Matthew Dunn is a former MI6 agent and he’s brought his expertise to his Spycatcher series of thrillers, of which the latest is Sentinel. Matthew was kind enough to answer a few of my questions, so please welcome him to the blog!
Matthew, will you tell us a bit about yourself and your background?
I’m a former MI6 field operative who spent over 5 years operating deep cover in numerous hostile locations around the world. My work required me to operate under alias identities; identifying, recruiting, and running foreign assets; obtaining intelligence to assist the West in making strategic foreign policy and military decisions; and conducting deniable direct action operations. I was recruited into the secret world after completing my undergraduate degree. Post MI6, I’ve been a director in the City of London, a CEO of an international company headquartered in the Middle East, a single father of two young children, a writer of the Spycatcher espionage series, and – as of last week – a happily married man.
Your current Spycatcher novel, Sentinel, came out last year, and you have a new one coming up in June, Slingshot! When you started the series, did you already have in mind the number of books you’d like to write, or did you just decide to see where the series took you?
I was awarded a 3-book deal by my US publisher (William Morrow/Harper Collins) and my UK publisher (Orion), so there was never going to be any doubt that they’d get a minimum of three Spycatcher stories out of me. However, I have many ideas for future novels in the series. The escapades of my central protagonist, joint MI6-CIA operative Will Cochrane, could easily be seen in fifteen to twenty, probably more, books. That said, I’m extremely focused when it comes to writing my books and throw myself into each new project, without allowing myself to become overly distracted by dwelling on other future ideas for novels. It’s always my firm objective to make each new novel better than the last and to produce a final product that reflects the very best of my abilities at that time. Only when I write “The End” on an existing draft book will I start throwing myself fully into the next project. Moreover, I believe it’s crucial to be flexible. I’m exploring and developing Cochrane’s character as I write. Sometimes, that exploration takes unexpected directions. It’s a lot of fun to write that way, and it pays to avoid too rigid a plan for the Spycatcher series as a whole.
Will you tell us a bit about your hero, Will Cochrane?
Will Cochrane is in his mid-thirties, single, and has nine years experience of working as a field operative for MI6. Prior to joining the service, he was a student at Cambridge, and prior to that he spent five years in the French Foreign Legion. Shortly after joining MI6, Cochrane was identified by his superiors as someone with potentially unique skills. As a result, he was put through the top secret 12-month Spartan Program – a mentally and physically brutal training and assessment program designed to fail the applicant. Only one officer at a time is allowed onto the scheme and, to his MI6 and Special Forces instructors’ surprise, Cochrane passed and earned the distinction to carry the codename “Spartan”. Since then, he’s been deployed on the very toughest and complex MI6 and CIA operations. He’s the man that the US and UK premiers turn to if the West is faced with potentially catastrophic threats.
However, despite his prowess, Will is a complex and lonely individual. Part of him yearns for another side to his life; one that could enable him to have friendships and maybe even love without fear that his work would place such individuals in danger. Though his job requires him to do hard and at times morally questionable things, he has tremendous inner compassion and a real sense of what is right and wrong. He enjoys making a perfect cup of tea, loves playing and listening to Spanish classical music, and is an accomplished cook. He’d love to share those interests with someone special.
What (or who) are some of the biggest influences on your writing?
I read less these days, simply because I’m the kind of writer who can’t read other people’s stories when I’m fully immersed in my own tales. But when I was younger, I was a voracious reader and would spend hours in second hand book stores. At school, I studied the classics and other literary works, though my heart has always been in thrillers and adventures. As a boy, I read eighteenth and nineteenth century seafaring tales and stories about early twentieth century spies chasing after anarchists in the backstreets of Europe. Also, I devoured Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series, and the early novels of John Le Carre, Frederick Forsyth and others. No doubt, all of that reading has been a major influence on my writing. But I also get influenced from other quarters, and sometimes unexpectedly so. Obviously, I have my own background in espionage as a major influence, but ideas can also come to me by talking to people, when listening to evocative music, watching a movie, standing in front of a painting, or simply having a walk through the English countryside. Today, an idea came to me for my next book while I was grocery shopping. So, my influences range from obscure out-of-print books, authors like Doyle, through to buying a sack of potatoes!
What do you love most about writing suspense/thrillers?
The aspiration to make a mass audience “thrill”. It may sound an obvious point, but it’s not an easy task for any thriller writer because people’s tastes are so varied. I think thriller writers require nerves of steel when putting pen to paper, must write what excites them, and must never let doubt set in when crafting their tale. I bet most thriller writers would agree that it can be an arduous process, but it’s the reason why we have been put on earth. I wouldn’t swap being a thriller writer for anything else. For me, it’s a dream vocation.
My background as a secret operative helps. I’ve heard that some authors dread the day they have to start writing a new novel – staring at a blank sheet as panic sets in. For me, such days are the start of an adventure – once again, I’m an MI6 officer, about to take a dangerous journey into the unknown.
How long does it usually take you, from start to finish, to complete a novel? Are you a plotter or a pantser?
I write very quickly, but re-read my work and edit and digest what I’ve done quite slowly. I can easily produce a draft manuscript in five weeks. But it can then take me six months or more to get the book into the final shape I want it to be in. I firmly believe in the principal that my readers should get the very best from me. I’m still learning, and constantly striving for improvement. I believe my writing is getting better and better, but I can hand on heart say that my first book was written with as much effort and attention to detail as my last. I will never send out a manuscript that reflects anything less than 100% of my effort.
I plot, but only to the extent that I’ll have a page or two of bullet point notes. My books have twists and turns and moments when I knock everything onto its head, so I have to have some pre-prepared idea as to what I’m doing! But, how Cochrane gets from A to Z and what happens to him along the way is up for grabs. I’ll frequently put him into situations without necessarily knowing how he’ll get out of them. At such moments, I’ll think “what would I have done?”. It makes the process of writing so much more creative and enjoyable.
What are a few of your favorite novels?
Pretty much anything by Jeffrey Deaver, Conan Doyle, Joseph Conrad, and Thomas Harris. I loved Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal and believe that, though readers now generally like pacier thrillers, it was very much a game changer in its time. In the non-thriller/adventure camp, I’d single out Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat (published in 1889) as the one book that will guarantee to have me laughing out loud.
What’s next for you?
I’ve just sent off the outlines for books 4 and 5 in the Spycatcher series to my agent and publishers. Once given the green light to work on the stories, there’s up to 2 years of work in there. In tandem, I’m also working on a non-fiction book, and am fleshing out ideas for a Young Audience series. Plus, there’s the associated work involved in marketing my books via interviews etc, and keeping my readers up to date with what I’m doing. It’s a lot of current and future work but I’m not complaining. I feel gifted to have the opportunity to turn my experiences into fiction and to be a storyteller. I love books and writing. The notion that someone, somewhere, is currently absorbed and thrilled by my tales makes me a happy man.
Keep up with Matthew: Website