There’s even big fan clubs where every single word is analysed!
An interview in the Irish Sunday Business Post by Gavin Daly.
Soldier of Fortune
The man behind the pseudonym of Andy McNab has seen his life transformed beyond belief, from battling through enemy territory with Britain’s special forces regiment, to writing best-selling books and documentaries – and occasionally even hobnobbing with Robert De Niro.
In the lobby of a plush Dublin hotel, a man who cannot reveal his full identity is talking about things that don’t usually get discussed in such surroundings. ‘‘The new body armour is stunning,” he says. ‘‘When I was in Afghanistan in September, a parachute regiment lad took a 50 cal round – you know, a big thing designed to hit tanks – into his chest. It knocked him over, broke his ribs and all that – but he staggered up, he was all right. Without doubt, it’s the best gear anybody has got.”
Welcome to the world of AndyMcNab. Or rather, welcome to the world of the man known as Andy McNab – a former delinquent who became a boy soldier at 16 and went on to become a decorated SAS (Special Air Service) officer and bestselling author. A broad-shouldered 48-year-old of average height, McNab doesn’t look out of place in the hotel surroundings, and there is nothing to betray his background. But his face can’t be photographed and, when asked for his real name, McNab demurs. ‘‘My mates know,’’ McNab says, pausing for some deadpan military humour: ‘‘Well, normally, it’s just ‘dickhead’.”
McNab has been out of the British army for 15 years, but he never cut his ties with the organisation that made him a household name after the first Gulf War. In 1991, McNab led an eight-man patrol, Bravo Two Zero, into Iraq to locate and destroy Scud missile launchers and disrupt the country’s communications systems. But after a series of ‘‘cock-ups’’, just one member of the patrol made it out. Three were killed and four – including McNab – were captured and ‘‘went through an interrogation process’’. McNab spent four weeks in an Iraqi interrogation centre and three weeks in Abu Ghraib prison. ‘‘Obviously,” he says, ‘‘it’s quite well-known now.” One day, he was lined up with other captives facing a wall. Behind them, their Iraqi captors cocked their weapons. ‘‘We all thought we was going to get dropped,” says McNab, mixing his native London dialect with decades of Army-speak. ‘‘I’m like, ‘well fuck it, here we go’.” But it was actually a parting ploy from the Iraqis – when one of the captives started to break down, they laughed, secured their weapons and released the prisoners to the Red Cross. McNab went back to soldiering, content that his training had worked. ‘‘Of course, fuck that, I don’t want that to happen again,” is how he describes the episode. ‘‘But actually, it’s all right, I’m here, I’m getting sorted out. I like being in the army, it’s alright.” When he did leave two years later, he was Britain’s most highly-decorated soldier.
McNab was working in private security in Colombia a short time later when the army came looking for him. Keen to end – or at least influence – conjecture about what had happened in Iraq, the army establishment effectively commissioned McNab to tell his story. Bravo Two Zero, his account of the disastrous operation, has since sold over 1.7million copies in Britain and been translated into 16 languages. Using the real identity of a former SAS officer who had been in the North, south-east Asia, Africa, South America and ‘‘lots in the Middle East’’ wasn’t an option, so Andy McNab was born.
‘‘It took five seconds [to come up with],” he says of his alter-ego. ‘‘There was a PacMan game years ago called Munchin’ McNab and that was it. It’s short and sharp and it fit on the cover. That’s all, like a trade name. It was just going to be the one book.”
That’s not how it worked out. McNab has since put his name to two other non-fiction books, including his autobiography, Immediate Action, which has sold more than 1.4million copies in Britain. He has written a ‘Boy Soldier’ series of books for children and 11 thrillers featuring the character of Nick Stone – the latest of which, Brute Force, has just been published. There are McNab watches, beer and ‘‘all sorts of shit’’ available globally. Heady times, you’d think, but McNab is matter-of-fact both about his army career and about what has happened him since.
By his own admission, he was poor at reading and writing as a child, and was in juvenile detention for breaking and entering when he was recruited to the army at the age of 16.Now, he is a wealthy writer (‘‘not so much an author, because author sounds quite establishment,” he says) with film and television projects to his name. Was it a huge transition? ‘‘Actually, I was quite cocky,” he says. ‘‘I wrote Bravo Two Zero in four months. I knew the story; it’s what I now know is a linear story – that’s where it starts, that’s where it ends. Then I had another two months messing about with it, giving it a sense of place, environment, all that.” He took some inspiration from Joe Simpson, the mountaineer who turned to writing after he almost died on an expedition in Chile in 1985. Simpson wrote his classic, Touching the Void, to clear up controversy over the fact that his climbing partner had cut the rope they were sharing. ‘‘It’s such a good book – that sense of place and feel and environment,’’ McNab says of Touching the Void. ‘‘I spent those two months [with Bravo Two Zero] basically putting in the sense of place and all that stuff. Then it went public and it went ballistic.”
