Thrills and Kills: Interview with Frederick Forsyth

South China Morning Post, 3 November 2013.  Forsyth’s latest political thriller – cold war intrigue made new for the age of Al Qaeda – is heavy on the thrills and light on the politics. He speaks of spooks, Snowden and Cyberspace with Jo Baker.

IMG_5247[1]AT 74, FREDERICK FORSYTH allowed himself a small concession in researching his latest book. In Mogadishu, he hired a bodyguard. “I’ve only done it once before,” says the veteran novelist, reclining at a desk his Hong Kong hotel suite. “We didn’t stay inside what’s called The Camp – a kind of sandglass-walled and barbed wire enclave used by most foreigners – but in a hotel in the city. Which was… interesting. My wife said I was a stupid old fool, but I felt like if I was going to describe it I had to see it!.”

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Fans might have forgiven Forsyth for researching one of the world’s more dangerous cities, in Somalia, from a distance. But the British thrill master felt that his latest look into the world of modern-day terrorism, The Kill List, should be held to the standards that helped take his other novels to the top of bestseller lists.

Debuting as a novelist in 1971 with The Day of the Jackal, Forsyth has become known for his melding of fictional characters and plot lines with real political intrigues, using research techniques from his days as a journalist.

“I’ve always been intrigued in the things the establishment don’t tell us, rather than those they do.” he says with a smile. “Nowadays we think we know it all, and Mr. Snowden tells us, ‘oh no, you don’t know the half of it – what they’re listening to, eavesdropping on’.”

A journalist in the 60s and 70s, Forsyth has certainly developed a sense for the world’s lurking dangers and blind spots. Growing up in a small ‘one horse’ town in Kent with little money, he failed to secure the career he wanted with the RAF, but dreamed of travel. The idea of ‘diplomatic corp. cocktail parties’ was less than thrilling. “So the only alternative was the by-lines in Dad’s morning paper from cities with amazing names, like Hong Kong, Singapore and Beirut,” he recalls.

From the offices of a daily provincial paper, to London’s Fleet Street and then to the Reuters news agency, by age 23 Forsyth was reporting from Paris, covering the almost daily likelihood of an assassination attempt on president Charles de Gaulle by French extremists.  It was a ‘baptism by fire’ he says. This fire raged onward in the mid 60s, with two years in the thick of Nigeria’s civil war, first for the BBC and later – since he was unwilling to toe its editorial line and return to London – as a freelance reporter and writer.

At that time, few had attempted to blend modern-day politics with fiction, and the decision to use his experiences in France and skills as a reporter to write a political thriller, produced Jackal, his sleeper hit. Surprised but gratified, Forsyth continued to write his novels to a similar template, tackling subjects from the underground Nazi movement in Europe (1972’s Odessa File) to international drug cartels (2011’s The Cobra). In researching his books he was able to pursue the once-imagined thrills of a Kent boyhood, with ‘hairy moments’, as he calls them, galore. There was Afghanistan and Pakistan; Equatorial Guinea, where he blithely recalls almost losing a leg to septicaemia; and Guinea-Bissau – ‘a horrible place’ – where he came close to being caught up in a gruesome coup.

Each adventure produced new material for adrenalin-fuelled accounts of dark places and dastardly deeds, with a reporter’s eye for detail. “Travel was the main impulse for fifty years of my life,” he says. “And as an investigative journalist one learns where the knowledge reposes, and how to get at it. So that is how I approached fiction.”

The Kill List, which hit shelves in September, fits squarely into this oeuvre. As cold-war intrigue made new for the age of Al Qaeda, it follows a US government-sanctioned assassin on the trail of a charismatic jihadist, and takes readers into the administrative bowels of an American organisation tasked with tracking and killing ‘enemies of the West’. It then leads them across the gullies and firewalls of cyberspace to various havens of Islamic extremism, from London to Kismayo  Deftly paced, the thriller has been reviewed as the usual meticulous yet macho Forsyth romp: heavy on action and intrigue; light on moral complexity and character development.


IMG_5070IT WAS A NEWS REPORT on drone attacks that inspired Forsyth to pick up his pen again. Not long after the extra-judicial killing of Osama Bin Laden by US Navy Seals, the author became curious about how modern-day manhunts take place. Originally called The Tracker, the novel’s name was changed when his American publishers called – in high excitement, he says – to verify that such a list actually exists in the White House. Forsyth was able to tell them, rather smugly, that it does. In 2012 the US government had admitted publicly that it authorizes ‘signature strikes’ on certain targets, with the decision centred around the counter-terror chief in the White House.

