Ben Macintyre webchat

Author Ben Macintyre came on Mumsnet for a live webchat about his novel Agent Zigzag on Thursday 10 January 08. This is an edited transcript of the discussion

Research | Characters | Casting | Competition | Technology | Suspense | Autobiographies | Next project

Ben Macintyre
TillyBookClub: I'd like to welcome Ben on to the thread - Ben, thank you so much for joining us and we are thrilled to have you here. We've got heaps of questions to get through, so lets get started.

Morningpaper: Why did you write the book? I mean, I can understand thinking "Hmm, this obituary is interesting" but that is a far cry from thinking "I know, I will spend the next few years rummaging around the basement of MI5 for his old notebooks and write 200,000 words about it". Have you always had an interest in spies? Which part of the story surprised you the most? What has been the most interesting Chapman-related incident or new information that happened to you since the book was published?

Ben Macintyre: Hello everyone, thanks for having me aboard. To answer Morningpaper's questions first. I have always been fascinated by spies. Indeed, I was briefly recruited by the Funnies at University, and even went to a few interviews, before we decided by mutual consent that it wasn't a great idea: not least because I am hopeless at keeping secrets. I saw the obituary in 1997, and then started gathering bits and pieces, but it was not until MI5 began releasing the official material that I really got going.

I was staggered by Chapman's offer to assassinate Hitler. I really did not know whether to believe it, but the psychological profiles in the files show that he was in deadly earnest. The other big surprise came with the discovery of Chapman's Iron Cross. I had been convinced that this was just one of Chapman's self-inflating lies. But then I contacted Ronald Reed's son, Nicolas, who astonished me by saying that he had Chapman's Iron Cross and the citation to go with it in German.

I got from the German ambassador to Britain explaining that his father, who is still alive, had been the pilot of the Luftwaffe plane that flew Chapman to Britain was quite a revelation. The extraordinary number of people who knew Chapmen still amazes me – it is one of the great pleasures of writing a book that is on the edge of living memory - I still get telephone calls from people saying that they had been to his nightclub, or even, in two case, had done 'jobs' with him before the war.


Morningpaper: How long did it take to research and write? Were there any points where you were researching Agent ZigZag where you thought you might be getting on to Dangerous Territory? (Or do I just watch Spooks too often?)

lemurtamer: I loved the book, couldn't wait to read the next chapter, and gave it as a Christmas present, too. Was there a lot more research material that would not have added more interest to the story, or was pretty much all the research used in the book? Do you think the Germans may have won the war if their codes had not been broken? I haven't read any 'if the Germans had won the war' fiction nor much about the code-breaking, but wondered what you thought.

Squonk: My question to Ben is: when you decide to write a book like this, that needs tons of research, do you just (figuratively speaking) march right up to the powers that be and say "I'm writing a book, tell me stuff"? Or do you need references from publishers or the like. And would it have been possible to do had you not had contacts from The Times and several other books under your belt?

TillyBookClub: On the subject of research, was there a point where you came up against brick walls, that M15 wouldn't let you go any further? And like morningpaper asked earlier, did you come across Dangerous Territory? Interested as my mother-in-law is Ralph Jarvis's daughter, and when she went to the Public Records office they wouldn't give her any info on him at all, becuase he was M16.
(She was thrilled to read it by the way, and has marked the three pages where he appears! She has masses of photos of their house in Lisbon, and describes it as an idyllic place and time.)

BenMacintyre: To morningpaper - I researched it for six months, and then wrote it, while still researching, for another year. I was lucky that the vast majority of the material was in one place, the National Archives at Kew. Not possible to watch Spooks too often, in my view. No, never scary: in fact MI5 were extraordinarily helpful, giving me full access to their archive and even coming up with material that I had thought was genuinely lost. I was surprised, in a way, because the Zigzag case doesn't really reflect all that well on MI5.

To Squonk - usually, no references are necessary. At the National Archives you simply fill out a form to get a reader's card, go to the computers, and order up what you want. You can order a lot of stuff online. MI5, needless to say, doesn't quite work that way and in that case, I made contact through intermediaries: an extremely helpful archivist at the National Archives agreed to forward a letter from me to the 'relevant authorities'; after a while, they contacted me, and it went from there. I am not sure if my job on The Times was a help or a hindrance. I am sure that had I not written books before, I might have had different, or at least slower responses.

In reply to you Tilly, MI6 is far more reticent than MI5, indeed, they have still released very little though an 'offical history' is due out next year. Jarvis was a very good intelliegnce offier, by all accounts (he comes into Holts The Deceivers, I think). I seem to recall he was merchant banker in real life. Ronnie Reed was not too keen on him, because Jarvis was quite keen to do in Chapman before he caused any more trouble.

