Interview with Ted Wilson
I first encountered Ted's work when I attended a Crime Fest conference a few years ago, and since then have read all his books. It wasn't until I was reading The Whitehall Mandarin that it dawned on me that we had people and places in common - namely, Lowestoft College, where I think he left the year I joined!
So, Ted Wilson, author, lecturer, Vietnam veteran and naturalised Brit, this is your writing life!
1. Your first book, A River in May, wasn’t published until 2002. I wonder if you could talk a bit about your writing before that time. Were you interested in writing before then, or was it your experiences in the Vietnam War that motivated you?
I began writing my Vietnam novel at the remote outpost of Nong Son in the winter of 1970. Nong Son was defended by a 13 man US Special Forces team and 300 Vietnamese irregulars. I was only 22 years old and not really mature enough to cope with the things that were happening around me. I was very lonely. The only American I bonded with was Thomas Jefferson Rainey. Tom, a fellow lieutenant, was a reserved southern aristocrat – and, as his name suggested, a remote kinsman of the third US president. Tom survived the war, but committed suicide a number of years afterwards – a not uncommon fate.
My only escape routes at Nong Son were writing and reading – and, of course, Jim Beam and a generous supply of synthetic morphine tablets that a medic had given me to deal with a bout of dysentery. Almost as good as the bourbon and morphine were the boxes of ex-library books we received from the Red Cross, but with their covers torn off so they couldn’t be resold. I devoured them, but stirred clear of any books about war – my reading was escapism. My writing, however, was all about the war and formed the basis of my debut novel – finally published 32 years later. The escapist reading that I enjoyed most was about artists and writers leading a bohemian life. It all sounded so much better than being a soldier. The film about Viet vets that I most relate to is the 1990 Jacob’s Ladder where the protagonist returns to a boho life-style in New York. The film’s dénouement haunts me. Could Jacob Singer and I have suffered the same fate? Could the mostly happy past 50 years of my life – as an ex-pat, an Eng-Lit lecturer, a fairly successful writer and the person typing this blog – all be a drug induced illusion imagined on a triage trolley while the Graves Reg ghouls wait to haul me off to the I Corps mortuary?
2. And then you moved on to the cold war. Perhaps you could talk a bit about the genesis of Catesby. Does he have a particular counterpart in the real world, or is he an amalgam?
Catesby doesn’t appear until my third book, The Darkling Spy – although I point out in sly retrospection that Catesby and Bone were nameless undercover agents in the previous book, The Envoy. I hope someday there will be revised new edition of The Envoy in which Catesby will have a cameo walk-on role to justify calling that book the first in the Catesby series.
In any case, I wanted to create a main character in whose skin I felt comfortable. My mother, like Catesby’s, served in the bar of her father’s dockside tavern. I suspect that was how she met my father who was a merchant seaman. Like Catesby, whose own father died at sea when he was two, I have no memory of my former merchant sailor father who died when I was seven months old. Importantly, both Catesby and I were brought up in Roman Catholic households where English was not the first language. This created a sense of cultural dislocation, a good background for someone who is going to be a spy. Catesby grew up putting on personas and hiding part of his background. Like Catesby, I was the first generation of my family to go to university and – like him – I married far ‘above myself’. Although Catesby is a vastly different character from me, I do come from the sort of background that allows me to write about the issues he faces. And, ironically, the streets of my childhood home in Baltimore bear an eerie resemblance to the streets around the docks of Catesby’s Lowestoft.
But yes, Catesby is also an amalgam. He is not based at all on any literary predecessor, but there is something of him in all the East Anglians I have rubbed shoulders with for the past 43 years and all the British people of his generation that I came in contact with. Catesby, born in 1923, was largely shaped by the war. My late father-in-law, David, was a platoon leader at Monte Casino. My conversations with David and his war diaries provided a valuable insight into what Catesby and his generation experienced. Although my father-in-law, the perfect English gentleman, was totally different from Catesby in character and personality, he was the sort of person Catesby would have admired and aspired, unsuccessfully, to emulate. Catesby’s failure to live up to an ideal is something that plagues him throughout his life. Having said that Catesby has no literary precursors, I now realise that something of Graham Greene’s failed heroes may have unconsciously weaved its way into his characterisation.
