Former television producer Vin Arthey, reveals the challenges behind his biography of Abel – the backstory to Bridge of Spies. It is a story that has captivated Vin Arthey for more than 55 years, compelling him to write what has become the definitive biography of one of the most prominent spies of the Cold War.
His book, Abel: The True Story of the Spy they Traded for Gary Powers,
was published to coincide with the release of Spielberg’s latest film, Bridge of Spies
. In contrast the film focuses on the American lawyer hired to defend Abel then help the CIA facilitate an exchange of prisoners, while Vin’s biography documents Abel’s life story.
Vin holds a doctorate from Teesside University
, of which he is a fellow
, for his work on KGB Colonel William Fisher and maintains an enduring friendship with both the Donovan and Fisher families. Making his debut as a biographer, the acclaimed researcher and writer admits the book has been a life-changing experience. Since it was published he has undertaken numerous interviews and last month travelled to New York spending two weeks on a panel at the Brooklyn Historical Society
Vin talks to Mary Hogarth
about the challenges he faced and his hopes to write another biography.
When did you first decide to document Abel’s story?
In the mid-1990s I was on a contract at Tyne Tees TV to work on a drama/documentary series Stranger Than Fiction
. A professor at Newcastle University had proved that William Fisher was the real name of the spy known as 'Rudolf Abel', and this story became one of the programmes. So my first notes were TV research notes.
After the broadcast I kept researching – for example we didn't know where William had gone to school – hoping to get what I thought was an amazing story commissioned as a network documentary.
I wasn't successful, but a publisher heard about my research, and asked if I was interested in writing the Fisher biography. I'd never thought of being a writer, apart from scripting for TV. This approach was a life-changing experience. Suddenly I had become a non-fiction writer, a biographer.
How long did the book take to write?
I think I must have been a nightmare for the publishers as I kept adding to my research . . . and missing deadlines. Then, one day, I just bit the bullet.
The 70,000 words with the referencing, acquiring the photographs and all the permissions took just over a year.
I had a day job, so working early mornings and weekends.
What was your biggest challenge?
The actual writing. Interviewing, meeting people, the research, even getting to obscure sources in Russian and German, was all very exciting. But getting the book written, finished, was without doubt the real challenge.
The most interesting research?
The first was finding an article by a young German/American graduate student, written in the early 1960s, identifying German intelligence documents showing how the Nazis were fooled by a Soviet 'radio deception' operation in 1944. This proved that the Russian sources were reliable.
Then, getting to know Evelyn, Willie Fisher's daughter. Not only was she able to tell stories about the family and its history, which helped me understand her father, his character and personality and motivations. She was a remarkable woman in her own right.
Did you get involved with Bridge of Spies?
No. The film tells the story of lawyer Jim Donovan taking on the defence of Rudolf Abel, a Soviet illegal spy discovered in New York, Abel's conviction, and then Abel's exchange in 1962 for the captured US spy pilot Gary Powers.
My work is the biography of the man known as Abel
, specifically his life and work before and after the five years that the film covers. The film ends with the events of 1962.
A little of Abel's
real identity became known in 1972. However, his real name, date and place of birth, were only proved in 1980.
Any plans for another book?
I'm well into the research for another biography, not of a spy, but of another 20th Century unknown that I'd like the world to know more about.
My notebook is full of ideas, all non-fiction and all biographical in focus, so ask me this question again in a year. . .
Abel: The True Story of The Spy They Traded for Gary Powers is published by Biteback Publishing and available from Lovereading.co.uk and all bookstores.