September 1, 2016
The author of the Gabriel Allon thrillers, including the latest, “The Black Widow,” loves F. Scott Fitzgerald and named his son Nicholas after Nick Carraway from “The Great Gatsby.” But his daughter is Lily — “not Daisy or Jordan or Myrtle.”
What books are currently on your night stand?
“Never Let Me Go,” by Kazuo Ishiguro; “Zero K,” by Don DeLillo; “The Finkler Question,” by Howard Jacobson; “Sweet Tooth,” by Ian McEwan; “Pay Any Price,” by James Risen; “The Nightingale,” by Kristin Hannah; and “Undercover,” by Danielle Steel.
What was the last great book you read?
My truly “great” books have all been rereads. Recently, I reread “Lolita” and once again marveled at Nabokov’s amazing, feverish, riotous sentences. Only Nabokov could make the opening of a freezer door sound like poetry. I also reread Greene’s “The Quiet American” and “The End of the Affair.” Greene’s prose was cooler and more economical than Nabokov’s, but no less brilliant. Lately, I enjoyed “Mothering Sunday,” by Graham Swift; “Submission,” by Michel Houellebecq; and “The Truth and Other Lies,” by Sascha Arango. “The Other Side of Silence,” by Philip Kerr, was good company this summer during the many long flights of my book tour: the South of France, a sex scandal and the Cambridge spy ring. Oh, and did I mention that Somerset Maugham is a character in the story? What an entertaining combination!
Do you have an all-time favorite author?
Orwell’s “1984” is my favorite book, with “The Quiet American” and “The Sheltering Sky,” by Paul Bowles, a very close second and third. That said, were I only allowed two books to read for the rest of eternity, they would be “The Great Gatsby” and “Tender Is the Night.” They are good books to be stuck with; one might never tire of such luminous, shimmering prose. My son is named Nicholas after Nick Carraway, and I’m afraid my daughter — her name is Lily, not Daisy or Jordan or Myrtle — loves Fitzgerald even more than I do. She rereads “Tender Is the Night” constantly and is forever calling me to recite passages aloud. I’m afraid it is all my doing.
What genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?
Mainly, I read literary fiction and the piles of nonfiction books I read as part of my research for the Gabriel Allon novels. I have never been drawn to science fiction or fantasy. In fact, I can say with some certainty that I have never read a fantasy novel. I love good crime, but procedure and forensics bore me. In my own work, I try to avoid technology to the degree possible. In today’s world that is getting harder and harder to do.
How do you organize your books?
They are arranged by subject matter, but within each block of books are subsections only I can see. For example, I have a large collection of books dealing with the history of Israel, Zionism and the Arab-Israeli conflict — hardly surprising, given the subject matter of my long-running series. But within that section are smaller subsets of books dealing with, say, Saudi Arabia or Egypt. The works of the Israeli historian Benny Morris are grouped together, as are books dealing with the history of Israel’s intelligence services. Other significant sections in my library include the history of the Holocaust and its aftermath; World War II — with a special focus on the German and Allied intelligence services; the Vatican and the Roman Catholic Church; and the global war on terrorism and the Iraq war. I own a copy of every serious book ever written about British intelligence and the Kim Philby affair, and recently I reread them all as part of my preparation for a forthcoming novel. My collection of fiction is arranged by author — how else could it be? — but it has spilled from the shelves and is now encroaching slowly across the floor of my office. Soon I will have no more room left to work. I suppose I could read e-books, but I’ve never really cared for them. Is a book really a book if it’s not a book?
What might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
Several hardcover copies of Sidney Sheldon’s novels, which are my guilty pleasure. Nearby is a complete hardcover collection of the works of the late, great Dominick Dunne. I know Dunne was an admirer of Fitzgerald, too, but something tells me he also counted Sidney Sheldon as one of his influences.
What’s the best book you ever received as a gift?
Marilyn Ducksworth, my former publicist at Putnam, gave me a first edition of “Our Man in Havana” that occupies a treasured spot on my shelf. I also have a signed copy of “Where the Wild Things Are” in which Maurice Sendak sketched one of his famous figures. Bob Woodward was kind enough to give me a signed collection of his remarkable “Bush at War” series. They are among my most prized possessions. I only wish there had been no need to write such books.
Who is your favorite fictional hero or heroine? Your favorite antihero or villain?
My own hero, Gabriel Allon, is a rather strait-laced character who has no real personality flaws, other than the fact that he’s a bit of a loner and has killed a good many people, most of whom deserved to die. That said, in my own reading I relate to heroes and protagonists who are a bit more flawed and vulnerable. I adore Macon Leary, the wounded travel writer in Anne Tyler’s “The Accidental Tourist”; Barley Blair, the boozy publisher-turned- spy in John le Carré’s “The Russia House”; and the adroitly named Grady Tripp, the marijuana-addled creative writing professor in Michael Chabon’s “Wonder Boys.” I much prefer antiheroes to true villains, especially when they are also narrators of the unreliable variety. Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert, perhaps the most wretched legal guardian in Western literary history, is the gold standard. I also love the unnamed narrator in Josephine Hart’s “Damage,” who so beautifully describes his own destruction, and Barbara Covett, the poisonous London schoolteacher who narrates Zoë Heller’s “Notes on a Scandal.” And how can we leave out Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley, one of the slyest villains ever created.
What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?
My parents were both schoolteachers, so there were a great many books in our house. They were also both voracious readers. In fact, my enduring image of my mother is of her curled at the end of the couch with a book in her hands. I like to say that I was both well read and poorly read. By that I mean that I read both literature and rather trashy commercial fiction, which helped to influence my own style when it came time for me to write. My favorite childhood book was “Make Way for Ducklings,” by Robert McCloskey. When I was in the fourth grade, my teacher read “The Grapes of Wrath” aloud to my class each day after lunch recess. John Steinbeck made me want to become a writer.
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer, with William F. Buckley to serve as referee. I think I would set the table with paper plates and plastic utensils to avoid any undue bloodshed.
Of the books you’ve written, which is your favorite or the most personally meaningful, and why?
It is a question I’m asked often at book signings, and my answer never varies. “A Death in Vienna,” the fourth novel in the Gabriel Allon series, will always be my personal favorite. It contains a fictitious Holocaust testimony, dictated by Gabriel’s mother, which describes her experiences on the death march from Auschwitz in January 1945. As part of my research for the novel, I spent many hours reviewing real testimonies at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem — the original documents, flimsy onionskin pages, typed in Yiddish. To hold such memories in my hands was overwhelming. A professor of Holocaust studies at a prestigious university told me recently that “A Death in Vienna” was on his syllabus and that he used the novel’s climax, a walk through modern-day Treblinka, as a teaching tool. I have received no greater compliment as an author.