Q: You’ve been called the finest writer of international thrillers of your generation and one of the greatest American spy novelists of all time. Portrait of a Spy is your 14th book, you’ve won awards, you are #1 on the New York Times bestseller list; do you feel any pressure to top yourself when you start a new novel?
A: Of course I do. I wish I could say I didn’t, but the truth is, I feel I owe it to my readers to outdo my last effort. When a reader tells me a book was my best yet, I smile on the outside, but inside, I’m thinking, “Oh no, how am I going to top that?”
Q: Gabriel Allon, the hero of your novels, is an art restorer, a spy, an assassin and has been described as the most compelling creation since “Ian Fleming put down his martini and invented James Bond” and “one of the most intriguing heroes of any thriller series.” Is it true we may be seeing him on the big screen soon?
A: I hope so. Universal Studios approached us about turning the series into a franchise. So, if we’re successful, you’ll be seeing Gabriel on the big screen more than once.
Q: It took a long time for you to agree to a movie deal. Why were you reluctant before?
A: I was reluctant because I’ve spent nearly every waking moment for the past thirteen years with these characters, and I’m very protective of them. For many years, I thought the characters were best left on the page and in the imaginations of my readers. I also felt a responsibility to make sure that, if a movie was made, it was a good movie.
Q: Will you be involved in the project?
A: To some degree, but I firmly believe the job of making a movie should be left in the hands of people who actually make movies.
Q: Have you picked an actor to play Gabriel Allon?
A: All good movies start with a great story and a great script, so getting a great script is our first objective. Then we’ll think about actors.
Q: Let’s talk about your new book Portrait of a Spy. The ending of your last book, The Rembrandt Affair, left some readers wondering whether Gabriel Allon might be retiring.
A: I didn’t mean to leave that impression. I absolutely love writing about Gabriel. His eye is my eye, his voice my voice, and I’m endlessly fascinated by him, his associates, and the world they inhabit. Truth be told, I sometimes think he and his friends really do solve these mysteries and eliminate all these grave threats.
Q: In addition to being an art restorer and a legendary spy, Gabriel Allon is also one of the world’s most experienced counterterrorism operatives. But it’s been a few books since he’s actually matched wits with a terrorist. What inspired Portrait of a Spy?
A: I wanted to write a book that takes stock of where we stand in the war on terror ten years after the terrible attacks of 9/11. It’s been one of the most tumultuous decades in American history. We’ve invaded two countries, carried out military and covert actions in many more, and engaged in a heated civic and legal debate over tools such as indefinite detention and enhanced interrogation. Obviously, we haven’t always agreed on how best to combat Islamic extremism, but the rising tempo of plots against Western Europe and the U.S. homeland should make it clear to everyone that the threat remains serious. It’s evolved, but it’s still very real.
Q: Portrait of a Spy opens with a series of coordinated suicide bombings in Paris, Copenhagen, and London. Do you think an attack could unfold along similar lines?
A: Let’s hope it never happens, but I do believe the threat against Western Europe is extremely high. In the novel, one of my characters describes London as “low-hanging fruit,” and I’m afraid that’s probably true. The proximity of Europe to the Middle East, its large Muslim communities, and the overall freedom of movement make it highly vulnerable to attack.
Q: The epigraph of your novel is a quote from Anwar al-Alwaki, the al-Qaeda preacher and recruiter, who says, “Jihad is becoming as American as apple pie and as British as afternoon tea.” The terrorist mastermind at the center of your book bears more than a passing resemblance to him. Presumably that’s no accident.
A: It wasn’t. My character is obviously completely fictional, but I was intrigued by the story of Anwar al-Awlaki long before he became a household name. Here is a man who was born and educated in America, who speaks perfect colloquial American English, and who professed to be a political and religious moderate before going home to Yemen to become a global jihadist terror mastermind. Frankly, it’s hard to believe he was a moderate to begin with. Before 9/11, Al-Awlaki had contact with two of the hijackers in San Diego and, later, in Falls Church, Virginia, where he was the imam at an important mosque. I’ve talked to numerous intelligence and law enforcement officials who believe he was probably connected to the plot in some way, but they all say there was never enough evidence to move against him because he was an American citizen residing on American soil.
Q: And now he’s regarded as perhaps the world’s most dangerous terrorist.
