Howard Kaplan’s real-life experiences sound like something stolen from the silver screen.
Yet it’s Hollywood that’s borrowing from him now: The movie adaptation of his spy thriller “The Damascus Cover,” starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Olivia Thirlby, recently wrapped up filming.
Kaplan took the time to answer a few questions about his 1977 best-seller, the experiences that helped inspire it, and what he’s been up to since then.
SADYE: How does someone with a clear interest in writing wind up becoming a spy for a while?
HOWARD: It actually happened the other way around.
I was a student at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem on my junior year abroad from Berkeley when a close friend invited me to meet a friend of hers. Turned out he was recruiting people to head in the Soviet Union on their way home.
I joined this group, which met once a week for training. Ultimately I was chosen to be the first into Moscow and bring out a roll of microfilm, which I did successfully.
The following year when I went back to Moscow I brought a dissident’s manuscript on paper into the Dutch Embassy where the ambassador took it and put it in his diplomatic pouch.
There were KGB guards outside all foreign embassies, but I got through easily with my American passport. Under the Communists, the government decried that anything written and not published (i.e., passed by the censor) was the “property of the state.”
Potential émigrés had no way to get this material out, hence people like me.
SADYE: So unlike most Westerners, you’ve experienced Soviet-era Russia. What was that like?
HOWARD: I have strong memories and sensations of Soviet Russia, and I’d very much like to visit Russia again but have not.
One of my strongest memories is of the drabness broken most prominently by yellow tanker trucks parked in many streets which dispensed beer for a few kopecks.
I think this is a new Russia now economically but politically, under Putin at least, very little has changed from the old Soviet Union which he longs for.
SADYE: How did the idea of making “The Damascus Cover” into a movie come about?
HOWARD: The movie was total serendipity. I might have shopped it around had the idea occurred to me because of the current interest in Damascus, but it simply didn’t.
The director, Dan Berk, was looking to do a film on the Middle East and mentioned it to a mutual friend. She pulled “The Damascus Cover” off her shelf and gave it to him. He read it, called me up and we met for coffee. Before we were done the deal was done.
I liked him and liked his view that what made the novel current today is that ultimately it is a novel of reconciliation.
SADYE: It seems like there was quite a gap between “The Damascus Cover” (1977) and “The Chopin Express” (1978) and then “Bullets of Palestine” (2014) What were you up to, writing-wise, between then?
HOWARD: “The Damascus Cover” and “The Chopin Express” were published a year apart and “Bullets of Palestine” nine years later.
I began another novel in 1990 — but put it aside — called “To Destroy Jerusalem.” I’ve finished it now, and it will appear in early 2016.
In the interim, I got married, had a son, got divorced. Living in Los Angeles was expensive and I stopped writing and taught at UCLA and also became a day trader in the stock market.
So I have had a long hiatus until recently. I’m very glad to be back.
SADYE: You’ve said before that your father wasn’t keen on you becoming a novelist. What was his reaction to the rave reviews for “The Damascus Cover”?
HOWARD: My father is an old Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor. He lost his entire family to Hitler and while he’s a charming, warm and smiling guy at his country club, in his depths he’s crushed and damaged.
So when reviews go well he’s a big fan. During fallow periods he complains, “He could have been a lawyer.” … I’m one of these people who realized early on, I needed to go my own way — if I waited for approval, I’d be standing in the cold a long time.