Despite having turned one of the biggest stories of the century – a lunatic taking over the asylum in Washington – into a series of best-selling novels, British writer Jonathan Freedland is in no hurry to write one about the pandemic that may yet trump that.
“At the moment, like everyone else I’m just dealing with this threat of the coronavirus and thinking, what on earth do we all do?” Freedland tells Haaretz in a phone interview from England. He adds, though, that at some point in the next few weeks or months, the crisis may inspire the sort of ‘What if?’” idea that has served him so well as a novelist over the past 15 years.
As well as being a long-standing columnist for both the liberal Guardian newspaper and the venerable Jewish Chronicle weekly, Freedland, 53, has also established a high-profile sideline as the author of eight thrillers under the pen name Sam Bourne – all rooted in that basic “What if?” question about topical issues.
For instance, what if a group of Holocaust survivors were tracking down their Nazi persecutors 60 years on and belatedly taking revenge (2008’s “The Final Reckoning”)? Or what if a religious group was plotting to bring about the end of days (his debut novel, 2006’s “The Righteous Men” – surely one of the few books set in the world of the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredim, to sell over half a million copies)?
Since 2017, Freedland has been asking a series of “What ifs?” with three novels set in an America where a sociopathic maverick has been elected to the White House – a president whose similarity to the current incumbent is purely uncoincidental.
“To Kill the President,” “To Kill the Truth” and “To Kill a Man,” the latter just published in the United Kingdom, are a deft combination of propulsive plots and whip-smart ideas about timely subjects such as whether a president is above the law, post-truth and vigilante feminism. (If Freedland keeps on producing these books at such a prodigious rate, it is only a matter of time before people start ascribing “To Kill a Mockingbird” to him too.)
These novels are both escapist entertainment and seriously thought-provoking. In other words, a perfect companion for a time when, heaven forbid, you may find yourself locked away from the rest of society for 14 days.
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As well as drawing on real-life events – the rise of the alt-right, both slavery and Holocaust denial, deepfake technology, the #MeToo movement – Freedland also has fun creating fictional characters whose flesh-and-blood inspirations aren’t hard to discern: The first two books in the series feature the Svengali-like figure of Crawford McNamara, who could only be more like President Donald Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon if he were actually called Steve Bannon. And the latest features an aging Democratic presidential candidate who likes giving women unsolicited shoulder rubs and has some serious issues with the concept of social distancing.
Anchoring it all is D.C. troubleshooter Maggie Costello, a thirty-something Dubliner who has more balls than an indoor play center and is never far from being asked to save the world for the third time in a week. She’s the kind of tough female hero who deserves the widest possible audience: Someone should definitely send the books to Charlize Theron and tell her to try an Irish accent and auburn-colored wig on for size.
If you’re wondering how a British journalist ended up writing American political thrillers, well, Freedland spent the latter part of his twenties (between 1993 and 1997) as The Guardian’s Washington correspondent, when, he says, “he really got under the skin” of the city. “I thought that I just saw it, as an outsider, in a way that is harder with your own country. It became a terrain I know.”
But there is also a more fundamental reason why the books are set in Washington, D.C., and not, say, Washington, northeastern England. “Political thrillers rely on the stakes being very high,” Freedland says. “For the drama to work, you have to believe huge things are at stake. That is a much easier sell if you are setting it in the capital of the world’s biggest, strongest superpower.
“I did wonder, at some point, about writing a similar story to [“To Kill a Man”] involving somebody who had been a candidate to be mayor of London. It was fine, but the stakes were just not quite as high,” he adds with perfect understatement.
As you read the “To Kill…” trilogy, it is worth bearing in mind that many of the events described within them were eerily prescient predictions of what the Trump presidency would become.
“To Kill the President,” which features a nuclear stand-off with North Korea and a symbolic burning of the climate change accord in the White House garden, was written even before Trump had assumed office, while “To Kill the Truth” foreshadows the Trump impeachment and the argument that it’s not a crime if the president does it.
Freedland says the secret is not to overthink things when you are imagining the current leader of the free world. “The trick with understanding Trump is not to overcomplicate it. For example, people said ‘Oh, he’ll moderate once he becomes the nominee, he’ll become more presidential.’ And of course, he didn’t. Then they said, ‘Oh but when he wins the general election, then he will.’ And I just thought, no he won’t – he is who he is. What you see is what you get with him, and that’s true of a lot of people, I think.”
Interestingly, he also believes Trump has actually made things easier for thriller writers like himself because, since things are now this batshit crazy in real life, the “parameters of what is plausible in a political thriller are much wider. All kinds of things that would have been deemed impossible are now possible,” Freedland says. “And that means the scope for a thriller writer who is drawing from the real world and the political world is that much greater.”
The big picture
Our interview began by Freedland explaining why, as Sam Bourne, he exclusively writes thrillers. After recounting how he grew up with a love of the genre, citing the works of Frederick Forsyth (“The Day of the Jackal”) and John Buchan (“The 39 Steps”), he notes how they are also an excellent way to explore the questions of our time. “The high-concept thriller allows you to address the big picture. Even as a journalist and columnist, that’s what I like doing,” he says.
