I recently had the pleasure of reviewing an advance copy of Cobra Gold, Damien Lewis’s latest blockbuster novel. Cobra Gold takes as its subject a factual event, a huge bank robbery in the mid-1970s in war-ravaged Beirut, Lebanon. A robbery that to this day has no suspects and from which the gold is still missing!
This is a wild fictional romp about one possible scenario, and well worth reading. Action-packed, and moving faster than a projectile from an AK-47, we have terrorists, gold, greed, and great storytelling. I had the opportunity to chat with Damien.
So who is Damien Lewis?
I’m a 41-year-old British author, who’s spent the last twenty-odd years as a war reporter working in some of the world’s less-visited trouble spots – Sudan, Burma, Zimbabwe, Syria, Eritrea, Nigeria to name but a few. Predominantly, I’ve been reporting for TV news or documentary, the usual suspects – BBC, Channel 4, CNN, Sky. In 2000 I was laid low for several months following spinal surgery, and during my recovery period I wrote my first book, a biography called Slave. It went on to be published in 21 different languages, and is a number one international bestseller. It won the 2004 Index on Censorship Book Award.
It was serendipity that led me to write that first book, and by then the flood gates had been opened. I went on to write several other military non-fiction books, and then this year I published my first fiction – Cobra Gold – which is based upon the true story of the world’s biggest-ever bank raid, that took place in the 1970s Lebanon civil war. I’m now looking at writing a series of three further fictions – all based upon true stories – and developing the same characters throughout. I still do the war-reporting side of things: in 2003 I was filming in the Sudan war zone for three months, making an award-winning feature documentary called War Hospital.
In November last year I went to report from the Darfur conflict zone, and the article I wrote – ‘Darfur’s Inferno’ – has just won the One World Popular Features Awards. My work in war zones – my experiences with rebels armies, terrorists, war lords, freedom fighters, genocidal leaders and all the rest of it – is the powerhouse of real life experience that drives my fictional writing.
Damien, you have produced a powerhouse book – how did you come up with the idea?
I met a guy who is ex-British military, who came to me via a mutual friend. Over several mugs of tea in a café in London he told me the story of the world’s biggest-ever bank robbery, in 1976 war-torn Beirut city. Of the minimum 50 million dollars stolen – some 200 million dollars at today’s values – the majority was gold bullion. None of that loot has ever been recovered and the robbery remains a mystery. The man talking to me suggested a scenario: that perhaps the world’s elite military force, the British Special Air Service (SAS) had been sent in to rob the bank, because its vaults contained terrorist documents of high intelligence value to our own and allied governments. Whilst robbing the vault of those documents, the band of SAS maverick warriors decided to help themselves to the gold, as well. This was all theoretical, he stressed, but might it not make an interesting basis for a book, he asked me? Indeed it might, I agreed. I went away and used my extensive military and related contacts to further research the story – research that took the best part of a year to complete. The more I looked into the story, the more amazed I became. The world’s biggest bank raid ever is also the world’s ‘perfect’ robbery – for whoever did do it they got away with it completely. From that point I began plotting out Cobra Gold.
Cobra Gold is your seventh book. Does it get easier? Or do you find that each book raises the bar a little?
It gets easier and it gets more difficult. It gets easier because each book is less daunting than the last, because you know you can do it – your past track record evidences so. It gets more difficult in that each book mines a reserve of energy and creativity within the author, and each time one risks those reserves getting more and more depleted. The antidote to this is those real life experiences I wrote about – whether reporting from Darfur or scaling Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest mountain, as I did two years ago. In particular, Cobra Gold presented me with a significant new set of challenges, because it is my first full-length fiction. (I wrote 'Desert Claw' in 2006, a short story for the British Government World Book Day initiative, which is a fiction based upon the true story of a looted Van Gogh painting, in Iraq). Writing fiction is a very, very different ball game than non-fiction. To go into the reasons why is a whole separate interview. But in short, a true story has an internal, set narrative, time-line and collection of facts that informs it; a fiction has none of these, and the only constraints are those of the author’s imagination and creative input.
It has been my experience that authors tend to model their characters after real people, and there is usually one character, often the main character that is themselves. How much of Kilbride comes from Damien?
Good question! Well, the character of Kilbride – that main protagonist in Cobra Gold – is actually based upon a close friend of mine, who is British ex-Special Forces. He is one of the toughest soldiers I have ever met, and you would never want to cross him, but he is also something of a warrior-philosopher. This man does yoga on the battle field prior to each day’s fighting, and believes that no life should be taken without some sense of his being able to justify having done so.