The book that I recently finished, provisionally entitled Portrait of the Spy as a Young Man, is a Catesby series prequel and coming-of-age novel. It follows Catesby from being a grammar school modern languages whiz, to a year at Cambridge, to SOE training and then his adventures with the Resistance in occupied France. We learn that Catesby is a chameleon. As a working class lad at Cambridge he doesn’t flaunt his proletarian roots, but adapts instead the manners and voices of the posh kids around him. When he returns home for Christmas, he goes to the pub and reverts to talking in a Lowestoft accent, but his effort is greeted by ‘a certain coldness from those around him. One of his uncles, a fitter in the shipyard, leaned over and whispered, “What you trying to do, boy? I think it’s time you went back to Cambridge.”’ When you cut your roots you can’t grow them back. I hope that my books are more than spy thrillers
3. And we come to my favourite, Kit Fournier. Do you have any plans to bring him back?
I am pleased that you like Kit. He is an important character in the book I have just begun, provisionally entitled A Very Quiet American. The book is set in Marseille about 1950 where Kit and another CIA officer have been sent to covertly assist the Corsican mafia in their battle against the Communist led dock workers for control of the port of Marseille. Meanwhile Catesby, sent by London to observe and report, exceeds his brief. The story involves the French Connection and I am sure that once again Kit will be struggling with his conscience as well as Catesby.
By the way, Kit Fournier was partly inspired by former CIA officer Philip Agee. This extract from Wikipedia may help explain why: ‘Agee stated that his Roman Catholic social conscience had made him increasingly uncomfortable with his work by the late 1960s leading to his disillusionment with the CIA and its support for authoritarian governments across Latin America.’
4. Your main characters all have connections with Suffolk, even the American Kit Fournier. Could you talk a bit about your connections with Suffolk?
Suffolk was love at first sight – although I was warmed up for that first sight by Norfolk and the Yare. It was a late afternoon in June 1975 and I was on the Norwich train to Lowestoft where I had a job interview the next morning at Lowestoft College. What a marvellous train journey. I was bowled over by the big sky, the water, the reeds, the marshes, the meadows, the low lying woodlands. The landscape seemed unpopulated except for ghostly sails mysteriously drifting above the reeds. You couldn’t see the boats or their crews, only the sunlit sails. And the station names evoked East Anglian magic: Reedham, Haddiscoe, Somerleyton. I knew I had finally come home and this lovely merging of water and land and sky was where I would spend the rest of my days.
Our current home is on the edge of the Saints, a hinterland of mysterious hidden villages – where, by the way, Michael Ondaatje’s most recent novel, Warlight, is partly set. I also lived in Dene Road Lowestoft for six years – a few minutes from the beach and the dunes. I was a lecturer at the college for over twenty years and also did supply teaching at various schools in the town. I also had a happy few years teaching part-time at Leiston High. The other places I’ve lived are Frostenden and Bulcamp, where for a year I rented a cottage that overlooked the Blyth estuary. My wife’s family first came to Suffolk in the 1840s – and still own Dingle Great Farm on the marshes between Walberswick and Dunwich. It’s a very austere place with no mains electricity or mains water, but Clement Attlee used to come there for working holidays.
I love Suffolk, but there is also a dark side to its beauty – and you can hear that dark side, reverberating against the beauty, in the music of Benjamin Britten, especially in Peter Grimes. If Suffolk was only sweetness and light, it would be bland. Writers and artists need harshness as well as peace.
