In this February 2003 interview Daniel Silva discusses the inspiration and historical research behind his latest novel, THE CONFESSOR, and reveals what he hopes to accomplish with his books.
Q: One of the major New York dailies recently described you as someone who has “graduated from being a writer of thrillers that sneak onto the bestseller lists for a week or two to a brand-name author-one of those people like Tom Clancy who can launch book after book onto the charts.” What does it feel like to be compared to someone like Clancy? And what was that transition like to “brand-name” author?
DS: (Laughter) That’s very flattering, but I’m no where near Clancy’s league in terms of sales. Someday, I hope. If, as you say, the brand name has taken hold, that’s great, but I don’t take anything for granted. When my books become bestsellers, I’m always pleasantly surprised, and it’s still a big thrill.
Q: Critics have also praised your “journalistic passion that animates your stories.” How have your experiences as a journalist for UPI and then CNN influenced the way you approach your fiction writing?
DS: I always look for a factual underpinning to my stories, and I read and research until I’m blind. THE ENGLISH ASSASSIN dealt with Nazi art looting. I devoured everything I could find on the subject. THE CONFESSOR also deals with the Holocaust and the Second World War, but this time focuses on Pope Pius XII and the role of the Catholic church. I must have read a hundred books and scholarly articles on the topic. And, of course, as with all the Gabriel Allon books, I did tremendous amounts of research on art restoration and, in this case, the artist Bellini. I love it. But no matter how much time I spend conducting journalism-style research on the subjects I’m writing about, I never want the research to get in the way of the imagination. Essentially, I fill up the tank with as many facts and as much history and analysis of the subject as possible, and then I try to walk through a door and create something that’s pure entertainment and fun to read. I always try to go just far enough with my research so that the imagination has room to work and spin a story that readers will find entertaining. That’s the primary goal.
Q: Where did the inspiration for this story come from?
DS: It’s a topic I’ve been interested in for a long time, but the specific inspiration can be traced back to two incidents. One was We Remember, the long-awaited statement on the Holocaust released by the Vatican in 1998. I felt it came up far short of what it set out to do in terms of reconciliation and atonement and apologizing for the conduct of the Church during the war. The other incident was the squabble that broke out when a commission of six independent historians, which was created by the Vatican in a bid to calm the controversy surrounding Pius XII, requested access to the Vatican’s Secret Archives, and the Vatican refused. It was clear that there were things in the Archives they didn’t want the world to see. According to sources quoted by a newspaper at the time, access to the Secret Archives was blocked by a cabal led by the Vatican’s secretary of state. All these things just started simmering, and a story started to take shape: What would happen if a pope wanted to throw open the Secret Archives?
Q: Aside from all the reading, and your focus on Pius XII, what other research did you do?
DS: The inner workings of the Vatican, of course. I interviewed diplomats, former priests, and reporters who’ve covered the Vatican and been behind the walls. I made a decision that there would be very little spirituality in the book, if that’s the right word. Instead, I choose to write about the Vatican as a political institution and to treat the characters as politicians. Keeping that image in my mind-of Church officials as quarreling politicians in a pressure-cooker atmosphere-helped me get the feel and tone that I wanted.
Q: What makes the spy thriller such a compelling genre?
DS: First of all, I should say that I consider myself a writer of international intrigue stories as opposed to a writer of pure espionage thrillers. I like the genre because it gives you more license. There are no police procedures or rules of evidence to hem you in. Also, I’m a student of twentieth-century European history and politics. That’s what interests me. And so the international intrigue genre is where I feel the most at home.
Q: How did you come up with the Gabriel Allon character?
DS: He came as a thunderbolt. I can’t describe it any other way than that. I was working on The Kill Artist and doing the initial sketches for the character. My wife and I were walking down the street in Georgetown when she turned to me and said, “By the way, we’re having dinner tonight with David Bull.” David was the head of the restoration department at the National Gallery. I stopped dead in my tracks and said, “Oh my God! An assassin whose cover job is art restoration.”
