February 22, 2020

Khashoggi Murder Informs Daniel Silva’s Latest Spy Novel ‘The New Girl’

Daniel Silva speaks at Gindi Auditorium. Photo courtesy of Whizin Center for Continuing Education;

“Those who are familiar with Daniel Silva’s books understand that they are even deeper than a spy thriller. They are about men and women, the choices that they make and foibles of the organizations they work for.”

This is how American Jewish University (AJU) President Jeffrey Herbst introduced the renowned American spy novelist to more than 400 people at AJU’s Gindi Auditorium on July 24. 

Best  known for his long-running thriller series featuring the complex character of Mossad agent Gabriel Allon, the art restorer, assassin and spy, Silva spoke about his writing process and the story behind his recently released thriller, “The New Girl,” which hit No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list that same day. Silva also was joined in conversation with his wife, CNN Special Correspondent Jamie Gangel. 

Throughout the evening, Silva endured light-hearted ribbing and a gentle grilling from Gangel. One of her first questions was how does he feel, after 22 books, to have his 11th or 12th No. 1 N.Y. Times bestseller? 

“It feels better than a sharp stick in the eye,” Silva replied. “Joking aside, I sit here tonight pleasantly surprised. It never gets old. I always knew that I wanted to be a writer and that I could be a writer. I never imagined that I would actually earn a living as a writer or that I would write more than four books and I would never dare to have imagined a No. 1 bestselling book.”

“I took 250 pages and dropped them in the trash can. I could not have such a flattering portrait of the Saudi prince after what happened, because the most interesting man in the world had become the vilest man in the world.” — Daniel Silva

“The New Girl” begins with a young girl, who is a new student at a prestigious school in Geneva that caters to the children of diplomats. Her classmates and teachers have been told she is the daughter of a wealthy Egyptian businessman but her father is really Khaled bin Mohammed, crown prince of Saudi Arabia, and when she is kidnapped, the crown prince turns to Gabriel Allon for help.

The world of “The New Girl” parallels closely the murder of Saudi dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Silva said. “I had been watching Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) for a number of years,” he explained. “The Saudi crown prince was saying some incredibly remarkable things. He expanded women’s rights and wanted to normalize life in Saudi Arabia. He spoke openly about recognizing the right of Israel to exist and that was the idea that rose up in demand to be written.” 

Silva started working on “The New Girl” in August 2018. “What really attracted me to it was to explore this very profound, real-world secret relationship that had developed between Israel and Saudi Arabia. I also wanted to cast a member of the Saudi family in a positive light. I used to call MBS ‘the most interesting man in the world.’ ”

However, all that changed in early October after Silva said he learned MBS was behind the brutal murder of Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. “I took 250 pages and dropped them in the trash can because what I had written simply did not match up to the environment in which it was going to be published,” he said. “I could not have such a flattering portrait of the Saudi prince after what happened, because the most interesting man in the world had become the vilest man in the world.”

Gangel went on to ask the burning question frequently on the minds of Silva’s fans: Is he the real Gabriel Allon? 

“Are you joking?” Silva quipped. “Maybe if he wanted to disguise himself as a bookish nerd. I spend a lot of time with him. I dream about him. I do not fantasize about that kind of life. He is not my alter ego. I don’t have a violent bone in my body. Gabriel and his team are jetting around the world, scrambling and chasing the bad guys and I can barely make it through a book tour.”

As good as Allon is with a paintbrush, Silva is even better with a pencil and legal pad, which he famously uses to write the first drafts of his novels. “I like to lie on the floor when I work. I keep the room dark and as cold as possible and I write in long hand with pencils on legal pads. I thought I was alone in this but if you Google [the late Scottish writer] Muriel Spark, one of my favorite writers, you will see a beautiful picture of her lying with her manuscripts on the floor.”

When asked by an audience member whether the series might someday make the leap to film or TV, Silva said he had been in negotiations but that he was concerned about keeping control of the end product. “The material is complicated. Having an Israeli character is complicated. An Israeli product in the rest of the world is a problem.” 

He added that several respected actors had approached him over the years, trying to get the rights to the role. “I always wanted Daniel Day-Lewis to play the part,” Silva said. “Unfortunately he retired. So that leaves me with my second choice, at least this one is a good consolation prize because I think if anyone could capture the spirit of Gabriel Allon it’s him. It just has to be Will Ferrell,” he joked. 

When it came to signing his books, Silva thanked the audience members for their support. “I never want to disappoint my fans,” he said. “I hear from you how much you love the characters; how much you love Gabriel, and that does put pressure on me that each book if it’s not better than the last, it at least has its place in the series. So I put everything I have into every book I write. I leave nothing of myself behind.”