Now we bring you an interview with Matthew Dunn, whose debut novel, Spycatcher (aka Spartan in the UK), has just been released on both sides of the Atlantic.
Dunn is a former operative for Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), more commonly referred to as “MI6” or simply “Six.” So there was some difficulty in gaining security clearance to talk with him. (Also, of course, I had to buy a new trenchcoat.) But I persevered, having been fascinated by Dunn’s work--as is evidenced in my review of the book for January Magazine, The Rap Sheet’s sister publication:
I cracked the spine of Dunn’s first novel. Totally against expectations (I had assumed I could read for a while, then put the book down easily and make off for bed), I soon found myself gripping the work tightly, like a steering wheel, and reading it all through that night. By the time light broke through my window again, I felt that Matthew Dunn had injected back into my life the exhilaration that only reading a top-notch thriller can do. It made me look more closely at the rest of my to-be-read mountain, thinking perhaps there were other gems there that I’d ignored.During our recent exchange, Dunn and I talked about his early reading selections, his choice to enter either the academic community or the intelligence sphere, his views on the real world of spying versus what we see in espionage fiction, why the Iranians have become global bogeymen, and his rapid path to publication.
What made Spartan/Spycatcher such an engaging journey?
Let me say, first, that the cliché of a British “super-spy” defeating an international terrorist plot was not what glued this novel into my sweaty palms. There are already far too many such works on my bookshelves, written by much better-known talents ranging from Eric Ambler, Ian Fleming and Alistair MacLean to John le Carré and Fredrick Forsyth. It should also be noted that Dunn’s book demonstrates strong American influences, from writers including Robert Littell and David Morrell.
Ali Karim: Were you a reader of crime and thriller fiction in your youth?
Matthew Dunn: Absolutely, I was a voracious reader of those genres and would spend hours in second-hand bookstores browsing the shelves for novels that would fuel my passion for escapism and adventure. It’s fair to say that my reading in my youth heavily steered me toward MI6 in later years.
AK: Which books made a strong early impression on you?
MD: Many of them were obscure novels, but I also widely read better-known crime novels, thrillers, adventures, and the classics. I loved Arthur Conan Doyle’s complete works of Sherlock Holmes, as well as Alistair MacLean, Len Deighton, and the earlier novels of Le Carré.
AK: Did your family encourage reading?
MD: Wholeheartedly. My parents were always reading novels and were constantly encouraging me to read. Because I studied Shakespeare at school, my mother would take me to theaters all over England to see plays and then tell me to write about them. I also remember my father buying me a copy of Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal when I was about 11 years old.
AK: Tell us about your early years, and how you got involved with the security services. Did you have a military or academic background?
MD: I was talent-spotted while I was at university. Toward the end of my degree, I had the opportunity to do a Ph.D. at Cambridge University, and thereafter become an academic. But when MI6 simultaneously tapped me on the shoulder, I accepted their offer to put me through the selection process without hesitation. I sometimes wonder what my life might have been like if I’d pursued academia. One thing’s for sure: it wouldn’t have been as interesting.
AK: I guess you are restricted in what you can tell us about your life working at the SIS, but have you any anecdotes that you’re able to share?
MD: I have so many memories of fascinating events that would make great anecdotes, but regrettably I can’t share them.
AK: So it’s not all James Bond and Spooks, then?
MD: If you look at the movies and books within the espionage genre, they largely fall into three camps: those that present the world of spying as an escapist, playboy adventure; those that want you to believe that the world of spying is grimy, dark, and sordid; and those that show the world of espionage as high-tech, where the human element is less important than, say, what can be achieved with satellite imagery. All of them do capture aspects of intelligence work, but the reality of being a spy is rather more of a crossover between these camps, with the exception that an operative in the field doesn’t often have recourse to the high-tech aspect of intelligence work.
When I was in MI6, I could be flying first-class to an exotic location, while wearing an expensive suit and a Rolex watch, and then being driven in a limousine to a five-star hotel. That’s very Bond. But in the hotel I could be meeting an aged man who looked perfectly gentle and kind but had committed unspeakable atrocities in wars gone by. The work, therefore, could be very dark in nature, but at the same time it could often have the coating of a Bond movie.
Some commentators say that the world of espionage is not as exciting as it’s portrayed in fiction. That’s not my experience. As an operative, my work was relentless, complex, dangerous, rewarding, frustrating, and tough. I traveled the secret world and met captivating people--good and evil--and did things that some might think too incredible to put into fiction.
AK: Where did you feel least “safe” during your former life in operations?
MD: A lot of what I did was combating rogue states. I’ll leave your readers to draw conclusions as to where I traveled, but suffice to say, if I’d been caught in any of those countries I would have been brutally tortured and executed.
AK: Was Spartan/Spycatcher the first novel you’d written, or do you have uncompleted manuscripts or rejected work stuck in a bottom drawer?
MD: It was my first novel. Everything happened very quickly for me. I wrote the novel, sent it out to a handful of agents, and it was snapped up by Luigi Bonomi of LBA.
