Author Q&A with Howard Kaplan

Today on Curious Ginger Cat, I’m delighted to be chatting to Howard Kaplan, author of The Damascus Cover about his book and upcoming film.

If you missed my review of the book earlier, it can be found here. 

1.  For those who haven’t read The Damascus Cover, could you please tell our readers a bit more about it?

The Damascus Cover is a story within a story.  The main thread is about a washed out Israeli spy who has made serious mistakes and then is offered an assignment to smuggle some children out of Damascus, something previously below his position.  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 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 is revealed in a final twist in the novel. 
2.  Where did the inspiration for the story come from?

When I was 21 with a friend we flew to Beirut and took a shared taxi to Damascus.  We stopped in the main square, Marjeh, where the Israeli spy, Eli Cohen, had been hung.  I loved the city, the oldest inhabited city on earth, rung by apricot groves as underground rivers rise there from Lebanon.  So I created my own spy story about a high placed Israeli spy, as Eli Cohen had been, in Damascus.

3.  I understand that you have your own experiences as a spy, smuggling microfilm out of the USSR. Are any sections in The Damascus Cover taken from your own experiences?

Not specifically.  However, the general milieu of what I learned did greatly influence the writing.  I was interrogated by the KGB for four days, but it was highly civilized, in the hotel manager’s office with food and bathroom breaks.  The interrogation scenes in Damascus, are far more brutal but they contain the kernel of how I was interrogated, and what I internalized about the process.

4.  The story is particularly detailed when it talks about Ari Ben-Sion’s mission to Damascus, including the layout of the city, the local communities and the political nuances. You obviously have a strong understanding of the history of this region. How did you go about researching the book to ensure the authenticity of the story and setting?

First of all I was in Damascus but beyond that God bless the Brits.  They’ve been everywhere and written travelogues and memoirs about it, so I found some fabulous books.  I wrote the Syrian Tourist Ministry and they sent me a huge map of Damascus which I taped to one wall of the room I wrote in.  Then I read everything I could get my hands on.  I was influenced by a TV interview I saw early in Ken Follet’s career.  He had written a novel about Afghanistan and acknowledged that he had never been there, so I saw such a thing could be done.

5.  What did you find the most challenging about writing The Damascus Cover?

It was my first novel and my biggest challenge was not the mechanics of writing the novel, but believing I could write one. My father is a very successful businessman, and security is foremost in his mind, and he kept pressuring me at a young age to write first for local newspapers.  I thought if I write for them, I’ll write at that level.  So my first work was shooting as high as I could reach and that’s this book.

6.  The Damascus Cover was initially published in 1977, almost 40 years ago. What do you think it is about the book that still appeals to people? Do you think the plot/story is still relevant in 2015 and are you surprised that it is still received so well?

A good story is universal.  Take the film, Casablanca.  Other than the clothes I don’t think anyone considers it dated because of the themes, relationships and conflicts.   Damascus deals with a secret service who is willing to use one of its former top agents for a greater good.  This is a moral dilemma that can be generalized into endless situations.  Good characters and a compelling love story will also never go out of fashion.  In one area I got lucky, in that when I wrote the book Damascus and Syria were beyond the periphery of the world’s attention.  So I’m greatly surprised that people decided to make a film of it after all these years but not that the book is being so well received.  It was when originally published and this is a new generation of readers and now there’s much greater interest in Damascus.

7.  The Damascus Cover has been picked for a British film adaptation staring some well-known names. How did that come about? Have you have much input into the movie adaptation?

Life is full of luck and that other thing, in this case I got lucky.  A director was interested in doing a Middle East film and happened to mention it to a friend of mine who said, “Let me give you The Damascus Cover.”  The director and I both live in Los Angeles.  He read it, called me, we met for coffee and the deal was done then and there.  He wrote the script himself and showed it to one of the producers of Gosford Park.  She came aboard, hence we have a lot of Brits in the film for tax reasons, as the European Film Board helps subsidize projects but there are nationality requirements, basically EU passports.  We had to get approval to cast an American actress, Olivia Thirlby (Juno) in the role of an American photographer.  This restriction turned out not to be a problem at all as they signed Jonathan Rhys Meyers and John Hurt principally on the strength of the script.  The cast kept growing with international characters:  Jurgen Prochnow (Das Boot, DaVinci Code), Navid Negahban (Abu Nazir in Homeland), and Igal Naor, who turned up recently in Homeland too as the Syrian General Youssef.  So Igal seems to have developed a specialty in playing Syrian Generals as that’s his role in Damascus.  The director and I have become good friends and I was shown the script at a mid-point and I made some suggestions which were greatly welcomed.  He often says the film, “follows the spine and muscle of the novel.”

