I just finished reading Frederick Forsyth’s memoirs, “The Outsider“, on the way home from a business trip. Forsyth is a superlative raconteur and the book a treasure trove of anecdotes and insights, as well as offers a window into what makes him tick.
It somewhat surprised me that his ambition had never been to be a writer — his boyhood dream, growing up during WW II, had been to become a fighter pilot, and against daunting odds he was able to do his (then still mandatory) military service in the RAF and to qualify on the de Havilland Vampire jet. But I was outright astonished to read that
- he wrote “The Day of the Jackal” — a thriller that redefined the entire genre — in no more than thirty-five (35) days;
- that it was the first novel he ever wrote;
- and that the published text is unchanged from his first draft.
It was, however, another case of Renoir’s famous quote: “This painting took me five minutes, but it took me sixty years to get to the point I could pull that off”. Forsyth, at the time, had over a decade experience as a practicing journalist, first for a rural English newspaper, then as a foreign correspondent for Reuters and the BBC. He had learned there to write clear, concise, publication-ready copy on short notice: before the days of word processors, this meant scribbling an outline or a rough draft on paper, then typing the finished copy on a telex machine or dictating it over the phone to a typist/transcriptionist at the London office.
He had also learned, in his journalistic work, to research his subjects ahead of time (since deadlines needed to be met), and to develop “deep background” human sources for aspects of his reporting. (For instance, he would befriend forgers and underworld figures that taught him tricks for acquiring a false passport or a cover identity that his fictional protagonist would apply in the novel, and likewise learned how to acquire an untraceable sniper rifle.)
Originally, the essentials of the plot had come to Forsyth eight years earlier, when he was reporting from Paris during the turmoil following De Gaulle’s decision to withdraw from Algeria and the several assassination plots by the OAS that this triggered. (The one that opens the book is historical and came closest to succeeding.) He had then come to the conclusion that the OAS was so well-monitored and riddled with informants that the only way such a plot could succeed would be if the OAS hired a complete outsider, a very skilled professional assassin with great impersonation skills. (As Forsyth had lived in a less than luxurious area of Paris, near several dodgy bars that were OAS hangouts, he had a feel for the human dynamics in that organization.)
Especially in a first novel, the protagonist often includes a piece of the author. While on a moral plane, Forsyth and his fictional assassin couldn’t be more different, they both like the good life, and enjoy physical thrills like car racing — Forsyth did his military service as a jet fighter pilot, and later in life developed a taste for high-risk sports such as car racing, scuba diving, and parachute jumping. “The Jackal”s linguistic skills and mildly chameleonic abilities also mirror Forsyth’s: he had graduated high school fluent in Spanish, French, and German, all of them learned by immersion during extended stays abroad. (In fact, it was the French that had gotten him the Reuters job, as they were suddenly a correspondent short in Paris when they most needed one.) As he points out, he thus picked up slang and gestures that one does not pick up in school. At the same time, his ability to slip into what he calls “my Bertie Wooster persona” (after P. G. Wodehouse’s fictional dimwitted aristocrat) served him well: he would pretend to be a British tourist with a few words of atrocious French or English, and people around him would wrongly assume he did not understand them and discuss matters they would not normally share with outsiders.
So when Forsyth found himself penniless and blackballed after returning from Africa, had to decide how to make a living again, and decided he was going to try his hand at writing, he was able to pound out the story in record time.
As he tells it, what he had no idea of was: how one gets a book published. He naively submitted his manuscript to four publishers in succession, without synopses and without hiring an agent—after three rejections, TDotJ was still lingering in the slush piles of the fourth. He did not engage an agent, as the idea did not occur to him.
Then Forsyth had one of several great strokes of luck in his life: at a dinner party he was introduced to one Harold Harris, whom he was later told was the chief editor of Hutchinson Books (presently part of Penguin Random House). Upon going home, Forsyth wrote a 3-page synopsis of his novel, invited himself to Harris’s office as “a good friend I know socially”, not as “a novelist desperate to get published”, and talked Harris into reading the synopsis.
Unlike the slush pile readers (“what’s the point? De Gaulle is alive, so we know how your book ends”), and probably thanks to the synopsis, Harris understood that the book wasn’t about the ending but about the cat-and-mouse game between the Jackal and the French police. He asked to read the whole manuscript: Forsyth raced back to the fourth publisher and sweet-talked a janitor into retrieving it from what turned out to be the reject pile, as Harris considered it unethical to read a manuscript currently under consideration with another firm.
After the weekend, Harris asked for 1-page proposals for two more books, as he wished to sign a three-book contract. Forsyth thought of what he could distill from his journalistic experience, and came up with concepts (not yet finished plots) for what became The Dogs of War and The Odessa File. The rest is history. Very unusually for a novel, TDotJ was published as it appears in manuscript, without further editing. Forsyth acknowledges that Harris could have taken serious advantage of a rookie writer, but clearly was too much of an old-school gentleman to even consider doing so.
By an additional stroke of good luck, Fred Zinneman came to London shortly later to film a project that fizzled out, was given the book to read by an agent who had appointed himself to represent the movie rights of the book, and upon reading it decided this was going to be his next movie. Forsyth makes much of his lack of business acumen: at any rate, he never got rich off the movie, as he sold the rights for a UKP 20,000 lump sum (about US$600K in today’s money). It did, however, drive more sales of the book and helped make Frederick Forsyth a household name.
“Chance favors the prepared mind,” as Louis Pasteur would say about serendipitous discoveries. Likewise, Forsyth was able to make the most of the breaks he got primarily because he had acquired unusual skills relevant to his writing, appears to be blessed with an encyclopedic memory, and had honed his writing craft in a nonfiction field.