Wednesday, August 18, 2010

I am slightly mercenary. I write for money

Like his novels, Frederick Forsyth's life has been full of intrigue. He talks to Olga Craig about being chased by arms dealers, an assignation with a Czech spy – and how he was embezzled.

The Telegraph
August 15, 2010

Frederick Forsyth in Paris in 1984 on the balcony of his flat in Paris (Photo: CORBIS)

Sometimes, one has to suffer for one's art and pay the price of fame. Something Frederick Forsyth knows an awful lot about. Forsyth, bestselling author of 11 novels, is not only renowned for the cracking pace of his pulsating spy thrillers and his adrenalin-charged political novels, but also for their meticulous accuracy. When Forsyth writes of the murky world of arms dealers, the shadowy Nazi underground movement or the intricacies of worldwide drug cartels, every scenario is entirely plausible. Every detail is minutely researched. By him.

"Well, I'm getting on a bit. It's becoming more and more difficult," he says. "And, yes, it has led to some hairy moments."

Such as when the young Forsyth, fresh from the success of his debut novel, The Day of the Jackal, travelled to Hamburg in the early Seventies posing as an arms dealer for his third book, The Dogs of War. The novel, which tells the story of a British mining executive who hires mercenaries to overthrow an African government in a bid to install a puppet regime that will give him access to its colossal platinum ore reserves, meant that he needed to infiltrate the highly dangerous world of the arms trade.

"I managed to penetrate their world and was feeling rather proud of myself actually," Forsyth recalls. "What I didn't know was that the arms dealer had passed a bookshop shortly after our meeting. And there, in the window, was The Day of the Jackal. With a great big picture of me – the man he thought was a South African arms buyer – on the back cover."

A few minutes later, back at his hotel, Forsyth received a phone call warning him that he had 80 seconds to get out of the country. "I left all my clothes, grabbed my money and passport and ran across the square to the train station. There was a train pulling out so I did a parachute roll through the window, landing on a bewildered businessman. The ticket conductor asked me where I was going. I asked him where the train was going and he said Amsterdam. So am I, I said."

Forsyth, a big bear of a man with a surprisingly softly spoken voice and impeccable manners, has announced his retirement, how shall we say, several times. With the publication of his new book, The Cobra, a hairy account of a White House-hatched plan to let loose a seasoned Special Operations former CIA operative – who had been 'retired' for being too ruthless – on the worldwide cocaine industry, with the remit that there were no boundaries, no rules, he insists he has no plans to write any more books. "That said," he laughs, "I've said that at least three times now. So, who knows?"

If he does hang up his typewriter – Forsyth holds no truck with technology, writing on an old Canon manual in the study of the Hertfordshire home he shares with Sandy, his wife of 21 years – it will be an immense blow to his fans.

But probably an immense relief to Sandy. While researching The Cobra, Forsyth went to Guinea-Bissau. "I needed to get into the subject," he says, "which probably indicates I have no imagination." As he flew over the country, some 30,000 feet below the president was being blown up and beheaded. "I landed straight in the middle of it. I spent the night hanging out of my hotel window watching the military avenge their leader, with rocket-propelled grenades going off everywhere".

Forsyth also managed to pick up a nasty blood infection. When he returned to England, he developed cellulitis and very nearly lost his leg. "It does concentrate the mind," he admits.

Forsyth didn't set out to be a writer. Indeed he wrote The Day of the Jackal in just 35 days. "I didn't have a penny. I was bust," he says matter of factly. "When I was a kid, I longed to be a Spitfire pilot. My father took me to a squadron in Woking, and I remember sitting in the cockpit. The smell, the sound; I was enthralled."

Forsyth fulfilled his ambition, becoming the RAF's youngest pilot at 19. But two years later, learning that he was destined for a desk job, he resigned. He has never regretted it, simply that he was born too late. "The pilots of the Battle of Britain, they were the heroes," he says wistfully. "When people ask what era I would like to have lived through, for me there is only one. The Second World War. To have flown with 'the few'."

His father, a furrier in Kent, instilled in him a yearning to travel. "Journalism seemed like a good idea. It meant I could travel and keep my own timetable." After a stint in Fleet Street, Forsyth joined Reuters, the foreign news agency. It was there that he honed the journalistic skills that are a hallmark of his novels. "I suppose I created a genre," he agrees. "I was the first novelist to set fiction in the factual setting. Lumbered myself with it, I suppose."

It was during a stint with the BBC, covering the war in Biafra, that the restraints of journalism led Forsyth into the altogether more lucrative world of fiction. Though he didn't think so at the time.

The deeply conservative BBC took issue with his political line, and Forsyth left. "I didn't go into journalism to be a PR for Whitehall," he says drily. "And it isn't much different today. The hard-hitting investigative programmes no longer exist. The BBC is an arm of the Government."

Broke, he approached a publisher with The Day of the Jackal, little thinking it would become a worldwide seller. He was immediately signed up for a three-book deal, promising that he was "brimming with ideas". In fact, he didn't have any. "I thought to myself, 'What else do I know about?' Well, I knew about the underground Nazi movement in Germany and a bit about mercenaries, so I bashed out a synopsis and we were off."

Forsyth writes at a rattling pace. "Twelve pages a day, 3,000 words, seven days a week. But it's the research that takes the time. And, yes, I have to force myself to write. Sounds ungrateful, I know."

Neither is he romantic about the need to write. "I am slightly mercenary. I write for money," he admits. "I feel no compulsion to write. If someone said, 'You are not going to write another word of fiction', it wouldn't matter a damn."

