What makes one spy so indestructible? An interview with Young Bond creator Charlie Higson

For my first official post I had the honour of an interview with Charlie Higson, the creator of the hugely successful Young Bond novel series.

I began by asking him about the challenges he faced when extending such a legendary transmedia property as James Bond.

TD: What parameters did Ian Fleming Publications set when you approached Silverfin? Were you handed an immense story bible containing the Bond characters and world rules?

CH: A Bible already existed, not sure how immense it is, but it’s pretty substantial, and it’s in 14 volumes. It tells you absolutely everything there is to know about James Bond. It’s the 12 novels and 2 collections of short stories that Ian Fleming wrote. That’s it – it doesn’t go beyond that. Nothing else matters.

My brief was to fit in as far as possible with the facts as given by Fleming. Unfortunately, very much like the real Bible, Fleming’s Bible is pretty inconsistent. He was trying to keep Bond roughly 35 years old over the course of some 12 years of writing. Otherwise Bond would have been getting on for 50 in The Man With The Golden Gun.

You have to suspend your disbelief when reading a series like this. William in the Just William stories stayed 11 years old for nearly 50 years, and look at the Simpsons? How many Christmases have they had without growing any older? This meant that Fleming had to keep fudging the details of Bond’s earlier life, so that some of the facts simply don’t add up. In the end we decided to plump for a birth date of round about 1920, which was, I suppose, a sort of mid point in all the possible dates we could have picked. Some people have pointed out that if you try and make sense of Ian Fleming’s timeline it throws up some crazy anomalies, such as how come a young boy owned a souped-up Bentley Blower? But I had a bit of fun with some of these facts and managed to fit most of the anomalies into my books, simply by giving Bond a considerably more exciting and eventful childhood than Fleming could have imagined.

The thing was – Fleming was writing in a very different age, there was no Internet, with its forums and its endless scrutiny and its hordes of nit-pickers. He never expected that people would be poring over his books in any great detail, studying them in universities, writing elaborate commentaries on them and trying to make sense of them all. In his day books of this type were pretty disposable. I doubt he ever went back and re-read any of them after he’d written them. Which is why so many facts keep changing from one book to another (on a very small level the colour of the light bulb above M’s office door that tells Bond to enter changes several times through the series).

As I say, my mission was to write something that stayed as truthful as possible to Fleming, using those facts that worked for me and quietly ignoring those that didn’t. And actually there’s very little about James Bond’s early life in Fleming’s books, which was good for me as it gave me more space to make things up and have my own personal input. This was important to me from the start – I was not an anonymous hired hack. I was an established writer in my own right and wanted to write the books in my own way. There was a lengthy wooing process at the start where I discussed my ideas with IFP and once they were satisfied that I was the man for the job and had a suitable respect for Ian they gave me the green light (or was it blue?). Once everybody was happy they let me get on with it. They didn’t breathe down my neck and require me to submit each chapter as I wrote it. That being said, when I finished the MS I knew that if they didn’t approve of it it would never be published as a James Bond book. They did have some input though. Ian’s 2 nieces Kate Grimond and Lucy Fleming, who had both obviously known Ian, were able to tell me what he might have liked or disliked about the book. For instance, in the first draft I’d given James a dog. I thought all boys in adventure stories ought to have one. But they pointed out that Ian had hated dogs so Rover was quietly put down. It was really useful to have this personal connection with Ian Fleming, and I felt very privileged.

In the end I suppose my books are a collaboration between me, Charlie Higson, and the ghost of Ian Fleming.

