Nearly forty years after it was first published, Howard Kaplan’s spy novel The Damascus Cover is making a comeback. Not only is a new edition coming to both bookshelves and eReaders, but a movie adaptation that stars Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Abigail Spenser, and Jurgen Prochnow is slated for next year. But in talking to Kaplan about both, it becomes clear that his tale of espionage hasn’t aged a day.
For those who’ve never read it, what is The Damascus Cover about?
The Damascus Cover is a story within a story. The main thread is about a washed out Israeli spy who has made some serious blunders and then is offered an assignment to smuggle some Jewish children out of Damascus, something previously below his stature. As a chance back in, he eagerly accepts it. Unbeknownst to him and to the reader, until much later, the head of the Israeli secret service has a larger mission in mind that he does not share and he will throw obstacles up in front of Ari through the mission in Damascus to lead him to do something desperate, which is what his handlers intend and need. What they need from him would be too big a spoiler. So it’s a story about the Israeli Secret Service willing to use one of their own, as other secret services would or might, in order to achieve a greater goal.
Where did you get the original idea for it?
As is mentioned in the foreword to the 2014 edition, I went to Damascus with a friend while on my junior year abroad in Jerusalem, from Berkeley. There we visited the central Marjah Square where an actual Israeli Spy, Eli Cohen, had been publicly hung in 1965. He had infiltrated to the highest levels of the Syrian Secret Service. It gave me the idea for a character in Damascus who also reaches those levels there. I also thought Damascus, the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, physically made a terrific setting for a suspense novel.
As I understand it, you actually have experience as a spy. How different was your experience from what you portray in The Damascus Cover?
My experiences were quite different than my characters. I was trained to enter the old Soviet Union under my own name and passport as an American, the first time to smuggle out a dissident’s manuscript on microfilm. The Soviets considered any unpublished book the property of the state, so if anyone emigrated they had to leave such manuscripts behind. I brought it out on microfilm to London, then went back the following year and transferred a different manuscript from the dissidents to the Dutch Ambassador inside the Embassy. KGB guards prevented Soviet citizens from entering foreign embassies, but I had no problem. I wrote notes back and forth with the Ambassador, and in the end he burned them and said, “Please be careful, this is not James Bond.” But I spent a lot of time with Israeli spies, particularly in London, and I learned a lot and how they think, which I used as a writer. For example, they told me they could not prepare me for every contingency but they could teach me how to think when I faced problems.
At the time you wrote it, in the ’70s, who would you have considered your biggest influences, both in terms of how you write and what you write about?
I was a lonely child and a voracious reader. As a kid, Tom Swift and The Hardy Boys, which both influenced me for adventure stories. In high school, I read a lot of the classics, Jane Austen, Dickens. In college I read all of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and much of Somerset Maugham. Then in the ’70s I started to read Eric Ambler, Graham Greene, and John le Carre, who I felt were the best of the suspense writers, and great writers period. I learned everything I could reading them. I imitated Hemingway to learn the basics such as transition. I remember reading once how a paragraph ended and the next one began, “In the restaurant…” So I have no formal training as a writer, these were my teachers. I often read books twice, one to race through the story and the second time to see how the writer constructed it.
What other spy novels, movies, and TV shows do you think have gotten it right, and which have gotten it way wrong?
As far as TV and movies, I thought Homeland had it right from the get go. I was entirely hooked by it, and then it got increasingly brilliant. I’ve watched the recent Honourable Woman, and on one hand love it and on the other it is so completely complicated with multiple plot lines, I cannot fully follow it. For me, the utter complexity is a drawback. When you write like that, leaving much unexplained to create suspense, it can come to bite you in the read as you try to tie it all up. I’ve not yet seen the final episode, but I know creating suspense by omission is easy; tying it all up in a satisfying way in the end becomes increasingly complicated in proportion to how many loose strings you’ve left lying around. The versions of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, especially the old BBC series with Alec Guinness, was wonderful. The Gary Oldman movie was excellent, too, but if you hadn’t read the book it too is near impossible to follow.
Seriously. I just tried to watch it and got lost real quick.
They did a great job making the novel more linear for the Oldman film but still, you need the time the BBC devoted. Most of the LeCarre novels have translated wonderfully to the screen: The Little Drummer Girl and The Constant Gardner in particular. The German film, The Lives of Others, is a gem.
The rights to The Damascus Cover have reverted back to you, and you’re going to be publishing a new edition of it. Given what you’ve learned in the forty years since you wrote it, were you at all tempted to go back and change things?
