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No. I don’t believe in god, or to be specific, I don’t believe in superpower. I’ve always believed that my conscience was my God and my parents were my conscience. Apart from this belief, if there is one person whom I believe is capable of doing the impossible, the one who is capable of turning my world topsy-turvy with his stupendous imagination, which feels nothing less than real; who inspires me every time I hear his name, or see his picture – it is certainly Frederick Forsyth. My God.

Born on 25th August, 1938 in Ashford, Kent, England, he became the youngest pilot in RAF at the age of 19, serving from 1956 to 1958. For the next three and a half years, he worked as a reporter for the Eastern Daily Press in Norfolk and became a correspondent for Reuters in 1961, in Paris, at the age of 23 and then in East Germany and Czechoslovakia.

After returning to London in 1965, he worked as a radio and television reporter for the BBC. As assistant diplomatic correspondent, he covered the Biafran side of the Biafra-Nigeria war from July to September 1967.

He didn’t know that all this experience would come in handy during his later years as a novelist. “I became a novelist by fluke,” he says, matter-of-factly. “In January 1970, I had no job, no commission, and no money in my bank account either. So went back to the notion I had for the novel about the assassination of Charles De Gaulle. Sat down to write and finished the novel in 35 days.”

And thus the world came in possession of a genius. To this day, The Day of the Jackal is one of the most astounding books ever to be written.

“As a boy I had two burning passions - to fly for the RAF and travel all over the world,” he recalls. “Journalism National service achieved the first, and journalism and fiction writing accomplished the second.”

His style of writing is one of a kind. When most authors create a central character first and then weave a story around him/her, Forsyth creates the plot first and then introduces the character as per the needs of the story. Though the heroes in his novels are fascinating, plots play a bigger role, and a central character is just a necessity. In The Devil’s Alternative, the hero Adam Munro doesn’t realize his true role until the end, and so does the reader. There are bigger players playing the game.

The first few chapters are always slow. The reader doesn’t understand as to what is happening and why. The hero is not introduced so early in the novel. For example, Quinn, the protagonist in The Negotiator, doesn’t appear until 130 pages into the novel. Everything is under wraps. To quote him: “Unlike most novels, it (while talking about The Day of the Jackal) takes off rather slow. I’d like to set out my chess pieces in an orderly sequence. My novels start with a gentle arrangement of chess pieces.”

Reading Forsyth’s novels is like watching a masterful game of chess. You’ll have to read in order to understand what I’m talking about.

His novels are full of information about the minutest technical details: money laundering, illegal arms dealing, identity theft. The conversation between the Jackal and the gun-maker in The Day of the Jackal goes on for more than ten pages. The description of the rifle itself goes on for more than five pages. And in The Fourth Protocol, he actually gives detailed explanation about building a tiny nuclear bomb. And entire chapter is dedicated to it. And so is the burglary scene in the beginning of the novel. So is the case when he explains about the ship in The Devil’s Alternative. No wonder he takes about 2-3 years to research for each book. Every sentence reeks of authenticity; every little thing seems so real. And he doesn’t write about such things in detail to show off his research work, but to show what kind of world his characters live in. They are necessary, they are important.

Some may not want so much detail while reading a novel, but in my opinion, these are the things that make the stories look authentic. So if you are the kind of person who enjoys Twilight and Mills and Boon and the lot, Forsyth is not for you. As he says, the world is made up of predators and prey, and only the strong survive.

You read a headline in a newspaper and move on. Forsyth doesn’t. His novels are all about what might have happened behind those headlines. The “What If” scenario. His books show the ways in which mercenaries, terrorists, diplomats, mafias go about their business – behind the screens. For example, the Jackal in The Day of the Jackal doesn’t just buy a rifle and goes for the kill. He does a meticulous research on the man he wants to kill. He goes to the library and studies his target, obtains a false identity, tests his weapon in an isolated place. Months of research to kill a man. That’s Frederick Forsyth’s world.

