Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Ted Bell: An Author At Cambridge

Ted Bell is the author of the Alex Hawke and Nick McIver series. Phantom, the latest Alex Hawke espionage thriller, launches today. The following article was written for the publicity of Phantom and is reproduced with permission from HarperCollins.

Ted Bell: An Author at Cambridge

How in the world does an American spy thriller writer end up as a Visiting Scholar and Writer-In-Residence at Cambridge, currently ranked as the #1 University in the world? A mystical place, over eight hundred years old, full of secret gardens, majestic and inspired architecture, tracing the centuries. The names still echo down the years: Desiderius Erasmus, John Milton, Charles Darwin, Christopher Marlowe, Edmund Spenser, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, Oliver Cromwell, JM Keynes, CS Lewis, Sylvia Plath, Germaine Greer, Jane Goodall, and countless more.

It happened like this. An old friend, Dr. Stefan Halper, who happens to be a Fellow of Magdalene College, Cambridge, showed up one rainy night at one of my book signings in New York City. He brought along a friend of his, now Master of Pembroke College at Cambridge, who also happened to be the recently retired Chief of MI6, the UK equivalent of the CIA. In other words, the man James Bond refers to as “M”.

After the signing at Barnes & Noble, we all went to dinner. The conversation was all politics, current world events, Middle East flashpoints, powder-keg intelligence matters, etc. At one point we started discussing my Alex Hawke series of bestselling spy thrillers published by HarperCollins. I regaled them with anecdotes about how, thinking ahead, I come up with fictional plots that ultimately seem to become fact. A process commonly known as “thinking outside the box”.

My espionage novels are not about what’s happening. They are about what might happen, or what, in my view, is likely to happen based on my research and sources.

For instance. I was appearing on CNN one day discussing the plot of my then new novel Tsar. It concerned the revanchist aspirations of the new Russian leadership under Putin, who wanted to revert to the old Soviet borders. Russia has an old saying that the best way to protect your borders is to expand them. Understanding that, I figured an invasion was bound to happen. Having spent a day with our American ambassador in tiny Estonia, only a bridge away from Russia, I figured they’d be first on the list. Moscow, in a hack attack, had already shut down the tiny country’s internet, and I saw that as a trial run.

I was wrong.

While I was on CNN that day, the news came across the wire that Russia had indeed crossed the border and invaded an old client state, but it was Georgia, not Estonia. The interviewing host announced the Russian invasion, then turned to me with a smile and said, “Ted, you didn’t by any chance send an advance copy of your new book to the Kremlin, did you?”

I had written the unfolding scenario into my novel at least twelve months before the events actually occurred.

At one point during dinner that evening in New York, one of my two professorial friends said, “Wouldn’t it be fun to have Ted at Cambridge? The imaginative way of thinking in these books could bring something new to the party.” Two years and two books later I received an invitation to become the Writer-In- Residence at Cambridge’s Sydney-Sussex College. And, also, a Visiting Scholar at POLIS. POLIS is the highly acclaimed Department at Cambridge which deals with political science and international relations, with focused courses on intelligence matters, economics and regional studies, including the United States and China.

Many of the PhD candidates at POLIS go on to hold key positions in academia; the Masters candidates often find themselves serving prime ministers and presidents around the world—or their diplomatic and intelligence services, including the MI-5, MI-6, and similar American, German and French Intelligence services.

So we are constantly discussing and being briefed on the very latest political news and military intel coming over the wire from around the globe. This puts me in the incredibly unique position of getting plot ideas and information I simply could attain no other way.

Of course, I am bound by something called the Chatham House Rule, devised in 1927 to encourage open discussion without fear of being quoted in public. This means I cannot divulge anything I hear in these briefings, nor who was presenting or in attendance. But, for a serious spy fiction novelist, this environment is the mother of all mother lodes. After all, it’s my job to take reality and disguise it as fiction.

An example. We were being briefed on Colonel Ghaddafi less than 24 hours after his assassination. The presenter paused in the middle of his talk and began to pass around large solid gold platters decorated with images of Libya studded with emeralds. These objects had been obtained from one of the late Colonel’s palaces and forwarded to someone at Cambridge on the very day of Ghadddafi’s demise!

I can and will reveal that China is very much front and center in our current discussions and seminars. Recent actions by that government, such as unilateral attempts to claim the South China Sea as Chinese territory are being closely followed. Is this a diversion created to quell current internal dissent with a show of strength? Or a storm signal from a much more assertive and aggressive China?

I will address these and other China questions in my forthcoming espionage novel, Dragon. And, yes, the book will be partially set here at Cambridge University, this otherworldly, mystical place with an 800 year old history of spooks and spies, a place I’ve come to know and love as the thriller writer’s heaven.

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