As Hijack hits the shelves, Chris Ryan talks to Damian Kelleher about the SAS, his Special Forces Cadets series, and why writing young adult fiction matters.
It was back in 1984 that Chris Ryan joined the SAS. After a distinguished stint on the anti-terrorist squad, he was selected as one of the SAS eight-man team for the notable Bravo Two Zero mission in the Gulf War. It was 1991. Of the original eight, he was the only one to escape from Iraq where four of his colleagues were captured and the other three killed. His account of that, The One That Got Away become a runaway bestseller. When it comes to survival, Chris wrote the book. Since then, he’s written a further 50, including his new series for young adults, Special Forces Cadets.
Needless to say, with his background, Chris has taken all things Covid 19 in his stride. ‘It’s not been too bad,’ he admits when I ask him how he coped with lockdown. He’s more concerned about the tree surgeons he’s just enlisted who are trying to chop down the wrong tree in his garden.
‘I was out in America from the beginning of March to mid-June. What was concerning was the mixed messages the government was sending out over there, and then there was this carefree attitude – it was as if the virus didn’t exist. There was no social distancing and there were some decisions made that bordered on the moronic. You had the President saying, “everyone should wear a face mask but I’m not going to wear one” among other things. You just think, have a bit of leadership please.’
Taking charge is something Chris knows all about. After his Gulf War experiences, he was selecting and training recruits to the SAS. In Siege, the first Special Forces Cadets book, a similar process takes place before Max and the other team members are chosen for the elite squad. It’s a junior version of the SAS who have faced challenges around the globe in his latest YA series.
‘The SAS selection process takes place over a period of six months,’ Chris explains. ‘First we test the individuals – they need to prove that they can push themselves right to the limit. But it’s when we take them to the jungle – that we put them in patrols of six to eight men and as an instructor that’s where you actually look at the souls of these guys. You spend 24 hours a day with them, you put them under huge amounts of pressure, you teach them everything you know, and they really become surrogate sons. By the time we come out of the jungle you know them inside out.’
The hero of the books is Max, a working class kid from a broken home who has learned his life lessons the hard way. His natural instinct for rebellion is one that needs to be controlled.
‘When the recruits come in there’s a real mixture of personalities, so the first thing to do is to level them out, and tell them where they’re going.’ says Chris, ‘But you need somebody with a bit of gusto, spirit, someone stubborn – the sort of person who never gives in and keeps going until they drop.’
Writing for kids is a choice that Chris takes every bit as seriously as his adult fiction. So how did he come up with the idea of the Special Forces Cadets in the first place? ‘The content of my adult books is too strong for a younger readership but by having this fictional organisation, the children can identify with the characters. It’s based on the same ethos as the SAS – a team made up of individuals, working together to achieve common goals.’
Talking to teens about his books and why he writes them has made Chris a popular speaker on the schools’ circuit. It’s part of the job that he obviously enjoys and he understands its importance.
‘I’ve got an old-fashioned view that if a child can read, it opens up a world and enables them to take on any subject matter. I went to a secondary modern school – it was like a jungle – and then I joined the army. And in those days, all you could do in the army by way of entertainment was read. With technology now, a lot of kids don’t get it. But if you can hook them into reading, you’re laying foundations for adult books.
‘A lot of work goes into my stories and I think, let’s get it out there. I’m of that age now, with my grey hair, where I do wonder what the kids make of me. I went into school to talk to some kids recently and one of the boys said, “You’re about the same age as my grandad!”’
The latest SFC title, Hijack, takes place on the Falklands Island, a wild paradise that provides an interesting counterpoint to a high-octane spy mission that sees two of the team captured and threatened with torture.
‘I’ve been there on two holidays,’ says Chris. ‘The first time was with a friend who’d fought in the Falklands. We visited sites and then he talked me through some of the battles – the schoolhouse and various other places. You get this sense of how detached it is, how isolated it is, but also the beauty of the place, its natural wildlife. You try to imagine them fixing bayonets and charging, looking for defensive positions. You’re surrounded by all this beauty and then you try and put the horrors of war into it. I just thought this is a great place to set a story.’
As with his whole career – the army, SAS, author, TV presenter – Chris is always up for a new challenge. He’s ready to move on from the TV reality programmes.
‘I was auditioning for a big new TV survival show in America and they asked, “Can you run from that tree to that bush over there?” And it was one of those moments. I started running and I know, I’m running like my old man. I just knew what they were going to say. As I walked back the director asked, “have you ever considered dyeing your hair?”’
Time to move on, and move on he does with a new series of podcasts, soon to be released, and produced in association with writer/producer Sam Delaney. Discussing their experiences of ex-servicemen on camera has been an eye-opening new experience for Chris. His questions bring a unique insight into post-traumatic stress disorder and associated conditions.
‘On the podcasts, the best advice was given to me by my daughter. She said, “Dad, just let the other guy speak.” Most of the people I’ve interviewed have had a similar background to me, and I’ve found it so rewarding. I’ll get them to talk about their childhood and their careers, and we just go on from there. There was one particular guy who suffered from post-traumatic stress who was self-harming. He’d also attempted suicide twice. For a guy to admit that… well, you’ve got to be really brave. The information they guys share – it’s just phenomenal.’
Damian Kelleher is a writer and journalist specialising in children’s books.
Special Forces Cadets: Hijack is published by Hot Key Books, 978-1471407888, £6.99 pbk.