Moscow Rules spy novelist Daniel Silva
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HH: Special treat for you today. I am still in Venice, but I will be back from Italy in a couple of days. I pre-taped this before I left for Europe, because I’m going to spend today talking with one of my favorite writers, and he should be one of your favorite writers as well. Daniel Silva may be the finest practitioner of the espionage novel at work in the United States, or indeed the world today. His series of books about Gabriel Alon are just monumental bestsellers. The new one, Moscow Rules, probably on top of the New York Times bestselling chart, and I spoke with him, and we will devote today to the art and the craft that he’s practiced for many years. Daniel Silva, welcome to the Hugh Hewitt Show.
DS: Hello, Mr. Hewitt. How are you?
HH: Oh, please call me Hugh, and by the way, thank you. You’ve given me countless hours of extraordinary enjoyment, and I appreciate it very, very much.
DS: Well, that is the highest compliment, and thank you for reading them. I’m glad you liked them.
HH: I’m going to, we’ve got a lot of time. We’ve got a three hour program, an hour and forty minutes, so I want to set this up for our audience the first way by sort of introducing them to you a little bit, and then going through the books and concluding with Moscow Rules. But I do really, when someone comes up to you and says should I read Moscow Rules first, Daniel Silva, do you say no, you really ought to go back to The Kill Artist and start there?
DS: I don’t, actually, because the books are, while they are a series, they do stand alone, and so you can read Moscow Rules, and start there, and work your way through them in any order you like. I mean, is it, do I wish that everyone started reading with the first book and went on this journey with me? Sure. But that’s not the way it works, and I really try very hard to make sure that each book does stand alone.
HH: I will say this about Moscow Rules, which I’ve now finished, courtesy of your publisher sending it out to me early, it really does stand alone. I think the other ones in the middle are sort of the Arab-Israeli stuff that we’ll be talking about, a little bit harder to walk in from stage left or stage right.
HH: But Moscow Rules is so different from the other ones.
DS: Right, and I think I…there was, some of that was intentional. I mean, look, I wanted for a long, long time to try to figure out some way of writing about Russia. Like any espionage writer of my generation, we grew up, we’re children of the Cold War. We grew up reading this stuff. And I had been waiting for a long, long time to try to get at the Russia story. And I was finally able to do it with this book, and so it is a, while the character is still the same character, and the characters around him are still the same, it is a bit of a departure, and probably going to end up being the first step of a journey for me through the Russia story.
HH: It’s phenomenally successful in that I thought it was over. I didn’t think anyone could go back to Russia after Le Carré or Len Deighton and all that sort of stuff. But here you are, you’ve introduced us to the new Russia of Putin in Moscow Rules. And I saw at the end of the book as well, there’s lots more ahead, and I think in fact, that genre may be as resurrected as the Cold War seems to be.
DS: To judge from the number of Russia books that are coming out right now, I think that’s probably true. Here I thought I was breaking a lot of new ground, and I think there are two or three thrillers that deal with Russia out this year. And I was interested to see, you know, Get Smart coming back.
DS: There are, look, and I believe it’s valid. I mean, anyone who knows my work knows that I think seriously about the issues that I write about. And I am, I wouldn’t quite use the word alarmed by what is going on in Russia, but I am concerned about what I see going on in Russia. This is a power that was denuded at the end of the Cold War, had lost its empire, and it wants that empire back. It has seen the unipolar world that took shape after the Cold War, and it doesn’t like that world. It wants it to be a bipolar world again, and wants to challenge us on the world stage. And it is willing to play rough.
HH: Well, we just saw Medvedev pushing back at Bush in Japan. Of course, we’re taping this on July 9th, and it’s airing when the book comes out in later July. But we just saw that. As I put down Moscow Rules, here’s Medvedev pushing back at Bush, and I thought boy, this is timely.
DS: Well, Medvedev answers to a higher power.
HH: (laughing) Yes, he does.
DS: (laughing) And that is Putin. And you know, it was very interesting, about a week before the G-8 Summit, and as an aside, I’m someone who thinks it should be the G-7 again for a while until Russia changes its act. But it’s the G-8 for now. Right before the G-8 Summit, the European Union group of leaders had a little sit-down with Medvedev, and they remarked at what a change it was, and how nice he was, and how pleasant he was, and now non-confrontational. Maybe that message got to Mr. Putin, and he wasn’t happy about it. I think that the Russians are famous for throwing tantrums at international gatherings, and meetings with Europeans, and I wouldn’t expect that behavior to change now that Medvedev has taken over the presidency.
HH: I’m talking with Daniel Silva, author of many wonderful books, all of them, by the way, available at www.danielsilvabooks.com, and of course, at Amazon.com as well, his brand new bestseller, Moscow Rules, in airports and bookstores near you right now. Daniel Silva, I just got back from the Dominican Republic, spent a few days down there with Children International. And their dictator, Trujillo, who was in power for forty years, would do the Putin thing occasionally. He’d step down from being president, but he’d keep his office in the palace, and he’d, you know, put someone up as the front guy. I think we’re stuck with Putin until he dies. What’s your assessment?
DS: I don’t, I’m not sure. I mean, every piece of gossip and intelligence that I’ve been able to pick up from senior contacts in the administration and CIA, we believe that Vladimir Putin is almost certainly a billionaire at this point. He has managed to scarf up a lot of wealth, and gather a lot of dough while he’s been in office. At a certain point, you know, he might be willing to step off the stage and live his billionaire’s life. I’m not sure. It’s very, very difficult to gauge what he really wants. Even during the run up to the musical chairs that they played, it was my understanding from talking to people in the administration that the CIA really could not tell the President, and predict to the President, exactly how it was going to unfold. They just really had no idea until they finally came out and made their announcement on how they were going to pull this off. So I’m not sure we know what Putin wants.
HH: You know, at the end, and we’re going to come back later in the conversation to Moscow Rules and the specifics of the story, but let’s focus on Russia for a second. I was telling my wife last night that we’d be talking about this, and I said you took your children to Moscow for an entire summer, and her first question was how could you visit that traffic on your kids? We were in Russia a couple of summers ago. Did they enjoy that period of time in Moscow?
DS: Oh my gosh, yes. I mean, part of it is not so much fun for them, you know. I took them to see one of the sights where the Great Purges was carried out, a village called Butovo, south of Moscow, is now a memorial.
DS: And you know, trying to get the children up to go visit a Stalinist killing ground wasn’t exactly easy. But you know what? They love it. And coincidentally, in my son’s English class, they read Animal Farm this semester.
HH: You noted that in one of your interviews, yeah.
DS: He, unlike everyone in the class, understood everything about it, because he had been to the Kremlin itself.
HH: How long did you spend in…
DS: He had been inside the KGB headquarters.
HH: Oh, he got into Lubyanka?
DS: We did.
HH: With you? I saw that you got to go.
DS: We all got in.
DS: And so he, I try to take them along whenever I can. I think it’s just one of the blessings of being able to do the work that I do, and I try to share it with them whenever I can.
HH: How long did you spend in Moscow last year?
DS: A couple of weeks.
HH: Wow. Now in terms of…
DS: And the traffic, you’re right, the traffic is miserable. But you have to experience it. It’s part of, look, everyone loves St. Petersburg, you know, and fawns over the museums and the canals and the beautiful buildings. I did, too. But to me, Russia is Moscow.
HH: I agree.
DS: And Moscow is definitely the beating heart of the new Russia. And I am very tough on the Russian government in this novel…
HH: Yes, you are.
DS: …as far as the things that are going on in Russia. But my gosh, did I fall in love with that place.
HH: Yeah, they’re not very happy with you. If this has been translated into Russian, they’re not going to like Daniel Silva too much. I don’t think it’s going to be in…
DS: Oh, I hope they can take a joke, because I would love to go back and feel comfortable there, because it’s a very, very interesting place.
HH: When we come back, we’re going to start walking through the story of Daniel Silva and his incredible success as an artist in espionage. But before I do that, though, you must be working on next year’s book right now, correct?
DS: I am.
HH: Is it about Iran?
DS: It is not.
HH: Okay, just was a guess.
DS: No, no, it’s going to be, it’s going to follow up on some of the themes and characters from Moscow Rules, actually.
HH: Oh, Ivan Karkov is coming back?
DS: (laughing) I’m just not prepared to go down that road with you, Mr. Hewitt.
HH: All right. When we come back, we’ll continue the conversation with Daniel Silva about Moscow Rules. All the books, again, over at www.danielsilvabooks.com. The first one is The Kill Artist. Actually, the first three didn’t concern Gabriel Alon, so we’ll catch up with all that when we return.
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HH: Daniel, in times when I’ve sat down with authors before, the non-fiction people like Lawrence Wright or Robin Wright, and spent an entire show with them, and the only other time I’ve ever done with this a fiction writer, Steven Pressfield, I always like to start a little bit about the craft, and how you go about it, but biography first. You were born in Detroit, Michigan, your family moved to California. Why and when did they do that?