AK: So tell us, where did you get the idea to pen this novel? And did you have any issue with your former employers at SIS when you completed it?
MD: I was very clear that I wanted to write a novel that really captured the essence of what it feels like to be an operative in the field and to give the reader the feeling that they were actually on a real mission. The plot derives from my imagination, though it is grounded and inspired by real situations that I and others faced. I also wanted my antagonists to reflect the type of people that I was combating when in MI6--evil people, yes, but nevertheless highly intelligent, sophisticated, and often charismatic individuals rather than unintelligent fanatics.
SIS has to vet and approve all of my books. I’m on very good terms with them, and thankfully they made no deletions or amendments to my first novel.
AK: Tell us about your main character, Will Cochrane, as well as the mysterious Megiddo and Lana. And most writers I know mine their personal experiences to craft characters. Have you done the same here?
MD: Will Cochrane is an experienced MI6 operative and the Service’s most effective officer. He is a loner because of the extreme nature of his work and his complex and tragic background. He mentally toys with the idea of another life and love, but his problem is that he worries that if people get close to him, they will die.
Megiddo is a senior general in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. He’s planning a massive terrorist operation against a location in the West. It will be his “masterpiece,” and Will is tasked to capture him. For most of the book you do not see [Megiddo] but, rather like Professor Moriarty in Sherlock Holmes’ day, you feel his presence at all times.
Lana is an Arab woman who is trying to carve out a living as a freelance journalist in Paris. She has a connection to Megiddo that goes back to the wars in the Balkans in the 1990s. Reluctantly, Will uses her to try to lure out Megiddo.
These characters, and all others in the novel, are fictional. But I met people like Megiddo and Lana. And Will is inspired by the man I used to be.
AK: What makes the Iranians the current global bogeyman?
MD: It’s the regime that’s the problem, not the people. Iranians are intelligent, warm, sophisticated, and generous people, and of course the Persian culture is one of the oldest in the world. It saddens me, and saddens most Iranians, that a country with such an incredibly rich history--one that has been a world leader in literature, mathematics, science, and other disciplines--is now perceived to be nothing more than a bogeyman. Iran could be a power for the good within the Middle East. One day, it will be. There are too many brilliant Iranians still living within the country for that not to happen.
I would like to add--and some may find this surprising--that MI6 officers love the people and cultures within the countries they target. You can’t effectively operate in a country unless you truly understand its culture, and in the process of obtaining that knowledge, a love affair of sorts ensues. I felt closer to the Iranians I knew than I did to most other people.
AK: During the writing process, did you worry that real-life events--such as an Allied attack on Iran--could overturn your fictional world?
MD: No. If that had happened, Iran could have been swapped in my novel with any other of a number of rogue states. It’s a great question, though. I wonder how many spy thriller authors had to tear up their draft manuscripts when Communism and the USSR collapsed.
AK: Considering the level of detail in your debut novel, can I assume you’re interested in geopolitics?
MD: I’m always interested in geopolitics and make every effort to keep up to date on events around the world. In tandem, I’m also very focused on history, because that’s where the lessons are learnt. Very few things that are happening now have not happened before. Regrettably, there is still a great deal of hatred, racism, laziness, snobbery, and cruelty amid the human species. It has been ever thus, but we are supposed to evolve and I see no signs of things getting better yet. On the contrary, things seem to be getting worse. Perhaps there are too many humans on the planet. Maybe, like all creatures, we need a bit of space to get on with each other.
AK: Tell us about your path to publication with Rowland White’s Swordfish imprint in the UK and William Morrow/HarperCollins in the States.
MD: It was all handled by my agent, Luigi Bonomi, and happened over 24 hours. It was a surreal but excellent day. Rowland White and David Highfill [the executive editor at HarperCollins) are great guys and have superb women and men in their teams.
AK: Are you still a great reader of thrillers? If so, what books have you enjoyed, both recent as well as classics of the genre?
MD: I love Jeffery Deaver’s Lincoln Rhyme series--like mine, his writing is clearly influenced by older writers and his objective is pure: he wants to thrill his readers and engage their brains within a story that has a gothic wrap. Deaver describes himself as a “craftsman, not an artist.” But I know he’s both.
Classics of the genre would include anyone who had the balls to sit down and craft a ripping yarn. There’s so much cynicism in the world right now, that it’s becoming harder to do that without being lambasted by the haters of the world. No matter how dark a novel, it can still make you feel good, and right now the world needs crime and thriller novelists, because we can help put that smile back onto the world’s face.
AK: So what’s next for Matthew Dunn?
MD: I’ve finished book two, and it’s with my publishers. [In it] Will Cochrane is sent to Russia to try to prevent a war between that country and the United States. I’m halfway through writing book three, so the Cochrane stories are well underway. It’s my intention to take the series of standalone novels through to at least 10, 15, or 20 books. I have loads of plot ideas for future novels.
As for me, I love writing the novels. I’m a million miles away from the hard man I used to be, but it’s great to write about the espionage world. It’s better to put fingers onto a keyboard than to put them on a gun.
Author photo © 2011 by Adam Scourfield. Used with permission.