Edinburgh International Book Festival this year and invited him to make a guest post for the anniversary of the Cuban incident, and reviewed his book The Midwinter Swimmer he kindly agreed to an author interview as Maryom felt she had many questions she'd like to ask...
You seem to have come to writing in a roundabout sort of way. Was it something you'd always wanted to do or did it grow out of your experiences?
I became fascinated by writers and artists when I was growing up. They seemed so much more interesting than everyone else. I wanted to be part of their world, to be like them. I also had two great English teachers – Mr Jansen and Mr Newton. Jansen used to say outrageous things that would get most teachers sacked, but loved books. Newton dressed like a dandy – and I’m sure had a secret life that had to be secret. When, however, I got to university I found the Eng Lit department dull. But the International Relations faculty absolutely glittered. The lecturers came from all corners of the world and reeked of embassy cocktail parties and intrigue. In retrospect, I can see that many of them had been spies. I was intoxicated by the cosmopolitan air and the whiff of power. I had a romantic image of my future self striding around in a white linen suit as a diplomat in dangerous tropical places. I soon ended up in one, but wearing an olive drab uniform instead of white linen. Any illusions I had were stripped away in Vietnam. I had volunteered because I wanted to see what it was like to be in a war, even though I knew that war was wrong. My other feeble excuse is that I was researching my first novel. In fact, I wrote much of A River in May in a bunker at the remote outpost of Nong Son. When I came back I was a bit disorientated. I drifted around – Canada, Germany, France, Scotland – and somehow picked up an MA in English Literature. After Vietnam, there was no way I was ever going to live in the USA again. I finally settled in England and spent 30 years as a teacher of English and modern languages. So I don’t really think I came to writing in such a roundabout way. And yes, experiences are an important part of my writing, but you need to swathe experiences with layers of imagination, not to falsify or exaggerate, but to find a more intense truth.
What drew you to spy-fiction? Was it merely the action-adventure side of it? (I was particularly interested at Edinburgh about your comments on betrayal in literature)
My first novel, A River in May, had been shortlisted for the British Commonwealth Prize and I wanted to continue writing purely literary fiction. My decision to try spy fiction was the result of a visit to the former AWRE, Atomic Weapons Research Establishment, site at Orford Ness. I had sailed past it for years, but had never visited the place. It seemed too spooky. Then one day a couple of ex-colleagues got me to go there. One of them suggested we write a book about it. I tried, but I’m not good at working with others. I continued on my own. The bleak shingle spit of Orford Ness and the weathered ruins of its nuclear testing facilities became for me a melancholy symbol. I say symbol rather than metaphor because symbols cannot be clearly defined. For me, Orford Ness became a feeling as well as place. I like bleakness and grey skies. My idea of hell is California and perfect teeth. In any case, I quickly discovered that spy fiction suited me. There is nothing more important to post-war British intelligence and foreign policy than the ‘special relationship’. You can’t write spy fiction about the period without focussing on that relationship – and the fact that I can write as both a Briton and an American is a great advantage.
The big theme that links spy fiction to great literature is betrayal. Homer, Shakespeare and Dante are all about betrayal. And the worst betrayal is hurting someone who loves you – in my view, far worse than betraying your country. Having said that, there are situations where you may have to betray the person who loves you. In The Darkling Spy Catesby sacrifices Petra, the love of his life. He didn’t know that she would die, but he put her in harm’s way for reasons of state – and maybe peace. The complexities of the heart are impossible to unravel. Another form of betrayal is betraying yourself – your own values and beliefs. We all have to make compromises – one, for me. was wearing a tie to job interviews – but when do those compromises become selling out? Catesby – a working class socialist – is always asking himself that question.
I like action and adventure, but only if they create tension. I don’t like gadgets, fast cars and explosions. I prefer standard spy-craft techniques – surveillance, covert identities, dead drops, evasion – for creating dramatic situations. The simple question – ‘Am I being followed?’ – is a great method for ramping up tension. I use violence very sparingly. The fear of violence is a more effective narrative technique than the violence itself. When violence is used, it must be realistic. And afterwards, it’s important that the people involved are scarred by the trauma – unlike James Bond. But people, like Bond, sometimes protect themselves from the trauma of violence by being jokey about it. It may look insensitive, but portraying dark humour in the midst of horror can be realistic.
Your novels are set in the Cold War of the 1960s against real historical backgrounds. Is there a particular reason for this?
The mid-50s to the mid-60s was the most dangerous decade in British history because the Americans could have launched a pre-emptive strike against the Soviet Union with relatively little danger of Soviet retaliation. The very reason that Khrushchev put missiles in Cuba was because there were few, if any, missiles in Russia that could reach the USA – but there were hundreds that could reach the UK. At the time many in the Pentagon regarded Britain and Western Europe as sacrificial pawns. That uncomfortable historical fact is still the unmentionable elephant in the ‘special relationship’. As a novelist, I like to examine people in extreme situations – and what situation could be more extreme than the risk of nuclear obliteration?
Do you think modern-day readers have anything to learn from this period of history?
I hope modern-day readers will realise that governments lied about the Cold War and they are still lying about the threats facing us now. And the easiest thing for governments to lie about is secret intelligence. A few years ago three retired generals wrote to The Times to say that our Trident nuclear deterrent is completely useless. But no government will ever get rid of Trident for domestic political reasons – they are afraid of looking ‘weak’. Kennedy behaved the same way during the Cuban Missile Crisis. I met JFK as a teenager. And he was every bit as glam and charismatic as the legend. But during the missile crisis, Kennedy put his re-election prospects before our lives. In the end, it was Khrushchev who realised that someone had to be an adult and it was down to him. Khrushchev sacrificed his career – and almost his life – by backing down.
Are they maybe in danger of forgetting how close we came to nuclear war?
Absolutely. There are now four times as many nuclear warheads as existed at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Even though the brakes on the nuclear car have failed several times, the nuclear car still hasn’t crashed. Our extraordinary run of good luck has made most people complacent. By the way, I have to remember that writing novels is not the same as debating about nuclear disarmament. Fictional characters must always be complex human beings with human needs and weaknesses. Living as a spy under the shadow of a nuclear apocalypse doesn’t mean that spy doesn’t need love and comfort; doesn’t appreciate a glass of wine and a good poem – or at least the memory of these things.
How much research do you have to do and can it take longer than the actual story writing?
I do most of my research while I’m actually writing – and it doesn’t take longer than the writing itself. As the characters and plot develop, I look up things to verify the facts and often to enhance the narrative. My discovering that the British diplomatic bag from Cuba to Washington was used to supply Kennedy with embargoed Havana cigars was a priceless gem. But the most important subjects of research are characters. I spend a lot of time watching Youtube clips of them and listening to their voices. I want to see their souls – and their deceptions. Kim Philby was the coldest character I ever studied, Che the warmest. I was taken in by Jack Kennedy when I met him, but after watching news footage of him I began to see that he was a very wooden character – and shallow. The most important thing about using research is hiding the fact that you’ve done it. The bits you’ve researched and the bits you’ve imagined should fit seamlessly together so that the reader can’t detect the stitching.
We would like to thank Edward for taking the time out from his busy schedule to answer our questions.