War zones and dinner parties inspire Frederick Forsyth's novels
PUBLISHED: 12:59 31 May 2007 | UPDATED: 14:32 07 September 2010
Frederick Forsyth tells Bridget Galton how the horrors of war have inspired his best selling novels IT WAS working as a war correspondent that cynicised author Frederick Forsyth. Covering the Nigerian civil war in 1967 for the BBC, he witnessed Biafran
Frederick Forsyth tells Bridget Galton how the horrors of war have inspired his best selling novels
IT WAS working as a war correspondent that "cynicised" author Frederick Forsyth. Covering the Nigerian civil war in 1967 for the BBC, he witnessed Biafran children in besieged areas dying by the thousand.
"Their starvation was not caused by crop failure but by a blockade imposed by war. I watched this happening and I thought: 'There is no mercy. This is not about mercy, this is about brute power.'"
Forsyth adds: "Most disasters are caused by war and civilians are right in the heart of just about every one. In the third world, they suffer far worse than the military, with one dead soldier for a thousand civilians. The wretched on the earth are predated upon by the big and powerful. The trick is to be powerful and kind, but powerful and cruel is more frequent - the world is still 70 per cent dictators and 30 per cent democracy."
It is war and terrorism that take centre stage in Forsyth's blockbuster thrillers. Their meticulous research owes a huge debt to journalistic techniques, and their harsh moral vision depicts the survival of the strongest.
His best known books are his earliest, penned in the 70s, and all turned into films, they mix real figures with fictional characters; The Day of the Jackal, about a terrorist plot to assassinate Charles De Gaulle; The Dogs of War about mercenaries hired to overthrow an African nation, and The Odessa File about a journalist hunting down the Nazi he believes killed his father.
Post Cold War, Forsyth has inevitably taken inspiration from the War on Terror.
His latest novel, The Afghan, is his "third bite at the Muslim cherry" and deals with Guantanamo Bay, Al Quaeda and the Taliban.
Forsyth - an avid news and documentary junkie - says the seed of a novel can be planted by something he reads, sees on TV, or hears at a dinner table.
"Someone says something and I think 'that's pretty darn weird - what would we do if that happened?' It's always topical, sometimes futuristic and if it's history, it doesn't go back before the 20th Century. I don't really know about the Tudors. I know about the Second World War. I was born in it. Nazism, Communism has shaped my world so I write about it."
Many of Forsyth's "what ifs?" have been oddly prescient. He depicted a woman Prime Minister long before Thatcher, and an alleged plan to overthrow the government of Equatorial Guinea in 2004, spookily echoed the earlier plot of The Dogs of War.
The books' intricate technical details have caused headaches for the British Government - Forsyth's famous description of an assassin stealing a new identity by taking the name of a dead infant from a tombstone to secure a passport; and his tale of a British agent bugging the coffin of an IRA member, were both true.
He chuckles; "That stuff about how to get a false British passport caused a flutter in the dovecots. They were - 'this guy is exposing stuff we would rather not have exposed'. But I would never give away stuff that would endanger life. If I write about someone making a bomb I put a flaw in so it won't work."
His wife, a "good disciplinarian," reads every day's work and is "rigorous with anything that bores her".
It forces Forsyth to exercise restraint with his reams of research and knowledge.
"I have to bin an awful lot of stuff and it's very hard but at the end of the day it's not a pulpit or a documentary, it's a novel. You have to restrain yourself and stop telling them everything about the Khoran or what's going on in Islam. You may have spent all this time with a Muslim scholar but you have to be able to explain it to the lady in Peterborough in four paragraphs."
Forsyth, a Monarchist, Eurosceptic Conservative has many opinions but wisely doesn't "want to preach in book form".
For example he believes our troops should get out of Iraq before it explodes into Civil War, but thinks we should stay in Afghanistan to combat the "manically religious Taliban".
As a "broadly Pro Israeli" member of the panel at last week's Any (Jewish) Questions at the London Jewish Cultural Centre in Golders Green, he was ready to be quizzed on his opinions on the Israel/Palestine issue.
"It's a very emotional and fraught issue, but if asked, I give a straight answer. These days the great and the good and the liberals side with the Palestinian cause and the right tends to support Israel. I think Arafat is a rogue who has been an unmitigated disaster for his own people. The state of Israel is a homeland for the world's Jews created by the UN. If you are going to start worshipping the UN as a supreme world authority you have to accept that. The Arabs at the time were offered a much smaller Israel but refused to acknowledge the state and were going to conquer it anyway. The misery of the Palestinian people has been visited upon them by their own appalling leaders."
But ultimately, Forsyth prefers his fiction to facts. "In journalism you can't make any mistakes, and in biography you may spend years of research for an 800-page book that garners masses of prestige and sells 1,000 copies. Very nice, but I am indolent. I can make five times that money with one novel and I prefer the lazy boy's way.