[15 August 2007]
South Florida Sun-Sentinel (MCT)
Daniel Silva, the best-selling spy novelist, is uncomfortable with the suggestion that terrorism has been a boon for his profession.
Spy fiction famously thrives in times of unrest and turmoil. The aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War proved very hard on established masters of the genre, forcing the likes of John le Carre to scrounge in such marginal fields as corporate malfeasance to find conflict shady enough to write about.
All that changed with 9-11. Suddenly the global war on terror gave the international spy thriller a fresh diet of red meat.
“I don’t like to say it, but, yes, 9-11 has been good for spy fiction,” Silva says by phone from his home near Washington.
Yet Silva, already famous for his series featuring Israeli secret agent Gabriel Allon, wrote three more novels without reference to terrorism.
“9-11 was a tear in the fabric of history,” Silva says. “From my house I could see the smoke rising from the Pentagon that day. It was years before I could even think about it clearly, let alone write about it.”
That’s certainly no longer the case. Silva’s latest Gabriel Allon adventure, “The Secret Servant,” begins with the murder of an outspoken terrorism scholar that recalls the 2004 assassination of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh. But that’s only a prelude to the main event _ the kidnapping of an American ambassador’s daughter by Egyptian and Palestinian jihadists. Allon, whose cover as an art restorer was all but blown after he thwarted a terrorist attack on the Vatican in last year’s “The Messenger,” must work with Muslim informants to save her.
Born in Michigan, raised in California, Silva wanted to be a novelist from childhood. His parents, he says, were “big readers,” and he recalls sneaking into their bedroom to read their copies of such mid-century best-selling authors as Sidney Sheldon.
“I never considered writing in any field but spy fiction,” Silva says. “As a Cold War kid, I was always interested in military history and espionage.”
But Silva, 46, had to make a living, which took him on a long detour into journalism, first as a print reporter with UPI, and later as a correspondent for CNN. He only began writing fiction in 1995, after he confessed his dream to wife Jamie Gangel, a correspondent for NBC’s “Today” show. She encouraged him to give it a try, resulting in his first novel, “The Unlikely Spy” (1997), a World War II espionage drama that made the New York Times best-seller list.
“It was hard to leave CNN, even though I knew this was what I wanted to do,” Silva recalls. “I had children and the responsibilities that go with them. I got lucky when the first book hit the best-seller lists, although that’s no indication of future success.”
Silva, whose works are often favorably compared to le Carre’s, says the British branch of the spy genre was his biggest influence. Other writers he read early and often include Eric Ambler, Jack Higgins and Alistair MacLean.
One famous British spy novelist has so far eluded his attention, he admits: “I’ve never read Ian Fleming.”
Journalism prepared Silva well to become a novelist. He could apply his reporting skills to the considerable research required for his topical fiction, and after years of producing daily news copy, he doesn’t have to worry about writer’s block. “I never sit and stare at a blank page,” he says.
Despite his determination to entertain readers, Silva considers himself a serious writer working in a popular genre.
“The thrills themselves are not enough to sustain me,” he says. “I have to be passionate about what I write. If that comes through, the rest takes care of itself. The last thing you can do is sit around and think about what appeals to mass taste. Otherwise I’d never have started a series about a middle-aged misanthrope.”
As might be expected of a novelist whose hero is an Israeli secret agent, Silva is a “big supporter” of Israel. But he also takes care to create believable and sympathetic Arab characters.
One theme of “The Secret Servant” is the disaffection of the growing Arab population in Europe. Silva says the political murder of Van Gogh, more than the transit bombings in Madrid and London, was for Europeans the kind of “earth-shattering event” 9-11 was for Americans.
The problem, Silva says, is not the size of the Arab population in Europe, but the way it has been marginalized. Children of immigrants who sought economic opportunity in the 1970s now feel neither fully European, nor fully Arab. In a search for identity, they are embracing what he calls “the siren song of terrorist recruiters.”
“My first responsibility is to tell a compelling story,” Silva says. “But, yes, I am sounding an alarm with this piece of fiction. The situation in Europe is breeding bin Ladens. It is incumbent on both sides, the governments and the immigrant community, to do more to integrate the Muslim population.”
That said, he adds, the real hero of the new novel is a Muslim.
“I’m just trying to explore something I find fascinating,” Silva says.