Ben Macintyre Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Ben Macintyre

Ben Macintyre

An interview with Ben Macintyre

A Q&A with Author Ben Macintyre about A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal 

What inspired you to turn your hand to Kim Philby—greatest spy of the Cold War—and, in particular, through the lens of his closest relationships and greatest betrayals?

A Spy Among Friends was born out of a conversation with John le Carré some years ago, in which I asked him—while walking on Hampstead Heath—which was the best untold spy story of the Cold War, and he replied unhesitatingly, "The friendship between Kim Philby and Nicholas Elliott."

Did you make an effort to read other books or watch movies about Kim Philby before you wrote this book? Are there any others you'd recommend after reading A Spy Among Friends?

There are several excellent books about Kim Philby, and almost no good films. Of the straight biographies, Phillip Knightley's Philby: KGB Masterspy is probably still the best, having the benefit of several interviews with Philby before his death. Oddly, Philby has inspired more great fiction, on the page and on-screen, than good nonfiction.

Where (or how) did you conduct most of your research, and did you encounter any difficulties or roadblocks along the way?

My research was a combination of archival research, gathering material from private sources, and interviews with individuals, including some in the intelligence services. The principal roadblock is the fact that MI6 has not released its Philby files, and probably never will. MI5 [the security service], however, is much more open, and a quantity of new material relating to Philby has recently been released.

In the research you did for this book, what single fact or story most horrified you?

The sheer extent of the bloodshed Philby unleashed by betraying Operation Valuable, the inaptly named mission to insert insurgents into communist Albanihundreds were killed, and many entire families were wiped out.

Do you think Philby's betrayal had lasting effects on either the British secret services or their relationship with our own CIA?

Certainly. The intelligence relationship between London and Washington, so warm and valuable during the war, went into a sharp decline as a result of the betrayal by Philby and the other Cambridge spies: the CIA never saw MI6 (and MI6 never saw itself) in quite the same light again.

What's the most exciting thing that has happened to you as a result/part of your career as a writer?

For this book, being able to explore Kim Philby's abandoned and derelict apartment in Beirut was probably the most atmospheric moment of the research process. I stood on the balcony, pitted with bullet holes from Lebanon's civil war, from which he signaled his Soviet controller that he needed to flee. The next day, he absconded to Moscow.

What would you be doing if you weren't a writer?

I would love to think I would have made a good spy, but on reflection, having been immersed in this world for nearly eight years, I think I would be hopeless at intelligence work—an inability to keep a secret being one of my main failings. I suspect if I did not write, I would be teaching history.

What "comfort" books do you keep in order to re-read when you are in need of something really good?

When I am writing, I find that I dip back into John le Carré, who provides just the atmospheric lift and inspiration I need. For pure, unadulterated relaxation and pleasure: Wodehouse, Waugh, and William Boyd.

What's next for you?

Almost certainly, more spies. I have found that writing about real espionage offers an extraordinary backdrop for exploring all the concepts that fascinate us in fiction: loyalty, betrayal, friendship, politics, and love. The history of intelligence is opening up as never before, as more and more secret material is released into the public domain.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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