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On The Table Read, “the best book magazine in the UK“, author and former MI6 spy, Andrew Gilbrook, talks about writing his memoir, An Ordinary Guy, An Unknown Spy.
Written by JJ Barnes
I interviewed Andrew Gilbrook about his life and career in the British Intelligence Service as an Officer in MI6, what inspired him to start writing, and the work that went into his memoir, An Ordinary Guy, An Unknown Spy.
Tell me a bit about who you are.
Andrew Gilbrook, retired from normal work, author, father, grandfather, husband.
Actually I am many people. At the age of 16 I left school and was invited to interview for the British Intelligence Service. I was accepted and after spy school I began my career as an Officer in MI6, dealing with foreign matters. My specialist skill was HUMINT (Human Intelligence). I found I was very good at persuading people to become an agent and to persuade them to send information on many matters around the world.
My cover during this time was working with my father who had a printing company in Hertfordshire. My father was the only person that knew my other role. He would help cover for me whenever I needed to go away.
I am, I think very normal, I treat people as I want to be treated. I have a keen sense of humour and I trust no one.
I was and I believe I still am, the only person accepted into the Service having NOT gone through the university system. You can read why I think that may be in my first book. It is the story of my life, “An Ordinary Guy, An Unknown Spy.
My career ended in Angola 1988, when I was captured interrogated and tortured by Russian counter intelligence. I was taken into nearby woods to be shot. I escaped and after an epic 700 mile escape journey, taking a small aircraft with only four hours flying experience and no license. I arrived back in London suffering, among physical wounds, PTSD.
Since leaving the service, I’ve been somewhat a lost soul. I have no qualifications in any normal civilian trade, except a City and Guilds in Lithography. I didn’t know what to do. So part of my book is how I coped with that, or did I cope?
When did you first WANT to write a book?
In 2014 was on holiday in Spain, staying in a beautiful villa with my wife. I received a text message from a former MI6 colleague that my ex-secretary, who I loved very much, had died from cancer. I sat in the garden crying. My wife asked what the problem was. So I told her a brief outline of my past. She simply said she didn’t believe me. No matter how much I tried to explain, she could not associate things I had done with how she saw me. So, over time I realized I should write down the whole story for her. Part way through my writing I realized that my story would actually make a good book, and so it came to pass.
When did you take a step to start writing?
I converted my story from a letter to a book format in 2018.
How long did it take you to complete your first book from the first idea to release?
It took me about ten months. I had no clue how to write in a professional way. I got some help by engaging an editor to read and make suggestions. She had a very feminine style, I wanted the words to be mine, so I listened to some things she said, but ignored most. I realized her help wasn’t for me and I went back to writing in my own way. Just telling my story as I recalled events.
How long did it take you to complete your latest book from the first idea to release?
Very quickly, a similar process to the first book. I wanted to find a story that would intrigue my readers, which I think I have. The writing process took about the same time period ten months.
Focusing on your latest release. What made you want to write An Ordinary Guy, An Unknown Spy?
Reader demand for more. After reading my first book, readers contacted me and asked for more. They were asking if I could write more on specific operations. Which I can’t for obvious security reasons. I found the story “An Ordinary Guy, Operation Saponify” one that I could tell because most of the story was an unofficial investigation. It only turned official when that investigation turned into an operation to try to prevent the Falklands War. The story does actually change history. Keep in mind the story covers from 1974 to 1982, the events in the book are only now coming to light by many other people.
What were your biggest challenges with writing An Ordinary Guy, An Unknown Spy?
My biggest challenges are, not giving away any government secrets. I write under the Official Secrets Act to the highest level for 65 years, in fact mostly under never to be released rules.
From a personal point of view, a lot of the historical content can be quite boring, so I try to lighten things up after a particularly boring section (my readers tell me otherwise) I try to introduce a funny story or some sex. I was a young man and sex did play a part in my life, like most normal young men, so why not include everything. I have been told that it was not necessary for a historical piece of work, but others say I should tell my whole story. I can’t please everyone it seems. It is difficult writing about my sexual accomplishments with my wife looking over my shoulder. My aunty tells me sex sells.