Yet this batch of research posed a new kind of challenge. The author had covered the technicalities of espionage and warfare with the Arab world before, in the Fist of God and The Afghan. But for a 74 year-old who, until last year had refused to own a cell phone, and continues to churn out his 10 pages-per-day on a steel-cased portable typewriter, Cyberspace was an alien landscape.

Forsyth has joked that if his first novel had been set now rather than the 1960s, with photos that could be e-mailed and data instantly accessed, it would have been ‘a very short spy novel’. But in choosing the story of an Islamic terrorist, tracked via high-tech military surveillance systems (and with the help of a teenage hacker), The Kill List is an attempt to reconcile these two worlds.

“I had to go to people who are real cyber experts and ask them to explain as if to an idiot, what they were doing and why,” he recalls. “There was obviously a huge generation gap. A lot of the real, talented geeks are younger than my grandson!” Accordingly, the novel gives out a sense of both wonder and foreboding for technology. “The ones who are deeply into this cyber stuff I do find very strange,” he admits.  “But also tremendously talented.  These hackers can carve their way through firewalls in the databases of the Pentagon with something they bought at Computer World.”

With weapons technology and warfare, Forsyth is on more familiar ground. His grasp of the subject has grown with each novel, along with his little black book of experts to consult. And with each novel too, doors for the author have opened at ever-higher levels, aided perhaps by an Order of the British Empire (CBE), awarded in the late nineties. “When I was much younger, particularly for the first three books, the big bosses in the forces of law and order wouldn’t give me house room,” he says with a laugh. “I would have to go instead to the underworld. Now, if I say to someone fairly high up in, say, Scotland Yard that I’m writing a book on the cocaine trade, he’ll put me in touch with his head of narcotics.”

This has no doubt spared him a certain amount of trouble in recent years. Forsyth fondly tells an anecdote from the seventies that almost led to his untimely end, while he was researching his third novel, Dogs of War. He had needed to find out where and how mercenary groups in Africa bought their weapons. With the arms black market based in Hamburg, and being able to speak German, the author decided to masquerade as a South African on a buying expedition for a wealthy patron, he says. “I more or less used the plot of my book about a mining millionaire who wanted to topple an African republic,” he recalls. And all went well until one of the bosses, returning home from a meeting with Forsyth and others, reportedly saw his author’s photograph in the window of a book shop.  “I received a call from an insider friend in my hotel room, who said grab your passport and money and run like hell!” he says. “Fortunately I was in the train station hotel, so I ran across the square to station, vaulted the ticket barrier, and dived straight into the window of a departing train – into the lap of a German businessman who had a sense of humour failure.”

He didn’t go back to Hamburg for years. “The book came out in German with them very thinly disguised, and I hear they didn’t like it at all,” he says.  Compared to this, he admits, his recent ‘reccie’ in Mogadishu was more leisurely.

As a search-engine sceptic, Forsyth makes heavy use of industry publications, such as those from Jane’s Information Group. His books are populated with the likes of Ukrainian freedom fighters, French paramilitaries, Gulf War soldiers, Somali pirates and Al Qaeda – along with American and British Special Forces and spies. All are often locked in combat and armed to the teeth. Keeping up with the fast-moving world of weaponry is no small feat, particularly for his weapon of choice in The Kill List – drones. “These drones are being modernised and improved all the time, so the stuff used from just ten years ago is outmoded,” he explains. “But the information is mostly public domain. If you know where to go, there’s probably a technical publication that tells you exactly what it does.” At times his digs into the field have been met with warnings, he says, about breaking the UK’s Official Secrets Act. “I tell them, don’t worry – you can read all that in Avionics Today!”, he says with a chuckle.

Yet on the ethnics and legality of drone warfare, still hotly contested, Forsyth has less to contribute. Those who challenge their use, tend to question how any country can strategically use lethal force against individuals without a trial, and outside of a ‘symmetrical’ war. He doesn’t share these concerns. “I think there’s a lot of nonsense talked about the immorality of drones. If it’s a legitimate target, what’s the immorality in destroying it?” he asks. “We are in a defence posture against these terrorists, and when we find them we have a right to defend ourselves from them killing us.”

“I don’t recall that we declared war on Islam,” he adds. “But certain elements of Islam are at war, which they call Jihad, with the Christian-Jewish world.”.

Forsyth will acknowledge that in the UK, the Left has ‘given up’ on him, but he insists that his politics are ‘conservative with a small C’. He calls the euphemism ‘War on Terror’ – coined by the administration of George W. Bush – ‘manure’, and he claims no interest in the UK’s party politics. What he stands for, he explains, is more of a ‘traditionalist attitude’ to life.  “It seems to me our forefathers got an awful lot right,” he says. “And I’ve never seen why anyone should be ashamed of loving one’s own country. It seems modish now not to, and I rebel against that. And for it, I’m called right wing.” He has often lamented that he was born in the wrong era. Given the choice he would have lived through the Second World War and what he considers the height of its glory, the Battle of Britain.

