Joining me for a chat today is author extraordinaire and former SAS operative Andy McNab. He came to public prominence in 1993 with his groundbreaking account of the failed eight man British Army SAS patrol in Iraq during the first Gulf War in 1991. He talks about Iraq, being tortured and the enjoyment of a cup of tea:-
Abandoned in what I believe was a Harrods carrier bag on the steps of Guy’s Hospital you were adopted at five years old – do you feel this shaped your life and how tough was it growing up in London knowing you weren’t wanted by your real mother?
I don’t really think about it. I was lucky with my adoptive parents and any mistakes I made were mine and not theirs.
Have you ever considered looking for your biological parents? – I’d guess it’s a case of finding that healthy balance of not wishing to upset your adoptive parents.
Given that you had a tough time in school and your dalliance with petty crime, what led you to enlisting in the British Army?
I was in the borstal system at the age of 16 and the army was a way out of it. They were looking for boy recruits and we all thought we’d join up and be helicopter pilots. On the basis that we could barely tie our shoelaces that wasn’t going to happen, so i ended up in the infantry, joining an infantry junior leaders battalion. Short haircuts and lots of being shouted at!
Three years after joining the Royal Green Jackets you were in Northern Ireland, how tough was that tour and did it have an effect on your life and career? I understand you killed your first man at nineteen while on patrol in Armagh?
We were both shit scared. It was a case of kill or be killed, just part of the job. It made me realise it was ok to be scared, that was normal. If you weren’t scared then there was something wrong with you and you shouldn’t be doing the job.
While on the ill-fated Iraqi operation leading Bravo Two Zero, one of the most controversial British SAS missions in post-war history, with the instruction to disable scud missiles you were captured and brutally tortured while attempting to escape to the Syrian border. What tested you the most – the physical torture or psychological uncertainty? Did you ever reach the point where you thought death would be the better option?
I am an eternal optimist and have always managed to get myself out of scrapes, so I guess at least for part of the time I thought I’d come out of it ok somehow. The physical torture wasn’t great, but they were just doing their jobs. It was the guards in Abu Ghraib that were the problem, every time a bombing raid went over Baghdad, killing Iraqis, they came to take it out on us. Michael Jackson moon dances, eating your own shit. Take your pick.
How do you prepare mentally for capture?
We all had talks on it before we went and there was one American guy, a Vietnam pilot, who was shot down and captured who inspired me. He had spent years in captivity and had built a whole house in his mind to keep himself sane. I tried to do similar things.
Moving away from your military career for a moment when did you first realize you wanted to be a writer and do you approach the Nick Stone thriller series differently to the non-fictional Bravo Two Zero?
Bravo Two Zero was easy to write, a linear story with a start date and an end date. It was my second book, immediate action, which took the time – 18 months! The person who taught me to write was Michael Mann, the director on the action film heat which I was weapons advisor on. He said ‘think of a book as a TV show – start with an intro, use the end of chapters as your commercial breaks, get to the conclusion and finish it quickly before people get bored.
With Nick Stone facing death in Zero Hour with a brain tumour, did you draw on your experiences while captured in 1991 when you led Bravo Two Zero?
A little. Nick isn’t too worried about dying; he is more concerned with the things he may have missed.
Given it is largely autobiographical what would you say is the hardest part of writing The Nick Stone series.
It is autobiographical in parts. The good bits are me obviously, but none of the bad! Writing in first person I find a lot easier than third person because I don’t have to cerate nicks personality.
In Zero Hour Nick Stone drinks a lot of black tea – a fan Andy?!
Nothing better than a brew! Actually, I am more of a coffee drinker. Nick’s tea addiction comes from his time in the army. The infantry would grind to a halt if India stopped producing tea.
When I reviewed Zero Hour in December I felt Stone had a certain fallibility, a softness (despite his rugged exterior) that made him endearing – how close of a character to you is he?
That’ll be all those good bits again!
What’s the one question you wish you were never asked?!
Um… are you buying the next round?!!
Do you find it hard to motivate yourself during the writing and ideas stage and what’s your work schedule like when you’re writing? Do you find ideas come easy?
I always have lots of projects on the go, the books I’m writing, films I’m involved in, other bits and pieces. I do a lot of work with the ministry of defence and am also a director of a private military company so there is no shortage of ideas and material to write on! Lots of the stuff that you see in the news has been known in the security world for some time. I try to think ahead with my ideas so that what you are reading about in the book is fresh and in the media at that time.
What was one of the most surprising things you learned in writing The Nick Stone series?
Lots of Nick’s fans are female.
An important part of any book is publicity and tours – fore most authors! Is this something you enjoy or given your desire and need for anonymity are you able to meet your readers?
I really like the idea of meeting and chatting to my readers. After all, that is what it’s all about. I do a few secure and selective events every year, some stuff for the army education centres, a few things that my publicist persuades me are a good idea. And most of the time she is right.
Can you give the readers a sneaky peak at your next novel – how on earth do you follow Zero Hour?!!
As I said, it is about writing about what is in the public eye at the moment, so I’m looking at piracy next, settings parts of the book in Somalia, parts in the UK and parts in the US too.
If you could host a dinner party and invite three people (or characters) alive or dead who would they be and why?
Easy one. Ali, Churchill and Boudica. (Good choice, always been a fan of Ali)
Finally Andy, and by the way thanks for taking the time to sit down and answer the questions today – although I’m fairly certain of the answer, do you have any regrets?
No! No time for regrets!