DS: Well, we lived out in Western Michigan.
HH: Oh, Western Michigan, okay.
DS: And if you have ever spent a winter in Western Michigan…
HH: I went to Ann Arbor Law School, so I know Michigan.
DS: Okay (laughing). We lived, my parents are both schoolteachers. We lived in a little summer house on Crooked Lake out there, and the winter of 1967 was one for the books.
DS: And the house was buried beneath snow, and they just, you know, had enough. And it was a time when a schoolteacher could snap their finger and get a job, and we headed west.
HH: Were you reluctant to go? What are you? About five at the time?
DS: No, I was about seven, actually.
DS: And sure, I think so, but moved to California, grew up in Central California. And I actually feel very lucky to have lived in the kinds of places where I lived as a child. Anyone who knows me knows that I just love this country dearly, and love people in the middle of the country, real Americans as I tell my children who live in Washington, D.C.
HH: Which part of Central California were you in?
DS: I was in the San Joaquin Valley, a little town called Merced, kind of east of the Bay Area.
HH: Oh, I know Merced very well. And you know, Victor Davis Hanson is one of those real Americans, a farmer from the…
DS: He is a Fresno State professor, is he not?
HH: Yes, although he’s now at Stanford and Hillsdale more than he spends…I think he’s actually retired from Fresno State, or Cal State Fresno is actually where I think he was. But also writes out of that, the Central Valley’s a unique place. You went to San Francisco State, and tell people, actually, when you went to high school, were you at public high school?
DS: Yes, I went to a private junior high school, and a public high school kid, yeah.
HH: And when did you learn to write?
DS: I learned to write…I hesitate to say this, but it’s, I think it just sort of came in the DNA. I was always a good writer in school. I was able to be a journalist at the local newspaper at a very, very young age. I just had the gift, I guess, and could always string a couple of sentences together, and just knew early on what I wanted to do. And I knew that I did not come from a family of means, so the option of just sitting around and tinkering away on my novel for a few years after graduation wasn’t one that was available to me, so I went to work as a journalist first, because I thought it would be good training in the art of storytelling, that it would provide me with interesting experiences. And all that turned out to be the case.
HH: You know, we’re sitting around, there’s a lot of sympathy for journalists, obviously, in Moscow Rules, and we’ll get to the part about that.
DS: No question.
HH: But we’re living through the collapse of print journalism in the old style.
DS: We are.
HH: And it saddens me. It must sadden you.
DS: To see the once great Los Angeles Times have to, what did they lose the other day? Another 150 from staff?
HH: Announced 150. It’s really going to be 300 by December’s end, fully 30% of the newsroom.
DS: It is, you know, when I was a kid in the San Joaquin Valley, there was one little newsstand/bookstore downtown that opened really early, and you could get the L.A. Times. It was before it was widely circulated in that part of California. And I would plunk down my money and get that big, thick newspaper every single day, and read every word in it. It was a great newspaper. And I was just in Los Angeles a couple of weeks ago, and to see this little almost pamphlet that it’s become, it’s very, very sad. And I am not one who looks on the death of print journalism as something good. I think to turn on the cable shout shows, which I have a past in myself, and it is not journalism that we are watching every evening on television. It is polarizing, it is not necessarily good for the country. They have Fox News speaking to one audience, MSNBC speaking to another, CNN somewhere in between. And we need print journalists, and we need straight, serious journalism.
HH: I agree 100% with that. We’ll come back to how we learn that reflected out of what’s happened in Russian in Moscow Rules. But take us, you know, you go to San Francisco State, and then you get out. Is UPI your first job?
DS: It was, and I also worked at a small newspaper in Palo Alto for a while. So after college, I had, I worked from 6-2 in downtown San Francisco, and then I would jump in my car and drive to Palo Alto and work a 4-Midnight shift as a cub police reporter, police and fire reporter down in the Peninsula.
HH: You know, I was just a media fellow at Stanford, and I think that daily in Palo Alto…
DS: Is now gone.
HH: …is still going. There is a daily.
DS: It was the Peninsula Times Tribune, and that one is gone, I believe.
HH: Oh, that’s too bad.
DS: And so I was, I started it that way.
HH: Sixteen hours a day of reporting, huh?
DS: (laughing) Yup.
DS: And luckily, the only thing that saved me is that both jobs would happen to be Monday through Friday, and so I could sleep all weekend. I used to hop in the car and go to my parents’ house, and let my Mom do my laundry for me and get some sleep. But you know, it was just one of those situations where it was so tough to get a job in the business back then, in the early 80s, that anyone who said yes, I took it.
HH: When did you meet, you’re married to NBC News correspondent on the Today Show, Jamie Gengel. Where did you meet her? Was she…
DS: We met in the Persian Gulf in December of 1987. I was the chief Middle East correspondent for UPI then, based in Cairo, but I also spent a lot of time in the Persian Gulf. I actually had two residences. And Jamie, it was during the period, I’m not sure if you recall when we put the, the United States, put the Kuwaiti oil fleet under U.S. flag during the first Iran-Iraq war after the attack on the Stark.
HH: Yes, yup.
DS: And she came out on a Pentagon pool, pool coverage. We met, fell in love, and decided to get married. And we were married about eight months later.
HH: Interesting. An interesting period of time. It’s being pointed to now as Iran threatens to close the Straits of Hormuz, and people are looking back when Reagan reflagged everything, and saying it doesn’t work when they threatened to do that.
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HH: Now Daniel, whenever I do a lengthy interview with an artist, whether it’s a songwriter, a musician, or someone in film, the people in the audience start listening very closely who can imagine themselves doing that. And they always want to know about the transition. They always want to know about the transition. They always want to know about how did you get from being a journalist to being a full-time writer. And a lot of that requires them to know kind of the years you spent practicing the craft. So take us from UPI on the Peninsula through the foreign desk, through Cairo, to when you looked at your wife and said you know what? I want to be a novelist. Because that’s got to be an interesting transition.
DS: Look, I knew what I wanted to do. And in many ways, I was a masquerading, I was a novelist masquerading as a journalist. I never wrote anything fictitious as a journalist, but I always knew exactly what I wanted to do. And I finally, you know, told my wife this is what I want to do, I need to sit down, and you’ve got to let me have the time in the morning to try this. At the time, I was, I had a very big job at CNN. I’d moved from UPI to CNN after we got married, and I was the executive producer of all of their political talk shows – Crossfire, Capitol Gang, Evans & Novak, Late Edition. That was my responsibility. I had a huge job. And it was at that point where I just started getting up at Five in the morning, and working on a manuscript. And it was something that I always wanted to do, had prepared for for a long time, and it was just a matter of making the commitment. And I think that, I’m always stunned when very, very young people write novels. I didn’t feel that I was ready to try it until I was in at least my early 30s.
HH: Oh, good caution. Let me guess, was Tom Johnson one of your mentors?
HH: It always happens. He was…
DS: Tom…and I just bumped into him not long ago this winter at a big cancer fundraiser in Washington. I think he and his wife are very involved in M.D. Anderson, and it was great catching up with him. And you know, I worked on my first manuscript, that went on to become The Unlikely Spy, in complete secrecy. I wanted to, I didn’t tell anyone, and especially at work, what I was doing. And I always find it difficult and uncomfortable when people would want to talk about the novel they’re writing. I think that you should do it in private, and then talk about it. But I also wanted to preserve the right to fail in private, you know? And when I did get that first book deal, the person that was most supportive and most energetic about the process was Tom. He’s a great guy.
HH: It’s extraordinary. I don’t know him, but the number of people I have met in media whom he mentored, I was just talking about him the other day with a friend of mine, Bill Lobdell, whose dad was the general counsel of the L.A. Times for a lot of years. And Tom Johnson was, he shows up in about a thousand careers.
HH: And I’ve never met him, but it certainly is a very interesting guy to American media.
DS: He’s like Zelig.
HH: Tell me a little bit about when you were writing, obviously you throw yourself into espionage. Who were you reading? Was it Le Carré? Was it Len Deighton? Who was it?
DS: I am, I really do flow from that British tradition much more than the American tradition.
DS: And so I had read all that stuff, you know, growing up as a kid, with Alistair MacLean and Jack Higgins thrown in. And so I really felt that my style was an amalgam if you will of some of the more literate writers mixed in with some of the more pure adventure writers. And I think that’s one of the reasons why the series has worked the way it has.
HH: But the difference is, if you read Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, or Game, Set, Match, or any of these great novels that are sixes and eights and tens, they’re not as current as your series of books have been in terms of taking headlines out and really…today, in fact, we’re talking, there’s been an attack on the American Embassy in Turkey.
HH: And I immediately though of Death In Vienna.
HH: Where there is an attack on the American Embassy in Rome as I recall. And so I don’t think they ever tried to do that. How do you stay abreast of like, what’s your information source for what’s happening now? What do you read?
