Four years ago, when I interviewed political espionage writer Howard Kaplan for the first time, it was because his first novel, The Damascus Cover, was being rereleased after forty years to coincide with the news that a movie version was in the works. A year later, when we spoke again, it was because his third novel, Bullets Of Palestine, was also being reissued. But in the following email interview about his new book, The Spy’s Gamble (paperback, Kindle), Kaplan explains that it’s not a new version of an old novel, but is instead a brand-new story he wrote in this current decade.
As you hopefully remember, I always like to start with a summation of the plot. So, what is The Spy’s Gamble about?
I’m attempting two things: the first, a thriller in all senses of the genre; and the second, a look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the inside, their daily life and struggles, and the toll of the protracted fighting and deaths. I like to show details of daily life that are particular to this war, and it is a war. I’ll try to illustrate this with something my proofreader took the time to note in the margins that she really liked. One of my character’s grandsons is injured by a rocket launched from Gaza into the Israeli town of Sderot only two miles from Gaza. The siren warning system roughly gives citizens 15 seconds to get to a shelter, so wearing seatbelts is prohibited when driving in Sderot. Too many lost seconds in unbuckling them. In the playground there are huge concrete caterpillars with wide entrances the children can run into several kids at a time, side by side. There are long benches inside and the kids color on the inside of the caterpillar until the all clear.
In the plot, Israel has purchased a new stealth submarine from the U.S., and on a celebratory inauguration ride out of Norfolk the sub disappears with the Israeli Prime Minister, who is greatly reminiscent of the current Prime Minister, inside. Nobody takes responsibility for the disappearance. The right wing Prime Minister has many political rivals and a juggernaut on the Israeli electorate by perpetuating fear and that he’s the only person who can thwart it. Then, too, the Russians among many others would be eager to get their hands on the new American stealth technology. So we have a chase on two fronts: to find the Prime Minister, and to figure out who actually pulled off the feat of hijacking the sub without a trace. And did they want the Prime Minister or the technology. Or maybe both?
On a third plotish theme, the novel moves through actual events of 2016-2017 in the region. There’s the huge truck that rammed a group of Israeli officers in training on an historical tour in Jerusalem, and a patrol inside the al-Amari refugee camp in Ramallah in the West Bank. There small refrigerators are sometimes thrown down on the patrolling soldiers from rooftops. Palestinians in the camp commemorate the deaths of loved ones in the skirmishes by tacking small photos of them in makeshift matchbook picture frames to the walls in their homes.
And how, if at all, does The Spy’s Gamble connect to your previous novels, The Damascus Cover and Bullets Of Palestine?
So, in 2016, in The Spy’s Gamble, Shai Shaham, a deputy director of operations in the Mossad, calls on his old friend and former Palestinian Liberation Organization intelligence agent, the writer, Ramzy Awwad to put his ear to the Palestinian ground to help find the sub. Ramzy is teaching as a visiting lecturer at UCLA in Middle East fiction, and Shai sends one of his best agents, Eli Bardin, who is greatly the protagonist of The Spy’s Gamble, to meet with his mentor Shai’s old friend and foe.
Bardin is a new character, but we have seen Shai and Ramzy, the protagonists and antagonists of Bullets Of Palestine. That novel is set in 1987. At the outset they have not been in contact in something like twenty-five years, Ramzy hardened at the failure of the peace process and the lack of a Palestinian state. But The Spy’s Gamble is completely a stand-alone novel and thus far I’ve resisted in even listing it as part of The Jerusalem Spy Series where The Damascus Cover and Bullets Of Palestine are because I don’t want people to mistakenly think you need to read the earlier books to appreciate this one. It’s more like this is the present time and an author might later then go back and write the prequel which would be Bullets Of Palestine.
Now, in the previous interview we did about Bullets Of Palestine [which you can read here] you mentioned that you were working on a direct sequel to it called To Destroy Jerusalem, which you originally started writing in 1990 but never finished. Is The Spy’s Gamble a finished version of To Destroy Jerusalem?
I haven’t explained this anywhere so you have it first.
A film adaptation of The Damascus Cover was shot in Morocco in the spring of 2015. From Casablanca I flew to Paris and then on to Tel-Aviv as there are no direct flights. I had spent ten days on the film shoot with Jonathan Rhys Meyers [Velvet Goldmine] and it energized me to go back to To Destroy Jerusalem. I rewrote it that year, 2015 into early 2016. It takes place in 1990 during the first Palestinians intifada, which translates best as “uprising.” There was a little bit of juggling both keeping it as a historical novel or I think of it actually as a period piece by then and at the same time making it contemporary. But it wasn’t hard just something that was constantly in mind. And yes, your memory is good; the main characters are again Shai Shaham, then still a field agent, and Ramzy Awwad, a Palestinian agent. All the research was completed in 1989 or so, so I had everything at my fingertips I needed for a novel set in 1990.
I traveled to Palestinian refugee camps that summer of 2015; I’d actually been in Gaza years before. I talked with Israeli espionage officers I know and slowly by the time I finished To Destroy Jerusalem in early 2016, I decided I didn’t want to come out with a novel set in 1990 today after being absent from writing for so long.
