A Conversation with Daniel Silva, Author of THE REMBRANDT AFFAIR
Q: Your last two books were #1New York Times bestsellers, and once again, you’ve written one of the summer’s hottest thrillers. Tell us a little about your brand-new page-turner, The Rembrandt Affair.
A: The Rembrandt Affair is my thirteenth novel and the tenth to feature my hero, the enigmatic art restorer and spy Gabriel Allon. What excites me most about the book is that it blends the two vastly different sides of Gabriel’s character—the world of art and the world of intelligence—into a fast-paced and entertaining read. As the story opens, Gabriel has returned to the windswept cliffs of Cornwall, where he is hoping to restore paintings and lead a well-deserved quiet life. But once again, trouble comes calling. In the ancient and mystical English city of Glastonbury, an art restorer is brutally murdered and a long-lost Rembrandt mysteriously stolen. Despite his reluctance, Gabriel agrees to use his unique skills to find the painting. And though he doesn’t realize it, his search will lead him into a confrontation with one of the world’s most dangerous men, a man who will do anything for money.
Q: What attracted you to the topic of art theft?
A: I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that thieves have made off with some of the most beautiful objects ever created. And for the most part, they get away with it. I think there is a tendency to dismiss art crime as somehow romantic, a sort of gentleman’s game. The truth is, art crime is big business. During my research for The Rembrandt Affair, I learned that between $4 billion and $6 billion dollars’ worth of art and antiquities are stolen each year. According to Interpol, art theft ranks fourth on the list of the most lucrative forms of criminal activity, right after drug trafficking, arms dealing, and money laundering. It is a sad but fascinating reality that if all the paintings ever stolen were gathered into one so-called Museum of the Missing, it would be among the greatest in the world.
Q: Critics have hailed Gabriel Allon as one of the most fascinating characters on the literary landscape today. But he’s not the typical hero, is he?
A: No, not at all. First of all, there’s the issue of his nationality. He can pass as an Italian or a German, but in reality Gabriel Allon is an Israeli. He started his career for Israeli intelligence when he was very young. In fact, he was still in art school when he was recruited to hunt down and kill the perpetrators of the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre. But what makes Gabriel unique—and what makes him so attractive to many different kinds of readers—is his cover job. Gabriel is truly one of the finest art restorers in the world. He uses restoration not only as his cover but as a way to heal himself after difficult operations.
Q:Like all your novels, The Rembrandt Affair is a page-turner and entertainment of the highest caliber. But it’s also a searing morality tale about greed. To what extent were you influenced by the financial meltdown and the behavior of some investment bankers on Wall Street?
A: Like everyone, I was appalled by the greed and reckless pursuit of profit that helped bring about the Great Recession. And, of course, by the case of Bernie Madoff. Here was a charismatic figure who appeared to be a paragon of virtue. Madoff was a man people thought they could trust, a man who donated millions of dollars to charity. But underneath it all, Madoff was a criminal, arguably the greatest thief and con man in history. And as we found out, he wasn’t alone. It turns out there were dozens of Bernie Madoffs out there. And I was intrigued by two questions. What motivates these people? And how do they live with themselves? And that became the inspiration for the villain of The Rembrandt Affair.
Q: You’ve created some wonderful villains over the years. They’re always complex. But the one who appears on the pages of The Rembrandt Affair is unique. He’s a Swiss billionaire named Martin Landesmann, but I understand that both his supporters and detractors have another name for him?
A: That’s true. They call him Saint Martin, but I’m told he’s not terribly fond of it. Saint Martin is regarded as something of a prophet by his legion of devoted followers. He preaches debt relief, corporate responsibility, and renewable energy. He has a charitable foundation called One World that’s given away hundreds of millions of dollars to causes Saint Martin supposedly holds dear. But, of course, it’s all a sham. Beneath Martin Landesmann’s saintly façade is a secret best summed up by the famous quotation attributed to Honoré de Balzac that serves as the epigraph for the novel: “Behind every great fortune lies a great crime.”
Q: As the title of the novel suggests, the painting at the center of the story is a Rembrandt. And not just any Rembrandt. It’s a long-lost masterpiece, and as Gabriel soon discovers, it has a tragic history, one dealing with the Holocaust in Holland. Where did you find the inspiration for the haunting story of the hidden child inThe Rembrandt Affair?
