Today we continue our in-depth series of interviews with author Raymond Benson. In Part I Raymond spoke candidly about what it was really like to be plucked from fandom and entrusted with James Bond’s literary license to kill. Now we turn the spotlight on the specific works Raymond produced during his tenure as “continuation author,” and discover how he came up with so many original ways to menace the world and Agent 007.
[Warning: This interview may contain spoilers.]
Let’s talk about your work.
You wrote a very interesting article for “Bondage” and ‘OO7′ Magazines entitled “On the Trail of Ian Fleming” that described your research experiences when you were working on The James Bond Bedside Companion. Would you care to recap some of that for those of us who never saw that article?
I began the project in October of 1981 after I experienced a reawakening, so to speak, in Bond. This reawakening occurred due to the publication of John Gardner’s License Renewed and the release of the film For Your Eyes Only. In the space of a couple of months I had read a brand new Bond novel, the first since the sixties, and finally there was a Roger Moore picture that relied heavily on original Fleming material and played it, for the most part, straight. (I think Eyes Only is Roger’s best Bond film.) Over that summer I picked up some of the original Flemings and started re-reading and I got excited all over again. Since the off-off Broadway theatre business brought in little or no money, I was a little frustrated and wanted to do something else. I decided to try and write a coffee-table style reference book on Bond. Steven Jay Rubin had just published The James Bond Films and John Brosnan had done James Bond in the Cinema and those were the only two books on the movies. Works on the novels were long out of print, the most notable being Kingsley Amis’ The James Bond Dossier. I wanted a book that encompassed everything–Ian Fleming’s life, the novels, the films, trivia, and history. Through a friend of a friend I met an editor at A&W Publishers Inc. and pitched my idea. I had to write an outline and a couple of sample chapters to present. Much to my surprise I got the contract and an advance to write the book.
I had no idea I was about to undertake a three-year project. Talk about a labor of love! I became obsessed with Bond during that time. I re-read all the books in order, taking copious notes as I did so. Viewing the films again was more difficult because no one had VCRs in those days except rich people and the movies weren’t available yet on VHS. I tried to catch them at repertory cinemas and at one point I traveled to Washington DC and the Library of Congress to view some of the films. The Roger Moore pictures I had seen only once when they first came out and I needed to review them. Simultaneously I began to track down people associated with Ian Fleming.
Oh, and here’s something ironic. One of the first things I did was to write to Cubby Broccoli and to Glidrose Publications. EON’s lawyer wrote me back a terse letter and basically said I had no right to do the book. That was nonsense of course, but it was clear they weren’t going to cooperate with me. I would have to do what Rubin did with his book–buy photos from news agencies like UPI and Wide World Photo. It was Peter Janson-Smith who wrote me back from Glidrose. He basically said that they had no wish to cooperate with me, probably hoping that I would simply go away. I wasn’t going away, by now I was committed. I had a contract! So I had to find people that knew Fleming, not necessarily his family.
So who did you contact?
The first person I tracked down was Al Hart, the editor at Macmillan who worked on the first six books. He was working as an agent in 1981 and still lived in New York. I had a great interview with him and he gave me a number of other valuable contacts–namely Ernest Cuneo, who lived in Washington DC. Cuneo, as you know, was perhaps Fleming’s closest American friend–and the man to whom Thunderball was dedicated. I spent a lot of time with Ernie–he was quite the character. A very intelligent guy. He was in Intelligence during World War II, and that was when he met both Fleming and Ivar Bryce. Over the course of those few years, Ernie and I became close friends and remained so until his death in 1988. He even agreed to write my Introduction, for which I’m eternally grateful. (He also had some great stories about the creation of Thunderball!)
I also contacted Fleming’s American agent, Naomi Burton Stone, who was living in Maine. A particularly valuable contact was Clare Blanshard, a woman who had known Fleming since their days in Intelligence in World War II. She was living outside of London and was a good friend of Cuneo’s–and Ivar Bryce’s. It was one big networking operation. I’d contact one person and they’d give me two more contacts. That’s how it worked.
Where did you go from there?
