Q&A: Andy McNab

Bravo Two Zero author Andy McNab steps into the spotlight to give us an insight into his life and work, from incredibly humble beginnings to being one of the UK’s most successful authors

Andy McNab
'I can write anywhere' – Andy McNab (copyright: Neil Spence)

Where did you grow up, and what was it like?

I grew up in South London. I was adopted after being abandoned as a newborn baby in a Harrods carrier bag on the steps of Guy’s Hospital. I was a bit of a delinquent, messing about, and definitely not switching on at school.

What was your childhood ambition?

I wanted to be a panel beater or work for London Underground, once the docks stopped providing ‘jobs for life’. Those were the jobs that people thought would make the most money.

What is your earliest reading memory?

One of the Janet And John books – for primary school kids obviously – but the difference is that I didn’t read it until I was a 16-year-old boy soldier, in an army education centre. Until then, I had the reading age of an 11-year-old. The army’s education system changed my life, without a shadow of a doubt.

When did you know you wanted to write?

I didn’t find writing, it kind of found me. When I got back from Iraq after the first Gulf War I was asked to write an account of the mission, which led to me and the rest of my patrol being compromised and several of us imprisoned or killed. That account was Bravo Two Zero. After that it snowballed. I got out of the Army into private military work and was in the Colombian jungle when I got a message to say that the book was doing well and was I interested in writing another one? Sitting on a damp log, covered in zits and insect bites, it wasn’t much of a decision. I got back and started the writing business!

Where do you live now?

I live in London, New York and Cornwall, with my wife Jenny.

What kind of books do you write?

I currently write two adult fiction series, one featuring an ex-soldier and deniable operator Nick Stone, and the other about Tom Buckingham, a serving SAS soldier. I have also written three different series of books for young adults, a couple of co-authored novels, several non-fiction books including Bravo Two Zero, several Quick Reads novellas for ‘emerging adult readers’ and two non-fiction books, co-authored by Professor Kevin Dutton about being a Good Psychopath.

What did you do before you were a writer?

I was first and foremost a soldier. I served in a regiment called the Green Jackets as an infantry soldier, and then passed selection to join the SAS.

What inspires you?

Muhammad Ali. I think he was my first inspiration. I must have been about 15 and I saw him being interviewed on TV. It wasn’t just his boxing skill that I found myself in awe of, it was his fight against racism. I couldn’t believe that after winning an Olympic gold medal for his country he still wasn’t allowed to sit in certain coffee shops because they were for whites only. He also stopped me wearing underpants. He never did and if it was good enough for Ali…

As a soldier I drew tons of inspiration from my very first platoon sergeant. He just had this way of gripping his guys that made us want more. His leadership style was something I still try my hardest to copy.

I have been on many trips to visit infantry soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan and I am still amazed at the skill of these guys. Many of them are teenagers, yet they just take whatever is thrown at them in their stride.

Books and authors I’ve loved include:

I came to reading late, but I definitely caught the bug and I’ve been catching up ever since. I’ll read anything and everything, but I have particularly enjoyed reading the classics that I should have learned about at school – anything from Dickens to Dostoyevsky. I particularly like Great Expectations as I spent quite a bit of my childhood in and around that part of Kent and the descriptions of the marshes and the sense of gloom you get are very evocative.

What are you reading at the moment?

On Killing: The Psychological Cost Of Learning To Kill In War And Society by Dave Grossman. I know, not exactly one for the beach.

Who is your favourite fictional character and why?

It has to be Yossarian, the US Air Force B-25 bomber pilot from Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. This guy just can’t find a way out of the craziness that is happening all around him and decides the only way out is to get a little crazy himself. Very funny.

Which fictional character would you like to go out drinking with and why?

It would have to be Yossarian. I think he would get the joke as he sips whiskey and I straw up on Shirley Temples.

What would be your desert island…

Song: My gym plays Kiss TV and so I’ve been listening to a lot of dance music lately. I am trying to wean myself off Carly Rae Jepsen’s I Really Like You. The problem is that the video, with Tom Hanks, is constantly played on Kiss and I can’t get the song out of my head.

Book: Touching The Void.

Film: Heat – the first film I worked on.

Artwork: I am the very proud owner of some of Picasso’s work. I bought them as an investment, but from then on started to understand the brilliance of this guy. Learning more about his work has sent me to the south of France and Barcelona.

Food and drink: Lamb chops with mash and Shirley Temples.

Who would you invite to your fantasy dinner party and what would you serve?

Ernest Hemingway, because he did it all: fought in World War I, was present during the Normandy landings and the liberation of Paris as well as a life on safari. Oh, and he has written a few books. Marie Colvin, a great war journalist and example of courage. Henry VIII – he’d add some wine, women and song. Richard Branson – I’d quite like to chat him into letting me on his space rocket.

Brigadier General Sheren Shah Kobadi – commander of the Afghan National Army, he is a legend in Afghanistan, he fought both against and for the Mujahideen, was imprisoned, served as a Kandak commander against the Taliban during the civil war and then the Northern Alliance before being appointed to the Afghan Ministry of Defence, before returning to conflict. Finally, I’ll go for Suggs from Madness, just to lighten the mood a bit! I’d give them the lamb chops and mash, obviously!

What are you like on social media?

I don’t do that much on Facebook myself, but I do dip in occasionally. But I really like Twitter, it feels like a proper conversation with my readers sometimes.

Not many people know this, but I’m very good at…

Surfing. Well, I think I am OK – my wife might disagree…

What is your guilty pleasure?

Surfing probably. Whenever I can.

What do you always carry with you? And whenever you travel?

I always have my laptop and iPhone with me. I’m lucky enough to find it easy to work anywhere, so whenever I have a spare hour, I’ll just crack on. I’m not so good at switching off.

What moment in history would you have wanted to be present at and why?

It would have to be during the American expansion westwards. There was so much hope and opportunity.

How do you prefer to write?

I work straight onto my MacBook, it goes everywhere with me. I used to use one of those dictation programs, but its spelling was even worse than mine!

Can you tell us about a problem you hit with one of your works and how you got around it?

Having found my very first book, Bravo Two Zero, easy to write because it was a linear story and one I had told countless times in briefings, I was cocky when I first attempted Immediate Action, my second book. I found that I simply didn’t know how to write a book. I had lots of help from a Hollywood director I was working with and also read a really useful book, Touching The Void by Joe Simpson, which taught me the value of description and an accurate sense of place.

Where do you write?

I can write anywhere – airports, coffee shops, in the back of a car, it doesn’t matter really.

Do you ever re-read your earlier works?

I don’t have time.

Do you have any writing rituals?

I always aim to finish the first draft of my Nick Stone thriller (published every autumn) by Easter. I am always so pleased when I see on the calendar that Easter is late.

How would you define the role of the writer?

Part educator, part entertainer?

What’s the most useful piece of advice about writing you’ve been given?

Just get something down on paper, it’s easier to criticise once you’ve written something.

What’s the secret to writing good fiction for children or young adults?

Don’t talk down to them. With everything they see on games, TV and the internet, don’t underestimate their knowledge of the world.

The greatest sentence you’ve written so far?

The end!

Your favourite first line (written by you)?

'If you get formally summoned to a meeting at the headquarters building of the Secret Intelligence Service, you know it means trouble.' It’s the start of On The Rock, a Quick Read that will be published in 2016.

How do you celebrate finishing a book?

Make a cup of tea and then go surfing.

And finally, what’s the question (and answer to the question) no one has ever asked you but you wish they would?

At what age did you discover you were a genius, Mr McNab?

But I’m not sure that question deserves an answer!

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