Forsyth was the man who first introduced an easy, yet effective way of stealing someone’s identity, in a novel. That kind of identity theft was not heard until then, until The Day of the Jackal. Once the book came out, many assassins used the same technique to obtain false papers. When Ilich Ramirez Sanchez (popularly known as Carlos the Jackal), one of the most elusive fugitives, was caught, The Guardian gave him the nickname Jackal. Reason was simple. A copy of The Day of the Jackal was found in his bag.

This is one of the reasons why sometimes Forsyth is a headache for the secret agencies. When he writes about a building in a ‘specific area’ that is posing as a tax office, but in fact is a hideous front of CIA or FBI or MI5, you can believe it without questioning. The research is that accurate. When he talks about the world of ruthless arms dealers, drug dealers, mercenaries, the Nazi underworld, every scenario is entirely plausible. In The Afghan, the Al-Quaeda uses a ship to carry out an attack, similar to 9/11. In fact, there is a rumour that Forsyth coined the idea in the late nineties, about a terrorist group hijacking an airplane and how they are stopped from ramming the biggest building in the biggest city. He had to drop the idea when 9/11 happened.

But then again, as they say, one has to suffer for one’s art. Fresh from the success of The Day of the Jackal, when Forsyth traveled to Hamburg to research for his third book, The Dogs of War (a novel about a British businessman, who hires mercenaries to pull off a coup d’etat and establish a puppet regime), he ingeniously infiltrated into the group of arms dealers, posing as an arms buyer from South Africa. As co-incidence would have it, one of the gang members saw his picture in a nearby book shop under the advertisement of The Day of the Jackal. His cover was blown. A few minutes later Forsyth received a phone call from his contact, who informed him about his cover being blown. He had 80 seconds to leave the country.

In his own words, “I managed to penetrate their world and was feeling rather proud of myself actually. What I didn’t know was that the arms dealer had passed a bookshop shortly after our meeting. And there, in the window, was The Day of the Jackal. With a great big picture of me – the man he thought was a South African arms buyer – on the back cover.

“I left all my clothes, grabbed my money and passport and ran across the square to the train station. There was a train pulling out so I did a parachute roll through the window, landing on a bewildered businessman. The ticket conductor asked me where I was going. I asked him where the train was going and he said Amsterdam. So am I, I said.”

Now, can you imagine the risk involved? All for the sake of a novel. On the other hand, there are a bunch of so-called best-selling authors in India. (No, I'm not talking about geniuses like Amitav Ghosh, Vikas Swarup, Vikram Seth and the lot. I'm talking about those who write cheap and sell cheap.) The only research they do for their novels is as to how to have sex in the most uncomfortable places, in the most uncomfortable situations. In the backseat of a car parked in a parking lot, when the couple’s friends are within earshot; on the terrace, when the girl’s family is celebrating downstairs, to name a few. Anyway, let me not divert your attention.

So, coming back to the real man; the risk he took to research for his latest novel, The Cobra – released in August 2010, after a gap of four years, with the last novel being The Afghan, released in 2006 – was nothing less. He flew to Guinea-Bissau in 2009 (at the age of 71) to investigate its role in moving cocaine from South America to markets across Europe. The tiny West African country is the hub of the international drugs trade according to UN officials, and billions of dollars worth of cocaine are believed to pass through the poor, weak nations of the region.

Forsyth, posing as a bird-watcher, flew there, only to find himself in the middle of chaos.

“It was just my luck that I landed during a coup d’etat. Someone had blown up the head of the army, and the army were coming into town to avenge whoever did it, and I landed about an hour before they came. I installed myself in a hotel, couldn’t sleep, was reading and heard a hell of a bang down the street and I knew it was not thunder but an explosion.”

The blast was actually an attack on President Joao Bernado Vieira, who was killed in revenge for the assassination of armed forces chief of staff General Batista Tagme Na Wei, hours earlier.

On his return, Forsyth contracted septicemia in his left leg, from a sting in Africa, and spent several weeks in hospital before resuming his research.