McNab was back in Colombia when the idea of a second book was floated. ‘‘I was on this job and I got this call from the publisher: ‘Do you fancy doing another?’.And it was pissing down rain and I have six weeks’ [beard] growth and it was, ‘well, what the fuck do you think?’. That’s how it all started. It was good.”
‘‘Good’’ is probably an understatement. When Robert DeNiro read Bravo Two Zero, McNab was asked to be the technical weapons adviser on Heat, the Michael Mann film that also starred Al Pacino. He also did ‘‘a bit on Black Hawk Down’’ and films by Jason Statham. ‘‘It was from one extreme to the other,’’ McNab says. ‘‘I was in the regiment, got out and did this whole Bravo Two Zero thing. Within a year, I’m in LA fucking about with DeNiro and all the other lads. It was automatic weapons, Los Angeles and banks. It was fantastic.” Working with Mann also propelled McNab’s fiction-writing career. McNab hadn’t read much as a child, so Mann suggested he think more like a film-maker, ‘seeing’ chapters in his books as scenes, rather than as a daunting volume of work. ‘‘It’s all pictures anyway – you’re trying to create a picture, aren’t you?” he says. ‘‘I just think of it that way.’’
Even 15 years on, however, he cannot say that he enjoys writing. ‘‘No,” he says emphatically, in answer to that question. Does it get easier with each book? ‘‘No.” ‘‘It started as an invitation to write a book, but it’s a business now,” he says. He takes a businesslike approach, starting each book in January, with a deadline of Easter for a ‘‘decent’’ first draft. (‘‘Which this year was a pain in the arse, because Easter was early,” he says.) ‘‘Once I’ve got that first draft, then I start to enjoy it. Then I just keep on ripping it apart and work on layering and layering.”
His relationship with the army means he has plenty of primary material – his last thriller, Crossfire, included fictionalised versions of real operations he accompanied recently in Iraq. Last September, he was in Afghanistan with British units.
McNab’s new thriller Brute Force has an IRA theme and scenes set in Ireland, but McNab gives nothing away about the three years he spent in the North – both as an infantry soldier and a member of the SAS. ‘‘Once you get involved in the covert stuff, you start to understand, you get it,” he says. ‘‘If I lived in the Bogside, I’d probably have joined the IRA. But I didn’t, I lived in south London, so I joined the army.” He believes that the North was ‘‘propelled’’ towards peace after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 brought international pressure to bear on all terrorist groups. Unsurprisingly, he has clear-cut views about the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan – the former is about oil, he says, while the latter is about tackling terrorism. Both need to be seen through with a combination of military action and reconstruction, according to McNab. ‘‘Afghanistan affects our daily life; and Iraq will affect our daily life if we don’t get the oil wells working,” he says.
McNab remains close to the defence establishment, helping to train soldiers and working on education and veterans’ projects. ‘‘I do as much as I can with infantry recruits, because the average literacy age of an infantry soldier is about 11,” he says. ‘‘That’s because, well, the education system is shit.”
His fame opens doors – he has met the British defence minister (‘‘he’s all right’’) and is due to have tea with Prince Charles next month. However, he doesn’t get too caught up in his own hype. ‘‘I don’t even know how many [copies] the last book sold; I can’t be arsed, there’s not enough time,” he says. ‘‘Ultimately, if people like them, they buy them. It increases 5-15 per cent every year depending on what territory you take. Places like Japan, there’s a frenzy.” He claims to be equally unconcerned about his audience, although his publishers and marketing people have probably done considerable market research. ‘‘I’m writing for me, not for anyone else,” he says. ‘‘My nine-year-old godson reads these. And the readership is 45 per cent female. There’s even big fan clubs where every single word is analysed!”
McNab will start his next book in January, but he has plenty to keep him busy until then. A documentary series, McNab’s Tour of Duty, has just been released on DVD, while a film version of one of his thrillers and an eight-part BBC drama – called Warrior Nation – are in the pipeline, with release dates in 2010.
‘‘It’s that weird thing where a little bit of success brings another little bit,” he says. ‘‘You’ve been given the opportunity and you gotta have a go. And yeah, I’m rich. But it’s always been a punt, and it still is really. It’s great, it’s lovely, but it’s not forever; as quick as it comes, it goes.”
Source: Sunday Business Post Online