Of course there are also hundreds of books written about James Bond that collect all the facts and the trivia and analyse every little detail, so having reread Fleming these were very useful reference materials. There is a very good book called The Bond Files by Paul Simpson and Andy Lane (who now writes the young Sherlock Homes series!). And there’s a pretty good Rough Guide to James Bond but, as I say, the best source material was Fleming’s original books and it was fun going through them and picking out those odd bits that I could use, such as when, on a couple of occasions, Bond remembers films that he saw as a boy. But there is really very little. It is only in the penultimate novel – You Only Live Twice – that Fleming makes any effort to tell us about Bond’s early life, in an obituary that is written after M believes that Bond has died on a mission. This tells us that his parents died when he was 11 and that he went to Eton but that his schooling was cut short after an incident involving one of the boys’ maids. That was pretty well my brief. The Fleming estate wanted a series of books in which Bond was at Eton having his adventures, so I worked out a story that would run over 5 books and end with Bond leaving because of the maid.

TD: The success of the Young Bond series appears to have given IFP the courage to explore the extension of the story into new adult novels, with Sebastian Faulks’ Devil May Care and now Carte Blanche by Jeffery Deaver. It seems the Bond narrative is as robust as the man himself. What do you think is the tipping point for stories that makes them become so capable of almost infinite extension?

CH: I was approached by IFP at a time of change for them. They’d been running continuation James Bond novels since quite soon after Fleming’s death, first with Kingsley Amis then with John Gardner and finally Raymond Benson. In all the talk of Sebastian Faulks everyone seems to have forgotten that these novels ever existed. I think there are some 20 of them, not to mention various novelizations of the EON films. These writers kept the literary side of Bond going long after Fleming stopped writing books. When I was hired I was told not read any of these books – Fleming was the canon. End of story. I think this was a wise move. It was hard enough keeping up with the wayward facts in Fleming’s books without trying to incorporate any of these continuation books.

Why is Bond so robust? The answer is very simple. For over 50 years, ever since Casino Royale came out in 1953, there has been a steady, almost uninterrupted stream of product – books, comics, games, toys and most importantly films. There’s more to it than that, of course, you couldn’t just take any character and do this with them. It has to be created well in the first place. Fleming’s books were massively popular international best sellers and are extremely well written.

But between Fleming and Eon [makers of the Bond films] enough Bond characteristics were created to make a sort of kit. We all know the elements – The tuxedo (a suitably timeless look), the catchphrases, the gun, M, Q, Moneypenny, Felix Leiter, the cars, the Bond girls, the latest gadgets, the Bond villain, his henchman, the outrageous sets, exotic foreign travel, explosions, chases, fist fights. As long as you have all this in place you can make your Bond film, or write your Bond book. If any of the parts wear out you can replace them, and that is part of the fun – who is the new Bond, the new M, the new Q, the new girl, the new villain?

Look at any robust returning character and you will find a similar kit – be it Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter or Dr Who. And let’s not forget that Dr Who was all but forgotten, and meant nothing to a younger generation, he had been kept barely alive by enthusiasts writing the books, but it was down to Russell T Davies (one of these enthusiasts) to finally regenerate him. If you are off our screens for even a short time you are very quickly forgotten.

Fleming’s books might well have passed into history if Bond hadn’t made it into the cinema. Action thriller writers like Alistair McLean who were massive in their day, are now hardly read at all. MacLean didn’t create a single long-running character who could be endlessly remade. There was no kit.

Fleming himself knew that for Bond to attain immortality he had to be in the movies, and thank God it didn’t happen in the 1950s, when Fleming was trying so hard to make it happen. We would have ended up with some creaky, clunky, stiff-backed old black-and-white British thriller starring some wooden matinee idol like Stewart Granger and that would have been that. The 60s were ideal for Bond – the sexiness, the colour, the glossiness, the cynicism and the fact that the Americans came in with some proper money all helped the films to take off. But we have to remember that when they were making Dr No it was just another little B-movie sci-fi thriller.

But the planets shifted and four key people came together to shunt the film to a different level – Sean Connery, who was brilliant, an instant star, Ken Adam, the designer who came up with such startling and instantly recognizable sets, John Barry without whose music the films might never have worked at all and Ursula Andress in a white bikini. Bond went ballistic. He was the biggest thing in cinema in the 60s, something like one in three people in America went to see Thunderball, and that is a lot of people. It’s hard to get across now just how big and important these films were and they had all those elements that could be endlessly recycled. Bond has now been popular with several generations.

