TSM: SAS: Red Notice was recently adapted into a major film starring Sam Heughan, Tom Wilkinson, and Andy Serkis. Is this your first adaptation and how was that experience for you?
AM: My first adaptation was the 2-part TV series that was made from BRAVO TWO ZERO, my very first book. It starred British actor Sean Bean and was shown on the BBC in 1999. It was non fiction, an account of the patrol I led behind enemy lines in Iraq in the first Gulf War. Since then I’ve had various novels optioned for either film or TV projects, but this is the first one to actually get made.
TSM: You were a military man serving in the first Gulf War, did your experiences in the military help your career as a writer?
AM: Absolutely. In order for your writing to be authentic and believable, you’ve got to write about what you know! I write books about what I know – soldiers, government operations, deniable operators, conspiracies…
TSM: I’d love to know about the Good Psychopath’s Guide to success. What can we learn from psychopaths?
AM:I took part in an experiment at the University of Oxford a few years ago with an Oxford experimental psychology professor, Dr Kevin Dutton. The experiments were to find out where I sat on the ‘psychopathy spectrum’ and it turns out I am ‘good functioning’ psychopath.
When people think of psychopaths’ images of Hannibal Lecter, Bateman or Dexter appear in their imagination. I soon discovered however that the reality is different. The term ‘psychopath’ actually refers to a specific group of individuals with a distinct subgroup of personality characteristics that less than 1% of the population have.
The best way to explain this is by using an analogy of a music mixing desk. But instead of the labels on the dials indicating base, treble or balance, they indicate our personality characteristics, including ruthlessness, fearlessness, impulsivity, self-confidence, empathy.
None of these characteristics are bad within themselves but the problem is that psychopaths have a default setting that cannot be changed. The dials are set either at zero or ten. For example, empathy’s default setting is zero and ruthlessness is set at ten. Psychopaths cannot adjust their default settings,
However, I can.
Being a functioning psychopath, I am able to precision engineer my psychopathy. I’m able to dial up or down my characteristics. But more importantly I am able to sequence them in the right combination and in the right context. It took many years to sequence but I finally got there.
Research as shown that people in my subgroup excel in various professions. As well as the military, good functioning psychopaths are surgeons, politicians, professional sports people, lawyers – we can turn up and down various emotions such as empathy and fear in order to perform to the best of our abilities. For example, with a top surgeon working on saving the life of a kid, it would be really unhelpful to their performance if they started worrying about the kid, feeling anxious that they weren’t going to save their life or that they might make it worse. They just need to get on with it and give the job their full focus without letting self-doubt or anxiety get in the way. So, what can we learn from psychopaths? I guess we can learn that it is important to concentrate and not let our fears or emotions get in the way of doing the job in hand.
TSM: When did you decided that you wanted to become a writer?
AM: I didn’t really ‘decide’ to be a writer, it just happened book by book, it still does! When I left the army, I was approached by a senior Army officer and asked to write the definitive account of what happened on the Bravo Two Zero mission. He suggested writing it together actually – me talking about what it was like being on the ground in Iraq and what we experienced, and him adding the political stuff about what was happening behind the scenes – but i decided I’d rather just write it from my perspective, so I did! The book did really well, it is still the biggest selling war book of all time, and since then I have written various other non fiction books as well novels for adults as well as young adults. And the Good Psychopath books obviously!
TSM: Who were some of the authors you enjoyed reading when you grew up?
AM:I grew up in a deprived area of London, in the foster system and bouncing from home to home and school to school so I didn’t really get much in the way of an education until I joined the Army out of juvenile detention. In fact, when I joined up, at the age of 16, they discovered I had the reading age of an 11 year old. It was the Army that educated me really. I thought I was joining up to be a helicopter pilot – it turned out I could barely do my shoe laces up so I ended up in the infantry! So the first book I read, at the age of 17, was a book for kids learning to read – Janet and John Book 10. I am still working my way through books that I should have read at an earlier age.
TSM: I’d love to know more about your charity work where you’ve promoted literacy.
AM: Encouraging adults and children alike to make the most of the opportunities that education gives you is really important to me. My message is ‘if I can do it, anyone can’. Reading changed my life and I want to help as many people as I can to let it change theirs. I am an ambassador of a charity called the Reading Agency in the UK, and I spend a lot of my time visiting schools, factories, army bases and prisons to talk to people about my literacy journey and hopefully encouraging them to give it a try. My theory is, if I inspire even one person to pick up a book or join a library, it will all have been worthwhile.
TSM: Tell us about your latest book.
AM: Red Notice is the first of a series of novels I have written about a serving SAS soldier called Tom Buckingham. He comes from a rich family and could have gone to officer training, but instead he wanted to make his way through merit so he is what is known as a ‘Trooper’ in the Special Air Service which is the UK’s version of Delta force. In fact the SAS was the template for DF.In this first novel he is taking his girlfriend off to Paris on the Eurostar, the train that goes from London to Paris under the Channel, and he finds himself caught up in an attempted terrorist attack. You’ll have to read the book to find out what happens!
TSM: You are a very prolific and successful author, what advice would you have for beginning authors?
AM: Just start getting stuff down on paper! Its much easier to work on something and criticise once you’ve got it down. That’s my first advice. And the second, as I said earlier, is to write about what you know. That is what will make your characters and situations believable and make readers feel engaged.
TSM: You’ve had a platform of your military and special forces work, how does a writer who has not lived a life of adventure try to get attention at a time where “platform” has a huge influence on getting a publishing contract.
AM:I think it is really difficult! And I know there are huge numbers of really talented people out there who just aren’t getting the breaks! But that isn’t specific to writing, its the same in acting, music, and a whole list of other professions. Sometimes its about perseverance and sometimes there is a dose of luck thrown in! So how would I advise a new writer to start? I’d say get a literary agent, that’s the first thing you can do to help yourself. Find out who writes books that you are aspiring to write and get in touch with their agent. And again, write about what you know. You don’t have to have had a life of adventure or have done anything remarkable. In the UK we have a writer called Alan Bennet who can write about a walk to the store interesting. That’s because just like the rest of us he has had unique experiences, and that is a good starting point.
TSM: When you were in Northern Ireland during the troubles did you ever envision that there would be peace today?
AM: When I was actually working in Northern Ireland, both in the regular Army and then in the Special Air Service, I probably didn’t think about the politics behind the troubles. I was just there to do a job, not to question why or to look at what caused it. But clearly since leaving I have followed the politics of Northern Ireland closely and I was amazed at the difference in the place when I went back to Belfast a few years ago.
TSM: What are you working on now?
AM: Right now I am finishing off some media for the release of my film SAS: Red Notice which premieres on Sky Cinema in the UK in March and also in the US slightly later in the month. After that I need to get my head down and start working on my next kids book, I Broke the Internet, which is published in the UK this Summer.