Book Box | Meet the history buff turned spy writer Ben Macintyre - Hindustan Times
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Book Box | Meet the history buff turned spy writer Ben Macintyre

Jun 02, 2024 01:39 AM IST

Ben Macintyre on the psychology of spies and how to turn historical facts into riveting spy novels

Dear Reader,

Ben Macintyre (Sonya Dutta Choudhury) PREMIUM
Ben Macintyre (Sonya Dutta Choudhury)

Eight years ago, I heard Ben Macintyre speak at the Jaipur Literature Festival. He’d recently written A Spy Among Friends, and held an evening crowd spellbound with photographs and a racy story — that of Kim Philby, the young Cambridge graduate who joined the British intelligence service, and rapidly rose through its ranks, all the while being a mole for the Russian KGB.

Today, spies are still in the news, and closer to home as well, with the recent example of India and Canada diplomatic row over the alleged involvement of Indian agents in an assassination plot.

It’s baffling to know the truth behind the shadowy reports of deception and duplicity. Here’s where I turn to spy stories: here are all the reasons why we need to read spy stories. And no one tells them better than historian turned spy novelist Ben Macintyre.

Earlier this year, I met Macintyre, once again at the JLF. We talked about his growing up in Oxford, his friendship with John le Carre, and the techniques he uses to make his real-life stories such a racy read. Here are edited excerpts of our conversation.

Tell us about your childhood reading

I was born in Oxford, where my father taught history at the University. He loved telling historical stories. So, history was central to our growing up. My brother and sister also ended up studying history and the conversation at home was all about history, my poor mother, I think it must have driven her mad.

I read a lot of children's fiction, people like Geoffrey Trease, nobody reads him now. But his books were sort of historical novels for teenagers, and I grew up on these. R J Unstead was a great narrative historian of the 1970s and 80s.

You were born in Oxford. Why did you choose to study history at Cambridge?

My father was insistent on not letting us go to Oxford. He was head of the history department at his college, and he would have ended up teaching us, which would have been ghastly. He wanted us to go somewhere else, which is quite right. So, we all (my brother, sister and I) went to Cambridge. And we all did history.

How much did your father’s writing influence yours?

My father was a scholarly historian. He believed in the full apparatus of historical research. He died very young. But we had lots of lovely conversations about our different styles. My historical writings are narrative-driven. Every word in them is true. But they are told as stories. We were different sorts of historians, but I loved that.

Your stories are steeped in history. And yet, how do you also write a lot about the psychology of a spy?

There's an old acronym that is used in intelligence services in the western intelligence services: M I C E, which stands for money, ideology, coercion, and ego. These are considered to be the four basic elements of espionage. In order to become a spy or to recruit a spy, you need to have at least one of those elements and probably all four.

Intelligence runs on money. Nobody ever admits it. But if you are recruiting an agent in a foreign country, you have to pay them and you have to pay them a lot. All modern intelligence services run on black money. It isn't ever identified, it doesn't come out of any obvious budget.

There’s ideology. Many spies believed that they gathered intelligence for a good cause. In fact, the best ones all believe that they are in some way motivated by an ideological commitment. There’s coercion, often they end up being forced to become spies because of blackmail or for lack of money. And ego.

Ben Macintyre (second from right) at the Jaipur Lit Fest Feb 2024(Sonya Dutta Choudhury)
Ben Macintyre (second from right) at the Jaipur Lit Fest Feb 2024(Sonya Dutta Choudhury)

What I love about your books is that they read like racy spy novels. How do you achieve this?

I've always been fascinated by fiction. Though I've never written any, if I started, I wouldn't I wouldn't know where to stop. So, I think that's kind of the key to my technique. I never make anything up. But I do use novelistic techniques; create cliffhangers, set a clue going in chapter one, that won't be answered until chapter six.

Narrative non-fiction is a very specific kind of genre. And it's often very difficult. You can't do it unless you have a lot of information. You need to conduct very, very dense research. Because you need to be able to say things like, "The room smelled of old cigarette smoke". And if you're going to write that, you have to know that it's true. You need a source that is telling you that this is right. So that's why with a lot of my books, there's an awful lot of quotations in them. If I state something as fact in one of my books, it's only when I know it to be true. You should have a balance between creating a sort of moving narrative that moves you want to turn the page while sticking to historical veracity.

You’ve been friends with John le Carre, the biggest legend in the world of spy writing. Tell us about your friendship

We would go for long walks together on Hampstead Heath. Every month or so we would sort of gather and have long conversations. He was brilliant, and he was super helpful.

I remember him saying to me very early on, that in order to write these kinds of books, you need to have jeopardy on every page, something has to be at stake. It doesn't necessarily have to be something like "Are they going to be killed or not?" But you need to create a world in which the reader can believe, so they are involved in the story and that they have a stake in what the outcome is.

He wrote fiction and I wrote non-fiction, yet he felt that we wrote similar kinds of stories. I was very flattered by this. It was a social friendship, too. I mean, we saw each other outside of work, we didn't just talk about books.

You are a journalist and also an author? How do these two identities influence each other?

My first love was journalism, and I'm still a journalist. I've been on the staff of The Times for 34 years. It taught me about deadlines. I use my journalistic skills in researching my books, because a lot of the source material for my books is living people. So, when I am interviewing people, I am gathering their memories and memories are very unreliable. You have to be very careful about memory, similar to being cautious in journalism, as what people tell you may not be true.

I love the short-form journalism that is produced. By tomorrow, it's gone and something else has taken its place. Meanwhile, a book has a longer, richer life. I find the balance of the two works really well for me – once I am struggling with a book, I turn away, with some relief, towards a column. And then I turn away from the column and back to the book.

You must meet a lot of real-life spies

I know lots of people on both sides, both in the internal and the external services (MI5 and MI6). The funny thing about spies is that they love telling their stories. I mean, they're supposed to be secret, but they're not. If you live in a secret world, the temptation, when you're not in that world, to tell your stories is overwhelming.

Have you met an Indian spy? What was it like?

Yes. It’s the same thing. The truth is espionage is the same the world over, and intelligence agencies are all trying to do the same thing – which is to persuade people in foreign countries to betray their own countries.

Where was this meeting?

I can’t say that.

Do you think you might write a book about spies set in South Asia?

I wrote a book recently that had a large Chinese aspect to it. It's called Agent Sonya, and the first half takes place in Shanghai, China.

But I am led by the story, I wouldn’t go seeking out a story that happens to have a particular geographical location, it depends on what I find.

My next book which is coming out this October, is set in London, around the siege of an embassy that took place in 1980. The one after that will be set in Iran.

And finally, what are some of your favourite spy novels?

I'm a big fan of the novelist called Charles Cumming, who writes in the same vein as John McCarry. He writes wonderful spy novels. And Mick Herron is also rather brilliant. I love Robert Harris too.

….

What about you, dear Reader - who are your favourite spy stories? Do write in with recommendations. And until next week, happy reading!

Sonya Dutta Choudhury is a Mumbai-based journalist and the founder of Sonya’s Book Box, a bespoke book service. Each week, she brings you specially curated books to give you an immersive understanding of people and places. If you have any reading recommendations or suggestions, write to her at sonyasbookbox@gmail.com

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