8.  Was the movie adaptation filmed in Damascus itself? Did you get to spend time on location?

Most of the novel is set in Damascus so they filmed in Morocco principally in Casablanca, some nearby beaches and the desert.  There was a tremendous villa too they shot in for several days about an hour out of the city.  I love to mention that there is actually a Rick’s Café in Casablanca and that movie plays non-stop in a loop in an alcove in what is a very nice restaurant.  The director shot some footage too in Jerusalem as some of The Damascus Cover is set there.

I spent an absolutely fabulous week in Casablanca.  The producer told me film work is slow, mostly waiting around and after a few days I’d be bored and she suggested excursions to the more exotic Fez and Marrakech.  Casablanca is actually a big port city.  I went out for 10 hours every day on  the I was there.  I can sightsee anytime.  I landed at 6:30 am on a night flight from New York and immediately went out on the shoot at 10 am that morning.  People don’t make movies from my books on a normal day.

9.  I understand that The Damascus Cover is the first in the 3 part Jerusalem Spy Series, and I note that Bullets of Palestine has also been re-released.  When is the third part, To Destroy Jerusalem, due to be released?

We do not yet have an exact day for the film’s release, sometime in early to mid- 2016.  To Destroy Jerusalem will be released to coincide with the film opening.

10.  Do you also have plans for any other new publications/releases in the near future?

Over the last two decades, I’m not proud to say I’ve been a stock day trader and tried to balance writing with that.  But I am happy that actually this week I’ve quit the market and will hand over the account to a money manager.  I’ve done well, my son had graduated college so I’m looking for a new idea NOW for a new novel. 

11.  Looking back over your experiences of being a published author, what has been your favourite moment to date?

Dutton in the US and Hodder and Stoughton in the UK brought out the book in hardcover.  I think my most exciting moment was when I met my Dutton editor in the Beverly Wilshire Hotel (where Pretty Women was filmed).  He was on the phone, did not get off but opened a folder and showed me the cover of the book.  I think it was only then that I really believed it was being published.  I was 26.

12.  What is the best piece of writing advice you have been given?

That writing is not about inspiration but perspiration.  My mentor, Michael Blankfort, who wrote 14 novels and many screenplays including The Caine Mutiny, taught me that if you don’t have an idea you sit at the keyboard and type your name over and over.  I don’t believe in writers block.  I think it’s simple fear.

13.  Do you remember where you were/what you were doing when you found out that your first book had been accepted for publication?

It came in a letter so I was home.  I seem to be able to immediately believe the terrible things that happen much easier than the great ones.

14.  You are well known for your expertise in writing espionage novels. Are there any other genres you are tempted to try?

I’m greatly tempted to write a memoir about my relationship with my father and son, and how I was able, with great challenge, not to replicate the parenting I received.

15.  In addition to being a writer, do you also enjoy reading? If so, who are your favourite authors and have you read any books recently that you would recommend?

I love spy novels, especially John le Carre but I think my favorite book of recent years is Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Eagan which deservedly won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize.  It plays with time and chronology, different points of view and has delicious characters.  I like The Leftovers too by Tom Perrotta.  The first season of the TV series follows the book rigorously. 

16.  I would guess that you have had a very busy couple of years with the re-release of your Jerusalem Spy novels and the movie adaptation of The Damascus Cover. What is your favourite way to relax when you’re not writing/working?


17.  Finally, for those who have not yet read The Damascus Cover, why do you think people should    read this book?

Unknowingly when I wrote the novel, a Civil War would ravish Damascus.  The great attention to detail depicts Damascus before this destruction.  So people who want to understand, see, and inhale Damascene life, and learn some history before this great tragedy can do so while reading a thriller.  From what I’ve been told, the story moves along nicely.

Thank you Howard for taking the time to speak to us – it’s been great to find out more about you, the book and the upcoming movie.

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