During his stay in Guinea-Bissau, he borrowed a phone from someone (he doesn’t use cell-phones) and dictated about 1,000 words to Daily Express, for which he writes a column, about what was happening in the region. This was intercepted by NSA (National Security Agency) and his wife’s laptop was hacked.

“Unfortunately, the American intelligence services listened to it and wasted my wife’s computer screen and totaled all her lunch dates.”

He claims his suspicions were confirmed to him by his sources – the people who provide information for his books – whom he likes to describe as his “friends in low places”.

“Everything up there in the ether is intercepted, probably by the NSA at Fort Meade in Maryland, and I think my report ended up somewhere on a desk at Fort Meade.”

According to him, they assumed he might be involved in the attempted coup in Guinea-Bissau in some way, because he had previous experience in the region, and had written about a fictional coup in Equatorial Guinea in The Dogs of War.

He had also discussed the details of such a coup in 1973 with real-life plotters and given them money in return for information. The coup never materialized as the participants were arrested before it came off.

Now, isn’t he the man who lives on the edge?

Here is a man, who doesn’t trust the material found on the internet. He doesn’t use a computer, let alone the internet. He doesn’t even use cell-phones. He still uses an old Canon typewriter to write his novels, which he does at a rattling speed. “Twelve pages a day, 3,000 words a day, seven days a week. But it’s the research that takes time. I can finish off writing in about 40 days. And, yes, I have to force myself to write. Sounds ungrateful, I know.” He further adds, “I am slightly mercenary. I write for money. I feel no compulsion to write. If someone said, ‘You are not going to write another word of fiction,’ it wouldn’t matter a damn.”

Pretty unlikely for a brilliant author. Maybe only a man of his stature can say something like that.

He’s been chased by arms dealers, stripped down by the KGB and interrogated, and many more. Once, when he was researching for a novel in Prague, he was constantly followed by the secret agency, the StB. One night, at a disco, he met a girl called Jana. “We had a drink and a dance. It was a hot August night, and I suggested we have a swim in the lake. So we went skinny dipping, then I spread out a rug and we made love. As I drove her back to the hotel, I remarked that there were no headlights in my rear view mirror. ‘Where the hell are the STB?’ I said. She replied, ‘You just made love to it’.”

That’s Frederick Forsyth for you. I can brazenly say that there are two kinds of people in this world: those who have read his novels and those who haven’t. I am happy I belong to the former.

Read Avenger, and Cal Dexter will put Rambo to shame. Read The Fist of God and The Afghan, and Mike Martin will tell you that heroes are made of steel. Read The Odessa File, and you’ll understand what it really takes to investigate. Read The Negotiator, and Quinn will give you the real definition of intelligence. Read The Devil’s Alternative, and you’ll know how the game of international politics is played. Read The Fourth Protocol and The Cobra, and you’ll know how plans are made and executed to perfection. Read The Dogs of War, and you’ll understand the world of mercenaries and what they are capable of doing. Read The Deceiver, and marvel at Sam McCready’s deceptions. And I don’t need to say why one should read The Day of the Jackal. It is compulsory. Period. I’m yet to read Icon and No Comebacks. The latter is a collection of ten short stories. I’m saving them for difficult times. If I read it, I won’t be having anything marvelous left to read.

Whichever book you read, in the end you’ll be left with a single question: Was it fact or fiction? Believe me; you won’t be able to answer it.

With The Cobra, the 73-year-old genius has announced his retirement. He insists that he has no plans to write any more books. “I’ve said that at least three times now. So, who knows?” he says with a chuckle.

Hope he doesn’t hang up his typewriter. May he live long, may he write more, and may we read more.


Comments (15)

The negatives first, Karthik (also because I feel strongly about them although there aren't too many):

(1) I suppose giving the post the title God, after rather vehemently declining any credence over such a concept, seems rather ironic. That's just an observation.

