Jonathan Freedland: “I learned the construction of thrillers from 70s conspiracy movies”

The political columnist talks about how inspiration for his fiction comes from an unlikely source- and why men in their 40s have no friends

Jonathan Freedland was dining with ex-work and pensions secretary James Purnell when the former MP told him a story he wouldn’t forget. It was about a group of academics’ children in Oxford who were offered refuge by Yale families during the war –one of whom was the mother of a mutual friend of theirs. The juicy bit of the story was that there was a lingering questionmark over the motives of the organisers of this Second World War programme and whether they were motivated not by altruism but by the more sinister undercurrent of eugenics theory that was popular at the time. “The second I heard it, I thought, ‘That’s the next Sam Bourne book,’” says Freedland, who writes under the pen name.

The ex-UCS student then began piecing together a story through interviews with the children who had been on that programme (including one who lives in Highgate) and investigation into the history of eugenics – a theory of population “quality control” commonly associated with the Nazis and morally repugnant to most today. He found factual information which was the perfect setting for his fictional thriller Pantheon: an elite academic community in Second World War Britain and America whose eugenic ideals about preserving the “good stock” of the academic world were celebrated and whose membership included icons of the liberal left such as John Maynard Keynes.

“People struggle with it because it is awkward and inconvenient, it doesn’t slot into our official narrative of the war. The official narrative is that we were repelled by the Nazis and out of moral indignation we decided to fight them. It wasn’t quite like that. There were plenty of people who were very ambivalent about fighting the war. Some people thought that we shouldn’t and the aspect of it that is most repellent to us now in a way, was not what particularly bothered them. The eugenic ideal that you should breed a master race, that you should eliminate the inferior, that you should be superior, even talking about superior and inferior, was pretty mainstream,” says Freedland.

Pantheon is the fifth novel he has written. It sits impressively in his portfolio – he’s a national newspaper columnist and a radio presenter as well as being a father of two. It’s a wonder he finds the time to research crackpot eugenicists and the mystery of academic protection schemes.

He admits he took some time off to write this book, which took him around 18 months from start to finish – five months of that shut away in his “mental cocoon” of an office. He thanks his time as the Guardian’s Washington correspondent, when he had to make 2.30pm UK time deadlines for the writing discipline he has. “You had to do a full day’s work by 2pm. I learned to write quickly.”

Now he is part of the commentary team, which suggests he has a bit more of a leisurely life. He doesn’t subscribe to the idea of Guardian columnists as a “protected elite” though. What does he think of fellow columnist George Monbiot’s disclosure of his accounts last year – revealing that he earned �70k for his Guardian column? Would he reveal his salary? “In principle I’m not against it, but neither am I evangelically for it. The demand for full disclosure to the public is absolutely right when the public are paying those salaries. The whole RBS thing, for example, is crucial because you and me, the taxpayers, own 83 per cent of that bank. But the Guardian is an independent trust, it is not as if members of the public own it in that way. The BBC is an interesting grey area because it is indirect through the licence fee. I can see a strong case for BBC disclosure but I don’t quite get why all journalists should do that. The logic is that we’re demanding transparency, but we’re demanding transparency from those institutions that are publicly owned and publicly accountable. But he did make a very good case for it. I think if we did do it, we should do it collectively.”

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Freedland’s life is all in the balance: between two names, between work and home, between fact and fiction. He admits he doesn’t read as much as he likes, fiction being squeezed in between reading other journalists’ work (sometimes with a pen handy to make notes on what works and what doesn’t) and important political documents. He reads more now but his knack for thriller plots came from somewhere else. “Where I was drawn to the thriller form was cinema-political thrillers and Alfred Hitchcock thrillers. Some of the construction of the stories I think I learned without realising it, over years of going to see all those 70s conspiracy thrillers.”

Being Sam Bourne, rather than himself when he first turned to writing fiction, was his agent Jonny Geller’s idea. Nowadays Geller is a star literary agent, but Freedland, an old childhood friend, was his very first client. “My memory of it, although he might say differently, is that he was working as an assistant at Curtis Brown and somebody there said, ‘If you want to be an agent, the way is to be an agent.’ I was over in Washington and he called me and asked me if he could put me down as a client. Then it was for non-fiction, journalism and stuff like that.

“What’s really good about it is that men in their 40s, in particular, are not really good at maintaining friendships because family life takes over and work takes over. This is not just me, I don’t think, I hear this a lot: men in their 40s put all their energy into their career or their family or both and the time left over just for their old friends is really what gets squeezed. What’s good is that Jonny and I have a reason constantly to speak to each other through work and then, of course, we chat about everything else.” What a national newspaper columnist and his all-star literary agent talk about is probably the stuff of another novel.

Pantheon by Sam Bourne is published by Harper-Colllins, �12.99