Andy McNab – ‘I’ve met myself, you know’

He’s well preserved for fifty, this man who claims to be Andy McNab. Good looking and with very few grey hairs. He’s waiting for me in the bar at the top of the red-carpeted stairs at the Birmingham Malmaison. We appear to be in Birmingham’s former mail sorting office, which is quite appropriate for me, at least. Andy leads us to two black sofas by the window, where we can see the entrance to the upmarket shopping mall housed in the Mailbox, as it’s called.

The Mailbox

Books by Andy McNab are slightly outside my normal area of reading, despite having grown up with Alistair MacLean’s novels. But judging by Andy’s most recent young adult novel, Drop Zone, he writes exciting adventures with a military flavour, and easy for most people to enjoy. It’s also important to consider the impact he has had on reluctant readers. With cool, well-trained characters, and lots of inside knowledge about army equipment and procedure, it’s not hard to understand why boys and men read Andy’s books.

‘Why do you write? Is it to entertain?’ This may seem a stupid question, but I want to know if Andy is after brainwashing future soldiers.

‘Yeah, I look at it as a medium of entertainment. You can get too precious about your stuff. It has to compete with everything else, like DVDs and CDs.’

‘Sally (Andy’s publicist) pointed out the fact that you didn’t read as a child…’

‘No.’

‘So are you actively trying to get boys to read?’

‘Yeah, I do. I don’t know if it’s like a crusade, because it’s pointless doing a crusade. The book is out there. Hopefully what they’ll do is read it, and they’ll think “I’ve read a book and that one was great”. The satisfaction of doing that and “it wasn’t bad, and actually it might get really scary in the next one and I’ll buy that one”. It doesn’t matter what, but you know, they get reading.’

‘Are there more books about the characters in Drop Zone?’

‘There is one more. It’s supposed to be two. So if it’s successful we’ll sit down to see how it’s working. With a lot more characters now, I can do more story lines with them.’

‘Will that be just the SAS stuff or will it be the sporty aspect as well?’

‘It’s all those sort of sport areas where it seems to be getting more interesting, you know, skateboard parks, those sorts of things. There seems to be a lot of interest in that.’

The Mailbox

‘I know one young boy who read Drop Zone, but he didn’t like it because he has vertigo…’

‘Hahaha’. He laughs loudly. ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah… Would you like a cup of tea?’ Andy’s driver-cum-security man Brad is miming the question at us.

‘Yes, please… I have vertigo, too, but I was just so relieved I wasn’t having to do all these things, which meant I could enjoy it. To have someone else standing there, ready to jump out of the plane. That was fine. I thought that maybe all boys would be eager to read it, and try it.’

‘Generally there is an age restriction, so boys have been looking at this on telly, or they’re reading, thinking “I might want to have a go at that”.’

‘I wasn’t too sure about your girls in this book. Are you trying to attract boys by describing girls as very sexy?’

‘No, no, they appeal to both boys and girls, because girls like it as well, as something to aspire to. They judge the characters anyway, one way or another. The boys, yeah, you know they’re interested in girls.’

‘I just felt it was more as if the boys were looking at these attractive girls, rather than the other way round, but maybe not?’

‘Well yeah, of course, but obviously there’s competition and that’s what teenage boys are like. There’s all that competition, and the girls want that. Actually, I hope for more friction in the story by having girls there. Otherwise it’s a “boys’ own” adventure, and in reality even the boys would find it boring because there are no girls.’

‘Do girls come to your events?’

‘Yes! The readership is about 45% female, and it’s less to do with whatever the story is, and more to do with character. I think the vast majority of fan mail I get is from teenage girls or from women, but that’s not so much the fact that it’s linking in with them. I think it’s more that they are more prone to emotion anyway, more likely to write. You’ll get letters from schools: “I’ve read your book, but what’s you favourite gun?”, whereas a woman or a teenage girl would be much more likely to talk about the book.’