The character has been such a joy to work with. He’s not a person I’d necessarily want to hang out with, but I just find him so compelling. There’s something about him that makes him impossible not to watch. He allows me to write the way I want to write. I always thought it strange when writers became so attached to their characters that they’d talk about them as if they were real people, but Gabriel Allon has definitely become a real person for me. He’s just there. He is. He exists.
Q: What fascinates you so about him?
DS: The fact that Gabriel is an art restorer and a reluctant assassin allowed me to plumb the two distinct sides of his character that are constantly at war within him: He’s a healer, but he’s also a destroyer. He finds peace in restoration. He’s also attractive to me because so much history and pain and suffering-the Holocaust, the Israeli-Arab conflict-flow through this man. He and Ari Shamron, my fictional spymaster of Israeli intelligence, are at the crossroads of twentieth century Middle Eastern and European history. Who better to investigate the role of the Catholic church in the Holocaust than Gabriel Allon? It’s no accident that, when the story opens, Gabriel is living quietly in Venice, restoring churches.
Q: Writers of fiction will often say their characters become so alive that they end up doing things they-as the writer-hadn’t intended them to do. Did that happen with Gabriel?
DS: Definitely. What I try to do is create the character first, as opposed to first creating the line I want the character to walk through the novel. If I do it right, I end up with a character who’s multidimensional, a character who will lead me by the hand, not through the grand arc of the story but rather through interesting little side journeys. And those are the things that usually make a novel memorable.
Q: Why do so many of your stories center around this notion of history guided by men of the secret world?
DS: Because I think history is about 80 percent classified. I believe that intelligence agencies guide the course of history much more than we’ll ever really know. I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but I think men of the secret world really have had a tremendous influence on the course of human history. And when you talk about those kinds of individuals, you can’t help but think of the Vatican, the oldest political institution in the western world. The men of the Vatican have been engaging in conspiracies and intrigues for centuries, and they’re very good at their craft.
Q: There’s been a lot of speculation in recent years regarding what’s going on inside the Vatican’s walls as the current pope, John Paul II, gets older and ever more enfeebled. What sort of maneuvering do you think is going on as this pope ages?
DS: I’m not convinced he’s as feeble as he appears. According to those closest to him, he still has tremendous powers of concentration and intellect. But having said that, the Church is in crisis, and there are certainly people within the Vatican who are preparing for the next conclave. Names are being mentioned as possible successors, and records are being examined. It will be fascinating to watch the next conclave. Will the next pope be an Italian or perhaps a cardinal from the Third World? Will he be a doctrinaire pope, or will he permit change? The future of the Roman Catholic church might rest on the answers to those questions.
Q: One of the central entities of The Confessor is this secret group within the Vatican, Crux Vera, that holds the true power of the Church. Over the centuries the Vatican has seen its share of Machiavellian intrigue. Are there any specific historical precedents for the fictional cabal you describe here?
DS: I looked at all sorts of reactionary Church groups and secret Church societies. Some operate openly — they even have web sites you can browse — but many still remain very secretive. There are a number of groups who are opposed to the reforms of the Second Vatican Council and want to reverse them. Some operate quite openly with the tolerance and, some might say, the encouragement, of the Vatican. On other occasions the Vatican has chosen to crack down and punish rebellious leaders. These groups are very conservative, very reactionary, and there have been suggestions that some of them may have been involved in some dirty dealings in the past. What I essentially did was take their worst attributes, magnify them, and apply them to my fictional group, Crux Vera. But as I said in the author’s note, Crux Vera is a complete creation on my part.
Q: One of pivotal moments of the story occurs as Hitler’s final solution is well underway when officials from Crux Vera meet with the Germans and essentially collude with them — by their silence about the Holocaust — to carry out the extermination of European Jewry. Their goal, set forth in the story, was to forestall the creation of a postwar Jewish homeland because it would result in Jewish control of Christian holy sites, and would also leave Jews on an equal diplomatic footing with the Vatican among the world’s nations. Notwithstanding that this is fiction, are you suggesting this could have happened?
