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Interview with Young Bond author Charlie Higson

27-Dec-2010 • Young Bond

He became famous for his sketches on ‘The Fast Show’, but Charlie Higson has found rather unlikely success by writing spy books and horror novels for teenagers, and by respecting his audience - reports the Irish Times.

The waiting area at Penguin Books HQ off the Strand in central London contains something of an informal history of children’s literature over the past half century. Under modern glass cases that double as coffee tables, dog-eared Barry and Jane -type picture books and penny wartime stories gather dust.

Aside from Roald Dahl, there’s a pretty one-dimensional, male/female divide in early 20th-century children’s literature, with little to catch the eye of any typical modern day teenager. More recent authors such as Eoin Colfer and Rick Riordan line cases along the walls, where titles such as The Return of the Killer Cat and Beware of Teachers , give an altogether more edgy choice.

One of the reasons for the maturing of children’s and teenage literature has come from an increased range of irreverent and non-conformist authors, from Spike Milligan to Ricky Gervais, who have mined their attachment to childhood in their writing.

Following that vein, if you mention the name Charlie Higson to any bookish types under the age of 20, they will probably know his Young Bond collection or his current Enemy horror series. For a slightly older generation, Higson is better known as co-writer and performer in The Fast Show , the 1990s BBC comedy hit. Yet his ambition from a very young age was to become a writer, and although he received little in the way of family encouragement, his writing career is now firmly established.

“I think my father was quite surprised at the path my life took,” says Higson. “He was pleased but not quite sure what to make of it. I remember as a teenager talking about my future. I started writing a book to entertain myself when I was about 10 or 11. Actually, my father knew someone that worked in publishing and showed it to them. The man said kindly that it was ‘marvellous work, oh yes, keep it up, but please don’t send any more to us.’ My father said to me after, ‘Look by all means carry on your writing, it doesn’t cost you anything, do it in your spare time. But, make sure you get yourself a proper job because you will never make any money as a writer.’ It was the best piece of advice he could have given me because, being a teenager, I completely ignored him and I’ve never managed to have a proper job ever since.”

Having tried his hand at adult fiction while at university (“really impenetrable William Burroughs-type stuff”), Higson became diverted from fiction writing – first as an unlikely pop star and later as an actor and television writer.

“I was a useless pop star and couldn’t sing. I then became a painter-decorator because you could make more money at that. I had met Paul Whitehouse at university and I’d also met Harry Enfield and Vic Reeves. By accident, Harry started to do some television, and he asked Paul to write some stuff. Paul asked me, simply because I had written a few novels at university. And also, I had a word processor and he didn’t.”

Despite the huge success of The Fast Show, towards the end, creative insecurity set in. A successful series and a growing family with three young children later, and Higson was looking at ways to pull back from television.

“No matter how successful something on television is, you then have to go on and do something else, unless you are lucky and get amazing ongoing DVD sales. Towards that first burst of it I was thinking ‘I’m just trying to set up a project here’ so I still got work coming in, rather than, ‘I have an amazing creative idea’.”

Shortly after the final series of The Fast Show , a former editor suggested Higson to the Ian Fleming estate, who were at the time looking for someone to write a James Bond book for younger readers. The resulting novel SilverFin was a huge success, leading to a five-book series and thereby establishing Higson as a teenage author who could deliver commercially and creatively.

His latest book, The Dead, is the second in a separate three-part series set in a post-apocalyptic landscape where all persons over the age of 14 are struck down with a mutating disease. The novels are graphic and gory, with blood, zombies and terror on almost every page. Kids, needless to say, love them.

“At the start of the series, I thought about how far I could go and how upsetting I could make it. And actually where kids are concerned . . . the more horror the merrier. I spoke to Puffin and they said there isn’t a set of rules for kid’s fiction anymore. I read a few other books from authors like Darren Shan and they are very gory but still pitched on a level that works for kids. All I could go on was reading it out to my 10-year-old and seeing how he coped with it!”

Inevitably any book where kids are left to their own devices in a world without adults will draw parallels with Lord of the Flies . Higson, however, says the comparisons are often clumsily made.

“People have said the books are like Lord of the Flies . But it’s an opposite message to that. William Golding hated kids. His idea was leave them alone to fight and they will turn into savages. I don’t think that is true, and I was trying to redress that and say leave them alone and they will work together. I wanted to write a positive story about kids.”

Higson says his writing seeks to reclaim childhood, not just for himself but also for children, and move away from cliched stereotyping. Adolescence for Higson is universal, layered, sometimes brutal, yet often enlightened.

“We are told modern kids are all hoodies with no respect and terrible language. That’s bollocks. I’ve got boys and they are actually decent and do treat each other very well. I wanted to get that across in the book and redress the balance a bit. The ‘enemy’ is not the teenagers. It’s the adults.”

Young readers ask questions

Tara Hayes, age 12

Q. Was it always your ambition to become an author?

A. “I have always loved writing but I never thought I could necessarily make a living from it, so it was fantastic when I was allowed to be a proper writer.”

Abigale Owens, age 12

Q. What inspired you to write spy novels?

A. “I grew up in the 1960s where James Bond was the biggest thing in the world, so every man of my generation is either an obsessive fan or hates James Bond!”

Lauryn Cahill, age 11

Q. What made you decide to kill off Aaron in The Enemy? I thought him to be one of the main characters and I got the impression you were attached to him?

A. “I was very attached to him but I wanted to make it clear from early on in the book that any of the kids could die. I felt that would make the book 10 times scarier and more tense.”

Rachel O’Connor, age 12

Q. If you could change one scene in the whole series, what scene would it be?

A. “Well, in The Dead, I always knew I would kill off two characters. I was reading it to my youngest and I did feel a bit bad about it. I had a thought to go back and change it, but decided not to in the end.”

Óran O’Connell McGrath, age 10

Q. Any more television work coming up?

A. “We’re negotiating with the BBC to do another Bellamy’s People, with the same line-up as the last series. I started working at the BBC in the early 1990s and everyone was saying, ‘Oh it’s not like what it used to be, it’s all changed.’ People have been saying that forever. Money is spread very thin now though. It means comedies start to get shot and look a certain way, which is a shame as it narrows the range of what you can see in a comedy show.”

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