What’s happened now, of course, is that all films have become like Bond movies. Slick, expensive, action-packed, filled with gadgets and stunts and international locations. Where Bond used to stand out, the films now look like many others that Hollywood churns out, so it’s harder to keep them distinct. But everyone still loves those ‘elements’. Fleming realized when he was writing his books that he had to basically keep doing the same plot over and over again. That’s what the readers wanted and, on the one occasion when he strayed from that path, the result (The Spy Who Loved Me) was a disaster. That’s what Broccoli [Film Producer] realized, that you had to keep recycling the elements, using the kit, and giving people what they wanted, which is why Quantum Of Solace, which was a pretty good film, somehow just wasn’t a Bond film. Everyone is hoping that the next one, by employing a British director who has some feel for the traditions of Bond, will put the franchise back on track.

TD: The story world of Bond, like Star Wars and Harry Potter, comes with its own fiercely defensive community. They feel they own the story as much as official creators do. How much of a worry was their reaction to the novels when you were writing? Did you approach them?

CH: When I was hired by IFP to write SilverFin we didn’t tell anyone. We all wanted to make sure the book was solid and what everyone wanted before we told the world. This meant that I was halfway through writing the second book in the series by the time the announcement was finally made. When I was given the job I just thought –  “brilliant! What fun. I can actually write a real James Bond book!” The idea of how to do it came together very quickly which meant it was very easy for me to say yes and get on with writing the first book reasonably fast. It all just seemed to make sense to me and once I’d finished it I knew it worked. It was only when the announcement was finally made that I suddenly thought  – “oh my god, what have I taken on? James Bond is the greatest hero in the world”. And, as you say, people have a strong sense of ownership of the character, particularly on the literary side. There was a devoted hard-core bunch of fans who had not only been raving about Fleming, they had also been buying, reading and discussing the continuation novels over the years. They felt they had kept the literary flame alive. And then of course there were just the general James Bond fanatics. They were all horrified, they hated the idea of Young Bond. The animation series James Bond Jr was still relatively fresh in their minds, and what’s more I was a TV comedy writer. People thought that IFP were responding to the success of the Harry Potter books and I suppose, in a way there was some truth in this. I think IFP felt that if kids could enjoy an old-fashioned adventure story about kids in a weird, fusty, old-fashioned boarding school like Hogwarts, then perhaps they would enjoy an old-fashioned adventure story about young James Bond in a weird, fusty, old-fashioned boarding school like Eton. You cannot underestimate the effect of Harry Potter on the world of publishing. It opened the whole thing up. Kids’ publishing was suddenly respectable. Children’s books were big business.

Now, the diehard fans didn’t want to read about a spotty teenage James Bond worrying about his homework and drinking milk ‘shaken not stirred’, whilst having larks in the dorm after lights out. I looked at the websites to see what people were saying, and some of it was quite funny. I could laugh because I knew that the books weren’t going to be what they dreaded. I felt reasonably confident that their fears were unfounded and luckily, once SilverFin came, they all saw that in fact I’d written something very close in spirit to the original Fleming novels. I was very gratified that the fans realized this and could enjoy the books for what they were – a respectful addition to Fleming.

TD: The authorial voice of Young Bond is part Fleming, part Higson. Faulks says he sometimes imagined himself “sucking on my teeth, perhaps with a cigarette holder” to find the correct voice when writing. What was your process?

