A Gathering of Spies
At the tail end of summer, 1998, I joined my father on a train traveling from Beijing to Moscow – the Trans-Siberian express. For more than two weeks we traveled west across China, Mongolia, Siberia, and Russia, in rickety coach cars pulled by an old-fashioned coal-burning engine.
Days passed between stops. Soon, I’d read the half-dozen books I’d brought along. My eyes turned to my Dad’s collection, wondering what might get me through to the next remote Siberian outpost.
One book stood out.
Earlier that summer, I’d seen Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. Somehow the movie had snuck into theaters without crossing my radar, so I’d been completely unprepared for what I witnessed. I was twenty-eight years old. Until then, my awareness of World War II had been a second-hand awareness, filtered through Raiders of the Lost Ark and Captain America comics.
The first twenty minutes of Saving Private Ryan knocked me on my ass. In the months since seeing the movie, I’d struggled to get my mind around what it might have been like to struggle up Omaha Beach under heavy enemy fire. And so one of the father’s books, on that long Siberian railroad journey, stood out to me immediately. The Unlikely Spy, by Daniel Silva, was set during World War Two.
I’d been a passionate reader since early childhood (see SOME BOOKS THAT CHANGED MY LIFE). But this was the first spy novel I’d ever read, excepting some Ian Fleming that had turned me off because it was so different from the Roger Moore Bond movies I’d grown up with. (Since then, the Fleming novels have risen in my estimation and the Moore movies, although undeniably fun, have foundered.)
The Unlikely Spy was as much of a revelation as Saving Private Ryan. The behind-the-scenes espionage game was every bit as fascinating as the war with guns and bombs. On that first reading, I was particularly struck by Silva’s inclusion of Hitler and Churchill as characters. I told my father that it took huge brass balls to try to write Hitler. He answered that actually, it was pretty standard for the genre. And that, in his opinion, The Unlikely Spy was Silva’s spin on an earlier novel, Ken Follett’s The Eye of the Needle.
After getting home, I started writing a new book. (By then I’d been trying – and failing – to publish a novel for twelve years, as detailed in ABOUT ME.) This would be my first World War Two book and my first spy thriller. And, goddamnit, I would write Hitler. If it was ‘pretty standard for the genre’, after all, why not?
But before writing, I read. I read The Eye of the Needle and found it even better than The Unlikely Spy. I read The Day of the Jackal, by Frederick Forsyth. I read Hitler’s Spies by Kahn, and Fatherland and Enigma by Harris, and SS Intelligence by Blandford and The Game of the Foxes by Farago, and Meeting at Potsdam by Charles Mee, Jr. and Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman by Richard Feynman.
And I read William Shirer’s masterpiece The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. That was the one that put all the rest in context. At last, I felt ready to take a stab at telling a story occurring more than a quarter-century before my birth. And so I sat down at my keyboard, cracked my knuckles, and started my first World War II novel. That became A Gathering of Spies.
It provided my first sale – to the same editor, as it happened, who had published The Eye of the Needle more than twenty years before. And it set me on a path of writing spy thrillers that to this day, more often than not, feature strong female antiheroes.
For twelve years, I’d been trying to publish a book. Now I’d finally succeeded – and with more of a bang, in terms of payday and publisher, than I’d ever expected. But suddenly I found myself confronting a problem that had never even occurred to me: