MI6 reports from The London Book Fair where William Boyd unveiled the title of his upcoming James Bond continuation novel
MI6 reports from The London Book Fair, where William Boyd, author of the new Bond continuation novel 'Solo', was 'author of the day' and was interviewed by Erica Wagner, Literary Editor of The Times. Click here to read the press release from Ian Fleming Publications on the announcement of the new title.
EW - Let's go right into Bond and tell us a little bit about
the genesis of this project.
WB - Well, it's not something you can audition for. You can't say: "I feel like writing a James Bond novel”. You have to be asked. I was asked at the end of 2011. I was approached by the Ian Fleming estate and I was asked if I would consider writing a new continuation novel, as they're called. I said “yes” instantly. “What a treat!” I said “yes” for other reasons as well, in that I had written two spy novels myself - or types of spy novel - so I was very familiar with the genre. I also knew a lot about Ian Fleming, who is a man who has always fascinated me. I'd written about Fleming in journalism - I think I even wrote a piece for you, Erica, about Fleming - and I even put him in one of my novels. I put him in a novel of mine called "Any Human Heart", where Ian Fleming, in WWII, recruits the hero, Logan Mountstuart, into the Naval Intelligence Division where Fleming worked. When "Any Human Heart" was turned into a Channel 4 series, an actor (Tobias Menzies, "Casino Royale's" Villiers) played Fleming. By sheer coincidence, three of the actors that have played James Bond have been in films that I have written. I've even directed Daniel Craig in a film I wrote, so there's this curious Bond/Fleming theme in my life and to get the invitation (to write a Bond novel) seems like some kind of perfect vindication, or somebody upstairs knew something. So I said “yes” and then the process began.
EW - You've spoken a little bit before, and perhaps you can elaborate, on how you like to keep a very clear distinction between the literary Bond and the cinematic Bond.
WB - Yes, I think what is apparent, as soon as I started thinking about the book was that everybody thinks about Bond in terms of the films, inevitably, because they're so successful. Fleming died in 1964 but the latest Bond film came out just last year. So, Bond in the popular imagination is a celluloid Bond. Because of the nature of the medium and because of the nature of the film franchise, the difference between the cinematic Bond and the literary Bond is marked. I re-read every Bond novel and Bond short story in chronological order before I started writing my own, and Fleming gives you a massive amount of information about Bond: His inner life; his back story; his education; his likes; his dislikes; his phobias; his passions. So, as a character in a novel, there's this incredible richness, whereas in a film - because film is photography - it's very hard to be subjective. So, you see Bond, you see what he gets up to, but I feel that you just don't know him at all. The literary Bond is a far more complex and nuanced creature than even a brilliant actor like Daniel Craig can portray.
EW - What was it like reading all those books in that focused way? What sense did you get (of Bond)? It is extraordinary for a character to have this kind of appeal across the decades, aside from the “derring-do”.
WB - It's quite fascinating. You have to indulge in a kind of thought experiment because the first novel was published in 1953 and the last one was published posthumously in 1964 - that's twelve novels in a decade. So, that's an incredible output let alone anything else. And you have to try to imagine Britain in 1953, or you have to imagine the world in 1953. It was a post-war world. And suddenly on to the scene comes this man, this spy, but it's not so much the spying adventures, I feel, that makes Bond live. It's what he represents, what he does, what he likes and what he dislikes. It must have seemed in the 50s the most exotic, glamorous, exciting reveal that anyone could imagine.
Because Fleming's life he was a wealthy upper-class playboy stockbroker and the life he lived in the thirties and forties was of that moneyed upper-class crowd. It was a tiny privileged elite and people didn't know what went on, and I think that one of the things that Fleming did with Bond was that he lifted the lid on this world where people gambled for huge sums of money, you could order an iced carafe of vodka with your caviar. You were particular about the clothes you wore, what you had for breakfast, you had your own cigarettes made, and you could tell different types of coffee bean.
Suddenly, this kind of detail, which we take for granted today, was being revealed to readers in the fifties and early sixties, and I think that must have been a revelation. Plus Bond is not just a superhero, he has flaws, he has weaknesses, he makes mistakes, yet he is incredibly tough. There's something very well rounded about him and I think that was Fleming's genius, in a way. It wasn't the fact that he managed to think of a dozen or so fascinating stories, it was that he created a character - like Sherlock Holmes, or Alice in Wonderland - that endures and appeals to everybody. That is the measure of his achievement and that in a way was what stimulated me. Let's take this character and send him off somewhere, and let's see what he's like as a human being.
I remember saying in the interview (with Ian Fleming Publications) I said: "I'm interested in the man. The human being." And that's what I've tried to do in writing this book and that's why I went back and re-read everything. I'd read the books as a teenager, but to read them again now, knowingly, forensically, with pen in hand and making notes in the margin, was a fascinating experience. I learnt a phenomenal amount. I had this incredible mass of information about Bond and his life, and his parents, where he went to school, that he was captain of the judo team, etc, etc. I had all this information that I could then use for the character that I was playing with.
EW - I have to ask, thinking about this "interview", did you think it was an interview you might have not passed?
WB - Yes! Absolutely. I mean, I could have said appalling things, or been facetious, or complacent. But it's a privilege to be given the opportunity to site a novel. You're very free. That's the other wonderful thing about the Fleming organisation is that there's no prescription. You have to tick certain boxes: His boss is "M"; his boss' secretary is Miss. Moneypenny. But you are given the opportunity to create your own novel, but the character in the centre of your novel is James Bond. So, you have to cherish that, to a certain extent. And I can imagine failing to get the job very easily, but luckily I had this familiarity with Fleming in particular, so I knew a lot about his life, so I came (to the interview) informed. Again, I'd written a lot about John le Carré as well as Fleming, and I'd written these two spy novels, so the world of espionage was very familiar to me. (Writing a spy story) is tremendous fun, but I think you have to take it really, really seriously, and that was my pitch, if you like.
EW - One of the serious aspects of that must be getting involved in research. What kind of research did you do for this book?
WB - Well, there's a certain amount. Once you've invented your story and the places you're going to take Bond to, you obviously have to research that. I decided quite early on that I was going to set my story in 1969. Fleming wrote an obituary of Bond in "You Only Live Twice", and so we know that Bond, according to Ian Fleming, was born in 1924, so in 1969 he would be forty-five, which I thought would be quite interesting. I remember being forty-five and you're not so fast on your feet as you were when you were thirty. So, I had to do a lot of research of the era and the geo-political business of the world at the time, and what people wore and what you could eat and so on. And then, because it's James Bond there's a certain amount of weaponry that you have to familiarise yourself with, motor vehicles, etc etc. So, I became an expert in small arms and also cars. Cars are very important to Bond and I'm a non-driver, but you wouldn't believe it when you read the novel. So, I did a lot of research into cars and transport.
Having said that I was interested in the man, I wanted to make the novel very real. I'm a realistic novelist, not a fantasist or a magic realist. I like my fiction to be absolutely rooted in a place or a time. Whether it's Vienna in 1914, or London today, or the Philippines in 1902, the setting of my novels is scrupulously researched and, I hope, absolutely authentic, and that gives of a sort of tang and richness of its setting. So, I had to get that right for Bond as well. So, he goes on a real mission to real countries, and that the world he finds himself in is absolutely 1969. I don't think I'm giving anything away by saying there are no gimmicks. It's a real spy story. That's how I write anyway. And I couldn't have written a fantastical, or silly, or gimmicky Bond novel. I had to write a really gritty, down-to-earth, realistic one.