This sentiment runs thick through his books. They vibrate with faith in the hard-boiled integrity of his mostly white, male government operatives; with reverence for men in combat and action over ambiguity; and with the cut-and-dry morality of good guys vs. bad guys. Plotlines are streaked with a boy’s thrill for heroism and love of aliases, acronyms and techno­speak – at the expense of inner dialogue or political nuance. He rarely uses anti-heroes he says, which tend to be less popular with his audience.

Yet he’ll be the first to explain this approach, in less ideological terms.  “I’ve never hidden the fact that if it didn’t pay, I wouldn’t do it.” he says of writing fiction. “It’s more about the bank than the message for me!” For Forsyth, the public’s consistent fascination with spies and terrorist hunters has fit neatly with his own interests and skill set, becoming a cash cow that he says he has been happy to milk.

And he’ll acknowledge, sometimes, where romanticism and reality part ways. “The problem is that 99% of espionage is bureaucracy, scanning communications and technical information. And there’s no James Bond wandering around out there,” he says, gesturing to the Hong Kong skyline. “There are probably a few spooks, but they’re probably rather shabby little people. So yes, there is a false glamour.”

Which his books perpetuate?  “Yes,” he laughs. “Or at least a bit; because most people have a banal existence, and it’s what they want. That’s not patronizing. It’s a fact of life.

Yet the size of Forsyth’s ‘conservative C’ seems to be larger, or at least becoming larger, than he will sometimes acknowledge on book tours. Touted as a ‘bestselling author and political commentator’ by UK newspaper the Daily Express, for whom he writes a column, his claim to not be sending messages through his work, seem disingenuous.

In his column, Forsyth has written passionately and divisively about those who hate the West, and the heroism of those who protect it. A few weeks ago, writing in support of the ‘spooks’ and special forces he has interviewed throughout his career, the author consigned whistle-blowers to the seventh circle of hell. “Revealing secrets that enable Jihadists to penetrate our defences, all the better to place bombs where you and I go shopping, that is traitorous,” he wrote of a ‘whingeing and whining’ Snowden. ““Dante reserved the seventh and innermost circle of Hell for the betrayers and he was right.”

Forsyth says that he spent substantial time researching the forms of Islam that feature in The Kill List, and he was keen to present the disdain of moderate Muslims toward fundamentalism. He describes long doctrinal discussions with a British imam, who became a Muslim voice of reason the plot – as a professor based out of Cairo’s revered centre for Islamic learning, Al-Azhar University. In researching the motives of young Jihadists, Forsyth consulted the cofounder and chairman of Quilliam, a counter-extremism think tank in London, who had once led an extremist movement and later reconverted. “So he could explain to me why the Jihadists think the way they do,” says the author. “I was trying to hear both viewpoints.”

Yet his grasp and representation of the religion and its politics has still left many cold. One Asian fan on a review site suggested that the religious aspect was unconvincing, and that the book would have worked better without trying to tackle it. “The author raises the question “Why do they hate Americans?” and answers this complex issue very superficially, almost offhandedly,” she or he comments. “The book is good [but] it’s not about Islamic fundamentalism. The flaws are perhaps more visible to Asian minds than to western ones.”

Indeed, there is a sense that The Kill List, with its parallel but polarised universe is not well placed to deliver the reality of terrorism, and rather reduces it, as one reviewer noted in the New York Times, to the world of movies and video games. For all its up-to-date technical wizardry, it still feels to this journalist, rather wistfully behind the times.

Yet a cash cow it remains, and Forsyth’s success and reputation as thrill master seems very secure. In 2012 the Crime Writers Association awarded him its Cartier Diamond Dagger for his body of work; and the Kill List has perhaps not surprisingly been embraced by Hollywood: it is due to be made into a film shortly, helmed by director Rupert Sanders.

But at 74, could this be an end to adventures in Mogadishu? Sitting in his hotel suite and preparing for lengthy anniversary celebrations in honour of his host, the Mandarin Oriental, Forsyth is tired. He has threatened to retire numerous times. Now, with 70 countries and more than 20 books under his belt, he feels that this could really be it.

“There are people who are compulsives, who are not fulfilled unless they’re writing. But I am not one,” he says. “I have to be dragged to my typewriter now. There are so many other things for me to do. And really – I don’t have a message for the human race.” This remains under debate, but the decision will no doubt leave legions of disappointed thrill-seekers in its wake.