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. You’ve said that you feel an obligation to your extremely loyal readership to outdo yourself with each new novel, and you’ve succeeded again with The Heist. How do you keep the series fresh and maintain its high standards?
A: I always try to listen to what the characters are telling me. What’s going on in their world? What challenges are they facing? Have their wounds healed from their last operation? Are they ready for another assignment? I’m also driven by the legacy of the series itself. I try very hard to ensure that each new entry lives up to the standards set by its predecessors.
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 protagonist “since Ian Fleming put down his martini and invented James Bond.” And the legendary agent just gets more and more interesting. How do you explain his appeal and his longevity?
A: I think Gabriel Allon’s essential appeal lies in the two very different sides of 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 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 previous novel, The English Girl, he agreed to find the kidnapped mistress of the British prime minister. But in The Heist, he has a very different sort of assignment.
Q: How do you “find” your stories, which always seem to plunge Gabriel into contemporary global political issues?
A: I worked as a journalist before becoming a novelist, and I remain endlessly fascinated by the world around me. I’m also a student of history, and so I’m constantly trying to find links, however tenuous, between the past and the present. It is impossible for me to read the New York Times without seeing several potential novels hidden within those columns of text.
Q: Do you still read a printed copy of the Times?
A: I travel a great deal, so tend to read it digitally. My fingers stay a lot cleaner as a result.
Q: As The Heist opens, Gabriel is living quietly in Venice when the Italian police ask him to look into the murder of a British businessman living on Lake Como. His investigation quickly centers on one of the world’s most iconic missing paintings: Caravaggio’s Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence. What inspired you to use the Nativity to jump-start the novel?
A: I’ve actually wanted to write about the missing Caravaggio for many years now and was waiting for the opportunity to fit it into the series. It’s more than just a beautiful and haunting altarpiece. It’s one of the last works by an artist who left behind fewer than one hundred works that are firmly attributed to his hand. Its loss leaves a hole in the Western canon that can never be refilled.
Q: The Nativity was stolen from a small chapel in Palermo on October 18, 1969. What do you think happened to it?
A: Read The Heist.
Q: Do you think it will ever be found?
A: If pressed, I would have to say that the answer is probably no. If it does exist, the painting is no doubt in dreadful condition, a shadow of what it once was.
Q: Perhaps Gabriel will one day get a chance to restore it.
A: Let us hope.
Q: The Heist takes Gabriel deep into the shadowy and highly lucrative underworld of illegal art trafficking. What attracted you to the subject?
A: I’ve always been both intrigued with and angered by the fact that thieves have occasionally made off with some of the most beautiful objects ever created. I think there’s been a tendency over the years to dismiss art crime as something romantic or a sort of gentlemen’s game. The truth is, art crime is big business.
Q: How big?
A: According to Interpol, the value of all the art stolen each year falls somewhere between $4 billion and $6 billion. Art theft is the fourth-most-lucrative form of criminal activity, behind only drug trafficking, arms dealing, and money laundering. If all the paintings ever stolen were gathered into one museum of the missing, it would be one of the greatest collections in the world.
Q: So who’s stealing all this art?
A: As I explain in The Heist, there are several types of art thieves. The best ones tend to be professional criminals. Most specialists in art crime believe that stolen paintings get used as a form of underworld cash, sometimes for many years, before someone finally puts the paintings up for sale on the black market. As a rule, a painting retains only about 10 percent of its value at the dirty end of the trade.
Q: Not surprisingly, Gabriel hatches an ingenious plot to flush out the killer and find the Caravaggio. How did you come up with the idea for him to steal Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers, forge an impeccable copy, and sell it on the black market?
A: In most cases, undercover operatives trying to recover a stolen painting pose as buyers. But Gabriel’s operation is different. He’s trying to find the dirty collector, a man who had been on a shopping spree in museum of the missing. And the only way to find him is to tempt him with a painting he can’t possibly resist.
