Renaissance scholar and private investigator Leslie Silbert has parlayed her experiences into one of the most captivating thrillers to come along in years. "Silbert's I.Q. shines in The Intelligencer...mystery fans will devour this," People magazine raves. Bestselling author David Morrell calls it "a fascinating blend of Renaissance espionage and modern intrigue," and the bestselling historical novelist, Sharon K. Penman, praises The Intelligencer as "dangerous...for once you pick it up, you cannot put it down."
Leslie graduated from Harvard College in 1998 with a degree in the History of Science. She'd spent the spring of her junior year abroad, reading Elizabethan drama at Oxford, and was so taken with the subject -- particularly the playwright and spy, Christopher Marlowe -- that she chose to enter Harvard's graduate program in her field in order to further immerse herself in the English Renaissance. Taking a blend of history, history of science and literature courses, she focused on sixteenth- and seventeenth-century ideas about curiosity and the pursuit of forbidden knowledge. At the heart of her research was the question: What type of knowledge was the most dangerous to pursue back then and why?
A year later, Leslie decided that the academic track wasn't for her, and applied for positions with the country's top private investigation firms. As she tells it, "School was great, but Marlowe had inspired me. As much as I loved libraries, I wanted to take my interests into the real world, to pursue secrets for a living."
Under the guidance of a former Acting Director for Operations at the CIA, Leslie has undertaken investigations involving art objects looted in World War II, an unsolved murder, elaborate fraud schemes, and crisis management for western businesses operating overseas. As one of the few young PIs in Manhattan who does fieldwork—obtaining her information through interactions with people rather than a computer—she has generated considerable interest from the media. She has been profiled in W, The New York Post, Women's Own, a variety of international magazines, and has appeared on Fox News Live and Extra. With the publication of The Intelligencer, the attention has continued. Leslie was a featured author in People, The Washington Post Book World, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, The New York Times Book Review, The Denver Post, The Houston Chronicle, and appeared on Court TV's Catherine Crier Live and ESPN's Cold Pizza, among others, to promote her debut.
At the moment, Leslie is writing her second Kate Morgan novel. Like The Intelligencer, it interweaves an exciting historical mystery with thematically linked modern intrigue. As Leslie likes to "scene scout," or explore the locales described in her novels, she is planning a fall trip to several Mediterranean and North African destinations, which will feature prominently in her forthcoming thriller.
Author biography courtesy of the author's official web site.
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In our interview with Silbert, she shared some fun and fascinating anecdotes about herself with us:
"Two friends and I formed a mischief club in grade school. We would do things like hide all the rulers from our despised metric-system workbooks, and leave a hex sign -- which I'd read about in Nancy Drew novels -- at the scene of the crime. One of the girls squashed a tadpole in the apropos section of another student's sex-ed book. We all felt guilty, and immediately laid down a proclamation that our club would not take another life. Another time, when I was rooting around my fifth grade teacher's desk, I got caught! He walked in and there I was, hands in the cookie jar. Or rather, shuffling through papers. I looked as guilty as could be. As my accomplice later pointed out, I froze and turned white. Then stammered something about looking for my vocabulary workbook, so I could start the next day's assignment. He pretended to believe me, perhaps because my friend and I got the best grades in our class. Or maybe it was just that we'd amused him. He didn't laugh out loud, and certainly made an effort to keep a straight, serious face, but an hour later, we were pretty sure we'd seen a furtive, secret smile."
"My fellow mischief club members and I were also eager participants in a very exciting event we called "Story Time." Twice a year, our class would visit this spot in the Shenandoah that our school called the Mountain Campus. At night, during our free time, we would gather behind someone's tent, and by flashlight, a boy named Marshall would read the naughty pages of romance novels that one of us had carefully dog-eared ahead of time."
"My eyes are different colors, and in high school, students and biology teacher alike had great fun discussing my mutant nature."
"One weekend a number of years ago, I was in Scotland and in need of adventure. I was in college at the time, and had received a fellowship to research my thesis in Britain. After doing six weeks' of research in Edinburgh, I set off. While training up to Loch Ness, I struck up a conversation with the young man sitting across from me. He was a serious athlete, and told me about how very recently, he'd biked from the northern tip of Scotland to the southwestern-most tip of Cornwall, England, in an impressively short time. Four days comes to mind, but maybe it was a bit more than that.
