Charles Cumming im Interview mit Len Wanner


With a degree in English literature and a dalliance in espionage, would you say writing about what you know is better for your style or for your soul?

Oh, that’s quite a question. Should you write about what you know? Probably, initially. A first book is usually an autobiographical book in some way, shape, or form, if not necessarily an autobiographical story. It’s certainly an author’s way of announcing: “This is how I see the world. This is how I think.” In my case, I had this very brief experience with the SIS. It was riveting and crying out to be dramatised, and I was ambitious and smart enough to think: “I’ve always wanted to write a novel and here is this material, just lying there, waiting for me to take advantage of it.” Once I’d circumvented the problem of the Official Secrets Act and crossed that moral Rubicon, it was straightforward.

What’s surprising is the serendipity, the fact that serious espionage fiction – like that of Ambler, le Carré, Deighton, Fesperman, Porter, as opposed to that of Ian Fleming – just chimed with me. Being true to oneself while living a double life, lying professionally as well as personally, all those well-understood themes of serious spy fiction chimed with something in me and my personal life. I should add that part of the appeal of spy fiction is that those elements chime with a lot of people’s lives. Everybody, to a certain extent, is recruiting people to their own ends. People lie and dissemble as they try to do the right thing, which is what I think spies try to do. They’re not venal or manipulating. Most people go into secret intelligence work because they think they’re going to make a difference, at least in the beginning. It’s idealism, if that answers your question about the soul.

Style is just talent, influence, and voice. I don’t read an awful lot of crime fiction, but my impression is that style is not necessarily of paramount importance to most readers. You obviously have exceptions like Chandler, Leonard, and Deighton, where the style is magical and cannot be repeated, but I think the mass appeal of crime fiction and thrillers is story – putting the elements of a complex plot together and seeing them tied up in the end – and character – having the detective come back again and again. I think people develop very close relationships with fictional characters, and creating authenticity in spy fiction is very problematic for somebody who hasn’t worked in that world. I interviewed into it and I have contacts in that world, so I’m able to go to them and ask: “What would happen if character X wanted to achieve Y?” A lot of the trade craft is common sense, and I have people who can tell me about the idiosyncrasies without breaching state secrecy. Also, there’s a lot more information about spying in the public domain – far more than there was in the heyday of le Carré and Deighton.

The other thing to say is that spy work is quite dull, bureaucratic, deskbound, and team oriented. I remember they kept talking about team work, and they may have suspected that I’m not much of a team player. It turned out they’re right. I’m a writer, which is the least team based thing you can do, but team work in narrative is not as interesting as one man against the odds, one man or woman trying to solve a crime or make themselves into a better person. So this is a long way of saying that in my stories I end up bending the truth and moving it away in the exact circumstances I described in the beginning of the book. I have to tell an exciting story, so spy novels are far more exciting in an adrenalised sense than real life spying.

What was the nature of your involvement with the SIS?

I met a friend of my late step father’s who had just retired from MI6 when I was 25, and he thought his people might be interested in interviewing me. I got only as far as the civil service exam for the specials, but I had enough material from the buildings I visited and the people I spoke to for my first book, A Spy by Nature. For a while there was a useful ambiguity running around about my career: “He must be a spy.” I’m obviously not going to say if I was. Ha! There’s every chance I was. No, I didn’t work for them, but I’ve been very lucky to know people who could help me whenever I needed to know something specific or operational. For example, in A Foreign Country, I needed to know what would be MI6 and the British government’s position on the post-Arab Spring world of Maghreb. I fed that into my fiction for it to have the semblance of reality. It’s always been important to me to be realistic, especially about human behaviour. I’m not into gung-ho heroes, lavish amounts of sex, and everybody shooting each other in car chases. Actually, there is quite a lot of sex in The Trinity Six, but that’s a different sort of book.

Do you ever wish you had pursued a career in espionage?

Well, the first thing to say is that I had no choice. They didn’t want me to do it, but I remember thinking at the time that I didn’t want to do it and I didn’t think I’d be any good at it. I was quite lazy at that age and quite unformed. My personality hadn’t emerged. I was a very young 25. I know people who seem to be more mature at 25 than I am at 40. Looking back, yeah, I’d love to have done it just for the material, just for the experience, just to have done something else in my life apart from writing journalism and books, but it’s easy to say that with hindsight.