If you’re not reading Daniel Silva’s work, you’re missing out on one of the greatest novelists of our generation, period.
In all my time as a critic, nobody has blown me away more than Silva, who in many ways feels like America’s version of John le Carre. He is by far the most gifted spy novelist I’ve covered, and given his recent works, a real argument could be made that he’s perhaps the greatest spy novelist ever.
According to his bio, Silva’s books are published in more than thirty countries and are bestsellers around the world. He serves on the United States Holocaust Memorial Council and lives in Florida with his wife, CNN special correspondent Jamie Gangel, and their two children, Lily and Nicholas.
However, not listed in his bio is that, though there are tens of millions of copies of his books in print around the world, and though he has more #1 New York Times bestselling novels under his belt than most writers dream of, you’d never know it talking to him.
Reaching Mr. Silva by phone on a hot July afternoon day, I sat in my office and asked him about everything from how he came up with the plot idea for his latest book, The Order, to what his writing process is like (he is, after all, one of the few authors I know, along with Nelson DeMille, who still writes out his entire first draft by hand.) Kind, warm, and articulate, Silva extended our interview time so I could ask him additional questions, and he was very generous with his answers—which I couldn’t wait to share with readers.
Though he’s best known for his Gabriel Allon series, which kicked off in 2000 with The Kill Artist, Silva actually published his debut, a standalone novel titled The Unlikely Spy, in 1996. It wasn’t until four years later that Allon was introduced to readers, and that seemed like the best place to open our conversation. So, I asked him when he knew that Gabriel was his franchise character, and his answer might surprise you.
“It wasn’t until I finished the book that introduced the characters who appear in The Order, Pope Paul VII and Luigi Donati, who were in the third book of the series, The Confessor,” Silva told me.
“Actually, when I made the original notes on that book,” Silva continued, talking about The Confessor, “it was not supposed to be a Gabriel Allon book, which is bizarre to think about. So I finished that book, and I thought, ‘okay I think I can take this for the long haul.’ But I will say that at numerous times along the way I have considered pausing the series or writing anther series alongside of it, but Gabriel sort of always rises up and demands to be written. And that’s where I am now.
“Twenty books in, I honestly never would have imagined that. He’s obviously a very different character now than he was before, and I’m writing the books differently than I wrote them in the beginning. Each year is a challenge. I just wipe the slate clean and try to think about how I can make this year’s book unique and different, and I work very hard at it.”
If you’ve never heard Daniel Silva talk, Google an interview with him and click play. The first thing you’ll notice is that he always sounds like the smartest guy in the room, a trait he shares with his beloved hero, one of several in fact, but more on that later.
“This one was especially challenging,” Silva said, talking about The Order, “because I wanted to take Gabriel out of his working-day, intelligence, chief-of-the-Office mold and drop him into something that was a little bit more like the early books. The only way to do that was to put him on vacation and squeeze a novel into a reasonable time period of a vacation. Of course, the period of a conclave—the ten days between a papal funeral and the start of a conclave—was perfect for that. So I squeezed a tremendous amount of plot and action into a very thin window, and here the protagonist is a very reluctant protagonist. If you look at the way I structured it, he’s literally dragged through the story from beginning to end. At every turn, almost, he’s being pulled through the story rather than driving the action.”
In a lot of ways, that line perfectly sums up his character—a very reluctant protagonist. Through much of his career, Gabriel, once known as the wayward son of Israeli intelligence, has been reluctant to rejoin the Mossad, referred to in Silva’s novels simply as the Office. Now, though, he’s two years into his first term as Chief of the Office, a promotion that was years in the making.
Having noticed many patterns and running themes throughout the course of his series, I asked Silva how he goes about crafting a novel. From conception to completed draft, what’s his process like? As it turns out, he never outlines. In fact, he repeatedly explained to me that he can’t outline. It just doesn’t work for him. That’s not to say that that he doesn’t keep story ideas fleshed out in his head, though.