‘Do they find you attractive because you’ve “lived it”?’

‘No, no. Some write every year and give me critique on the book. The girls tend to write about the books, where the boys say “I’ve read the book, but what about…?” and they ask about other stuff.

‘Do men come up to you and claim to have known you in the army?’

‘Oh, I get all that, yeah. I used to be quite worried about it, but I can’t be bothered now. It’s lots of bravado in pubs, to impress women. There are guys who’ve bought lots of medals.’

‘Someone like Chris Ryan, I understand, gets lots of men who give themselves away by actually calling him by his author name, rather than his real name.’

‘Yeah…’

‘Which shows they don’t actually know him, and I suppose you get the same?’

‘I’ve met myself, you know, literally, in a bar in west London, and in fact, bought him a drink. And as long as he’s saying good stuff, it keeps the “brand” going. I think my daughter said there are about three or four on Twitter at the moment. One guy is great, because he says “can’t stop, I’m off to wrestle bears”. He keeps it going, it’s fantastic.’ We laugh. ‘I can’t get too precious about it, you can’t do anything about it.’

‘What do you read? Do you read?’

‘Yeah, I do. I don’t tend to read fiction. Certainly in the military, when I did start reading, it was non-fiction. History I quite like, and it’s almost like catching up. I haven’t read fiction for about two years, and the last one I read was Crystal by Jordan. My big shame!’ Laughs loudly. ‘I thought it was all right, actually. But apart from that I’ve been reading about pirates lately.’

‘Modern ones?’

‘No, no, ordinary ones. It’s just like history; the fact that you can look around and see a church. You can touch some of the stuff, you know, something like Canterbury. All these places, it’s tangible, isn’t it, all these things, just here, aren’t they?’

Andy McNab

‘So when you started reading, you didn’t actually start with light entertainment?’

‘No, no, no, because the education, when I joined the army… It was part of the system, where they used to take soldiers in with a reading age of five, get them up to standard. Military education is the biggest adult education set-up in Europe. You take the product and turn them into something else, and that was what happened with me. So yes, there are subjects you must pass certain levels of. Where you’ve got the maths they call it metric calculations, and English is communications studies. If you don’t pass you won’t get promoted, so yeah, it’s quite an incentive. You know, soldiers now can get up to nine grand for further education if they go on their own and get it.’

‘And unlike school they have the motivation. They know what they are going to use it for.’

‘Yeah, totally. What happened for me, what changed my life was getting there as a 16-year-old and people telling me “you’re not thick, you’re just not educated. It’s all right, we’re all in the same boat. We educate; this is part of what we do.” It was great and it felt quite advanced.’

‘What was your background, when you grew up? Working class?’

‘Yeah, yeah, it was a housing estate in south east London. The question was always “what are you going to do?”, and it was working on the buses because that was a good job. London Underground was a good job if you could get it. You couldn’t get in unless you had an uncle or a brother or your dad or something. Because of the union and stuff, you couldn’t get in. And the docks was always a good one, but the “jobs for life” were starting to disappear. They changed, they were in decline. So that was it, all that anybody looked at really. And it was a big thing about being a panel beater. Nobody knew what it was, but apparently you earned lots of money, being a panel beater. As kids, we didn’t know these things.’

‘Are you actively trying to make your readers interested in the military?’

‘No, no. I use it though, to try and get them enthused about it. I do it a lot in the army too. I tell a lot of stories and show them films I’ve been involved with in Hollywood, and really explain how it all happened. Going into schools, it’s more or less the same about the experience of reading that book and really talking about it. I say “look, if you wanna be in the X-Files, you’ve got to be talented. Get on with it. However, if you can’t read, you can’t read your contract. Contracts are like that (he holds up his finger and thumb to show how thick) and you’ve got to be able to read. Even football of today, it’s not just the dream of being picked, and all of a sudden you’re premiership stuff. It’s a business and you’ve got to be out there, and it’s just trying to be realistic.’

