Thriller author and ex-MI6 operative Matthew Dunn discusses the extra lengths he must go to when writing his espionage novels. For most authors, accuracy is important, but for his new novel Slingshot the blur between truth and fiction can literally mean life and death.
Before I was allowed through the door of MI6 headquarters for the first time, I had to sign a ton of paperwork. The most serious document of all was The Official Secrets Act. It not only made me realise that my entry into the secret world was all too real, but also that I held an enormous responsibility to maintain my country’s secrets.
I remember trying to ascertain what would happen to me or my fellow trainees if one of us inadvertently breached the Act. Was it high treason? Apparently not: we’d have to try to kill the queen or sleep with her consorts or a family member to be charged with that and, until recently, given the death penalty.
But that was no relief when I further discovered that treachery to the state was dealt with just as severely.
I’m bound to the Official Secrets Act for life, and one of its stipulations is that, as a former MI6 covert field operative, anything I write about the world of espionage must be pre-vetted by the organisation. So when I took up pen and paper to write my first novel, Spycatcher, I had to reach out to my former employers and tell them exactly what I was doing.
It didn’t surprise me that MI6 was enthusiastic about my new vocation, because the service has a fine tradition of producing some excellent fiction and non-fiction writers. Moreover, its culture is imbued with creativity because it needs people who have a firm grasp of the nuances of the written English language, can lie for a living, act and charm. But the organisation also has a duty of care to our state, and quite rightly pointed out that I could put nothing into print or say anything in, for example, interviews, unless MI6 approved content before publicity.
I’ve now written four Spycatcher novels (my fourth – Dark Spies – will be published later this year), have conducted hundreds of print, radio and televised interviews on both sides of the Atlantic and have given espionage-related expert opinion to The Times, Daily Telegraph, Express, CNN, Al Jazeera, and Fox News. All of it has been scrutinised by MI6.
MI6 reads my books before you do. It makes suggestions for cuts if I go too far on something sensitive. Thankfully, so far the world’s most effective global intelligence service has loved what I’ve written. It also helps that I write fiction, because reality and pure storytelling blur, and it’s obviously far harder for readers to discern my real experiences from those that I’ve imagined for my tales.
But I’m always mightily aware that MI6 and I have to get it right. If we don’t, at best I get a rather long stint in the Tower of London; at worst, the brave men and women who conduct ongoing covert operations could be compromised and killed.