I do change names in my books for obvious reasons. My third book, has a lot of characters, it’s very difficult keeping up with who I’ve called what, so I use a program called Scapple to create a map of names and their connections. It looks like a spider’s web.
Another challenge was to bring in humor. It’s quite difficult to show my sense of humor in basically a tragic story. I am sure everyone will find my story about the test in spy school funny. The blue challenge. My poor wife suffered a similar fate one April Fool’s day. Luckily, she saw the funny side or I should say, she saw blue not red.
What was your research process for An Ordinary Guy, An Unknown Spy?
I am telling my own story, recalling from my head. But the research I have to do is huge. For instance if I recall I flew to Angola in a Boeing 737, I have to double check that it was actually a 737, that particular aircraft may not have existed in 1988. I can’t rely on my memory.
Just the other day, I was writing my third book, I could not recall the name of a hotel I stayed in Butuan, Philippines. I could have said any hotel name. But for correctness I needed to know the actual name. I could remember the route from the airport. I checked using Google Earth, I could not find a hotel where I expected it to be. I can remember what the grounds look like and where. So, I contacted a friend who lives close by in Mindanao Island, asked her for suggestions, none of which checked out.
I finally found the grounds on Google Earth that I recalled, but the building in that place was the Civil Hall. I told her and she knew the hotel on the edge of the gardens. I looked again on Google but didn’t recognize it, maybe it had been renovated sometime in the last 40 years and research found it had. All that for one very simple line in the book.
Simple research really, but time consuming. I like to tell the truth.
How did you plan the structure of An Ordinary Guy, An Unknown Spy?
I follow the format, start, middle, end. My first book, my life story, had no end, I’m still alive (apparently). The editor said I must have an ending. So I did cheat a little. I moved an event that happened 25 years ago, to the present time. It was a good ending with very little alteration other than the date. That is the only compromise I’ve made to the truth, it did happen, but not in 2018.
I knew, as an unknown author I would need a hook to grab the reader immediately. If I began telling my story as a school boy, no one would read any further than one page. So, the first chapter, is the end to my career. If I am persuading someone to read my book, I ask them to read that first chapter, it’s only a couple of pages long. If they read it, without fail every single person has said, “I can’t put it down now I have to read on”. My editor told me I can’t put the end at the beginning, but it works very well. I suggest you read my first chapter now.
Did you get support with editing, and how much editing did An Ordinary Guy, An Unknown Spy need?
I had a very short period with the help of the editor. I made a bad choice getting a female that had a very feminine tone and point of view, she could not alter her own style, and I wasn’t going to alter mine. I had to tell my story from my point of view. I have never written in any of my books what someone else said, unless they were talking directly to me. I can never say for instance, someone left the room, went to his boss and said so and so. How would I know that?
What is the first piece of writing advice you would give to anyone inspired to write a book?
Get your story down. Then read it back and see if it entertains you. If after reading it
over and over as many times as I had to read mine and it’s still interesting and entertaining, it’s probably a very good book.
Can you give me a hint about any further books you’re planning to write?
My third book is my last, I’m 99.9% sure of that. I have no other stories I can tell without getting into the realms of breaching the Official Secrets Act. I am pushing my luck with every book. I have been contacted by people inside the service. So far, they like what my story is and have expressed that they are happy for more. That’s very rare for that to happen, I don’t want to push my luck, they are very good at ruining people.
And, finally, are you proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?
I’m proud I’ve written a book and then second. I never thought I had it in me. I’m very proud both books have won “Book of the Month” with my German publisher, Tredition Publishers. That may be a small thing for big authors, but for me, a person with little to no writing skill or training, it’s an honor to win against those that have.
Pop all your book, website and social media links here so the readers can find you:
An Ordinary Guy, An Unknown Spy:
An Ordinary Guy, Operation Saponify:
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