5. Do you ever intend to set a novel in your native Baltimore?
Baltimore is an utterly fascinating place which has produced more musicians, composers and writers per head of population than any place in the USA – as well as the world’s most famous sociopath. How apt that Thomas Harris chose Baltimore as Hannibal Lecter’s hometown. Likewise, many of the scenes in House of Cards are shot in a Baltimore pretending to be Washington – which, I hope, my fellow Baltimorean and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi also finds amusing.
Unfortunately, I probably won’t ever set a novel in Baltimore because I don’t think I could do the place justice. Having said that, Kit Fournier is a Baltimorean – and comes from the same posh part of town, North Charles Street, as Dr Lecter. But neither Kit nor Hannibal represent what the city really is. Baltimore is predominantly black and stories about Baltimore should be mostly about black lives. I very much admire David Simon for getting the mix right in The Wire.
Fellow Baltimoreans include Billie Holiday, Frank Zappa, Cab Calloway, Edgar Allan Poe, Philip Glass and Mrs Wallis Simpson, who nearly became Queen.
6. None of your novels fit the standard tropes of British spy novels. Catesby in particular is quite conflicted by being, on the one hand, a member of the British establishment, and on the other, quite strongly left-leaning. How far do Catesby’s attitudes reflect your own views?
Catesby’s politics are a reflection of my own. But what is now called ‘strongly left’ would have been the political centre ground during the post-war years. The shocking thing for an Attlee supporting Labourite of Catesby’s generation is how far the UK and the USA have drifted to the right. Eisenhower, a Republican president, taxed the richest at 93% and denounced the ‘military-industrial complex’. Harold Macmillan, a Conservative PM, dismantled most of the British empire and maintained state ownership of rail and public utilities.
I am writing this just a day after former MI6 boss, Sir Richard Dearlove, condemned John le Carré’s books as being ‘corrosive’. I stand shoulder to shoulder with le Carré against this attack. Le Carré isn’t the corrosive one, it is Dearlove himself. On the very day of the 2017 general election Richard Dearlove wrote an article in The Daily Telegraph condemning Jeremy Corbyn as an ‘old fashioned international socialist’ who would be ‘profoundly dangerous’ as prime minister. It is shocking – and frightening – that a former head of the Secret Intelligence Service should intervene so openly in an election. In A Very British Ending, I wrote about how members of MI5 and MI6 conspired with the CIA to overthrow Harold Wilson’s government – even if it meant staging a military coup to do so. Dearlove’s words give a chilling credence to my work of ‘fiction’.
I think it is unfortunate that so many writers of spy fiction are afraid to show their political leanings – or maybe, even more alarming, they haven’t any politics. Everyone knew that Graham Greene was a lefty and that Evelyn Waugh – whom I much admire – was a high Tory. It didn’t hurt their sales. On the other hand, Erskine Childers, who made no secret of his politics either, was executed by firing squad. Another writer who fared badly owing to his politics was Dashiell Hammett. I am proud that Hammett, yet another fellow Baltimorean, and I went to the same high school.Unfortunately, Sam Hammett (as Dashiell was known) had to leave the school at age 14 to help support his family. The experience of poverty turned Hammett into a life-long left-wing activist – which eventually landed him in prison. As a trustee of the Civil Rights Congress, Hammett was subpoenaed to give evidence at the height of the McCarthyite witch-hunt. He refused to name other activists and was sentenced to six months in jail where he was assigned the job of cleaning toilets. Hammett was blacklisted and his books removed from public libraries. He died in poverty a few years later. I think the job of a novelist is like Lord Reith’s injunction for the BBC, but with ‘entertain’ coming first. If we don’t entertain, the reader won’t turn the pages to be to be informed and educated. I’m proud that my books have a leftish tinge – and I’m sure the ghost of Sam Hammett is nodding approval.
7. I’m aware that your books have been read by people who were themselves involved in some of the real world incidents you refer to in your books, for example the surveillance on Harold Wilson, and the events surrounding the Falklands War, and insofar as I’ve spoken to some of them they have generally been impressed by what they see as your ‘insider knowledge’. Without getting anyone in hot water, could you talk a bit about your close understanding of the activities in the so-called corridors of power?
