Interview: Daniel Silva, author of ĎThe English Spyí

July 13, 2015 

Daniel Silva has spent time in the Middle East. He writes an espionage series about an Israeli intelligence officer, after all, and before that he worked as United Press Internationalís Middle Eastern correspondent in Cairo. In his 18 novels, he delves into the regionís dark side, writing of terrorist threats and the dangers of Iranian nuclear capabilities.

But he will tell you that the scariest place he has ever been is Northern Ireland.

"I was there in 1998, the year of the Omagh bombing," says Silva. "I actually saw the scene of a bombing a few hours after it happened in Portadown. They destroyed the high street with one of these 500-pound car bombs. ... Belfast was just so sad and tense and horrible during the war. The communities were at each otherís throats. If you walked down the wrong street, you could get killed. It was rough."

Fallout from the bombing in Omagh ó which killed 29 people and injured 220, the highest death toll during Irelandís "Troubles" ó plays a pivotal role in Silvaís riveting new novel. In "The English Spy," legendary spy, assassin and sometime art-restorer Gabriel Allon takes on a former Irish Republican Army bombmaker-turned-mercenary, with the help of former British commando Christopher Keller, who has his own bloody past with the violent militia.

Gabriel Allon truly loves art; in Silvaís last book, "The Heist," he searched for a missing Caravaggio. But he doesnít get much chance to spend time with his beloved masterpieces in the fast-paced "The English Spy." 

"I wanted to write a good old-fashioned bang-bang book," Silva says. "When I start to think about a book, itís helpful to try and say exactly what kind of book Iím writing. They do fall into categories. Sometimes Gabriel acts as a private detective. Sometimes heís an operational agent. In this case, the story was just about a straight-up manhunt."

In "The English Spy," the Irish terrorist on the lam turns out to be linked to some of Israelís worst enemies (he also once tried and failed to kill Keller, who has emerged as one of Silvaís most intriguing characters). As usual, Silva took a page from history for inspiration.

"The link between Northern Ireland and the modern world is very real," Silva says. "After the war, members of the I.R.A. did go out into the world, and they worked for some really bad people. They sold bombmaking techniques to the Iranians. A delegation went to Tehran and helped them develop anti-tank weapons to give to Hamas and Hezbollah. ... Remember that the ability to make high-quality bombs is what separates hotheads from a really effective terrorist army."

Silva is comfortable discussing international intrigue and the future of world relations (he had Allon tangling with the Russians long before Vladimir Putinís recent antics). Hard, then, to believe that after he wrote the first Gabriel Allon novel he had to be persuaded to write the second.

"I didnít think it was a good idea to have an Israeli continuing character because I thought there was too much anti-Semitism and anti-Israeli sentiment in the world," he says.

He admits he has been proven wrong but adds that now, "There is a growing anti-Israeli sentiment rising in Europe in particular and even in America. ... Some people are so angry at Israel they might not pick up a book about an Israeli character. The flip side is that gives me an atmosphere for the novel of this besieged country, and an edge like that I like. Itís easier to write. There arenít many great books written about happy relationships. You need drama and conflict. ... for better or worse, thereís no shortage of conflict in the Middle East."

Working on such a series means spending a lot of time researching dark material (Silva confesses that he relaxes by watching cooking shows at night: "I love Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives ó thatís my guilty pleasure"). But heís not ready to give up on Allon and The Office ó Israelís intelligence agency ó just yet.

"I will never see 50 again, but I donít see myself as nearing the end of my career," he says, adding that he does not rule out writing a novel about Christopher Keller, who at the end of "The English Spy" embarks on an intriguing new career. "I hope that at a certain point I will write about something other than Gabriel Allon. ... Heís still fun for me to write.

"I remind my family when they accuse me of being absent-minded or not paying attention that I spend more time in his world than I do in the real one," says Silva, whoís married to journalist Jamie Gangel; they have two children. "I donít mean to sound like a crazy person! I set scenes in places where friends of mine live. I borrow traits from people I know. When I talk about them with my wife, when Iím working through something, I refer to them as though theyíre friends. I talk about their lives as though theyíre real."




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