The English Spy — Interview

Q: Let me begin by offering my congratulations. The English Spy is your fifteenth novel featuring Gabriel Allon, a literary hero who has been described as the most compelling creation since “Ian Fleming put down his martini and invented James Bond.” Did you ever imagine the Allon series would last so long?

A: That’s a very easy question for me to answer, because never in my wildest dreams did I think there would be a second Gabriel Allon novel, let alone a fifteenth. You see, Gabriel was never meant to be a series character at all. He was supposed to appear in one book and one book only and then sail off into the sunset, never to be seen or heard from again.

Q: So what happened?

A: A very smart publisher named Phyllis Grann asked me to write a second Gabriel Allon novel. I have to admit I had to be talked into it. I thought Gabriel might be a bit too melancholy and withdrawn to build a series around—and, at nearly fifty years of age, perhaps a bit too old as well. My biggest concern, however, had to do with his nationality and religion. I thought there was far too much opposition to Israel in the world—and, quite frankly, far too much raw anti-Semitism—for an Israeli character ever to be successful in the long term. Thankfully, I’ve been proven wrong. Gabriel Allon is now a perennial number-one bestseller. And if it were left to me, it would have never happened.

Q: How do you explain Gabriel’s appeal and longevity?

A: I think Gabriel Allon’s essential appeal lies in the two very different sides to his character. He’s not just a brilliant operative and assassin for the Israeli secret intelligence service. He’s one of the world’s finest art restorers as well. That combination of character attributes allows me to craft my stories in a way that makes them very different from most spy novels. In addition, I’ve created situations that allow Gabriel to work for different people, in different settings. In my last novel, The Heist, he agreed to find a stolen Caravaggio for the Italian police. But in The English Spy, he’s searching for a master terrorist and bomb maker on behalf of British intelligence.

Q: That master terrorist and bomb maker is a man named Eamon Quinn. Tell us a little about him.

A: Eamon Quinn was a member of the Irish Republican Army who orchestrated some of the group’s biggest bombings, especially in London. In the late 1990s he joined the dissident Real IRA and carried out the deadliest bombing in the history of the war in Northern Ireland—the bombing of Omagh in August 1998 that killed twenty-eight people and left another two hundred wounded. In the aftermath of that attack, as an uneasy peace settled on Northern Ireland, Quinn began selling his bomb-making secrets on the international market. He built deadly roadside bombs and antitank weapons for the Iranians and Hezbollah, and he lived under the protection of people like Muammar Gadhafi and Hugo Chavez.

Q: He’s not a cartoon-character villain. In fact, he seems remarkably like a real person.

A: Eamon Quinn is most definitely a work of the imagination, but unfortunately his curriculum vitae is inspired by actual events. In the aftermath of the war in Northern Ireland, a number of IRA veterans did in fact sell their expertise on the open market. And one of the countries that hired them was the Islamic Republic of Iran. In a very sad irony, several British soldiers serving in southern Iraq had to deal with roadside bombs that were identical in design to bombs the British army first saw in Northern Ireland.

Q: The English Spy opens with the bombing of a chartered luxury yacht in the Caribbean. And one of the passengers on that yacht is a woman who might remind readers of the late Diana, Princess of Wales. I don’t suppose that was accident on your part.

A: Not at all. I definitely borrowed from the life and marriage of Diana when I created my fictitious, unnamed princess. But as I point out in the Author’s Note of the novel, it was not my intent to suggest Diana’s death was a murder. She died in a Paris tunnel because an intoxicated man was behind the wheel of her car, not as a result of an international conspiracy.

Q: Quinn smuggles a bomb aboard the yacht in an ingenious and entertaining way—by taking a job as the onboard chef. The scene is very nicely rendered. Should we assume that you’ve spent some time aboard luxury yachts like the one that appears in The English Spy?

A: Yachts like that are a little out of my price range, to say the least. But I was able to spend some time belowdecks of a boat just like it. Suffice it to say the crew members work much harder than the guests.

