“KAPLAN IS UP THERE WITH THE BEST” – CLIVE CUSSLER
In a last ditch effort to revive his career, washed out agent Ari Ben-Sion accepts a mission he never would have 30 years ago, to smuggle a group of Jewish children out of the Damascus ghetto. Or so he thinks.
In Damascus, a beautiful American photographer, Kim, seems to be falling in love with Ari, but she is asking too many questions. His communication equipment disappears. His contact never shows up. The operation is only hours away and everything seems awry. Desperate to succeed, Ari might risk everything. Even his life.
Feature film adaptation starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers,Sir John Hurt and Olivia Thirlby in theaters 2017.
Reading your bio I’m intrigued with not only your books, but what it must have been like for you being arrested by the KBG in Russia? That’s a story in itself! How on earth did this feel at the time?
In London, through a friend of a friend, I was recruited to fly to Moscow and retrieve a manuscript on microfilm. In the USSR, all unpublished work was considered property of the State so potential émigrés could not leave with it. On my first trip I brought this microfilm out, and the following year transferred a manuscript to the Dutch Ambassador in his embassy. Outside the embassy, the KGB guard has scrutinized my passport and allowed me to enter with my story that I was a friend of the ambassador’s son. Later on my fourteen day tour, I was arrested in Kharkov (now Kharkiv in Ukrainian) after meeting with dissidents. The KGB interrogated me for two days there and two more in Moscow. They were most interested in who had sent me. I convinced them my only way to reach my contact was that he was meeting my scheduled flight to Heathrow. I was expelled in a formal ceremony in my hotel room and taken to that flight. I was picked up on the 10th day of a 14 day tour, so I okay as long as I was expelled by the end of that tour, which happened. Had I not been, I’d have been terrified. They threaten that they’re going to put you on trial and there’s always the fear that I’d be the one it actually happened to.
And this lead to your writing career taking off?
In the departure lounge one of the two KGB officers who was handling me, pulled me to the side and said, ‘We’ve been very nice to you haven’t we?’ I agree. He said, ‘Then I don’t expect to see anything about this ever in print.’ I thought, hey, I could become a writer and write about such things. I have gotten more attention as a writer because of this experience but the writing came later.
In your second novel, Bullets of Palestine, you’ve chosen to write about two very different characters, one Palestinian, the other Israeli. Was it your intention to show these characters in a different light, and how do you feel their lives add to the story’s conflict?
In Bullets of Palestine, I wanted to show both sides as humans and people, not stereotypes. My favorite review of that book is from a Palestinian journalist in East Jerusalem who said after reading it,he began to see Israelis differently, as human beings.
I notice you hold a BA in Middle East History from UC Berkeley and have lived in Israel and travelled extensively through Lebanon, and Syria. What started this passion for learning and writing about the Middle East?
I actually met a professor from Columbia University when I was 20 during the summer. We got to talking and he dared me to come with him to Jerusalem for the year, where he would be teaching on his sabbatical year. He was persuasive that 3 years at Berkeley and one in Jerusalem would be more beneficial than another year at Berkeley, so I said yes. I think I always like a dare.
It must be very exciting to have your book made into a major motion picture starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers and the late Sir John Hurt. That’s got to be every writer’s dream! Were you able to take any part in the film’s creation, or to watch it being filmed? I can’t imagine what it would be like to see actors on the big screen playing characters from a book I’d written.
They shot the film in Casablanca and Morocco. It was a two month shoot and I was there for 10 days. I did not get to meet John Hurt, who recently passed away, but I spent a good deal of time with Rhys Meyers who likes everyone to call him Jonny. I was him again last September in Boston at the World Premier of the film at the Boston Film Festival. He’s a remarkable man, an autodidact, plays his own guitar in the several movies he’s made that required it, and intensely passionate both on and off the screen. It was hard to imagine that we could get people like in this small 5 million dollar indie film, but I’ve had a lot of luck as well as the other thing in my life and this is part of the luck side. The director, Dan Berk, wrote the screenplay but he came to me during the editing phase, showed me what he had and I had a lot of input in how it was edited. I actually cut out 10 minutes I thought were slow, and I have to add were not in the novel. So I had more influence than most writers.
Are you working on any other projects at the moment?
I have a new novel, THE SPY’S GAMBLE, which should be out in late March. It follows the earlier novel, Bullets of Palestine, and is a contemporary look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with a lot of history woven through the narrative. Again, I’m always interested in showing the strengths and weaknesses of both sides rather than touting one. I spent a lot of time in Palestinian refugee camps, with Israeli settlers, in Hebron and with former espionage agents I know in Israel to do the research.
WHERE DID YOU GET THE ORIGINAL IDEA FOR THE DAMASCUS COVER?
I went to Damascus with a friend while on my junior year abroad in Jerusalem. There we visited the central Marjeh Square where an actual Israeli spy, Eli Cohen, had been publicly hung in 1965. He had infiltrated to the highest levels of the Syrian Secret Service. It gave me the idea for a character in Damascus who also reaches those levels there. I also thought that Damascus, the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, physically made a terrific setting for a suspense novel. The novel is rich with description of what Damascus and Syria was like before the Civil War so it’s turned out that the novel serves as an artifact for what the city was like. The line, “Damascus is the oldest continuously inhabited city on the planet,” made it into the film, as it’s in the novel. It’s spoken by the German actor Jurgen Prochnow, most famous for work in DAS BOOT and THE DAVINCI CODE.
I’ve seen both DAS BOOT and THE DAVINCI CODE! Very exciting!