A: Funny how that worked out. He’s a very charismatic figure. And now that Bin Laden is gone, al-Alwaki could very well emerge as the next titular leader of the global jihadist movement, unless we get him first. Despite his American passport, he’s now on the CIA’s capture or kill list. In fact, it appears we took a shot at him with a drone just a few days after Bin Laden’s death.
Q: Your character, the fictional Rashid al-Husseini, spent some time on the CIA payroll. Do you mean to imply that Anwar al-Awlaki had connections to American intelligence?
A: No, not at all. But there are a number of things about the al-Awlaki story and timeline that, in my opinion, don’t make much sense. Just a few months after 9/11, this cleric with obvious connections two of the hijackers was having lunch with military brass inside the Pentagon. How in the world did that happen?
Q: Your novels are always extremely timely, but Portrait of a Spy is especially relevant given the remarkable events taking place in the Middle East this year. How did you manage to catch history in the act?
A: The short answer is, I didn’t have much of a choice. I started working on the novel against the backdrop of a rising terrorist threat level in Western Europe, most notably in Germany and France, but as I reached the midway point of the writing process, the earth quite literally shifted under my feet. Tunisia exploded in popular unrest, followed soon after by Egypt, where I worked as a reporter in the 1980s. The events were far too seismic, and far too germane to my plot, to ignore. They also gave me a unique opportunity to craft a story that was first and foremost a page-turner and a work of entertainment, but one that also said something about the remarkable times in which we find ourselves. So I followed the events carefully as I wrote, and made adjustments as I went along.
Q: Did one of those adjustments involve the death of Osama Bin Laden?
A: Yes, absolutely. When Bin Laden was killed, I celebrated like the rest of America, then spent the rest of the night thinking about all the passages in my novel that needed to be rewritten. Fortunately, the book was still in the copyediting stage, so I quickly revised the relevant sections to bring it up to date.
Q: A central theme of the book concerns the future of the Arab world and raises the question about which side is going to emerge triumphant in the so-called great Arab Awakening—the forces of change and moderation, or the forces of Islamic extremism. You’ve been following the region carefully for decades. Surely you must have a hunch how it’s going to turn out.
A: I have no idea how this is all going to end, and anyone who says he does probably doesn’t know what he’s talking about. What’s clear, however, is that this is going to be a period of great opportunity and enormous uncertainty. In the short term, I expect the Arab world to become more populist and more Islamic at the same time, and that’s going to be an enormous challenge for the United States and its closest regional ally, Israel. If the old potentates and kings are all replaced by Islamic or quasi-Islamic governments, we might actually look back fondly on the turbulent first years of the twenty-first century as a kind of golden age in relations between Islam and the West.
Q: The forces of change and moderation are represented in the novel by a remarkable character named Nadia al-Bakari. Longtime fans of the Gabriel Allon series will remember her, perhaps not so fondly, as the spoiled daughter of the Saudi terror financier Zizi al-Bakari in The Messenger. What made you decide to bring Nadia back for Portrait of a Spy?
A: It’s something I thought about for a long time, but I waited until I had a plot concept that suited her. Her character and motivation is inspired by the notion that people should not be bystanders to history. There is a line from Elie Wiesel: “One person of integrity can make a difference.” Nadia was my person of integrity. I simply tried to imagine how she really would have felt after learning that her father provided financial and other support for one of the worst acts of Islamic terrorism ever committed. Would she emulate him? Or would she use her money and her position to undo the damage caused by her father’s actions? It seemed to me she would choose the second path. The children of monsters and mass-murderers don’t often become monsters and mass-murderers themselves. Omar Bin Laden, one of Osama’s sons, has thoroughly denounced his father, although he’s angry at the United States over the way his father was killed in Pakistan.
Q: Nadia al-Bakari wasn’t happy with the way her father met his end, either: he was shot to death in the Old Port of Cannes by none other than Gabriel Allon.
A: Which makes the alliance between Gabriel and Nadia all the more fascinating. I found the dramatic tension in their relationship irresistible. Here are two people connected by a trail of blood who join forces to eliminate a grave threat to the security of the Middle East and the West. It’s the kind of partnership we need if we’re to win in the war on terror, and it speaks directly to the situation in the Middle East today. We want courageous people like Nadia al-Bakari to prevail in this contest for power and influence in the Arab world. She’s tolerant. She’s a religious moderate. She believes in democracy. And, perhaps most important, she’s committed to the liberation of Arab women. The West can only do so much to influence events in the Arab World; the Arabs themselves have to chart their own course. We can only hope they listen to people like Nadia rather than extremists and terrorists.
