'A lot of new material'
"Being an author myself again has made me a better agent I believe," Andrew Lownie tells me.
Not nearly the sinister combo of student-and-spy, fortunately, the literary agent Lownie nevertheless is an accomplished chameleon whose colours can switch to those of an author as easily as putting on a red sportcoat.
His new biography, releasing on 10th September, reopens some of our favorite Cold War tales, those of the Cambridge ring of Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, Kim Philby, Anthony Blunt, and John Cairncross.
Stalin's Englishman: The Lives of Guy Burgess also is giving The Daily Mail a chance to write the word SUPERSPY in all-caps — remind me to write FUTUREBOOK that way more frequently, will you? — as it works its way through nearly a week of excerpts and essay material from Lownie about the work. Here's the first article, and Lownie tells me that successive installments run through Thursday (3rd September).
Just look at that opening entry's monograph of a headline: "Sozzled seducer who was Stalin's SUPERSPY: Debauched and indiscreet, Old Etonian Guy Burgess was a very unlikely KGB spy. But as a major biography reveals, that's what made him deadly."
The parts of the Burgess story that we get in such headlines, of course, are never the bits that Lownie gives us along the lines of how, after his 1951 defection to the Soviet Union, Burgess "lived out the rest of his life in a sad and pointless exile, yearning for home and England, the land he had betrayed."
But what drives the new book is this context of improbability. As Lownie writes in his preface:
Burgess is certainly the most complex and enigmatic of the Cambridge Spies, a man of enormous contradictions and complexities. Regarded as louche, unreliable and often unemployable, he nevertheless managed to penetrate such bastions of the Establishment as the BBC, the Foreign Office and MI6, to earn the respect of Winston Churchill, Neville Chamberlain and Anthony Eden, and to use his position to pass on crucial secrets over a period of fifteen years. For every person who was repelled by his scruffiness and selfishness, there was another who was enchanted by his charm, intelligence and kindness.
Additional installments in the Mail include material, Lownie says, on "how a well-known peer kept quiet a manslaughter charge for killing someone driving from Cambridge to London" and "the woman who loved both Philby and Burgess." Another headline greets Mail readers Monday: "The most promiscuous man who ever lived: New biography of Guy Burgess reveals Cambridge spy would sleep with anyone from 17 to 75 - but his real passion was for treachery."
Here in our digital age, of course, when spies are as likely to operate on the ether as they are in bed or on the River Cam, there's a fine site for the new book.
When not studying spy rings
Lownie's agency, founded in 1988, has a stable of more than 200 authors. Lownie is the nonfiction side of the shop, as the Burgess book might suggest, while David Haviland is widening the agency's fiction territory.
The agency has also set up Thistle Publishing. Lownie talks of the publishing wing's usefulness in trying out new material that traditional publishing houses may not be convinced is viable. If something can be published through an imprint like Thistle, then a track record can be attempted and publishers might be willing to have another look.
In the run-up to the book's release, I asked Lownie to take on a few questions, not only because it's not every day that one of our leading agents comes out with a book of his or her own (surprising it doesn't happen more, really) but also because many may think the Burgess story is played out. Needless to say, the tale's combination of shame and glamour is hard for us to get enough of. I remember the engaging tension of the West End stage production of Alan Bennett's Single Spies — An Englishman Abroad is the act focused on Burgess and his encounter in Moscow with the actress Coral Browne.
Lownie tells us that he has interviewed more than 100 people for his book. There has to be more than our abiding titillation behind his return to the old SUPERSPY, right? That's where we start with our Q&A.
'Hitherto secret files'
The FutureBook: So, Andrew, why now? I've seen references to "hitherto secret files." Are these something you now could work with because of a statute of limitations being up or is there some other story behind the release of new documents?
Andrew Lownie: In the autumn the British National Archives will be releasing some 250 files on the Burgess and Maclean case, which the Foreign Office had retained "by mistake," covering their own response to the case including new security procedures. This is alongside an ongoing programme of releases from MI5 and various requests under Freedom of Information legislation which I’ve made over the last few years.
For example, as of 21st August, MI5 was to have released, I understand, the membership records of the Cambridge University Socialist Society, a Communist cell, for the 1930s, which may reveal names of hitherto unknown establishment figures and which I’ve long requested.
British government records are supposed to be deposited in public archives within 30 years, unless the Lord Chancellor agrees otherwise, but this has been flouted and it's something I’m campaigning on. The FBI are much better about releasing records and I’ve seen some new Burgess material, but they are constrained by what the British will allow. I’ve found a lot of new material in private papers including the revelation of a new atomic spy in correspondence between two senior Foreign Office security officials.
The FutureBook: Do you have a personal connection with the story in some way? Are you a spy, Andrew?
Andrew Lownie: If I said I was a spy you wouldn’t believe me and if I denied it you wouldn’t believe me either so I’ll be mysterious. A well-read friend in MI6 travels under cover of being a literary agent so I suppose the job might be good cover – or now not.