DS: My what’s happening now sources are, I’m a daily reader of the New York Times, Washington Post, but I also read, I tend to at least leaf through the Telegraph and the Times in London. I read Israeli newspapers as well.
HH: Oh interesting.
DS: And then the BBC website. So I’m, this is when I’m not writing. So when I first wake up in the morning, I try not to let the real news get in my way.
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HH: When we went to break, Daniel Silva, you were saying you try not…
DS: Yes, I stepped on the break. I’m so sorry.
HH: That’s okay. You know that, because you were a producer.
DS: (laughing) I should have listened.
HH: I’ve got to make the music come up a little bit louder. But you were saying you try not to let the real news get in the way of your writing.
HH: And I think that’s a very interesting insight into the struggle.
HH: Explain that to people.
DS: I wall off my part of the day where I’m involved in my world. And then I come out of that shell briefly, and I live in the real world. And then that’s really, it’s a wonderful thing to inhabit two places. But I really, I roll out of bed, like most writers, I think, I do a lot of writing in my sleep. Graham Greene, I learned a lot of lessons from him. And one of the things he did is always read what he wrote that day right before he went to bed. And then, you know, I just find that when I roll out of bed, I just grab a cup of coffee, and go down and start writing, because that’s always the most productive time, that first hour that you’re awake.
HH: And is that, do you set for yourself a discipline that every single day, or at least Monday through Friday, that’s what you do?
DS: Monk-like, and it is not Monday through Friday. I work seven days a week. I find it very, very difficult to take days off. It’s rather like an actor staying in character on a set, you know. If you come out, it’s just harder to get back in. I find taking even a single day, when I come back and start writing again, that it takes me a little longer to get back into it, so I try to write every day.
HH: Do you know where you’re going to end at the beginning of every novel?
DS: I haven’t the foggiest. Haven’t the foggiest. I know maybe about a third of it, and I don’t want to know anymore than that. I want to bring the characters and the story to life on the page, and then let the characters lead me by the hand to the finish line. And I’ve been working with Gabriel long enough to know that at a certain point, you’ve just got to put the story in his hands, and get out of the way.
HH: Now do you hear the conversation? Or do you write it first and then hear it?
DS: You know, I was, I was, it’s funny you should ask. That’s a great question. I sometimes feel, particularly when Gabriel is with his mentor, Ari Shamron, that I’m just a mere stenographer, and that these characters have so come to life in my head, they’re so part of our family, that you’re just really kind of writing down what they say. It’s not, when you really work on a novel, and you really get that magic, when you get into that clear air, it’s not that you’re making up a story, it’s just that you’re writing down a story that you already know, or you’re remembering a story. I know that sounds kind of weird, but it’s, that’s the point where I like to get to, where you’re just, it’s like the memory of the story is so imprinted in your subconscious that you’re just writing down something that you already know.
HH: You know, there are a couple of recurring places in your books – Shamron’s villa, the waiting room in the airport where Mossad people go to when they return.
HH: And when you, do you see that when you’re writing? That’s a sort of extension of the question I said about do you hear it. Do you see them in those rooms? Do you have a vision?
DS: You bet. You bet. I mean, one of the things that I’m a stickler for, and is a term that we use called point of view, and that every scene has a point of view through the eyes of a character. And sometimes, I’ll go God’s eye and write in a more omniscient point of view. But I generally, in the formula of my novels, we’re really with Gabriel 75-80% of the time. And so I see things through his eyes. And because he’s an artist, he has a very unique vision, and I try to capture that vision. And so he’s very observant about certain kinds of things, and I try to use that to my advantage when I’m writing.
HH: Well, that’s the queue to sort of plunge in now for the audience, and lots of whom have never even heard of Gabriel Alon until this moment. And by the way, am I pronouncing his last name the way you pronounce it?
DS: I do tend to Anglicize it, yeah. And in Hebrew, he would be Gavriel, with a V, and Alon would be the way that he would say it in Hebrew. But in English, it’s Gabriel Alon.
HH: All right, and so as we go there, I’ve just got to ask, there are no movies yet out of this series of books.
HH: And yet I would think that every producer in Hollywood would be trying to get, A) it’s eight books, you know, it’s Pierce Brosnan’s next life as a sort of an aging spy. Is it optioned?
DS: It has been optioned at various points, various books at various times. And we have a number of offers on the table, and I’m just making sure that when I do let it go this time that it’s to the right person.
HH: Oh, good for you, because I love the fact that there’s no actor in my mind when I read this at this point.
DS: I know, and that is, I don’t have an actor in my mind when I write it. I always found that rather strange that people picture actors to fulfill their characters. My character is my character, and he looks the way he looks. He doesn’t look like someone else.
HH: Now let’s talk a bit about him. He’s a Mossad agent. Let’s give the brief history that you, even if you’re starting at the beginning with The Kill Artist, he has a history in The Kill Artist.
DS: That’s right.
HH: Tell people what it is.
DS: He is a sabra, meaning that he was born in Israel to the parents of German Holocaust survivors. He spoke German, they spoke German at home, so his first language is actually not Hebrew, but German. And as I’ve pointed out in a number of books, that he still dreams in German. So he has this very split personality in terms of that.
HH: Hold that thought.
HH: I messed the queue up this time. I was looking at the wrong queue.
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HH: You were saying he’s a sabra, Alon is, born of Holocaust survivors, and still dreaming in German, his first language. Pick it up from there, Daniel.
DS: His grandfather was a famous German Expressionist painter. His mother was a very gifted painter. And Gabriel was a very gifted painter himself. He was studying at the Bezalel Institute of Art in Jerusalem in September, 1972. Bezalel is like the national art school in Israel. And September, 1972, of course, was the date of the Munich Olympics Massacre. And as many people know from the movie Munich, the Israelis put together a team and went after the people who carried out that attack. And Gabriel was the primary gunman on that hit team, Operation Wrath of God. And he worked on that operation for three years. When he came home, he looked different, the stress of it tore him up, and he had also lost the ability to paint. And so he studied, went back to Italy and became an art restorer. So he’s fixing paintings now. And he also from time to time did other sorts of jobs for Israeli intelligence. And so that is sort of where he’s at now. He is a restorer and sometimes, as I call him, secret servant of Israeli intelligence. He has done assassination work, but he’s really much more than an assassin.
HH: Much more, and he has lost his son and…
DS: And in 1991, while on assignment in Vienna, a terrorist placed a bomb under his car and killed his son, and grievously wounded his wife. And she is alive, his first wife, and lives in a psychiatric hospital on Mount Hertzel, and his poor son is buried on Mount of Olives in Israel. So he is a, in a way, he is a warning about what happens to people who, and men, in the situation that he have in our country right now, when we decide to fight terrorists on their levels. It is not a pretty picture.
HH: It’s very bracing. He’s a hero who has bled, and who has changed as a result.
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HH: If you have been listening in the first hour, you’ll be hooked. But if you haven’t, let me tell you to tune in and go back and get that from the podcast sometime. We’d begun to talk about the central character of the last eight of Daniel Silva’s eleven novels. His name is Gabriel Alon, he is an Isareli, he is a sabra, he is a secret agent, he has been an assassin, he does a lot for the secret service of Israel. But he’s also an art restorer, and I want to pick up there, Daniel Silva. Did you come to these books with much working knowledge of art?
DS: Not beyond the odd college art history course, and just a passionate love of art. And I just make sure that people who are a lot smarter than me about art read my stuff before it goes to print. But I’m actually a good researcher, and careful, and do all my own research when it comes to art.
HH: Now in the Afterwards of Moscow Rules, you mentioned David Bull, who is an accomplished art restorer himself.
HH: How did you come across him, and what’s he given you in terms of an appreciation? I frankly, until I read your books, I was unaware that such a profession existed, though obviously it had to. I just didn’t think about it.
DS: It had to. It has to. He was a conservator, or a restorer at the National Gallery of Art in Washington at the time. He lived around the corner from me in Georgetown, so he worked for the Gallery, but he also worked privately, and his house was wonderful, because it had no proper, or no serious alarm system on it. But he had, his address was fairly private, but you could walk in there, and there would be, you know, easily $200 million dollars worth of art that he would be working on, everything from Van Gogh to Monet to Tishen. I mean, it’s just extraordinary. And he was just a friend. And I had this idea that I wanted to use this as a cover for Gabriel. And I said listen, I’m wondering if you could help me turn an Israeli assassin into an Italian art restorer. And he said sure, no problem. And so we pieced together how, where he would have studied, and how he goes about his work.
HH: How fascinating. Let’s dig into that for a second, because obviously, there comes a moment in the life of Daniel Silva where Alon erupts like Athena.
HH: And when was that, because this is just not your ordinary assassin.
