I am very excited and privileged to host an interview with Howard Kaplan, author of The Damascus Cover, a novel which has been adapted into a film starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers and John Hurt! Here he discusses his experiences writing a novel, what research such a novel requires, and the processes behind transforming his story from the page to the big screen.
I’m the author of four novels, three published and one to be released around the time The Damascus Cover film will be in theaters in early 2016. I was born and live in Los Angeles always seem to return here as a home base but travel greatly. In my 20’s I lived in London for a time and had close friends in the East End. I learned a lot from them and used them as prototypes in my novels. My Gants Hill friend used to battle the National Front blokes, or geysers as he would say; he was a gentle soul, a lay veterinarian who loved animals and standing across from you with lightning speed could buck you flat with his forehead.
Tell us more about The Damascus Cover. How did the book come about?
When I was 21, I flew to Beirut with a friend and took a shared taxi to Damascus. We stopped in Marjeh Sqaure, 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. Many of the professional and blog reviewers remark about the great detail of Damascus. An Amazon reviewer recently wrote:
The book is fast-paced, with more twists and turns than Monte Carlo. At times I could hear the muezzin, taste the olives, so beautifully does Kaplan describe the Damascene backdrop.” The book was written long before the Syrian Civil War so what’s happened is it’s became an artifact as to what Damascus was like before the destruction.
How was the novel picked up for a film adaptation?
Sometimes you just get lucky. The director was looking for a Middle East book to adapt and it turns out we have a mutual friend. She gave him The Damascus Cover, he read it and we met for coffee. No agents. The project began to take off when he brought on the producer of Gosford Park, so this is a British production so not a great coincidence that we have Jonathan Rhys Meyers as the lead and Sir John Hurt as the head of the Israeli Secret Service who is the puppet master of the novel and film. The novel is in its heart a book about reconciliation, in this case between Israel and the Arab countries, so the topicality seems perennial.
How much input do you have in the film adaptation?
I saw an early draft of the script and made some small suggestions all of which they liked and took. Unexpectedly, I’ve had greater input in post production. I’ve seen several edits and made a number of suggestions, mostly cuts to streamline the plot. A sesasoned novelist knows that no matter how good a scene is, if it doesn’t advance the story and character, it needs to go. They were extraordinarily grateful for my notes and actually used them all. I have a close friend who is the estate attorney for Michael Jackson and a large number of Hollywood people, including many writers. He tells me the novelist never gets such input but I was in Casablanca for a week during shooting in March of 2015, and I’ve kept close relations with the film team, though all the post production work is being done in London. I see the director every time he’s in Los Angeles and as I’m writing this he’ll be here later this week.
How did you go about researching for the book? What is it about this genre that calls to you more than others?
I spent some time in Damascus as I mentioned. I then read everything written about the city. And God bless the British travel writers, they’ve been everywhere and written about it. I had a large map of Damascus up on my wall to plot the action. My favorite writer is John Le Carre and I’ve always loved the opportunity to write a great suspenseful story, with deep characters and a political message. Nobody anywhere does it better than LeCarre so I think I was drawn to the genre, the chance to write serious suspense, through reading his books, and I’ve read them all, which isn’t always easy as some are verbose.
Do you find that the book is gaining traction due to its topicality?
The book and I, to my great pleasure and amusement, are suddenly getting a lot of attention. I think the topicality is two fold, one, that it is really about the need for the Middle East countries to get along which has never been more apparent than it is now. And secondly, the obvious, Damascus is now on everybody’s radar. It doesn’t happen often in life, but I seem to be in the right place at the right time.
What was particularly challenging about writing this book, and how did you handle this?
The Damascus Cover was my first novel and the real challenge was believing in myself, that I could write a book. I had a father who told me in general how wonderful I was, and in specific what a loser, you’ll never amount to anything slacker I was. He had a great facility to make money but none to see himself. So I was more the kind of person who thought, I don’t think I can do that, but I SHOULD try. The good news is that I generally after a period of great sloth push myself and indeed I did. Once I get going I’m like a locomotive and I just barrel forward.
What excites you most about the upcoming film?
The cast has been mind blowing. Jonathan Rhys Meyers is beyond a fabulous actor. He gives his all to every scene and I was on set for a week of 10 hour a day shoots. His cover is a German businessman, Hans Hoffman, and hair dyed blonde he does the entire film in a German accent. They brought in a language coach from Berlin and the two of them were zealous that none of his Irish brogue bled into his German. The German actor, Jurgen Prochnow (Das Boot, the DaVinci Code) told me at breakfast in the hotel that the accent is flawless. Olivia Thirlby, best known as the sidekick in Juno, is a delight. She’s young and where Jonny, as he likes to be called, hits his lines perfectly each time she experimented with different takes until she found her spot. It was exhilarating. There are some great scenes too with her and Navid Negahban (Abu Nazir in Homeland). Navid was at my house for a barbecue last month and we talked about how great Olivia is. John Hurt was not on set in the week I was there so I missed meeting him.
What has been your favourite review for the book so far?
I have two, the Los Angeles Times and the American Library Association:
Los Angeles Times
“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.”
American Library Association (starred review)
“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.”
What do you think of the current schemes going on right now, where authors/readers/libraries/publishers are providing books for Syrian refugees? How important is it that the book industry supports those in need due to war and terrorism?
I think this is fabulous and important but alas in the cold hard world, money talks. A British Young Adults writer, who happens to be on my twitter feed, Patrick Ness, offered 10,000 pounds this past weekend for refugee help and tweeted to writers to help. By the end of the weekend he’d raised 400,000 pounds. It was vastly impressive and moving.
Do you have any advice, as a successful author, for up-and-coming writers?
Don’t be afraid to take risks. There’s no way to know if a scene or an idea works until you actually write it and see. I think it’s vital to know the end before you begin, where you’re going so that all roads have a destination and none are side trips, albeit brilliant ones.
What new work do you have coming up?
The Jerusalem Spy Series initially will be comprised of 3 novels that share a common theme: reconciliation and hope. Between Israel and the Arab countries in The Damascus Cover and between Israelis and Palestinians in Bullets of Palestine and the forthcoming To Destroy Jerusalem. Bullets is about an Israeli agent and Palestinian agent challenged to work together to hunt down and kill an extremist Arab terrorist, Abu Nidal, who is killing both Jews across Europe and moderate Palestinians. It’s the most historical of all my novels and is set often at real events, for example the massacres of women, children and old men in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatilla in Lebanon by the Christian Phalange party. To Destroy Jerusalem will tackle the nuclear terrorism threat. I’m finishing now and expect to bring out in early 2016.