He returns to the theme later, specifically in regard to how the confines of his day job have actually helped inspire his fiction-writing. “There are some questions and issues that just can’t be explored through the limitations of journalism,” he believes. “Sometimes it’s just the atmosphere and mood in a room."
“I was a radio reporter when I started. After you’d met someone or interviewed them and broadcast your report, people would say, ‘Oh go on, what was he like?’ And I remember thinking, ‘But I’ve just done a whole report on it, how can you not know?’ But after a while I realized they were right,” he says. “They didn’t know, because you couldn’t convey a behind-the-scenes quality of what, particularly, political life is really like.”
Ironically, Freedland’s more recently developed skills as a thriller writer have informed his political reporting in recent years as well. “Things are more wild now,” he says. “I think in the Trump era, the skills of a novelist are almost required to make journalistic sense of this extraordinary phenomenon. He is not like a politician that any of us have ever described before; you do almost have to have a different vocabulary.”
Freedland is part of an increasing group of British journalists and broadcasters to enjoy successful secondary careers as best-selling thriller writers – others include Robert Harris, Gerald Seymour, Frank Gardner and Peter Hanington. While it is not a uniquely British trend – after all, Swedish journalist Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium” series sold over 70 million copies worldwide – writers combining journalism and fiction has not generally been repeated in the United States, with the notable exceptions of David Ignatius and Carl Hiaasen.
Freedland speculates that because “American journalism takes itself – and it’s something I admire – extremely seriously, I wonder if some of those political journalists would worry that they would be seen as less credible if they also wrote fiction. I wonder if the separation between fiction and nonfiction is firmer and more solid there than it is here.”
The ‘Plot’ thickens
Ironically, despite his new trilogy being as American as super-sized meals and panic-buying toilet rolls, the books have yet to be published in the United States. That situation probably wasn’t aided by the original book’s title, which contravenes the U.S. law that you are not allowed to threaten a president – although, of course, a presidential nominee can say they could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose any voters. (In classic Canuck fashion, the book was released in Canada as “The Plot Against the President,” which certainly didn’t do book sales any favors there.)
Freedland was back in the United States in January covering the New Hampshire primary for The Guardian – an era so distant, Senator Bernie Sanders was the Democratic front-runner at the time. And in a sense, Sanders, Trump and Joe Biden were the inspirations for the main character in “To Kill a Man”: a charismatic 36-year-old attorney, Natasha Winthrop, who is eyeing a potential presidential run.
The character was a “reaction to the gerontocracy which is taking shape in the United States, where all three candidates are in their seventies,” Freedland relates. “We’ll see if I’m right about this, but what I’m expecting there at some point is a reaction against rule by geriatrics, which is where the United States is at the moment. I think it’s very possible that the United States might even skip two generations next time and go from a president in their seventies to somebody much younger.”
Talking of septuagenarians, Freedland found himself in the news in 2016 when U.K. Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn launched a scathing attack on him while being filmed for a documentary. He labeled Freedland's Guardian column “Labour and the left have an antisemitism problem” a work of “utterly disgusting subliminal nastiness,” thus opening the gates of hell for years of anti-Semitic abuse against the openly Jewish writer.
I facetiously suggest that Freedland may have wished at some point that he had opted to use his real name for his works of fiction and his pen name for his journalistic endeavors. But his ill-treatment at the hands of avid Corbyn supporters is no laughing matter.
“That was a horrible bruising episode,” is how Freedland describes it. Because the Labour leader rarely made personal attacks against his political rivals, his targeting of a journalist who just happened to be Jewish was particularly unusual. Freedland says it acted as a signal to Corbyn’s supporters to say, “Look, we’re meant to be kinder and gentler, but there are certain exceptions – and this guy is one of them. I think it acted as a cue. So, yeah, social media was pretty unpleasant in that period. To this day, there are a few of them who still will come after me.”
It is no consolation to Freedland that his views concerning Corbyn’s unelectability were proved correct when Labour suffered its worst election result in nearly 85 years last December.
“There’s no pleasure to be had from it, because I didn’t want there to be an unbroken decade of Conservative rule, which we now have and may have for five more years at least. And there’s no pleasure to be had because it did make me a target for so much Corbynite fury.”
If the incident sounds like the stuff of fiction, it won’t be Freedland who writes it. He says he has no interest in writing about such an ugly chapter in his life, not because it is “too close to home, but mainly because I always thought the interest among the general audience wouldn’t really be there for that story.”
Then again, Freedland has been surprised by the numbers of people reading his books before. “The first three Sam Bourne books were all Jewish stories, which is interesting because they also had the biggest audience – there was a mass audience for three unabashedly Jewish stories: one about kabbala; one about Israel and the Palestinians; and one about the Holocaust,” he relays.
He agrees that his most recent books haven’t placed Judaism at their core – “I would say there’s been a Jewish sensibility in there, but there hasn’t been a Jewish focus” – but that’s not to say there won’t be another one.
“If I felt there was a story compelling enough, I wouldn’t be put off by the fact that it was Jewish – partly because I have seen with my own eyes that a mass, non-Jewish audience is more than happy to embrace a Jewish story,” he says. “I know that’s not a barrier to commercial appeal. It’s just a matter of finding a story that will connect.”