David Downing grew up in suburban London. He is the author of six books in the John Russell espionage series, set in WWII Berlin: Zoo Station, Silesian Station, Stettin Station, Potsdam Station, Lehrter Station, and Masaryk Station and the nonfiction work, Sealing Their Fate: The Twenty-Two Days That Decided World War II. He lives with his wife in Guildford, England.
Getting to know David Downing
I grew up in north-west London, in what was then the white middle-class suburb of Harrow. My parents, both dead now, were emotionally distant but otherwise benign, and I was blessed with a younger brother who is still one of the nicest people I know. Growing up, I developed passions for soccer, railways, rock music and politics which have stayed with me ever since. The only subjects which interested me at school were geography and history, and one teacher of the latter, in showing me that the past was something to interpret and argue over, rather than something to ‘learn,’ has proved a life-long inspiration. Rather inauspiciously for a future writer, I failed the Use of English exam. Indeed, my pre-university reading rarely rose above the level of The Saint and James Bond.
I was interviewed at Sussex University for a place to study Geography, and after arguing the rights and wrongs of the Vietnam War with my interviewers, was persuaded to switch to International Relations. Six years of free higher education followed, in which I gained a BA and MA, and failed to complete a PhD on Che Guevara’s economic ideology. By this time I was much more interested in reading serious fiction, writing Dylanesque poetry and listening to music than pursuing academic studies.
My first writing jobs were as a rock critic; my first book was on visions of the future in rock music. The second was a military history of the Second World War, which I followed a few years later with a fictional account of a war that might have been. Over the succeeding forty years I have explored and sometimes interwoven these three themes of contemporary culture, twentieth century history and fiction.
In 1974 I traveled overland to India (and back) via Iran and Afghanistan, and felt at the time that the trip was some sort of rite of passage. It certainly gave me a taste for that kind of traveling—buses, trains and cheap hotels—and I would later enjoy long journeys through South America and Mexico.
For most of the ’70s and ’80s I lived in inner north London, much of that time with my first long-time partner. After we parted company I spent several years in northeast London, then moved to Boston, Massachusetts, to be with my current wife, Nancy. We returned to Britain five years later, and have lived outside London ever since. She is a practicing acupuncturist and a student of the history of Chinese medicine.
Through the 1990s and 2000s my work followed its usually erratic course. My first real novel, The Red Eagles, had been published in the US in 1987, but no one was interested in the three I wrote thereafter. A biography of Neil Young was followed by umpteen special forces thrillers written under a pseudonym, three books on football history, and over forty history books for children, before Soho in the US and Old Street in the UK took a chance on what would be the first of six ‘Station’ thrillers set before, during and after the Second World War. I am now writing what I hope will be an equally long series set around the First.
Over the last decade, Nancy and I have slowly renovated a ruined cottage in France, and we now plan to spend more of our time there, growing vegetables, drinking wine, and enjoying books and films which have so far eluded us.
The Wall Street Journal profiled David Downing in advance of the release of Jack of Spies, the first book in a new series set on the eve of World War I and starring British spy Jack McColl.
Here’s the Journal on the the circumstances surrounding the dawn of the espionage era:
“With war looming, Britain patched together a spying apparatus that took advantage of newly popular technologies like the telephone and camera. They used a lot of amateurs to help them. If a businessman was going on a trip to Russia, say, they’d call him in and ask him to look into things for them.
In McColl’s case, a shadowy figure working out of a small, little-noticed office in the Admiralty offers him a couple of hundred pounds in expense money if he will do some sleuthing during a round-the-world trip to sell a luxury car, the Maia, to wealthy clients in China and the U.S., among other places.”
Downing, who is about to embark on his first North American tour in support of Jack of Spies, is the author of nearly 80 books, including historical books for children, nonfiction books about soccer, military histories, as well as show business biographies. His celebrated John Russell WWII spy thrillers, a six book series set in Berlin, is a favorite among historical crime readers in the U.S.
But Jack of Spies promises to bring the author widespread acclaim.
“For an author of contemporary spy fiction, this period is almost virgin territory when compared with later years mined by spy novelists Mr. Downing admires like Eric Ambler and Alan Furst.
The First World War is usually about the trenches and all that goes with it,” he says. “I want this book to also show all the things that were intertwined with the era but don’t get much notice.
“Jack of Spies,” which may benefit from interest in the Great War centennial this year, will ship 20,000 hardcovers. “
You can also read an excerpt from Jack of Spies here.