"At any rate, I told him I was planning to bike around Loch Ness and what was his advice? He said, well, the flat side was an easier ride, but had a few too many cars and tourists for his taste. He preferred the hilly side, which offered a more authentic dose of the Highlands, but was ‘quite challenging.' Now, why I saw fit to put myself in his shoes, and decide that what he could do, I could do... well, that's a mystery for the ages. Four hours later, I'm doing these sad, pathetic S-shaped loops up a never-ending hill. Unlike most other places I've been, there are no tourist stops, no 7-11s, nothing. It's raining every fifteen minutes, then sunny, then rain again. The sheep are looking at me like I'm an alien. My bike chain keeps dislodging, and to fix it, I have to turn my bike over and pull the chain back on track, and my fingers are covered with grease. Forgetting this fact, I use them to wipe the sweat and raindrops from my face.
"Then, I see an oasis! I forget the exact name, but it definitely ended in ‘Lodge.' ‘Loch Ness Lodge,' or something like that. And I thought, fabulous! I had reservations at an inn at the far end of Loch Ness, but surely, there was some fee I could pay to stop at this hotel and use the restroom and get a drink, finally! I go up to the front door, and knock, but there's no answer. Hmm, I think. I walk around to the side, and see an older man carrying a basket of eggs. Like the sheep, he looks at me like I'm an alien. (I was still wearing my orange bike helmet and my face was covered with black bike grease.) As politely as I could, I asked if I could just pay him something for a quick rest stop, since I already had somewhere else to spend the night. He looked puzzled, but invited me in, showed me the restroom, and brought me tea and snacks. We had a great time, but it wasn't till I was leaving that I learned why he'd been looking at me so strangely. In the Highlands, ‘lodge' does not mean "inn" or "hotel." I'd waltzed into a private home!"
"I'm particularly taken with deft verbal skill, with rhetorical power. I love watching Tony Blair give a speech, or even better, answer the Prime Minister's Questions. Whatever else people might say about him, they can't argue with one thing: the man can speak!"
I'm fascinated by politics in general, and got my first campaign experience recently when I started volunteering for my favorite presidential candidate's campaign. I'm definitely hooked -- think I'll always be politically active."
"Favorite ways to unwind? Well, in addition to watching reruns of The West Wing or reading a Frederick Forsyth novel, I love a great dance class. Very recently, I was thrilled to find a new teacher who I swear could dance Justin Timberlake under the table, or at least give him a run for his money. If we'd spoken before, you'd understand the full import of this claim. You see, I think Justin's dancing ability is through the roof!"
"I also love to travel. Both to familiar places, like my parent's cabin in New Hampshire, which makes for great hiking and swimming -- at sunset, you get a great view of a nearby mountain from the middle of the lake. I also like new adventures, such as exploring Rome for the first time, and seeing multiple layers of history with every step. At the moment, Sicily, Southeast Asia, and Peru top my list of next destinations."
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In the spring of 2004, Leslie Silbert took some time to talk with us about some of her favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer -- and why?
Actually, it was a play by Tom Stoppard. I was first introduced to him in 1997 when I saw a performance of Arcadia. I was thrilled and awed by his deft interweaving of stories separated by centuries. Years later, when I thought about actually writing -- not just mulling over -- my first novel, Stoppard's play inspired me to try creating a similar structure.
It was my first year working as a private investigator in New York City, and I had a series in mind, featuring a young female protagonist working for a boss similar to mine: a former director for operations at the CIA. I was excited to give a P.I. story the aura of authenticity I had yet to encounter in popular culture. I was new on the job, but it didn't take long to realize how wildly unrealistic Charlie's Angels had been. Since grad school, I'd also been kicking around the idea of a novel about Christopher Marlowe, but as I wanted to sell my first one, and knew that, at the time, historical fiction wasn't the most commercial of genres, I decided to table Marlowe and stick with modern-day intrigue. Then one day, when a friend asked me about my favorite piece of twentieth-century fiction, and I began talking about Arcadia, it hit me. I could try to do something similar. I could interweave an account of Marlowe's doomed final days with a tale of intrigue featuring the present-day heroine I had in mind. The chapters would alternate, and the mysteries would intersect and unfold together.
