Andy McNab is the SAS hero who shot to fame with his book Bravo Two Zero, which recounted the elite troop's horror after being caught in Iraq during the first Gulf war.
He endured six weeks of torture in the now notorious Abu Ghraib prison, but survived to collect the Distinguished Conduct Medal – an award second only to the Victoria Cross. This was added to the Military Medal he received for courage as an ordinary soldier in Northern Ireland when he was 20.
Bravo has sold more than five million copies and McNab has become Britain's biggest-selling thriller writer, with total sales of about 16 million worldwide. He is about to publish his eighth novel.
Now 45, McNab is a multi-millionaire and has a parallel writing career as a freelance journalist, penning expert war and terrorism articles for newspapers. We meet at his private members' club in Paddington, and it is fascinating to see the lights come up on the silhouette that is his public image.
He is only 5ft 10in, yet stocky as hell. The handshake is no bone-cruncher and the eyes are a kind light blue. He is laddishly friendly and has an unexpectedly quiet voice that is distinctly South London. But whatever his appearance, I can't help thinking: This man has killed!
Andy, war hero and now a seriously best-selling author. Not bad going?
Yeah, it's pretty good, isn't it? The army was all I knew for years, so to get this whole new life as a writer is a bonus I wasn't expecting.
Can you talk me through your writing routine and the schedule for the books?
Generally I have a book out every November. While I'm doing promotion, I start thinking about the next one and begin with a treatment of no more than 15 pages, with the basic plot, locations and key scenes. I get this done by about Christmas. In January I get stuck in and by mid-March I will have the first draft done. Most of it will be crap, with big chunks missing, but it's always easier to work on something when you have words down, rather than in your head.
When you are in the flow, what represents a good day or a bad day, in terms of words?
On a good day, I will do 15,000…
Fifteen THOUSAND! That's incredible. What are you doing – copying out the phone book?
I just crash it out in the beginning. A really bad day is 2,000 words. I'm not one for all that hand-on-thebrow angst writer stuff. You're not sweeping roads or digging holes. The job is all right, so I just get it done. I have always been like that with everything.
Maybe it's from my army discipline – you're not taught to sit around agonising.
When I started writing, the publisher told me about an author – it was either Joanna Trollope or Terry Pratchett – who works from 10am-4pm every day, with no interruptions. I followed that and I don't go near email or the phone between those times. If I'm stuck, I leave a gap and get on with the next bit. A lot of the first draft goes in the bin and I end up with about 90,000 words.
All my books are about 120,000 words, so by about April time, I panic. I then do research trips and start to find the texture – the local beers, what hotel rooms look like and the weapons. My books are quite modular, like a template, and they all need certain things. My deadline is in June, but I usually deliver it by the second week of July.
Bravo Two Zero gave you a new life. How did that book come about?
After the Gulf war, I went back into the Regiment and did three more years. I was going to bum around Australia for a year when I left, but then I saw John Nichol's book Tornado Down. He put me in touch with an agent and I got a deal. I found writing Bravo quite easy because I had done so many debriefs and lectures on what happened to other soldiers. I got the advance, paid off my mortgage and thought about doing security work. Only then did the publisher ask if I wanted to do a second book. "Are you joking – of course I do!" Then I did Immediate Action and that sold even more than Bravo.
It must have been quite a transition, from the military to publishing?
It was quite funny because when Bravo started, the publishers would sit in on publicity interviews. I always got asked about killing people and I kept putting my foot in my mouth and saying, "Oh, I didn't think about it much, I just got on with it." It was a nightmare because afterwards the publishers were all jumpy and going, "Oh, no, no, you can't say things like that! You must establish the context and moral conflict." And I was, like, "You what?"
They sent me for two days of media training in Soho, where I got annihilated in pretend interviews for press, radio and TV. Then I got debriefed and they gave me certain expressions to use with tricky questions like, "They are your words, not mine", or "You must put these things in context".
I realise it's an inevitable question, but I admit to being fascinated. How many people have you killed?
I'm not answering that…
Oh, OK. But, ball-park, are we talking hundreds, or just a few dozen? Do you know the numbers?
[Long pause while, I presume, McNab quietly replays media training tactics.] Well, it was seven before it all kicked off on that final night in Iraq [when the Bravo Two Zero troop had a massive fire fight after being rumbled]. CIA reports said there were 250 casualties, including the injured.
I have killed people, but it is not something that is kept count of. I do not know how many. Certainly it is a load of bollocks that it's a big deal and is notched on a barrel by people in the Regiment. The main thing is that you have a responsibility to stay alive.
Sometimes you go out on a fighting patrol and you are trying to kill people, but nine times out of 10 you are trying to avoid detection so you can blow something up. The last thing you want is to hit on people especially as they have as much chance of killing you.
The fact is, I am 5ft 10in and might go up against someone who is 6ft 4in and 18 stone. There's not a lot you can do if he lands on top of you.
By the nature of SAS operations, I imagine you have to get close to someone in order to attack?
No, I've never killed anyone with a knife and yes I have been close. Eight to 10 metres is not unusual. A lot of the stuff we do is up close, but people think it is all underwater fighting with knives because they have seen it in the war films, but it is not like that. If you are in a situation, you have to get it over and done with as quickly as possible and run. There's not all that heroic thing of hanging around because you don't know what is around the next corner.
