Interview with Jeremy Duns

Recently I reviewed Jeremy Duns‘ Free Agent, a fantastic Cold War thriller, and Jeremy was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about the book and his writing process.

What drew you to writing in this particular genre? I was brought up on a diet of my father’s Fleming and occasionally Leslie Charteris novels and so naturally progressed from there. Could you see yourself writing in another genre at all?

I’d always wanted to write novels, but I didn’t know what I wanted to write about. Like most English boys I grew up watching the Bond films, and when I was a little older I’d read Len Deighton and John le Carre and some other spy stuff, but it was never a genre I was very much into. That changed in my twenties, when quite by chance I stumbled on some second-hand paperbacks in a bookshop in Antwerp, and I started devouring a lot of spy fiction, especially from the Cold War. Most writers had moved on since the fall of the Berlin Wall, but I thought it was such a fascinating era, and began to wonder if it wouldn’t be possible to revisit it. After all, in the Sixties a lot of thriller-writers wrote about the Second World War, and there’s a lot we know about the Cold War now that nobody did at the time. So that was the seed of the idea.

In addition, the time periods you address are quite fascinating. I’ve always been intrigued by the end of WWII when Russia was still an ally and how that emerged into the Cold War, but very little seems to address it. Likewise, I knew little of Britain’s involvement in Nigeria. When did you decide to place the story in these timeframes? Was it intentional that little had been written about it?

I wanted to write something set in the Sixties, because I tend to enjoy thrillers from that decade best, and I also thought it had the most room for reinterpretation. When we think of the Sixties, it’s often the very large events: Woodstock, JFK’s assassination, Vietnam, the Beatles. I wanted to pick at the edges of it a little, at some of the things that had been forgotten. Spy novels at the time were mostly set in Eastern Europe, but I knew that the Cold War had ranged all over the world, from Asia to Africa. I had grown up in Nigeria and remembered hearing about Biafra as a child – the war finished before I was born. Reading up about it, I was fascinated to discover how extensive the superpowers’ involvement had been, and slowly the ideas started to crystallise. The flashback to the end of the Second World War came from researching the history of MI6, and also an article I wrote as a journalist in which I interviewed a few SAS veterans who had been involved in war crimes investigations in Germany just after the war’s end. I’m fascinated by how World War Two became the Cold War, and how this great new enemy of the Soviet Union emerged so soon after it had been our ally.

When I started reading, I was quite surprised by the choice of first-person narrative, as it was something I wasn’t expecting. I think now that it actually makes the story stronger, especially as we have to trust Dark on his word as he’s our narrator, though ever since reading The Turn of the Screw I’ve been suspicious of first-person narration! When did you decide to use this form and did it cause any problems? Using a fixed perspective means you can’t cut away to another narrative at any point or to another character.

Whenever I read about Kim Philby or other double agents, I always wanted to know more: what had they felt at that moment, what must it have been like? So I thought that I would use the first person to try to take readers right inside the head of someone in this position. I thought it would increase the suspense, but also make it easier for readers to empathise with him, or at least be harder to despise him outright. We’re right there with him every step of his journey. I thought it would make for a more exciting and intense reading experience.

It’s certainly an interesting era and I look forward to it being explored further. From the bibliography its clear you did a lot of research – how much did this influence the story at all? Was Dark’s story already planned out or was it a product of your reading?

I had the ideas early on that the protagonist would be a double agent, that it would be first person and that it would be set in the 60s and hopefully shed new light on the Cold War. And, in fact, the basic premise of the first chapter. Then I started thinking about location, and narrowed it down to Africa, then Nigeria and the civil war there. Then I researched, for about a year, not writing any of the book but taking tons of notes. I spent quite a bit of time working on a plot with all these elements that took place in 1967, near the start of the war, but it didn’t work. I read about Harold Wilson’s trip to Nigeria in 1969 and something clicked, so I started to pursue that, and from then on the plot slowly worked itself out and I researched to shape it.

I particularly enjoyed the style and tone of the book and a lot of readers mention how it reminds them of Deighton and le Carre. Obviously it’s a compliment but do you think they influenced your own style or was it deliberate?

Yes, both Deighton and le Carre were influences on me, especially the former. I love the sharpness and sardonic humour of Deighton’s early novels and wanted to reflect a little of that. London Dossier, a guidebook Deighton put together in 1967, was also a great source of information on the time for me, and very evocative. The biggest influence of me, though, was another British spy novelist, Elleston Trevor, who is sadly not as well known today. Under the name Adam Hall he wrote a series of first-person spy novels about a British agent called Quiller, which I love. I wanted to revive that sort of thriller.

The book moves at a breakneck speed, with a jaw-dropping first chapter and the pace doesn’t really stop. Did you always know it was going to be a trilogy and did this affect your writing at all? Any hints or clues readers should look out for that may signal what lies ahead for Dark?

Regarding the pace, as mentioned I’m a fan of the Quiller novels, and also the recent Jason Bourne films with Matt Damon. I wanted to write something that was very suspenseful and taut, and which would get readers really sweating. I had the idea for a trilogy fairly early. I was finding the research on Biafra fascinating, but I thought that Paul Dark had more of a journey in him than one book, and I was also discovering other episodes in the Cold War that were attracting me, and which I could imagine him being involved in. But because of Dark’s situation, I didn’t think it could be a traditional series, like Lee Child’s Jack Reacher or Ian Fleming’s James Bond, in which each book is generally a free-standing adventure. You couldn’t really have 12 novels with Dark continually evading exposure a a double agent. Len Deighton wrote a brilliant series of trilogies – so I thought I’d start with one of those! As far as the writing went, I plotted a rough arc of the trilogy beforehand, and have kept reasonably close to that. And I’ve tried to seed a few clues in Free Agent as to what will happen in Free Country and Free World. Look out for locations mentioned that Dark has been in before, and characters who are discussed but do not appear.

Free Agent by Jeremy Duns is out now and published by Simon and Schuster.

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