Stories of how writers become writers — the origin narrative, if you will — are continually fascinating and somewhat more rare than you might think. Writers, particularly writers of fiction, enjoy telling other people’s stories, but they often think but their own stories or dull or even non-existent.
Not so with Frederick Forsyth, one of the most successful writers of the Intrigue and thriller novels of our age.
Forsyth is most famous for his breakthrough novel, The Day of the Jackal, as well as others such as The Dogs of War, The Odessa File, and many others.
Forsyth begins his autobiography, The Outsider: My Life of Intrigue, with these words:
We all make mistakes, but starting the Third World War would have been a rather large one. To this day, I still maintain it was not entirely my fault. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
During the course of my life, I barely escaped the wrath of an arms dealer in Hamberg, been strafed by a MiG during the Nigerian civil war, and landed during a bloody coup in Guinea-Bissau. The Stasi arrested me, the Israelis regaled me, the IRA prompted a quick move from Ireland to England, and a certain attractive Czech secret police agent — well, her actions were a bit more intimate. And that’s just for starters.
All of that I saw from the inside. But all that time, I was, nevertheless, an outsider.
The writer, Forsyth says, must enjoy silence, and it was the development of that characteristic that drove him to be a writer. There were, he said, three factors that over the long haul taught him to enjoy silence.
One was but he was an only child, and that circumstance in and of itself meant that he would spend a good deal of time alone growing up.
A second factor was that he grew up in the town of Ashford, England, during World War II. Ashford is on the coast, and many of its residents, including most of the children there, were evacuated because of the threat of a German invasion. Forsyth stayed in Ashford for the duration of the war, but he had no one of his age just spent his boyhood with.
The third factor, he says, was that he was sent off to school when he was 13 years old. The type of school that he went to could be particularly brutal on a young boy with no friends or family connections. Consequently, the way to cope often is to retreat into the safe space of your own mind, and that’s what Forsyth said he did.
Forsyth served in the Royal Air Force, and afterward joined the Reuters News service is a correspondent. In 1965 he became a reporter for the BBC, and he covered conflicts in Africa at that time. His first book was the nonfiction the Biafra story, published in 1969.
The Day of the Jackal was published in 1971 and almost immediately became an international bestseller and the basis for a highly popular movie. Forsyth has been writing with the same what kind of talent and energy ever since.
He is 83 years old and has slowed his writing down somewhat. His last novel, The Fox, an espionage thriller, was published in 2018. Forsyth’s autobiography, The Outsider, is written in the same breathless and intriguing style as that of his novels.
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