DS: No, and it was, the funny thing is that he was never supposed to be a continuing character. And I had to be talked into making him a continuing character, because I was deeply concerned about, look, you know, it’s no secret that a lot of people don’t like Israel very much.
HH: Are you Jewish, by the way?
DS: I am.
HH: Okay. I didn’t know that, and Silva’s an unusual name.
DS: I was actually raised Catholic and converted to Judaism as an adult. But there’s a tremendous amount of anti-Israelism in the world, particularly in Western Europe, and also, you know, no small amount of anti-Semitism. And I was just deeply concerned whether you could take an Israeli and turn him into a palatable continuing character for an American audience. And I was told that my concerns were way off base, and it was the best piece of advice I ever got. And I wrote it, the second book that I wrote about Gabriel had nothing to do with terrorism. It was a book about Switzerland and the Second World War…
HH: Holocaust, right.
DS: …and Nazi art looting, a book that I had wanted to write for a long time. And I took Gabriel, dropped him into this completely different setting, and it worked beautifully, and sold probably twice as many books at the previous one.
HH: Now you cannot expect me to just wander. You’ve blown up my outline now, so I have to go back…
DS: Oh, I’m sorry.
HH: But to be raised Catholic and then to become a Jew is an interesting, and I’m sure a lot of people say well stop there, Hugh. What was that about? When did that happen?
DS: Okay, (laughing) we’re going to go straight for the heart of the matter.
DS: It happened as an adult. I was raised in a very strict Catholic home.
HH: Were you an altar boy?
DS: Went to Catholic school…hmm?
HH: Altar boy?
DS: Altar boy.
HH: Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea magna culpa.
DS: And while I was always a person of considerable faith, and loved the Church, I am, was not truly a doctrinal Christian, if you get my meaning. I was much more a God person, and am more comfortable doctrinally as a Jew than I was a Roman Catholic and a Christian. And so I have…anyone who reads, for example, a book like The Messenger, where Gabriel works to, saves the life of the Holy Father, the Pope, knows that, can probably read between the lines and see that I still have a great reverence and love and respect for the Roman Catholic Church. I mean, I have a continuing character in the novel, the Pope’s private…in the series, excuse me.
HH: The Monsignor.
DS: The Pope’s private secretary, Luigi, Donati. And the Pope himself is a continuing character. So there are some little clues in there about my split religious past.
HH: You know, I’m not going to say it explains everything, but boy, it’s quite part of the tumbler that you’ve got to unlock here.
DS: And also, I also fell in love with a Jewish woman, and wanted my children to be raised Jewish, and didn’t want to be different from them.
HH: Now how observant are you?
DS: We belong to a very nice synagogue in Washington, D.C. We celebrate the holidays, and Shabbat, and children were just, I have twins, so he had what is known as a B’nai Mitzvah, where they were Bar Mitzvah at the same time.
HH: Well, congratulations on that.
DS: That was the best day of my life.
HH: How often have you been to Israel?
DS: Several times.
HH: And when did you actually convert? You have to go through that process, as I understand.
DS: Gosh, what year was it now? It was actually after I started writing the Gabriel series, shortly after.
HH: That is so fascinating. How has it informed how deep you go into the Israeli side of the book? Because a lot of it is Europe, obviously, but there’s also these intermittent periods in Israel. And how much has that impacted your desire to get deeper into it?
DS: I’m not sure. That is a good question, and I don’t know that I can answer it. Gabriel, like most Israelis of his generation, was raised in a deeply secular home.
DS: And you know, the Holocaust had a terrible impact on many Jews that caused them to lose their faith. And many of the Jews who came to Israel, and that either before the formation of the state of Israel and after were very, very secular. And people really don’t quite grasp that. Israel has gotten more religious as time has gone by. And the religious community is wielding more and more power now. But at its formation, it was a very secular place, and that was reflected in Gabriel’s life. I think I wrote in A Death In Vienna, there’s a scene where Gabriel is watching Ari Shamron’s wife light Shabbat candles, and he had never seen, it’s something that had not been done in his home. He had been raised in a home without religion.
HH: So what is Daniel Silva’s view of God and how He works in the world?
DS: (laughing) Are we going to do this on a radio program?
HH: Oh, sure.
DS: I don’t know that I could put that into something that could go on a radio show, but I definitely believe that God exists, and that God plays a role in my life, and…
HH: Let me put it this way. Is He active in using individuals to accomplish His purposes in this world?
DS: That is one of the great mysteries, and I don’t know the answer to that. I really don’t.
HH: What does Gabriel think?
DS: I think about it all the time, and I would hope so, but I’m not sure, because you have to account for an awful lot of evil in the world. And I don’t know how to explain that.
HH: Yeah, I was just in D.C. a couple of weeks ago, and went to the Holocaust Museum for the first time. And you can see how obviously it would shatter many people’s faith. It’s the problem of evil.
DS: Yes. I did a lot of research there. There is a wonderful research institute up top in the Holocaust Museum, and have spent a lot of time there, and Yad Vashem in Israel. And to walk down that, there’s wonderful exhibits in the Holocaust Museum. Two of them are the ones that haunt me – the shoes are awful…
DS: And then that, they took a shtetl from either a Lithuanian or Latvian, I can’t remember, and just put the photographs of everyone who died.
HH: Yeah, it goes for two stories. Yup, two stories of them.
DS: And to walk through there, two floors of faces, and to have them gaze at you, it is easy to understand why people would think that they had been forsaken by God.
– – – –
HH: Daniel, let’s go back to Israel for a second. Obviously, you are very sympathetic to the state of Israel, as I am, as this audience generally is, extraordinarily so. I am wondering if that has evoked hostility from some parts of your audience who must come away thinking that you are so pro-Israel that you can’t be giving fairness…not having read it, by the way. I think you’re very, very fair to some of the Palestinians and Arabs that we encounter along the books’ way. But what’s been the reaction of the reading public to this point of view?
DS: I mean, for the most part, the readers of the series like it, but I get my share of people who fling me the ugly letter now and again, and send me the ugly e-mail. And you know, I just brush it off. I mean, look, if you take the two books that deal with the Palestinian question, The Kill Artist and The Prince Of Fire, the Palestinian characters in those novels are deeply sympathetic.
DS: And you know, for the record, Daniel Silva is a devout two-stater, okay?
DS: I believe that there should be a Palestinian state living side by side with the state of Israel. I don’t think we’re going to get there anytime soon, but I believe that. The two books that deal with global jihadism, The Messenger and The Secret Servant, they are not sympathetic towards the global jihadists. I don’t have any sympathies toward the global jihadists, the people who want to create a caliphate and drive us from the Middle East, and will use any grotesque act of violence to achieve that end. There’s no sympathy for them. I have no sympathy for them, and they’re rather unsympathetic characters in the books.
HH: Now do you think that the counterparts to Ari Shamron, the head of Mossad, the Israeli Secret Service, and Gabriel Alon are losing sleep as we speak over Ahmadinejad and the Supreme Leader, not Ahmadinejad, but Khatami and all the other mullahs running around Iran who have launched ballistic missiles on this day that we talk?
DS: No question. No question. I’ve had many conversations with Israeli officials about this, and I come away with two impressions. Once I was told by a senior Mossad official, do you really think that we are going to sit around and do nothing while they develop a nuclear bomb? Do you really think that? But then the second thing that strikes me every time I have this conversation, is that when they talk about using the military option to deal with it, it usually is preceded by the words God forbid, because they know that if they have to do it, it is going to turn the Middle East into a cauldron. Also, the Iranians have very cleverly created two proxy armies on Israel’s border, one in the north called Hezbollah, and one in the south called Hamas. It is now estimated that Hezbollah has about 42,000 short-range missiles in rockets. Remember a couple of years ago when Israel went to war briefly with Hezbollah. Maybe the estimate then was about 15,000. They have re-armed, they are armed to the teeth, and Israel knows that if it strikes at Iran’s nuclear facilities, that Hezbollah is going to be able to launch an extraordinarily violent retaliatory strike that will probably depopulate the north of Israel. So regardless of who does it under these scenarios, whether it’s the United States or Israel, Israel is going to be the one that’s going to pay the short term price.
HH: And there’s also an article on the day we taped this in the Gloria Center’s publication on Fortress Gaza, and how the same thing has now happened on the southern border, and including an armament escalation to rival that of Hezbollah’s on the northern border.
DS: I got some really interesting intelligence on that recently during a briefing, that the Iranians are putting the kinds of weapons into Gaza that…they are not just the little Qassam rockets there anymore. They are putting much more serious stuff in there.
HH: That’s what the Gloria Center’s Jonathan Spyer said. Well, how often do you talk with Israeli intelligence people?
DS: Every now and again, but I don’t, it’s not that I’m sitting there with them working through my plots, or asking them how to do things. I mean, after eight books, these characters, I have my own…in fact, I don’t call my service the Mossad, as readers know. I refer to it as the Office. I never say what their real name is. And I wanted to just create some distance between my family of characters and the real thing.
