10 Questions with Jon Stock

Dirty Little SecretMy guest today is Mr. Jon Stock, author of Dirty Little Secret, an excellent spy thriller. Please scroll down to enjoy his interview.

1.       Mr. Stock, thank you for this opportunity to be interviewed for my blog. Your new thriller, Dirty Little Secret, comes to North America on March 26, 2013. Tell us a bit more about this book.

Dirty Little Secret is the final part of my Daniel Marchant trilogy but it also works as a standalone spy thriller.

Marchant, a maverick MI6 field officer, attempts to turn Salim Dhar, the world’s most wanted terrorist, but to do so he has to enter into a Faustian pact with him that has dramatic ramifications for Britain’s special relationship with America. Dhar guarantees not to bomb Britain providing Marchant is prepared to help him attack the US.

Marchant finds himself in the run, wanted by MI6 (whose new chief might or might not be a Russian mole) and by the CIA.

The book culminates with a scene set in the Strait of Hormuz, where Dhar is planning an attack of unprecedented scale on US Naval assets. Only Marchant can stop him but where do his real loyalties lie?

2.       Who is Daniel Marchant, and how did you go about creating his character?

Daniel Marchant is a field officer working for MI6, Britain’s overseas intelligence agency. His late father was the disgraced Chief of MI6 and much of the trilogy deals with Marchant’s attempts to clear his father’s name of treachery.

He is in his late twenties when the trilogy starts, drinks too much and plays by his own rules. His girlfriends tend to have family ties with India or Persia. In many ways, he is defined by his deep distrust of America, and in particular the CIA, who he believes framed his father.

Before he became a spy, he was a journalist, so there are some autobiographical elements to him, but he is much tougher, braver and street smart than I am! He would also drink me under the table and can run a marathon much quicker than I can, even after a late night out.

3.       What kind of research did you do for this novel and the entire trilogy? How much of what you write about terrorism is fiction and how much is fact?

I try to make the books have what I call the “whiff of authenticity”. To do that with espionage novels is, of course, problematic, as the world of spies is defined by its secrecy. Once I have got the basics right, the detail, atmosphere, pictures on the spy’s office wall, then I can embellish for the purposes of an exciting thriller. For the truth is that 95 percent of most real spies’ time is pretty mundane: lots of paperwork, sitting around in lonely hotel rooms, watching and waiting, which doesn’t make for a great read!

Real serving intelligence officers (I met a couple when I was a foreign correspondent in Delhi) can’t tell you much. I have found that the best sources of information are those whose work brings them regularly in contact with the intelligence services. They are less bound by confidentiality and can talk more openly.

For DLS, I talked at length to several leading cell phone security experts, one in the military and one who works for a large company, as phones play an increasingly important role in spy thrillers.

I have also spent time in my lunch breaks hanging around the MI6 headquarters in Vauxhall, London, which are close to where I work at the Daily Telegraph.

I have been known to go down there in my lunch break and get a feel for the sort of people coming in and out of the MI6 building.

On one occasion, I followed a case officer down onto the Underground network, to see if he would deploy any anti-surveillance techniques… He lost me very quickly.

I once also made the mistake of driving up to the front gates of the CIA Headquarters in Langley with my family.

Our car was surrounded by armed guards and it took my best English Mr Bean accent to persuade them that we weren’t suicide bombers.

The experience highlighted the starkly different cultures of Britain and America’s intelligence services. America might seem like an open society – there is a sign on the highway saying next right for the George Bush Center for Intelligence (no irony intended), but if you follow it, you can get yourself shot.

4.       Have you gotten any reaction to your novels from the MI6 and/or the CIA?

I have not heard anything from the CIA, but I did hear that the Chief of MI6 had a discreet word with my editor at the Daily Telegraph, after I had followed one of his members of staff around the London Underground!

5.         Why do you write?

I write because I enjoy it (although it can be tough at the beginning, when you can’t even see the summit of the mountain you must climb).

I also have this strong feeling, once I get a story sorted, that it’s out there fully formed and just needs someone to write it down. Writing a story is like following a path and I know immediately if I have strayed. It’s then a case of getting back on track again.

6.       A word of advice for new writers?

Just get on with it! Don’t keep writing and rewriting the opening scene. Write a first draft all the way through. Only then will you know if you can write a whole book. A lot of people can write an opening chapter. It’s what follows that counts.

7.       What are your writing habits? How long does it take you to research and write a novel?

I researched DLS for three months and then wrote it in the following nine months (from beginning to the final edits). I took time out from journalism and it was the first time I had had the privilege to write and do nothing else. A year for a book seems about right in those circumstances.

I set myself a target of 1000 words a day. I start each morning with a quick edit of the previous day’s offering and then push on.

On a really good day, I’ll do nearer 2,000 words, but I force myself to write 1,000 on the bad days, when it’s not flowing. Even if I have to rewrite much of it the next morning, you have to get into the habit of writing 1,000 words a day.

Publishers like books on time and the journalist in me hates missing deadlines.

8.       What are your favorite pastimes?

I enjoy playing tennis, running and sea-fishing in Cornwall, south west England. I have also developed an alarmingly techie hobby (maybe it’s because I’m currently working on the Telegraph’s website). Anyway, I recently built a website for my wife’s photography (www.hilarystock.co.uk). A true labour of love and I am very proud of it! I’m now doing another one for a friend.

We have three children and I love to watch them play their matches (rugby, soccer and netball) when I can.

9.       What other books are you working on at the moment?

I have a non-Daniel Marchant thriller in the pipeline that has espionage elements. It’s called The Dying Game and I’m very excited about it.

10.     Is this the last we’ll see of Daniel Marchant?

No, Daniel Marchant lives on (ditto Dhar…)I have another standalone Marchant novel in the pipeline – set just after 9/11, when Marchant was a rookie spy, and also in 2011, when he’s more worldly wise. It involves Libya, MI6’s complex relationship with Gadaff and the consequences for today’s spies of their apparently reckless actions in the aftermath of 9/11 – how the past (and those you might have tortured) can catch up with you…

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