The Bookworm: How Life Imitates Art

Mitch Silver is the author of the critically acclaimed In Secret Service (Simon & Schuster) and The Bookworm (Pegasus Books). He an advertising agency creative director who lives in Rye, New York. Mitch was born in Brooklyn and grew up on Long Island. He attended Yale and Harvard Law School (“I lasted three days. I know everything through Wednesday, but after that…”). Mitch has been an advertising writer for several of the big New York agencies (“I named Purina O.N.E. dog food. Really.”), and spent a year living in Paris with his wife, Ellen Highsmith Silver, while he was European Creative Director on the Colgate-Palmolive account.


I originally had the idea for my new novel, The Bookworm, in 2009. My first book, In Secret Service, was the tale of a mystery left over from World War II that serves as a tripwire for a present-day thriller. And I wanted to write one with different characters and incidents but built on the same trellis, so to speak.

My protagonist in Service was Amy Greenberg, an art history prof at Yale. So, I chose another wonky woman, a Russian geo-historian whom I named Larissa Mendelova Klimt, as my new heroine. (Can you tell I was a History major in college?)

I knew Lara was going to have a big fat secret from the war dropped into her lap, just the way Amy had. And it was going to be about the skullduggery that enabled the Allies to turn Hitler’s guns away from an invasion of Britain, and send them instead against the Soviet Union—a decision that led to 25 million deaths in what the Russians call the Great Patriotic War.

Lastly, I knew I would have my fictional U.S. President flying to Moscow to close an under-the-table deal revolving around Alaskan oil just when this mystery from the war was coming to light. So…what sort of President should I create?

It was 2009, and Barack Obama was the President. I was determined my fictional leader should be the opposite of Obama. A Republican, for starters…and a woman.

Then I asked myself, is there anyone on the national scene who fills the bill? At the time, Sarah Palin was the high-profile Governor of Alaska. Which was perfect, because of that oil deal I wanted the Prez to be negotiating. And both Palin and Alaska’s Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski were ex-beauty queens! What better living, breathing idea-starters could I find for my fictional chief of state?

I was encouraged in my writing by my new literary agent, Wendy Weil, and I dug into a long period researching Russia, Alaska, presidents and the like. And then tragedy: Wendy died of a heart attack in the summer of 2012, and her literary agency soon dissolved. I would have to send out query letters to find a new agent, and I just didn’t feel up to it. So I put the project aside.

Let’s jump ahead to 2015, when I picked up the manuscript again. Obama’s second term is winding up, and his most likely successor appears to be Hillary Clinton. If Clinton becomes President, my female Oval Office character will be, well, boring. At least to me.

So, my character lost her estrogen and picked up a bunch of testosterone instead. If Democrat Hillary Clinton was going to be the real-life Commander-in-Chief, my yet-to-come-out thriller still required the opposite—a Republican—running things in Washington. And a master dealmaker. Hmmm, is there anyone like that who comes to mind?

All of which led me, three years ago, to write this scene as the President is flying to Moscow on Air Force One:

The two people on the far side of the bulkhead door and up a level from the press corps were in bed, true, but a nap was the last thing on their minds. It had been eight months since the inauguration and this was the administration’s first full-scale trip abroad. Not many couples get to punch their membership in the mile-high club in America’s most heavily armed aircraft . . . okay, renew their membership . . . and they’d vowed to make the most of it.

“Mogul” was a fairly big man, beefy in his nakedness but not bad for an older guy. She told him that his hair going from blond to gray reminded her of Kenneth Branagh in Wallander, which he’d decided to take as a compliment. Now he hoisted himself up on one elbow and looked over at her in her little lace “sleep teddy,” the matching bottoms buried somewhere under the covers.

And that’s how life comes to imitate art in 2018.