I spent time at the Lilly Library at Indiana University, studying Fleming’s typescripts, as well as John Pearson’s notes for his biography on Fleming. Finally, in August of 1982, I took a trip to England for the first time in my life. Clare had arranged for me to stay with her and she helped me arrange meetings with various people. I wrote back to Peter Janson-Smith, explaining that I was coming to England and had appointments with all these people–so he had to take me seriously. He asked that I come in and meet him. We met and he asked to look over some of the material I had already written. I needed permission to quote from the Fleming novels in my book–and it was Glidrose that had to give it. He told me to go about my business in the UK and before I left he would give me an answer.
I met with Kingsley Amis and had a wonderful and hilarious interview with him. John Pearson and I spent some time together. I met with Ian Fleming’s stepdaughter, Fionn Morgan, and got a lot of good information on the Fleming family life. I met with Robert Harling, a close friend of Fleming’s and a member of the Assault Unit that Fleming created during the war. The big coup, though, was meeting Ivar Bryce, probably Fleming’s closest friend. I spent a weekend at his mansion, Moyns Park, and was able to go through piles of correspondence between Fleming and Bryce. Ivar and I remained friends until his death in 1985. Very interesting guy. I also spoke on the phone with Nicholas Fleming, Ian’s nephew, who pretty much the executor of the estate at the time and a member of the Board on Glidrose. We didn’t meet face to face until 1988, during my second trip to England. Before I left the UK on that first trip though, I met with Peter again at Glidrose and was given permission to use the quotes–for a fee of course.
Ivar Bryce put me in touch with his wife, Jo Bryce, who lived in New York State. They were still married, they just retained separate mansions. She wanted to live in the US and he wanted to live in the UK. Her mansion was called “Black Hole Hollow Farm,” and actually sat on the New York/Vermont border. Fleming set two stories in this area–“For Your Eyes Only” and the novel The Spy Who Loved Me. Jo was very helpful and allowed me to sift through her mementos and correspondence with Fleming.
By that time Never Say Never Again was in production, so I made contact with none other than Kevin McClory. Since EON wasn’t talking to me, I thought I might as well talk to McClory! He was incredibly gracious and met with me in New York on at least three occasions.
The book was nearly complete by December of 1982 when A&W Publishers suddenly went into Chapter 11. My book was in limbo for nearly a year. During that time I continued to work at my day job, do some theatre, and update the book (such as with new Gardner works and the two new films released in 1983). Finally at the end of 1983, Dodd Mead bought the rights to the book from A&W and I was back in business. It finally came out in November 1984. An updated edition was published in 1988 and was published in the UK for the first time.
Let’s move on to the role-playing game You Only Live Twice II: Back of Beyond. I don’t think many fans realize this was the first original Raymond Benson James Bond adventure. Can you tell me more about this?
I was a fan of the James Bond Role-Playing Game, published by Victory Games in 1983. I met Gerry Klug and Robert Kern, the creators, somewhere–at a convention or something–and expressed an interest in writing for them. They were happy to have me, especially with the Bedside Companion to my name. In December of 1984 we met again and I got the job to write an original adventure module. Their plan was to adapt existing films and also create “sequels” to films. (Their license was with EON, therefore they had to do EON films and they also couldn’t use SPECTRE or Blofeld.) I think their first “sequel” was Goldfinger II. I picked You Only Live Twice and they said to go for it. Since Bond had never been to Australia, I used that as the main location. To write one of those things, you have to be really in tune with the role-playing game itself–i.e., know all the rules, know what’s fun and what isn’t, and all that. I was into games and had been since I was a kid. I wrote the game in December 84 and January 1985. It was then put on hold for nearly a year because if I remember correctly Victory Games had too many games in the pipeline. So I went on to another project–the computer games.
That’s the next question! You did two computer game adaptations of Goldfinger and A View To A Kill. What’re your memories of these?
