Howard Kaplan, a native of Los Angeles, has lived in Israel and traveled extensively through Lebanon, Syria and Egypt. At the age of 21, he had his own spy experience while attending school in Jerusalem, when he was sent on two missions into the Soviet Union to smuggle out a dissident’s manuscript on microfilm. His first trip was a success. On his second trip, however, he was arrested in Khartiv and interrogated for two days in the Ukraine and two days in Moscow, before being released. He holds a BA in Middle East History from UC Berkeley, an MA in the Philosophy of Education from UCLA, and is the author of four novels. Follow him on Twitter at @kaplanhow.
INTERVIEW with HOWARD KAPLAN, The Damascus Cover
Welcome to A Reader’s Review Blog! We would like to thank you for participating in an author interview for The Damascus Cover.
1. Did you have any idea how successful The Damascus Cover was going to be?
I was happy to just be published at all with a first novel. When Dutton sent the book out to the then 10 paperback houses, all ten were interested in reprint rights and Fawcett immediately bid $75,000 for the rights. I was 27 and pleasantly stunned, shocked, thrilled. Soon foreign translation rights started being sold. Portuguese rights in Brazil were sold without the publisher even reading the book on my agent’s recommendation, which really surprised me. Then a publisher in Yugoslavia bought the book but the Central Committee of the Communist Party prevented them from publishing it and banned the book in Communist Eastern Europe. All this was beyond any expectations of interest I had. But I always find what happens in life suprising.
2. Being a Middle East expert, I suspect that some characters/scenes are based on experiences you may have had or witnessed. How much of the book would you say is fact over fiction?
See answer to #4 When I was 21 I took a shared taxi from Beirut to Damascus with a close friend. We visited the famous Omayyad Mosque and then went to visit the Jewish quarter of Damascus. Soon, we saw a man we had spotted in the Omayyad following us; this was far across the city. Mike Wallace did two programs on 60 Minutes about the Jewish community of Damascus in the 1970s then about 5,000 strong. When we were followed in the Jewish quarter we immediately returned to Beirut. But I later did very detailed research on the city of Damascus. God bless the Brits, who have gone everywhere and written memoirs about it.
3. I believe that you had a spy experience of your own in the Soviet Union. Could you please tell us a little about that?
I made two trips into the Soviet Union and travelled from Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) to Tashkent and Samarkand in Soviet Central Asia. Under the Soviets any manuscript not yet published was considered property of the state and anybody who emigrated had to leave what they’d written behind where it was then never published. The first time I went into the Soviet Union, I brought out a dissident’s manuscript on microfilm to London. On my second trip, I transferred a manuscript from a writer to the Dutch Ambassador inside their embassy; he sent it to the West by diplomatic pouch. He was a sympathetic friend to the dissidents. Soviet citizens were prevented from entering foreign embassies, but with an American passport I told the KGB guards outside that I had a close friend who was a friend of the Ambassador’s wife and they let me in. The Ambassador and I made small talk inside while we passed each other notes. In the last one he said, “Be careful, this is not James Bond.” Then he burned all the notes.
4. What was your inspiration to write The Damascus Cover?
When I was in Damascus, I visited Marjeh Square. In the 1960’s the Israelis had a high placed agent in Damascus, Eli Cohen, who became the chief advisor to the head of the Syrian Minister of Defence. He was uncovered and hung in Marjeh Square in 1965 though the intelligence he provided enabled Israel to easily take the Golan Heights in the 1967 6 Day War. It was my inspiration for a novel of an Israeli intelligence agent who penetrates the upper echelons of Syrian Intelligence.
5. Were there any scenes that you found particularly difficult to write?
I wrote the first draft of the book in 9 frenetic months, and enjoyed what I was doing. I had a detailed map of Damascus taped to my wall. I had real passion for the injustice in the world: the folly of the Vietnam War, the murders of the Kennedys so in my mid 20’s I had a lot of anger. A lot of that was released in some torture scenes in the novel. They were not hard for me to write then; they are hard for me to read now.
6. Having travelled in many countries, which is your favourite and why?
I have great passion for lots of places: London, the south of France, anywhere in Italy, and Jerusalem, which I know best of all these places. I’ve had great travel experiences almost everywhere. Once in the Greek section of Cyprus, which appears in The Damascus Cover, we could not understand the menu so the waiter took us into the kitchen and lifted the covers on the pots. I went on photographic safari in Kenya and Tanzania for 10 days when I was 23. Most of the other members were Pan Am stewardesses in their late 20s. I thought I had found Nirvana, but alas they treated me as younger brother but it was great fun nonetheless.
7. What was your reaction to the great reviews you have received and finding out that a movie was to be made?
The reviews came out in 1977 and the movie came together in 2014. I remember reading once about how hard The Beatles worked, that though the sound seemed effortless, the production of it was not. I worked very hard on The Damascus Cover, but the calibre of the reviews still surprised and delighted me. The movie is simply a miracle and a hoot, 37 years after the book was published but it’s testament to how a good story endures the passage of time.
8. How much involvement have you had with the movie production, and will the movie remain true to the story?
I made a few suggestions to the movie script, all of which were greeted by the director with excitement. So we have a very good relationship but this is his script and film and I’m thrilled with it. He has Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Abigail Spencer, Jurgen Prochnow and the actor who played Abu Nazir in Homeland. It’s almost as good as falling in love.
9. Are you an avid reader? Do you have a favourite author/book?
I am a great fan and admirer of John le Carre both for the story telling ability, wrestling with moral issues and the calibre of his prose. I read my regularly for inspiration.
10. What is next for Howard Kaplan?
I have been getting another of my novels, BULLETS OF PALESTINE, ready for release as an Ebook and paperback in November 2014. It’s as novel of Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation. It too seems even more timely than when I originally wrote it. The first week of November 2014 I’ll be in Casablanca on The Damascus Cover film set. I’m doing a walk on.
Thank you for your time! We will look forward to hosting The Damascus Cover. All the best for The Damascus Cover and future works!
Praise for THE DAMASCUS COVER:
“In the best tradition of the new espionage novel. Kaplan’s grasp of history and scene creates a genuine reality. He seems to know every back alley of Damascus and Cyprus.”—Los Angeles Times
“A mission inside Syria, a last love affair, and the unfolding of the plot within a plot are handled by the author with skill and a sure sense of the dramatic.”—The American Library Association (starred review)
“A fine, taut, tense spy story full of furious action.”—The Hartford Courant
“It’s suspense all the way through.”—St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“Exceedingly rich in color about the Syrian capital.”—Chicago Daily News
“The plotting is beautiful.”—BBC News
“… a smartly paced criss-cross laced with enough Mid-East semicruises to snare the MacInness armchair tourists.”—Kirkus