“I just can’t bring a story to life on note cards, never have been able to,” he told me when we chatted about different ways some writers attempt to outline their stories. For most, that helps them figure out the twists and turns, but not Silva. And The Order has a lot of twists and turns, maybe even the single greatest twist he’s pulled off yet.
“I did not necessarily have all of that laid out when I started working on the book,” the author admitted. “If you do it long enough, you know that it becomes second nature—how you bring a character on the page, and this is what’s really going on—so I write it at one level but I have a much deeper understanding about what will happen later. A lot of it’s instinctive, it takes practice, but I have just never been able to outline. To me, it’s just a waste of time. My first draft is, in effect, the outline.
“I wrote this book once, and it was at least a hundred pages more than what it is currently. For me, I just whack down, down, down. Always cutting. It’s very hard to edit up and re-write up. So for me, it’s a process of writing down. I re-write through every stage of the production process—the copyediting stage, the galleys—I even sat on the phone rewriting sentences with the production staff at the very last minutes, and I mean the very last minutes, of this one.”
Because of COVID-19, production is a bit more complicated right now since publishers, like everyone else, are spread out and working from home. For Silva, that meant moving up the print date in order to meet his publication deadline, which his team at Harper pulled off yet again. The Order, which will all but certainly debut at the top of the New York Times bestsellers list sometime this week, has already received positive reviews from all the major trade publications and is being raved about from critics and readers alike.
After joking with Silva about how I’ve always pictured him as Gabriel Allon, I asked him how the two are similar and how they’re different. The author laughed but insisted that he’s not really Gabriel, though he did concede that pieces of him have found their way into Allon over the years.
“I think that subtext enters books oftentimes without the author even really realizing what he’s doing. Am I Gabriel Allon? Do I think of myself as Gabriel Allon? Do I want to be a superhero out there saving the world?” Silva asked with a laugh, “No, I do not. Do we have lots of little similarities between us, do we share some common traits? Absolutely. But I’m not an author who thinks of himself as his character or wants to live the life of his character. I would be completely unsuited for that kind of thing.”
One thing the two definitely share is a love and appreciation for art.
For those who’ve not yet read any of Silva’s books, Gabriel, apart from being an accomplished spy, is also one of the world’s finest art restorers—a career that makes it easy for him to travel around the world without raising too many eyebrows. Whereas someone like Mitch Rapp (Vince Flynn’s protagonist) is always training to take out bad guys, Gabriel, when he’s not working for the Office, is normally knee-deep in restoring a famous painting of some sort.
Moving the interview along, I asked Silva if he had a love of art before creating Gabriel, and if he had to then do a lot of research into art restoration for the books.
“Yes and yes, is the answer there,” said Silva. “I’m an art nut. Mitch Rapp kills people and practices killing people. My guy is an assassin, but I’m an art nut who reads literary fiction and listens to classical music. I just wanted Gabriel to be different, and to have a side to him that is very different than the work that he does. A side to his character that is more important to his character.
“A dear friend of mine truly is one of the world’s finest art restorers. I had dinner with him while I was creating Gabriel and it was just serendipitous to a certain extent, and ultimately was a really great idea. It truly was out of the blue, but by the same token, I never anticipated that this would be a long-term character who would appear in one book and one book only. I knew he was a good character, but because of his nationality and his religion, I didn’t think that he was going to work as a mass-market character, and I have been happily proven wrong. Nobody has been more surprised by the success of this series than I am.”
Several books ago, Silva made the decision to bring back an old character who’d only appeared in one book prior, and fans went nuts.
That character is Christopher Keller—a former member of the British Special Air Service who later became an assassin based off the island of Corsica—who first appeared in The Confessor (2003), before returning in The English Girl (2013). More Jason Bourne-like than Allon, Keller brought some muscle to the series and proved to have great chemistry with Gabriel. Bringing him back truly was brilliant, and I asked Silva why he did it.
“Because he was such an electric character. I mean, here I was, I wasn’t even going to write a Gabriel Allon book, but my publisher talked me into writing a Gabriel book. I wrote the book, I had a title for that book—I still wish it would have been called that, by the way, I wanted to call it The Devil’s Sonata—but my publisher said, ‘no, we’re going to call it The English Assassin.’ And I remember thinking, wait, you want me to write a book about Gabriel Allon and call it The English Assassin?
