spy chief to author

From spy chief to author we ask David Bickford all the questions authors and budding spies want to know!

What inspired you to become an author, and how did you get started in writing?

I am so lucky to have had such an exciting life which has taken me and my wife Cary all over the world. One day we were on a plane flying back from  Washington to London and Cary said to me that our life was like a thriller and why didn’t I write a book. It was something I had always wanted to do. So the idea of writing a book began on that plane journey.

Can you describe your writing process? Do you have any particular rituals or routines that help you focus and stay creative?

Cary and I walk three miles very early every morning, which is when we talk about and discuss characters and plot. Sometimes passers-by do get a shock if they overhear us discussing a particularly violent person or fight.

How do you approach character development in your writing? Do you draw from personal experience, research, or other sources?

I am very lateral thinking, which is almost essential in the intelligence world. So I find it easy to dream up characters rather than borrow people I have known. But, even so, getting those characters to live on the page isn’t always easy and that is when Cary and my editor Sue Paulsen are such a huge help. 

What themes do you explore in your writing, and why are they important to you?

We are all aware of the dangers of terrorism and organised crime. It is the layer of corruption below the headlines that concerns me.  For instance, cash paid for the social use of cocaine winds up in tax havens which bankroll the terrorists and transnational criminals who are threatening all of us.

How do you handle writer’s block, and what strategies do you use to overcome it?

As a lawyer in the intelligence agencies my job was to work out how an operation could succeed whilst being lawful and respecting the rights of the target. When life was difficult, I would remember back to being in the co-pilot’s seat in a small aircraft flying between two Caribbean islands. The wing flaps were found to be jammed just after take-off.  We were in deep trouble. The pilot, Barclay Baron, was ex 617 Dambusters Squadron. He asked me to jam my knee against the joystick while he delicately adjusted the trim tabs to bring the aircraft to a safe landing. After watching him, the word ‘block’ ceased to exist for me.

Can you tell us about a particular book or project that was especially challenging for you to write, and how you overcame those challenges?

Whatever I write, whether it is a book, film script or speech, I find the most difficult thing is to translate my thoughts so that they are intelligible to the reader. I know what I’m saying but that doesn’t necessarily mean the reader does!  Cary, bless her, overcomes that challenge by brutal comment. Then my brilliant editor Sue picks up any loopholes.

How do you balance the demands of writing with other aspects of your life, such as family, work, and personal time?

I have to have a set time for writing.  I am not good at writing when the muse takes me…I want that time with Cary and my family!

What advice would you give to aspiring writers who are just starting out in their careers?

Go for it. Never have to say “I was going to write a book.”

Can you share any exciting projects or upcoming releases that you’re currently working on?

Our early morning walks see us deep in our prequel to “Katya” called ‘The Informer”. This is Katya’s first operation where she cuts her eye teeth on running an informant into an international gambling syndicate which launders money for the world’s top crime gangs. Plenty of danger and room for mistakes for a young, naïve G8 Agent up against the most corrupt, violent people on the planet. Also, we see Lev, the Russian G8 Director, as Katya’s father figure and we think he deserves a book to himself. So, in the pipeline is “A Cold Winter”, where Lev lives on the edge as a KGB agent in the torn city of Berlin.  Set in the time when the Soviet Union invades Afghanistan, Lev has to make up his mind whether he supports this madness or betrays his country.

Finally, what do you hope readers will take away from your books, and what impact do you hope your writing will have on the world?


Moving away from writing at looking back at your career, what inspired you to join the intelligence community and how did you get your start in this field?

I had a history in the Foreign Office of defence work and troubleshooting serious corruption and narcotics trafficking in the UK Caribbean. At that time, the intelligence community were under a lot of pressure and Sir Anthony Duff had been appointed Director General to stabilise things.  He asked me to help him as his Legal Director to set out the future of the agencies. It was a challenge I couldn’t resist. 

What do you consider to be the most significant threats facing the UK at the moment?

Organised crime.  Within that, I include terrorism, which is straightforward crime merely glamourised for political or religious ends.

How do you balance the need for security with the protection of individual civil liberties and privacy?

The Agencies have a legislative framework which demands that their work must be necessary to protect security and also proportionate to the threat posed by the target. It is the job of the Agencies’ legal advisers to ensure that those obligations are met. It is the job of Parliament to ensure full and effective independent oversight of the Agencies to root out any failure in those obligations.

What do you believe are the key skills and qualities necessary for success in a position within the intelligence community?

Top of the list is integrity. On the one hand, intelligence officers must comply with their legislative obligations and, on the other, they must be relied on not to make up stories when they report in.  Courage, lateral thinking and determination are a given. A sense of humour is a must!

What is the most challenging decision you have had to make in your role and how did you approach it?

When I joined the Agencies one of the main problems was super-secrecy. The intelligence officers, operating in very dangerous circumstances, were producing a mountain of intelligence about terrorists but it couldn’t be used to prosecute them because it was too secret. I found this an inexcusable waste of the officers’ courage and a pathetic response to the bombings and killings the terrorists were getting away with. It took a while but, eventually, I was able to persuade the Attorney General to introduce procedures into Court proceedings to allow us to use intelligence as evidence. The first conviction of a terrorist under that system was a red letter day.

How did you ensure that the work of MI5 and MI6 is accountable to the public and that there is sufficient oversight of intelligence operations?

I was instrumental in introducing a legislative base for the Agencies’ work which included a form of Parliamentary oversight. Neither I nor the Agencies were satisfied with the depth of that oversight but we were overruled by the Government. Since then I have been summoned to Parliamentary Committees and the EU Parliament and have spoken out in papers and speeches to advocate in depth oversight, including Judicial authority for warrants which permit intrusive surveillance.  I would like to see more open accountability of the Heads of the Agencies but, at last, oversight is, I believe, effective.

What advice would you give to someone who is interested in pursuing a career in intelligence and what qualities should they possess?

Look at yourself and ask if you have integrity, courage and lateral thinking. Then if you go to the Agencies’ website and apply to them for a job, you will have satisfied yourself that you have determination as well.

How do you describe those people you worked with during your career?

Although I worked in the Intelligence and Security Agencies, the characters and plot in Katya are entirely a work of my and Cary’s imagination.  That is not to say that I would not like to write about those who work in intelligence. But nothing I could say would adequately do justice to their bravery, dedication and sacrifices they make to protect democracy and keep us safe.