Interview: Ben Macintyre on the spy book “Prisoners of the Castle”

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“Lying is a very difficult thing to do,” says Ben Macintyre.

He, perhaps better than most, should know that. In a career now entering its fourth decade, the British author has carved out a successful and lucrative niche writing about people who lie for a living: spies.

The field of espionage, as depicted in the novels of Ian Fleming, for example, is generally seen as romantic and adventurous; the reality, as evidenced by Macintyre’s nonfiction books, is far more mundane and messy. And then there’s the matter of not getting cut, which is where the ability to lie coherently and convincingly comes in. “A lie is a piece of cake,” Macintyre says. “Multiple lies, where you have to remember the last lie and make sure your next lie fits into it – it’s really hard.”

It is also, recognizes Macintyre, a skill that novelists must develop. “I think it’s no coincidence that many of Britain’s greatest fiction writers have been spies,” he says, mentioning in particular Graham Greene, W. Somerset Maugham, Fleming and John Buchan.

And another, a longtime friend of Macintyre who gave him writing advice he never forgot. The late David Cornwell – better known to the world by his pen name, John le Carré – had a more cynical attitude towards MI5 and MI6 than Macintyre is willing to admit, although he gives le Carré credit for it. reinventing the modern spy novel, as well as helping him in his own career. “He gave me a lot of encouragement,” Macintyre said, before giving the advice that has continued to stick with him. “I vividly remember him once saying, ‘You have to keep the risk on every page.'”

This is particularly relevant in Macintyre’s latest book, “Prisoners of the Castle: An Epic Story of Survival and Escape from Colditz, the Nazi Fortress Prison”. Telling the story of Allied POWs incarcerated in one of Germany’s most notorious prisons during World War II may at first seem like a departure from Macintyre. Until we realize just how much ersatz espionage has gone on at the facility, from hiding stolen radios to devising a method to secrete a compass inside a nut . Not to mention the coded messages that were sent inside and outside the prison.

Of course, one of the main stumbling blocks for any writer trying to extract drama from such a historical narrative is that the outcome is predetermined. (Spoiler: the Allies win.) This is where Le Carré’s advice appears indispensable. “Especially in non-fiction,” says Macintyre, “keeping the momentum is absolutely vital. I use novelistic techniques, but I never make anything up.

That in itself is remarkable considering some elements of ‘Prisoners of the Castle’. Descriptions of the prisoners’ multiple escape attempts involve digging a 140-meter-long tunnel, known as the Métro after the French metro, which had its own ventilation and telephone system; attempting to build a functional glider to fly under cover of darkness (a plan that was never actually implemented as the camp was liberated before it could be attempted); and, in the book’s opening scene, trying to get out of the castle disguised as a mustache made of brush hair and a fake gun constructed from cardboard.

How on earth could one of the prisoners who attempted these escapes think he was ever going to work? In Macintyre’s view, it was precisely the bravado with which they were undertaken that led to their potential success. “The more cheeky the deception, the more extreme it is, the more your enemy thinks, ‘Well, they couldn’t fake a whole mustache. “”

The descriptions of the escape attempts include the most adrenaline-charged sections of the book, but Macintyre is quick to point out that they represent a small part of life in Colditz, which was for the most part surprisingly boring. Prisoners and guards alike faced the boredom and hunger that were daily hallmarks of life in a dark, damp medieval castle. Although the place is remembered as the site of daring escape attempts (a number of which, known colloquially among prisoners as “home runs”, were actually successful), the reality was much more desperate. “I think [planning an escape] was a way to push back the darkness and the sadness,” says Macintyre. “Which wasn’t really part of the Colditz mythology.

Although he started working on the book before the world came to a standstill in early 2020, much of the research and writing was done during the lockdown. Macintyre is under no illusions that the executive orders in place during the COVID-19 pandemic were equal to what prisoners at Colditz experienced. “It’s very different from sitting on your couch watching Netflix and ordering delivery or being at Colditz Castle,” he says. “Those are completely different things.”

That said, there is something at least ironic about researching and writing a book about prisoners while effectively being relegated to some kind of prisoner status yourself. “I was going so crazy in lockdown that I thought I would grow a mustache and start digging myself out of the basement,” he says. “We don’t want to stretch that metaphor too much, but in lockdown we all had to find ways to stay sane in a captivity we had no control over.”

Macintyre’s gratitude for having been able to shoot “Prisoners of the Castle” in the United States and Canada has a fortuitous coda: after a fortnight of busy travel, he returns to the United Kingdom a day early to attend the London Film Festival premiere of ‘A Spy Among Friends’, a British television series starring Damian Lewis and Guy Pearce and based on Macintyre’s 2014 bestseller.

And after that? Macintyre feels inclined to return to his roots by undertaking a book set during the Cold War, a period he considers essential if one is to understand what is happening in Russia and Ukraine today. “The story of what happened in the Soviet Union and the Soviet Union is absolutely essential to what Putin is doing today,” he says. “There is a kind of hidden, secret history of the end of the Soviet Union.” It’s a story Macintyre seems perfectly placed to tell.

Steven W. Beattie is a writer in Stratford, Ontario

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