To lemurtamer - I do hope I didn't miss too much. I am pretty sure there is no more in the MI5 files. There was TONS more stuff that could have been used in the book, but I found myself cutting lots to keep the pace going. With regards to the war, certainly, without the Enigma breakthrough, we would have found it far harder to win, the war would have gone on far longer. Conversely, if the Germans had broken our codes, I think we would have lost, and you and I would be writing in German.


TillyBookClub: I'm interested to know if Ben thinks Eddie was a hero or not - he's not exactly noble but you do find yourself thinking he's got serious balls. Or maybe he was just always saving his own skin and the patriotism was really a well-judged move on his part?

BenMacintyre: No, not a hero, at least not in the conventional way. Which is probably why I found him so interesting as a character. Most heroes are one-dimensional, but Chapman was a man of so many parts, most of them very bad indeed. Opportunism was uppermost, but he also had some extraordinary good qualities: not least his quite lunatic courage. I like the idea of a good man lurking, almost in spite of himself, inside a very bad one. I don't think his patriotism was entirely self-serving, particularly as it was potentially self-destructive.

Notyummy: Do you think he had a borderline personality disorder? The constant need for action/lying/womanising etc (or is that just MEN?).
BenMacintyre: No, I really do think he was borderline personality, and I wish I had gone into that in more detail in the book. His wild mood swings, the elation and the despair, the anger and remorse, the rule breaking and the desire to be appreciated (by people who made and upheld the rules). Particularly in later life, he became quite difficult to handle. The womanising was also more then simply the behaviour of a handsome lothario. He may have been undiagnosed bipolar. But I also think that, like many people who suffer from that disorder, it was also the motor that made him run, and gave him such incredible energy and, in his own crooked way, ambition.

themonkeykeeper: Did you LIKE Eddie? He does some incredibly selfish things and then follows that with something that seems unselfish (but maybe was just part of his adrenaline junkie personality) but I really found myself liking him.

BenMacintyre: I couldn't help liking him. I really did not want to, but there was something so vital about his personality. On the other hand, I am glad I never met him. I think one would have been superficially charmed, but then realised he had stolen your wallet. He was fantastically hurtful to both women and men, and yet I don't think he ever meant to hurt anyone.

Sophiewd: Did you manage to track down his daughter, did she have any contact with her father after the war, does she know who he is?

BenMacintyre: I never found the daughter he had by Freda. I later found out that she had died young. She never knew who her father was. But, astonishingly, after a book festival event last year I was appraoched by a charming woman who looked oddly familiar: she turned out to be Chapman's illegitimate daughter by ANOTHER woman, from after the war.

Squonk: Had she known her father? And if so, was her perception of him similar to yours?

BenMacintyre: She had met her father, though I think only briefly. She was very warm about him, though I think she realised he was utter rogue.

TillyBookClub: I found the Faramus story hugely moving. That he should have survived, and they got to have a drink together after the way, despite best efforts of concentration camps. And that they both thought about each other all the time. Almost the biggest love story of the book. Is he now dead? Do you think his imprisonment brought out Chapman's heroic side? Without him, perhaps the darker elements might have won.

Von Groning friendship also fascinating - I sort of imagine that spies are all in cahoots with each other, whether they're double agents or not. Only another spy understands you, so you must have a strong connection even though they're your enemy.

BenMacintyre: Faramus is dead, but his widow is still alive...he wrote the most harrowing book about his war years.

poppy34: I find relationship with Von Groning fascinating. Ben what, in your view, was the reason for the fact that they seemed to have such a close relationship? I'm more puzzled as to why Van Groning clearly came to like Eddie so much (and I think it was more than the fact he was his passport for success with the reich) than why Eddie would respond to someone who was the good cop type when he was first transferred out of de Romainville into training.

BenMacintyre: I think the closeness of the Von Groening Chapman relation was a strange combination of self-interest, paternalism on VGs part, neediness on Chapman's, and mutual recognition that they were, despite their very differnt circumastances and upbringings. very alike...


CarrieMumsnet: I want to know who he sees playing the parts in the inevitable Hollywood blockbuster. I kept envisaging David Niven, but guess that's unlikely (and indeed shows my age ).

Morningpaper: Jude Law seems like the right sort of chap I reckon.

Notyummy: Nooo! Not Jude Law...he's just not right. How about David Tennant or James McAvoy?

Tillybookclub: My Hollywood man would be Rupert Everett ( in a camp Casino Royale sort of version).

