‘I don’t dodge bullets the way I used to’: Frederick Forsyth talks to Lee Child

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Edward Fox in the 1973 adaptation of Day of the Jackal - https://www.alamy.com
Edward Fox in the 1973 adaptation of Day of the Jackal - https://www.alamy.com

50 years ago a young journalist called Frederick Forsyth published his debut novel, The Day of the Jackal. In the character of The Jackal – the anonymous, ruthless assassin hired to kill President de Gaulle in Paris – Forsyth created a new British folk hero.

That wasn’t his intention, however. “I was so naïve that I thought the decent, moderate, moral police officer [Claude Lebel, who is tasked with stopping The Jackal] was the hero, the guy that we ought to be rooting for … That wasn’t what happened. The populace said: we like that awful, horrible blond Englishman with the cold eyes. He became the hero.”

Forsyth made the admission during last night’s Telegraph Subscriber event, A Night In with Frederick Forsyth and Lee Child. Forsyth, 82, and Child, 66, who were beaming in from Buckinghamshire and Toronto respectively, are two of the biggest beasts of the thriller genre. Between them, as the event’s host Mick Brown noted, they have sold “somewhere north of 180 million books around the world”.

The nominal excuse to get these two master storytellers to chew the fat was The Day of the Jackal’s golden jubilee; although as Child confessed, “for me it’s the 49th anniversary because I was still at school, and poor – I couldn’t afford a hardcover, I would always wait for the paperback.”

Child put his finger on the reason for the novel’s success: the granular detail about the practicalities of mounting an assassination attempt. “It was so clearly going to be different, because the fundamental proposition of the book – would Charles de Gaulle be assassinated or not – we already knew, we knew the outcome.

Frederick Forsyth, pictured in 1991 - John Stoddart
Frederick Forsyth, pictured in 1991 - John Stoddart

“It was about how it was done, it was about the insider secrets. And it absolutely delighted me. I thought: we are now in a new era. And it proved to be true, books changed after that.” Forsyth agreed with his analysis, while noting wryly that setting such a high standard for the depth and detail of his research was something of “a burden” when it came to writing his subsequent books.

Forsyth recalled the book’s remarkably rapid composition. “I wasn’t a novelist either by intent or experience or practice or anything else. I was a journalist. And journalists have a number of different disciplines: one is, write your story as fast as you can … I dashed off 350 pages in 35 days, 10 pages a day average, and to this day what you read is exactly what I wrote then, not a phrase, not a word, not a line has ever been changed. A weird way of writing … but [the publisher] took it as it was.”

Forsyth and Child spoke about their contrasting approaches to writing. Child makes everything up as he goes along: “if I had outlined the whole thing ... I would have already completed that story and I’d be bored with it at that point. And just typing it out for publication, I think the boredom would show through.” Forsyth needs to have worked out “every detail” before he starts writing, but does it all in his head rather than making notes.

In answer to a question about whether he had a close relationship with the Intelligence Services, and how far he relied on them for help in researching his spy thrillers, Forsyth commented: “Shall we say we have a nodding relationship. Occasionally I ask a question, and they nod.” Child observed that useful contacts tend to come along only once you’ve established your reputation.

Lee Child - Geoff Pugh
Lee Child - Geoff Pugh

“There’s a load of people write in and say: ‘I enjoy your books, I’ve just retired from the FBI, if there’s anything you want to know, give me a call.’ But it came too late really for the early books, I had to rely on what I could find out myself or what I already knew.”

In any case, Child can rely on his own imagination. For one of his books he invented what he calls an “involuntary witness protection scheme”, which sees ordinary citizens who stumble upon FBI sting operations being sequestered in an old motel until the operations are safely over. Worried that the idea was too implausible, he described it to one of his FBI contacts, who replied: “How did you know that?”

Forsyth agreed that novelists at the start of their careers are often rebuffed by “the forces of law and order” if they ask for help, and suggested that they’re better off seeking out genuine villains. For The Day of the Jackal he tracked down a professional forger to learn how to forge a passport; and later on he researched The Dogs of War by posing as a South African mercenary and meeting with black-market arms dealers in Hamburg.

