Today I'd like to welcome Howard Kaplan, author of 'The Damascus Cover' to The Thursday Interview. Before we get started, a quick intro!
Howard, 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.
OK - HERE WE GO !!
No.1 Would you break the law to save a loved one? .. why?
I’m long divorced and have a son, 22. The tough question is not whether I’d break the law to save him, which I’d do in a nanosecond, but whether I’d kill another to do so. I don’t expect to be in this situation anytime soon, but I think, if I could get away with it, I could. I think too, if I couldn’t get away with it, I still would otherwise he would die. I love him that profoundly. Best to keep me away from this situation.
No.2 What is the difference between being alive and truly living?
I often wonder how much of the time I’m truly living. For me truly living is most I’d like. I think I exist more than I truly live in terms of hours of the day. I don’t know if that is the human condition or just me. I think it’s a bit of both. I am however in awe of how much can actually be accomplished in a single day and then in a string of them.
No.3 What motivates you to write?
Fear. I’m bored and become restless readily and writing completely cures that even when it’s not going well. Hours pass easily when words appear on my screen. Secondarily, it’s exciting to create something that moves people, that gives others a break from the regularity of their day. And when I create a good sentence, a great paragraph, a spectacular page, there’s real pleasure to have brought about something from nothing. In my second novel, Bullets of Palestine, I consciously wanted to try, as they say at beauty pageants, to promote world peace. I wanted to write a novel about Israelis and Palestinians where each of those two protagonists were highly human, were real people from whom even those well versed in that arena could see something new. It’s gratifying to have the book praised in the mainstream, Arab and Israeli press.
No.4 Why do humans want children?
I am not sure if wanting children is a biological imperative, in other words normative. It probably is but ultimately, now that I’ve raised a child, it was great fun. Someone correctly said, that parenting is long days and short years. It’s entirely true. It’s gone like life itself by very quickly. I did not know it for a long time, but having children is greatly too about companionship. The relationship changes but having a child brings deep companionship and a kind of wonderful mutual dependence.
No.5 What was the biggest challenge in creating your book "The Damascus Cover"?
Having the confidence to believe I could write. In writing I find confidence often supersedes talent. Writers are sometimes brilliant but mostly they have the wherewithal to do it, that it’s hard work more than epiphany. I originally published The Damascus Cover when I was 26. It reached #8 on the Los Angeles Times best seller list and was translated into 7 languages. It too is a novel of reconciliation which I why it attracted producers so many years later and was filmed in the spring of 2015 starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers, John Hurt and Olivia Thirlby. It’s a British production so we’re full of Brits. The music is being scored by Harry Escott in London who did the fabulous music for Michael Fassbender’s Shame. My father pressured me to begin by writing newspaper articles for local papers. I felt that if I wrote for them I’d write at the level of what they printed. So the hardest thing for me was to mount the courage to say, “Damn the odds” and just go for it. This was long before self-publishing existed.
No.6 What is the most important thing you have learned in life so far?
Patience though I’m not sure I’ve achieved it, or sufficiently achieved it. Part of patience is listening, recognizing that what I have to say is likely not as crucial as hearing what the person is saying. I grew up with parents whose idea of a conversation was pausing, and briefly, while the other person talked until they could spill what was building inside them. It was not fun. But that’s how one learns by being cognizant of what doesn’t work in their environment and behaving differently.
No.7 How did you come up with the title "The Damascus Cover"?
The original title, my title, of The Damascus Cover, was A Sordid Affair. Some months after Dutton bought it, I met the editor for the first time in his room at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel as he was on a trip to Los Angeles. While he was on the phone, he handed me the book jacket with the new title on it and great artwork. It immediately made perfect sense to me that it was a far better title. I’ve loved it ever since.
No.8 How do you handle personal criticism?
There is writing criticism and personal criticism. I’m great at the former and at best, okay with the latter. I was lucky in that when I was 22 I met Michael Blankfort, the author of 14 novels and many screenplays including The Caine Mutiny. For the next ten years, until his death in a terrible fall, we had lunch about every 10 days. I recommend people show their work to one talented person and not to everyone on their Facebook page. For everyone will have an opinion. And they may even all be right. Blankfort taught me to remove my ego from the work. When pages of mine did not, he lined through them diagonally without emotion. So I saw that my precious words did not matter if they did not work or they were superfluous. When the book was bought by Dutton they sent me a 3-page letter single space with suggestions including throwing out the first 100 pages, or put better entirely rewriting them. I loved what they sent and spent three ferocious months on the rewrite. Again, I’ve had great fortune along the way. As for personal criticism, I want to hear it but gently, directly and not too often.
No.9 Why should people read your book?
One of the unexpected blessings of this novel is that it portrays Damascus in great detail; I did not foresee the terrible destructive war there. So the novel has become a historical testament to what Damascus, the oldest inhabited city on earth, was like before this carnage. The story moves and has a twist that readers have told me they did not expect. There’s a fair amount of painless history in the novel including that of the Nazis that fled there after World War II and how they helped train the Syrian military and intelligence services. It’s a quick read.
No.10 Why is there something rather than nothing?
I’m more puzzled about where the something came from. If the Big Bang theory is right, where did all that stuff that exploded come from? But since whenever I wake up there is something, I figure I ought to make the most of it, other than when I give in to my natural sloth.
Thank you Howard :)
For taking the time to answer my questions
& the best of luck with your new book!
Check out 'The Damascus Cover' on
In a last ditch effort to revive his career, washed out agent Ari Ben-Sion accepts a mission he never would have 30 years ago, to smuggle a group of Jewish children out of the Damascus ghetto.
Or so he thinks.
In Damascus, a beautiful American photographer, Kim, seems to be falling in love with Ari, but she is asking too many questions. His communication equipment disappears. His contact never shows up. The operation is only hours away and everything seems awry. Desperate to succeed, Ari might risk everything.
Even his life.