Michael Ridpath was born in Devon in 1961, but grew up in Yorkshire. He was educated at Millfield School in Somerset, and Merton College, University of Oxford, where he read History. After university, he worked in the City for twelve years as a bond trader and then in private equity.
His first novel, Free To Trade, was written during evenings and weekends over a four year period. On the basis of “write what you know”, it was a novel about a bond trader, written mostly for his own pleasure. Working in the City, he had come across some pretty dodgy characters. It seemed to Michael there were good guys, there were bad guys, and there were plenty of shades of grey in the middle; the shades of grey interested him. To his great surprise – and delight – the book was accepted for publication with a large advance. It was translated into over 30 languages and reached No. Two in the UK bestseller list. So Michael gave up working in the City to become a full-time writer.
He went on to write seven more thrillers set in the worlds of business and finance, before turning his hand to something slightly different. The result, Where The Shadows Lie, the first in a series featuring an Icelandic detective named Magnus, was published in 2010. He has written four more novels in the series since then, and a couple of novellas.
Michael has also written a number of stand-alone historical thrillers, mostly set in the twentieth century. Traitor’s Gate and Shadows Of War are spy novels set in pre-war Europe. These were followed by Amnesia (1930s and 40s), Launch Code (1980s Cold War) and The Diplomat’s Wife (also pre-war espionage), which will be published in February 2021.
He is married to Barbara, an American, and lives in London. They spend as much of the summer as they can at their house in Duxbury, Massachusetts.
How do you write a thriller when everyone knows the ending? This was the question that dogged me over the five years of writing my latest thriller, Traitor’s Gate. It’s a reasonable question. However interesting the plot, however fascinating the characters, a thriller must have suspense. ...
Nuclear Near MissesA couple of years ago I spotted an interesting tweet from Tim Harford, pointing me to an article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists that told the extraordinary story of a group of missilemen on Okinawa who were ordered to launch their Minuteman nuclear missiles ...
I write two strands of fiction in parallel: historical novels, usually concerning espionage in the 20th century, and modern-day crime novels set in Iceland. Usually, I enjoy keeping these two strands separate, but every now and then I cannot resist the urge to let Iceland’s fascinating history ...
What prompted you to choose the period that you wrote your first historical novel in?I set my first novel, Traitor’s Gate, in 1938, just before the Second World War. The Second World War was an epic struggle of good against evil, when the stakes were as high as they could ever be. That’s clear to anyone living after it. But what did it feel like just before the war? People could see the rise of Fascism, the growth of militarism, the coming of war. Yet the First World War was fresh in everyone’s mind; everyone had lost friends or relatives in that conflict. So although the stakes were high, and people knew the future of Europe was in the balance, it wasn’t at all clear what to do about it.If you were a patriotic Englishman who believed the first world war was a disaster, what should you do? If you were a patriotic German who believed the first world war was a disaster, what should you do? The answer probably wasn’t to kill each other, but how would you avoid doing that?What is your approach to researching your novels? Has the process changed over the years?I developed my research skills researching foreign countries which were settings for my financial thrillers. Historical fiction is different. The past is another country, yet you can’t really visit it, or sit someone down in a pub and ask them about it, as I have done with Brazilians and Icelanders for my other novels.Novelists are trying to understand how people feel, either about themselves, or other people, or the places they inhabit. I think that a good description of a location in a memoir will tell me much more about it than a photograph. So I read a lot of biographies, autobiographies, memoirs and diaries, taking careful note of descriptions of places, people and daily habits. I then cut and paste these notes into a massive document split by subject and place. The subjects might be dress, manners, organizations (such as the GRU, or the Gestapo, or the Apostle’s club in Cambridge). The places will be specific restaurants, clubs, hotels, streets, cities and villages. Then, when I am writing, I will have a description at hand upon which I can base my own story. Historical fiction is a great introduction to history. Can you recommend any historians to our readers to learn more about your period?As I mentioned, the best place to go to understand a period is not necessarily the history book, but the memoir or the biography. Some particularly observant examples shedding light on the 1930s are Hons and Rebels by Jessica Mitford (1930s aristocratic rebels), The Past is Myself by Christabel Bielenberg (married to a “good German”), Foleyby Michael Smith (MI6 officer in Berlin) and Blunt, by Miranda Carter (spy for the Russians). What three pieces of advice would you give to a budding historical novelist, looking to write and publish their first book?
Write about a period that you will enjoy finding out about, and inhabiting in your mind for a couple of years.