HH: How do the real thing react to your books?
DS: (laughing) They like it, obviously. And they sometimes, I’m told about little quarrels and disagreements for some people. They’ll go well, that’s me, and that’s me. But look, it’s, I think that they’re as surprised as I am that a character from the Israeli secret services appears at the top of the bestseller list in this country.
HH: Now it’s been an honor to know a few Agency people on the operations side. And they’re never as exotic as Gabriel. They live ordinary lives in places like Reston and Vienna, and that’s Vienna, Virginia.
DS: And Oakton.
HH: Oakton, and places like that. What do they think of these books, because they come off a little bit, and we’ll talk about this, unwilling to get their hands dirty, a little Dartmouthy, a little, generally speaking, let Mossad do it in your books.
DS: Well, that is, in the last couple of books, Gabriel has worked in a way almost as a subcontractor for the CIA. And I know that there are many fans of the series that work at Langley. But look, the war on terrorism, these guys are getting their hands dirty all over the place. And it’s coming back to bite them, actually. And lots of people at Langley and elsewhere are lawyering up, as they say, because there’s going to be some trouble ahead over some of the tactics that we employed during the war on terrorism.
HH: How often do you talk with the Americans in the business?
DS: Well, I have lots of friends in the business, so it can tend, I see CIA agents and undercover officers socially all the time.
HH: Is the tradecraft imagined or taught?
DS: In terms of my novels?
DS: It is, I use established tradecraft where I can, and quite frankly, I make up the rest.
DS: I mean, I’m not going to, you’ve got to focus on what is important, and that is the characters. And the tradecraft is interesting to a point…
HH: Well, like the Smiley novels, it’s a wonderful hook. There’s tradecraft in the Smiley novels, and there’s tradecraft in the Alon novels. It’s kind of a fun aspect, and I was just wondering if it was made up or if someone had actually…
DS: But I use terms and their tradecraft where I can and where I want to, and I invent or create an amalgam of tradecraft where I need to.
– – – –
HH: Daniel, Munich matters. Here we are just a couple of weeks before the opening of the Beijing Olympics, and Munich matters a lot in your eight Gabriel Alon novels.
DS: No question.
HH: And you were 12 at the time. I was 16. Do you recall watching Jim McKay through all those hours?
DS: It is seared into my memory. And it was, it just hit me at the right age where my receptors were open, and it is just…and I also was a very serious, young runner as a kid, and had dreams, unfulfilled dreams, of maybe being in the Olympics someday. And so I watched the Olympics religiously. And it was just awful.
DS: And I watch all the films, and watch Munich, and watch One Day In September, and see it all played out again, and it just still makes me sick to my stomach, and makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up.
HH: Yeah, I try to convey to young people, you just couldn’t get away from the television.
HH: And there was nothing on the television. You just watched for hours.
DS: Yeah, and it, I think it was like for Gabriel, it was a turning point in his life, it was also a turning point in my life. I mean, this was, it wasn’t the 9/11 in terms of its loss of life and destruction of property, but it was a sort of tear in the curtain, if you will, of human decency, that this happened, and that frankly, that the Games resumed the next day.
HH: I know, astonishing.
DS: and so it affected me deeply as a child, and it’s just strange that I came to write about a character involved in it.
HH: Now the passion that’s in the books, on Page 144 of the new book, Moscow Rules, you have Adrian Carter, the CIA deputy director for operations, whatever his title is, say, “It has become popular in Washington these days to think that the threat of terrorism has receded, that we can live with the occasional loss of national monuments and American life. But when the next attacks come, and I do mean when, Gabriel, the same free thinkers will be the first to fault the Agency for failing to stop it.” It’s a little bit of a sermon, one that I welcome the delivery of…
HH: But you live there in D.C. And whenever I go there, I’m astonished that here we are at Ground Zero, the target that they always come back to. There is this almost unworldly air of nonchalance.
DS: But I was in Aspen a few days ago, before publication, I should say. And a very senior official from the Department of Homeland Security was there, and was having conversations, it was during the Ideas Festival, and predicted that the odds of an attack in the United States before the election was 50/50 or better. There is a thought that al Qaeda will try to influence the election or give President Bush a send-off to remember. And so I think that the, I don’t know if I would agree that it’s that high. I have no basis to form that opinion. But I do think that we are in a period of time when the chances of an attack are elevated.
HH: I spent a lot of time…
DS: That doesn’t mean that they have the capability to do it, either. I mean, you know, it is quite possible that we are actually winning this thing called the war on terrorism. It’s not something you hear a lot, but we have degraded al Qaeda substantially, and I’m not sure that they can carry one off.
HH: I spent a lot of time talking to people like Lawrence Wright, Robin Wright, the folks who wrote The Nuclear Jihadist, et cetera, because I think we’re living in this unworldly era. But does that sense of urgency inform how you go about your books? Or are you just a storyteller?
DS: No, I mean, look, I live in Washington, D.C. I could sit in my house in Georgetown and see what looked like a Mount St. Helens cloud of smoke rising up from the Pentagon. And it was not as bad in Washington as it was in New York, obviously, but you know, people streaming out of downtown Washington, up Wisconsin Avenue and Connecticut Avenue, the White House complex being evacuated, Capitol Hill being evacuated, I don’t want to live through another day like that again. And I hope to God we don’t.
HH: And when you talk to people outside of Aspen, though, is that alarm, in your opinion, sufficiently widely spread and understood? Not among the government, but among the chattering class which you used to supervise at CNN, and obviously, you’ve got friends in the chattering class still. Do they get it?
DS: They do, but I get the sense that we have, consciously or unconsciously, have entered, or are about to enter the post-9/11 world. And it was always the danger of declaring war on terrorism, that a long time, a long slog, things have been done that we’re not exactly proud of. And I have a feeling that it’s all about to wear off, and we’re about to walk through that doorway into a post-9/11 world.
– – – –
HH: I do want to anchor people on Ari Shamron as well, Daniel Silva. We were talking last time about how Alon was influence by Munich. Shamron is, in your book, the man who grabbed Eichmann.
DS: He was.
HH: And when people read Eichmann, I’ll bet you not a lot of them have any idea of the significance of that. Is part of his role to kind of educate people on the pre-Munich history of Israel, and what it did and how it survived?
DS: Perhaps. But he is, you know, he is a blend of a number of different legendary Mossad figures. And I took a little from this one, and a little from that one. But really, his defining moment was the capture of Adolf Eichmann. And there is a little dispute within Israel intelligence about who actually was the one who clamped their hands around the guy.
HH: Really? How can they not know?
DS: Because a couple of figures fought over that mantle, unfortunately. But in my world, it was the young intelligence officer named Ari Shamron, who was, had an unusually powerful grip for such a small man. And he actually had to grab him and get him to the car. And it just changed his life, as one would think.
HH: Now one of the things I like about your book is that not only does it pay a lot of respect to the Israeli secret services, but it also demonstrates repeatedly they’re not perfect. There’s this image of oh, you know, Entebbe and all this other stuff, that they can go anywhere at any time. But in fact, they screw up a lot in these books, and I like that.
DS: They screw up a lot, because while, you know, when I created, part of the subtext of the first one, that The Restorer, Gabriel Alon, was that I wrote it at a time when Mossad had really bungled a bunch of serious cases in a row. And there was a lot of talk that they’d lost their touch. They tried to kill Khalid Mashal, the head of Hamas in Jordan, and had failed. And they lost a team in Europe that was arrested in Switzerland trying to plant a simple bug. You know, they’d really seemed to lose their way and lose their touch. And it was against that backdrop that that I wrote the first Gabriel book. And the analogy or the metaphor of restoration was something that was important. But look, they play in a very rough neighborhood, and they are willing to do things that traditional services are unwilling to do, simply because look, they live on the razor’s edge there. A nuclear bomb in Iran looks one way to the people of the Netherlands, and looks a very different way to the people of Israel.
HH: What’s interesting is the tension over many of the books between the European services, whether it’s MI-5 or the French and the Italian and the Israeli services. Do you think that’s real? Is that how it really plays out, that they have…
DS: It is, I take some dramatic license, but for the most part, Israel has pretty good relations with the European security services, for the simple fact that the Israelis offer the people of Europe much more protection than the people of Europe understand, that they are a source of a lot of intelligence about the movements of terrorists. And so they are a conduit of intel and information for the security services and intelligence services of Europe. That said, the Israelis have a record of doing things on European soil that the Europeans don’t like. And so there’s, I don’t think that it’s unfair to create some tension between Gabriel Alon and the various security services of Europe.
HH: Oh, it’s a fascinating aspect. And by the way, in your last book, The Secret Servant, five members of an Amsterdam Mosque go missing, and it’s picked up on. Do you think the level of surveillance and competence is in fact that deep, among those who watch the jihadists?