I decided to publish the new edition to tie in with the film, which begins shooting in October in Casablanca. My son is 21 and a senior at Oberlin College, and I feel about Damascus like I do about his childhood. I did a pretty good job with both at the time, but now they have to stand on their own. So I was not tempted to go back and change the story itself. I’m rather fond of it as is. All I’ve done is wrote a new foreword. It was a very popular book, on the L.A. Times best seller list — though in truth on the bottom rungs of the list — for three months. The film people have updated it somewhat, so the father of the Jewish family that is to be smuggled out of Damascus is a chemical weapons engineer. Seems like a good idea to me, things don’t stay still. What I’m saying is the themes of the novel are universal: are you willing to sacrifice someone for a much greater gain. Is it moral to do so? Does it matter how big the gain is in doing so? So I’m very comfortable not going back and tinkering with it.
Is there anything you’re adding to the new version, though?
As I mentioned earlier, there’s a new foreword that is a bit autobiographical, it’s brief, about my travels and how I came to write this novel. I’m finding that I’m republishing my old books as is, as a series but in each writing a foreword about how the book was written and who or what I based it in.
As you mentioned, you’re reissuing The Damascus Cover is that it’s currently being made into a movie. Where does that stand and what can you tell us about it?
The movie shoots for six weeks, primarily in Casablanca, but also in Rabat and Marrekesh, beginning in mid-October. For an indie feature, they’ve assembled a cast beyond anything I believed they could, including Jonathan Rhys Meyers and, for the American photographer Kim, Abigail Spenser, who is great on the Sundance original series Rectify. Jurgen Prochnow from The Da Vinci Code but more importantly the wonderful German U-Boat film Das Boot. I have a former Nazi living in Damascus who plays a major role in the story so Prochnow, as an older German himself, couldn’t be a more fitting choice. Navid Negahban from Homeland is actually Perisian, but he’s such a wonderful and powerful actor, he will play the head of the Syrian Secret Service. It almost feels like having someone I know in the film.
If it had been made in the ’70s, when it first came out, who would you have picked to star in it back then and why?
Gosh…. In truth, it would be hard to find someone with the intensity and focus of Jonathan Rhys Myers, and Abigail Spencer’s toughness and beauty. I did not write the script, so I can say the scenes between them are dynamite. I’m drawing a blank about who might of played it then but it’s a fascinating question. Anything Bruce Willis does has punch and charm. Maybe Kim Basinger, who also has a sultry power would have been great.
Along with the reissue of The Damascus Cover and the movie, you also have a new book in this series on the way. Which, as I understand it, is the third.
My second novel, The Chopin Express, is a semi autobiographical novel about an American who goes into the Soviet Union to smuggle out a manuscript. It was published a year after The Damascus Cover, so also in the late ’70s. I decided to publish a series of my three directly Middle East novels, and then consider later whether to bring out The Chopin Express again after those. The head of the Israeli Secret service is the same in Damascus and Chopin.
My third novel, Bullets Of Palestine, will be published this November. It is a novel of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the uneasy relationship between a Palestinian spy and an Israeli one, who need to work together to kill an extremist Palestinian, Abu Nidal, who is murdering both Israelis an moderate Palestinians in both Europe and the Middle East. Much of that novel takes place during real events, such as the assassination of the Israeli Ambassador to Great Britain, Shlomo Argov, and more dramatically even, the Christian massacres of Palestinian women and children in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps in Lebanon. I’ve been to Lebanon twice, once at the same time I went to Syria and later in the ’80s on an Israeli press tour that went in by car from the northern Israeli border.
So there is a direct line between Damascus and Bullets as Middle East spy novels. The theme in Bullets is one of reconciliation and trust, can these people work together for the greater good and what is the Israeli going to do in the end when he is order to kill his moderate Palestinian cohort? Where are his loyalties? It is a little tragic that there is such little progress in that area of reconciliation that if anything Bullets Of Palestine is more timely now than when it was published in the ’80s.
When you first wrote The Damascus Cover, did you think of it as the first in a series?
When I wrote Damascus, I had nothing further on my mind than writing a publishable book. I was in my 20s and I was not thinking ahead at all. It seemed a near impossible task to publish a novel and I was focused only there. This was the pre-computer era so I typed it. I had no money to hire a typist, so I believe I typed the entire manuscript three times when the changes were so much it was unreadable. The last time, I played Cat Stevens Tea For The Tillerman over and over and over and mesmerized myself as I typed. I was in the moment which seemed a daunting task so I did not think at all about what was next.
Well, maybe my Saturday night date was on my mind, too.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Damascus Cover, what spy novel would you recommend they read next and why? Assuming, of course, your new one isn’t out yet.
I’m trying to think of some old suspense novels to recommend, since pretty much everyone knows the current crop like Daniel Silva. My favorite American spy writer is Charles McCarry. He’s quite well known in some circles but not well enough known. I’d start with Tears Of Autumn and then work through the rest chronologically. They’re a series and are best read in order.