A quick update: Our Man in New York will be released in the UK in all its different formats on Thursday 5 September. For the kindlers out there, it is available as an ebook; for those who prefer paper, it will be out in hardback; and anyone who wants to hear me reading it out can download or stream the audiobook.
A Man Called Bill
My next book will be about the undercover British campaign to bring the US into the Second World War, and the enigmatic man at the heart of it, Bill Stephenson (pictured above). This is the same Stephenson made famous by the book A Man Called Intrepid, or infamous, you could say, on account of the book’s endless exaggerations and inaccuracies.
I’ve been wanting to write this book for years, partly because I’ve heard stories about Stephenson since I was a child. As I’ll explain in the book, shortly before the Second World War he saved my Dad’s life.
I’d know about that for a long time, but it was only in the wake of the last US presidential election, and the subsequent revelations about a nationwide Russian influence campaign, that I felt now was the time to write about this earlier British operation.
It turns out that the largest influence campaign ever launched on American soil was not run from Moscow. It was run out of the Rockefeller Center, it was British, and it peaked in the weeks before the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Now I’ve just got to write it.
Waterstones Book of the Month – Non-Fiction
Am hugely excited to say that the paperback edition of ‘M’, out yesterday, is Waterstones non-fiction Book of the Month!
The best thing about this is getting to see some of the different ‘M’ window displays in branches of Waterstones around London. It turns out that no two are the same. Each one is imaginative, detailed, expertly put together, and at the same time pulls on a particular thread of M’s character.
One display might bring out the naturalist side of his life; in the Trafalgar Square branch, it being near Whitehall, there’s more of an emphasis on MI6 and MI5, elsewhere they’ve gone for spying gadgets, in the Piccadilly branch there’s a cardboard Big Ben…
In fact if you see a display you like send me a photo as I might put together a post of the best ones.
I should also say that the paperback itself has been beautifully designed. Hats off to everyone at Arrow.
Really hope you enjoy it.
Since the release of ‘M’ in May of last year I’ve been meandering around the country giving talks about Maxwell Knight and some of his spies – above is the audience mid-talk at the Chalke Valley History Festival – and have now given the same M talk twenty-seven times. 27. Which should have been bone-crunchingly repetitive. But has actually been riveting.
There are all sorts of things that I hadn’t taken on board beforehand, e.g.
We have an amazingly rich culture in Britain of literary festivals and bookshops that put on events. This doesn’t happen on quite the same scale elsewhere.
No two events are the same.
The people who organise these events are hard-working, clever and enormously kind.
The Pullman Effect. Just as every festival I’ve spoken at offers to pay its speakers (I won’t speak at the others) I’m also struck by how many of the festival organisers I’ve spoken to mention Philip Pullman’s stance on this, and how rare it is nowadays to find a festival that refuses to pay its authors.
There are a lot of children of former MI5 officers dotted around the country. After almost every talk I’ve given somebody has come up to have their book signed, and while I’m mid-scrawl will mention quietly that one of their parents used to work for the Security Service.
[Above: Audience at a talk brilliantly organised by Emma and Tessa at Hungerford Bookshop]
I should always be ready to answer that question about Olga Gray. After each of the 27 talks a different version of the same question about Olga comes up (I won’t say what it is just in case you come to the talk and are desperate to ask that question but feel self-conscious about doing so after reading this..!).
We are a nation of liars – and lie-detectors. As anyone who’s come along to one of these talks will know, in the middle of it we play a game designed to work out who would make a good spy. It involves telling a lie, spotting when someone is lying to you (and then using your memory). As well as being hopeless at all of the above I am always a little taken aback at just how many people can tell a very convincing lie.