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Sebastian Faulks has licence to emulate

28-May-2008 • Literary

More than 40 years after Ian Fleming's death a new James Bond book is published this week. The BBC asks, how does someone seamlessly step into the shoes of famous writer and what do pastiched authors think of their imitators?

Writer Sebastian Faulks could be forgiven for pausing a little longer than normal before committing to the first sentence of his latest novel.

Unlike his previous works, including the celebrated novels Birdsong and Charlotte Gray, Faulks' new tome is less of a purely personal endeavour; more about mimicry. The object of his emulation - James Bond creator Ian Fleming.

As the latest writer to be invited by Fleming's estate to pen a Bond book, Faulks' every word and turn of phrase will been intensely scrutinised by the audience of millions he inherits from taking on the 007 character.

Devil May Care, which is published on Wednesday - the centenary of Fleming's birth - is already said to have delighted Fleming's estate. Set in the 1960s, Faulks has said the work is "about 80% Fleming".

He is not the first author to take on Fleming's character. Kingsley Amis and Fast Show star Charlie Higson - author of the Young James Bond series - are among a handful to have done so.

But in grasping the Bond baton, Faulks is also following in the footsteps of another well trodden bookish tradition - the literary franchise. Recent examples include the Godfather Returns and the Godfather's Revenge, in which Mark Winegardner took on the story originally set down by Mario Puzo.

It took more than 50 years for Margaret Mitchell's classic Gone With the Wind to be followed up. Scarlett by Alexandra Ripley appeared in 1991. While Sally Beauman's 2001 novel Rebecca's Tale picked up where Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca left off.

How do writers go about taking on the mantle of loved and respected authors while keeping fans of the original happy - and reading?

In the case of multi-million selling US novelist Tom Clancy - the author rather than the character has become the brand.

Best known for his CIA spy-turned-US president Jack Ryan series, adapted into films like Patriot Games starring Harrison Ford, the Clancy franchise now extends to spin-off novels marketed under his name, but written by different authors.

And as with James Bond, what makes the Clancy brand a viable "follow-on" proposition is the creation of an alternative literary "universe" that readers can identify with.

New York writer Jeff Rovin was brought in to pen the Tom Clancy's Op Centre series. He is philosophical about what some might describe as a certain lack of adventure among readers who return again and again to the same styles and scenarios.

"There's a lot of pressure on people's time these days," he says. "With Clancy, readers know that they are going to get a certain level of storytelling, and they will get their money's worth."

He is crystal clear about what Clancy fans demand.

"My books need to be two things - compelling, and plausible. Within them, there also needs to be a sense that the 'system' works - and that whatever government mistakes occur, we can manage to self-correct."

As with Clancy's original novels, Rovin's versions see heroic American intelligence operatives - this time working for the "Op Centre" rather than for the CIA - battle dastardly plots which have been confected by, usually, foreign terrorists.

Rovin is candid about the reasons he was hired. Not only does he have to satisfy fans of original Clancy novels, but he has greater ambitions too.

"I was brought in is to extend the brand to new readers - especially women." he says. "That's why my Clancy-type books have more of a soap-opera feel to them - the characters spend quite a lot of time in their offices lamenting divorces, office romances and problems with kids. These are things that everyone can relate to."

Given that the Op Centre series is published with his name prominently displayed, Tom Clancy is presumably happy that the rather macho universe he created is now a little softer around the edges - particularly if new readers keep buying the works.

But other authors are adamant that whoever takes on their idea must be faithful to the vision they originally created.

Best-selling children's author Lauren Child created the successful Charlie and Lola series - later adapted for BBC TV. Although nearly 20 Charlie and Lola books have appeared, only the first three were exclusively written and illustrated by Child herself.

The other books are based on TV shows written by various scriptwriters and are marketed as "characters created by Lauren Child".

"Although I don't write the books, I make sure that I have a lot of input and control about what goes out under my name," says Child. "The books are written after a lot of discussions between me, the TV producer and the scriptwriters. It's a very collaborative approach."

"I would hate it if someone wrote a Charlie and Lola book that didn't stay true to the universe I originally created - it would be like hearing a beautiful song you had composed sung by someone with an awful voice."

Columnist and literary critic Sam Leith thinks this sense of staying true to the original author's vision does more than anything to keep the fans on-side.

Imitating the writer's writing style is crucial, he believes.

He's due to review the new Bond novel for the Daily Telegraph - where he is literary editor - and he hopes Faulks will follow the style of Ian Fleming, which he describes as "slick, thrillingly cold and aggressive."

Other themes that ought to remain the same, he says, are Bond's rather unreformed approach to women ("Bond is definitely not a new man" ) and Fleming's obsession with named, branded products.

"Fleming uses brands as a shorthand for glamour," he says.

Literary reporter Benedicte Page says pastiche authors need to be able to write "in a style sufficiently similar to make a convincing sequel or companion novel, but with enough of their own voice too."

For Leith, one thing such authors need to do is "avoid is any sense of parody, or self-consciousness in their writing".

"If loyal fans get a sense that the author doesn't take their chosen universe seriously, they will stop reading immediately. It's the equivalent of the writer turning to wink at the camera - a big turn off."

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