DS: I set out to answer the question: Why was Pope Pius XII silent regarding the plight of the Jews under Hitler and the Nazi regime? I made a decision early on in the writing process that I would attribute no fictitious actions to the Pope. Out of respect for him and for the papacy, I was not going to create actions on his part. What I did do, however, was put forward a fictional explanation of why he was silent, an explanation that was both historically possible and at the same time compelling and dramatic. Were there priests and bishops within the Church who actually supported the extermination of European Jews and took part in the Holocaust? The answer, unfortunately, is yes. Did the Vatican oppose the idea of a Jewish state in Palestine, even Jewish emigration to Palestine, when it was the only escape hatch available to Jews? Once again, the answer is yes. I basically took those elements and spun them into a fiction that might logically explain why Pius XII failed to speak out.
Q: Were there any surprises for you as you carried on this yearlong running conversation about the Church with various sources?
DS: As I took a hard look at the Church, its long history of anti-Semitism, and its conduct during the war, I guess you could say I was somewhat shocked, but I also felt a great sense of sadness. That same sense of sadness can be found in a lot of Catholic writers — James Carroll, Gary Wills, John Cornwell and others — who have explored these subjects. You can feel it in the way they write. One of the things that became clear to me is that there’s still a tremendous amount of anti-Semitism within the Vatican, despite all the efforts to improve relations between the two communities.
Q: Most people have this view of the pope as someone who has absolute power within the Church. Is this the case?
DS: The Roman Curia is the oldest court and oldest bureaucracy in Europe. It wields tremendous power even over a pope, who, technically, is an absolute monarch. In order to get things done, like any other head of state, the pope has to work through his bureaucracy. It’s a very tough, backbiting, jealous atmosphere. A lot of backstabbing goes on, and apparently it’s quite a vicious place to work. What a perfect setting for a thriller: the Vatican in all its power and majesty, and filled with scheming and intrigue. For me, it’s impossible to stand in St. Peter’s Square and not wonder what’s really going on behind those walls.
Q: According to Pius’s defenders, he was a friend of the Jews who saved hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives through quiet diplomacy. His critics say he was a calculating politician who displayed a callous and near-criminal indifference to the plight of the Jews. Some even go so far as to say he was actually complicit in the Holocaust. What’s your take on Pius XII? Was he as vile as his critics suggest; as virtuous as his defenders suggest; or somewhere in between?
DS: Let’s look at this, for a moment, as if it were a court case with prosecutors and defense attorneys. I think even honest defenders of the pope would agree that Pius XII knew about the Holocaust from almost the very beginning; that he said nothing and did very little; that most of the Vatican’s efforts were confined to Jews who had converted to Christianity; and that those efforts came late in the war once the tide had turned against Germany. Rightly or wrongly, I think Pius XII had a fear of dividing German Catholics, a fear of German retaliation against the Vatican, a desire to play a diplomatic role as a peacemaker, and that he clearly wanted Nazi Germany to prevail in its confrontation with Communist Russia, which the Church viewed as its mortal enemy. Pius didn’t want to do anything to undermine the Nazis, and he apparently was not sufficiently morally moved by the murder of millions of Jews to back away from that course of action. I’m afraid that’s about the most positive portrait that one can draw based on an honest appraisal of the facts. But if you look at the case in total: the long history of anti-Semitism within the Church; the fact that Pius never excommunicated a single Nazi leader and yet, in 1949, he excommunicated all communists worldwide; the fact that he opposed the Nuremberg trials and that the Vatican helped thousands of Nazi war criminals escape justice, then a much darker picture emerges.
Q: There’s a movie currently playing, called Amen, which explores some of the issues you write about in THE CONFESSOR. Have you seen it and what did you think of it?
DS: I have seen it. I think it’s an excellent film. Very powerful.
Q: What do you want readers to get out of this book?
DS: I want them to be entertained. That’s the first and primary goal of my storytelling. The greatest compliment readers give me is when they complain that I kept them up all night. If I’m also able to teach them a little something along the way, that’s great too.