Stealing Books from the KGB: A Q&A with Author and Spy Howard Kaplan

Howard Kaplan, The Damascus CoverHave you ever wondered how James Bond got his start? Espionage is a common and thrilling topic in fiction but for some people, like author and former spy Howard Kaplan, it’s just another day in the Soviet Union. We sat down with Kaplan to talk about his book The Damascus Cover, its upcoming movie, how exactly one gets into the international spy business — and what's it like to have your book made into a movie, 37 years later.

How does one become a spy? Was it an easy position for you to accept?
John Lennon said, “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.” I did not set out to go to the Soviet Union to smuggle a manuscript on microfilm to the West. When I was a student at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem on my junior year abroad, a friend from Los Angeles, who also was on the program, met a guy who was recruiting students to travel to Russia on our way home. She took me to meet them, so it all happened rather by chance. A group of us met once a week for the school year, were taught some basic and some advanced things that would be useful, and they selected me from the group to bring out the microfilm, which I did. I was 20 and at that age I was game for most anything and doing this was not a difficult decision. I felt fortunate to be chosen.

Why was it important to you to help smuggle manuscripts out of the former Soviet Union?
My parents are Holocaust survivors. My mother spent a year in Auschwitz, is 88 now, suffers from dementia and overtly from the War. I had read several books that summer of 1970, before I started my junior year abroad, about how little had been done to rescue Jews from the camps or to bomb the railroad transport lines. One in particular by Arthur Morse was called While Six Million Died. Reading itDamascus Cover Movie Poster made me crazy. I felt I could not be indignant, and I was outraged, if I too stood by and did nothing to help people suffering under oppression. So when I fell into this opportunity to smuggle dissident’s manuscripts out of the Soviet Union, I had no hesitation.

Your book originally came out 37 years prior to the film, which will be released in 2016. What do you think caused the renewed interest in the story?
I’m often in the wrong place at the right time, however The Damascus Cover happened to be the right book at an opportune time. When I first published it in 1977, Damascus and Syria were not much on peoples’ minds. A number of reviewers—the LA Times and The Chicago Tribune among them—made mention of the detailed descriptions of Damascus, that readers felt they were there in Damascus. Written before the current destruction, the book has unexpectedly become an artifact of life in the Syrian capital with all its scents and locales before the Civil War. The film people were less influenced by the Syrian settings and were interested in a fast-moving story, with twists, that hung on the theme of reconciliation. Right now there is a shortage of coming together anywhere in the Middle East. The director was looking to do a Middle East film. We have a mutual friend who happened to suggest my book to him and that’s how it happened. The idea of pitching it as film now simply hadn’t occurred to me but I seem blessed with helpful friends. I think the prominence of Damascus in the news created greater interest in the novel and the film.

What was it like being on set? How much input did you have on the film?
The film adaptation of The Damascus Cover has been a total treat. The director wrote the script and did show me a copy and invited suggestions. I made a few, all of which he took. I have an enormous sense that this is his film and I have my book. There are a number of departures from the novel in the film, all of which I like. It’s a different medium. The film is a bit less dark than the novel. Maybe all this camaraderie, which I gather is atypical, is because he’s done such a fabulous job on the film. I did not have a clear notion of who would play Ari, the main character, but Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ performance is beyond anything I could have dreamed for. I was on set in Casablanca for a week in February. Ari’s cover is the German, Hans Hoffman, and Meyers plays the role with an impressive German accent. Over breakfast in the hotel, I asked the German actor, Jurgen Prochnow, known for Das Boot and The DaVinci Code how Jonny’s accent sounded and he said with a smile, “Very familiar.” Navid Negahban was at my house for a BBQ in July, he plays the Syrian General Sarraj and is best known as Abu Nazir in Homeland. He talked about how amazing Olivia Thirlby is in his scenes. She’s the love interest and I saw several of her scenes filmed with Jonny. While he found his pitch readily and delivered take after take with the same precision; Thirlby, who is in her 20s and played the sidekick in Juno, experimented with different deliveries and facial expressions until she and the director found her optimum spot. It was something unique to watch. I was shown some early edits for my opinion; again I made some suggestions that were taken. And then there’s John Hurt. I never expected to have someone of that stature and talent play the head of the Israeli Secret Service and puppet master. He’s an amazing human being, has cancer now, and came from the hospital to the studio several weeks ago in London to do his additional dialogue replacement. The film is expected to be in theaters in the spring of 2016.

You’ve said you have trouble re-reading the interrogation scenes in your novel, what about it do you find difficult to read now?
When I wrote the novel I was in my 20s. I’d been through the student movement and riots at Berkeley and been interrogated in the Soviet Union. Mine too was not an easy childhood. I was the brainy kid who wanted to be in the in-crowd, so maybe not so brainy afterall. But then I was pretty hardened. When I was 50, I had a girlfriend who read the novel and the intensity of the interrogation and especially the torture scenes—there are not many but they are explicit—really upset her. She wanted to know if they were research or imagination. I knew what she was after—if they came from my imagination she was worried about who I was. She was a lawyer. I told her the truth, that they were all my original creations. I have a son now, who is 22; blood and gore unnerve me, both in books and on screen, so I could not have written them now, which does not mean I wish I had not then. They fit where I was at the time and they fit the novel. In the film, the director found a great way to have Navid Negahban torture his Israeli spy that is both bloodless yet terrifying. It’s very brief and incredibly effective.

What was it like being held by the KGB?
I was in the Soviet Union when I was 21 and again the following year. On my second trip, I brought a manuscript to the Dutch Ambassador inside his Embassy. Under the Soviets, all unpublished writing remained property of the Communist State, so émigrés had to leave all their uncensored works behind. On my second trip I was arrested, interrogated by the KGB for four days and then released. They grabbed me in the Ukraine for meeting with dissidents. I had nothing incriminating on me and they did not know about the manuscripts I’d transferred. It was rather a benign interrogation in the hotel manager’s office, with bathroom and food breaks available. In the end they brought a prosecutor to my Moscow hotel room and expelled me on my scheduled flight to London, citing a humanitarian gesture. It was the era of détente and I think my American passport really did protect me so I was nervous but not panicked. They arrested me on the tenth day of a fourteen day tour, held me for four days in house arrest and would not let me contact the Embassy. Had they held me beyond my scheduled flight I think I’d have been terrified. It may be too that I was foolishly naïve, and in greater danger than I realized then. I think too that I was more nervous than I admitted to myself. During one break, I took some matches off the interrogator’s desk, lit one just to pass the time, and it dropped on my yellow weave shirt and burned a hole through it. All these years later, I remember that shirt exactly.

What a story! You can grab your copy of the book Damascus Cover here: Amazon | B&N | Kobo | iBooks | IndieBound, and remember to catch the movie this spring! For mroe thrilling reads, why not visit our Everything Mystery page?