Stella Rimington: from MI5 to spy author
PUBLISHED: 13:00 10 April 2018
After a career that took her to the top of MI5, Stella Rimington turned novelist, drawing on her own experience to bring her fictional spy stories to life
Large open spaces, quiet villages and a proximity to the capital... these might be the qualities which make our region attractive to visitors, but they also provide a perfect setting for subterfuge, deceit and spies, according to former director general of MI5, and now successful novelist, Stella Rimington.
“It’s a landscape where there is the possibility for covert goings on,” she says, adding that, for a writer, “it offers the opportunity for the imagination to roam over what might be happening in these small villages and quiet places.”
Stella Rimington is very familiar with east Anglia. She has visited regularly over the past 30 years, for summer holidays with her children at Blakeney, then as a governor at St Felix School in Southwold. For the past eight years, after leaving London, she has made a permanent home in mid Norfolk, and has a daughter living nearby.
The region regularly features in her books, about fictional MI5 agent Liz Carlyle, which have appeared every couple of years since shortly after Stella’s retirement from the service in 1996. Norfolk provides the location for ‘safe houses’, or a ‘cover’ story for the spies, and it was the setting for Stella’s first novel, At Risk. Mildenhall airfield has also appeared. Now working on her 10th in the series, to be published next year, Stella says Suffolk will again be the focus for sinister goings on.
This month she will visit Felixstowe Book Festival to present her most recent title, Breaking Cover, and says she is always delighted to hear how her readers respond to the characters she has created.
“My books appeal to men and women, but my female readers in particular have followed Liz’s career in some detail and offer me advice on whether she should be married or having children. They clearly get quite involved in her life.”
Focusing on the tensions and pressures of a woman working in a high post, struggling to achieve a satisfactory personal life when much of what she does has to be concealed, the books bring a new dimension to the spy genre. Stella says she has always enjoyed reading detective novels and spy stories, but wanted to redress the balance by introducing a female hero. She is in a unique position of being able to bring her own experience and insight to the characters and plots she creates.
“This was an element of my life and it was one of the things I felt I could contribute,” she says. She worked with a co-writer to bring her ideas to life on the page.
“There’s so much to discover in spy stories. And people like to read about following someone covertly and recruiting secret agents. It’s a small ‘lifting of the curtains’ of a world that people know exists but don’t know much about.
“Anything you write as fiction has to come somewhere from your experiences. The people you create are based on people you’ve actually met, and you put them together as a character you find credible yourself.”
Stella’s career in the security service came about almost by accident. She was in India, accompanying her husband on a posting with the British High Commission, when she was asked to help out with some clerical work. She accepted the position, only to discover that she was assisting the representative of MI5. When she returned to England two years later Stella sought a permanent post and subsequently worked in all three main areas of the service, counter-subversion, counter-espionage and counter-terrorism. In 1992 she headed up the organisation, becoming the first woman to hold the post and the first to be publicly named. This spirit of openness continued when she accepted an invitation to write her memoir.
“I was bombarded with requests from publishers,” she says. There was disapproval at the time, fears that she would reveal the nation’s secrets, but, after an initial furore in the press, it was evident there was no need for such concern. This manuscript and all her subsequent novels have been vetted.
“Anything you want to publish, based on your previous work, has to be cleared,” she says. “So I sent in the draft of my autobiography, and then my novels, and they read them. If they ask me to change anything I do, but that rarely happens. The further away you are from the centre of things, the less you know.”
Stella’s career spanned the Cold War. While the war has ended she says there are still elements in our relationships between East and West which are reminiscent of that time.
“So I can create fictional situations from that background and bring them up to date with my reading and interpretation of what’s going on now.” It’s vital that her stories, and those of any spy writer, are up to date and realistic, she says, in order to ensure the interest of the reader. But she believes TV and film representations of the world she knows are often misleading.
“There’s an enormous focus on violence and action. It’s not accurate and I’ve tried to avoid that [in my books]. But you can’t make a good novel out of people sitting around a computer. So I do have to instill possibly more drama than the average person working in the service today might find.”