Going Undercover with Andy McNab

SAS veteran turned thriller writer Andy McNab will speak at Raworths Harrogate Literature Festival

Andy McNab joined the army as a teenager. In 1984 he was ‘badged’ as a member of 22 SAS Regiment and was involved in special operations around the world. During the Gulf War he commanded the Bravo Two Zero patrol and later wrote about it in his phenomenal bestseller of the same name. Andy is the author of the hugely popular Nick Stone thrillers and a patron of the Help for Heroes campaign, and will hit the Harrogate stage for Raworths Harrogate Literature Festival, where he’ll be interviewed by Matt Stadlen.

Why did you end up joining the army?

I had no big plans to join the army, I just wanted to get out of the borstal system. I was in juvenile detention and I joined as an infantry junior leader at 16. At that stage the minimum engagement was three years, but because I was joining at 16 they wanted six years out of me.

Did you like army life?

It’s quite a rigid place which I didn’t really like but after a while I started to understand the marching and all that and why it has to happen. What I liked was being part of something, you felt part of a family. I was in care until I was about six and went into foster care and through adoption, so it was quite good that feeling of ‘well, you’re one of us now.’

How did you end up joining the SAS?

I’d done eight years in the infantry and during that time went through the rank system and became a platoon sergeant. I’d done everything in the infantry so it felt like a natural progression to have a go at [SAS] selection. You heard all the urban legends about selection but I thought I’d give it a go and if I fail, I fail. If I’d failed I would have probably left the army.

What was it like being part of the SAS?

If you pass selection you get what’s called ‘badged’ and you become a member of the Special Air Service. Whatever rank you were before you start again as a trooper. In the infantry it’s very rigid but in ‘the Regiment’ (within the military environment it’s simply called the Regiment rather than the SAS) it’s all about self-discipline. The camp is more like a university campus, there was no marching and people called themselves by their first name. It was a whole sea change in the way you operated which I thought was great.

During the Gulf War you led the Bravo Two Zero patrol into Iraq. What was that experience like?

It’s one of those patrols that Western military academies now use as an example. The job was a success in a way that the planning, the preparation, and what’s called the SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures), worked. But on a personal level it was a failure because three of the lads went down.

What was the hardest part of being captured?

I was caught an hour and a half from the border, but then it’s that feeling of you’re still alive, you’re not wounded – so far so good. And you just take it from there. There’s a quaint military term called ‘tactical questioning’ which just means you get filled in, and obviously that happened. You just have to try and minimise the damage and again that survival instinct kicks in and you think ‘at least they haven’t shot me.’ You’re always looking for little bits of light.

You were released after a number of weeks and you remained in the army for the next couple of years, so how did your first book, Bravo Two Zero, come about?

I was going to go to Colombia [on a private contract as part of an anti-narcotics operation] and I got an invitation to a general’s house and there was a proposal to do a book about what was going on during the Gulf War and Bravo Two Zero and what it was trying to do, and I’d do the piece about what was happening on the ground. By then John Nichol and John Peters had written Tornado Down. I’d met both of them in Baghdad when the Red Cross got us out. We were on the same aeroplane coming out. So I phoned up John and asked, ‘how does this book business work?’ and he explained it all. So I went back to the Regiment and said I’d do it but I’d do it myself. So I went through the process and I was in Colombia and the book came out and it was an amazing success, more than anyone imagined. I got a message to call the publishers so I did, and they said, ‘the book’s doing really well, it’s number one, do you want to do another one?’ And I thought ‘yeah, ok.’

You’ve been a writer and novelist for the past 30 years. How do you find the writing process?

It’s about 32 million books I’ve sold which is amazing. But it’s always been book by book. They’re predominantly first person narrative and I find it alright. I basically try and put down on a bit of paper what’s going through my head, which is a selection of images, and hopefully the images join up on the page to make a story. I’m very lucky because after Bravo Two Zero I lived in Los Angeles because I was invited over to start working on action films as an advisor. I spent seven months working on a film called Heat and got involved in Black Hawk Down.

It was there that I started to learn a bit about the business, certainly how to write and about story arcs and that kind of thing. I was really lucky because I learnt quite a lot from the director of Heat, Michael Mann, and he said the only way to think about it if you’re writing a book is everybody, whether they know it or not, understands a three act structure. So you have your three acts and keep your ending short and sharp and get out quickly before they get bored. I try to do very short and sharp chapters and the end of a chapter is the equivalent of when the adverts come on.

What have been the biggest lessons you have learned from your time in the army?

In army time if you’re supposed to be somewhere at eight o’clock that means you’ve got to be there at five to eight. But when I went to Hollywood I’d be there at the right time but the time would get changed and no one would tell you, or people wouldn’t turn up, and I found that really frustrating. But the lesson I learned was that if I continued to do exactly what I did in the military and be on time and do my work to the best of my ability then I’ll get more work, because you get a reputation for being reliable. So I’ve always done that.

How do you look back at your life and career?

Even during childhood I always knew it would be alright, even when I went into borstal. I’ve always been optimistic and maybe too confident about things. I’m quite stoic about it. Yesterday’s done, today is today and tomorrow there will be other things to do.

An Evening with Andy McNab | Friday 20 October | 8.30pm – 9.45pm | The Crown, Harrogate

Book online here or call the box office on 01423 562 303.