Jonathan Freedland: ‘The most creative two words in the English language are: what if’

Jonathan Freedland. Picture; Philippa Gedge

Jonathan Freedland. Picture; Philippa Gedge - Credit: Archant

Author and journalist Jonathan Freedland talks to Zoe Paskett about his new book, To Kill the President under nom de plume Sam Bourne

There is no mention of Donald Trump in Sam Bourne’s new political thriller, To Kill the President, but it’s impossible not to draw parallels.

He is never credited with a name, but the fictional President has introduced a registry for Muslim citizens, grabbed women, denied climate change and tweets seemingly without thought.

“Readers are going to bring to it their awareness of what’s going on now, I don’t discourage that,” says journalist Jonathan Freedland, real life iteration of his penname Bourne. “But what I was prompted by was what if you did have a president who even people close to him concluded was a danger to the world?

“For people who write political fiction, particularly people who write political thrillers, the most creative two words in the English language are ‘what if’.”

The book begins as the new President, a “volatile demagogue”, nearly launches a nuclear attack on North Korea after his feelings are hurt. The returning protagonist, fiercely principled Maggie Costello, who steered two Bourne novels to acclaim (The Last Testament and The Chosen One), uncovers an inside plot to assassinate the President. She has to decide whether to reveal it and leave the fate of the free world to a man who suggested slavery never happened, or commit treason and risk the US falling to civil war.

“That idea of some quite idealistic people who’d worked for the previous president who might have thought they had to stay on for a new president who they didn’t believe but felt it was their patriotic duty, a) that struck me as an interesting idea and b) Maggie is exactly that type of person,” says the University College School old boy.

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His attachment to Maggie, and that of his readers, stems from how well he knows her. He knows her favourite film, what she’d eat for breakfast, how she’d vote in the election (“I know the answers to all of those questions immediately for Maggie”).

“The first [novel] I wrote [The Righteous Men] had a young, mainly British, male reporter who finds himself in America in his 20s and in some ways, of the characters I’ve done, he’s the one that readers responded to less. I think a big part of that was by the fact that he was too much like me, he didn’t really become another character.

“Maggie is really different from me and readers really do believe she’s a real person which I like.”

Reading To Kill the President I am struck by a pit-of-the-stomach growl that normally accompanies a particularly chilling true crime documentary and have to keep repeating the mantra “this is fiction, it’s fine, this is fiction” to myself. Yes, it’s fiction, but the authenticity of the story’s narrative comes from very real experience.

Freedland, columnist for the Guardian and presenter of Radio 4’s The Long View, kicked off his career as a political reporter on the Washington Post.

When Bill Clinton came to office in 1993, he persuaded the BBC and the Guardian that they needed someone on the ground who’d been on the campaign bus.

“I was this 25-year-old kid from Britain who suddenly was on Air Force One covering the President. You get a particular ringside seat as the guy from the Washington Post so I already had amazing access.”

His experience of covering the presidencies of Clinton, George Bush Sr and, well, pretty much every president that came before Trump, threw the new president into stark contrast that prompted Freedland to write a column encouraging us to discard the rulebook we used for previous US leaders.

“He does not comply with any of the norms of liberal democracy and it’s that sense in which he’s abnormal,” he tells me. “For example, during the election campaign he threatened that if he defeated his opponent he would put her in jail. He allowed and encourage chants of ‘lock her up’. That’s absolutely the norm in an authoritarian, dictatorial society; it’s not the norm in a democracy.

Of Trump’s relationships with other world leaders he says: “He’s clearly more comfortable and sees himself fitting in with autocrats and dictators. That is his style. So therefore why are we surprised when he sits around in a cabinet meeting, wanting them to bend their knee to him and treat him like the dictator in the Sacha Baron Cohen movie?”

Freedland’s insight from the frontline of US politics lends itself to creating a believable imagined world; though this could also have something to do with the fact that the story’s President has, in Bourne’s words, “a relationship of creative tension with the conventional wisdom”, like the real one does.

It’s just too close to the bone.

To Kill the President (Harper Collins, £7.99) is out on July 4.