DS: Yes, I do. I know for a fact that you take various mosques in Germany, for example, and they are seriously penetrated. Look, there was a wonderful piece in Commentary Magazine this month that took an overall look at the global war on terrorism, and asked the question are we winning. And one of the dark spots, in the view of the author of this piece, was the subject of The Secret Servant, and that is Western Europe, and to the extent to which jihadists are embedded within the European communities, and the threat that European passport holders, for example, can create for this country. But if you take a typical radical mosque in Germany, the German services are all over it. They’re working with services in the Middle East, they have bugged these places, they are working very, very hard to keep an eye on the terrorists that they know are within their midst. I mean, the head of MI-5 knows that he’s got several thousand committed jihadists living in the United Kingdom, and cells that are operating. This is just a fact of life about what’s going on in some European countries.
HH: And do you try and read, as we’ve got about 45 seconds, do you try and read the jihadist literature to get inside their heads in the way, for example, you said you have no sympathy for them, but do you try and…
DS: Yes, I do.
DS: Yes, I do, and I understand what makes them tick. I think that one of the things that I did well in The Secret Servant…
DS: …was how to take these two characters, Ibrahim and Isac, and explain how the father went in one direction, and the son went in a completely different direction.
– – – –
HH: A couple of quick questions before we go to break. Food and drink play quite a lot a role in all of the Alon books. How much of a eater and a drinker are you, Daniel Silva?
DS: (laughing) I am not. I eat a really simple, healthy diet, and I really don’t touch alcohol beyond the glass of wine with dinner.
HH: So someone must be cluing you in.
DS: (laughing) But I do go to Italy a fair amount. The funny thing about the Alon books is that I do more research for the art aspects sometimes than I do for the thriller and plot parts. And so you know, one of my tough duties is to go to Israel and look at paintings and talk to art experts there. I mean, I heard that you’re going to Venice.
HH: Venice, yes. I was rereading…
DS: And so you get to see some of Gabriel’s work there.
HH: I know. He’s done the Bellini Altarpiece, and we’re going to come back, and I’ll reread that on the plane over there. Let me ask you, though, about the Gary Larson temptation. When anyone I like a lot gets really successful, I worry that they’re just going to say okay, I’m done now, like Gary Larson did with The Far Side. What’s the trajectory for Alon? How long do you think you’ll be doing this?
DS: I don’t know, but I have no, I have books that I’d like to get to. But I love the characters, I love the stories. At a certain point, characters, you know, stop aging in readers’ minds, and so it’s not a question of the character getting too old to do these types of things. And it’s really a question of how long I want to do it before I move on to other things. And I don’t know the answer to that question. I never planned to write a series in the first place.
HH: Are your family tired of Gabriel?
HH: Does she ever turn to you and stay stop being Gabriel?
DS: (laughing) No, they’ve really become, I always looked, had a little bit of a skeptical reaction when I heard authors talk about their continuing characters, and how they are alive in their lives. And I am not skeptical about that anymore. And he is as real to me as anyone else in my family.
HH: And how much of a day, how much does he enter into the mental life of Daniel Silva on an average day, when you’re not writing.
DS: When I’m not writing?
DS: Well, he’s there, definitely. And when I’m writing, it’s just, he’s at my shoulder the whole time. I give little hints about my own work habits through his work habits. And there are times where I describe Bellini standing at Gabriel’s shoulder helping him finish a painting. And that’s how I feel with him sometimes.
– – – –
HH: You’re on one of these killer promotion tours. I guess you have to do 33 stops on this book tour, Daniel Silva?
DS: I’m holding in my hand a special shirt that we had made up for the tour. It looks like one of those old Rolling Stones tour shirts, you know, the baseball sleeves with all the cities on the back? It’s how I spent my summer vacation. It is 33 stops. And it’s hard, but it gives me a chance to go out and spend some time with my readers, and I just love it. And so it’s…I get to really see the state of the U.S. airline industry.
HH: Oh, my gosh.
DS: You know, in a very personal way, because I fly every morning, basically.
HH: I can’t imagine. I’ve done it for a week at a time. I just can’t imagine it. But it’s 33 days of the same questions, in essence.
DS: It’s…actually, I really do enjoy it.
HH: All right.
DS: It’s the travel and the time away from my family that’s the hard part.
HH: Before we dive into the novels themselves, I want to ask one question that touches them all, because Gabriel Alon is a restorer of art. You always have some artist or art piece at the center of the book. Sometimes it’s Bellini, it’s been Rubens, it’s, in the current book, Mary Cassatt. How do you pick them?
DS: I pick them very carefully in terms of I want imagery that reinforces something in the novel itself. Obviously, in the new book, there’s a painting called Two Children On A Beach by Mary Cassatt. And those two children on a beach, without giving anything away, play a very important role in the outcome of the story.
DS: If memory serves, the Rubens was Daniel In The Lion’s Den that he restored.
HH: Right. You made up a Van Gogh.
DS: I made up a painting that was based on the facts. Marguerite Gachet, I create an additional painting of Marguerite Gachet that Vincent made near the end of his life.
HH: And so when you start at the book, do you look around for someone whose life or drama will interest you? Or do you look for a painting that will fit into the plot?
DS: Sometimes it’s just when he was working in Venice, for example, it was just picking something that David and I wanted to restore, basically. Gosh I like that Bellini, let’s do that one. And then you know, where the paintings are really part of the plot, as they were in The Messenger and in this book, that I want something, I want to create an image in the reader’s mind and on the canvas that also has something to do with the plot.
HH: There’s also a fascinating aspect here, the world of art dealing, which has been in all of the books, but mostly in The Secret Servant and the current one, and in the attempt for a collector to get the Cassatt, or for a collector to get the Van Gogh.
HH: And the middlemen and the money. They might not like your work too much, because they don’t come off…
DS: (laughing) They love the work.
HH: They do?
DS: And yes, I actually was at the, given a big book party a couple of years ago in New York by dealers and curators and things. And Gabriel is very, very well known within the restoration and the art community.
HH: How interesting.
HH: Did you have any idea how vast it was when you began down this road?
DS: I really didn’t, but a couple of years ago, when a very famous art restorer was giving a lecture at the Tate Gallery in London, and quoted from Gabriel Alon in the lecture, that’s when I knew that Gabriel had really come to life.
HH: All right, let’s go back to the start, and I want to do sort of a force march through the previous seven, and then I’m going to spend a lot of time on Moscow Rules.
HH: The Kill Artist is the first Alon book. How different is the Alon of 2000 when it comes out from the Alon of this summer in terms of the full nature of the character and its availability to you?
DS: Much different. At that point, he had fled his old service, was living in isolation, basically, in Cornwall in the far southwest of England. He was tending to his wife who was in a British mental institution because of the wounds and the psychological, psychiatric trauma that she had suffered. And he was a surly, rather broken figure who was hauled out of the dustbin to track down the man who destroyed his family. And so he has grown up and changed. And he was really a lone wolf, very shy, a difficult personality, not a guy that you’d really want to hang around with.
HH: Arafat is in that book, as historical personages appear through all of them.
HH: It’s sort of dangerous to do that. How do you manage sort of that you’re writing in real time with real characters? Obviously, Arafat died thereafter, but not during the course of the book.
DS: He appears in two novels, and the first book was written during a period at the end of the Clinton administration where we were really having a go at peacemaking, and President Clinton tried but failed to bring the parties together at Camp David. And this novel is, the plot of it is that a Palestinian rejectionist group is going to try to torpedo the process by carrying out acts of terrorism on European and American soil. And you know, you have to make the decision, do I want to create a fictitious Palestinian leader? Or do I want to go with the real thing? I mean, when you look at the Palestinian people, Arafat, for warts and all, is the leader, or was the leader of the Palestinian people. He was Palestinian nationalism personified. And to try to create a fictitious person, fictitious Arafat, was just, I just didn’t think I was going to be able to do it.
HH: Couldn’t be done, yeah. Second book is The English Assassin. It’s in Switzerland, you mentioned it earlier in our program. You’re digging into the Holocaust, and to their horrible past, banking the Nazis. But you also have a violinist in here, kind of, one of the characters is a great but fractured talent. So you had to learn a couple…you had to learn banking and you had to learn violin music. How long does that take you to do?
DS: That’s a great question. And I worked very hard on the musical aspects of that plot, and spent a lot of time with a very gifted violinist, and just tried to learn how she thinks, just the way I learned how Gabriel would think as a restorer, just to try to get inside the head of a gifted violinist with a disturbing and violent past. And so I had to do a lot of research on it. And it was actually a very successful character, and I thought about bringing her back, actually.
HH: So you had a violinist? Oh…
DS: And Gabriel kind of had to move on in his life.
HH: That’s interesting, because you did use a violinist, though, to sit down and kind of…that’s fascinating.
DS: You bet.