(2) Secondly the comparison with so-called bestselling authors in India: honestly, I guess I can understand the sort you are alluding to (lol) but the comparison seems rather 'sweeping' and you are not being fair. Besides, if I may add, good writing - or even good novels - is not confined to the goings-on in "The High Places" (pun intended ;)) but can encompass the lives of the aam aadmi. When it comes to writing, I respect both the Hailey-Forsyth kind as well as Albert Einstein's statement: Imagination is the HIGHEST form of research. Where I come from I give Einstein's statement a huge tick.

Now to the positives, the post was wonderfully written (but that's like saying Sachin Tendulkar scored yet another international hundred or Fredrick Forsyth set a record for the number of weeks in a popular newspaper's bestsellers' list). Also, it is refreshing to see your other genres of writing - this could be called a biographical essay of some sort - and like your short stories these too are characterised by a lovely fluency and good meticulousness.

Back to Forsyth himself, I have read all the books you have mentioned except The Devil's Alternative. The "passport arrangement" and the scene with the arms dealer in The Day of the Jackal are narratives burned into my memory forever. They will arguably top my favourite moments in fiction. And to think the man finished the novel in - did I hear it right? Come again! :D - 35 days is plainly god-smacking (and that's an understatement, I am sure!)

Colonel Mike Martin is my favourite Forsythian character and though the Fist of God is slower - for me - compared to Jackal or The Avenger or the Afghan, the book is breathtaking in terms of the sheer magnitude of research that seems to ooze through every chapter profusely :)

As for money being the genius' persuasion, I at least am not surprised. They said Shakespeare's foray into Elizabethan theatre was a consequence of monetary needs too. So, there you are!

Ah-ha! Yen bhankti yen kathe :)

Amazing to see the kind of influence he has on you. I remember a conversation we had about an year back and the passion with which you mentioned his work is unforgettable.

I'm still on the other side of the fence(not read any of his book yet).Only after reading will I be able to agree or disagree with you :P But boy, your post makes me want to hop over to the other side asap ;)

The depth,intensity and sheer passion are so hard to miss I tell you! :D

I tend to agree with Srini, the opening para and the reference to Indian author were rather out-of-place... or perhaps your emotion took precedence? not saying that there could be rules on how/what to write, saying it from reader's point of view..

about Forsyth, the research he does is surely meticulous and he tends to leave no loop-holes, however small...have read 'day of jackal'.. others will follow ;)

The meaning of God, according to me, is someone supreme, someone above mere mortals. I meant it in that sense. But conventionally speaking, the term god refers to superpower, someone with superpowers, who is controlling our lives. I said I don't believe in THIS concept. I don't believe in worshiping something I can't see. That's beyond logic to me. And here, in this post, when I say god, he/she is someone who inspires me and gives me hope all the time. Everyone has his own belief, and so do I. Besides, this post is all about the author and not the existence of god or one's faith in the concept. So let's not continue this. ;)

About Indian authors; when I ridicule some of them, it is understood that I'm talking about harebrained novelists, who write cheap and sell cheap. "Trust Me", "Above Average", "If God was a Banker", to name a few. If you've read these (and I doubt that), you'd understand. By no means I'm referring to brilliant authors like Vikas Swaroop, Vikram Kapur, Rohinton Mistry, Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh and many more. What saddens me is the fact that the books written by these wouldn't sell as much as rs. 95/- novels. I've never seen their novels in the top ten list. The imagination you are referring to, is not found in the books I keep ridiculing. When someone rambles on and on about his own personal life, there is no imagination. I AM being fair. Unlike movies, which get over in 3 hrs, I spend a lot of time reading a book, and when I invest my time (and money), I demand to be entertained. If not entertainment, at least I should enjoy the language. When I don't get either of them, they get on my nerves.

