Journalist Jonathan Freedland on his new novel, world superpowers and his secret identity

Jonathan Freedland. Picture: Philippa Gedge

Jonathan Freedland. Picture: Philippa Gedge - Credit: Archant

For his latest novel, the Guardian journalist is stepping away from his secret career as writer Sam Bourne, finds Alex Bellotti.

If you wanted to write a modern day thriller, few places could provide more ideas than the Guardian offices. Over the last few years, the newspaper’s revelations about the phone hacking scandal and government surveillance have prompted countless books, plays and even films, so Jonathan Freedland admits he was in a “privileged” position while writing his new novel, The 3rd Woman.

The award-winning columnist, who last year took up a role as the Guardian’s executive editor of opinion, has lived a double life since 2006.

Under the pseudonym Sam Bourne – chosen because his real name suggested a “pointy headed writer for a pointy headed paper” – he has published four bestselling thrillers, selling over 1.5 million copies.

The 48-year-old’s latest book, however, marks the first work of fiction published under his own name.

“I wrote my first book back in 2005, and what’s happened in the 10 years since is the rise of social media,” says the Stoke Newington resident, who as a boy attended Hampstead’s University College School. “Readers now really like to engage with writers – even looking at people like J. K. Rowling, you’ll notice they’re nearly all on Twitter. It’s demanded of writers, but it would be quite hard to do that from behind an alias, where you have to keep explaining who you really are.

“The other reason is that considering the main character in this book is a journalist and that it involves politics, readers often like to know that what they’re reading is realistic. If they know it’s me writing it, at least they’ll know it’s someone who works in this world and covers some of the issues it raises.”

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The 3rd Woman tells the story of Madison, an investigative journalist for the LA Times desperate to unravel the circumstances behind her sister’s shocking murder.

To do so, she has to navigate a country swiftly being overtaken by China as the world’s dominant superpower – so much so that cultural elements such as New Year, medicine and fast food have already been replaced by their Eastern equivalents.

“It seems an unlikely idea to happen this century,” Freedland admits of the intriguing premise, “but then if you said to people in 1920 there’d be American forces based in Britain for 70 years, they’d have thought you were mad.

“Back then we still had the British Empire, but even by 1940 the situation had dramatically changed.

“I wanted to ask if somewhere like China became the dominant superpower in our lives, how would that affect us? Most of us have grown up in an age where America has taken that role, and as a result we naturally adopt bits of their culture, bits of slang. If China replaced them, would we start to absorb Chinese culture in a similar manner?”

To research how this situation could come about, Freedland interviewed dozens of experts and diplomats, travelling to the US and China along the way.

While enjoying the wide readership his novels attract, he insists thrillers can also be high-concept and political, citing George Orwell’s 1984 as perhaps the ultimate example.

As a married father-of-two still settling into his new job, the author admits he’s finding less time to write, but will nonetheless continue to try.

Surrounded by desks of investigative reporters every day, he’s certainly never short of inspiration.

“The Guardian’s been a wonderful education and Madison is that kind of reporter; she’s different to me in that she’s an investigative journalist and will spend time undercover trying to crack a case.

“I’ll be interested to see how the readers take to her actually, she’s been a good character to write and I could imagine going back to her in another book down the line.”

The 3rd Woman by Jonathan Freedland is published by Harper Collins for £12.99