For four decades now, British author Frederick Forsyth has kept adrenaline levels of millions of his readers pumped up with his pulsating spy thrillers and breathless, best-selling narratives of political assassinations.
His first novel, The Day of the Jackal, which he says he wrote “for the money” when he was down and out in London, became a cult classic and, later, a film under Fred Zinneman’s direction, with Edward Fox starring as the hitman hired to assassinate French statesman Charles de Gaulle. Since then, Forsyth, banging away on his typewriter, has churned out 11 novels — besides short story collections and works of non-fiction. DNA recently caught up with the 71-year-old storyteller at the Hong Kong Book Fair, where he’d come to promote his latest thriller, The Cobra, about international cocaine cartels.
How was The Jackal born?
As a young man, I hadn’t the slightest intention of becoming a novelist. When I was a kid, I had only one overweening ambition, and it derived from the fact that when I was a two-year-old, I remember staring up at what seemed like silver fish whirling and twirling in the sky, leaving contrails of white vapour. I was watching the Battle of Britain and in my tiny little baby way, I wanted to be a pilot.
Growing up, I remained consumed by the ambition to fly. I rebuffed all attempts to send me to university and joined the RAF. Still later, I had a second ambition: to see the world, and so I became a foreign correspondent for a newspaper and then Reuters, and travelled the world, until finally, 40 years ago, I found myself back in London from an African war, broke, without a job. That’s when I wrote The Day of the Jackal.
What drives you to write?
I’m slightly mercenary: I write for the money. I feel no compulsion to write. If somebody said ‘You’re not going to write another word of fiction as long as you live’, it wouldn’t matter a damn. But today, I’d say that if you want to make money, you shouldn’t write a novel.
For a person trying to make himself reasonably wealthy, writing a novel is probably the most unlikely, hazardous and slow method. Forty years ago, I didn’t know that. Everybody I knew said I was out of my mind, that the chances of my getting published were 1 in 1,000, and even if I were published, I’d probably sell 50 copies. I was just too dim to take their advice.
In every publishing house, eyes glaze over at the arrival of an unsolicited manuscript from a no-name author. They’re all bundled up and sent back, almost all of them unread. If you want to make money, you’re better off being, say, a bond trader — not a writer of novels.
Do you need a quiet place to think and write in?
In the early stage of thinking up a plot, I can be anywhere: on a fishing boat in the tropics or walking the dogs — and thinking, When my son was a toddler, he once asked me what I was doing, and I said I was working. And he said, “You were not working, you were staring at the wall.” And I said, sternly: “That is work!”
The only time I need quiet is when I am physically writing. I’ve a farm, and I’ve converted the upper floor of the barn into a writing room. There I sit and type: 10 pages a day for 50 days. But there’s been at least a year or more of meticulous preparation before I hit the first keys.
You do it the old-fashioned way, on a typewriter?
I don’t have a computer, never wanted one. I’m constantly asked why I don’t use a word processor. But there are two charming young ladies at the publisher’s, who take my miserable offering and turn out an impeccable manuscript. Why should I deprive them of their job?
Until last month, when we heard of a Russian spy ring in the US, espionage seemed to be going out of fashion. Is it?
There was a belief that around 1991, when the Soviet Union was dismembered, that the KGB had also been abolished. But it wasn’t: it was simply broken up into its various divisions, and renamed. The first chief directorate of the foreign espionage division was renamed the SVR. It still conducts espionage operations outside Russia against all of us. In that sense, it wasn’t a surprise that some Russian spy sleepers had been discovered in America. The surprise was in how ineffective they were: they’d just about penetrated the golf club! But the rest of it goes on: we do it, they do it. There’s been a slight reorientation towards combating Islamic fundamentalism, which is perceived to be a major threat. But the amount of espionage we carry out against Russia is probably not much less than it used to be — and vice-versa.
How big is China on the espionage scale? May we expect a Forsyth thriller set in China?
My first visit to Hong Kong was in 1978. My host was the British head of station, and he took me to a Chinese restaurant, run by a father and two sons, all 6 feet 2 inches tall. In the end, when I offered my compliments on a wonderful meal, I was told, “See, that’s the Peking intelligence service!” I said, “I thought they were our enemies.” My host said: “Good god, no! They’re our friends. The Russians are our enemies!” So, we never really had an awful lot of antagonism towards Beijing, and where it suited us to cooperate, we did. I don’t think it’s changed much. We’ve common threats, and in the same way that my enemy’s enemy is my friend, we cooperate on, for instance, Islamic fundamentalism.
How involved were you with the screenplay of the films based on your novels?
I learnt early on that the least desired person anywhere near a film set is the book’s author. Directors have their own ideas, and they don’t want to be told by an author: “I didn’t say that.” You have to make up your mind if someone comes up to you and says “Here’s a cheque, take it or leave it, but if you take it, don’t interfere in the making of the film.” You might go in on the film’s opening night, curious about what you’ll see. It will probably be a disappointment, but never mind. One must go back to Liberace’s aphorism: when he was rebuked for the levity of his music, he said, “I know, which is why I cry all the way to the bank!”.
Did you ever feel under pressure to ‘sex up’ your thrillers?
When I wrote Jackal, I thought — because I knew nothing about writing — I was supposed to put sex scenes in. And I did; it was awful because it was unlikely and not very stimulating. My publisher said, “Well, keep them in, but don’t do it again.” I haven’t put sex into any of my other novels, and it doesn’t seem to have done any harm to the sales whatsoever.