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Frederick Forsyth, Thrilling In Real Life

Gotta grab a reader with the first sentence? Here's one from Fredrick Forsyth: "We all make mistakes, but starting the Third World War would have been a rather large one."

Forsyth has written masterful thrillers for more than 40 years, from The Day of the Jackal to The Dogs of War to The Odessa File and The Kill List. He's said he won't write an autobiography. But he doesn't mind sharing a few stories about the life and times that have shaped him, and his work.

"It was a very simple little mistake, I suppose," Forsyth tells NPR about almost starting a war. "I was in East Berlin, middle of the night, 2 a.m., motoring back through the city, towards the wall, and suddenly I was just assaulted by division after division of Soviet troops, rolling through the city towards the wall. And I was the Reuters correspondent, and I thought, what do I do, I can't not file, so I just filed what I'd seen — well, apparently, I woke up the whole of the Western world. What they found out, around dawn, by ringing up Moscow and saying, 'what the hell are you doing,' was that it was the rehearsal for the May Day parade!"


Interview Highlights

On his poor choice of companionship in East Berlin

That was towards the very end — I just made this contact in the Opera Cafe, with a young lady, she was a stunning looker, no doubt about that, and various people, contacts in the West, when I discovered her address, said, "I don't think you should be sleeping with her, old boy, she's the mistress of the East German defense minister." So I thought, that is a first class way of ending up in a show trial.

On writers as "odd creatures"


If you're a professional writer, whether you like it or not, you're going to spend much of your life in that tiny space called your own head. So I've noticed that writers, a bit like actors, are always watching — they watch to record nuggets of information, kinds of behavior, for later use — and writers do the same, we just sit, like a bird on a rail, watching the game but not actually participating in it. Hence the need for solitude.

On being a young reporter in Paris, shadowing Charles De Gaulle

Back in '62, '63, the OAS [a French dissident group] was genuinely trying to assassinate the French president — I mean, France was on the threshold of a coup d'etat ... [The OAS] felt that De Gaulle giving Algeria to the Algerians was treason, they were all ultra right-wing, and they determined that he betrayed France and they were going to kill him ... So I was with other journalists, following him around, not because of what he was doing — visiting the Senate, or whatever — but for the moment when there was this crack of a rifle, and a bullet hole appeared in his forehead. And that, seven years later, became The Day of the Jackal.

On retirement

At a certain age in life, you think, dodging bullets, I'm a bit old for that. I've slowed up. And yes, I really would like to play with my grandkids and play with the dogs, and not go back to anymore of these hellholes like Mogadishu or Guinea-Bissau. Had enough of that.

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