If you’re in need of a good spy thriller, Howard Kaplan has written one that appears to stand the test of time. Nearly forty years after its publication, The Damascus Cover is being made into a movie starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers. Here, Kaplan chats with Bookish about his enduring favorites, smuggling manuscripts out of the Soviet Union, and what the process of film adaptation has been like.
Howard Kaplan: Over time I’ve stuck only with Le Carré. Maybe it’s because he’s the only one alive from that group and still producing new work. I don’t think the last few novels are as great as what’s often called the Karla Trilogy: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy, and Smiley’s People. He has a remarkable ability to remain current though, from The Constant Gardener about the pharmaceutical industry, to more au courant terrorism. So he remains my favorite both then and now. I like Daniel Silva’s plots, but his prose and themes are nowhere near Le Carré’s.
Bookish: For a while you were smuggling manuscripts out of the Soviet Union. Did you learn anything from that experience that influenced your writing?
HK: I learned a few things from both smuggling manuscripts out of the old USSR and from being interrogated. What surprised me most was how close the parallel in real life was to espionage fiction. For example, while under interrogation, the phone would ring and the interrogator would pick it up if whoever was listening did not like my answers. It was right out of any spy movie. He’d be given more questions to ask or have me clarify. I was taken by plane from Kharkiv to Moscow with two KGB agents on both sides of me on the plane like bookends, so I saw how they worked.
Bookish: You’ve said that books were your teachers when it came to writing. Which book or author taught you the most?
HK: I had a mentor, Michael Blankfort, when I was in my 20s who is best known for the screenplay of The Caine Mutiny. He told me there are no rules, you try whatever you like and then see if it works, but you can only know by actually writing it. It’s something I’ve always remembered and practiced.
Bookish: In an attempt to revive his career, agent Ari Ben-Sion accepts a mission he never would’ve accepted before. As a writer, what are you doing now that you may not have dared to when you first started out?
HK: I was pretty daring when I first started out. My father is a very successful Polish immigrant. He did not like that I wanted to be a writer and pushed me to write for local newspapers when I started out. I told him that I would likely write to the level I aspired to and I was aspiring to writing at the highest possible level, so I was going to start with a novel.
Bookish: The Damascus Cover was originally published nearly 40 years ago and now is being made into a feature film starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers. All authors view their film adaptations differently. Some prefer to be very involved, others don’t even watch the finished film. What has the process been like for you?
HK: I’ve read the script and it’s wonderful. I actually read it before I went back to look at my novel. So as I was reading the script, I often could not recall if I’d written that scene in the novel or not. At a crucial point, Ari jumps off a train, so he will not be followed to his contact. I thought, Oh, I see how that’s being done. Then I remembered I wrote that scene. I made a few small suggestions to the script which were welcomed warmly. So I’m very pleased with everything surrounding the film.
Bookish: Your characters find themselves in a lot of tight corners. What do you do when you’re struggling to write their escape?
HK: Often when I’m in a tight corner and can’t figure out what’s next or how to escape, I go for a bike ride. Or to a movie. If I can relax and not pressure myself to find an answer, it usually comes to me.
Bookish: You’ve said that you resisted the urge to change or update the reissue of The Damascus Cover (you added a new foreword but that’s it). What was it like when you first began revisiting your first novel for the reissue?
HK: When I first started to reread the novel, it was like seeing an old friend I had not seen in a very long time. The more time we spent together, the more I recognized why we are friends. Some of the interrogation scenes were a bit difficult for me to read after all this time, as I’m softer and mellower now than I was in my 20s shortly after my experiences in the USSR. Some things I did not remember at all, but overall, though I had initial trepidation, reading the screenplay first eased me back into it, so I enjoyed myself. It was my first novel, so it will always be very dear to me.
Howard Kaplan, a native of Los Angeles, has lived in Israel and traveled extensively through Lebanon, Syria and Egypt. At the age of 21, while attending school in Jerusalem, he was sent on a mission into the Soviet Union to smuggle out a dissident’s manuscript on microfilm. His first trip was a success. On his second trip to the Soviet Union, he was arrested in Khartiv in the Ukraine and interrogated for two days there and two days in Moscow, before being released. He holds a BA in Middle East History from UC Berkeley and an MA in the Philosophy of Education from UCLA. He is the author of four novels.