Q: You’ve been called the finest writer of international thrillers of your generation, one of the greatest American spy novelists of all time. But having read all your previous novels, I have to say The English Girl is my favorite Daniel Silva novel to date. Do you put pressure on yourself to make each book bigger and better?
A: Of course. When I begin work on a new novel, my objectives are simple: tell a compelling and entertaining story filled with characters that jump off the page. But am blessed with an extremely loyal readership, and I do admit I feel an obligation to make each book better in some way than the one that preceded it. Trust me, it’s daunting, but I relish the challenge.
Q: I think it’s safe to say you’ve succeeded with The English Girl.
A: Thank you. I hope so. I had a good feeling early on about the novel and I enjoyed writing it. And, I confess, I was sorry to see it end. I suppose that explains why it’s a few pages longer than most of my books. I just wasn’t quite ready to let it go.
Q: One of the reasons you have such a devoted fan base is your hero, Gabriel Allon. He’s been described as the most compelling creation since “Ian Fleming put down his martini and invented James Bond.” And he’s getting more popular with each book. How do you explain Gabriel’s appeal?
A: I think it has to do with the two distinct halves of Gabriel’s character. As readers of the series know, Gabriel has had a long, on-again-off-again relationship with Israel’s secret intelligence service, but he is also one of the world’s finest art restorers of Old Master paintings. And the stories reflect that. The Allon books are a blend of art and intelligence, and that makes them unique. As for Gabriel, I’ve often heard from fans that men want to be him and women want to be with him.
Q: Gabriel also takes on an interesting variety of cases. In your last novel, The Fallen Angel, he was investigating a murder at the Vatican. This time, you’ve dropped him in the middle of a British political scandal, one that begins when a woman disappears while vacationing on the island of Corsica. Tell us about Madeline Hart.
A: Madeline is a beautiful and brilliant young woman who works at the headquarters of Britain’s governing party. By all accounts, she’s destined to hold a seat in Parliament, perhaps even a Cabinet post. But Madeline is also a woman with a dangerous secret. She’s having an affair with the British prime minister.
Q: So when Madeline vanishes without a trace, the prime minister has a problem.
A: A big problem. Her kidnappers leave a ransom note on the doorstep of the prime minister’s spokesman. Seven days, or the girl dies. Obviously, the prime minister is in a difficult position. He fears that if he goes to the British police, the news will leak to the press and he’ll be destroyed politically. And so he turns to Gabriel Allon for help.
Q: It’s not the sort of case that Gabriel usually takes on. What made you decide to write about a British political scandal?
A: I’ve always followed British politics closely and have friends in London who work in journalism and government. The British just seem to have better scandals than we do here in America. Remember the Profumo Affair? The British secretary of state for war and a Russian spy were sharing the same mistress. And now, fifty years later, the woman at the center of that scandal has admitted that she actually spied against Britain.
Q: Gabriel begins his search for Madeline Hart in Corsica, and he soon encounters one of the most memorable characters from the series: Christopher Keller, a British commando turned professional killer who first appeared in The English Assassin. What made you decide to bring Keller back?
A: He was always one of my favorite characters from the Allon series, a hired gun with a soul and a moral compass. An Englishman who has forsaken his country and his past. I also think he and Gabriel make a wonderful team. They make me laugh and are quite lethal, too. Heaven help anyone who gets in their way.
Q: The two men have a complicated relationship.
A: To say the least. In The English Assassin, Keller was actually hired to kill Gabriel. That past tension makes them crackle together on the page.
Q: Christopher Keller is still a professional killer when he comes on the page.
A: Yes, and a very good one. But he also has skills and knowledge that Gabriel needs for this mission, and so an unlikely partnership is born.
Q: The scenes in which they appear together are some of my favorites. Despite the underlying tension during the search for Madeline Hart, some of the writing is really quite funny. Do you intentionally try to inject a touch of humor into your novels?
A: I think the humor that pervades the Allon series is really a reflection of the characters themselves. I’ve had a chance to spend a lot of time with Israeli politicians, spies, and soldiers, and most of them have razor-sharp, sophisticated senses of humor. I simply try to capture that to the best of my ability.
Q: Does Gabriel Allon have your sense of humor?
A: Gabriel has Gabriel’s sense of humor. And all the other recurring characters in the novel have a sense of humor that is uniquely theirs. It’s important when writing an ensemble cast to give each character a distinctive voice that readers can identify.
Q: There’s a Corsican fortune-teller who plays a significant role in the story and you even use a Corsican proverb as the epigraph: “He who lives an immoral life dies an immoral death.” How did you choose it?
A: When I was doing my research, I stumbled upon a list of Corsican proverbs. They were incredibly funny and insightful, a true reflection of Corsica’s rich culture and history. Two or three of the expressions made their way into the text of the novel, and the warning about the dangers of an “immoral life” wound up being the epigraph. It was perfect for the story I had in mind, and I think it set the tone nicely. I always try to choose an epigraph early in the writing process because it helps me find the spine of the story. The same is true of the title.
Q: How did you come up with the title for The English Girl?
A: When I began to write the novel, it had a different working title that wasn’t quite right. I actually pulled The English Girl from a line of dialogue. It fit perfectly, and it helped me find the essence of the story during a time when it eluded me. The title became something of a refrain throughout the text and a roadmap to Madeline, a remarkable character. I actually have another of my favorite characters to thank for it, the powerful and feared, Don Anton Orsati. When he tells me something, I listen.