Don’t be afraid to fictionalize some of the history. No one will mind as long as you make clear that’s what you are doing, and trying to wrangle real history into a tense plot structure is a nightmare.
Write and rewrite and rewrite again. It’s in the rewriting that you will improve; if you don’t rewrite you won’t learn and you probably won’t be published.
If you could choose to meet any historical figure from your period, who would it be and why?Admiral Canaris, the head of the Abwehr – the German secret service – from 1935 to 1944. He was charming, cultured and subtle. He also navigated expertly the tightrope between genuine loyalty to his country and serving Adolf Hitler. And perhaps I would be able to discover whether he was working for the British throughout the war. Similarly, if you could witness one event from history, what would it be and why?The discussions around JFK during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. That’s when the stakes were at their absolute highest. Mind you, the 1966 World Cup final is history now, isn’t it?Which other historical novelists do you admire?Robert Harris, who always manages to inject humanity into his well-researched thrillers. William Boyd, who seems to like to write about the span of someone’s life against a twentieth-century historical backdrop. Antonia Hodgson, because her books are infused with a sense of humour that somehow seems to be both of the eighteenth century and today.When first sketching out an idea for a novel, which comes first - the protagonist, plot or history?The period, then the question who might be doing something interesting then? That takes a long time to find a good answer to. Then comes the question what kind of difficulties/problems might that person have? And you’re away!Do you have a daily routine as a writer? Also, how important is it to know other writers and have a support network?Yes. I try very hard to keep the mornings free for writing, come what may. When I am actually writing, I read through the previous two days’ writing to make corrections, then write between 1,000 and 2,000 words, often with a break in the middle to walk or go to a coffee shop and think about my next, or my last scene. I think it’s very important to meet other writers. As with any occupation, it’s sometimes good to talk about what you do all day with other people who understand it. Writing can be lonely; it’s good to get out and meet like-minded people. And it’s fun.Can you tell us about the project you are working on at the moment?I have just finished The Diplomat’s Wife, which is about a young woman who is a committed communist, and yet is married to a diplomat in pre-war Europe. And I am just starting one of my Magnus detective novels set in Iceland. I like the change of pace and of scenery.
Traitor's Gate was your first foray into historical fiction, and you picked the eve of the Second World War and Nazi Germany. Why was that?After writing eight financial thrillers, I decided I wanted to do something new. A spy thriller intrigued me. I was intimidated by John le Carré and his Cold War thrillers, so I decided to try to seek out something less well known, either from the Second World War or just before. I stumbled across the plot to assassinate Hitler in September 1938, which I had never heard of. The more I read about it, the more fascinating I found it, especially when I read that Chamberlain knew about the plot, but chose to ignore it and do a deal with Hitler at Munich instead. The two years before the war are fertile ground for a spy writer. The stakes were high: war versus peace; Fascism versus democracy (or communism); Britain versus Germany. These divisions didn’t neatly overlap, leading to interesting conflicts for a novelist’s characters. My character Theo is a good German, hates Fascism but also hates war. Difficult for him – great for me.It was quite a long time in the writing, and drafting! Is that usual for your novels?Traitor’s Gate took by far the longest time to write of any of my books. I started writing in 2005 and the book wasn’t published until 2013. I wrote seven drafts. The first four were too historical and too slow. The fifth was fast-paced but had lost its colour and its heart. It was only when I put the book aside for three years that I was able to see that if I combined the best parts of the 2nd draft and the 5th draft I would end up with a fast-paced historical thriller. So it took a while, but I learned a lot.Whilst your main characters are fictitious, you conducted a huge amount of research into the novel, and much of the cast existed. How difficult was it to interweave these characters with real people?Extremely difficult. In retrospect, I included too many real people and events. The problem wasn’t so much writing scenes that followed history, it was being unable to change the scenes’ order. Pacing is important to me, and I frequently change the order of scenes and revelations in my book to make them more exciting. The trouble is you can’t change the order of real historical events!The von Fritsch affair was a key element in persuading many, particularly Admiral Canaris, to become more active in their opposition to Hitler and the Nazis. You’ve mentioned you included it in more detail in your first draft – did you remove it for space reasons?I included two interesting historical events in early drafts of the novel: one was the blackmailing of General von Fritsch by the Nazis, and the other was the German occupation of Vienna. They were good scenes, but they were not intrinsic to the thriller plot involving Conrad and Theo, and they both took place before June 1938. When I was trying to spice up my novel – the fifth draft - I decided that if I squeezed the plot into the three months June to September 1938 and cut these scenes out, the book would be a more exciting read. There is an old piece of advice to writers: “Kill your darlings.” Bye-bye Fritsch and bye-bye Vienna.We’re talking around the time of the new movie Munichabout Chamberlain’s doomed attempt at appeasement. Although he may have been had a clear idea of what he wanted, surely the result of that approach was humiliation for Britain and France, and the shameful dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, and so surely should have seen this and supported the coup?