‘Do you watch films and television?’

‘Yeah, I watch films.’

‘Can you bear them getting things wrong?

‘Yeah, it’s just another thing. I don’t watch that much tv. I don’t have much time, you know. I turn on to Combat channel; it’s great. We get sent all the stuff that’s coming. I thought Matrix was stunning when it first came. It’s high octane, a great idea.’

‘It’s easy to get annoyed when things you know well are done wrong.’

‘Yeah, it is. I can’t spend too much time getting annoyed. You complain, so the ratings go up, and they think ”oh we’ll do that again”, and then they complain even more.’ He laughs, ‘it’s one of the reasons I try to see anything that’s coming, for my work. On a pure commercial basis, bad film or tv doesn’t affect the sales of a book.’

‘I gather you’re doing something for the BBC?’

‘Yeah, it’s eight one-hours. It’s called Warrior Nation and it’s basically eight weeks with a rifle company in Afghanistan, and it’s more about people than the war itself. Obviously the war comes up, but it’s based on eight regular lads, really. Seeing people and just showing it in a different light. At the moment it’s so much doom and gloom. Infantry battalions; I love them! I met an 18-year-old over there – you have to be 18 before you go – and when he joined, the battalion had already been there for three months. He’s having a great time, he’s earning two grand a month, cash, loving it. I’m just trying to get a different sort of view on it, as opposed to the doom and gloom in the press. The politics don’t affect the people on the ground at all. It’s trying to get their stories.’

‘Do you have a typical fan?’

‘No, and that’s the weird thing, because initially the publisher just aimed at the military guy. There is an element of that, of course, but actually it is far wider. It’s 45% female, which has shocked everybody. But then you look back, and maybe it’s because it’s character based. All right, it’s bang, bang, that sort of stuff, but any character can do what they want in the story. But we understand it because we understand the character, and people start liking the characters. You know, there’s a Swiss website, where every word is analysed, and I think “no, I’m not that smart. Come on”.’ Andy roars with laughter. ‘We’ve found that with Boy Soldier, adults are reading it as well as young adults, and obviously a lot of young adults read the adult stuff as well. It’ll be interesting to see what will happen to Drop Zone.’

‘Do you think your books might help adults to read?’

‘Well, I’m part of the Quick Reads, and these are heavily promoted within military circles, at recruitment level. The military are using it in quite a big way to encourage adult literacy, not only for the soldiers themselves, but the wives as well, because one way we get a service person reading and actually using it, is to get the wives into it, and they’ll force their husbands to read and they want to do it because of the kids. So there’s that incentive.’

Andy McNab

‘I found in Drop Zone that there was a lot of technical stuff.’

‘Yeah.’

‘How important is that?’

‘Kids like learning things and we’ve all seen parachutes and things on tv, but how do they work? And how do they not work? What do you do if they don’t work? So they understand how a parachute works; it pops out, but how does it pop out and what does it do? Because they are like that. Once you know it works, once you’ve set it up and you understand how a parachute works, then you can concentrate on what the story is.’

‘Is everything in the book real, like the high flying stuff, dropping down slowly for hours?’

‘High altitude… yeah, the only restriction you’ve got on that is the cold and the oxygen. How much oxygen you carry. Anything above 12,000, as long as you can keep warm, and you’ve got the wind to take you, it’s easy. It’s the oxygen that’s the problem.’

‘But I take it that using teenagers for this sort of job is fiction?’

‘Yes.’

‘You just don’t know what to believe.’

He laughs. ‘It’s all based on a trip to Switzerland, and us doing a couple of restricted drop zones. The Swiss are world famous for being able to jump in most circumstances, into small areas, high altitude, so a lot of people go there to learn their techniques, as a holiday. There was a bunch of French teenagers, and the guy who was running them, and they were doing freefalling. Then they disappeared. They might have driven home, I don’t know. They were good freefallers as well, and might have been saving the world, and that’s how it all started. I thought, why not?  It’s an exciting sport, and it’s a great cover. Or they’re off to rob a bank. I was sort of playing about with it really.’

