The Damascus Cover
Nearly forty years after it was first published, my spy novel, The Damascus Cover, recently wrapped as a feature film starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Sir John Hurt, Olivia Thirlby (Juno), Jurgen Prochnow (Das Boot) and Navid Negahban (Abu Wazir in Homeland.) This qualifies as rather lucky. I think of success, in all aspects of life, as a combination of skill and luck. At times either one can play the crucial role. As a writer, I’ve had my share of good fortune, as well as that other thing.
The film came about through a chance meeting. The director wanted to do a Middle East picture, mentioned this to a mutual friend and she gave him The Damascus Cover. He read it that night, called me in the morning—I live in Los Angeles--we met at Peets Coffee in Beverly Hills and by the second cup the deal was done. It took several years to secure financing which catapulted forward when the producer of Gosford Park came aboard. The script follows the spine of the novel, with some changes, which I like.
The book, maybe surprisingly maybe skillfully, is timelier than when originally released. In its secret depths it’s a story of reconciliation, of which there’s been a dearth in the Middle East. The theme broadly is about how secret services and the military—both in Syria and Israel—can circumvent the politicians and clandestinely work together to achieve a greater good. Played out, of course, with the requisite action, betrayals and romance. Two-thirds of the way through writing, I suddenly realized that I could create a significant twist at the story’s end. Not sure if that one was luck or competence but I did not originally have it in mind. I’m particularly pleased at the thriller’s detailed depiction of the streets, sounds and life of Damascus especially since so much of it has been devastated by Civil War.
To my formula for achievement, I add the willingness to risk. I came from a family focused on money and security so rather than suffocate, which I did for a good long while, I fled. While traveling with a friend, we flew to Beirut then took a shared taxi to Damascus, where visas were routinely granted at the border. I fell in love with this fabulous city, where underground Lebanese rivers rose in the desert to create an apricot tree rung oasis, and the oldest continuously inhabited city on earth.
In London, again through a friend of a friend, I was recruited to fly to Moscow and retrieve a manuscript on microfilm. In the USSR, all unpublished work was considered property of the State so potential émigrés could not leave with it. On my first trip I brought this microfilm +out, and the following year transferred a manuscript to the Dutch Ambassador in his embassy. Outside the embassy, the KGB guard has scrutinized my passport and allowed me to enter with my story that I was a friend of the ambassador’s son. Later on my fourteen day tour, I was arrested in Kharkov (now Kharkiv in Ukrainian) after meeting with dissidents. The KGB interrogated me for two days there and two more in Moscow. They were most interested in who had sent me. I convinced them my only way to reach my contact was that he was meeting my scheduled flight to Heathrow. I was expelled in a formal ceremony in my hotel room and taken to that flight. The two men following me in London were later found naked tied to trees in Epping Forest. All of it, some skill and considerable luck. My recent college graduate son is just home from backpacking for two months in Asia and I recall how when I told him this story when he was seven, he was excited about my daring do but suddenly worriedly asked if the two men tied to trees had died. Like lots of things in my life, I didn’t see that coming and assured them they had not but did not add that some months later as my handler was walking home, a car burst onto the sidewalk, smashed into him and sped away. The KGB were very skillful themselves and sent a message; after several weeks in the hospital, he was fine. He remains among my closest friends.
The film adaptation of The Damascus Cover will be in theaters in early 2016. I was on set in Casablanca this spring for an amazing week. Jonathan Rhys Meyers is a consummate actor who throws himself headlong and deeply into every scene and every line of dialog. His cover is as a German, Hans Hoffman, and he does the entire film with a German accent, hair dyed blonde. At breakfast I asked the German actor, Jurgen Prochnow, how Rhys Meyers accent sounded. He smiled and said, “Very familiar.” And then there’s Sir John Hurt in the film. So these days I’m entirely lucky.