Foreign correspondent-turned-thriller writer Frederick Forsyth on the political events that shaped his novels – and how he puts pen to paper

Frederick Forsyth is one of the world’s most successful thriller writers. Best known for his explosive 1971 thriller The Day of the Jackal, Forsyth has written 15 novels, two collections of short stories and several works of non-fiction over a career spanning nearly 40 years. Several of his books, including the aforementioned title and The Dogs of War, have been turned into films. After earning his wings as an RAF pilot, Forsyth followed his love of travel to become a foreign correspondent for Reuters and the BBC, before turning his hand to penning thrillers. Based in the Hertfordshire countryside, Forsyth still writes and travels and his latest novel, the highly-anticipated The Cobra, was published in 2010.

What was your first experience of travel?
Just after the Second World War, my parents decided I ought to learn French, so as a nine-year-old boy, in 1948, I went to stay with a French family in Amiens. As the years went on, I became so involved in travelling that if you’d given me a ticket anywhere, I’d have grabbed it and gone.

After school, you entered national service. What drew you to the RAF?
As a kid, I was crazy about aeroplanes and I managed to wangle my way into the air force six months earlier than normal. It was rather unusual because all my contemporaries were trying to get out of national service and I desperately wanted to be recruited! So I went in at 17 and a half years old, when national service began at 18. At every stage, I was five months ahead of all my mates and that included getting my wings when I was 19.

You then changed career after the RAF and became a journalist. Was that always the plan?
In my two years with the RAF, I had satisfied the flying bug and next on the menu was travel. ‘I want to travel, how do I travel?’ I thought. ‘Well, there is a job called foreign correspondent, which will send me all over the world at the expense of whichever proprietor will risk all and hire me.’ So that was why I entered journalism.

Was it easy to find a job?
I was lucky because I got a slot with a Norfolk newspaper called the Eastern Daily Press, which ran a scheme for trainee journalists. Then, after I’d done my three years in Norfolk, I landed in Fleet Street aged 22.  I was very lucky as I got a job with Reuters because of my languages. By then, thanks to my parents, I had mastered French, German and Spanish.

Where was your first overseas assignment?
There I was sitting in the London office, yearning to go abroad, when fate stepped in. One of the correspondents in the Paris office had a heart murmur, so I went out there to replace him. At the time, Paris was in tumult. Charles de Gaulle was in power and the subject of an attempted assassination. So all the stuff that later became The Day of the Jackal was all happening when I arrived.

Where did the idea for the book come from?
From that first assignment in Paris. I was there for 18 months, all through the long hot summer of 1962, the Cuban Missile crisis of October 1962, and the assassination attempts on Charles de Gaulle, including the one that opens the film. It wasn’t until seven years later, when I was back in London, that my thoughts about those events became the novel.

Had you planned to become a thriller writer?
No, but when I gave the manuscript to my publisher, they signed me up on a three-novel contract and I needed to come up with other ideas. So I thought, ‘What do I know about?’ I knew about Germany. I’d been there for Reuters, could pass for German, and I’d heard vaguely about an ex-Nazi organisation called Odessa. And I knew about West Africa, where I’d met half a dozen of these homicidal psychopaths – white mercenaries from South Africa – and had been behind Nigerian lines with them. So that became The Odessa File and The Dogs of War.

How much research do you do before you begin writing?
I think of around four to five ideas and eventually come up with one that I like the sound of, which probably takes about six months. Then research takes about six months. If I’m going to write a description of a location, I want to see it if I possibly can. Other than that, I talk to people who are steeped in knowledge of that subject, find them, ask for an interview, sit with them and talk to them. All this amasses a pile of information, which I then sit down and collate. When I finally sit down to write, I do it quickly using a typewriter. I’ve never graduated beyond a typewriter and I’ve never graduated beyond using two forefingers.

Do you travel to research your novels?
The Day of the Jackal was, oddly, the only one that I didn’t travel for. I wrote it from memory, but I knew Paris very well and I knew the way the French secret service had operated. For The Cobra, I went to West Africa, Washington D.C. and Colombia.

The Cold War was a ‘big theme’ for thriller writers in the Seventies and Eighties. Do you think there’s a big theme now?
The Cold War began with the Berlin blockade in 1948 and lasted for 43 years, until Gorbachev abolished world communism and the USSR in 1991. There were subsidiary threats like the IRA and Palestinian terrorism but the big one was nuclear wipeout. The new threat is undoubtedly terrorism, which is now becoming the major subject for thriller writers.

What are your interests away from writing?
I love scuba diving. I can drift over a coral reef until the air runs out. My other passion is game fishing. Every holiday, I spend a couple of days out on the sea. I just find bobbing along on a boat on a vast blue canopy of water bliss.

As a Fan of Mandarin Oriental hotels, do you have a favourite?
Hong Kong and New York are fantastic, although our favourite is Miami. It has the spectacular views right out to Key Biscayne and the Great Bay of Miami. It’s wonderful. My wife, Sandy, comes to the London hotel for The Spa – she loves it.

Finally, what advice do you have for aspiring thriller writers?
Write about what interests you and research your facts. Then start slow and build up the tension until it’s like a horse going from walk to trot to canter to gallop, before ending with the sting – the twist in the tail. But we’re all different. What works for one guy doesn’t necessarily work for another.

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