Charles Cumming was born in Scotland in 1971. Educated at Eton and the University of Edinburgh, he graduated with 1st Class Honours in English Literature. His debut, A Spy By Nature, partly based on his experiences with MI6 (SIS), was published in June 2001. Subsequent spy thrillers are: The Hidden Man (2003), The Spanish Game (2006), Typhoon, (2008), The Trinity Six (2011) and A Foreign Country (2012). A Colder War comes out in 2014. A Foreign Country was the winner of the 2012 CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger and Scottish Crime Book of the Year.
Welcome back to SHOTS, Charles. You have an impressive back-list and a big following of readers waiting impatiently for your next work – A Colder War – due out in 2014. Just to keep them warmed up in the meantime, and to coincide with the release in paperback of A Foreign Country, I’d like to ask you a few questions.
There was a period some years ago when the spy novel, which has a long and honourable history behind it, especially here in the UK, seemed to drop off the radar a little. The fact is, spies never went away, so why do you think that was?
The obvious answer was the ending of the Cold War. People had lived with the Iron Curtain for so long that they couldn’t imagine a world in which spies would be needed anymore. The west had won! To an extent, even our intelligence agencies felt that way. They no longer had a role. There was no enemy for them to focus on. It was the same for writers: no bogeyman. So novelists struggled too. 9/11 changed all that, of course, as did the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the terrorist outrages in Madrid, London and beyond.
Do you think we’re indanger of knowing too much about what our spies (SIS) and their activities? (One case I’m thinking of is the Libya situation when an officer and his minders being lifted by rebels was widely reported in the media).
It’s a shame that we tend to dwell on the failures of our intelligence agencies and are not told enough about their many successes. I don’t like the fashionably cynical attitude taken towards MI5 and SIS, nor this constant clamouring for ‘accountability’. Yes, our spies should be monitored by legal restraints, but they should also be allowed to do their jobs without worrying about repercussions in the European Court of Human Rights.
From an author-to-reader POV, do you think this publicity detracts a little from the myth and mystery of the world of espionage?
I certainly think the spy novelists of yesteryear had an easier time of it, inasmuch as so little was known about the secret world. Nowadays the chiefs of MI5 and SIS are public figures; the Services have websites; people know a great deal more about what our spies get up to on our behalf than they used to. There have also been grotesque and embarrassing failures, particularly in respect of WMD, which has taken some of the shine off the spooks.
You’ve mentioned going to various locations for research purposes. How vital is it for you to get a real feel for the place?
Absolutely vital. I always wonder how historical novelists can write so effectively and realistically about places and eras that they have only read about in books. That’s an extraordinary skill. I need to sniff the air, meet the people, taste the food.
You were once put off writing about a particular subject, as a publisher felt there wasn’t the interest out there. With the benefit of hindsight - and experience – how important is it, do you feel, for authors to follow their instincts?
I think if an author feels obliged to write about a particular subject, or a particular character that he or she may have lost their passion for, that’s a bad place to be, and the work will suffer as a result. On the other hand, if a writer – particularly a genre writer – takes on a subject or a milieu that is well known to have zero commercial traction, then he or she is playing a dangerous game. If your editor, your publisher, your agent, the marketing department and the sales team all warn you not to write a novel about a hotel in 1970s Albania, and you go ahead and write a novel about a hotel in 1970s Albania, don’t be surprised if it sells 750 copies.
A little off the wall with this one, but ‘Skyfall’. Did you see it, and if so, marks out of ten?
I didn’t really enjoy it. I grew up on the Roger Moore movies, so I love that touch of humour and silliness in a Bond film. Daniel Craig is a phenomenal actor, but the playfulness has gone out of the series. Nobody wants invisible cars, but at times Skyfall took on the seriousness of Hamlet. But what do I know? The public loved it.
Longhand or keyboard?
Keyboard. But I can’t touch type.
Detailed planning before writing or following your nose?
Both. Too much planning and it feels programmatic; follow your nose too much and you can get lost.
Do you share any personality traits with your characters (any you could admit to, at least)?
That’s an almost impossible question to answer. You would have to ask the people who know me and know my books. All of the protagonists in my books share some of my personality traits, but they are all very different men to me.
You’re bringing back Tom Kell (A Foreign Country) in your next book – A Colder War. Can you give us a brief insight into that story to let us know what we can expect?
It’s a molehunt story set predominantly in Istanbul. Kell is sent out to Turkey to investigate the sudden death of the MI6 Station Chief in Ankara.
Thank you for your time, Charles. Shots and I wish you all the very best for your next and future projects.
Harper (28 Mar 2013) PBK £6.99
Charles Cumming’s website is: http://www.charlescumming.co.uk
Adrian Magson – email@example.com