Hitler in the Sudetenland in 1938
I read that the film is positive about Chamberlain and appeasement. To some extent, I can understand this. After the horrors of the First World War – the war to end all wars - the main aim of most people in Britain, including Chamberlain, was to avoid another one. By definition, declaring war on Germany would not have achieved this. So I was prepared to be sympathetic to Chamberlain. He is also sometimes portrayed as a ditherer. I found him decisive with a clear, but wrongheaded, idea of what he wanted to do. He trusted Hitler, he felt that Hitler was a man he could do business with, and that a dramatic gesture on his part – flying to Germany – would show Hitler that Chamberlain meant business therefore Hitler would come to a sensible agreement for peace. Conversely, Chamberlain did not trust the German generals who threatened to overthrow Hitler; in his mind they were the bad guys who had started the First World War. Hitler thought that Chamberlain was einArschloch. Hitler may have been right.It’s fair to say that Lord Halifax has a bit of a bad reputation, but he comes out quite well in your novel. What are your thoughts on him?In my view, Lord Halifax was a decent, if unimaginative minister who wanted to do the best for his country. He had influence in Cabinet and so he became the man that first Chamberlain in 1938 and 1939 and then Churchill in 1940 had to persuade. He was willing to listen and to change his mind, and he did so. He stood up to Chamberlain in September 1938, concluding that after trying everything the British government should accept that Hitler could not be trusted. He was right. And again, in May 1940, although he initially considered seeking peace terms with Hitler, he eventually was won round by Churchill to keep Britain fighting. He was right again.I’ve visited Sachsenhausen, the concentration camp outside Berlin that Annelise is sent to. I went very soon after the wall came down, and the Russians had just surrendered control. They were very keen to leave the camp as close to 1945, thereby demonstrating how horrific the Nazis had been. Have you visited, and what were your impressions?I visited Sachsenhausen and found it a predictably depressing experience. We tend to forget that before 1938 the concentration camps were filled with socialists, communists, homosexuals and Jehovah’s Witnesses. I read a fascinating account by Gabriele Herz, a female Jewish socialist inmate who described the uncompromising bravery of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who insisted on repeating that Hitler was evil. Obviously, they were all killed. Less obviously, the rest of us have forgotten them.Frank Foley is an amazing man. He’s been written about increasingly (Alex Gerlis and Lyn Smith to name but two). Was it difficult to find information on him?Frank Foley was the unassuming British Passport Control Officer in Berlin who ran the MI6 station there. He was modest and believed in the Official Secrets Act, so little was known about him, until Michael Smith, an historian of MI6, noticed his name cropping up. Smith wrote an excellent biography of the man. Foley helped many thousands of Jews escape Germany. This is commemorated by a grove of trees in Israel, and rather poignantly on a stone by the Jewish cemetery in Golders Green, which used to be on my route to the tube station. I was very keen to give Foley an important role in Traitor’s Gate.One of the challenges of historical fiction, particularly for the Second World War, is that many readers will know what happened. How do you keep the suspense?That was one of the key problems about writing a story based on a plot to assassinate Hitler in 1938. It didn’t work. You know that; I know that. I showed one of my early drafts to Ronald Harwood, a skilled playwright and Oscar-winning screenwriter. He suggested what I needed was some kind of prologue that suggested the story was about Conrad, my hero, rather than Hitler. It was brilliant advice. The book now starts with a letter from Conrad to his father saying Conrad is about to assassinate Hitler and he will probably die in the attempt. So the question for the reader is now not will Hitler be killed? but how will Conrad try to kill Hitler and will Conrad survive? Those first two pages changed the experience of the whole book for the reader.It was reviewed very favourably, what were your thoughts on its reception?I was pleased that people enjoyed it as a tense thriller as much as a description of interesting historical events. I was disappointed that it wasn’t published in Germany, and to this day I am not sure why; perhaps modern Germans don’t want to read about Nazi Germany for pleasure.Michael Ridpath is the bestselling author of Free to Trade and Traitor's Gatewhich was published in 2013.