The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal runs from Georgetown, in Washington, D.C., to Cumberland, Md. In D.C., it's the sort of location ideal for Ralph Lauren photo shoots: quaint without being kitschy, with babies and dogs strolling comfortably among college students sporting metal posts through every available patch of skin. Its peaceful, bucolic setting is not what PW expects for the interview with Daniel Silva, the bestselling author of The Kill Artist and a string of other highly successful espionage thrillers for Random House. His latest, The English Assassin, with his current protagonist, the art restorer and freelance Mossad hit man Gabriel Allon, was published last month by Putnam.
Silva is at home in this element, a husband and father who might be one of the locals' professors, with the radiant smile and clear skin that are God's gifts to all his children who have worked in television. "I'm no longer a practicing journalist," he says without regret (Silva is an old CNN hand who has done time in Cairo). "TV production didn't offer the flexibility" for writing full-time, as the pull of the espionage thriller genre for Silva was strong and clear. "I'm fascinated by the subject--history guided by men of the secret world." Indeed, some of his past novels (featuring long-suffering CIA agent Michael Osbourne) are characterized by shadowy cabals of spies and corporate titans pulling geopolitical strings for private gain.
With The Kill Artist (2000), however, Silva broke new ground, basing a series around the scarred and sympathetic hero Gabriel Allon, an art restorer and kidon (assassin, literally "sword" in Hebrew) for "The Office," Silva's canny rendition of the Mossad's "wet-work" department. Allon is a sort of Jewish Lord Byron, a veteran of the Black September era who lost his wife and child to Arab terrorists. The parallel metaphors of restoration and observation run deeply through both The Kill Artist and The English Assassin. Gabriel is "a reluctant destroyer," Silva says of his hero, one who can "restore anything but himself. "I wanted to show what this kind of work does to people. It's awful work, and it leaves scars." Gabriel is partially based on the real-life art restorer David Bull, of whom Silva speaks with genuine awe. "It was one of those thunderbolt moments," Silva says of the inspiration for his protagonist's genesis. "As a technique for developing a major character, I often prefer to work from the outside in. I like to watch them from a distance, through the eyes of a perfect stranger, before I go inside their head. I think there's a bit of voyeurism involved.... But I also believe that it's possible to learn a great deal about a character in a novel--or anyone for that matter--by simply watching him." Gabriel himself is an excellent watcher, a crucial part of both his cover and profession, which drives him relentlessly through the plot of The English Assassin, on the trail of looted Nazi artwork now hidden deep in the warren of Zurich's banking system.
The new book's title will connect for fans of The Kill Artist; Gabriel's new foe, a former commando turned freelance assassin, is the British alter ego to Gabriel's hermetic cover on the Cornwall coast. Longtime Silva fans will also appreciate the pivotal role of Ari Shamron, Gabriel's duplicitous spymaster, so ruthless he actually sets up his own man for the Swiss police for appearances' sake: "It was quite an accomplishment, don't you think?... Finding a man thirty minutes after he leaves the scene of a murder. I wonder how Herr Peterson managed to do that. He must be very good."
Silva is at home with his genre as he is in his neighborhood. "The thriller was born in uncertain times," he says, briefly climbing a wooden stairway that connects canal-goers with coffee products. "There are fewer rules than a police procedural or crime fiction, [leaving] more license for storytelling. I like to offer enough detail for verisimilitude--once you learn enough from the experts, you stop and let the imagination take over." This allows for more streamlined writing without the overwhelming detail that distinguishes espionage thrillers from more purely military ones. Not that Silva skimps on research: his meticulously drawn overseas locales are the result of serious flight time (now somewhat curtailed) and an intimate relationship with the Georgetown library. But Silva becomes noticeably reticent when asked about his sources in the international intelligence community, and withholding their identities from this interview is deliberate.
The C&O canal reminds Silva of the complex navigation of his publishing career, from the first draft of The Unlikely Spy (1995) reaching Esther Newberg's hands via David Rosenthal at Villard ("I remember reading it until 3 a.m. and being unable to wait until 8 a.m. to call and say, 'I have to represent this book,' " Newberg recalls later in her office in New York). Rosenthal and Newberg made a deal for two books, but Rosenthal left for S&S after publication of the first, and Silva was taken on by Ann Godoff at Random House, with Daniel Menaker editing. Last year, a more tangled course brought Silva to Putnam on the heels of an unforeseen executive move in the opposite direction--the migration of then-president Phyllis Grann--to Random House. In Newberg's words: "Life is very complicated in publishing."
The folks at Putnam are overjoyed to have him. If nothing else, Silva is a good author from the editorial perspective. "He's extremely conscientious," says his Putnam editor, Neil Nyren. "Any notes you give him, he'll immediately go beyond them and make them better than they were. He's just a real joy to work with. Some people here had read his earlier stuff and some hadn't, but whichever camp they were in--we publish a lot of suspense here, but this really stood out. Everybody was immediately on board. They felt that this was someone we had to put our best efforts behind."
And so they did. "We have a great track record for publishing continuing bestselling authors," says publishing director Daniel Harvey. "We feel that we can move him to another level, based on a combination of working hand-in-hand with our accounts. I think I'm being correct by saying this was not a hard book to sell into any account.
"No one's taken for granted here. If a Daniel Silva joins our group, we do everything. The English Assassin is a total focus book right now for us; we want to drive that book to a level where he's never been before. We look under every rock. Just because he's been on the bestseller list before is not enough. Whether it's to go to #1 or #15, it's not taken for granted. Every Thursday morning at 8:30, we'll sit around and say, 'What more do we need to do for Dan Silva? We've got a great plan. He loves it, his agent loves it, the sales department loves it, but what have we forgotten?' "
"Deep down, Dan always wanted to be published by Phyllis Grann, who does so many commercial bestsellers. It's the genre she did at Putnam as well as anybody else has ever done," Newberg says. "Last spring, I made a deal for two books, not knowing that Phyllis would leave, but I have great confidence in the team that's in place. They love the book. The marketing and publicity package is as detailed as any I've ever seen."
Silva's own response to questions about the move is neutral and concise, betraying his journalistic background. "I'm obviously sorry to see [Grann] go, I consider her a friend. [On the other hand], to be published by Carole Baron and Neil Nyren--I couldn't be in better hands. I'm a good fit at Putnam, and I had great relationships at Random House." A station break is taken while the author checks with his wife, TV anchor Jamie Gangel, to determine who will pick up the two children that afternoon . Silva is 100% USDA-approved Author Dad, juggling a rigid writing and research schedule with his family life. As with many authors, he has little to say on the more commercial aspects of his work, such as foreign rights (his books have been published in 19 languages in 20 countries) or promotional plans. And then there are the big post-September 11 touring question to consider, quite appropriate for an author whose books are littered with fanatical terrorists and car bombs. Does he have trepidations about so much travel?
Silva gives a smoothly considered response: "Current events will definitely hinder on-site research... [but] I'm going to do satellite radio." This works better for him, he says, now leaving the canal's path for home, because "I'm actually extremely shy."