Q: The book deals with something known as finint. What is finint? And how does it work?
A: Finint is the not-so-graceful shorthand for financial intelligence, or intelligence that is gleaned by watching money as it moves through the global financial system. The main objective of finint is to deny terrorists the money they need to carry out attacks. But in Portrait of a Spy, Gabriel and his team take an altogether different approach. They secretly funnel millions of dollars directly into a terrorist network in an unconventional operation to destroy it.
Q: Do you think the CIA has ever done anything like that?
A: I hope so. I must say, I thought Gabriel and his team conceived and ran a pretty good operation.
Q: What surprised you most about your research into financial intelligence?
A: Without question, it is the extent to which Saudi Arabia, our supposed ally in the war on terror, remains a virtual ATM machine for Sunni Muslim extremists of every stripe. After the horror of 9/11, the Saudis promised to clean up their act when it came to terrorist financing. Unfortunately, that turned out not to be the case. A secret memo on this subject from Secretary Hillary Clinton was recently made public. It said that “donors from Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding for Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.” It’s mind-boggling that this is still going on.
Q: What can be done about it?
Probably very little, which is why we so desperately need to wean ourselves off Saudi oil. We are funding the very same people who threaten us. It’s as simple as that.
Q: One of the hallmarks of the Gabriel Allon series is its unique combination of intrigue and art and in this book Gabriel uses the glamorous world of art auctions for his operation. Did you actually attend one for your research?
A: I did, and it wasn’t just any auction. Thanks to a dear friend who’s an art consultant, I was able to attend the Postwar and Contemporary auction at Christie’s in New York last November. I loved every minute of it. Even without Gabriel Allon and his team, an auction is filled with drama and intrigue and I think that comes through in the pages of Portrait of a Spy. The only sad part of the evening was that I wanted to buy every painting that appeared in the display case. I couldn’t afford any of them, of course. The prices paid for top-tier modern art are astonishing, and when you’re sitting in the room watching the process unfold, it can quite literally take your breath away. A painting by Roy Lichtenstein fetched $42.6 million that night, which was a record for him.
Q: In Portrait of a Spy, the reader is swept from London and Paris, to the glittering Emirates of the Persian Gulf, and the unforgiving deserts of Saudi Arabia. Do you actually visit the places you write about?
A: I do try to spend as much time as possible in the places I write about. I will admit, however, that I have never set foot in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It wasn’t for lack of effort, though. I tried repeatedly while I was living and working in the Gulf as a journalist, but, for some reason, they never let me into the country.
Q: I wouldn’t go there now, if I were you.
A: I wasn’t planning on it.
Q: E-Books are getting bigger.
A: You don’t say.
Q: As an author, how do you feel about that?
A: It really doesn’t matter much to me how people read, as long as they read. I do worry, though, about what will happen if brick-and-mortar bookstores disappear from the American landscape. I spent a lot of time in bookstores when I was growing up. Record stores, too. There are no record stores any more, and I think that’s had a tremendous effect on the way we think and feel about music. I hope bookstores never go the way of record stores.
Q: Do you own any e-readers?
Q: Do you use them?
A: Occasionally, in a pinch, but for the most part, I still prefer to read actual books. Sometimes, I feel as though I’m part of a shrinking minority. On the Amtrak train between New York and Washington the other day, I saw one person reading printed material. Everyone else was reading electronically.
Q: You’ve never noticed this before?
A: I don’t get out much when I’m on deadline.
Q: What is your writing schedule like?
A: It’s pretty monastic, really. On my current publication schedule, I start my books around Labor Day and finish in late winter. I work seven days a week, from very early in the morning until around six thirty at night. I still like to watch the evening news. I suppose that makes me rather old-fashioned.
Q: I assume you work on a computer?
A: I do, but I tend to do most of my writing while lying on the floor of my office. I use yellow legal pads and pencils.
A: The Mirado Black Warrior No. 2 by Paper Mate. I live in fear they will be discontinued, so I hoard them. I have drawers filled with nothing but pencils.