Book box | Meet history buff turned spy writer Ben Macintyre

Book box |  Meet history buff turned spy writer Ben Macintyre

Dear reader,

Ben Macintyre (Sonya Dutta Choudhury)

Eight years ago I heard Ben Macintyre speak at the Jaipur Literature Festival. He had recently written A spy among friendsand captivated the evening audience with photographs and a racy story – that of Kim Philby, the young Cambridge graduate who joined British intelligence and quickly rose through the ranks, while also being a mole for the Russian KGB.

Today, spies are still in the news, and closer to home too, with the recent example of the diplomatic row between India and Canada over the alleged involvement of Indian agents in an assassination plot .

It is disconcerting to know the truth behind the dark reports of deception and duplicity. This is where I turn to spy stories: here are all the reasons why we need to read spy stories. And no one tells them better than historian turned spy novelist Ben Macintyre.

Earlier this year I met Macintyre, once again at JLF. We talked about his childhood in Oxford, his friendship with John le Carré, and the techniques he uses to make his real-life stories so racy. Here are edited excerpts from our conversation.

Tell us about your childhood reading

I was born in Oxford, where my father taught history at the university. He loved telling historical stories. So story was at the heart of our growth. My brother and sister also ended up studying history and the conversation at home was all about history, my poor mother, I think it must have driven her crazy.

I read a lot of children’s novels, people like Geoffrey Trease, no one reads him now. But his books were sort of historical novels for teenagers, and that’s what I grew up with. RJ Unstead was a great historian of storytelling from the 1970s and 1980s.

You were born in Oxford. Why did you choose to study history at Cambridge?

My father insisted on not letting us go to Oxford. He was head of the history department at his university and he would have ended up teaching us, which would have been terrible. He wanted us to go somewhere else, which is absolutely true. So we all went to Cambridge (my brother, my sister and me). And we all made history.

To what extent have your father’s writings influenced yours?

My father was a learned historian. He believed in the whole apparatus of historical research. He died very young. But we had a lot of great conversations about our different styles. My historical writing is narrative-driven. Every word in them is true. But they are told as stories. We were different types of historians, but I loved it.

Your stories are full of history. And yet, how can you write so much about the psychology of a spy?

There is an old acronym used in Western intelligence services: MICE, which stands for Money, Ideology, Coercion and Ego. These are considered the four fundamental elements of espionage. To become a spy or recruit a spy, you must have at least one of these items and probably all four.

Intelligence runs on money. No one ever admits it. But if you recruit an agent in a foreign country, you have to pay him and you have to pay him a lot. All modern intelligence services operate on black money. It is never identified, it does not fall under any obvious budget.

There is ideology. Many spies thought they were gathering intelligence for a good cause. In fact, the best all believe that they are, in one way or another, motivated by an ideological commitment. There is coercion, often they end up being forced to become spies through blackmail or lack of money. And the ego.

Ben Macintyre (second from right) at Jaipur Lit Fest, February 2024 (Sonya Dutta Choudhury)

What I like about your books is that they read like racy spy novels. How to achieve this?

I have always been fascinated by fiction. Even though I’ve never written one, if I started, I wouldn’t know where to stop. So, I think that’s kind of the key to my technique. I never invent anything. But I use novelistic techniques; create cliffhangers, place a clue in chapter one that won’t be answered until chapter six.

Narrative nonfiction is a very specific genre. And it is often very difficult. You can’t do this without having a lot of information. You have to carry out very, very extensive research. Because you need to be able to say things like, “The room smelled like old cigarette smoke.” And if you want to write that, you have to know that it’s true. You need a source that tells you it’s true. This is why many of my books contain so many quotes. If I state something as fact in one of my books, it is only when I know it to be true. You should find a balance between creating the kind of moving narrative that makes you want to turn the page while still respecting historical veracity.

You were friends with John le Carré, the world’s greatest legend of spy writing. Tell us about your friendship

We would take long walks together on Hampstead Heath. Every month or so we would get together and have long conversations. He was brilliant and he was very helpful.

I remember him telling me early on that to write these kinds of books you have to have a risk on every page, that you have to have something at stake. It doesn’t have to be something like “Will- they be killed or not? » But you have to create a world that the reader can believe in, so that they are involved in the story and have a stake in the outcome.

He wrote fiction and I wrote nonfiction, but he felt like we wrote similar types of stories. I was very flattered by it. It was also a social friendship. I mean, we saw each other outside of work, we didn’t just talk about books.

Are you a journalist and also an author? How do these two identities influence each other?

My first love was journalism and I am still a journalist. I have been a member of the Times staff for 34 years. It taught me about deadlines. I use my journalistic skills in researching my books because much of the sources for my books come from living people. So when I interview people, I collect their memories and these are very unreliable. You have to be very careful with your dissertation, just like you do in journalism, because what people tell you may not be true.

I love the short form journalism that is produced. Tomorrow there will be no more and something else will have taken its place. Meanwhile, a book has a longer and richer life. I find that the balance of the two works suits me really well: as soon as I have difficulty with a book, I turn, with a certain relief, to a review. And then I turn away from the column and return to the book.

You must meet a lot of real spies

I know a lot of people on both sides, both in the internal and external services (MI5 and MI6). The funny thing about spies is that they love to tell their stories. I mean, they’re supposed to be secret, but they’re not. If you live in a secret world, the temptation, when you’re not in that world, to tell your stories is overwhelming.

Have you met an Indian spy? How was it ?

Yes. It’s the same thing. The truth is that espionage is the same all over the world and intelligence agencies are all trying to do the same thing: persuade citizens of foreign countries to betray their own countries.

Where did this meeting take place?

I can’t say that.

Do you think you could write a spy book set in South Asia?

I recently wrote a book that had a significant Chinese aspect. It’s called Agent Sonyaand the first half takes place in Shanghai, China.

But I’m driven by history, I wouldn’t go looking for a story that’s in a particular geographic location, it depends on what I find.

My next book, which will be released in October, will be set in London, around an embassy siege that took place in 1980. The next one will be set in Iran.

And finally, what are your favorite spy novels?

I’m a big fan of the novelist Charles Cumming, who writes in the same vein as John McCarry. He writes wonderful spy novels. And Mick Herron is pretty brilliant too. I also like Robert Harris.


And you, dear reader, what are your favorite spy stories? Write with recommendations. And until next week, happy reading!

Sonya Dutta Choudhury is a Mumbai-based journalist and the founder of Sonya’s Book Box, a bespoke book service. Each week, she brings you books specially selected to give you an immersive understanding of people and places. If you have any reading recommendations or suggestions, email him at [email protected]