Daniel Silva and the Art of the Spy Novel

Daniel Silva and the Art of the Spy Novel

By Dave Schechter / dschechter@atljewishtimes.com

Daniel Silva says he intended for Gabriel Allon to be a one-book character because he didn’t think the reading public had an appetite for a Mossad superspy. (photo by John Earle)
Daniel Silva says he intended for Gabriel Allon to be a one-book character because he didn’t think the reading public had an appetite for a Mossad superspy. (photo by John Earle)

Daniel Silva, the author of best-selling tales of international intrigue, led a double life in the mid-1990s.

By day, he was executive producer of Cable News Network’s Washington-based talk shows, including “Crossfire,” “Capitol Gang” and “Reliable Sources.”

But well before dawn, as early as 4:30 a.m., Silva would rise and enter a world of his own creation.

His mission required secrecy. Silva left his colleagues in the dark. Only his wife knew.

Two decades later, Silva is the early bird who got his worm — and then some.

In 1997, while in his mid-30s, Silva’s first book, “The Unlikely Spy,” earned him a publishing contract sufficient to quit his day job. “The Mark of the Assassin” and “The Killing Season” followed, and Silva’s reputation was made.

In his fourth book, “The Kill Artist,” Silva introduced Gabriel Allon, an agent of Israel’s foreign intelligence service, referred to as the Office.

Silva will discuss Allon’s 15th adventure, “The English Spy,” at the Marcus Jewish Community Center on July 8 at 7:30 p.m. The book went on sale June 30.

The theme of his latest yarn is encompassed in two quotes: “When it’s personal, it tends to get messy” and “Our mistakes always come back to haunt us, and eventually all debts come due.”

Allon is a sabra, a native Israeli, the child of German survivors of the Holocaust; he is Jewish but not religious. His grandfather was a famous Expressionist painter, and his mother also painted. After completing his military service, Allon studied at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem. That is where spymaster Ari Shamron recruited him for Operation Wrath of God, Israel’s retribution for the killing of 11 of its athletes at the Munich Olympics.

Allon has known loss (his son killed and his wife left mentally debilitated by a terrorist bombing) and renewal. His greatest passions outside of his not-so-tender work are his second wife, Chiara, herself a former operative; the twin children she is soon to birth; and the restoration of valuable paintings (and, simultaneously, his soul).

Silva had an interest in art and the good fortune to form a friendship with one of the greats in the field of art restoration, who helped him create a character who is both creator and destroyer.

For those keeping track, Allon would be in his mid-60s, perhaps a touch old to be the father of newborn twins or chief of the Office.

Speaking from an undisclosed location, Silva told the Atlanta Jewish Times that he does not think of Allon in those terms. “When I’m writing, I see him as slightly older than when he came on the page,” which fictionally was after the 1972 Olympics and in real terms in 2000 with publication of “The Kill Artist.”

As for Allon’s future, Silva coyly suggested, “It’s highly possible that he might squeeze in one more operation before he signs his contract” and becomes chief of the Office.

Allon has proved durable, surviving 15 novels (and numerous attempts on his life), but “I never intended him to be a series. He was to appear in one book and one book only,” Silva said.

“I never thought he was suited to be a continuing character. No way can you have an Israeli Mossad officer, with all of the anti-Israel sentiment in the world and all of the anti-Semitism in the world,” be the lead character in a series.

Silva credits his publisher for talking him out of a decision that, in hindsight, would have disappointed legions of fans. “I have been proven wrong.”

He has allowed the Allon series to progress along a real-life timeline of world events. Readers of “The English Spy” will find hints of events from not too many years ago and some currently on the global radar.

Silva’s passion for foreign intrigue fits his background. “I became a journalist because I wanted to be a novelist,” he said.

Silva, who grew up in central California, studied international affairs with an emphasis on Russia and the Soviet Union. He worked on the international desk of United Press International and as UPI’s correspondent in Cairo and the Persian Gulf.

While covering the Iran-Iraq war in 1987, he met his wife, Jamie Gangel, whose career includes more than 31 years at NBC News, mostly as national correspondent for the “Today” program. They are the parents of twins, a son and a daughter (a coincidence, Silva suggests, to Allon’s second family), now college students. Silva, who was raised Catholic, converted to Judaism.

Silva said his characters are not, so to speak, his children, “but it is fair to say that I spend more time in their world than I do in the quote — unquote — real world.” That means allowing Allon’s voice to tell a story with minimal interference from the author. When the story takes shape, “sometimes it comes very, very easily,” he said.

Don’t kid yourself.

You don’t write the kind of books Silva writes without hundreds of hours of research.

You don’t write them without traveling to far-flung outposts so that readers can see what the characters see.

You also don’t write them without contacts who provide valuable insights. Silva values his contacts within intelligence agencies. “I like to get their worldview. How they speak. How they think. What they think is important. Their sense of humor,” he said, adding that there are some very funny people in that line of work.

A Jewish audience will be interested in Silva’s perspective on Israel and the wider Jewish world, which naturally plays a role in his books.

Silva shared a couple of anecdotes from a recent visit to Israel.

In the square in Netanya, a coastal city north of Tel Aviv, you can sit at a French cafe and watch French-speaking children play. France led the countries of origin for new immigrants to Israel last year “because it’s not safe to be a Jew in France right now.”

On another occasion, Silva and his wife were enjoying the view from the balcony of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem — one of the best in the city, an interviewer offered. One of the best in the world, Silva replied.

His wife noticed that a man at a nearby table was reading one of her husband’s books. She asked if he would like to meet the author. It turned out that the reader was French and had bought an apartment in Israel. He told Silva that he pretends not to be Jewish when in France, living “underground,” so to speak.

This is part of the world Gabriel Allon will inherit as chief of the Office.

“Israel is an island in a sea of absolute chaos in the Middle East,” an island with its own divisions, between rich and poor, between religious and secular (and within the religious), between Mizrahi and Ashkenazi, Silva said.

“I have noticed, anyone reading has noticed, an incredible deterioration in support for Israel in the world. Anti-Semitism is really, really on the rise right now,” said Silva, who serves on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Council, the museum’s board of trustees. “It is interesting to write a character against that backdrop.”

About relations between Israel and the United States, Silva said, “It is fair to say that Barack Obama and the team around him see the U.S.-Israel relationship differently than any other president who has come before.”

As for Israel and the Palestinians, “I guess that it would really be wonderful if two states — one Jewish and one Arab — could live side by side in peace, with a very clean border,” Silva said. “A two-state solution in the current state of affairs is not realistic. It’s not going to happen. There has to be another way to unscramble that egg.”

Even as Silva tours in support of “The English Spy,” he is working on the second chapter of Allon’s next adventure — but will say no more. When he has finished a book, “I like to dive into the next book right away,” Silva said. “Starting a new book helps restore the author.”

Who: Daniel Silva in conversation with CNN’s Nadia Bilchik

What: “The English Spy” discussion and signing

Where: Marcus JCC, 5342 Tilly Mill Road, Dunwoody

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, July 8

Tickets: $24 members, $29 nonmembers (includes a signed book); www.atlantajcc.org/bookfestival or 678-812-4002


read more: