The Action Man
Sorted talks to author Andy McNab.
Written by Martin Leggatt
I meet author and former SAS soldier Andy McNab in the upstairs room of a private members club in London. I’m not entirely sure that I should be bandying his name about, and I find myself doing this weird checking either side of me thing as I tell the receptionist I’m here to interview him. It doesn’t help that I whisper his name at the end of the sentence. She indulges me with a smile before announcing loudly that “Mr McNab is a member here”. I realise that she knows him by sight – an advantage that not many people have.
I don’t know what he looks like, but I’m betting he won’t be sitting with a black strip across his eyes. She laughs, and I’m introduced to a relaxed-looking man in his early 50s. He looks intolerably fit. He extends a hand and immediately makes me feel at ease. As the interview progresses, I notice how he has that knack of making you feel incredibly relaxed. He’s a very animated talker who punctuates his sentences with expansive arm movements and hand chops to the table top for emphasis.
We talk on a wide range of subjects, from the rising costs of property in London and New York, a homeless man that he’s seen in New York who changes into his business suit to go to work each day, and his recommendation of software to make my writing a lot easier. Mostly we talk about his Nick Stone thrillers and that mission.
Nick must be getting on a bit now.
[Laughs] Yeah, he’s the eternal 35-year-old, he’s one of those guys who never sort of changes … he never has a birthday in the books.
Do you have to make changes to how you write Nick, with him getting older and changes to his physical condition?
Well, no. Obviously over the years he has to change, he has to have different views, he has to mature. He has to make different decisions. But you can’t have him going too far or you’ll have him hugging trees by now. You can’t have that. It’s more about his character art and the way he thinks about things. He’s got to move on; he’s got to be different because people are, aren’t they? He goes off sometimes a bit too extreme and [messes] up and then comes back again. In that way, there’s a change, but as we all do. But not as an age thing – I just try to keep out of that. No, he’s the eternal 35-year-old.
What I like about him is that he’s just like a normal bloke, but with some unusual skills.
Yeah, certainly in the early days, and I never knew he would take off, it was to try to make him a realistic character. He comes from a normal background; he’s got a lot of the same likes and dislikes, but he can do this and then [he chops his hands on the table for emphasis] because it’s a first-person narrative he can explain what he’s doing and why he’s doing it. I wanted to make him as realistic as possible so people would say, “Yeah, I know someone like that.” That can only happen when you know the superpower isn’t a superpower because you’ve already connected with him.
He’s not some James Bond type, then?
No, none of the Dom Pérignon and all that, he’s more of a Big Mac and Diet Coke man.
Is there a lot of you in Nick?
Yeah, there has to be. Purely for the first-person narrative, for all those things to work. Number one because it’s easier to write. Certainly for all the thought processes, so hopefully it becomes a lot more realistic and a lot more personal, so that when people read it they can embrace it a lot easier. So yeah, there’s a lot of thought processes, and that’s the only way to do it. Certainly you can create a third-person character but he has to be larger than life, but with a first-person narrative you have to be slightly more personal otherwise it doesn’t work.
He’s been through a lot over the course of the 17 books: Kelly, Sarah, and a lot of loss. How are you shaping him to cope with that? Is it something that mirrors yourself?
Yeah, certainly about ten years ago he was having therapy and then he thought “I’ll bin that and get on”. He has all those dramas; he has to because they’re traumas that people have. He has to have them because then readers can recognise that trauma and realise that people deal with it in a different way. Clearly he’s got to carry on and get himself into a load more trouble. Nine out of ten times it’s him getting into trouble, trying to get out of trouble, rather than fighting evil. So to represent that we had Kelly, but it got to a point where she was getting so old that I had to make a conscious decision, does she become the parent in the relationship? She was maturing quicker than Nick, and you think, how do you play with that dynamic? The easiest thing was to kill her. And then he’s got to try to deal with it and then start to move on. So he has the drama and then gets on. Otherwise, you have to keep wasting pages explaining the backstory.
And now he’s a family man. I never thought I’d see the day.
Neither did he. [Laughter] Again, he’s got to sort of move on. He’s got to get on and do all these new things, like the providing. There’s a bit of conflict going, which generally happens in life, and we’ve all got to get on with it. He’s in that same situation; it’s slightly more raised because of what he’s got into; he’s got a lot of commitments to fulfil. And that’s certainly what’s driving the whole of this new book on, particularly towards the end. He’s balancing this new commitment against what he does.
I love the names of the characters, for example, Hubba Hubba. Where do you get think them up?
A lot of that comes down to the military; everything’s cut in half or everybody’s got a nickname. In some cases, you can go years without knowing someone’s real first name and you go “Oh, your name’s Jim, or Steve”. Certainly in the book it makes it more personal because we all use [nicknames] in some way and it’s a lot clearer to write. So they’re Hubba Hubba or that guy Slack Pack. Slack Pack is a guy who really exists.
I saw the advertising posters on the train ride up here. The strapline says, ‘What doesn’t kill him, makes him stronger.’ Is this true of you as well?
Yeah, I think there are two ways you can go with drama – you can collapse in a heap, or get on with it. Ultimately no one gives a [fig] they’ve got their own problems. They can give you sympathy, but they can’t really help, they’ve got other things to do. There are only two ways to go from there, you know; blame everybody else, or just get on with it. Ever since I was a kid, I just got on with it. You’ve no control over it, so just get over it. It’s much easier that way.
Is your pseudonym Andy McNab now more of a brand than a security precaution?
No, not at all. The threat is still out there. I was doing a book tour last year over in Ireland, bizarrely a fundraiser for the PSNI. It was doing events raising funds for injured officers and it all got out of control. Death threats came in and there was a bomb scare. So it’s just being sensible, really, but it’s also nice to have that anonymity. You can do stuff, which is great, you can bounce around and do all your stuff. But at the same time you get this benefit of this brand, which is great …
I read somewhere that you’ve moved to New York.
Yeah, in and out. This year’s been quite busy, so most of it’s been in the States, either New York or Los Angeles. I quite like New York, I find LA quite bland, but New York’s fantastic. This last two or three years we’ve been there pretty much full-time. The chances are that’s where we’ll live; I’ve got the American driving licence, all that stuff, so the chances are we’ll be there permanently. It makes sense; that’s where all the work is. And for people like me it’s really true that America is the land of opportunity. Without a doubt.
Do you miss being ‘Herbal Henry’ [a nickname given to him by his neighbours in Norfolk]?
[Laughs a lot] Yeah, I do, actually. Yeah, it’s funny, I do like that. Years and years I had it, ‘Herbal Henry’. Nobody told me, I just heard it; they all thought I was a drug dealer. I’d go into the pub for Sunday lunch and everybody was very polite. Yeah, it was great.
It’s inevitable that you’ll always be asked about Bravo Two Zero. Invariably it’s referred to as a failed mission. You were in the army for 18 years and you must have had hundreds of successful operations. It’s always struck me as being a bit unfair.
Well, you’ve got all these armchair experts who all know better, and nine out of ten times they’ve never been in the military. It’s not science. We’ve got media, film and TV, and it’s broadcast that it’s got to go like this and this and this. In the case of its mission, it was a failure: we didn’t find the fibre optic cables, but the other side of it, and I think this is one of the reasons why people tuned into it a lot … it was a human story. It was a bunch of lads who could be your next-door neighbour as opposed to the memoir of a general. And with all the media I think people just wanted a more intimate account. Yeah, technically it was a failure, we didn’t find the fibre optic cable, but what came out of it was certainly a re-establishment of what the regiment was about. That small group of soldiers getting on with it. And the Brits are very good at celebrating these [mess-ups]; actually, most nations are. So technically it was, but in the big scheme it actually wasn’t. If you look at it in a military context, it’s still used as an example of a mission that goes wrong but actually because of the planning and preparation, the Plan B, the Plan C, and the resistance to interrogation training, that actually works. Because in a military context everyone understands, it’s not a science, you’ve got a group of individuals. You know, if it’s a science you’ve got rules that if you’ve got an element it responds in a certain way, but you can’t dictate that.
At the end of Bravo Two Zero, you mention what would happen if you met the two men who tortured you and who enjoyed it. Is that still the case?
Yeah, yeah, still the case. I’ve been on the board of a private military company for donkey’s years and when the Americans took Iraq in the second Gulf War, as is the nature with all these companies, we’re in there within 48 hours trying to make contracts and all that sort of thing. As that was going on and we were getting established and all the contracts were coming in, you’d get all the fixers coming in and they’d say, “I know who the guys were who did it” and in the chaos you could do whatever you wanted. So it was a case of giving them a couple of hundred dollars and you’re rattling into the city and it wasn’t these guys anyway. They were just after the money. So after that I didn’t bother anymore. But no, if I thought I could get away with it, yeah. It was only a couple of them. The military guys were alright; they were at Sandhurst when we used to train the Iraqi army during their war with Iran. They were all right; they were saying, “You’ve got a job to do, we’ve got a job to do.” It’s the secret police guys; they were the boys really going for it, and they were really enjoying it. So, yeah, those two guys.
Didn’t you go back to the place you were held?
