Read a full transcript of Boyd's public Q&A session at the Southbank, celebrating the UK launch of 'Solo'
Thank you very much and good evening. "Boyd on Bond". It's a great title. It's punchy and it's a little bit rude! I'm here to introduce William Boyd, which is pointless, because he actually needs no introduction at all. Over the years, he has an incredibly distinguished and successful literary career with his novels, films scripts and his journalism, but also he also directed his own film of "The Trench", starring Daniel Craig, effortlessly picking up prizes and awards, and topping the best-seller lists.
Will's knowledge of James Bond, and indeed of Ian, my uncle, is incredible. He even went as far as to include Ian as a character in his wonderful novel "Any Human Heart", and he's also managed to weave Ian's wartime story into the plot of this new Bond book, which I think is extraordinarily clever.
"Solo" is an excellent novel, with all the essence of Ian's Bond and more. Ian really appreciated the ability of an author to make the reader turn the page - that was one thing he always said - and "Solo" is a page turner indeed.
The book is set in Africa in 1969 and features a particularly nasty villain. I don't know how many of you remember Will's first book, "A Good Man in Africa" - a very good book - but I thought an alternative title for this book could be "A Very Bad Man in Africa."
We were all incredibly flattered not only that an author as fine as Will should pick up the baton of Bond, as it were, but that he should do it with such style and such panache. It's a novel of which Ian would heartily approve, and I'm sure he'd be looking down - or possibly up - at us with a smile on his face.
As Robert McCrum said in the Guardian, "Boyd is Bond".
Talking to Will tonight is the extremely glamorous Olivia Cole, poet and feminist, and literary editor of GQ Magazine. So, ladies and gentleman, I am delighted to welcome Olivia Cole and William Boyd.
Asked why he wanted to be a writer, William Boyd once said: "I suspect that I saw a film that had a writer in it, and as he got up from the typewriter, mixed himself a drink, stepped out on to a balcony and looked out at the Malibu beach or something, I thought, 'that is the life for me.'"
If you alter the location to Miami or to Mayfair, or perhaps Royale les-Eaux in northern France, this could almost be a description from a James Bond novel. Whereas Ian Fleming hankered for most of his adult life to be a writer, publishing Casino Royale in 1953 at the age of forty-five, and only writing novels for the last decade of his life, William Boyd made his name in 1981 at the scarily young age of twenty-nine, and since then has become that very rare thing: A novelist who delights both critics and readers.
Will first met his literary hero, James Bond, again at a scarily young age - perhaps eleven or twelve - when he was at school, and he described how he became addicted to the now familiar blend of snobbery, sex, ludicrous violence, exotic travel, and superior consumer goods. In fact, he says that, such was his addiction, the boys in his prep school used to read Fleming aloud to each other in the dorms...
We forgive you! It's largely thanks to Ian Fleming that we labour under this illusion that the spy is incredibly glamorous, but the fiction, if not the films, occasionally pauses from the carnage and seduction to tell a slightly different story. In one of my favourites, "On Her Majesty's Secret Service", looking out on an idyllic scene at the beach, we find Bond in and uncharacteristically pensive mood:
"What a long time ago they were, those spade and bucket days! How far he had come since the freckles, Cadbury milk-chocolate Flakes and fizzy lemonade. Impatiently, Bond lit a cigarette, pulled his shoulders out of their slouch, and slammed the mawkish memories back into their long-closed file. Today, he was a grown-up man, a man with years of dirty, dangerous memories. A spy."
Fast-forward a few years from his childhood enthusiasm with Fleming, and perhaps Boyd would have explored a career as a spy. Such was his interest that in his novel "Any Human Heart" the hero, Logan Mountstuart, is actually recruited by Fleming into the Naval Intelligence Division. This book, the diary of Logan - rake, diarist, journalist, spy, Manhattan art dealer, novelist, and witty man of letters - was my first proper introduction to the world of William Boyd. In fact, I have an embarrassing confession: It was a novel that used to be passed around the desks of the Evening Standard, where I started my career as a journalist. And, like Logan - who meets everybody from the Duchess of Windsor to Fleming and Evelyn Waugh - I'm sure we dreamt of adventures and scoops and encounters with the great characters and writers of our time. I can certainly say though that we never went quite as far as reading it aloud to one other.
Here's a small taste of the first time Fleming and Boyd collide in fiction in a brief extract from Logan's journal:
Friday 11 October 1935, Lunch with Fleming at the Savoy Grill.
He had an ulterior motive, I think. He's unhappy being a stockbroker and is curious about my writing life. He asked me if I was interested in pornography and I said not particularly. He has quite a collection he said, proudly.... He's one of those men - a man's man, clubbable, arrogant, seemingly impregnably sure of himself - that makes you want to impress them somehow.
Monday 3 October, 1953
Reading Ian's novel, Live and Let Die. An impossible task, knowing Ian as I once did - I can only see him in it: suspension of disbelief quite impossible. Can he have any idea how much of himself he is exposing? Still, it whiled away an hour or three.
Readers were always grateful that William Boyd chose writing over spying, although his fiction has allowed him to have a taste of both lives - at least in his imagination. Most recently he's given us convincing and powerful characters, drawn into the world of intelligence and criminality, through his bestselling and award winning thrillers, "Restless" - whose enigmatic character Eva Delectorskaya gives Vesper Lynd and Tatiana Romanova a run for her money, "Ordinary Thunderstorms", and last year "Waiting for Sunrise".