A: Oddly enough, I quite literally stumbled upon it one afternoon at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial and museum in Jerusalem. I was doing some research in the archives for my novel A Death in Vienna, when I mistakenly entered a room. There was a gathering of Holocaust survivors, men and woman who, as young children, had been separated from their families and hidden from the Germans. They are some of the most tragic and least understood victims of the Holocaust. They carry a tremendous amount of guilt and sadness over the fact that they survived and their families did not. I spent a long time talking to them and listening to their stories. They broke my heart. I tucked away my memories of that day and waited for the story to take shape. The result is The Rembrandt Affair.
Q: I’m sure you’re aware of this, but many of your most devoted fans also happen to be women and make no secret of being in love with Gabriel Allon. And one of the hallmarks of your books is that they always include strong, captivating female characters. The Rembrandt Affair is no exception, and the star of this book is Zoe Reed. Who is she?
A: Zoe Reed is every corrupt businessman’s nightmare. She’s a British investigative reporter who works for London’s most prestigious business daily, and she takes great pleasure in making mincemeat out of tycoons who step out of line. She’s tough. She’s smart. She’s sexy. And she has a razor-sharp wit that routinely reduces arrogant CEOs to mush. But as it turns out, Zoe is less than perfect herself. She’s leading a double life. And because of that, she’s recruited to work against our villain, Martin Landesmann. I love Zoe Reed, and I think readers will, too. Every time I reread the words that came out of her mouth, I laugh.
Q: The Rembrandt Affair also features a remarkable cast of well-drawn minor characters. There’s a charming Marseilles crime boss, a failed artist who became one of the world’s best forgers, and a master art thief named Maurice Durand. I loved them all, but I have to say Monsieur Durand is my favorite.
A: Mine too, because he might well be the only art thief in the business who actually has a conscience. And without giving away too much of the story, Maurice Durand turns out to be the true hero of The Rembrandt Affair. He deserves his own book.
Q: In real life, does an art thief like Maurice Durand exist?
A: As The Rembrandt Affair points out, there’s a debate inside the art world over that very question. In some cases, paintings are stolen by lowlife criminals and end up being used as ransom or as a sort of underworld currency to finance drug deals and other illicit trade. But I’m convinced there are also professional art thieves who supply inventory for what you might call the unscrupulous end of the trade. In a way, it doesn’t much matter who’s stealing paintings. The sad fact is, art disappears almost on a daily basis. And once it’s gone, it almost always stays gone. In fact, the odds of recovering a stolen painting are pathetically low, one in ten at best.
Q: One of the reasons why readers love your books so much is that they deal with real-world problems. The Rembrandt Affairdeals with one of the most urgent threats in the world today, the quest by the Islamic Republic of Iran to acquire nuclear weapons. And you deal with one very specific aspect of the problem: the support the Iranians have received from some European high-tech firms.
A: I think it is fair to say that Iran would not be on the doorstep of acquiring nuclear weapons were European high-tech firms not selling them essential nuclear technology. During my research for The Rembrandt Affair, I spoke to a very senior U.S. intelligence official who told me in no uncertain terms that the worst offenders are German and Swiss companies—hardly surprising since German and Swiss firms were deeply involved in the nuclear smuggling network of A. Q. Khan. When I asked this official what could possibly motivate these companies to do business with the Iranians, he smiled and said one word. Greed.
Q: How do the goods get from Europe to Iran?
A: For the most part, through a sophisticated state-sponsored smuggling network operated by the Iranian government and their friends in the Revolutionary Guard. Iranian agents and front companies approach European suppliers with a shopping list of material they need and place their orders. Since much of the material is dual-use, it’s easy for the Iranians to disguise their true intentions. It’s also easy for certain unscrupulous suppliers to feign ignorance about the true destination of the material they’re supplying. On any given day, American and European authorities are involved in a sophisticated game of cat and mouse trying to keep dangerous, restricted material out of Iranian hands. Paradoxically, the Iranian dependence on European suppliers has given Western intelligence an ability to peer inside the program to a certain degree. It’s also given us the opportunity to make a little mischief from time to time—one of Gabriel Allon’s specialties.
