Not many authors are able to snag a movie deal almost 40 years after their book was published. I am thrilled to be able to talk with Howard Kaplan about his books and the upcoming film “The Damascus Cover.”
HOWARD KAPLAN, a native of Los Angeles, has lived in Israel and traveled extensively through Lebanon, Syria and Egypt. At the age of 21, while attending school in Jerusalem, he was sent on a mission into the Soviet Union to smuggle out a dissident’s manuscript on microfilm. His first trip was a success. On his second trip to the Soviet Union, he was arrested in Khartiv in the Ukraine and interrogated for two days there and two days in Moscow, before being released. He holds a BA in Middle East History from UC Berkeley and an MA in the Philosophy of Education from UCLA. He is the author of four novels.
Feature film production on his novel The Damascus Cover wrapped in Casablanca on March 23, 2015 starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Olivia Thirlby, and Sir John Hurt.
Melanie Rockett: You wrote The Damascus Cover almost 40 years ago. It was a bestseller for a time, but then as books do, just slowly stopped selling. Then NIRVANA … a movie deal and the book is selling like hot cakes again! I am intensely curious to know how a movie deal came about after so long?
Howard Kaplan: I think of success as a combination of skill and luck. Sometimes more of one of the other takes center stage. The film deal was a combination of a story of reconciliation, which is an eternal theme that stays timely, and great luck. It’s a fast moving story with a twist few see coming that has been translated into seven languages. The director wanted to do a Middle East film, happened to mention this to a mutual friend we have and she handed him The Damascus Cover. He read it, called me, we met at Peets Coffee in Beverly Hills, and before we were finished the deal was done. So this was mostly great luck.
Melanie Rockett: About ten years after you wrote The Damascus Cover, your second book the Bullets of Palestine came out. You have now completed the third book in the series. Are all the books connected or are they totally different stories?
Howard Kaplan: The Jerusalem Spy series will be comprised initially of three books. The Damascus Cover, Bullets of Palestine and To Destroy Jerusalem. Bullets was originally published in 1987 and Jerusalem is completely new and will be out in early 2016. Bullets of Palestine is a story about hope and reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians. Most political writing about the region is about self-justification and blame. Fiction has the ability to look at people as they are, how they live, the futures they want. I’ve spent a lot of time in both the Jewish and Palestinian areas, and felt through a suspense novel I could both tell an exciting story, impart history and show how both peoples really are. The novel has been highly praised as a suspense work in both the Arab and Israeli press. The direct link between The Damascus Cover and Bullets of Palestine is the head of the Israeli Secret Service, the Colonel. Though he’s been pushed out and is in retirement now, he has the vast power of a network of friends and he’s the driving force behind both stories. Again, I was beyond lucky to get Sir John Hurt to play him in the film.
Melanie Rockett: You were, in fact and indeed a “real life spy.” You came back to the US from Israel, Syria and Russia and wrote a thriller. Then what? What did you do in the three decades between Bullets of Palestine and To Destroy Jerusalem?
Howard Kaplan: I learned a few things from both smuggling manuscripts out of the old USSR and from being interrogated. I first went to the Soviet Union when I was 21 and again the next year. On the first trip I smuggled a manuscript on microfilm to the West and on the second I passed a physical manuscript to the Dutch Ambassador in his Embassy. Later I was arrested after meeting dissidents in the Ukraine and interrogated for four days before being expelled. What surprised me most was how close the parallel in real life was to espionage fiction. For example, while under interrogation, the phone would ring and the interrogator would pick it up if whoever was listening did not like my answers. It was right out of any spy movie. He’d be given more questions to ask or have me clarify. I was taken by plane from Kharkiv to Moscow with two KGB agents on both sides of me on the plane like bookends, so I saw how they worked.
As for the gap between books, I got married and divorced and focused greatly on raising my son, who lived with me most of the time and has just graduated from Oberlin College. I taught comparative Arabic and Israeli literature in English translation at UCLA and creative writing at UCLA Extension. I worked too on a long family memoir.
Melanie Rockett: I am curious about how you found the difference between writing your first books (typewriters) and your most recent book (computer). Did the technology make it easier or did you follow the same process? AND can you share your process? Do you just start writing? or do you block everything out first, or use some other method of writing?
Howard Kaplan: It was vastly different writing with a typewriter. When I originally wrote The Damascus Cover, I could not afford a typist. I remember once the pages got so messy I had to type over the whole book. I sat and listened to Cat Stevens’ Tea for the Tillerman over and over and mesmerized myself. The plus side was there was no “Find” function which I use endlessly as a writer. I think about something I want to rewrite and with a keyword can locate it immediately. The down side is a bit of laziness. To work on The Damascus Cover, I knew the book so well by the end if someone recited a sentence anywhere I could recite the next by heart.
What I need to know before I begin a book is how it will end. I think this is true for a lot of writers but particularly suspense writers. There’s nothing worse than a book or movie, and usually it’s a movie, with lots of cliffhangers that don’t pay off in the end. As long as you know where you’re going, you’re free to roam in different directions in the ride along the way, as long as they head there.
Melanie Rockett: What’s next? I expect you will be hugely busy with interviews and guest appearances when The Damascus Cover movie is released. In the mean time are you writing another book or do you have other projects on the go?
Howard Kaplan: The film will be out in early 2016 so I’ve timed To Destroy Jerusalem, the third book in the series to come out then. It too has many of the same characters. It deals with the nuclear issue in the Middle East and oddly again more luck as with negotiations with Iran, nuclear bombs have become center stage again. I’m starting to do more television and print interviews. For example, I’ll be on the David Pakman Show this week. I want to start a new book but all this has been distracting, and wonderfully I was on the film set in Casablanca earlier this year, so pretty soon I’ll go into hibernation and start tapping away at volume four in the series, before the film comes out and the interviews and fun pull me from my cave.
Find out more details about The Damascus Cover and the upcoming movie in this fascinating interview with Media Mayhem’s Alison Hope Weiner and novelist Howard Kaplan.
Fans can connect with Howard Kaplan on his Damascus Cover Facebook Page
And be sure to keep track on Howard Kaplan’s Amazon Author Page for more updates about his upcoming book To Destroy Jerusalem