CH: Actually I think the authorial voice in my books is pretty well 99% Higson, whatever that is. It was understood from quite early on that I wasn’t going to try to ape Fleming’s style. I was going to tell the same type of story that he told, using the same types of character, the same structure and occasionally some of the same vocabulary. When you look closely at his books these things jump out at you. He loved, for instance, to use the word crouching to describe things like mountains, and for some reason he was obsessed with the colour violet, so, really for my own amusement, I used some of his vocab in my books. I knew, though, that I couldn’t copy Fleming’s style, and it is that style which in many ways gives the books their immense readability and their charm and character. Bond is fairly basic and blunt, there’s not a lot of depth to him, all the character of the books comes from Fleming’s narrative voice. “That smoky Fleet Street drawl” as it has been described, and so in some ways Bond takes on the character of Fleming. I wanted my books to be Charlie Higson books in the spirit of Fleming but not the style. It would have been too hard to maintain over five books, and might have alienated kids. I wanted my books to speak to a contemporary young reader and I wrote them in my normal style – stripped back, ‘hard-boiled’, unfussy – which I think works well for kids. That being said, they were James Bond books and I knew they had to have the all the adventure and the romance of James Bond, so, to get me in the mood, I played a lot of John Barry music when I was writing. It really helps with a nice action sequence.

TD: Coming from a linear background did you find it to difficult to create an interactive narrative for the Young Bond alternate reality game (ARG) The Shadow War and did you enjoy the process?

CH: I’m not sure I do come from a linear world. I love computers and computer games, and I love books as well, but I don’t think the two really mix. They are separate disciplines, they each have their own different pleasures. It never works to try and combine the two. Besides, I hate reading books on a screen. I have loads of books on my iPad and haven’t read any of them!

I loved the idea of The Shadow War when it was first put to me, but in the end I don’t think I had anything much to do with the writing of it beyond being consulted. Sadly I think the final result was a little disappointing. When it was presented to me it was a much bigger and more exciting project than it ended up. It was going to involve people all around the country working together to solve clues and team up. There would be hidden clues in newspapers, online, on the sides of lorries going up the M1 at a certain time of day! It was going to be really fun and immersive. But the reality of doing something like that on a publisher’s budget and involving kids is very different. It all has to be safe and controllable and fair and simple… so it got scaled right back. It was interesting to do but a missed opportunity in the end. To do these things properly takes a huge amount of time and money and effort. Puffin books are very keen to try and work more in this way and get kids interested in books through other means, particularly via the Internet, but I think we’re all still finding out the best way to go about it.

TD: In By Royal Command you included a suggestion from a member of the CommanderBond.net forum that Young Bond should wear a Multifort watch. A number of participatory narrative projects are emerging which take this even further and allow for writers to create stories in collaboration with public input (e.g. Mongoliad and Runes of Gallidon) Do you think it is possible for writers and the public to create stories together?

CH: In a word – no. The Internet is a very useful tool. Fans can go on there and share information, experts can join in. There is a universe of shared knowledge and expertise. I liked the idea of the Multifort watch (and I thought it was a little bit more imaginative than giving Young Bond his first Rolex), but it’s a big leap from giving Bond a watch suggested by a fan to getting them to write the book with me. In fact, this is nothing new.Fleming himself did the very same thing. Readers and fans of his books would write to him telling him where he had got his facts wrong, and making suggestions for future books, most famously in the case of Geoffrey Boothroyd, a gun nut who suggested that Bond’s original Beretta handgun was a bit of a girl’s gun. Fleming took his suggestions on board and used him as a weapons advisor. He ended up calling his ‘Q’ character in the books Major Boothroyd to thank him.

Fleming relied on a network of fans and friends and experts to feed him information about guns, cars, food, drink, boats, aeroplanes… He was a great collector of interesting bits and pieces and built up a fantastic archive of stuff to help make the details in his books more vivid (this is well documented in James Bond The Man And His World, by Henry Chancellor).

The Internet helps make it easier to do this type of thing, but it doesn’t add anything new. Us writers have always relied on other people, but not to the extent of wanting them to write the books for us.

I’ll take suggestions from the public, I’m interested to know what they like and dislike. I enjoy feedback and still trawl the internet sites to see what people are saying about my work. I also do lots of events with kids who have great ideas, and make brilliant suggestions.

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One response to “What makes one spy so indestructible? An interview with Young Bond creator Charlie Higson

  1. Pingback: Charlie Higson on James Bond and Fandom | Shared Story Worlds

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