Q&A with Daniel Silva: author of the Gabriel Allon novels

Known as the master of the modern spy thriller, Daniel Silva is the award-winning, #1 New York Times bestselling author of 19 novels, most recently The Black Widow, House of Spies and now The Other Woman. His books are published in more than thirty countries and are bestsellers around the world. After releasing a series of ripped-from-the-headlines thrillers covering stolen masterpieces, ISIS terrorists and religious plots, Silva and Allon have turned their attention to Putin’s Russia in The Other Woman

Daniel SilvaYour previous two novels, The Black Widow and House of Spies, dealt with the rise and fall of ISIS. In fact, your wildly popular hero, Gabriel Allon, personally eliminated ISIS’s top terrorist. But in The Other Woman, Gabriel is matched against the Kremlin and Russian intelligence. Why Russia? And why now?

Given the events of the last few months—in Syria and the United Kingdom, and in our own domestic politics as well—I think it was almost preordained that this year’s Gabriel Allon novel deal with the subject of Russia. I am a student of Russian and Soviet history, and I love writing about this new cold war in which we find ourselves. Simply put, the Russians are wonderful fictional villains. And that’s because they’re villains in real life, too.

 

The first time you wrote about the new Russia was in Moscow Rules, a novel you released in 2008. I think it’s fair to say you were ahead of the curve in your dark depiction of Russia under Vladimir Putin. What did you see in the new Russia that the media and most of our politicians and diplomats missed?

I saw a man who, perhaps paradoxically, was building a fascist state and economy atop the rubble of the old communist Soviet Union. I also saw a man who was revanchist and paranoid at the same time, which is a profoundly dangerous combination. Mainly, I saw kleptomaniac who was more than willing to use murder as a tool of statecraft. The brave Russian journalists who dared to oppose Vladimir Putin were the first to die. They were the canaries in the coal mine.

 

Russia struck again, in the English cathedral town of Salisbury, while you were finishing The Other Woman. Something tells me you weren’t terribly surprised by the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal.

Actually, I wasn’t. The Russian intelligence services have long memories, and they never forget those who work with Russia’s adversaries against the motherland. I wrote about Putin’s determination to kill his political opponents outside Russia’s border in a novel called The Defector. But even I was stunned by the use of a military-grade nerve agent like Novichok. As a thriller writer, I’m permitted enormous license, but I would have never dreamed of using a weapon like that in a residential area. It boggles the mind. But this is the reality of the new Russia. Vladimir Putin doesn’t think the old rules and norms of international conduct apply to him, and he’s not going to abide by them. Look at the civil war in Syria. Putin’s ally, Bashar al-Assad, has repeatedly used chemical weapons against his own people, presumably with Moscow’s blessing, perhaps even with Moscow’s help.

 

What is Putin’s goal?

Simply put, it is the restoration of the old Russian-Soviet empire and destruction of the postwar global order. And the sooner we recognize that, the better. Putin is testing us to see whether we have the backbone to oppose him. He’s putting into practice Lenin’s infamous maxim: “Probe with bayonets. If you encounter mush, proceed; if you encounter steel, withdraw.” Thus far, Putin has encountered only mush.

 

What about the sanctions that the United Kingdom, the United States, and the European Union imposed on the Kremlin after the Skripal affair?

They were long overdue and a very good start, but I doubt they will be enough to deter Putin from his present course. Putin and Putinism are on the march. The strongman and the corporate state—by another name, fascism—are all the rage. Western-style democracy and the global institutions that created an unprecedented period of peace in Europe are suddenly out of vogue.

 

The opening sequence of The Other Woman reads like a scene from the darkest days of the Cold War. A defecting Russian spy is brutally assassinated in Vienna. But there’s a twist.

The defecting Russian spy is Gabriel Allon’s most important asset inside the SVR, Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, and his killing is staged to make it appear as though Gabriel is responsible. It creates an international firestorm that threatens his hold on the Office and leaves him no choice but to embark on an investigation into what went wrong. The inquiry leads him to the door of his old friend Graham Seymour, the chief of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, or MI6. Gabriel has some bad news for his old friend, that MI6 is harboring a Russian spy.

 

And Graham Seymour makes a fateful decision. He allows Gabriel to watch an MI6 officer to see if he’s in contact with the Russians.

Gabriel and Graham Seymour have an unusual relationship, to say the least. Graham allowed Gabriel to live for many years in the United Kingdom under an assumed identity, and they’ve worked together on several operations. They are as close as two spies from different services can possibly be.

 

Gabriel’s quest for the Russian spy takes him backward in time, to the twentieth century’s greatest act of treason. In 2016 you told the New York Times you had recently reread your entire collection of books on the Kim Philby affair in preparation for a forthcoming novel. Is it safe to assume The Other Woman was the novel you were referring to?