Because The Intelligencer is the first in a series, in which every novel will have a similar dual time period structure, I suppose you could say that Arcadia has had a bit of influence on my writing career!
What are your favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
I love Tom Stoppard's plays. To me, he's the greatest living writer. I find them sensationally entertaining, but also so incredibly smart, witty, moving, elegant and thought provoking. In addition to Arcadia, I've also been delighted to see The Invention of Love and The Real Thing, both of which knocked my socks off. And I'm over the moon that another of his, Jumpers, is on its way to New York next month. I've been waiting for what feels like ages!
My favorite spy novelist of all time is Frederick Forsyth. He's an excellent writer who knows his subject matter inside and out. He builds suspense and crafts his stories like no other, and infuses his books with delicious snippets of inside information, say, about the inner-workings of Britain's elite and top-secret Special Air Service. His plot twists are brilliantly executed things of beauty. For example, the final page of The Devil's Alternative will make your day! Your week or your month, in fact, if you're a fellow spy novel junkie. I've read all his books more than once, to study his masterful techniques. I also particularly loved his Gulf War thriller, The Fist of God. And this year, when a new one, Avenger, came out, let me tell you, that was a seriously exciting moment for me. I'd been counting down the days until I could get my hands on it. And I wasn't disappointed. That one's got a humdinger at the end as well!
Talking thrillers, I also got a major kick out of Nelson DeMille's Plum Island. It has a very engaging hero, fun dialogue, and a superb plot that moves in unexpected directions.
For historical fiction, Sharon K. Penman's trilogy about medieval England and Wales, beginning with Here Be Dragons, is one of my long-time favorites. She truly brings that period to life. And the stories are so moving -- I actually teared up the second time I finished Here Be Dragons.
Iain Pears is terrific, as well. I've enjoyed his art history mystery series, but especially loved his fascinating, elegantly written and deeply learned An Instance of the Fingerpost and The Dream of Scipio.
For nonfiction, I love Thomas Friedman's columns and books. Like many people, I think he's the best foreign affairs writer today. I thought From Beirut to Jerusalem was fantastic So informative, and his writing style is very engaging and compelling.
I also adore the books of the Renaissance scholar extraordinaire, Stephen Greenblatt. In the field of literary criticism, he's the most brilliant writer I've encountered, both in terms of actual writing ability, and insight. I particularly enjoyed his essay on Christopher Marlowe in Renaissance Self-Fashioning. I had the great pleasure of taking a course with him once, and as my Author's Note explains, a theory of his inspired the end of The Intelligencer.
And last but by no means least, I highly recommend Charles Nicholl's account of Christopher Marlowe's murder: The Reckoning. It's nonfiction, and exhaustively researched, yet was an enthralling page-turner.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
Shakespeare in Love and The Thomas Crown Affair are two of my recent favorites. As a major fan of Elizabethan England and Tom Stoppard, it doesn't get much better than Shakespeare for me. Also, I'm nuts about a great heist, and found Pierce Brosnan exceptionally dashing as Thomas Crown. And the ending, matched with the Nina Simone song, "Sinnerman," was clever and such fun!
I also love catching reruns of The West Wing on cable. I think Aaron Sorkin is one of the most brilliant writers I've ever encountered, and as a political junkie, I simply can't get enough of the show!
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I can't listen to anything but classical music when I'm writing because I find it distracting. Usually, I just go for quiet. Well, here in Manhattan, "quiet" means rumbling trucks and police sirens. But for walking around, showering, or cleaning my apartment, this past year I've had a great time blasting The Black Eyed Peas' Elephunk, Kid Rock's Cocky, Justin Timberlake's Justified, and Christina Aguilera's Stripped.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading -- and why?
We'd read a lot of classics -- plays, novels, philosophy -- everything we felt we should have studied in school, and somehow missed.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
I like to give something very well suited to the person's interests, something I know for sure they'll love. I had a fantastic book-giving experience recently. My father loves gripping, well-written historical fiction, and like me, he's been a huge fan of Sharon K. Penman for more than a decade. At a mystery/thriller convention a few months ago, I met her! Very exciting. I bought her latest medieval mystery, The Dragon's Lair, and she inscribed it to him. To my delight, she wrote, "I love your daughter's book!" My dad, of course, was thrilled.