A: When Gabriel needs a partner to pull off this scheme, he turns to one of the most memorable characters from the series: Christopher Keller, a former British commando turned professional assassin. Are the scenes between these two as fun for you to write as they are for us to read?
A: I sometimes find myself laughing out loud at the things they say to each other, which is a good thing when I’m struggling to meet my deadline. Gabriel Allon and Christopher Keller are a classic pairing: two tough, funny guys who are always trying to one-up each other.
Q: On a more serious note, Gabriel is committed to Keller’s redemption. Why?
A: Because that’s what Gabriel Allon does. He restores more than paintings. He restores people, too. And he doesn’t believe it’s morally right or appropriate for Keller to kill people for money, even if the people he kills usually deserve to die.
Q: Gabriel has developed so many fascinating relationships over the years with people on both sides of the law, and readers never know which recurring characters will show up and when. Do you decide in advance who you’ll bring back, or is it sometimes a surprise to you as well?
A: In most cases, I know in advance. But occasionally a character from the past will appear in the pages of a novel completely unannounced. For example, I didn’t know that Viktor Orlov, the Russian oligarch and opponent of the Russian president, would play a role in The Heist until very late in the writing process. I have to admit I’ve fallen in love with many of my characters, even some of the villains, and I’m reluctant to let them fall by the wayside. What I really like to do is take a former antagonist and turn him or her into an ally of Gabriel and his team.
Q: Like Christopher Keller.
A: And Nadia al-Bakari, the heroine of Portrait of a Spy.
Q: Without giving too much away, the title of The Heist has a double meaning, and the theft of Sunflowers is only part of the story, as it leads Gabriel in a completely mind-blowing direction. Can I at least ask if you knew from the outset where this one was going?
A: I did, indeed. In fact, I was able to see the novel in its entirety quite early in the process, which is somewhat unusual for me. I knew that the Caravaggio had been acquired by an individual from the Middle East who had also purchased several other stolen paintings on the black market. And I knew that he was a man with a great deal of blood on his hands.
Q: Does he have a name?
A: Not in the pages of The Heist.
Q: What does he do for a living?
A: He’s the ruler of Syria.
Q: Why is the president of Syria acquiring stolen paintings?
A: As a hedge against uncertain times. The paintings are but one component of a global network of concealed riches.
Q: Riches that Gabriel and his team of operatives attempt to locate and freeze.
A: Someone has to do it.
Q: What made you decide to focus on this topic?
A: In short, it was the Arab Awakening. One of the most interesting components of the region-wide political upheaval is the way it laid bare the greed and avarice of the Arab dictators who have fallen thus far. Having lived in Egypt, I knew that Hosni Mubarak had amassed a large fortune during his long rule. But after his fall, his net worth was estimated to be somewhere in the neighborhood of $70 billion. If that was true, he would be one of the richest men in the world. Muammar Kaddafi of Libya probably had at least that much, if not more. Imagine if that money had been used to educate and provide services for the people of the Arab world. Imagine if the Arab rulers had treated their people with dignity instead of brutalizing them. The West would be much more secure than it is today.
Q: Do you think the story of The Heist is being played out in the real world?
A: I know it is. The United States and the European Union are trying to locate and freeze the Syrian government’s assets wherever they can find them. But behind that, Western intelligence services are trying to gain control of Syrian assets as a means of controlling the regime. From my research, I learned that finding assets isn’t really all that difficult, but tying them directly to a targeted ruler can be tricky without the help of someone on the inside.
Q: There’s someone like that in The Heist. Tell me about Jihan Nawaz.
A: Jihan Nawaz is the account manager for a small private bank in Austria that’s being used by the Syrian ruling family to conceal a large portion of its ill-gotten assets. And unbeknown to her employer, Jihan has a terrible personal secret. She was the only member of her family to survive the terrible massacre in Hama in February 1982, when the Syrian regime killed more twenty-five thousand people and leveled virtually the entire city.