Forsyth claims he hasn't a clue about his current wealth – though it is vast – but he did not, he confides, make as much as one might think from The Day of the Jackal. "In fact, I made a lot less than people think. It sold for £2 and 10 shillings – of which 10 per cent went to the author. These days, it is 15 per cent. The publishers said they would buy me out of the book – which was a lunatic decision on my part – but I didn't know it would still be selling years later, so I did, for £75,000. When the film possibility came up, I was offered £17,500 and five per cent of the action. Or £20,000. I took the upfront cash. So I sold the right to both for money. In retrospect, I could have retired on that one book."

Forsyth also lost money when he become tangled with the fraudster and disgraced financial adviser, Roger Levitt. "To discover every penny you have earned has been embezzled is, well, dispiriting," he says with an understated air. "But I was lucky. I was 51 and young enough to start over. But I am very vague about money. Though I don't travel first class and I'm not into luxury items".

Is he embarrassed that he was conned? "I trusted a man who turned out to be a crook," he says philosophically. "I did ask him, and he swore on the heads of his children that he wasn't lying. He was. I now have utter contempt for him. One friend did suggest I put a hit man onto him. I politely declined." Indeed, it is not for nothing that his contacts' book is the envy of many investigative journalists. "Let's say, I do have friends in low places," he smiles.

There are few sex scenes in Forsyth's books, but he happily admits he has had several intriguing liaisons in his past. Once, when he worked in Prague for Reuters, he was constantly followed by the secret agency, the STB. One night, at a disco, he met a beautiful girl called Jana. "We had a drink and a dance. It was a hot August night, and I suggested we have a swim in the lake. So we went skinny dipping, then I spread out a rug and we made love. As I drove her back to the hotel, I remarked that there were no headlights in my rear view mirror. "Where the hell are the STB," I said. She replied, 'You just made love to it'."

An outspoken critic of the Labour government – Forsyth once called Gordon Brown a "numpty" – he insists his jury is still out on the Coalition. He knows, and likes, David Cameron but is still sore that the Tories missed a golden opportunity to win an outright majority. Still, he isn't tempted to become a tax exile. "I can live with 50 per cent tax," he says. "I have no desire to live abroad. I'm 72 now and I like being able to pop into London for dinner with friends. You can't do that on the Florida Keys."

• Frederick Forsyth's 'The Cobra' is available from Telegraph Books for £16.99 plus £1.25 p&p. Call 0844 871 1515 or visit

The Forsyth Saga

By Hannah Stephenson
The Aberdeen Press & Mail
Published: 14/08/2010

Bestselling author Frederick Forsyth

TOP author Frederick Forsyth has had more brushes with danger during his career than most of us have had hot dinners.

He’s been arrested and interrogated by police in East Germany, tailed and bugged by the KGB in Moscow and shot at by Nigerians in Biafra.

But it’s all in a day’s work for the man who brought us The Day Of The Jackal, The Odessa File and other stories about assassins, mercenaries, terrorists and kidnappers.

The 71-year-old author says he had another close shave last year while researching his latest book, The Cobra.

His trip to Guinea-Bissau in west Africa, or that “war-ravaged, gutted hell-hole” as Forsyth describes it, was rather eventful.

“While I was airborne someone blew the chief of the Army to pieces with a bomb under his desk,” he recalls.

“As I landed at 2am, the vengeful army was heading into town to seek retribution.”

Later that night, Forsyth was woken in his hotel room by the sound of a bomb exploding 500 yards away.

It seemed the earlier murder has sparked a revenge killing, and President Joao Bernardo Vieira had been shot at his presidential villa then hacked to death with machetes.

The former Reuters foreign correspondent recalls: “Borders and airports were immediately closed so I had a world exclusive. Great fun at 71. Quite like old times.”

Hours later he was recounting the events on the BBC before returning to his research.

Forsyth was visiting the former Portuguese colony, a key transit point for cocaine being smuggled to Europe, to research his latest thriller, The Cobra, which sees a former CIA operative given a free rein to do whatever it takes to fight the cocaine cartels and win the war on drugs.

He says he doesn’t get anxious when travelling to volatile countries for research, but he does take care.

“I’m not exactly scared, but a bit wary. The trick is to have a feasible cover story and to keep beaming, shaking hands and standing rounds of beer.

“Stoned African soldiers are the worst – completely unpredictable.”

Despite his frightening encounters with soldiers and corrupt police, he says the worst danger he faces when visiting far-flung places is tropical diseases.

“In Bissau last year I picked up a blood infection that nearly cost me my left leg. I arrived back at Harley Street just in time.”

He says despite the thrills and spills, he knows how to relax in such exotic locations: James Bond-style leisure activities such as scuba diving and big game fishing are among his passions.

Born in 1938, the only child of shopkeeper parents in Ashford, Kent, his family were the epitome of the English middle classes, he has said. But the young man always had a desire to travel.

After a period at the Eastern Daily Press in Norwich, he was hired by Reuters and was posted to Paris, where he witnessed street rioting by opponents of General de Gaulle’s independence plans for Algeria.

It gave him the idea for The Day Of The Jackal, which was published in 1971 and later adapted twice into films. He has never looked back.

Today, he and his wife Sandy live in an old, rustic Hertfordshire farmhouse.

He has no thoughts of retiring, even though he has plenty to keep him occupied outside of writing.

“Each time a novel comes out I say, ‘That’s it. I have chickens to feed, dogs to walk, fish to catch, I’m outta here’. Then I see something and the old reporter wakes up and I have to check it out to see if it is really true.”

After the phenomenal success of his writing career, does he have any further ambitions?

“I’ve done most things I wanted to do,” he reflects, “except I never caught that 1,000lb marlin, the legendary ‘grinder’. My biggest was 660lbs, off Mexico.

“And I do wish my two sons would stop mucking about and make me a grandchild or two. But that’s it. A small child and a big fish.”

The Cobra, by Frederick Forsyth, is published by Bantam on August 19, priced £18.99.

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