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How I Wrote It: Daniel Silva on "The English Girl"

Silva Daniel3Daniel Silva's sixteenth novel, The English Girl (the thirteenth featuring his art-restorer/spy, Gabriel Allon) was just named Amazon's Best Books of the Month 'Spotlight' pick for July. It goes on sale next week. In the meatime, we asked him...

Who did you write this book for?

The English Girl, like all my books, is written for one person: my wife, Jamie Gangel. I think it’s important to work largely in isolation and to limit input and editing to a small circle of trusted friends. That said, the Gabriel Allon series has attracted a large and growing readership around the world that is connected by the Internet and social media. A book like The English Girl, which contains characters from past Gabriel Allon novels, is influenced in many ways large and small by the comments and requests I receive from readers around the world. 

What’s the first line and what does it say about the book?

The first line of The English Girl is: “They came for her in late August, on the island of Corsica.” I wrote it once and never changed a word. It is simple, balanced, and loaded with double meaning and clues to the mystery that will unfold at the conclusion of the novel. Who does “they” refer to? And why did I choose the phrase “came for her” to describe the kidnapping of a beautiful young British political operative? I also like the emotions of the phrase “late August.” It brings to mind the end of something idyllic and innocent and the beginning of something dangerous and life altering.


Actually, there’s very little on my desk, other than a dictionary, my manuscript, and my research materials. I have a window, but usually I keep the shades closed because the glare can make it difficult to see my computer, especially in winter when the sun is low and bright. My walls are a cheerful shade of Provencal yellow and are hung with three antique Italian travel posters. One wall is given over to books, and there is a television that comes on only at the end of the writing day, when I like to see what really happened in the world. I never write anywhere outside my office. In fact, I’m not altogether sure I can.


I write in pencil on yellow legal pads, which I buy in bulk from my local office supply store. I then transfer my handwritten prose to my computer. Because I started my writing career on an old 286 computer, I remained loyal to PCs for many years. But when the iPhone entered my life, I switched everything over to Mac.


I listen to absolutely nothing while writing. In fact, even the slightest sound--a barking dog, a distant leaf blower, children playing on the sports field beyond my office window--can send me into a tailspin. At night, when I use visualization techniques to see the story in its entirety, I often listen to movie soundtracks. Among my favorites are the soundtracks to Charlotte Gray, World Trade Center, and Unfaithful.


I drink only coffee and tea while writing and eat very little—a piece of white toast, a digestive biscuit, a handful of animal crackers. As a result, my characters tend to eat and drink rather well. Gabriel Allon’s Italian-born wife, Chiara, is a famously good cook. I’m convinced this came about because I was starving at the moment I created her. I dream about her fettuccine with mushrooms.


Daily exercise is critical because it keeps the mind and body fit and fresh. I often solve plot problems while taking a long walk along the towpath of the C&O canal. Because writing fiction uses so many different parts of the brain, it can be quite draining physically. Most days I take a brief nap, after which I’m able to produce another page or two of material.


A looming deadline does wonders for focusing the brain, but I still have to try to avoid distractions, just like everyone else in this hyper-connected world of ours. For a long time, my writing computer had no Internet connection, but these days that’s no longer practical. I check my e-mail but I never respond to it while working. To write anything, even the most benign message, can be surprisingly disruptive.


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