I was working with a literary agent in New York. He had been approached by Angelsoft, a software entertainment company run by author Mercer Mayer. They wanted a writer to design a couple of text-adventure games. This was in the era when Infocom games like Zork were popular. There are no graphics, just text. A story unfolds as you play the game. They wanted a writer to do a Stephen King adaptation (The Mist) and A View to a Kill. My agent thought of me. I got the job and immediately started working for Angelsoft in February 1985. I did The Mist first, and frankly it’s the most successful of the three games I did for them. I went on to A View to a Kill by the spring. I was able to see a rough cut of the film in late spring, the first time that had ever happened for me. Angelsoft was pleased with my work so they hired me to write Goldfinger over the summer. I was done with the games by September. The Mist and A View to a Kill came out in October, I think. Goldfinger was published in the spring of 1986. Mindscape was the company that published the games. This experience eventually led me to a seven-year career in the computer game industry as a game designer, but there were three years of other work in-between. I updated the Bedside Companion in 1987-1988, worked some more in theatre, worked for a famous architect named I. M. Pei, taught courses at a Manhattan college (including a Bond course), and did other freelance writing gigs. One highlight was interviewing Timothy Dalton for the New York Daily News in 1989 when he was promoting Licence to Kill. That interview was published in its entirety later in ‘OO7′ Magazine. Beginning in 1990, I moved my family across country no less than three times to work for computer game companies. We ended up in the suburbs of Chicago in 1994.
You say you saw a rough cut of AVTAK. Was there anything you remember in this version that was different or wasn’t in the final film?
It didn’t have the music yet. They had pasted in music from previous Bond films for mood. But I can’t recall any scenes that didn’t make it to the final cut.
Former Bond screenwriter Bruce Feirstein wrote the hit game Everything or Nothing. If asked, would you return to the James Bond computer game arena?
I think that’s a question that would best be answered depending on what I was doing at the moment. I’d consider it, especially if it was simply to write dialogue or a plot line. I’ve been out of the computer game industry since 1997. It’s an industry you have to keep up with on a technological basis and I’m afraid it may have passed me by!
Let’s move on to your tenure as Bond author. Because you had yet to be published as a writer of fiction, was your first short story, “Blast from the Past,” an audition of sorts?
No, not really, but it was something we decided would kick off my series. You see, I had already written the first four chapters of Zero Minus Ten before I got the contract to do the complete novel. I had to write the outline and those four chapters on spec–that was the audition, so to speak. All that occurred between November 1995 and March 1996. Mind you, I was still working eight to five at Viacom New Media as a computer game designer, all the way through April 1997! I had no guarantee at the time that being Bond author was going to fly. We had to get one book out and see how it was received. So I wasn’t about to leave my day job, not yet anyway.
Who’s idea was it to publish “Blast from the Past” in Playboy?
I had met Hugh Hefner for the first time in 1994. I had always been a Playboy fan since I was in high school, back in the early 70s. Despite what anyone may think of its pictorial value, Playboy was actually a highly respected literary magazine, especially in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. They published the greatest writers of the latter half of the 20th Century. (Not only that but Playboy is known for paying writers more for fiction than any other magazine.) Ian Fleming’s first published appearance in America was in Playboy and the magazine has a long history with Bond. I admired Hefner for his “great American success story.” He really led a James Bond-style life. Anyway, I knew he was a big Bond fan because of Playboy’s connection with 007. I sent him a copy of the Bedside Companion when it was published. I was surprised when he actually wrote me back, thanking me, and we began an infrequent but regular correspondence through the rest of the 80s and early 90s. When I knew I would be attending the James Bond Convention that was held in LA in November 1994, I boldly wrote to Hef and asked if I could come to the mansion and meet him. He said yes! So, we were already acquaintances of sorts. Fast forward to spring 1996. I had the contract to write my first Bond novel. However, my research trip to Hong Kong and China wasn’t scheduled until May. I had a couple of months to kill. I didn’t want to start writing more of the book until after I had done the research trip. So I suggested to Peter Janson-Smith at Glidrose that we contact Playboy and propose an original short story–something to re-establish the literary tie with the magazine. He thought it was a great idea. So I contacted Hef and he was very excited. So we were commissioned to write an exclusive short story for Playboy. I wrote it during April 1996 and it would appear in the January 1997 issue.
James Bond’s son, James Suzuki, could have been a franchise character all his own. Did Glidrose — or EON — give you any flack about killing him off?
The thing is that any offspring of Bond couldn’t be used. EON had bought all the rights to “any offspring” so that they could do James Bond Jr. That’s why John Gardner never used Kissy Suzuki’s son. However, I was dying to do it. I’d been dying to have a story explaining what happened to the son since I first read You Only Live Twice. John Pearson mentioned him in his fictional biography, which is where I got the name “James Suzuki.” I kept it. Anyway, after consulting with Peter at Glidrose, we figured out that the only way I could write about the character was if he was dead! You’ll note that the story is about James Suzuki, but he never really appears (not alive, anyway)! I never got any flack from EON. I don’t think they really cared.