About getting books as gifts, actually, I tend to buy my own. Lots of them. Friends and family know I usually have a whole "To Read" shelf waiting for me at home, and many more in mind, so I rarely get books on birthdays or holidays. But this past week, I got one of the best book presents ever! Someone I'd just met knew I was looking into doing some writing for the politician I most admire, and he gave me Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in History, and I can't wait to read it!
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I do have a really pretty antique desk with little compartments and secret drawers, but to be honest, I've done more writing in bed lately. Last Christmas, my parents bought me a wooden breakfast tray, which I call my "bed desk." My laptop is on it, and I sit there typing, leaning against multiple pillows. To my left is my nightstand, which has this great lamp I found in Florence. The shade is made from an old medieval map; it's got dragons drawn in at the edges. My favorite cup sits right nearby. It's a large glass mug I bought at Starbucks. The rim curves outward just so, and let me tell you, it makes for one first-class drinking experience! I'm facing a couple of windows, so when I look up, I often see tree leaves and sunlight, or if it's nighttime, I might get an unexpected treat. The fat man across the street likes to undress with the lights on and the shades up.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take you to get where you are today? Any rejection slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
Actually I was very lucky. In the summer of 2000, when the first Charlie's Angels movie was being promoted, women's magazines wanted stories about real female P.I.s. The first call came from a fellow at W who asked me to be in an article he'd just started writing. Could be fun, I thought. Playing dress-up, getting publicity for my company, why not? I knew I had nothing to lose, of course; it just never occurred to me I had so much to gain.
To my shock and delight, the week the article came out, several book agents contacted me. Within days, I met the perfect one. We just clicked. She asked me if I'd ever considered writing anything. Though I had no experience with fiction, I'd tinkered with ideas for a thriller novel for years, and said absolutely. I took a few days off from work, stayed up around the clock writing and re-writing my first couple of chapters, and emailed them to her that same week. She loved them, and was overwhelmingly confident she could sell my first novel in partial form. So shortly after we spoke, I took a leave from work to write a proposal for The Intelligencer.
What tips or advice do you have for writers?
One of the things that has helped me the most is reading hundreds of books in my genre. This allows me to mull over what techniques I like, and what really turns me off. For example, if you've read a lot of thrillers, you've probably noticed a majority of them end with what I call the gunpoint face-off. You know, the good guy has his gun trained on the bad guy, and says, "Tell me, why'd you do it?" And then you get this long-winded wildly unrealistic conversation between two people who'd probably been trying to kill each other. A lengthy question and answer session that you could never imagine happening in real life. Every thriller author has to offer explanations some place, but since I'd found this particular strategy so annoying on so many occasions, I was determined to find a different way of doing it. It was actually Frederick Forsyth's Fist of God that inspired my alternative.
Once you've written a good novel, traditionally the next step is finding an agent. I actually don't know much about this process, since as I mentioned above, my agent found me. So I guess one piece of advice I would give to aspiring thriller novelists is to pursue other dreams in life, and write afterward, or on the side. John Grisham was a lawyer first, John le Carré a spy, Patricia Cornwell worked in a medical examiner's office, and Linda Fairstein was Manhattan's top sex crimes prosecutor before she launched a series with a heroine in the same position. People seem to like the inside know-how that type of experience brings to a novel. Also, it doesn't hurt to have a way to pay the bills while you're laboring over your first!
In the summer of 2004, we asked authors featured in Meet the Writers to give us a list of their all-time favorite summer reads, and tell us what makes them just right for the season. Here's what Leslie Silbert had to say:
If spies, nail-biting suspense and clever heists are your idea of perfect summer fare:
"The man with ten minutes to live was laughing." So begins Frederick Forsyth's The Fist of God. To me, this is the best opening line of any thriller novel, ever. Forsyth is my favorite all-time spy novelist, and The Fist of God, set during the first Gulf War, is probably the one I recommend the most strongly. If you like cutting-edge, of-the-moment intrigue, you might prefer Avenger, which is his latest and deals with today's global players and intelligence issues. And while his most famous is The Day of the Jackal, which is about an assassin hired to take out Charles de Gaulle, I don't consider it his best. It's excellent, don't get me wrong, but as we know the end before we begin -- de Gaulle was not assassinated so we know the Jackal will fail -- a certain measure of suspense is lost. Now, not only does The Fist of God have a brilliantly executed twist at the end, it's got the typical Forsyth cornucopia of delicious tradecraft tidbits, details a clever heist, and has engaging, believable, amusing and sometimes poignant characters.