So in early summer 2016, I went back to Israel and this time went more extensively into the West Bank with Palestinian journalists. I spent time in Hebron, all reflected in the new novel, where 400 Israeli settlers in Old Hebron are surrounded by a quarter million Palestinians. It takes a permanently stationed full battalion to keep them alive. I talked to nearby settlers in Kiryat Arba, on a hill overlooking Hebron, where a Palestinian had breached the border fence and knifed to death a teenage Jewish girl in her bed. There was a movement afoot too in the Israeli government, to prevent Arabs from singing the traditional Call To Prayer through loudspeakers from the minarets, that to minimize the sound “pollution” they should be mandated to only use human voices, as some Israeli lawmakers argued, “like in the time of Muhammad.” So much has deteriorated which, it seems, [may be] why my old novels of reconciliation are selling better now than when originally published as sane heads realize the only future is a solution to the conflict.
Now that I had To Destroy Jerusalem completed, I decided to set it aside and write The Spy’s Gamble and bring that contemporary set thriller out first. Once that was done, I did one final rewrite, mostly small things to bring To Destroy Jerusalem into consistency with The Spy’s Gamble. I expect to have To Destroy Jerusalem out in early September.
Cool. So where then did you get the idea for The Spy’s Gamble and how different is the finished novel from that original idea?
I wrote The Spy’s Gamble‘s first draft in nine months, which is quick for me, actually about the time it took to write the first run of The Damascus Cover. I think I read that John Le Carre does this, meaning not speed but that I travel greatly in the region with my pad and pen, see a lot, talk to many people and from that the outlines and then the body of the novel comes. What I wanted to do with The Spy’s Gamble, after all I’d seen, flowed fairly easily.
Are there any writers or specific stories that had a big influence on The Spy’s Gamble but not on The Damascus Cover and Bullets Of Palestine?
I think I was influenced by the Israeli journalist Ari Shavit, who wrote a big best-selling memoir called My Promised Land. I learned a lot of things about young people in Israel and contemporary society that found their way into the young soldiers and spies in my novel. Interesting, in Los Angeles, where I live, there’s an Israeli restaurant on Pico Boulevard just near the beginning of Santa Monica: Upper West. You can’t tell it’s Israeli other than the slab of hummus beside your Chilean sea bass. All the bartenders are Israelis without any accent. Each seems to have a one Anglo parent. I went there at 5pm one night to ask some questions. The owner/bartender was busy but he said his pregnant wife was coming in. She sat down next to me and was a wealth of information. As soon as I get my paperback copies I’m going with one to give her.
Speaking of movies, the film version of The Damascus Cover you mentioned will be out this summer [you can see the trailer here]. How faithful to your original novel is this movie version, and how do you, as the writer of the novel but not the movie, feel about these changes?
The director always says, when asked — and he’s always asked — that “I followed the spine of the novel.” It’s true, and even with the changes the film is greatly true to the book. Some changes I wouldn’t have made. In the film, the protagonist is sent to smuggle children out of Jewish ghetto in Damascus. In the film they’re smuggling out a Jewish chemical weapons scientist. I’m not sure that adds anything.
I had a good deal of influence on the edit simply as I was lucky and they asked me for input. The film has turned out fabulously. The acting is amazing, Jonathan Rhys Meyers is a totally passionate person on and off screen and I feel lucky to have gotten to know him. We spent some time together at the Boston Film Festival last year, where the film won best picture and best actor. And John Hurt’s role as the head of Israeli Intelligence is his last film. So how lucky am I?
The Damascus Cover movie been in the works since we did that first interview about the book back in 2014. Did seeing your book come to life as a movie influence what you wrote in The Spy’s Gamble? Like did you ever catch yourself writing in a more cinematic way?
Not really, the new novel was not influenced by the movie in any way. I seem to write how I write. What was a big change was my state of mind. I knew with a film I’d overall be getting a lot more attention and frankly that makes it easier to face the blank computer screen.
If The Damascus Cover does well, there will probably be a movie made of Bullets Of Palestine, and then, presumably, The Spy’s Gamble. If the latter happens, who would you like to see them cast in that movie?
A film agent called a few weeks ago and asked if the rights were available — they are — and a cousin who was a big business affairs guy at Fox has sent Bullets and The Spy’s Gamble to an agent who specializes in books to film. So we’ll see. It took thirteen years to get The Damascus Cover made so I’m rather patient right now. When you have nobody in mind and they give you Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Sir John Hurt, you stop asking yourself that question and see who else the Gods are going to hand you.
When we did that interview about The Damascus Cover [which you can read here], it was because that book was coming back into print after many years. And the same was true for when we talked about Bullets Of Palestine . But you have another novel, Chopin Express, that is still out-of-print. Are there any plans to do a new version of that book?
I haven’t decided what to do. It’s a little different in that it’s an autobiographical novel about a young American who goes to the Soviet Union in the 1970s to smuggle books to the underground Hebrew teachers and gets caught in something larger. With these old, pre-Word file books, you actually have to have someone retype the entire novel into the computer. I’ve thought about having someone do it but just haven’t decided yet. I think the autobiographical nature of it is keeping me from rereading it.
Finally, if someone’s already read The Damascus Cover, Bullets Of Palestine, and The Spy’s Gamble, what politically thriller/spy novel would you suggest they read next?
I always have a quick and easy answer for that: Charles McCarry. He’s the dean of all the American espionage writers, is known but the real fame he deserves eluded him. He’s 88 and still publishing but his late books are a step down. I’d start with the Tears Of Autumn, which is about the Kennedy assassination, and read on. Especially in terms of characterization he’s a treat.