Q: You refer to the Hama Rules in the book. What are they, exactly?
A: “Hama Rules” is a term coined by the New York Times correspondent and columnist Thomas L. Friedman. Roughly, the Hama Rules state that any attempt to overthrow the ruler will be crushed with overwhelming force and brutality. Hafez al-Assad never faced another serious challenge to his grip on power after the Hama massacre. And it’s interesting to note that the Syrian people were the last to rise up against their ruler in the Arab Awakening. It’s as if they had a premonition of what fate awaited them.
Q: When Gabriel and his team attempt to recruit Jihan, they’re not altogether honest with her. Tell me about false flag operations.
A: When intelligence operatives engage in a false flag operation, they pose as something else entirely or as operatives from another service. Intelligence services resort to this technique when they’re convinced that the target will rebuff an honest approach.
Q: So Jihan Nawaz never knows that she’s working on behalf the Israeli secret service?
A: Not in the beginning. Because Jihan is from Syria, Gabriel is convinced she would never willingly agree to work for him.
Q: As part of the mission to track down and seize assets stashed away in secret accounts across the globe, some of the most nail-biting action in The Heist occurs in front of computer screens. How did you manage to make following the money trail so exciting?
A: By having my characters spend as little time in front of the computer as possible. I have to admit, I really don’t enjoy writing about technology. That said, we are living in the digital age, and so there’s no way to avoid writing about technology, especially when writing a story like The Heist. But I always focus on the characters and their motivations. And when I do write about the machines, I treat them as though they’re people, too.
Q: Besides all of their other merits, your books invariably provide brilliant insights into the Middle East. And in The Heist you contemplate the aftermath of the Arab Awakening and the ongoing civil war in Syria. Are you as pessimistic about the future of the region as your characters are?
A: It’s quite hard not to be pessimistic. For a very brief moment, the Arab world seemed to have an opportunity to shake off its legacy of despotism. But now the great Arab Awakening has devolved into a regional mess that has long-term security consequences for the United States and the West. Frankly, our policy toward the Arab Awakening has been a confused muddle, including the famous red line in Syria regarding the use of chemical weapons. Iraq is sliding toward full-scale civil war, al-Qaeda controls much of the cradle of civilization, Libya is a disaster, and the hopes of the reformers and the moderates have been smashed.
Q: As always, the settings in The Heist are meticulously rendered. Do you visit all the locations you write about?
A: I really do try to spend as much time as possible in the places I write about. Much of The Heist is set in Italy, Paris, and Venice, so the research wasn’t exactly backbreaking.
Q: Publishing has changed in the years since your debut novel, The Unlikely Spy. Do you find these changes to be in any way difficult?
A: I try to focus on my work rather than the industry, but it’s hard not to be alarmed by the disappearance of brick-and-mortar bookstores. I wonder what will happen to our perception of books if there are no actual books in our midst. There was a sad piece in the New York Times not long about the shrinking number of bookstores in Manhattan, the literary capital of the world.
Q: Do you outline your books first?
A: I wish I could, but, frankly, given how quickly I have to produce a book, there really isn’t time. Once I settle on the broad story arc, the characters, and the themes, I start to work. Once that happens, I write every day, seven days a week. I find days off incredibly disruptive. The winter holidays are a nightmare for me.
Q: How many hours a day do you work?
A: My routine looks a lot like Gabriel’s routine when he’s restoring a painting on a deadline, although I’m not often called away from my desk to undertake a secret mission to save the world. In September and October, I try to limit my writing time to about six hours a day. But my output increases sharply in November, and after the New Year, with my deadline looming, I become a virtual hermit. I sometimes work twelve or fourteen hours a day.
Q: And you wear the same clothing every day?
A: Gray sweatpants, a gray cotton shirt, a gray fleece.
Q: Can you leave us with a hint of what’s next for Gabriel?
A: I learned a long time ago never to talk about a book that isn’t written.
Q: You’re evading my question.
A: Guilty as charged.