Q: When I was reading the opening passages of The English Spy, I couldn’t help but think of Lord Mountbatten, the relative of Queen Elizabeth who was killed by an IRA bomb aboard his fishing boat in 1979.

A: The Mountbatten assassination was one of the most dramatic moments of the Troubles, and it was clearly the inspiration for the beginning of The English Girl. But many people forget that the killing of Mountbatten was only the beginning of a terrible day for the British military. A few hours later two large roadside bombs killed eighteen British soldiers at Warrenpoint in South Armagh. It was the largest single loss of life for British armed forces in the entire conflict.

Q: Gabriel’s search for Eamon Quinn takes him to a number of different settings, including Belfast. Your depiction of the city suggests that there is still a great deal of tension between Protestants and Catholics, loyalists and republicans.

A: And I do think that’s the case. Obviously, the situation is much better now than it was during the height of the Troubles. For all intents and purposes, the Good Friday Agreement ended the war. But that doesn’t mean there’s true peace between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland. Belfast is more segregated than ever, and its geography is scarred by miles of fencing between Protestant and Catholic enclaves. And in the interfacing areas of the city such as the Ardoyne, where the two communities live in close proximity, tension is very high.

Q: Unless I’m mistaken, Gabriel Allon has never operated in Northern Ireland before. But fortunately, you’ve given him a tour guide of sorts. Someone who knows the turf. Someone who knows Eamon Quinn personally. And that person is Christopher Keller, a character your fans have come to know and love.

A: I love him too. In fact, from the moment I created him, I thought he was an electric character, someone who really burned on the page. He first appeared in the second Gabriel Allon novel, and he was so good that my publishers effectively made him the title character by calling the book The English Assassin, which wasn’t my first choice. And now, more than a decade later, I’ve closed the loop on Keller’s remarkable story with The English Spy.

Q: And, once again, he’s the title character.

A: That’s correct. But this time it was my choice.

Q: Keller’s story is remarkable indeed. He started his career in Northern Ireland as an elite soldier and agent of British intelligence. Later, he became a professional assassin employed by a Corsican crime family. And as we learn in The English Spy, Eamon Quinn was the cause of it all.

A: Keller made a mistake when he was working for British intelligence in Northern Ireland. He fell in love with a woman from West Belfast whose father was an IRA chieftain. Quinn killed the woman and then tried to kill Keller at a farm in South Armagh. But things didn’t go quite according to plan.

Q: The climax of The English Spy is actually set on that same farm in South Armagh. And like all the Gabriel Allon novels, restoration is a powerful theme.

A: Readers of the series know that Gabriel and Keller have become good friends. They also know that Gabriel has never been crazy about the fact that Keller kills people for a living, even though most of his victims are hardly pillars of their communities. Gabriel has been pushing Keller for a long time to return to British and take a job with MI6. And the resolution of that conflict occurs in this novel.

Q: The English assassin becomes the English spy.


Q: Might we see Christopher Keller starring in his own novel some day?

A: We might.

Q: One of the most powerful moments in the novel occurs when Gabriel and Keller visit Omagh. It’s hard to imagine that seventeen years after the bombing no one has been successfully prosecuted for the crime.

A: It’s even harder to imagine when you consider the fact that Omagh is regarded as the biggest single case of mass murder in British or Irish legal history. The prosecution of the crime was complicated by the desire on all sides to close the door on the past and bring peace to Northern Ireland. But in my opinion, it was a terrible miscarriage of justice. One of the suspected bombers is now in custody awaiting trial. If he is found guilty, I hope he spends the rest of his life in prison.

Q: In your world, two of the bombers receive a different kind of justice, courtesy of Gabriel Allon and Christopher Keller.

A: If only it were so.

Q: As the story unfolds, Gabriel learns that he, too, has a terrible connection to Quinn. We also learn that all is not what it seems. Quinn didn’t kill the British princess on his own accord. He was actually hired to kill her by Russian intelligence. And they wanted her dead for a specific reason.

A: A very specific reason.

Q: Can we try to talk about it without giving too much away?

A: We can try.