‘What did you like best in the military? You’ve obviously done skydiving.’

‘Everyone ends up doing it as a sport, ‘cause what happens when you’re in the military, obviously you do military freefalling, but any other freefalling is cast as training and it costs nothing. Freefalling in this country is so expensive, it’s ridiculous. In the military it costs nothing. I loved it, and obviously in the military you learn how to jump from flat roofs, and all these little extras. It’s good fun.’

‘And are there places like this skydiving centre where Ethan gets his holiday job?’

‘Yes, all over the country. I based it on a place in Wiltshire. The more popular ones tend to be where it’s hot, so there’s a great place in Florida, and in the south of France, because you can guarantee the weather, so if you go there you stand a better chance of jumping.’

I decide to ask Andy’s opinion on the dilemma I had over the book I found recently, where the real life heroes had been replaced by a group of children, while leaving the original plot and other facts intact.’

‘The heavy water, yeah.’

‘How would you feel if someone did that to you regarding Bravo Two Zero?’

‘I don’t know. I’d be mixed about it. If people are still alive, or their families are alive. Maybe in forty years time? I have mixed feelings about it. But actually, because I’m personally involved, in a story it would possibly be similar. The argument is that it at least tells the history of the event itself… We’re trying to be educational. With a book, probably you’d annotate it.’

‘What would you recommend boys do, who are in a similar situation to yourself?’

‘It’s very difficult, because you know, you start telling people what to do, and they don’t want to do it in the first place because you’ve told them. I’m involved in a new scheme trying to get underprivileged kids through university, through funding, and it’s the same thing. You can’t do it. There are bursaries and things that can make it happen. It’s just trying to let them know that it’s there, that they can have a go. If you don’t, someone else will.’

‘When do you catch them? If they’re going to go to university, they need A-levels.’

‘Yeah, I’d approach it any way quite frankly. It’s for adults as well, the facilities are there. And the money is there! It’s not overflowing with cash, but there are facilities. If you wanna get educated, you go out and you can do it.’

‘Did you get to university level?’

‘Oh no. No, no, no, no, no, still got no A-levels. Nothing like that.’

‘So not like the American way where you go to university through the army?’

‘It’s very interesting, being the motivation for people joining. The Americans are very, very heavy on education because it costs so much. It does here too. However, trying to get that level of education in the States, costs hundreds of thousands of pounds, so therefore it’s a big problem. So people join the military to get dental care, medical care, education. Because you’ve got to pay out there. My daughter’s educated there. You go to the doctor, and then you go to get the drugs. It’s at least two hundred dollars a time. We haven’t got that worry here. The American system is heavily promoting education.’

‘Did you learn any foreign languages?’

‘I did. I learnt Swahili, which I never used. In West Africa nobody wanted to speak Swahili, everybody wanted to speak English. And Spanish for Colombia. I spent some time in Colombia, but again we learnt European Spanish, which they can’t understand. So that was it, and again, everybody wanted to speak English. It’s all right on holidays, going to Spain, but no good in Colombia, really.’

Malmaison

‘You seem to be very busy with all kinds of things, not just the books, but security companies, etc. Why?’

‘I enjoy it. It’s good fun and certainly being part of the private military company is good for  a number of reasons. I still get out on trips, still go to the MoD now, about Iraq and Afghanistan. Just looking at defence at a low level, unlike all this strategic stuff. Going out on those trips is great for the books; I’ll check some stuff out. Things happened out there and I just moved it into the books. It is just great and I actually quite like it.’

‘How do you function in everyday life, hiding behind a pseudonym?’

‘It’s great! It’s quite good. The whole idea why I am, has to do with Northern Ireland. I was in a group and we spent two years living in Derry. The local special branch guys, they still live there with their families, and there is a possibility of them getting linked. Because Bravo Two Zero was going to be a book, that’s why. And I did another book, and so the system evolved. So it’s still the same reason, and at the same time I actually like it, because you can still do normal stuff. To be instantly recognisable would be a nightmare! Just even shopping, and people come up and they either love you or they hate you, there is no middle ground.’