It is, actually. Kim Philby has been an obsession of mine for a very long time.

 

When did this Philby obsession start?

I suppose it began when I was twenty-two and I read My Silent War, Philby’s mendacious but utterly fascinating autobiography. It was written in Moscow under the watchful eye of the KGB, a few years after he defected. It’s quite a well-written book, which is hardly surprising given the fact Philby worked as a professional journalist for much of the time he was spying for the Soviet Union. I still can’t imagine how Philby betrayed his country the way he did, but he led one of the most extraordinary lives of the twentieth century. He was an active participant in the Spanish Civil War, World War II, and the Cold War, and his circle of friends and colleagues included a rather noteworthy writer named Graham Greene. Unfortunately, he betrayed them all, and a good many brave people died as a result.

 

Much of The Other Woman is set in Washington, where Philby lived and worked—and spied—from 1949 to 1951.

He also drank a great deal while he was in Washington, as did many of the early pioneers of the CIA. They were all spectacular boozers. Philby and his family lived in a large brick house on Nebraska Avenue that still stands today. When I lived in Washington, I passed the house several times a day, usually when I was picking up or dropping off my children at school. I used to imagine what it must have been like in those days. The drunken parties, the treachery, Guy Burgess living in the basement . . . If only those walls could talk.

 

You write in The Other Woman that Philby buried his miniature KGB camera and film in the Maryland countryside in 1951, after Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean defected to the Soviet Union. In fact, the buried loot plays an important role in the resolution of the story. First, is it true? And if so, is it still there?

It is indeed true that Philby buried his KGB paraphernalia that spring night in 1951, for the very simple reason he was afraid he was about to be exposed as a Soviet agent. Ben Macintyre, in his wonderful narrative history, A Spy Among Friends, wrote that Philby buried it in the woods along MacArthur Boulevard, near Old Angler’s Inn. In his own memoir, though, Philby was rather vague about the exact location. If I had to guess, the camera and film were probably unearthed during the construction of a new home without anyone noticing. But a part of me hopes it’s still out there somewhere.

 

Do you think there are any Russian moles inside MI6 or the CIA today?

If by the word “mole” you mean someone who penetrated MI6 or the CIA on orders from Moscow Center and burrowed his way into a position of power, I’d say the chances are remote. But that doesn’t mean the SVR hasn’t recruited assets inside the two most powerful intelligence services in the West. In fact, I’m quite confident they have.

 

Kim Philby spied out of his devotion to Marxism. What would motivate someone to spy for Vladimir Putin’s Russia?

Most spies betray their countries and their services for money. But some are forced into becoming spies through coerced recruiting methods. The Russians excel at burning and turning targets through so-called kompromat operations. The Russian intelligence operation in London and in Western Europe is truly massive. Security analysts estimate that two-thirds of the so-called diplomats stationed at a typical Russian embassy in Western Europe are actually intelligence officers. They’re not sitting around playing chess, they’re recruiting spies and running operations. For all of Putin’s bluster, Russia is economically and demographically weak. His intelligence services and cyberwarriors are important force multipliers.

 

This is the eighteenth novel in which Gabriel has appeared, and he’s a perennial #1 New York Times bestseller. But I read recently that you never intended for him to be a continuing character.

That’s true. Gabriel Allon 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. And now, seventeen additional books later, his story has come full circle. The morose, grieving man we first encountered in The Kill Artist has a new family and is the chief of the Israeli intelligence service. Obviously, I never imagined it would turn out this way.

 

How do you explain Gabriel’s popularity and longevity?

I think his essential appeal lies in the two very different sides of his character. He’s not just a brilliant intelligence operative, he’s one of the world’s finest art restorers as well. That combination of character attributes has allowed me to craft my stories in a way that makes them very different from most spy novels. As a result, I have many readers who might not typically pick up a novel of espionage. And I have Gabriel Allon to thank for that.

 

The Other Woman has wonderful settings, including Vienna, Strasbourg, Seville, and a quaint cottage in the English countryside that British intelligence uses as a safe house. Do you visit all the places you write about?

I typically try to spend as much time as possible in the places where my characters live and work. I’ve been inside the headquarters of the CIA and the KGB, I’ve ridden in the president’s limousine, and I’ve held a Leonardo in my hands at the Vatican. That said, some of my favorite scenes have been set in places where I’ve never set foot. The climax of Portrait of a Spy, for example, was set in the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia, where I’ve never been. A significant portion of The Black Widow took place in ISIS-controlled Syria and Iraq. Needless to say, I did not spend much time in the caliphate of the Islamic State.

 

What about Lock 10 on the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, the setting for the climax of The Other Woman?