Currently a columnist and associate editor of The Washington Post, David Ignatius covered the Middle East for The Wall Street Journal during the early eighties. Let's just say when it comes to international affairs, and the Middle East in particular, this is one guy who knows what he's talking about. So when he writes spy fiction, you'd expect his prose to be first rate and his background knowledge to be through the roof. They are. But that's not all. His first, Agents of Innocence, which is about a CIA officer penetrating the PLO several decades ago, is more than tremendously realistic and educational; it's moving, captivating and memorable. I'll probably rave about his other novels, as well -- all of which I bought after reading Agents -- as soon as I finish them.
Not only is Ken Follett's Eye of the Needle an excellent spy novel -- arguably one of the best ever written -- it's full of fascinating real-life details about World War II espionage capers. When I first read it at age fourteen, I'd not yet studied much twentieth-century history, and was delighted to learn so much juicy stuff in a fun, exciting manner. And the Needle -- Follett's German spy -- he may be utterly ruthless and fighting for one of the most evil regimes in history, but somehow, he's mesmerizing. Now, if World War II spy shenanigans appeal to you, but you prefer the prospect of a female assassin, try John Altman's A Gathering of Spies. Altman is a terrific writer, especially when it comes to his brilliant action sequences.
Nelson Demille's Plum Island stands out as one of the best thrillers I've ever read. It's got great plot twists, and a thoroughly satisfying fusion of humor and intrigue. His wise-cracking hero, John Corey, is so engaging that when you finish the book, you wish you could spend more time with him.
Sidney Sheldon might be the all-time master of extra delicious brain candy -- the ultimate beach-book author. My friends and I read our favorite, If Tomorrow Comes, with breathless delight in the eighth grade, and still remember it as one of the best page-turners ever. It's a tale of revenge in the manner of The Count of Monte Cristo -- there's false imprisonment, escape and satisfying triumphant vengeance... not to mention memorable cons and heists.
If you prefer art world quirkiness and fun, clever capers over violence and war, I highly recommend Iain Pears' art history mystery series, set mainly in Italy, which begins with The Raphael Affair. I've enjoyed each installment immensely. Pears knows a tremendous amount about the art trade, so the details are informative and fun. His dialogue is witty, characters charming, and cultural backdrop delightful.
If transport to a different time and place is your idea of the ultimate beach escape:
Sharon K. Penman's trilogy about medieval Wales and England -- featuring the last Welsh princes -- which in order includes Here Be Dragons, Falls the Shadow and The Reckoning, stands out as my most engrossing, satisfying historical fiction experience. Her research is impeccable -- the sense of ‘you are there' is intense. There's a touching, unforgettable love story, in addition to powerful tales of battlefield courage, honor, and all kinds of adventure -- both exciting and tragic.
Sharon K. Penman's The Sunne in Splendour is also a truly sensational read. It's about Richard III -- you know, the one Shakespeare portrayed as a hunchbacked Machiavellian villain. Comparing Penman's Richard to Shakespeare's is fun and educational; it's an excellent example of how much the age-old tradition of the victors writing history -- in this case, the Tudors -- can distort the truth. You learn a great deal of medieval English history in an entirely enjoyable and captivating manner.
I, Claudius and Claudius the God by Robert Graves are an outstanding pair of novels that bring ancient Rome to life in vivid, bloody, and dastardly detail. These meticulously researched page-turners, which are told from Claudius's perspective and cover the reigns of Augustus, Tiberius and Caligula, are chock full of political intrigue and murder, and portray one of the most diabolical villainesses in history.
The bestselling historical novelist Margaret George is loved by legions of fans for a good reason. Her stories are absolutely captivating, and her characters are simply unforgettable. They get under your skin and stay there. She makes you feel like you really know certain historical figures. You're not just reading about them; you're with them, experiencing what they experience, sharing their emotions. For example, the Mary Stuart in her novel, Mary Queen of Scotland and the Isles, will always be who Mary is to me. Other novelists write about Mary, many portraying contrasting views of her, but Ms. George's vision is simply too powerful; I've read a lot of sixteenth-century historical fiction, and her Mary has always dominated.
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