The first person I killed was in Northern Ireland. I was 19 and came across an ambush near the border. We had a cabby [big gun fight] and there was shooting all over the shop. I shot one guy as he tried to escape. We were within spitting distance. I found out later he was only six months older than me.
Back at the battalion there was credibility for getting your first kill and you automatically got an extra two weeks' leave. I couldn't actually say how I felt because the lads just wanted to hear the macho stuff like whether he was screaming.
It was not until I got in the Regiment that I learnt that the people who say they are not scared are liars or mentally deficient. You want to come back alive. If you want to know about killing, pick up the family dog or cat and try to kill it. You've got something that is alive, breathing, looking at you. That's how bad it is.
You got ambushed by a couple of newspapers when one of your ex-wives sold her story. Did you want to sort it out with your old skills?
It was a fucking nightmare, horrible, awful. It was the News of the World and the Daily Mail and I was steaming mad. It wasn't true and I wanted to go and burn their offices down and all that stuff.
I sat down with lawyers and my agent and they told me this is how it is: you have been built up and now you are coming down. You will get over that, don't worry. My agent said that after the second part of the story comes out, the book sales will go up. Sure enough, Immediate Action went to number three from way out of the top 10, which was a bit of consolation.
But I was angry about the story. I was thinking, "Do people really believe all this?" I was worried what friends would think, but everyone who mattered was fine. The hardest part was the frustration and time. I was used to getting things done.
How did it pan out?
I sued and it went on for two years. I was in for £140,000 in legal costs and it was a war of attrition.
In the end, there was an out-of-court settlement and I got an apology in the papers. I understand about the business better now. I even met the reporter who did the story at a party and said, "Oi, you bastard", but I shook his hand and he said, "Hey, this is what I do".
If I had met him before, I would have been really pissed off and would have nailed him. I even met the lawyer who was involved at the Press Ball recently and we had a chat. It's fine, I know the score now.
Your identity is always concealed as a silhouette. Is that really necessary or is that a bit of publicity drama gimmick?
No, it's not a stunt. About 99 per cent of the guys who come out of the Regiment hide their identity.
During the war in Northern Ireland, I did many undercover operations as part of 14 Intelligence Group. Local people I worked with while undercover are still there and it could put them at risk if my face is suddenly known. I want to stay alive – and what is the point of putting other people in danger?
Any press myths about you that need dispelling?
Yes – all this business that McNab gave away secrets and went against the military. That's bollocks. My books went through the Ministry of Defence to make sure nothing compromising came out. I was reading in The Daily Telegraph one day that I had been disowned by the army. At the time I was sitting in an army staff car being driven to Sandhurst, where two hours later I was addressing the cadets.
Alongside the books, you have been established yourself as a freelance journalist. How's that going?
It was odd at first because when you are in the Regiment the media are seen as the Antichrist, something that is treated with total suspicion. Now I enjoy being part of it. I have written for every newspaper in the UK, except the two Independents and Sunday Express. I was attached to the Daily Mirror during the Iraq war and did about 30 articles, which was good.
I have been on a retainer for The Sun since May. I get a set fee per year, then so much per word. They always want copy very fast, so it's a challenge, but I like seeing my stuff in the papers the next day.
The tabloids get slagged down, but I find it more of a challenge to write for them than a broadsheet. On The Sun, it has to be 400 words. The style is harder and you have to set out your argument in a brief and understandable way, against the clock. My biggest claim to fame was a few years ago when I wrote a piece that went into The Sun word-for-word. I was like, Yes!
MCNAB'S NEWS SCHEDULE
To be frank, I've never been a great newspaper buyer. Now I am writing for The Sun regularly, I get that and I like looking at the overall package and layouts.
I like the new Berliner Guardian and turn straight to the double-page picture, that's fantastic.
I also get The New York Times online, which usually arrives at three o'clock in the morning on the BlackBerry, if I forget to turn it off. I like to read its view on international stories.
I like a US current affairs magazine called Slate. I did a piece for that during the Afghan war and I got into it. I access it through the web at www.slate.msn.com.
I watch Sky News or BBC News 24. I have a TV in my barn where I write and have it on in the background.
When I am bumming around in the mornings, I mostly listen to XFM. I like BBC Radio Five, but more for the talk than for sport. I like PM on Radio 4.
For research, I hit US security websites such as www.globalsecurity.org and the CIA Fact Book: www.odci.gov/cia/ publications/factbook.
Andy McNab's FANTASY FLYERS
What would be the Fantasy Headline of the story you would most like to read?
It's awful when you read about the spread of AIDS in Africa, so how about: "Cure Found For HIV"?
What would be the Fantasy Headline involving yourself?
My big dream when I was a kid was to go into space, so it would be "McNab On The Moon".
What would be the headline you most dread?
"McNab skint." If it happens, I'll keep it to myself.
Who would you most like to interview and what question would you ask that they had to answer truthfully?
Muhammad Ali. I've always been fascinated by him. Not long after he won the Olympic gold medal for his country, he was asked to leave a coffee shop because he was black.
I would ask him how he felt about that.
What question would you never answer?
I always keep stuff about my family out of the papers.
What would you like the headline to be on your obituary?
It's a really big deal in the army to be called a good soldier.
I was a good soldier, so just put: "Good soldier. Now dead".
Copyright Rob McGibbon 2005. All Rights Reserved