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Sebastian Faulks talks Devil May Care with The Times

24-May-2008 • Literary

Bestselling author Sebastian Faulks is the brains behind the new Bond novel. He talked exclusively to The Sunday Times.

Rows of empty, shiny black dust jackets line a corridor in Penguin’s smartly renovated offices on the Strand. Each cover is flamingly emblazoned with what, at first, looks like a poppy, but is actually the silhouette of a svelte nude girl with a flamboyant head of scarlet hair. They are waiting to be wrapped around the season’s most excitedly anticipated novel. Devil May Care by “Sebastian Faulks writing as Ian Fleming” will be published worldwide on Wednesday, the centenary of the birth of the creator of James Bond. Until then, Penguin is guarding it with a ferocity Rosa Klebb would envy, and under conditions that make Dr No’s security arrangements for his Caribbean lair look slapdash.

So it is with a feeling of having accomplished a mission that would have taxed the resources of 007 himself that I settle down to talk about the book with Faulks. Outside the room where we meetin Penguin’s HQ is the spectacular view down the Thames to Westminster that Monet painted from his suite in the adjacent Savoy hotel. Facing out from the shelves around us are books representing highlights of Penguin’s publishing history, to which Devil May Care is designed to be a handsome addition. Appearing under the company’s new James Bond imprint, Penguin 007, it’s a continuation of the secret agent’s adventures, written by Faulks at the invitation of the Fleming estate.

The request at first left him “pretty amazed”. True, he has twice already tried his hand at Bond pastiche. His first novel, A Trick of the Light (1984), juxtaposed the glamorous escapades of a Bond-like figure battling fiendish foreigners in far-flung locales with the ugly actualities of IRA terrorism. For Radio 4’s literary quiz game, The Write Stuff, he envisaged the spy dropping into Sainsbury’s for a spot of shopping. (“Bond lowered himself through a ventilation grille in the ceiling above the savoury-dips aisle... Ignoring the selection of instant mashed potato – Cadbury’s Smersh, he thought ruefully – he eliminated the three people ahead of him in the queue by triggering a lethal dart from the adapted handle of his twin-exhaust wire trolley.”) It’s unlikely, however, that any of this loomed large in the thinking of Ian Fleming Publications, the management company that looks after the author’s estate and reputation, when it approached Faulks. What recommended him, no doubt, was his acclaimed and bestselling expertise at portraying combat, in wartime novels such as Birdsong (1993) and Charlotte Gray (1998), along with his fictional foray into cold-war espionage in On Green Dolphin Street (2001).

While Faulks was “intrigued” by the proposal, his initial response, he says, was: “I don’t think it’s very likely. It sounds great fun, and I did love the films, but it’s years since I read the books and I don’t imagine they’re much cop, really – though I loved them when I was 12 or 13.” He agreed, however, to look at the novels again – and did so in a characteristically systematic way, going through them in chronological order. “And,” he tells me in a tone that still reflects his surprise, “more or less straightaway I found I enjoyed them. They seemed to me to do that key thing a thriller needs to do, which is to give you a sense of real and present danger. James Bond is a very vulnerable man, with his nice suit and soft shoes and ludicrously underpowered gun. He finds himself in terrible situations, and he’s all on his own – you just worry for his safety.”

Hearing himself say this, Faulks laughs with incredulity. “I thought, how can I be so gullible that at my advanced age [he is 55] and great cynicism, I’m buying into this? But I did.”

Besides the plots, the books’ style appealed. “They were much better written than I thought – written in a pretty straightforward sort of newspaperman’s style. I don’t have a problem with that, you know. That style developed for a good reason. It’s a good way of getting information across, fast and accurate. I don’t see any overwriting, any clichés – except little bits of purple here and there, which largely are to do with machinery, actually.” Faulks grins. “He’s really more turned on by machinery than by sex.

“This is interesting,” he decided. “I think I can do this” – though he stipulated that the novel must be a period piece, not a bringing of Bond into the 21st century. “It’s a homage,” he insisted. “It’s for a man’s centenary. If I have to crack it into the present, it just doesn’t work for me, and it looks opportunistic rather than affectionate.”

Once this was accepted, his first challenge was to find a story, especially as he “had the feeling that Fleming had pretty much exhausted the genre. The later books are pretty baroque. He seems completely fed up with the whole thing”. His solution was to seek a subject Fleming might have tackled in the Bond books, but hadn’t. “The way I attacked it was trying to think of something the villain could do that wasn’t gold, wasn’t diamonds, wasn’t bird droppings – which is what Dr No is incredibly into. And I thought, well, what about drugs? Because I’d already decided it was going to be a period piece. And I figured the last novel was set in 1965, and Bond was in a very bad way and needed time to get back on full form, so it had to be 1967.”

Out of that date, Devil May Care blossomed. “I thought, well, great – 1967, the summer of love. I remember it. I was 14. And what was going on? Well, drugs. Drugs were first coming to public notice. The Stones were busted, and there was that famous leader in The Times. And, you know, what are we talking about now all the time? Drugs. It’s still very resonant. And there’s little about drug-dealing in Fleming. It’s not something he did in any depth.” Another process of elimination provided the central setting. Fleming, Faulks noted, never dealt with the Middle East (which he dismissed as “full of thieves and crooks”). Memoirs of it in the 1960s, consultations with experts and hours of googling reinforced his hunch that the region would suit his purposes. It even, Bond aficionados will be glad to find, affords scope for Fleming-like relishings of exotic milieus and cuisine.