In his youth, he was totally wild and self-destructive, and arguably it was only the British military and Special Forces training that sorted him out. That’s my basis for the main character – a man of the people, and a real leader of men, one who would never ask his men to do what he would not willingly do himself. But at the same time, there are elements of me in there also. I’ve worked all over Africa – in that continent’s trouble spots, more than her beauty spots — and the African setting and flavour of Cobra Gold springs in part from my own experiences. And if I ask myself would I have carried out the bank raid, had I been in the protagonist’s position, I’d hazard that I would. In fact all the ex-military types with whom I’ve discussed Cobra Gold have said the same things about the bank raid: “you would, wouldn’t you, especially if you could get away with it.”
You have had considerable success with sales in the UK market, as I recall a #4 on the Times bestseller list. But you have not done as well in the lucrative North American arena; is Cobra Gold the breakthrough book?
That would be good, certainly, and my trusty literary agent will be working on a U.S. deal as I write this interview. My first book was published in the U.S., and – all being well – it is presently being completed as a feature film by a top U.S. movie company. In fact, all my books have been optioned as feature films, and I have high hopes for Operation Certain Death and Bloody Heroes to be produced as big budget movies. So, there are in-roads already, and I believe that Cobra Gold would work well for a U.S. readership. I have American readers of my military books, but they purchase them off Amazon.
You recently won an award for your coverage of the ongoing strife in the Sudan. We in the West have little idea of the situation over there. How bad is it?
It’s very bad. I’ve reported from the Sudan war zone for the last decade or more, visiting the country forty-odd times. I’ve been to all the war-ravaged areas and seen some pretty terrible stuff out there. A lot of it sticks in my mind even to this day – the sickly-sweet smell of rotting human corpses, the rasping in-breath of a child dying from starvation. But what I witnessed in the Darfur camps was worse. It was worse because it involved savagery and evil on a massive scale against children – and it beggars belief that grown men could do such things against innocence. I have young children myself, and when I interviewed an eight-year-old victim of gang rape by the murderous militias, I was sickened and it beggared belief. Brutality and savagery in war are bad enough, but when directed against innocent women and children … Darfur has suffered an orgy of bestial savagery, where grown men have allowed pure evil to possess them. Such should not be allowed to pass.
Being a war correspondent is not exactly the safest job in the world. Have you had any ‘close encounters of the really scary kind’?
Looking back on it, I’d probably have to say ‘yes’. But at the time one is taken over by a kind of madness, a blind belief in one’s own invincibility and ability to survive. That’s the nature of reporting from war – without that belief young men would not be able to do what they do. And bear in mind that fear and adrenaline are the most addictive drugs ever, and war reporting is the most addictive profession ever. And each time one survives a near-death experience – the cocked pistol thrust into the ribs by a drugged-out Burmese soldier caught smuggling; the trek into the desert drop zone where chemical weapons have been deployed, with no protective gear – then the high jump bar is set ever higher for the next one.
You are married and have two young children, is it time to hang up the war correspondent hat and settle down?
Well, I’m older and wiser now, and when I look back on some of the things I’ve done and I’m stunned by the risks I used to take as a matter of course. A few years back I was out filming somewhere with an ex-SAS guy as security. I often shoot my own material, and I was using the camera. In the bar that evening the ex-SAS guy told me something. He said: 'You guys are like us, only even more crazy.' He explained that whilst I was filming with my eye glued to the viewfinder, he had been alert and with eyes all around, a finger on the trigger of his gun. At least he could see trouble coming and react to it, and defend himself. I was a sitting target, and blind to it. The risks we, as war cameramen take, were worse. So, in answer to your question – yes, I’ve stopped doing the most crazy stuff. I’m still doing a good bit of war-related reporting, but I’m not longer so on the edge. If that constitutes hanging up the hat, then I guess I’ve done so…
I recently reviewed Matthew Carr’s excellent book about the history of terrorism. In summary, one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. Terrorism is a key theme in Cobra Gold, have you had any first-hand dealings?
I spent a year or more living with ‘freedom fighters’ in the Burmese jungles (some would call them terrorists). The Karen, Shan and other ethnic groups are fighting the savage military rule of the central dictatorship – so they’re fare from being ‘terrorists’ in my book. In that scenario the ruling regime are the real terrorists. But there are many shades of grey in this debate. I’ve been on countless trips into the Sudan war zone with the rebels from south, east, and west Sudan. Are they terrorists – when they’re fighting the Islamist dictatorship?
In both cases – Burma and Sudan – the rebels get much covert and some overt support from the Western powers. I’ve also infiltrated Islamist extremists circles in the UK and elsewhere, and learned of and experienced at first hand their fascist views and credo of hatred. Now in my book they are terrorists, because, if nothing else, their desire to fight and kill springs from a blind hatred and intolerance of the other – not from a desire to liberate and bring freedom and equality between races and peoples. If there is one thing that Kilbride and his band of men stand for in Cobra Gold, it is tolerance and freedom – to live and let live. We in the West tend to take it all for granted, and only when it is under threat do we start to value what we have.
You have written both fiction and non-fiction books – which is your favorite?
At present, fiction – simply because it’s the greater challenge. But my intention is to continue with both.