Roland Philipps, the former John Murray publisher who worked with the likes of John le Carré, has written a true-life spy story of his own - and given a timely, gripping account of Russian espionage. He talks to Julie Vuong about his authorial debut and what’s new in non-fiction
Russian espionage and betrayal - it’s the news topic du jour, and also happens to be the subject of the first book by Roland Philipps, former publisher at John Murray. A Spy Named Orphan, published by Bodley Head and released today, rewinds to the 1930s and centres on the activities of Donald Maclean, the spy recruited by the Soviets alongside his fellow undergraduates Anthony Blunt, Guy Burgess, John Cairncross and Kim Philby - a group that came to be known as the Cambridge Five.
It’s an account that will undoubtedly tap into heightened interest from the general public after the poisoning last month in Salisbury of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, and satisfy the appetites of non-fiction lovers with a taste for super sleuths from bygone eras. "The reflection of the past on current events is always informative and useful (I wish more politicians observed that) and if that opens new avenues for publicity, I’m obviously pleased!" Philipps says of the timing of the book’s release.
Learning from the best
Another advantage, Philipps admits, was years of first-hand experience working with some of the finest names in the business, particularly espionage novels. "One of the great privileges of my publishing life was to work with John le Carré," he says, "and our conversations about spying and treachery taught me a lot, I realise - most of all, to look at the human cost of betrayal and the personal stories behind the politics. I have also been lucky enough to work with some outstanding historians and biographers in my career, and the inspiration I took from them was always to concentrate on the central narrative and to keep the story moving, even if it means jettisoning or condensing some interesting material. I hope I have succeeded."
Uncovering the story
Philipps joined Hodder & Stoughton - which later bought John Murray - in 1994, and has worked with high-profile authors including Justin Cartwright, Deborah Devonshire and Mo Mowlam. Yet however well-placed he was, the book could only have been realised through plenty of hard graft and research - and happy strokes of fortune, too.
"I started writing the book while I was working three days a week at John Murray," he recalls. "It was a good combination to spend half the time with colleagues and other authors to balance out the time spent working on my own. Most of the new material came from the release of the MI5 and Foreign Office files into the National Archives a few months after I started work.
"The material there was fabulous - everyone was so shocked when Maclean defected that they put together a comprehensive picture of his past; some of the attempts to identify the spy they were looking for were actually quite comic. There were very few people around who knew Maclean (who had defected 65 years earlier), although an author I had just published at John Murray, Jeremy Hutchinson, was his contemporary and very insightful. I was lucky enough to get an unpublished memoir by Maclean’s sister that told a different story about his last days in Europe, and through that new revelations into his marriage. Contemporary newspapers were a marvellous source."
Philipps is candid about the learning curve he went through in appreciating the workings of publishing from the other side. "The switch has been fascinating and very cheering about the publishing industry," he smiles. "One thing I have learned is how hard it is to edit oneself: when my excellent editor sent me notes, some (but by no means all) of them made me kick myself - exactly what I would have said to an author when I was a publisher, but couldn’t see from the other side.
"What has been hugely encouraging is to see from the other side the flair and care taken throughout a good publishing house in every department: to bring the book to market with creative, thoughtful and thought-through editorial, design, publicity, marketing, sales and rights. The only disadvantage of the change I can think of is not having the daily contact with like-minded colleagues and authors."
What’s new in non-fiction
As someone who has been active and intimate with the publishing industry for decades, Philipps is not about to retreat into the shadows. His publisher's alertness is apparent when he discusses non-fiction trends. "We are going through turbulent times both domestically and internationally," he says, "and I think titles that can inform us about those times, while being entertaining and above all with strong, people-driven narratives, will thrive, as always.
"There are a number of outstanding books about the natural world coming out soon which I believe will do well - good writing on another area of massive concern. Personally, I am looking forward to Ben Macintyre’s The Spy and the Traitor (Viking) in September - it will be fascinating to read about a Russian who spied for us at such a high level and so recently by such an outstanding storyteller; Antony Beevor’s Arnhem (Viking) will also be a great treat."
Philipps’s fingerprints are on two notable releases to come this year. "I am excited about two books I commissioned at John Murray - one being Giles Milton’s enthralling D-Day: The Soldiers’ Story, which will be the last word on this subject and told with all Milton’s narrative verve; the other is a piece of fiction but one that is so brilliant and original that I have to mention it - James Frey’s new novel, Katherina, which is the most moving novel I expect to read this year."
The Bodley Head publishes A Spy Named Orphan today (26 April).