I was just going to Cambridge as Anthony Blunt and other spies were being revealed and it captured my imagination. Why should men at the centre of the British establishment, apparent patriots, seek to enjoy their position but also work against it? The story is as much about personal as public betrayal.
The FutureBook: I'm interested to see that your book is referred to as the first full biography of Burgess. I think many of us would have assumed that something existed, but we'd have been wrong, apparently?
Andrew Lownie: Burgess cooperated with a biography written by Tom Driberg in 1956. It’s as interesting in what it doesn’t say as what it says and the fact that both Soviet and British intelligence tried to use it for its own purposes.
Burgess pops up in all the Cambridge spy books but because he fled Britain in 1951 and died in 1963 [at age 52], few people are alive who knew him. He did keep correspondence – for blackmailing rather than sentimental reasons – but it was scooped up by MI5 in 1951.
Blunt, Philby, Maclean have all had lives but they died more recently. A self-published biography of Burgess appeared a few years ago but the author refused to use any Russian sources as tainted – the Russians have selectively released some files in recent years – and didn’t interview anyone.
I interviewed over a hundred people who had never spoken before and had access to the papers of Burgess’s two long-term boyfriends.
The FutureBook: What part of the Burgess story is the most compelling to you?
Andrew Lownie: I think what will surprise people is how effective Burgess was as a spy – I argue he was the most important – and how well-regarded he was by a range of respected people from Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden to GM Trevelyan, Maynard Keynes and Ernest Bevin.
His visitors in Moscow alone included Michael Redgrave, Frederick Ashton, Graham Greene and Stephen Spender, Isherwood wrote a poem about him, George Orwell was a friend and colleague and his friends ranged from Laurence Olivier and Lucian Freud to EM Forster and Cyril Conolly. There is also his bisexuality and close friendship with a female member of a distinguished British political family.
The FutureBook: You also told me that you'd been at work for some time on the book. What has the process been like?...Has this project served as a kind of sanity sideline for you or as another element of such a busy life and career?
Andrew Lownie: It has been tough which is why it has taken so long. Agenting is already a seven-day-a-week job with some 20,000 submissions a year and personally handling over 200 authors. However, I found that by working late and taking the odd day off for research trips that it was manageable. The book wrote itself because Burgess is such a larger than life character and because I’d done so much research. It’s given me a new respect for authors.
'15% ebook royalties, just to keep me on my toes'
The FutureBook: As for the agent-as-author element of the story...how does a leading agent like you shop around your own book? Do you hand it to another agent to sell? Or did you in fact know of an interest at Hodder & Stoughton?
Andrew Lownie: I’ve written books before – my literary guide to Edinburgh and various books on the writer John Buchan were published in the 1990s – but clearly much has changed.
I did talk to an agent but decided that in this field I knew the right editors. I simply submitted as I would for any author and editors responded in the same way. Hodder could publish quickly, which was important to me, and I liked their editorial and publicity team which is experienced and very smart. The fact their offices were close and that I had started my publishing career there was a bonus. On my side, it’s been a very happy experience.
The FutureBook: When the publisher sees an ace agent coming in the door on his own behalf, does the publisher pull out "the good contract"? Or did you find that you had to negotiate just as you would for a client of the agency?
Andrew Lownie: I had to negotiate though they quoted previous deals back at me and they even slipped in a few fast ones like 15% ebook royalties just to keep me on my toes.
The FutureBook: And did you come out of the experience with any new insights into things, having been "the talent" this time? ...Were there any moments when you thought, "Hm, that's the problem my authors have been telling me about" or "Boy, this isn't nearly as bad as our authors make it sound"?
Andrew Lownie: My authors have always had happy experiences at Hodder, another factor in going with them, so I didn’t expect problems. In fact, it’s given me a new respect for the care editors take with manuscripts – we had three sets of proofs – and the imagination and contacts of their publicists. There is a lot agents don’t see and being an author myself again has made me a better agent I believe.
The FutureBook: How about the US publication?
Andrew Lownie: St Martin’s have bought US and Canada rights but frustratingly can’t publish until Fall 2016. Hodder bought, edited and published the book within three months without cutting any corners – it even had a legal read though almost everyone in it is dead. It shows it can be done.
The FutureBook: Very good timing in the UK, too, the 10th of September, high season. Will the release of the book add greatly to your workload, or do you expect rolling out the book to be fairly manageable?
Andrew Lownie: I’m due to give some 30 talks over next three months from Gibraltar to Dorset and Scotland to Suffolk and have written lots of articles on Burgess and his circle or comment pieces on Freedom of Information legislation. So it will be busy.
In addition to his book-related appearances, Andrew Lownie will be speaking at the International Writers' Conference of the Matera Women's Fiction Festival in late September.
Main image - iStockphoto: Jordi Delgado