Yeah, loads of times. It was quite hard initially, trying to find it. Certainly the interrogation centre. It was near, again a remnant of the Brits, it was called the something Hunting Club. Bizarre, isn’t it; they’d have guys running around in pink coats and Abu Ghraib was a complex, not an actual prison. So eventually we found the interrogation centre, and by the time we’d found it the Americans had moved in and it had all been repainted and it was really weird. And then we found the wing, one of the sections of Abu Ghraib where I’d been interrogated, and all the metal had been ripped out, all the locals had taken the rails out, all the doors, and it was all canvassed up. It was being used by all the homeless people, people that had been bombed out of the city, they were all living there. It was quite…
Something good had come out of it?
Yeah, yeah, and all the tanks, they’d all been repainted, and by then people were living in them, like flats. I’m serious; they had flowers on them, and families would move into a taxi, rip everything out and live in there. Incredible.
Did that help – going back?
Yeah, it was more curiosity than anything. I think it was more trying to identify, and by then I’d been up to Al-Qa’im. Well, a couple of the lads from the company went up there and I just jumped up there with them. By then there was this cairn that had been built during the second Gulf War, but I remembered the village and the bridge by the Euphrates and the general areas and managed to find it [the place where he’d been captured].
After reading your books, I read Frank Collins’ [a colleague of Andy’s who left the SAS and became a Church of England vicar] book Baptism of Fire. It was a huge shock to me that Frank had taken his own life; it must have been terrible for you.
Yeah, yeah. Well, he died about the same time as Nish [another former SAS colleague who sadly took his own life]. We were having this party for the Eurovision Song Contest and it was fancy dress. Frank turned up in costume with these huge stick-on sideburns and all that. So that was on a Saturday night, and then he turned up on the Sunday afternoon and said he’d come to eat up all the pasta or something. But what he’d actually turned up to do was say goodbye. So we’re all asking him what he’s been doing, and basically he’s just doing the rounds and saying goodbye before he topped himself. So all planned and then he’s got on with it.
I think Frank was so confused. There was that movement to Christianity, going through all that from happy-clappy to trying it all, you know the Pentecostal and getting ordained, all that, and it wasn’t enough. Which was really weird. Cos that’s the sort of bloke you’re supposed to be going to with your problems, isn’t it? And that’s why it was such a shock. The last person you’d expect.
In his book and yours there’s mention of Frank giving you a Bible.
Yeah, when I first went into the regiment he’d already got into Christianity, he’d been over with the Americans where there’s a strong movement and he’d come back with God. And we were all reading Holy Blood, Holy Grail [sic] and trying to find ways of catching him out, but we couldn’t. When we were in the troop, and about nine or ten months later, we were in Northern Ireland and he’d give us this book and it was the Bible. We’d all tell him: “No, not interested mate” and he was increasingly getting into it. And after that tour was when he left the regiment.
Back to Bravo Two Zero. In the two films of the mission based on your and Chris’ books (Chris Ryan, author of The One That Got Away), you were played by Sean Bean and rather unflatteringly by David Morrissey.
[He laughs] Yeah. It’s interesting, because at the time, what happened was, I was approached by the producers and took some advice and said no. And then they went to Chris and with all the Paul Greengrass stuff, he’d just done Spycatcher and was into all these conspiracy theories, and then the BBC came to me. At the time it [cheesed] a lot of people off and a lot of people were angry with Chris, but now I can realise that it was the business, that’s just how it is. I’ve been really well advised, and actually you can just get carried away with all this [stuff] and it gets taken away from you and it gets turned into something else. So at the time – yeah, I was quite [cheesed] off but now I understand that that can happen.
Now I’m involved in TV and film, especially in America, and it can be a nightmare. So it’s understanding how those things can be hijacked. It’s easy to sign on the dotted line, but you’ve got to take all the hassle if it gets out of hand. At that time, we were all upset with Chris, especially for the way Vince was portrayed, but now I can understand how easily these things happen.
I see that there are still plans in the pipeline to make a film of Firewall. Is that true?
Yeah, it’s one of the things we’re doing now. Basically, the film business is fantastic in that you can make a load of money without actually making a film. I’ve sold the options three times over the years, but you get to the point where the studio won’t make the film because the balance of payments is too great to proceed, and that’s where we are now. So we’re not making a film, because there’s more money in TV, certainly American TV. So, we’re in negotiation with the Weinstein Company, Big Bad Harvey. We’ve got director Antoine Fuqua [Training Day] on board as producer with me and Bonnie Timmermann and we’re nearly there. And that will be ten hours of American TV, Nick will still be a Brit and all that and it’ll come over here. That’s been a brilliant learning curve. It’s nearly there.
Who’ll play Nick?
Who knows? That’s the next step.
Detonator is published by Bantam Press and is available in hardback and eBook.