‘What about covering up? When you came to our local bookshop it was very hush-hush, no mobiles or cameras, and nothing to give away it was you.’

He laughs, ‘I know, bookshops do that cloak and dagger stuff. Seven or eight years ago, in Oxfordshire, a little incendiary device was left, just left there. It’s just a case of being sensible. No pictures, and I work closely with major newspapers and it works very well. So you get the best of both worlds, which is nice. Being able to travel on the tube, and not having to get taxis to avoid being recognised.’

‘You’re doing a school event tomorrow, aren’t you? How does that work, are the children told what to do?’

‘Yeah, yeah, I just get on with it. Actually in schools it’s a bit fresher, everybody wants to sound smart. They are very aware, they see it (the war) 24 hours a day on the news I suppose. They know what’s going on. I quite enjoy the Q&A sessions.’

‘You were in Harrogate, a couple of years ago, at the crime writing festival, which is well publicised in advance.’

‘It all gets sorted out. It’s just getting in there for an hour and it’s good, and again, good questions, good answers. If I don’t know the answer I get back with a question and someone else knows it.’ Andy laughs.

Andy McNab

My time with Andy is just about up, so I ask him to sign my copy of Drop Zone. ‘Yeeaahhh, not a problem.’

As we’ve talked I’ve worked out that it ought it be all right to take a partial photo of Andy, so I ask his permission to photograph his sleeve.

‘Yeah, yeah, what I could do is do it signing if you want. I can get cover then.’

‘At least I didn’t have to bring a photographer today.’

‘One less train fare.’

‘Do you want to check them out?’

‘Yeah,’ and he flicks through the camera’s memory card.

I say I will let him correct any mistakes I make when writing the interview, but Andy says ‘if they are great quotes no one’s ever going to complain are they? If you misquote and it’s a good one, no one’s going to complain.’

As I slurp the last of my tea and Andy finishes his coke, Brad returns to his side, after having sat two sofas away, pretending to admire the view of the fly-over outside the hotel. There are more demands made on Andy’s time this afternoon, as it seems he’s been told to buy someone a pair of headphones. He shakes his head saying they aren’t allowed to be cheap ones.

Birmingham

But my guess is he can afford the more expensive variety. I bite the head off the rather tough little gingerbread man that accompanied my tea, and then shake hands with Andy and walk down the red-carpeted round staircase again, and out under the fly-over, with fancy lights floating around on its underside, like fairy lights on a Christmas tree.

11 responses to “Andy McNab – ‘I’ve met myself, you know’

  1. Obviously he’s met his match with the Bookwitch. Deep respect, Missus. Biting the head off a rather tough little gingerbread man? I’m off to cackle over my hexenkessel.

  2. What a brilliant interview! (And nice photos, too!)

  3. Handsome, isn’t he? ; )

    Not too much cackling, Debi. It’s not good for your throat.

  4. Great interview!! Love his books. Especially Bravo Two Zero, it is exceptional, true acts of heroism and amazing feats of the human body.

  5. It wasn’t him most likely as at this very moment his is giving lectures on intelligence to the cia

  6. don’t ask me how i know id hav 2 kill u if i did

  7. But a year ago when I met Andy is hardly the same as now, is it, Bob?

  8. you say yourself the person claims to be andy mcnab not that he is that he claims to be though i give you credit they were good Questions

  9. you should read imediate action its one of his books

  10. by the way you should know they don’t generally call it the sas in the army they call it the regiment

  11. Peter Fischer

    Bob, you’re just talking a load of bollocks and you know it.. I might think most people reading this interview know about Immediate Action and if you knew about a lecture @ CIA you would never risk posting it here.. As I said, load of bollocks to me..

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