Q: Let’s just say that Gabriel Allon has had a long history with the Russians. It started with your novel Moscow Rules, and it went downhill from there. You obviously like using the Russians as villains.

A: What’s not to like? The sad part, however, is the degree to which the Russians truly are becoming global villains. I published Moscow Rules in 2008, and my portrait of Russia was pretty unflattering. Unfortunately, my worst fears and predictions have come to pass. Look at Russia’s behavior of late. It’s standing by a client regime in Syria that’s gassing its own people. Crimea and eastern Ukraine are under Russian control. Nuclear-armed Russian bombers are buzzing NATO allies. Vladimir Putin has spoken openly about the use of tactical nuclear weapons to preserve his gains. British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond recently described Russia as the “single greatest threat” to Britain’s security. And I couldn’t agree more.

Q: In The English Spy, the Russians are attempting to weaken British intelligence and the Western alliance. Do you think that’s a Russian goal in the real world?

A: Without question. It was a tactic employed by the Kremlin during the Cold War, and Vladimir Putin is operating by the same playbook. He is attempting to promote instability and division wherever he can in the West so the old Atlantic alliance will be too weak to oppose him. And, regrettably, he’s winning. Anyone who thinks Russia is losing this contest is delusional or engaging in willful ignorance.

Q: One of the more interesting aspects of The English Spy is the relationship between Russia and Iran.

A: And as I was finishing the book, we learned that the Russians are going to sell Iran sophisticated air defenses. Something tells me the Iranians will use them to protect their nuclear facilities.

Q: How does Gabriel Allon feel about the framework nuclear deal between the United States and Iran?

A: He’s not crazy about it. But he’s also not crazy about the idea of attacking Iran. It would be a huge undertaking. And in order to be effective, it would have to be repeated at regular intervals to keep the nuclear program in check. Only a fool would actually want to attack Iran. But the West needs to take a good hard look in the mirror and ask itself whether it really wants the Islamic Republic of Iran to be a nuclear power. Vladimir Putin has proven that a nuclear-armed nation can do almost whatever it wants with no fear of military challenge. Do we really want the Iranians to feel the same freedom? It will lead to an even bigger catastrophe for the Middle East.

Q: Gabriel has changed a great deal over the years. When we were introduced to him in The Kill Artist, he was a broken man who had lost his family to a bombing in Vienna. Now he’s about to become the chief of Israeli intelligence. He’s also about to become a father again.

A: Twins, no less.

Q: You’re the father of twins yourself. Did that influence your decision to give your hero two babies instead of one?

A: Absolutely. My wife and I have always considered ourselves blessed to be the parents of twins, and it would have been sad to give Gabriel and Chiara only one child. They’ve been through so much as a couple. If they had one child, they would smother the poor thing with love.

Q: The English Spy contains a number of surprising plot twists and connections. Do you always know the twists when you’re writing a book?

A: Not always. In fact, sometimes I write scenes and characters cleanly, not knowing until later in the process that they will be part of a twist.

Q: You don’t outline your books?

A: I’ve tried but it really doesn’t work for me. I’ve never been able to bring a character truly to life on a three-by-five index card. All in all, I find outlining to be a complete waste of time for me. But obviously it works for other writers.

Q: You have other strange habits as well.

A: Do I?

Q: You write in pencil on yellow legal pads.

A: Not just any pencil. I use the Mirado Black Warrior by Paper Mate.

Q: How firm?

A: Number two.

Q: What about the legal pads?

A: I’m using the Signa by Staples. The paper is very smooth. It doesn’t wear down my pencils as quickly.

Q: Do you not use a computer at all?

A: Yes, of course. But I generally write and edit everything in longhand first.

Q: I hear you’re incredibly sensitive to noise.

A: I have good hearing, which is probably a curse for a writer. I need complete silence to work. When I read about writers working in a Starbucks, I shake my head in wonder. I could never write in a Starbucks.

Q: And you wear the same outfit every day?

A: Gray sweatpants, a gray cotton shirt, a gray fleece.

Q: Maybe it’s better that you don’t go to Starbucks dressed like that.

A: I agree.