Frederick Forsyth: The slowest way to a million

Frederick Forsyth began the 1970s unemployed, broke and homeless. With no prospect of a job, he started work on the novel that was to make him his first million.

It was 1 January 1970. Frederick Forsyth was down on his luck. An out-of-work war correspondent, he had just fled the collapsing Republic of Biafra "with a price on my head". He had no money, no car, no job or prospects of a job, and he was sleeping on a friend's sofa in London. With nothing else in the pipeline, "I thought, why don't you write that bloody novel?" says the 71-year-old author.

It was a pretty long shot. Sure, as a journalist, he could write news stories. But he didn't know the first thing about novel writing. "So I thought, why don't you write it as a newspaper dispatch?"

It was a radical plan. But then, his story idea was groundbreaking too. Between May 1962 and September 1963, Forsyth had covered Paris for news agency Reuters. There he'd seen at close quarters several attempts made on President Charles de Gaulle's life. "I knew they weren't going to succeed, as the French counter intelligence had the measure of them." The only way a hit could succeed, reckoned Forsyth, was if the job was given to an outsider.

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"It was an interesting idea, nothing more. And it would have remained so, until that winter." He took a block of 1,000 sheets of white paper, and started to tap away on his battered typewriter. Helping out round the house in return for food and his rent-free stay on the sofa, he finished the first draft of his novel in just 35 days. He called it The Day of the Jackal.

The next problem: getting it published. "I had the boldness of the completely ignorant. I started to hawk it around the West End." No-one wanted it. "Which was logical. Why would anyone want to know about the assassination of a man who is still very noticeably alive?"

It had been rejected by three publishers and was in the hands of a fourth, when Forsyth bumped into Harold Harris, the influential editor at Hutchinson, at a party. "By then, I thought nobody is reading it. They are getting halfway through chapter one and thinking, oh my God, this is nonsense. So I did a five-page synopsis." He thrust it into Harris's hands, a few days later in his office. "I could see his eyes glaze over, clearly thinking 'how the hell did he get in here?'"

"I said: 'if you would just quickly glance at it and then chuck me out'." Harris grinned at his candour and read it. "He got very thoughtful and said, 'it's an odd idea, not one that I've read before'." He agreed to read the full manuscript over the weekend. That Monday, Forsyth was called into his office to discuss contracts.

"I could hardly believe my ears." Harris wanted to give him a three-book deal. He asked him for more ideas. "Lying my head off, I said 'yeah, I'm absolutely bursting with ideas'." Harris gave him 24 hours to deliver synopses for two more books, which would eventually become The Odessa File and The Dogs of War. "I told him it'd take a couple of pounds to research, and that I was skint." So Harris gave him a £500 advance.

Published in 1971, The Day of the Jackal was a sensation. Forsyth received a 10% royalty on the cover price of £2/10. "By May of 1975, I realised I had a million in the bank, stashed. It is one of the slowest rewarding professions there is." But then, it was the only way he knew how to make money.

Jody Clarke

Jody studied at the University of Limerick and was a senior writer for MoneyWeek. Jody is experienced in interviewing, for example digging into the lives of an ex-M15 agent and quirky business owners who have made millions. Jody’s other areas of expertise include advice on funds, stocks and house prices.