Forsyth did laborious research for his books - Hulton Archive
Forsyth did laborious research for his books - Hulton Archive

Unfortunately for Forsyth, while he was still in Hamburg the leader of the arms dealers happened to catch sight of a copy of The Odessa File in a bookshop window, and spotted the author’s photo on the dust jacket. Luckily Forsyth was warned that the arms dealers had discovered their potential customer was actually a nosy novelist, and fled Hamburg without stopping to pack: “The tip-off … probably saved me from a very bad beating, maybe more than that.”

Forsyth was full of praise for Fred Zinnemann’s 1973 film version of The Day of the Jackal. “He very much didn’t want a towering international screen giant to be the Jackal, he turned down some big, big names … He wanted a face that would pass into the crowd and disappear. One day he asked me into his office and he put in front of me six postcard-sized portraits, all British males, all blond, blue-eyed, all handsome young men, and said: ‘which one for you is the Jackal?’ … I picked the bottom right hand one. He said: ‘I’m so glad, I’ve just cast him, his name’s Edward Fox.’”

Child was slightly less enthusiastic when told that Tom Cruise was lined up to play his hulking hero Jack Reacher. “If I’d thrown myself to the floor screaming, [the producers] would have probably cancelled the whole project. But in half a second I just thought, y’know, he’s the biggest global movie star left, and it will promote my books and my brand all around the world, so I said yes. And I’ve got nothing bad to say about Tom, he’s a lovely man, wildly misrepresented in the media … but the whole point of Reacher is that he is physically intimidating and Tom, for all his loveliness, really isn’t.”

Every inch a hero? Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher - Karen Ballard
Every inch a hero? Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher - Karen Ballard

Now the Reacher film franchise is defunct and Child is working on a Reacher TV series with Amazon Studios, starring Alan Ritchson – “an actor that is actually Reacher’s size and looks like Reacher. Huge guy, very physical, but also very cerebral. I was talking to him yesterday and I found out that he is actually a seriously good chess player … This is why he’s right, because [Reacher] is a brute but he is smart as well. It’s looking great on screen so far.”

The sad news is that both Forsyth and Child have retired as novelists – and despite pleas from the audience of Telegraph subscribers for them to reconsider, they’re sticking to their decisions.

“Partly the reason was the research was getting very, very burdensome, and very exhausting,” Forsyth observed. “It led me inevitably to certain hot-spots, hell-holes like Guinea-Bissau and Mogadishu.

Perfect gentleman: Edward Fox as The Jackal - Allstar Picture Library Ltd
Perfect gentleman: Edward Fox as The Jackal - Allstar Picture Library Ltd

“Last time I went to Mogadishu I was 1975 and my wife said, 'if you ever do anything stupid like that again … you’re going to have problems with me.' I thought, she’s right actually. I don’t dodge bullets the way I used to, let’s pack it in.” He tried researching his hell-holes on the Internet, but found he couldn’t write convincingly about them: “There’s an odour, a smell, about a really rather dangerous place like Mogadishu that you don’t get through a screen.”

Child, who has handed over the writing of the Reacher novels to his brother Andrew, said he'd felt that “the day was coming, maybe not next year, maybe not the year after, but sooner or later, when I would be phoning it in, and that was not acceptable to me”. He has also been influenced by memories of the fusty pre-Forsyth generation of thriller writers in the 1960s.

“I was really enraged about the way old people stuck around – taking up all the space and sucking up all the oxygen – why weren’t they giving the new generation a chance? … Because of that 50-year-old feeling, I feel honour-bound now to fade away and let somebody else take over.”

His travelling days are not over, however, and he still tours Reacher’s preferred stomping ground among America’s backwaters: “I love that kind of travel, where it’s cash in your pocket, a $20 motel … I like real life in that sense … I’m the only writer in history who asks to be downgraded in his hotels when they put me on a book tour.”

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