HH: All right. The Confessor is book number three. The artist at the center of it is Bellini, the bad guy is the Leopard, but this time, we’ve got Vatican…it’s the first Vatican thing. And you know, after the Da Vinci Code, a lot of people are going to be suspicious of twisting the Vatican around, but you’re very sympathetic. I understand now why, you grew up Catholic. But you still have the Crux Vera in here, et cetera. What’s your attitude towards the Vatican?
DS: Let me just separate that out from what the story was about, and that was the level of complicity of the Roman Catholic Church in the Holocaust, and the failure of Pope Pius XII to speak out more forcefully in condemnation of the Holocaust. And this book explores the possibility of was there some sort of pact between the Germans and elements of the Roman Catholic Church to buy the Pope’s silence, and that’s what the story is about. But as I said in the first hour, I am, you know, I’m not some Vatican hater.
HH: Clearly not.
DS: Or Vatican conspiratorialist, actually. I’m fascinated by the place. I have read deeply of the history of the Church and the Vatican. It’s funny, a couple of summers ago, I took a private tour of the Vatican, and its museums, with the chief art historian. And near the end of the tour, he says you know, I have taken a lot of people through this place. You know more about the Vatican than anyone I have every brought in here, because then I finally confessed who I was and why I’d spent so much time studying the Vatican. So that dealt with a specific aspect of the Vatican’s past that I caught a lot of flack for from some quarters, but I think it was a fair book.
HH: Three down, five to go. Don’t go anywhere.
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HH: We’re on book number four, A Death In Vienna. And on this aspect, it’s really about survivors. There’s a lot of Holocaust history here. And do you, do survivors talk to you much about how they and their experience are depicted in the Alon books?
DS: Absolutely. Every single time I go to an event, or I make lots of speeches and appearances at synagogues and Jewish community centers around the country. And look, A Death In Vienna is probably my personal favorite. And as anyone who’s read the book knows, that the heart of the novel is a fictitious testimony that I wrote concerning Gabriel’s, the experiences of Gabriel’s mother during the death march from Auschwitz.
HH: And her tormentor.
DS: And her tormentor. And writing it left me a personal wreck, and I had nightmares for weeks afterwards. But it remains I think the thing that I’m most proud of. And a lot of work went into it. I mean, I went to Yad Vashem and read the real things in Yiddish, written on the old parchment paper that after the state of Israel was founded, people streamed in and gave these testimonies quietly to the record keepers. And it just remains my personal favorite book.
HH: You know, the service it does, to pay you a little compliment here, it’s extraordinary given that we live in sort of an era of casual Holocaust denial, where you get these fanatics like Ahmadinejad, and it’s become so routine. They are, in fact, accomplishing their purpose by diminishing it.
DS: Well, Holocaust denial was the spine of that novel.
DS: That the bad guy, for lack of a better word, the Nazi war criminal that Gabriel is trying to bring to justice, his job was to erase the evidence of the Holocaust to the extent possible in the German-occupied lands in the east. And you know what? They succeeded to a large degree. When the Poles and the Russians went to look for Treblinka, they could barely find the place. And if you’ve ever been there as I have, it’s tucked away in the woods. They did a good job trying to clean up all the evidence. And they kind of made it disappear for a while.
HH: Let’s move forward to Prince Of Fire. I could spend the whole time on A Death In Vienna, because I think it is very, very powerful. But I want to give people a taste of each of these. Here the Israeli Embassy in Rome is bombed, the bomber is a French archaeologist. The Rubens is at the center of this, but really, I think it’s about thirty years of war between Palestinians and Israelis.
DS: It is, and it is, I think what impacted it most was my personal, personal anger at Palestinian leadership for failing to take advantage of the opportunity to create a state, and live peacefully. Instead, they allowed Hamas and other Palestinian militants to bomb the daylights out of the Israelis for a period of a couple of years there after the collapse of Camp David and the second intifada. Having visited Israel during that time, and you know, to hear the stories of the bombs going off, and having friends who had to take their children out of the country because they couldn’t stand the stress anymore. And so that was really the backdrop of that novel, and it tells the struggle over a period of a number of years, and the terrible impact that it’s had.
HH: The Messenger comes next, and what’s fascinating about this is you really have begun to update the novels with current, current controversies. Your Saudi billionaire…
HH: You’ve got the Vatican involved. By the way, is Pope Paul VII more like Benedict or more like John Paul II in your view?
DS: He is more actually like, if I were to pick a Pope, he’s probably more like John XXIII, actually. He is, or maybe even, maybe even John Paul I. He’s traditionalist, but has some liberal inclinations.
HH: But Donati is not at all like John Paul I.
DS: Donati is not.
HH: He’s the Monsignor who is running everything.
DS: He’s a tough guy. He is the Pope’s man in black, and every Pope needs one. But the book was my first attempt, if you’ll look at the arc there, you’ll see that after 9/11, I wrote three books that had absolutely nothing to do with terrorism. I just didn’t want to write about it. I was impacted personally by it, and wasn’t interested in writing about it until finally, with Prince Of Fire, I crept up to it a little bit, writing from the Israeli point of view and the Israeli context. But The Messenger is the first time that I actually walked up to global jihadism.
DS: And coincidentally, it was by far my biggest selling book to date at that point, and it was a pretty good book, actually.
HH: Oh, it’s very good. The Secret Servant comes next, the one most recent before Moscow Rules. And interesting here, with Betancourt just freed…
HH: …a hostage is at the center of this.
HH: …and the experience of being a hostage, I think, portrayed in a way very few novelists…how did you try and figure that out? Who did you talk to?
DS: (laughing) Well, I read as many descriptions of it as I could. And I just made some very careful choices about how to portray the person in custody. I think that one mistake that some writers or books have made is that you just spend, endure these long descriptions of life in captivity, and I felt that I wanted to avoid that and just keep them very, each one, tense. And also it was important to me that my captor fight back, and she fights back, and she plays a role in her freedom every step of the way. But the backdrop of that book is Western Europe, and the threat of Islam, violent Islam, I should say, extremist Islam, emanating from Western Europe. And I, it was funny, when I finished the book tour for The Messenger, in the last couple of days of that book tour, the news broke that the British secret services had broken up the plot to bring down the jetliners with liquid explosives. And I said we are out of here, and I got on a plane, and was on the ground in London a couple of days later while the crime scene tape was still up around the suspects’ houses out in East London. And that was really the impetus, the creative juices that brought that book to fruition.
HH: And there’s an echo of it in Moscow Rules with the plot there, and we’ll talk about that after the break.
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HH: We’re back into Russia, and Daniel Silva, this is what I used to do. This is what I read, this was my professional life. I had to know the Soviets, I had to read things like Vladimir Bukovsky To Build A Castle. It was part of my life. You brought it back. It’s hard to do that. How much of the dissident literature, how much did you throw yourself into, the Soviet era, the Stalin era, and the dissident era, in getting ready for this?
DS: A disclaimer. I thought that I was going to be the Moscow correspondent for United Press International. I studied Soviet foreign policy and Russian history at school. This was what I was all about as a college student. And when I got my job at UPI, I was being groomed to go to Moscow. And as fate would have it, I ended up in the Middle East instead. Maybe that wasn’t such a bad thing, because a few years later, the Soviet Union ceased to exist. But you know, I have been waiting to do this book for a very long time. And so in preparation for writing it, while I was writing it, I reread Soviet history, 20th Century history, from the beginning, read all the classics, and then focused heavily, obviously, on the Yeltsin and Putin years, and particularly the last few years of the reign of Putin, and tried to get an accurate picture of what Russia is like right now.
HH: Did you talk to Jeffrey Sachs? Do you know him?
DS: I don’t know him, and I did not speak to him.
HH: It’s interesting, because his big theory is the one that’s blown up in our hands here in terms of shock therapy and what happens in the aftermath, but we’ll come back to that. In terms of getting ready for covering Stalin, the house on the embankment, Lubyanka, all that kind of stuff, was that already in your bag of tricks when you started this? Or did you have to go back and start taking the copious notes and re-remember it?
DS: It was in my bag of tracks, but I reread everything. And look, when I’m working on a novel, I will read a hundred books on the subject. I mean, I just throw myself, body and soul, into what I’m working on.
HH: Craftsman’s question, do you allow that reading to divert you from the writing in the morning? Is that part of it? Or do you try to keep those two things separate?
DS: No, the reading is my nighttime activity.
HH: I’m not surprised. Do you happen to have read Tim Weiner’s Legacy Of Ashes?
DS: I did.
HH: It made the Soviets accomplished in this area, where the Americans have not been so good when it comes to spying. How much…
DS: I believe that, but I was told by people in the know that…I mean, Weiner’s point was that we were able to actually recruit very, very few really good spies in the Soviet Union. And I’m not quite sure that’s the case.
HH: Yeah, his theory is they ran circles around us all the time.