“Well, Christopher Keller was such a great character, and he still is, so he just sort of sat there and sat there. He was always in the back of my mind, and in many respects, I created the book that became The English Girl in order to bring him back and reunite the two of them. That was a really big book for me, and Gabriel and Keller were great together.”
Indeed, the two are great together, and they’ve become a fan-favorite pairing. One of the reasons they work so well together is that, in many ways, Keller himself becomes one of Gabriel’s restoration projects. Just as Allon is helping Keller get out of the killer-for-hire business, Gabriel too is transitioning to the next chapter of his life, as he finally became Chief of the Office after it was teased for several books.
“He’s got a ways to go yet,” Silva told me when I mentioned Allon too being finally restored, much like Keller. “Quite a ways to go.”
To follow up on his response, I asked how long he imagines Gabriel serving as Chief, and his answer genuinely surprised me because I had just assumed this was the last stop for Gabriel and that we’d see him in this position for many years to come.
“Let’s see how time syncs up,” Silva cautioned me, his tone indicating this was something he’d given a lot of thought to, “but I felt it was inevitable that he had to become Chief of the Office, but I don’t see him becoming like Ari Shamron and spending years and years as chief.
“He’s in his first term, and they do have a pretty firm term structure there. You know, I like Gabriel as a Vancian and having a bit more art in the series. When he’s doing straight Israeli national security stories that sort of falls by the wayside a little bit, and I enjoyed having him back in Venice, at least for a few days.”
Before fans of Silva interpret his words to mean that the author is ready to retire his character and move on without him, he assured me that is not the case at all.
“The opposite is true. I’m putting him on a footing for the long haul so that I can continue to write stories that feature him and his wife, and his associates, that are simple for someone of his age and accomplishments, and Venice is a perfect backdrop for him to live and work. So, that is where he’s angling to end up, but we’ll see if he really ends up there.”
Wrapping things up, I asked Silva about The Order, and how he came up with the story idea for this one—which follows Gabriel as he’s pulled in to investigate the death of Pope Paul VII, only to inadvertently unearth an earth-shattering conspiracy in the process.
“I have somewhere between eight to ten fully formed books in my head,” he told me. “My wife always tells me to write them down, but I can’t. I just can’t. So, I carry them around. The core notion of this book, though, was inspired by the European far-right and their utter disdain for Pope Francis. This is something I’ve been watching for a good three or four years, thinking about and trying to wrap my head around how to plot the book. A number of other pieces fell into place and the story is what it is, but the core inspiration was the antipathy of the European far-right toward the real pope, Pope Francis, and the rise of the far-right in general, and the simultaneous rise of a new, very dangerous wave of anti-Semitism in Europe and in this country.
“I wanted to explore the root of anti-Semitism, and that aspect of the plot is something I’ve been thinking about how to do for probably 15 years. I’ve wanted to write a book that did that for a long time, so I just decided to do them both in this book. That’s how it came to be.”
As for what comes next, well, Silva told me he’s still in the early stages of kicking around ideas. “The plotting … always the plotting,” he repeated with a laugh. But he did tease one small tidbit that’ll likely excite readers: Christopher Keller will be back in the 21st Gabriel Allon novel, which is tentatively slated for release sometime next July.
Whether you’re a longtime reader or new to the series, The Order, the 20th Gabriel Allon thriller from Daniel Silva, is not to be missed. Get your copy today.
Praised as “One of the hardest working, most thoughtful, and fairest reviewers out there” by #1 New York Times bestselling author Lisa Scottoline, Ryan Steck has “quickly established himself as the authority on mysteries and thrillers” (Author A.J. Tata). Steck also works full-time as a freelance editor and pens a monthly thriller column for CrimeReads. For more information, be sure to follow him on Twitter and Facebook. He currently lives in Southwest Michigan with his wife and their six children.