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Author Talk: July 27, 2007

July 27, 2007

Daniel Silva has written 10 espionage thrillers, seven of which feature art restorer and Israeli intelligence agent Gabriel Allon. In this interview, Silva discusses the events in his latest novel, THE SECRET SERVANT, that echo real-life occurrences and sheds light on some of the little-known facts about Islamic terrorism. He also explains how what he witnessed as a correspondent for United Press International fueled his novels and shares the advice his fictional protagonist would have given the President of the United States in the wake of the September 11th attacks.

Question: You had one of last summer’s biggest thrillers with THE MESSENGER, a story about a Saudi-inspired attack on the Vatican. When you sat down to start working on the follow-up, did you ask yourself, “How do I top this one?”

Daniel Silva: Because I write and publish a book a year, I generally start on the next novel before I know how the previous one is going to be received, so that question really doesn’t enter into my calculus. In all honesty, the first thing I try to do is forget what I’ve just written. Last year, when I finished editing THE MESSENGER and getting it ready for publication, I moved my family to a cattle ranch in the hills of Umbria, where I spent some time in seclusion, thinking about the kind of book I wanted to write next. The result was THE SECRET SERVANT.

Q: This is your tenth novel. It’s both deeply provocative and wildly entertaining. How do you walk that fine line in your work?

DS: I tend to think it comes quite naturally to me. I’ve always felt that there are two writers living inside me, one with more literary leanings and another who is unrepentantly commercial. These two engage in an annual struggle for supremacy, and the result in recent years has been THE MESSENGER, THE CONFESSOR, and A DEATH IN VIENNA, novels of entertainment that deal with terribly important topics of today and the past. I like to think of myself as a serious writer who works in the thriller mode.

Q: THE SECRET SERVANT moves at a blistering clip from beginning to end. One hates to use clichés when talking to a writer, but this one really is impossible to put down. Did you consciously try to write a more up-tempo book?

DS: I didn’t, in fact. When I begin a novel, I try to have as few preconceived notions as possible. I want to bring the characters to life on the page and then let them lead me by the hand. But there is definitely a ticking clock in the book, with the life of an extraordinary young woman, and perhaps even the fate of a nation, hanging in the balance. It means the characters have to make decisions of great moral significance under conditions of extreme time pressure. It also means that the novel plunges forward at a breathless pace, particularly toward the end.

Q: You speak of characters having to make decisions of moral significance under difficult conditions, and of course that would apply to Gabriel Allon, the hero of your last seven novels. Tell me about him.

DS: It’s probably accurate to say that no one has been battling Arab and Islamic terror longer than Gabriel Allon. In 1972 he was a promising art student at Jerusalem’s prestigious Bezalel Academy of Art, when he was recruited by Israeli intelligence to hunt down and kill the Palestinian terrorists responsible for the massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. He’s worked on and off for Israeli intelligence ever since. He also happens to be one of the world’s finest restorers of Old Master paintings. As THE SECRET SERVANT opens, he’s just finished restoring a painting by Giovanni Bellini for the Vatican. When he returns to his apartment in Jerusalem, he finds Ari Shamron, Israel’s spymaster and his own mentor, waiting with another assignment. It’s an assignment that will take him back to Europe, to Amsterdam to be precise, where an asset of Israeli intelligence has been brutally murdered by a Muslim immigrant.

Q: The murder scene is hauntingly reminiscent of the killing of the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh in Amsterdam in November 2004. I assume the echo is intentional?

DS: Of course. In many respects, the death of Theo van Gogh was Europe’s miniature 9/11. It sent shock waves through the Netherlands and the rest of Europe. It was a violent wake-up call, as was the rioting that swept France during the autumn of 2005. Many European countries now contain large Muslim populations that, for the most part, have not been properly integrated. Many of the young men in these Muslim communities are unemployed and angry. They’re fed a steady diet of hatred by their imams and the Internet. They’re trapped between two worlds, the world of radical Islam on the one hand and the secular, tolerant West on the other, and all too often they succumb to the siren song of terrorist recruiters.

Q: You write in the book that “Europe is receding quietly into history. It’s old and tired, and its young are so pessimistic about the prospects of the future they refuse to have enough children to ensure their own survival. They believe in nothing but their thirty-five-hour workweek and their August vacation.” Are things really that bad?

DS: Those were the rather gloomy observations of a longtime character in the series named Eli Lavon, but as someone who loves Europe and who has watched it change dramatically over the last twenty years, I would tend to agree. While it’s a risk to generalize, I do think that Europe has lost its way a bit; without question it is facing a looming demographic crisis. In virtually all the countries of Western Europe, the birthrate of the native population is below replacement level, while the Muslim population is increasing rapidly. Sometime in the very near future, Europe will have to confront these facts and make some difficult decisions about its identity. That process is already under way in France, Denmark, and Britain. I hope it is a peaceful process. I’m not at all sure it will be.

Q: One epigraph of THE SECRET SERVANT quotes from the historian Bernard Lewis: “On present demographic trends, by the end of the twenty-first century at the latest, Europe will be Muslim.” If that comes to pass, what will be the consequences for Europe and the United States?

DS: Profound, to put it mildly. I know for a fact that U.S. intelligence agencies are already thinking about the ramifications of a “Muslim” Europe for U.S. foreign policy. In the short term, however, the restive Muslim populations of Europe provide a fertile breeding ground for terrorism, and that’s the backdrop of THE SECRET SERVANT.