You’ve said that you continued the tradition of naming some characters after people you know, just as Fleming and Gardner did. Did any appear in “Blast from the Past”?
Yes, slightly. The three forensics officers that come to James Suzuki’s apartment are named Stuart, Paul, and Dan. In the original typescript, their last names were included but these were edited out. All three are longtime friends of mine–Stuart Howard, Paul Dantuono, and Dan Duling. They would make further appearances with their full names intact. Another guy, Alan Forbes, a taxi driver I had known in New York City, is mentioned as the former head of the MI6 branch in NYC–but he had gone to Texas after winning the lottery. In real life, Alan had gone to Texas, but he didn’t win the lottery. By the way, James Suzuki lived in the same apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan where I lived when I was single.
You’ve mentioned there’s a longer version of “Blast from the Past” that has never been published in English. Many fans would love to read this. Is there a chance IFP would allow it to be published in a James Bond fanzine like ‘OO7′, or allow you to publish it as an eBook or a print on demand?
That’s totally up to IFP. I think the longer version works better. Reading it now, however, it’s painfully obvious that it’s my first work. I wince at parts of the writing. Still, it’s a pretty good story, if you know what I mean. It’s something that probably could have been developed into an even longer piece, but I think it works just fine as it is. For a first effort, everyone seemed to be pleased with it, including Playboy. It’s a shame they had to cut 1/3 of it.
Zero Minus Ten
Your first Bond novel takes place during the Hong Kong handover of 1997. Was there a concern that this book would be instantly “dated?”
No, we weren’t concerned about that. Lots of Bond novels have aspects that date them. I knew that the book would be published in the summer of 1997 and it was simply too good of a situation not to take advantage of.
The “travelogue” element was an important part of the Fleming books, but less so in the Gardner books. You seem to very much re-embrace this element in your books. Can you tell us how you go about researching your locations and how you flesh them out in such great detail?
I tried to visit every location that appeared in my books. I succeeded except in two or three instances. This was the first time I had gone on a research trip of this nature and I wasn’t sure how long it would really take. I was still working at Viacom so I didn’t have a lot of vacation time. My wife wanted to go with me so we arranged it for just a little over a week in May. In hindsight I could have used a lot more time. Subsequent research trips were two weeks minimum and sometimes as long as four. To start out I did a lot of preparation at home. I contacted the Hong Kong tourist agency, explained some of the things I needed, and hoped for the best. Luckily the name James Bond opens a lot of doors. They agreed to help me see some places that were important in the book–namely the shipping docks and a Chinese single woman’s apartment. Nearly everything else I was able to see on my own. I contacted the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank for an exclusive tour of their fabulous building, where the foot chase takes place. I contacted the Royal Hong Kong Police to get an interview with their Triad experts. I spent a day with those guys and it was fascinating. My friend James Pickard, a British gentleman with a huge Fleming collection, worked and lived in Hong Kong at the time. He was able to provide some guide services. Mostly though, my wife and I explored the city on our own. I took notes, shot photos, and basically absorbed everything I could–the sounds, smells, tastes, and sights. One day we took a guided tour into southern China. I purposefully set the Chinese locations in the story where I knew we’d be going, namely Guangzhou. Even though we were on a tour under the watchful eyes of Chinese guides, I was able to perform my research. At one point we were at the Sun Yat-sen Memorial, where Bond hides from the baddies–right across the street are the government buildings where he is caned. I had to take photos and write notes on the sly (and very quickly) so as not to arouse suspicion! It wouldn’t have been too cool to be arrested as a spy.
We also spent a half-day in Macau, exploring the casino I used in the story. That was a strange experience. Macau really is the wild west over there–full of Triad types. My wife and I were the only Caucasians in the casino–and it was packed. They take their gambling very seriously over there–it’s nothing like Las Vegas, which is more like a circus. In Macau, it’s deadly quiet, smoky, and every face is dead pan. I played a little blackjack and roulette and actually walked away with a little extra cash. We got out of there as soon as I felt I had enough information.
