By Hephzibah Anderson - Jul 31, 2011
Over the course of 14 novels, Frederick Forsyth has manipulated Nazis, terrorists and kidnappers. In the name of research, he has hobnobbed with drug dealers, infiltrated the arms trade and weathered an African coup. Yet the bestselling thriller writer is no match for an excitable Jack Russell puppy.
We’re on the wisteria-clad terrace of his home in England’s bucolic Buckinghamshire, and the aptly named Sassy is running circles around him. Literally.
She’s the youngest in a dynasty of terriers that Forsyth began acquiring when he left London for a farm after his first marriage ended in 1988. Though he has now remarried and downsized (even with a farm manager, 400 ewes were a handful), he still needs time alone, he says. It’s one of the traits this otherwise bluff, convivial 72-year-old shares with his celebrated villains.
“Some people are terrified of being alone,” he says over hot tea and ginger cookies. “I’m absolutely the reverse. There are periods when I need to be alone, like Greta Garbo.”
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the publication of “The Day of the Jackal,” which features one of popular fiction’s most memorable loners, the nameless assassin hired by the Organisation de l’Armee Secrete (OAS), a real-life French extremist group, to kill President Charles de Gaulle.
It was Forsyth’s first novel, written in just 35 days at the start of 1970. He’d returned to a particularly frigid London, worn out from reporting on the Biafran conflict. Unemployed, sleeping on a friend’s couch and badly in need of cash, he sat down at his bullet-scarred portable typewriter and began bashing out a novel he’d conceived years earlier, as a “junior junior” foreign correspondent in Paris.
His job back then had been to trail de Gaulle in case he was assassinated -- which seemed a good possibility in the wake of Algerian independence. The young Forsyth figured otherwise.
“I was watching, and worked out in my head that the OAS were not going to get him. His security was too good and they were too amateurish. I thought to myself the only way they could get him is by bringing in an outsider.”
Four publishers turned the novel down, unable to see the point in a book about killing de Gaulle when de Gaulle was already in retirement. Where was the suspense? The point is to find out how close the Jackal gets, Forsyth says.
Growing up in a small English market town, Forsyth had two aspirations, neither of them literary: to fly and to see the world. National Service granted his first wish and work as a foreign correspondent the second. Journalism also taught him the research skills that define him as a novelist.
Though he has switched from a manual to an electric typewriter, Forsyth refuses to have anything to do with computers, which rules out the Internet as a research tool. His preference is for first-hand observation, and it has landed him in some tight spots.
In 2009, for example, he was investigating the global cocaine trade for his most recent novel, “The Cobra.” Guinea- Bissau turned out to be an unexpected hub, and so off he set, arriving just in time to witness the start of a bloody coup d’etat.
The research is the only part of the writing process that Forsyth will admit to enjoying. “I’m a very unwriterly writer,” he says with a pinch of pride. He likes to play the mercenary, insisting that he became a novelist solely -- and misguidedly, he concedes with a laugh, given the fate of most first books -- for the money.
Backyard Fish Pond
The world has changed considerably in the four decades since “Jackal” was released, and I can’t help noticing that Forsyth is looking a little out of place even in his own home. Thanks to his wife’s passion for all things Oriental, this quintessential English buffer has a pair of plump Buddhas flanking his front door, an enormous Shinto bell sitting in the hallway and a Japanese bridge spanning the fish pond out back.
Fortunately for his fans, he has been stockpiling against obsolescence. “I have three of those still in the maker’s wrapper,” he says, gesturing to the Nakajima typewriter on his desk. “I’m just hoping that they’ll see me through. I’ll tap my last line as I hop off into the next world, leaving a ‘Goodbye,’ typewritten.”
A 40th-anniversary edition of “The Day of the Jackal” is published in the U.K. by Hutchinson (358 pages, 20 pounds). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Hephzibah Anderson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)
To contact the writer on the story: Hephzibah Anderson in London at Hephzibah_anderson@hotmail.com.