Q: There’s been a great deal of speculation over the past few years that Israel will be forced to attack Iran at some point. Do you share that opinion?
A: I’m just a novelist who writes spy thrillers, and I try not to make a habit about predicting events, especially when they involve the Middle East. But I would be surprised if Israel attacked Iran’s nuclear facilities. To truly destroy the program would take a sustained air campaign of the type only the United States can muster.
Q: Can economic sanctions stop the Iranians?
A: In theory, they could. But they would truly have to be crippling in nature—the kind of sanctions that would bring the Iranian economy to its knees. But I don’t think there’s much of an appetite in the world for that, especially when there are so many countries who want to do business with Iran.
Q: So, is it your conclusion that Iran is going nuclear?
A: Unless something dramatic happens, I’m afraid that’s going to be the case. And then we have to confront what the Middle East will look like the morning after.
Q: In the novel, your spies use some cutting-edge technology involving computers and mobile phones that kept me up at night, worrying about my privacy. Without giving too much away, is it real or did you make it up?
A: Unfortunately, all the technology portrayed in the novel is the real thing, and we should all be worried about our privacy. I was briefed by a top expert. By the time he was done, I was ready to throw away my smart phone, and I was looking at my computer in a whole new light. Suffice it to say mobile communications have given government eavesdroppers the ability to monitor targets every minute of the day. A BlackBerry or an iPhone can be a serious weapon in the hands of a good intelligence officer.
Q: In reading this book, I felt that I learned so much about an astonishing array of topics from art to history to nuclear weapons. Do you set out to educate the reader? And how do you do your research?
A: My primary goal is to tell a good story and to entertain the reader. That said, I do select topics that I want to learn more about. But I always try todramatize the material rather than simply tell it. As for my research, it involves a great deal of reading, but I also speak with experts and utilize trusted sources.
Q: And what about your settings? In The Rembrandt Affair, the reader is swept from the Swiss Alps to the cliffs of Cornwall, England. Do you actually visit the places you write about?
A: I really do, and I spend as much time there as possible. Most of the research for The Rembrandt Affair was done last summer after I finished the book tour for The Defector. I hopped on a plane with my wife and children and spent the next couple of weeks stealing paintings across Europe—fictitiously, of course. For the most part, the book was plotted during train rides between various European cities. Like Gabriel Allon, I prefer trains to airplanes.
Q: This is the tenth novel to feature Gabriel Allon, but I was surprised to read recently that you never intended for him to become a continuing character. What happened to change your mind?
A: When I finished the first Gabriel Allon novel, The Kill Artist, I had a feeling I’d created something special. But I was concerned about the long-term viability of a morose, retired Israeli assassin who restored Dutch and Italian Old Master paintings for a living. I also feared the level of anti-Israeli sentiment in the world would be a problem when it came to marketing and sales. Fortunately, I’ve been proven wrong. Gabriel Allon is now a number-one New York Times bestseller. And no one is more pleasantly surprised than the person who created him.
Q: The critics have called you “the gold standard” of thriller writers because your books are not only addictive page-turners but sophisticated stories told with beautiful prose. What is your writing process like? And has it become easier over the years?
A: I wish I could say it’s become easier, but, in reality, the opposite is true. I always thought that once I had a few books under my belt, I would discover some magic secret to writing one. But the truth is, there is no magic secret. Each book is a unique and surprising journey, and when I get to the end of it, I’m always a bit surprised I actually made it.
Q: Do you outline your stories first?
A: I tried to write an outline once, but it really didn’t work for me. In fact, when I finished the book and looked back at the original outline, they had very little in common other than the broad themes and the title. Basically, I like to map out the first third of the story. Once I’ve brought it to life on the page, I try to stand aside and let the characters take over. As for my writing schedule, it’s fairly intense. Most people think a writer’s life is idyllic—don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining—but, in reality, there’s nothing romantic about it. I publish a book a year, which means I have about six months to research and write. I’m at my desk at six in the morning, and I work seven days a week. I also put tremendous pressure on myself. It may sound odd, but when someone tells me they loved my last book, or that it was my best yet, all I can think is, “Now I have to write a better one.”
Q: Do you know the ending of a book before you start writing it?
A: In this case, I did. But I had only the vaguest idea of how to get there.