I was unable to go to Australia, which features in about three chapters in the book. However, I had some great correspondence with a lady that lived in Kalgoorlie. I got pictures, brochures, and other info from her. She also read my chapters to make sure I got the descriptions right.
I loved that your villain, Guy Thackeray, is an alcoholic. How did you create a Bond villain? Do you first come up with their caper and design a villain who would commit such a crime? Or do you go the other way, design a villain and ask what crime they would commit?
It was different each time, depending on the book. With this one, the situation came first. I did some research on the history of Hong Kong. Why the heck did Britain own it and was suddenly giving it back to China? I never knew the story behind that. After reading up on it, I learned that there was this war between Britain and China in the late 1800s over the sale of opium. Britain won the war and claimed the territory known as Hong Kong, Kowloon, and the New Territories. A treaty executed in 1897 gave Britain these colonies, but some fool in England put in the clause that they’d give the territories back to China in 100 years! Britain made good on its promise. Anyway, I figured that there had to be a lot of people, especially business people with money tied up in Hong Kong, that weren’t too happy about the handover. So I created an Englishman that was violently opposed to Hong Kong going back to China. I always pictured Jeremy Irons as Guy Thackeray, by the way. And Chow Yun-Fat as Li Xu Nan, the Triad leader. I was probably influenced a lot by John Woo films and Jackie Chan pictures that I was heavily into at the time.
Was the Mahjong game sequence your attempt at creating a classic Bond novel gaming duel like the Bridge game in Moonraker or the golf game in Goldfinger? Are you a Mahjong player yourself?
Yes and yes. Gaming sequences are important to Bond novels and there hadn’t been one since Fleming. I pulled a lot of hair trying to come up with just the right game that they could play in Hong Kong. Mahjong made the most sense, because it’s taken very seriously over there. The rules are different, too, so I had to find some people who played by Hong Kong rules. A friend of mine in Dallas, Texas happened to be friends with a Chinese couple from Hong Kong that played mahjong on a regular basis–the Hong Kong version. I flew to Dallas for the weekend and joined in. For a full weekend I did nothing but play mahjong with these Chinese people. Believe me, I learned it!
You’ve said Glidrose encouraged you to blend movie and book elements, but the Q scene in ZMT felt a little forced to me. Was this a case where you felt you needed to include this scene — and the Q character — for movie fans?
Yes, including Boothroyd (not “Q”!–EON owns the rights to the name “Q”) was necessary. I had to include the female M, Miss Moneypenny, and Boothroyd simply to make the book a part of both series. For the first book, especially, I felt it was necessary.
Here’s a tough question from a fan. Henry would like to know: “Did you get any stick from anyone for the portrayal of the Chinese (as, mostly, corrupt Mainland generals, greedy Hong Kong Triads, whores, superstitious, ancestor-worshipping people, etc.) and the Aborigine in Zero Minus Ten?”
No, but I was a little nervous about the Triads. They don’t like their ceremonies seen by Western eyes. The Royal Hong Kong Police guys gave me a transcript of an honest-to-God Triad ceremony, which I used practically verbatim in the book. I wondered if I might become the next Salman Rushdie and have a bunch of Triads after me for that, but the RHKP assured me I had nothing to worry about.
One of my favorite parts of the novel is Bond’s ordeal in the Australian outback. It was quite bold to take Bond out of the action so close to the end of the book and, essentially, maroon him for a full chapter. Can you tell me a bit about this sequence and what inspired you to write it and place it where you did?
It was inspired by a sequence that I had in my role-playing adventure, You Only Live Twice–Back of Beyond. It was such a great sequence in the game–it always worked excitingly well during gameplay–that I wanted to recreate it for the novel. I borrowed some of the elements, such as the survival kit inside the shoe. As far as placement in the book, it just felt right. There was a ticking time bomb generating suspense and here was Bond in the middle of nowhere having to walk back to civilization. It was a very unique situation. I like it a lot.
You used James Pickard for a cameo role in this book and you’ve already said that he’s a real person. What other real people appear in this book?
