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More grit than glamour in spy writing

10-May-2008 • Literary

The common perception of Ian Fleming's blessed, martini-drinking writing life misses the reality by some distance, as modern spy novelists will testify, writes Charles Cumming for The Guardian.

Sebastian Faulks recently contrasted the writing of Devil May Care, his 100th anniversary Bond novel, with Fleming's own experience as a writer:

"In his house in Jamaica, Ian Fleming used to write a thousand words in the morning, then go snorkelling, have a cocktail, lunch on the terrace, more diving, another thousand words in late afternoon, then more Martinis and glamorous women. In my house in London, I followed this routine exactly, apart from the cocktails, the lunch and the snorkelling."

It's a nice gag, not least because it points out the myth which has grown up around Fleming's career as a writer. On the face of it, 007's creator was an impossibly glamorous figure, a womaniser and bon viveur, cigarette holder in one hand, Ursula Andress's telephone number in the other. His books sold by the million. John F Kennedy revealed From Russia With Love to have been one of his favourite books. No novelist ever had it so easy, or so good.

The reality, of course, was somewhat different. Fleming was insecure about his reputation; in common with most commercially-successful novelists, he wanted to be taken seriously by the literati. At times, he found the demands of writing the Bond novels overwhelming. In 1964, for example, as he was about to embark on The Man with the Golden Gun, Fleming wrote a letter to Sir John Betjeman. "I must warn you that I am seriously running out of puff," he complained. "My inventive streak is very nearly worked out." Later that year, at the tender age of 56, Fleming died. He lived to see just two of the Bond films, Dr No and From Russia with Love, and never fully enjoyed the fruits of his success.

So Sebastian Faulks can take heart. Being a spy novelist is no picnic. In my experience, we are a frustrated bunch, existing in the ever-lengthening shadow cast by the giants of yesteryear: Ambler, Deighton, le Carré. The market is now saturated in Fleming wannabes churning out thrillers at the rate of one a year. You can see them at book conventions, bestselling men in late middle-age with exhausted eyes and skin that would shame a snooker player. Who cares that their last book sold 250,000 copies in hardback? They've got to be getting on with the next one. The modern-day Fleming doesn't have time for cocktails and snorkelling: when he's not hammering out 2000 words a day in pursuit of a killer deadline, he's chasing readers on MySpace and Facebook, or picking a fight with his agent, demanding to know why he hasn't made enough money to buy his own little Goldeneye on Corsica or Ibiza.

Traditionally, it has helped the spy novelist to have a background in espionage. Most of the great practitioners of the art - Fleming included - were employed, at one time or another, by her Majesty's government. However, in the present age, this has only encouraged every disenchanted former spook from Moscow to Langley to think of themselves as the next David Cornwell. The ghost writer also reigns supreme. Can you be sure that the former head of MI6 had anything to do with the bestseller which bears his name?

I blame Fleming. He started all this. He made the spy novel glamorous and exciting. He showed that you could entertain millions of people with nothing more than a hero, a villain and a gun, and become a millionaire in the process. Now where are my swimming trunks?

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