Thanks, man. No time to write stories now. So I keep writing something or the other, just to keep myself in the loop. Also, I wanted to write about Forsyth since a long time. Did it finally. :)
And read Devil's Alternative. It's one helluva novel really. The climax will take your breath away. I jumped up and down when I read the epilogue. Read it three times just to be sure. :)
By the way, you heard it right. He finished The Day of the Jackal in 35 days flat. But same is the case with his every novel. The maximum is two months. Shocking, eh? ;)

Thanks again. :)

Get on the other side of the fence as soon as possible. You won't regret it. Ningu bhakti bande barutte. :)

And yeah, I remember that conversation very clearly. Saying it again. Start reading him. Pronto. :)

Kindly read my reply to Srini.
Besides, this is not a story, is it? My personal opinions completely. I AM a strongly opinionated person. :)

Read everything written by Forsyth. You won't be disappointed for sure. :) Happy reading.

On that matter-- i think any writer is a 'Creator'...

my first forsyth novel was 'devil's alternative...' . must say i fell in love with his words... a few remains in the list to be covered still... but the moment i return frm my recent dive into non-fiction back to fiction-- forsyth tops the list!

very well written!

Ohhh ohh never realized you were that crazy about him :)

I agree with the others about your comparison with Indian authors being out of place. But then again, that happens when you are so influenced by him!
The Day of the Jackal is a masterpiece. Never has, never will there be a story of that caliber!

Woohooo, some response that. :D Actually, as regards the 'God' argument, I was merely pulling your leg. ;) :P It was nothing more than the case of a wicked brain, in need of some humour, coming up with a poor joke that it thinks is good (am I making sense? Thank the Devil if I am! ;) :D)

And no I have not read the self-serving and self-describing Indian novelists you have referred to. To be honest, I have read very little fiction in the last three years. I won't blame lack of time, although I have been busy, either with work or screwing up my life with royal abandon :D; lack of inclination is more like it.

I understand when you mean no time for stories. Now that you are a NAME in the blogosphere and all, you have a reputation to keep and, arguably, to beat. ;) :D Naturally, the expectations will soar and I suppose you have to walk on eggshells. LOL

Aaaah, I am in such a good mood today (no, I am not patronising!), wonder why?! :D

Very interesting. The kind of research these guys do really scares me. It seems monumental, beyond the reach of a normal wannabe writer. But strangely I have not read even a single book of Fredrick Forsyth. Somehow except for a brief spell during my school days when I was into Jeffrey Archer and Agatha Christie, I have somehow tended to stay clear of contemporary thrillers. But I see the need to pick up one soon more to learn the art of writing.

Good to see you putting up stuff now and then. Missing your stories, though. Hope to see one soon. You are one of the very few bloggers I really enjoy as a reader rather than trying to network as a fellow writer.

What am I doing here sitting and posting comments on your blog? I should be out, buying all the books one by exciting one! Can't wait to join the fan club after reading your post!

And which is this movie, 'Knockout'? Don't tell me you've watched it! :D

Devil's Alternative is bloody awesome, isn't it? I loved it. It's pretty unlike Forsyth's other novels.
Yeah, get back to reading Forsyth.

Oh, yes. I am. You have no idea how much. :)

When I said Indian authors, I didn't mean geniuses like Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh, Vikas Swarup, Vikram Kapur and many others who fall into that category. I meant only those who write cheap and sell cheap. Unfortunately their books sell more than quality books, and people call them youth icons. So no. Mentioning them was not out of place.

I totally agree about The Day of the Jackal.

You were joking? Thought you were serious with the pointers and all. :)

And a NAME in blogosphere? LOL!
Hardly 6-7 people read '9'. :P
Either ways, thanks, man. :)

The Fool,
Then it's a good enough reason to start reading Forsyth. Don't miss them. Also read Robert Ludlum's novels (just in case you haven't read them). You won't be disappointed. Robert Ludlum comes second in my list. He's a genius too.

And thanks, man. Will post a story soon. Feels good to be appreciated.

Destiny's Child,
You betcha. Go. Go and pick up his books. You don't want to miss them.

And I could only manage to see half of knockout. It's pathetic. :P

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