Q: The title for The English Girl has a double meaning.
A: Yes, it does, but it would be better if I don’t explain why.
Q: Can I at least ask if you knew from the outset how this one was going to end?
A: Oftentimes, I really don’t know exactly how a book is going to end, but that wasn’t the case with The English Girl. The entire plot line had to be manipulated to achieve the twist I wanted.
Q: Without giving too much away about the plot, Gabriel Allon once again finds himself in Moscow, where there is a long list of men who want him dead. What made you decide to include a Russian element to the plot of The English Girl?
A: Simply put, the Russians are wonderful villains, in fiction and in real life as well. Twice, the Obama administration has tried to reach out to the Kremlin in order to improve relations. And what has it gotten us? The Russian government is sending weapons to the Assad regime in Syria, which means it’s on the same side of the conflict as Hezbollah and Iran. That’s quite an accomplishment, even for the Russians.
Q: Why is the survival of the Assad regime so important to the Kremlin?
A: The short answer is that they don’t want to lose their naval base in the Syrian port of Tartus. But I don’t think that fully explains why Vladimir Putin would side with a regime that’s used chemical weapons against its own people. Popular uprisings against authoritarian governments make Putin nervous, because he’s afraid it may happen to him too. Look at what’s going on inside Russia now. Putin and his cronies inside the Kremlin are engaged in a systematic crackdown of the opposition. The pro-democracy activists who took to the streets after the elections now face the real possibility of spending several years in prison. Many of Russia’s young technocrats are choosing to leave the country while they still can. They see no future in a Russia run by Vladimir Putin.
Q: Are we headed toward another cold war?
A: I would argue that we’ve been in one for some time. When Secretary of State John Kerry went to Moscow earlier this year, Putin made him wait for three hours. Is that how you treat a friend? It was a classless thing to do, but that’s Putin in a nutshell. He’s seething with resentment and it comes out in childish ways.
Q: The plot of The English Girl ultimately involves the Russian oil and gas industry. How important is energy to the Russian economy?
A: Simply put, it’s the only game in town. It’s been nearly a quarter century since the fall of the Soviet Union, but the Russian economy is still woefully weak and heavily dependent on raw materials. The most important raw materials are oil and gas. The Kremlin effectively owns Russia’s energy companies, and they are the source of much of Russia’s federal budget. Without energy, Russia would be a basket case.
Q: You point out in your Author’s Note that Russia want to become a Eurasian Saudi Arabia. But this is about more than just money, isn’t it?
A: That’s right. It’s about power. The men in the Kremlin have made it quite clear that they want to use their oil as a means of projecting power and influence around the world. In order to accomplish that, the Russian oil companies are trying to become truly global operators.
Q: There’s a Russian energy company in your book called Volgatek Oil & Gas that’s effectively controlled by the SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence service. How realistic is that?
A: For all intents and purposes, Russia is being ruled by a cabal of former KGB members led by Vladimir Putin. And that cabal controls the Russian oil and gas industry. Therefore, I don’t believe it takes much literary license to create an SVR-owned energy company.
Q: A lot of people were surprised last summer when the FBI rounded up a network of Russian sleeper agents here in the United States. But you weren’t surprised.
A: No, I wasn’t. I read journalist Pete Early’s wonderful book about Sergei Tretyakov, a senior SVR officer who defected to the United States in 2000. It contained a brief passage about how SVR officers working in New York were stealing the identities of Americans applying for Russian visas. Why were they doing this? Because they were creating legends for illegal agents that they were planning to insert into American society. And as we all now know they were quite effective.
Q: Are there still Russian sleeper spies operating in the West?
A: Undoubtably, and we should assume there are Russian sleeper spies in Britain as well. The head of MI5 said recently that Russian spying in the United Kingdom had returned to Cold War levels.
Q: What’s the point of all this spying?
A: Oftentimes, it’s quite traditional in nature. The Russians want to know what’s going on at the highest levels of our government and our intelligence services. But more and more, Russia’s spies are trying to steal American technology and other economic intelligence. We’ve heard a great deal about Chinese hacking of late, but the Russians are running a close second when it comes to cyberspying against the United States.
Q: You make a point of traveling to all the places you write about. Did you travel to Russia while you were working on The English Girl?
A: I visited Russia when I wrote a previous novel and I wanted to go back, but friends in the intelligence community advised me not to. It seems I don’t have many fans in the Kremlin and after The English Girl probably even fewer.
Q: Does that make you nervous?
A: Not at all. In fact, I happily count myself among the Russian opposition and pro-democracy movement.
Q: It would seem that you write at a punishing pace, yet you still manage to produce first-rate thrillers every time out. What’s your secret?
A: I wish there was a secret to it, but in truth, I do nothing but work for months at a time. I write every day, holidays included. And I keep working on a book until the last possible minute.
Q: How many hours a day to you work?
A: That depends on how I’m feeling and what time of year it is? In September and October, I try to limit my writing time to about six hours a day. My output increases sharply in November, and after New Year’s, with my deadline looming, I become a virtual hermit. I sometimes work twelve or fourteen hours a day.
Q: Is it true you wear the same clothes every day?
A: I’m afraid it is. Gray sweatpants, a gray cotton shirt, a gray fleece because it’s very cold in the basement where I work. The zipper broke on my fleece while I was crashing to meet my deadline. Finding a suitable replacement was a major crisis in my life.
Q: What about food?
A: I actually eat very little while I’m working. Digestive biscuits and animal crackers, that’s about all.