At times I’m just as much of an investigative journalist as I am a novelist. But, like most journalists, most of what I dig up is the result of paper chases and online research rather than talking to people. It’s what people in the intelligence services call ‘open-source intelligence’. I have talked to a few people who trod the corridors of power and a few of them have passed on interesting anecdotes. But, sadly, following me around while I do research wouldn’t make a very interesting television drama. Often what I discover from talking to real people is confirmation of what I already suspected. Once, for example, I had a chat with a person – very near the pinnacle of power – who confided to me that certain military officers had been planning for a coup to remove Harold Wilson. Well, that didn’t change anything in my book because it had already been published.
For me, a more important aspect of rubbing shoulders with people who have walked the corridors of power is becoming familiar with their culture and manners. All of them are courteous and often good company, but most of them are tight-lipped. When defending her order to sink the Belgrano against Diana Gould in the famous BBC Nationwideconfrontation, Thatcher maintained that she hadn’t heard that Argentina had agreed to a peace plan and an immediate ceasefire – even though cables had been pinging across the Atlantic for sixteen hours. There are, I am sure, a few mandarins still alive who know this is a lie, but their lips will remain forever sealed.
Fortunately, not all diplomats are always diplomatic – particularly as they get older. One of my best sources for research – and it is an absolute treasure trove of insider indiscretion – is the British Diplomatic Oral History Programme at Churchill College Cambridge. Shhh!
8. And finally, it’s said that there are two kinds of writers: those who plan methodically, and those who just begin and see where the characters and events take them. But I get the sense from reading your work that you actually have a different approach from either of those, that in fact you start with a big idea and work the novel around that. Could you comment on your own methods?
You are absolutely right: I don’t plan methodically nor do I just let the narrative hare off in an uncontrolled way. Character is, however, more important than plot. No one remembers Raymond Chandler’s plots, but everyone remembers Marlowe. The opening paragraph of The Big Sleep is all about character with only a thin nod to plot at the end:
It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.
Catesby, by the way, would love a pair of those socks. And what a fine literary touch they are too. Chandler’s book is about death (the ‘black wool’) and time (the ‘dark blue clocks’). Sorry for the pract. crit. excursion, but my dark secret is that I want my books to be literary fiction rather than just ‘thrillers’. I admire Graham Greene and le Carré for having done both.
The best plots are often a combination of the subconscious and real life memory. The final dénouement of The Whitehall Mandarin was inspired by a single sentence that I heard uttered about two a.m. on New Year’s morning in the 1990s in a house overlooking the entrance of a Suffolk river (unnamed to protect the memory of the person involved). You will find a paraphrased version on p339, line 5. By the way, when you finish reading p356 of this book, may I recommend you reread pages 25 and 26 to help you decide what really happened?
I try to write novels which are an interaction between history and character – and between historical characters and purely fictional characters. My excellent editor, Martin Fletcher, has dubbed my writing ‘docufiction’. Docufiction is usually a film genre in which real life characters, such as the Aran islanders in Man of Aran, interact with professional actors. Pure historical fiction deals only with real historical characters (however distorted and fictionalised they may be), but my docufiction novels pose characters who are totally fictional (Catesby, Fournier, Henry Bone) against real historical characters (the Kennedys, Heath, Thatcher, Francis Pym, the totally mad James Jesus Angleton). I feel that my fictional creations are better able to probe and reveal the characters of historical figures than their historical contemporaries. I also feel that fictional characters can be more interesting than historical ones. While researching my books I often find that real life figures from history, especially the villains, turn out to be dull and dreary. Hannah Arendt’s description of the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann as ‘terrifyingly normal’ and representing ‘the banality of evil’ is chillingly apt.
Thank you for having been patient enough to read my comments. I hope they provide some enlightenment not just about my novels, but about books and writing in general.
And if you'd like to read Ted's books, find them on his website.