DS: They probably did, and they were much more ruthless, and they’re willing to play by completely different rules than we were, and still are. I mean, let us speak frankly about something. I believe that the Russian services had a hand in the murder of Alexander Litvinenko in London.
HH: Right, you make that clear.
DS: Okay, we are, have dedicated a great deal of our security apparatus to making sure that weapons of mass destruction and chemicals and biological weapons cannot be gotten into the hands of terrorists and used against us. These guys transported perhaps the most lethal substance on the planet, polonium 210, across Europe, spread it all around London, and committed an act of, in effect, nuclear murder in the heart of the British capitol. These are the kinds of people that are still running the Russian services. During the Cold War, they referred to us as the main enemy, as you know. They still refer to us as the main adversary. They changed it slightly, but they still have this Cold War outlook in terms of the way they go about their business.
HH: And they are, as you say repeatedly, KGB with better clothes. What does Moscow Rules refer to? Page 77, “Gabriel stood in line for 20 minutes before finally being processed with Soviet warmth by a flaxen-haired woman who made no attempt to conceal her loathing of him, refusing an indifferent offer of assistance from the bellman, he carried his own bag to the room. He didn’t bother searching it. He was playing by the Moscow Rules now. Assume every room is bugged, and every telephone call monitored. Assume every person you encounter is under opposition control. And don’t look back, you are never completely alone.” You had to write those down for the first time.
DS: I did. And the…I learned through my research that the CIA has never bothered, they feed the Moscow Rules into their spies intravenously, their case officers, I should say. But they’ve actually never bothered to write them down.
HH: They’re in print now in the new book, Moscow Rules by Daniel Silva.
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HH: Moscow Rules has a couple of unlikely heroes, including reporters for a dissident magazine. It reminds me of Novy Mir, et cetera, in those years. But you write in the Afterwards, “47 reporters, editors, cameramen and photographers have been killed in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union,” clearly a dangerous hobby or profession to have in the new Russia.
DS: I think if memory serves, 12 after Putin has come to power. And these are not just people who are killed in war zones. I mean, these are people who were the target of professional hits, Anna Politkovskaya being the most famous. The book was inspired, to some degree, by the murder of a lesser known death that people don’t, here in the West at least, a guy named Ivan Safronov, who was investigating a secret missile deal between Russia and some Middle Eastern country, perhaps Syria. And the authorities were quite irked at him, and although it’s never been proven, his colleagues think that he was murdered because he was about to reveal this secret deal. He lived on the third floor of a Moscow apartment building, he fell from the fifth floor of that building.
HH: Yeah, when he was living on the third, as you point out.
HH: Now let me ask you, you’ve got your bad guy, Ivan Karkov, say in this book on Page 235 about democracy, “Democracy is fine for those who wish to be democratic. But there are some countries that simply don’t want democracy.”
HH: I’m glad you had a thug say that, because I reject it. But did you purposefully have a thug say it as opposed to believing it, and that you know, basically we should just get used to a czarist Russia?
DS: Well, I think that Ivan’s words are, could have been spoken by Vladimir Putin himself. I mean, he, they have clearly gone their own way. They call it managed democracy or sovereign democracy, but there’s little democratic about it. I mean, the opposition parties, such that they are, are basically puppets and useful idiots, as Lenin would say. There is no free press. There is no independent judiciary. There’s no legitimate means for political opposition. I mean, we know what a democracy is. It is a separation of powers. It is the free and unshackled press. It is fair courts where people can go in and get a fair hearing. None of these exist in Russia. As I write in the book, that Russia has lurched from the ideology of Lenin to the ideology of Mussolini in a period of about twelve years. Russia is, in my opinion, a fascist country.
HH: Now why did, in your opinion studying this, not all of the former Soviet Union fall? I was just listening to a BBC podcast. Bulgaria has fallen back into the orbit. It’s going fascist again, but not Poland. Is it because of the Catholic roots of some, and the separate spheres it survived vis-à-vis…there just wasn’t any of this. The Soviets destroyed everything. There was no third way, even thought the Orthodox Church endured. There just wasn’t any training.
DS: Yeah, I think that you can’t underestimate the influence of Orthodoxy on the course of Russian history, or the influence of Catholicism on Polish history. And I do think that the fact that Poland is so devoutly Catholic, and anyone of Polish descent knows that, or anyone who’s visited Poland, you know, you can’t drive more than a handful of miles down any country road without coming on a lovely shrine to the Madonna. I mean, it is a devoutly Catholic place. And I think that that has probably played some role in Poland’s current situation. But they are more anchored to Western Europe than some of the weaker satellites close to Russia. And this is part of Russia’s plan. They want their empire back. They are ticked off that NATO was extended to their borders after the fall of the Soviet Union, and they want to undo that to the extent possible, and look for more Russian projection of power, and more Russian activism in the Caucuses and the Baltics. Estonia is in their sights.
HH: What is their, what do you understand their game plan to be? In the old days, we knew what the Soviets wanted…
HH: …because they had an ideology that told us. But fascists are more difficult to figure out. What do you think it is?
DS: Well, clearly they want to be, they do not like the unipolar world of the post-Cold War. They want it to be bipolar again. They want to be, they want to be a member of the Western club, meaning the G-8 and some of the other institutions, but they also want to challenge it, and to be a counterweight to the United States in the world. To that end, I mean, they are clearly seeking to exploit the unpopularity of the United States in the Islamic world by, you know, holding themselves up as the true defender of Islam. And they’re selling weapons to the Syrians like crazy. They are selling weapons to the Iranians. I mean, if we talked earlier about a possible strike on the Iranian nuclear facilities, if that ever happens, God forbid, the Iranians will defend those facilities with weapons that were sold to them by the Russians. So thank you, Vladimir Putin.
HH: When you say God forbid…
DS: Yeah, I hope it doesn’t come to this. I mean, I really…I don’t know where…
HH: Would you ever let them have nukes, though, Daniel Silva?
DS: No, I don’t want them to have nuclear weapons. And…
HH: Yeah, that’s what…
DS: And I am not convinced that we…to the best of my knowledge from what I’ve been told by the experts, is that we can at best delay the Iranians. And maybe that’s not a bad thing. I mean…but you have to accept that the world is going to come out of that, that post-attack world is going to be pretty, pretty uncertain for a while.
HH: Oh, absolutely, second order…
DS: And look out for $250 dollar oil.
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HH: I hope you’ve enjoyed as much as I have this extended conversation with Daniel Silva, author of Moscow Rules, his most recent of eight books concerning Gabriel Alon. All of them are recommended to you, all of them available at www.danielsilvabooks.com, Moscow Rules, of course, now in fine bookstores, airports, available from Amazon.com. I want to conclude because while you center these books, Daniel Silva, on Israel and Alon, there’s a lot of looking at America in it. And you have one line on Page 135 of Moscow Rules which I wrote down, “The Americans love to monitor problems, but do nothing about them.” Generally speaking, is that your view of how we’ve been carrying on ourselves for the last ten years in the war on terror?
DS: Well, first of all, sometimes my characters will say things that I don’t necessarily…
DS: I mean, you know, Thomas Harris writes about a guy who likes to eat people. But I don’t think that anyone has ever asked Thomas Harris if he likes kidneys or livers or human brains. And so these characters are Israeli intelligence officers. And they, the one thing I’ve learned from spending time with them is that they are acerbic, they are funny as hell, they have a point of view, and my characters sometimes talk like them. And so everything that Gabriel Alon says, or Ari Shamron says…
HH: This is Shamron.
DS: It’s not me.
HH: Yeah, this is Shamron. But what do you think of his assessment then?
DS: What is my assessment?
HH: What is your assessment of Shamron’s assessment, that the Americans love to monitor problems but do nothing about them?
DS: I think that that’s fair. I mean, we’ve been talking a lot about the need to diversify our energy supplies here in the United States, and boy, we’ve been having this conversation since I was a pretty young kid.
DS: And we’re still driving our gasoline cars and still importing I don’t know how many million barrels a day from Saudi Arabia. And now the Russians have entered the oil market, and they have studied the Saudi model, believe me.
DS: And they know that they can get away with…
HH: Last question, though. Obviously, you know about this stuff, you think about it. You’re still living in Washington, D.C., which has a big target on it. So you must have some degree of confidence in our and our allies’ abilities to hold off the world.
DS: I personally question sometimes why I live in Washington, D.C., and I do talk to people and say is it safe to live here, because everything that we have learned from al Qaeda tells us that they come back to the targets that they missed. And clearly, the targets that they missed on 9/11 were targets in Washington. And so if they live up to their past behavior, they will try to come back to either the Capitol or the White House, in my opinion. But we do have, we have been working this problem very hard, obviously, for a number of years. And I think that we’re pretty safe right now.
HH: I hope it stays that way. Daniel Silva, a real pleasure, thanks for spending the time with us, good luck on your marathon book tour, Moscow Rules, available out there, America. You’ll love it.
End of interview.