‘I’d like to see someone hack into my typewriter’

His new thriller will be released on September 2. Frederick Forsyth talks about finding inspiration in daily news, and what he thinks of modern technology.

August 24, 2013 08:34 pm | Updated 08:34 pm IST

Author Frederick Forsyth

Author Frederick Forsyth

It is more than 40 years since The Day of the Jackal was released. The book that described a fictitious attack on the French President, General Charles de Gaulle, set a new template for thrillers.

Author Frederick Forsyth followed it up with bestsellers such as The Odessa File (1972), The Fourth Protocol (1984) and The Cobra (2010), in which the British writer used his journalistic training to meticulously research his plots.

His latest book, The Kill List (Random House) features a hunt for a ruthless terrorist codenamed the Preacher. He is being hunted by the Tracker, a former US marine. Apart from the considerable resources from the government, the Tracker is also helped by the Hacker to breach some of the most secure systems around the world.

The breathless page-turner moves from London to Langley, Islamabad and Afghanistan to a tiny, almost-deserted, village in Sudan. Suits, spies, fanatics, soldiers and bloodthirsty pirates populate the book. Excerpts from an interview:

How did The Kill List come to be?

In the newspaper, not on the front page, I found little items about so-and-so being killed in a drone attack in such-and-such village.

I began wondering how they knew which hut in which village to attack, considering the people they were tracking changed names, identities and sometimes didn’t even sleep in the same bed two nights running. They did not have placards revealing their whereabouts.

I felt there was more to the story than the meagre two to three paragraphs that came in the news. Very often, there is a story behind the official story.

Like The Afghan, The Kill List is set in the near future…

I wrote The Day of the Jackal in 1971 but it was set in 1962/63, I like writing in the ‘now.’

Even though there is more than 40 years between the books, things have changed drastically yet remain the same…

That is true. Someone asked me to comment on The Day of the Jackal and I said if the book was set in today’s world, it would be a very short book thanks to the advances in technology!

The photos would have been e-mailed, everything would be on the computer and data would be available at the click of a button.

On the other hand, terrorism is still there and a gun is still a gun and people still kill other people.

In The Day of the Jackal , there is a sense of everybody being professionals doing their job — the terrorists, the police, the investigators and the Jackal. In The Kill List , the Tracker is on the side of the angels and the Preacher is the villain...

Yes, I have taken sides. I wanted to show that there are different strains of Islam; that there were moderates and the fanatics. I made it clear in the book that the Preacher was an evil man.

The Jackal got a passport very easily and, in this book, Tariq Hussein got a fake driving licence and legally bought a gun using it…

That is true. So much is being sold on the Internet — you don’t even have to present yourself for a driving licence, you can apply for it online and have it delivered to you by post!

What was the rationale for the Sudanese pirates?

The pirate sub-plot was because I needed a reason for the Preacher to come out of hiding. The Swedish boy was the bait.

How long did the research take?

Starting from knowing virtually to travelling and interviews — six months.

Do you rely on the Internet for information?

No. There are too many inaccuracies. Also there is too much information that takes hours to go through. I prefer person-to-person interactions. I would rather go to an expert and ask what I want.

Are the experts accessible?

It is surprising how approachable people are if you ask them nicely!

What about classified information?

If I felt something I had put in my book was sensitive, I would ask the expert to run his eye through it to check that I was not giving away secrets.

Did you have to travel for research?

I had travelled to Islamabad and Kabul for The Afghan . For this book, I got all the information about the ISI and Islamabad — the hotels and streets and spying — from a senior British agent.

Do you, at any point, feel overwhelmed by detail?

Too much research is always a problem. You need to balance it out. On the other hand, you never know what readers want. You might have one reader saying there was too much information and he/she found it heavy going while another might say there was too little.

How did you arrive at the character of the Hacker?

There was a young man in the U.K. who suffered from Asperger’s syndrome. He was shy and reclusive but went through every firewall looking for UFOs. He was working out of his parents’ house. I modelled the Hacker on these teenage geeks who live in their own world. While we humans need oxygen tanks, flippers and all the rest of the paraphernalia, these guys swim like fish in the cyber ocean.

You mentioned, in one of your interviews, that you do not write on the computer…

I prefer words on paper rather than on the screen. I would rather turn pages than scroll up or down. When I sit in front of my typewriter, I have the story pretty much in my head and then I just type it out. Any corrections, I write neatly with my pen, which the girls at the publisher can easily understand. Call me a dinosaur, but I’d like to see someone hack into my typewriter!

What is your work schedule like?

I work from 6.00 a.m. to 12.00 noon. I type 10 pages a day. Sometimes they come quickly, sometimes not. I used to work seven days a week; now I have slowed down to six.

Your books have been made into thrilling movies. Is The Kill List going to Hollywood too?

I am keeping my fingers crossed as you never know what might happen.

Are book promotions a necessary evil?

(Laughs) Forty years ago, book launches were gentler. They would take place at the publisher’s office with a glass of sherry and that was it. Now they are a major circus. There are some authors who are hermits, while others are forever on screen and you wonder when they have time to write! I am in between. I agree I have to help the publishers; I need to give them support. We work out a three-week campaign. Now with telecommunication, distance is not a problem. Interviews can be recorded in U.K. and broadcast in the U.S.

In an earlier interview, you said you didn’t have a cell phone…

I have one now. It is a very simple machine — for pensioners. I don’t use it much. If it rings I am startled. Sometimes on the train I see people with their phones and I wonder how they have so many screens open simultaneously. The buttons are so small I am surprised they don’t press two or three. My phone has nice and large buttons. I only use the phone to tell my wife, “Sandy honey I missed my train, I will catch the next one, I love you.”

What next?

Well, a book is a like a baby. I let this one go out into the world in diapers with a bottle in his mouth before I can think of the next one.

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