Philipa Coughlan interviews Frank Gardner.
Read Philipa’s review of his latest novel Outbreak here.
- Your third novel in the gripping, action packed Luke Carlton thriller series ‘Outbreak’ centres around a global terrorist threat from a deadly man-made virus. Was this a planned plot idea or did the Covid pandemic help to form the novel and reassure readers it’s not all gloom and doom!?
Strangely, I came up with this plot idea a whole year before the outbreak of SARS-Covid-2. I started writing Outbreak in December 2018 and I spent much of 2019 interviewing medical experts, virologists and someone who had served on the Govt’s COBRA crisis committee. But all that research took time so when Covid came along I then adjusted the manuscript in a few places to bring it right up to date.
- Your hero Luke, although brave and intelligent, with skills from the military to secret services has quite a few flaws, some of which often put him at risk? Have you built his character on your own or others you have met or is he just a reflection on basic human insecurities in general?
Both really. Many of the thoughts that run through his head in times of crisis – or exasperation – are exactly the ones I would have. But no, Luke is really an amalgam of several people I have met who operate out of the public eye in the secret world of intelligence and Special Forces. It would be odd for him to be good at everything and by his own admission Luke is terrible at social conversation!
- You were in the Army and still have links with the Territorials I believe? Do you think the disciplines of the military transfer well to the work of the secret services?
Well not having ever worked in Intelligence I couldn’t say first-hand but yes, I think there is a limited crossover of skills and temperament – the ability to operate in a remote and dangerous place and take sudden, critical decisions, for example. But these days I believe MI6 is trying to get away from the idea that its some sort of clearing house for ex-Army officers having a second career. They are looking to be much more eclectic in their recruiting.
- We travel the world at pace with Luke – like James Bond meets Andy McNab. In ‘Crisis’ we are in Colombia, in ‘Ultimatum’ Now the Arctic Circle forms the backdrop to trips to Lithuania and Russia in ’Outbreak’. Your own travels make the landscapes and cultures totally believable. Where next for Luke and the series?
I don’t want to give too much away at this early stage but I’m already several chapters into writing it. The 4th Luke Carlton novel is set somewhere that’s going to be very much in the News in the coming months…
- As the BBC Security Correspondent and a thriller writer with plots about espionage, do you think threats across powerful/dangerous nations still come down to the leaking of information through ‘moles’ as in John le Carre novels or has technology superseded this?
No. With great respect to John Le Carre and his brilliant novels, he clung to a rather outdated obsession with betrayal and divided loyalty that is considered a bit of a dated cliché within the Intelligence Community. His mindset was inevitably forged in the days of the Cambridge spy ring – Philby, Blake, Burgess, Maclean etc – so it’s hardly surprising that the theme of betrayal dominated his work. In Outbreak I have hinted at it but decided not to labour it.
- Being disabled myself as I was hit by a car, I find your recovery from the horrendous injuries which left you partially paralysed inspiring. You are still active as a reporter and even a keen skier. But there must be bad days when facing the world is impossible?
Not really, no, Ive been lucky enough to be spared those. I do though, still suffer from occasional agonising nerve pain in my legs which can strike at any time, just one more legacy of the shooting that lingers on 17 years later!
- You are an experienced birdwatcher too! This must be such a peaceful and uplifting pastime (as many of us have discovered during the quiet of lockdown). Where’s your favourite place to do your twitching- one UK site and one world site?
First off, I consider myself a birder but not a twitcher. The latter are a strange breed who compete constantly with each other to build lists of species seen and they drop everything to race across the country to catch a distant glimpse of some rarity that’s just blown in. If you ever want to ask someone which category they fall into then ask them if they made a special trip to Derbyshire last summer to see the rare Bearded Vulture that briefly settled there. I didn’t! To answer your question though, I’d say it was probably the London Wetland Centre in Barnes which has a wonderful variety of bird and insect life, despite being under a Heathrow flightpath.
- My youngest son works in a vaccination centre and many years ago I undertook a clinical trial at The Common Cold Unit in Salisbury (now closed). Is the UK still at the forefront of medical discoveries as in the Oxford vaccine or must we (to avoid these pandemics) collaborate far more with places such as China?
Pass. That’s a question best put to a scientist. But we must be doing something right to be the best vaccinated nation in Europe. It’s also worth noting that Britain has a superb centre of excellence in the form of the Defence Scientific and Technical Laboratories at Porton Down in Wiltshire.
- Many countries still prioritise defence spending above things like poverty (at home or abroad) or to prevent climate change. Is there a country you have visited which tries to govern for its people and wider peace more than most?
Im not sure you could call spending money on national security and defence not governing for the people! But I take your point, its spending precious money on preparing for something which hasn’t necessarily happened yet. I suppose the neutral countries like Sweden and Switzerland would be candidates for your answer, although both quietly contribute to western defence in more ways than people know.
- Surely there should be a Frank Gardner ‘Action Doll’ in a wheelchair ? What an inspiration!