Orion author Matthew Dunn wasn’t always a writer – he was once a very successful spy. But turning real life into bestselling thrillers doesn’t come as easy as you might think . . .
Slingshot, the third novel in the Spycatcher series, started with the germ of an idea that was both simple in concept and highly complex in delivery. I had the notion that a single sheet of paper was stolen from the Russians, and that if it got into the wrong hands, it would set off a chain of catastrophic events. But I also set myself the challenge that this piece of paper had absolutely no value unless it reached one particular bad guy.
It made for a brain teaser, and I spent many days staring at the blank wall above my writing desk trying to work out what could be on that piece of paper. Weeks later, while holidaying with my two kids in North Wales, the solution came to me on a long walk, when I wasn’t particularly thinking about my book.
That is one of the joys and challenges of writing – creating something from nothing, storytelling, turning a blank Word document into a four-hundred-page novel, and ideas coming to you when you least expect them to.
If you read Slingshot, you’ll discover that, ultimately, the book deals with unusual geopolitical alliances and perceived threats. But my style of storytelling likes to avoid labouring such overarching themes until the all strands are pulled together at the end. Instead, I prefer to keep my MI6 protagonist’s mission under the microscope.
Will Cochrane is a field operative, working with very little to go on. Though he understands the dangers all too well, like the reader he’s very much in the dark as to what’s at stake. Thus, together reader and hero tread the same path.
When I write, it takes me back to how I felt when I was an MI6 operative. That’s not to say that what I write directly draws on all my experiences – some stuff, yes; but other episodes are taken from the experiences of officers I’ve known, and a big swathe of material is pure storytelling that comes from my own imagination.
But one thing in my books that most certainly is me is the mindset of a spy, and an understanding of how it feels to be operating under alias identities in hostile environments.
Being a former spy turned author is, perhaps, a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it gives credibility to my stories and some authority to tell them. On the other hand, it can sometimes produce competing requirements. As a writer, I must conform to the needs of the thriller genre: pace, characterisation, complex plots, high stakes.
As a former spy, people are expecting realism. Yet realism could be me describing to you how my MI6 hero travels to Nicosia, Cyprus and sits in his hotel room for two days, waiting for a one-hour meeting with a foreign asset who tells him that he’s got no secrets to share. That’s happened to me. And it would make boring reading.
So I leave the more mundane aspects of spying out of my books, much like a former special forces operative won’t bore you with numerous chapters about how his hero is keeping fit by climbing ropes and running for months before he’s deployed on a mission.
I think of myself as a writer who happened to be a former spy. Writing and reading have been in my blood since childhood. It gives me great joy to see my computer-obsessed kids take a break from their laptops and sit on our sofa reading a book. There’s something magical about that. Books fuelled my imagination when I was their age; my imagination probably spurred me on to join MI6; and after leaving the service, it was my imagination that brought me back to books.
I don’t write ‘faction’. I write stories that are underpinned by reality, and I love the process. As my ten-year-old son has said to me, ‘Daddy, you make stuff up for a living.’ Yep, that pretty much sums it up. Long may it last.
Do you think the best books are written by authors who have lived something of what they are writing about, or whose work is entirely a product of their imagination? Leave us a comment, below!
Matthew Dunn spent five years in the British Secret Intelligence Service, or MI6, as a field operative. His missions required him to travel extensively, and typically he operated in highly hostile environments where, if compromised and captured, he would have been executed. He was the recipient of a very rare personal commendation from the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs for work he did on one mission deemed so significant that it directly influenced the successful conclusion of a major international incident. During his time in MI6, Dunn conducted approximately seventy missions, all of them successful. He lives in England. Find out more at www.matthewdunnbooks.com.