Squonk: I think that David Tennant, or Daniel Craig would be good to play Eddie

Notyummy: No to Rupert Everett. Too louche and upper class. YES to Daniel Craig (that's yes in general...not just for this purpose). Anyone back me up on James McAvoy for the casting couch?

BenMacintyre: Funnily enough, the question of casting Agent Zigzag is one of my more preoccupying daydreams. David Niven would have been good, but perhaps a bit 'clean', if you know what I mean. Jude Law would be excellent, with just the right amount of sleazy charm, but perhaps too old? Chapman was in his early 20s for most of the book. My own choice would be James McAvoy, because he has that rather feral, dodgy British look, particularly, I thought, in The Last King of Scotland. What does anyone think of Clive Owen? Too burly maybe?

Morningpaper: Clive Owen too burly and not mean enough. He needs to be skinny and have that bastard look that Law has. The sort of scrawny chap who would leave bruises on your hips after a night of passion. Actually I'd imagine it would be two minutes of slightly disappointing passion, the selfish bastard <I may have over-thought this point>

Morningpaper: Are there plans for a film? I think I read it somewhere...

BenMacintyre: The film rights have been sold to New Line Cinema, the people who made the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and while there is absolutely no guarantee it will ever happen they seem very enthusiastic (and quite generous!). Tom Hanks has agreed to produce it, but we have hit a hiatus at the moment because of the writers' strike in Hollywood. I want Julian Fellowes, who wrote Gosford Park, to write the script…whaddayallthink?

Notyummy: Ohh, ohh...Ben backs my James McEvoy vote (although I imagine you came up with it first!)...I'm sure he could do it VERY well. Also, Julian Fellows for the script would be very classy and I'm sure could give it a great period feel.


ChampagneSupernova: I have just seen on Amazon that there's another book telling his story by someone else but that yours was published first. How much did that annoy you?

BenMacintyre: At first, it annoyed me a very great deal. But, in a way, it was inevitable: once the material had been released, there was no way I would be the only one to know about it (although I later got MI5 to release more material exclusively to me). In the end, however, having two books out at the same time really did both of us some good, I think. One or two literary editors had the books reviewed together, and having two books I think made people sit up and pay more attention.


Morningpaper: Do you think that we are BETTER at intelligence and managing people these days, or do you think that technology has just moved on to enable us to be better? I mean, the book showed that the whole WW2 intelligence operation was basically strung together with string and totally random. Although it's so hard to imagine life before telecoms enabled communication to be so instant. I mean all that faff to get the photo of the submarine device in a tobacco tin... these days that sort of thing is unimaginable. But there were so many gaffes and blunders along the way - imagine what the press would do these days, considering they are happy to hang the Prime Minister for losing a couple of CD-ROMS. So were they a bit CRAP?

BenMacintyre: Yes, the technology has changed everything, and also nothing. The very same techniques seem to apply, today, as back then: funnily enough the Zigzag case is sued as sort of intructional case for agents today...


CarrieMumsnet: Were you ever worried about keeping the suspense going given that the pics in the middle kind of give the game away that he survives the war? Not saying it wasn't suspenseful, but just wondered if it was a different challenge to keep it that way with non-fiction rather than fiction?

BenMacintyre: The suspense is a good question. With a non-fiction book, I think there is risk of violating reader's trust if one uses tricks to keep the suspense going artifically, as it were. Yes, the photos show that EC survived to old age, but the hope is that readers are sufficently intrested in the tale to want to know how. I once wrote a book, non-fiction, in which the hero was killed on the first page, and the whole book was about the events leading up to that.


Morningpaper: If you could read an autobiography from just one person in the Chapman story, whose would it be?

BenMacintyre: I would love to know if I got Von Groning's character right. Also, I think the strange dancing SS officer, Walter Praetorius, would have produced an inadvertantly hilarious memoir.

Next project

ChampagneSupernova: What are you working on next?

BenMacintyre: I am now working on another WW2 spy story about a deception scheme that had a dramatic effect on the course of the war. Very macabre, with lots of completely strange characters. I discovered a trunk of papers relating to the case in private hands, which I hope will enable me to reconstruct the narrative in much the same way as with this book.

Finally, thank you all so much for having me. Terrific feedback.

Thanks again.

Best wishes, Ben

TillyBookClub: Ben, thank you very, very much for joining us - it has been such a pleasure and highly illuminating. You have brilliantly managed to cover all our questions too, although we'll have to wait for a final verdict on Best Actor in the Eddie Chapman role.

Good luck with the next project (which sounds highly intriguing, please can you come back and talk about that one when its done?) and congratulations on a fabulous book.

Photo: Jerry Bauer

Last updated: 8 months ago