give too much away, but it was, I love to sit and try to devise a good operation for my novels, how to penetrate an organization, how to get to a person, how to create a scenario to get the information that we need, or to get to the target that we want to get to. And I just let my imagination and creativity go, and I think I did a pretty good operation in this book.
HH: Yeah, because the bad guys had a good one, too. And the good guys can only be as good as the bad guys are as bad.
DS: Yeah, the bad guys had a really good op.
DS: They had an amazing op, but we had a good one, too.
HH: So when does that, how long ago did that a-ha moment come? And this is about the technical side of writing a thriller, because always after I interview you or another thriller writer who is good, lots of people start their first novels. And they always want to know when do they realize that they’ve got it. Well, you have to wait. There’s the music. We’ll come back. One more segment with Daniel Silva.
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HH: I want to thank him now for spending so much time with us again, and for writing such great novels and for entertaining us and informing us. The English Girl is available in bookstores everywhere and in every airport that you’re going through on your way to anywhere this summer, downloadable immediately, deliverable overnight, because it drops tomorrow in bookstores from Amazon.com, and you will love it. So that the question I asked as we were going out at break, Daniel Silva, you finished the book around the end of March, beginning of April, it’s in bookstores tomorrow, when did the a-ha, I’ve got the plot, not the coloring out the lines and the brushstrokes and the refinement, but I know the plot? How long ago did that happen?
DS: It happened as I was actually working on, and making notes for the first chapter of the novel. And you read it, and so you know what that first chapter is.
DS: And when I actually sat and started to write those first words, I had a different, and I’m going to be very careful here, a different idea about who Madeline was when I was writing, when I wrote the first couple of paragraphs. And then I put down my pencil, and I actually have the yellow pad of notes where I asked myself a single question. And I’m not going to repeat that question on the air.
DS: And then I said oh, my goodness, and I had this, I did have, unlike most of my work, which is the ending comes to me later, I did have a sudden, clear, inspirational moment where I said this is what this story is.
HH: Oh, interesting. And that doesn’t happen often?
HH: I mean, in terms of the way you write these?
DS: No, no. I like to work from a setup, a hook, a concept, a cast of characters, and a general idea of what, who the villain is, and I start that way. In this case, because of the structure of the novel, and the importance of the twist at the end of the novel, I had to know everything in advance.
HH: Well, maybe that’s why it’s such a great, compelling read. They all are, but this is different. Now one note I made to myself, and I had to go back and circle it, because I want to know why you did one thing. It’s not a spoiler or a giveaway. Graham Seymour has been in many of your books, and he’s a very winsome character – MI5, domestic, he’s like our FBI, but for Britain. Here, you create his history in this book. Arthur Seymour, his father, MI6, and the destruction of the King David Hotel occurs, and Arthur Seymour is pro-Arab. He’s an Arabist. He’s sort of like what they say about our State Department often. Why did you go back and add that detail?
DS: Well, he’s been mentioned in a previous book.
HH: Okay, I had forgotten that.
DS: And so that just to speak to that Graham Seymour has come from a long line of spies, and I think that an MI6 officer who worked in the Middle East in the 50s and 60s and 70s, that him being pro-Arab, or having pro-Arab sympathies, is not far-fetched at all. In fact, it’s more likely that that would be the case.
HH: And in this conversation with Graham Seymour, but I thought maybe, well, it’s interesting, because obviously, Graham Seymour is very pro-Israeli, or at least he’s very pro-British and realizes that their interests are aligned with those of Israel’s.
DS: He’s pro-Gabriel.
HH: He is pro-Gabriel. There’s a spy’s lament where he’s talking about, and it reminded me of Timothy Weiner’s Legacy Of Ashes, when all the CIA people had unburdened themselves to him, said no one ever knows what we do. They only know when we screw up. And you’ve got Graham Seymour saying we’re judged on things that don’t happen.
DS: It’s the security service’s lament.
DS: So he’s a protector, and it was an actually a rather good paragraph.
HH: It is.
DS: And I think that it’s something that everyone who works in the trade, in the secret world, struggles with, and that they really don’t feel, in my opinion, they don’t feel that they get the recognition they deserve. And that’s why you see so many of these guys coming out after their careers and writing their books, because I think it’s just stand up and wave their arm and say you know, here I am, I did important things for you that I couldn’t tell you about.
HH: Yeah, you know…
DS: And it’s got to be very difficult to, it takes a certain type of person to enjoy working that hard, and sometimes under dangerous circumstances, and to get absolutely no credit for it.
HH: No recognition. You know, if the Tsarnaev brothers had been arrested, no one would ever have known who arrested them. That’s…
DS: If the 9/11 hijackers/murderers had been arrested…
DS: …we would have, it would have almost been a joke. You know, if you’d arrested 19 guys who were planning to hijack four airliners on a single day, and to crash them into the World Trade Center, we would have laughed about it.
HH: Yeah, and that’s one of the great reasons I love your books. Now tell me, you’re not doing a book tour?
DS: Oh, of course, I’m doing a book tour.
HH: Okay, so…
DS: But it’s not, it’s not going to be 33 cities like it used to be.
HH: Are details published if people want to come to a signing over at www.danielsilvabooks.com?
DS: Absolutely. Yeah, it’s on my website, www.danielsilvabooks.com. There’s a complete list of times and places there, and…
HH: Are you still having fun?
DS: Of course, I’m having fun.
HH: Okay, just checking. It’s got, I mean, I hate book signings. Are you doing another one next summer? Is there going to be another Gabriel Alon novel?
DS: There’d better be, or I’m in big trouble.
HH: Your publisher is listening very closely.
DS: Yes, he is.
HH: Well, congratulations again, Daniel Silva, wonderful book, and good luck. Is it opening, do you know if it’s on the list for next week?
DS: Well, we won’t know until the full first week sales are tabulated, but I can tell from my presales that I can almost say with certainty that it will be a bestseller.
HH: Well, congratulations. The previous book, the number one New York Times bestseller, and I would not be surprised if The English Girl is the same, and probably within the first couple of weeks that it comes out, and deserves to be. Thank you, Daniel Silva.
End of interview.