I took my wife there one afternoon by the exact route Gabriel uses in the novel. On the banks of the Potomac, next to an overturned rowboat and a large tree, I physically choreographed the final sequence of moves to produce the ending I wanted. The people watching me from the towpath of the canal probably thought I was either out of my mind or a practitioner of a new form of tai chi.

 

Can we talk a little about your writing process?

The word process implies something orderly and methodical. About the only thing procedural about my work is that once I start a book, I write every day, seven days a week, until it is done. When I’m approaching my deadline, I become a virtual hermit. I sometimes write twelve or fourteen hours a day.

 

Do you outline a book before you start writing?

I’ve tried outlining but it really doesn’t work for me. I find it much easier to simply carry the story and characters around in my head. I have three or four other books mentally blocked out as well, but much to my wife’s dismay I haven’t bothered to write them down.

 

The Other Woman is an enormously complex web of treachery and betrayal that reaches deep into history for its source material. Are you telling us you wrote it without an outline?

Yes. But that’s not to say that I didn’t have a pretty good idea of where I was going and how I intended to get there. I typically make adjustments as I press forward, rather like a painter applying a layer of obliterating paint and reworking a portion of the canvas. For better or worse, the revisions continue to the very end. I’ve been known to make changes to a book on the day it’s supposed to go to the printer.

 

You have other strange habits as well.

So I’m told.

 

You write in pencil on yellow legal pads.

I used to think it was odd, but I’ve discovered that many writers still do, including Nelson DeMille. I like the quiet and the pace of writing in longhand, and I rarely have to make revisions. Oftentimes, I can pick up one of my old legal pads—yes, I keep them all—and find pages and pages of finished copy with no edits.

 

I hear you’re picky about your pencils.

The Mirado Black Warrior by Paper Mate. I use the number 2. It’s an excellent pencil. Lately, I’ve rediscovered the joys of a good Dixon Ticonderoga.

 

And your legal pad?

The Signa by Staples. The paper is very smooth. It doesn’t wear down my pencils as quickly.

 

I assume you don’t turn in your books that way.

No, I’m not completely crazy. They’re typed into Microsoft Word, one chapter per file. My wife is my primary editor, and I employ two of my oldest friends as proofreaders. We are all quite maniacal about typographical errors. When one slips into the book, I’m always mortified.


The Other WomanThe Other Woman by Daniel Silva

Daniel Silva and Gabriel Allon return in another blistering, ripped-from-the-headlines thriller. 

In an isolated village in the mountains of Andalusia, a mysterious Frenchwoman begins work on a dangerous memoir. It is the story of a man she once loved in the Beirut of old, and a child taken from her in treason’s name. The woman is the keeper of the Kremlin’s most closely guarded secret. Long ago, the KGB inserted a mole into the heart of the West – a mole who stands on the doorstep of ultimate power.

Only one man can unravel the conspiracy: Gabriel Allon, the legendary art restorer and assassin who serves as the chief of Israel’s vaunted secret intelligence service. Gabriel has battled the dark forces of the new Russia before, at great personal cost. Now he and the Russians will engage in a final epic showdown, with the fate of the postwar global order hanging in the balance.

Gabriel is lured into the hunt for the traitor after his most important asset inside Russian intelligence is brutally assassinated while trying to defect in Vienna. His quest for the truth will lead him backward in time, to the twentieth century’s greatest act of treason, and, finally, to a spellbinding climax along the banks of the Potomac River outside Washington that will leave readers breathless.

‘If you like JasonBourne and Jack Reacher, get to know Gabriel Allon’ Australian Women’s Weekly

‘Allon is a great political operative, but Silva is an even greater writer’ Huffington Post

‘One of fiction’s greatest spies … Allon remains as compelling as ever’ Kirkus

‘Silva builds suspense like a symphony conductor’ Booklist

Photo by Jonny Swales on Unsplash

Posted on July 24, 2018 by

This entry was posted in Guest Post, Interview, Q&A, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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"Q&A with Daniel Silva: author of the Gabriel Allon novels"2 thoughts on
  • Lea-Anne Williams says:

    Your books are the books I spend a year waiting for and put aside a bit of money each week so that when it’s out I can get it on the first day instead of using my library
    So I have this great collection of your books
    I got it on Tuesday and have literally just finished it now and so now I have to wait again and will now read more about Kim Philby
    I’m in Cairns Queensland australia
    Thanks for great stories

  • Ted Elliott says:

    Thank you Daniel, I find Gabriel Allon enthralling and have read them all. (It makes it easy for my daughter to buy me a birthday present – so keep them coming). I have traveled quite extensively and love the global settings (you mix logic, thriller and travelogue all in one – a lethal combination as I have great difficulty putting these novels down. (also i guess we have all considered ourselves novelists, but have failed. Thank you again from Aus. Ted Elliott

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