Q: Without giving away too much of the plot: The book deals with a conspiracy by al-Qaeda and a little-known group of Egyptian extremists to kidnap the daughter of the American ambassador to London. The goal of this plot is to force the United States to release an Egyptian cleric jailed in this country on terrorism charges. It sounds frighteningly plausible.

DS: I was discussing it with a friend who works for the CIA. He nodded and said, “Well, that’s certainly realistic.” Obviously, it’s something that I hope never comes to pass.

Q: By now most people know that Osama bin Laden is Saudi, but do they realize how Egyptian al-Qaeda is?

DS: Many people don’t know that. Egypt is indeed the heartland of Islamic extremism, and Egyptians are a major component of al-Qaeda. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the number-two man in the organization and, some would say, the real brains behind it, is an Egyptian terrorist leader who spent many years trying to bring down the government of Hosni Mubarak. It’s still one of al-Qaeda’s ultimate goals, though for now they’re focused on what they call the “far enemy,” meaning us.

Q: A central theme of the novel is the morality of torture and the practice known as “extraordinary rendition”: taking known or suspected terrorists from one country and transferring them in secret to Middle Eastern countries --- Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt --- for questioning. Why did you choose to deal with this in the book?

DS: For me, the rendition program has been one of the most troubling aspects of U.S. response to the attacks of 9/11 --- and mind you, this is coming from someone who believes Islamic extremism and terrorism are grave threats to American security and must be dealt with harshly. But the regimes you mentioned are some of the most repressive in the world. I believe they’ve helped create and foster the problem of terrorism by attempting to deflect the anger of their people outward to America and Israel. Ultimately, they’re part of the problem, not part of the solution. Borrowing their torture chambers is one of the big moral lapses of our response to the attacks of 9/11.

Q: There is a wonderful line uttered by the character of Prime Minister Golda Meir in Steven Spielberg’s film Munich, when she says that every civilization at one time or another finds it necessary to compromise its values. Wasn’t the period after 9/11 one of those times for the United States? Weren’t the president and his men obligated to do everything in their power to prevent another attack?

DS: Without question, and I think the United States was wholly justified in enlisting the support and assistance of the Arab security services to scoop up known or suspected members of al-Qaeda in the days and weeks after 9/11. These terrorists needed to be taken off the streets and put someplace where they could do no more harm. But I draw the line morally at transferring someone to a country for the specific purpose of having him tortured there. We should be encouraging reform within the Arab world rather than subletting its torture chambers.

Q. If the president of the United States had asked Gabriel Allon for advice on September 12, 2001, what would Gabriel have said?

DS: He would have warned the president about the terrible price of climbing into the sewer with terrorists and fighting them on their terms. He would have told the president that the fight against terrorism was not only morally just but also morally imperative. But he would have cautioned the president not to resort to practices that don’t look terribly flattering with the passage of time. A few years ago I wrote a book called A DEATH IN VIENNA. It dealt with one of the more unsavory aspects of the Cold War: the CIA’s use of Nazi war criminals as paid assets. The novel was really a private plea to policy makers not to take similar morally questionable steps in the war against terrorism.

Q: THE SECRET SERVANT contains some disturbing descriptions and accounts of torture as practiced by the Egyptian secret police. Another epigraph cites a former CIA officer, Robert Baer: “If you send a prisoner to Jordan, you get a better interrogation. If you send a prisoner, for instance, to Egypt, you will probably never see him again.” Are the accounts in your book based on fact?

DS: Unfortunately, they are. I did a considerable amount of research on the practices of the Egyptian security services, and I heard firsthand accounts of their work when I was based in Cairo in the 1980s as a correspondent for United Press International.

Q: That experience must have been very helpful to you when you were working on this book.

DS: Very much so. I interviewed Islamic militants during that period, men who, I assume, went on to become members of al-Qaeda. They made it clear to me then what they wanted to do --- they said they wanted to destroy us --- and I believed they were serious. During the late eighties and early nineties, I told anyone who would listen that we would one day face a grave threat from militant Islam, and my fears were proven correct.

Q: One of the most compelling characters of THE MESSENGER was Sarah Bancroft. Why did you decide to use her again?

DS: “Back by popular demand” is probably the best way to put it. Everyone loved Sarah the moment I handed in the first draft of THE MESSENGER, and the response I received from readers after publication was also overwhelmingly positive. I needed a CIA component to Gabriel’s team in THE SECRET SERVANT, and she was a perfect fit.

Q: The book is set in a number of cities: Amsterdam, London, Copenhagen, Cairo, and Jerusalem, to name a few. Judging from the flawless depictions and other evidence of the amount of research you must have done, I guess you didn’t spend the entire summer on that cattle ranch in the hills of Umbria.

DS: As much as I would have liked to, the answer is no. I returned to the States in July and spent a month on a book tour, then went back to Europe to start researching my next book. My family jokingly referred to it as the “Summer Euroterror Tour of 2006.” The first stop was London, where MI5 and Scotland Yard had just broken up the plot to bomb transatlantic jetliners with liquid explosives. Then it was on to Amsterdam and Denmark. My children are old enough to help out now. When their teachers ask them what they did on their summer vacation, they say they spent it helping their father pick out places to kill people.