Faulks’s approach to writing the novel reflects his background in books: he read English at Cambridge, ran the Arts Council’s New Fiction Society for a couple of years and was The Independent’s first literary editor, from 1986 to 1989. Scrutiny of the Bond thrillers showed they were of two kinds. There are “the crime-busting books, in which Bond is really just a superior sort of policeman, sent to break up smuggling rings and that kind of thing”. Their “very fast pace” is something Faulks admires. But they “don’t have that creepy, sinister threat of some sort of imminent nuclear holocaust or war” that crucially excites him in the other thrillers, of which he thinks Moonraker the outstanding example.

Before starting Devil May Care, did he make a check list of the regulation fitments of Bond novels – the Bentley and the Morland cigarettes, the sea-island cotton shirts, the loafers, the shoulder-holster guns, the drink, the meals, the torture, the gadgets, the girls? He put together a detailed dossier, he says, and found a “very handy” backup reference book in Henry Chancellor’s companion to the Bond novels. Critical acumen clearly helped, too. The novels, he noticed, tend to open with an incident from which Bond is absent – a device replicated in Devil May Care, which teasingly begins in a rainy France of glistening slate roofs, more likely to be seen as typical Faulks, not Fleming, territory. Identifying other patterns in Fleming’s suspense scenarios, he imitated them so convincingly that, he reports, the head of the Bond film company, Eon, declared: “If you told me you’d found this in Ian’s desk drawer, I would have believed you.” Clever selectiveness has served its purpose, too. “I thought, ‘Let’s just take all the things that we like.’ Felix Leiter’s a nice character, Bond’s Scottish ‘treasure’, May, Miss Moneypenny, M. The bits that I didn’t like were when it just gets too silly – the silly names. And some longueurs, actually, such as the first half of From Russia with Love, where it’s just too slow to get going, Fleming showing off his knowledge of the Russian secret service.”

Subject matter apart, I wonder how easy Fleming’s not very individualised style was to emulate. Faulks’s reply reminds you that, like Fleming, he spent years working on newspapers. “I think it’s standard journalistic: no semicolons, few adverbs, few adjectives, short sentences, a lot of verbs, a lot of concrete nouns. These are the tools, and that’s literally the style.” More distinctive, he points out, is the tone, “a sort of slight hauteur that was a little bit harder to catch – a little bit cold and a little bit superior in places”. To capture its cadences of “I’m more worldly than you”, Faulks “sometimes imagined myself sucking on my teeth, with perhaps a cigarette-holder”.

Another stimulant was a magazine piece Fleming published in 1962, How to Write a Thriller. It’s an article, I find, on reading it after the interview, in which Fleming is almost startlingly forthright about his intents as an author: “The target of my books... lay somewhere between the solar plexus and, well, the upper thigh”; “They are written for warm-blooded heterosexuals in railway trains, airplanes or beds”. But it offers, Faulks stresses, a pro’s invaluable advice, namely: “You’ve got to do it all quickly. You give yourself six weeks. You write 2,000 words a day and that will give you the required length. Don’t stop. Don’t agonise. Don’t try to correct your prose as you go along. Don’t worry too much about the details. You can always revise them later and get it checked by experts.”

“I thought 2,000 words a day is probably twice as much as Iwould normally do,” says Faulks,“but it’s not unreachable.”It wasn’t.

A disciplined writer, he works regularly from 10am to 6pm in an office near his Holland Park home. Devil May Care propelled him there earlier than usual. “Apart from anything else, I was really enjoying it. I was very, very turned on by it.” Adding to the adrenaline was a need to meet deadlines (“metaphorically tearing the paper from the typewriter”) that was “fun, actually, the drive, the thrill”.

Evidently exhilarated by his Bond project, Faulks talks keenly about how much internet research (into everything from Indo-Chinese torture techniques to the look and layout of Middle Eastern towns) has contributed. Some ideas originated closer to home. Inspiration for that gruesome prerequisite of the best Bond fiction, a villain’s grotesque deformity, came from schoolboy memories and his father’s talk of a throwback freakishness that afflicted a fellow undergraduate.

Faulks’s father, who (like one of his grandfathers) won the Military Cross, earlier sharpened his son’s fascination with war, which at least partially accounts for his novels about the first and second world wars, and the cold war; Vietnam and the struggle for Algerian independence impinge on Devil May Care. It’s a subject in which he is “a bit more interested than most – partly because it had a big effect on my father’s life”. Major Faulks was “badly wounded – shot through the head, as well as twice in the arm”. Though his father made a complete recovery, Faulks can still remember shrapnel being removed from his arm at the local cottage hospital.

Faulks’s most recent novels, Human Traces (2005) and Engleby (2007), have dealt more with inner than external conflict, investigating mal-functioning minds and damaged personalities. Was the move from psychological complexity to Bond’s kneejerk reflexes strange? It was, he says, the most difficult part of the job. In an attempt to get inside the mind of Bond, and temporarily stalled by the demands of the plot, Faulks kept rewriting one page: “Bond looked back . . . reflected . . . weighed things up.” “And” – he laughs at the impossibility of it – “I didn’t know what he thought. I just couldn’t think what he might think.” The way out of the impasse was to follow Fleming’s directions. “In the end, I just kept going – ‘The door opened . . .’ I looked back at How to Write a Thriller and it said, don’t slow it down. So, just don’t.”

Quick-witted as well as fast-paced, the resulting book blends high-octane thrills with playful allusiveness. (There’s an adroit handling of Bond’s “shaken not stirred” martini preferences, and a wonderfully duplicitous Bond girl.) Will Faulks write another 007 sequel? It seems unlikely. He is, he says, going back to work next month on his novel-in-progress about contemporary Britain. Maybe, he suggests, the Fleming estate should invite a series of other novelists to do one-off Bond continuations. If so, possible contenders will find that Devil May Care has set the bar challengingly high.

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