[At this point, Boyd read a short extract from "Solo".]
We know that you loved the books as a child, but when did that turn into a fascination with Fleming the man?
I read the Bond novels, as many people did, as a teenager and then sort of forgot about them. I went to see the films, I suppose, when they came out, but I suppose I came to Fleming through my enthusiasm for Evelyn Waugh - another writer of whom I have read, I think, every word he'd ever written, and know as much as one possibly can about the man. Waugh and Fleming came to know each other. Waugh was very friendly with Fleming's wife, Ann - who was a piece of work, actually - but Waugh and (Ian) Fleming didn't like each other at all. It's quite interesting actually, because I read the correspondence of Ann Fleming, and she wrote many letters to Evelyn Waugh, and they would mock Ian in the letters and call him "Thunderbird". Evelyn would write "how's 'Thunderbird' getting on?" and she would write back something equally mocking.
So, it was a strange relationship. I've always felt that Waugh and Fleming had something in common, in that they both seemed to be men in a hurry to die, which was of interest to me. There's a certain generation of English writers post World War II who were a bit like that. They didn't look after themselves at all - they certainly never took any exercise, they smoked like proverbial chimneys, they drank vast amounts of alcohol, and they also took huge amounts of what would now be regarded as prescription drugs. They took Benzedrine to get themselves up in the morning and chloral (hydrate) to send them to sleep in the evening. Both these men, at comparatively young age, were total wrecks. Waugh was obese as well. I somehow thought that these two wishful suicides would somehow get on better, but they didn't. I became interested in Fleming because he was a case study of an Englishman who seemed to have everything but was, in fact, afflicted with a terrible misanthropy.
The last thing I will say is that, at the end of his life, Fleming had built himself a new house in Didcot, he had loads of money, the Bonds had sold millions and millions of copies, the first films had been made - "Dr.No" had been made and "Goldfinger" is being made - it's 1963, and Anne Fleming writes to Evelyn Waugh and says: "Ian sits in his bedroom all day, staring out of the window in a state of utter misery." That's what intrigued me. Why? So, that's why I got interested in Fleming and found out more about him and put him in my novel. Little did I know I'd be writing a James Bond novel at that stage.
How do you think (the James Bond novels) read today? What are Fleming's strengths as a storyteller?
I think the brilliant thing he did was in the creation of character, particularly the character of James Bond, who is a far more complex and nuanced individual in the novels than he is in the films. The films, inevitably, by the nature of the art form, are a kind of crude caricature of the man that Fleming writes about. Bond's complexities make him more than just the kind of "blunt instrument" or "superspy" that we might think of him as. He's troubled, he has a very dark side, he makes mistakes...he's a deeply complex individual, as was his creator. That was what Fleming did that was particularly brilliant.
To be honest with you, reading all the novels in a row, they are very uneven, and they're uneven within some of the novels, and you can see his interest waning, you can see him thinking 'how the hell am I going to resolve this problem. I know, I'll have a coincidence." The novelist in me goes "tut, tut, that really won't do." Despite all that, writing came easily to him. He wasn't unlike Waugh in that he used to churn them out in a couple of months in Jamaica and come back to London with a manuscript. And you can see that when you analyze the books. There are great passages and scene settings, and the character of Bond...my other theory is that because Fleming was writing about a world he knew intimately, which was the world of the wealthy upper-class Englishman - and you've got to remember that it was 1953 when "Casino Royale" came out - he lifted a lid on that world and nobody knew anything about at all. Fleming went skiing in Kitzbühel in the 1930s, he built a house in Jamaica to get away from the English winters in the 1940s, he cared about the cotton his shirts were made from; he had a totally contemporary brand-awareness. That was how that tiny elite lived, and by reading a Bond novel, you were given temporary access to that club, and that's why they're so exotic and glamorous and strange. And they still are today because that world, believe-you-me, hasn't gone away - it's just gone undercover slightly. I think those are the two things for me that make the novels absolutely fascinating.
One of the things we immediately noticed, that we hear in just the first few pages, is that we find out a lot more about Bond's War. That's something Fleming alluded to without ever revealing any details. Why did you think it was important to fill that in? Do you think Bond's War is a key to him as a character?
Yes, I think it was. When I re-read the novels, I kept coming across these throwaway lines and half-lines, which alluded to Bond being in combat in World War II. So, if he was born in 1924 that would have made him a very young soldier in the last two years of the war. He left school, according to Fleming, at age 17 in 1941. Fleming says (Bond) was "under machinegun fire in the Ardennes" so, we assume that was the Battle of the Bulge, 1944. He was in Berlin in 1945, and he talks about the "hot war", and that phrase I used "the haunted forest of memory", that's a straight lift from Fleming. So, it was clear that Fleming wanted to give Bond a WWII combat experience, which he had never had himself as a spy in the Naval Intelligence Division. So, I sort of ran with that. I thought "there's the door, slightly ajar, I'll push it wide open." I'll give Bond a WWII experience and I'll make him join a commando unit that Fleming created, called 30 Assault Unit, which was precisely as I described it. They would go in after raids, after an invasion, and seize German documents that could be used for British espionage. So, it's a funny full-circle that a fictional character, James Bond, joins the real unit created by Ian Fleming. But I feel like I had authorisation for it. It's nothing I invented. Fleming does drop these hints into the novels.