As I said, at the time James was a banker working in Hong Kong. He moved back to Britain after the handover. I had known him since the 80s. Since he was helpful in providing information for the book, I honored him by creating a character with his name–further enhanced by Bond taking the name as an alias. Usually I tried to do this for people who had a role in helping me with a particular book. Other times they were just friends I wanted to include. Another guy was Skip Stewart, the Australian pilot. He’s a friend of mine from Baltimore, although he’s not Australian. David Marsh was a producer I worked with at Viacom New Media. He appears as a customs agent in Britain. Finally, Michael VanBlaricum appears as a nuclear scientist. He was the first president of the Ian Fleming Foundation and is really a physicist.
After your research trip, what were the next steps toward publication?
I wrote the book during the summer of 1996. It had to be delivered to Glidrose in September. The publishers needed final copy by November. I was on time and we spent September and October doing what would become standard operating procedure–comments and revisions, not only from Glidrose, but also from my editors at Hodder & Stoughton and Putnam. I’m happy to say nothing major had to be changed. Glidrose and the publishers were pleased, so I got a contract to write further books. By October of 96, I was already working on the outline for the second book.
What was it like when you first held the published book in your hands and saw “A James Bond Novel by Raymond Benson” on the cover page?
Totally surreal. It took a long time to sink in. It never got to be old hat, either. When each book was published, it was a bizarre experience to look at it.
The collector in me has to ask this question. The cover art for the US paperback ZMT that is featured on Amazon.com is not the cover art that was eventually used. Any idea why they changed it? And, in general, are you pleased with how the US and UK publishers have packaged your books–i..e., cover art, typesetting, etc.?
The cover art you speak of was the original cover art that was designed for the paperback. It had already been submitted to places like Amazon but at the last minute, Putnam’s marketing people decided to change it. I have no idea why. I like the original artwork. Anyway, they came up with the more generic silhouette figure cover very quickly. I love the British covers. The British really know how to do book jackets. They’re illustrative. American publishers tend to go for very simple, bold jackets with little or no illustration that emphasize either the best-selling author, or in this case, the well-known series character–James Bond.
How about the title? Was it yours?
No. The titles always come last. The titles are the biggest pains. I always have a working title while I’m writing the book. In this case it was No Tears for Hong Kong. Glidrose and the publishers didn’t like that. So what happens is that I submit several titles, Glidrose submits some, and both publishers submit some. We all have to agree on it before one is picked. Then, the marketing departments of both publishers get involved. If they don’t like the title we picked, we have to go back to the drawing board. I believe it was the head of Putnam that first came up with Zero Minus Two. I was puzzled by the “Two” and wondered where she had pulled that number from. I went back to the book and counted the number of days that Bond is in Hong Kong before the climax of the story–and it was ten days. So I countered with the suggestion that the title be changed to Zero Minus Ten–and everyone liked that. I then added the little headings to the chapters that describe what day it is, counting down to zero.
You dedicate the book in part to “the people of Hong Kong.” Have you been back to Hong Kong after the handover? If so, how has it changed?
At the time I thought it was a nice gesture, because I had been so enamored with the city that I couldn’t imagine what it would be like under Chinese rule. I haven’t been back. Apparently not much has changed.
The Facts of Death
If you don’t mind, I’m going to skip over your novelization of Tomorrow Never Dies and come back to all the novelizations later. Let’s jump to your next original book, The Facts of Death. They say everyone has one novel in them, and I would say this is especially true of Bond fans–we all have our one Bond book or movie idea. You got to do yours. Did you have another idea fresh in your mind, or was it a struggle to come up with book number two?
I wouldn’t say it was a struggle. (Actually, each one is a struggle! None of them were easy!) The yearly schedule required that I had to have the next outline done by the end of the year, which meant December 1996. I was interested in the Cyprus situation and thought it would make a good setting for a Bond story, since Britain had two important military bases in southern Cyprus. That meant that a lot of the story could take place in Greece, where Bond hadn’t been since Colonel Sun. I had become friendly over the Internet with Panos Sambrakos, a Greek Bond fan that had begun a Bond website, Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. I corresponded with him a lot during the fall of 96 and he helped me with several suggestions. I had originally thought I wanted a villain that was tied up with Greek mythology, but it was Panos who suggested making him a mathematician.
This book deals with a pretty sensitive real-life conflict–the tensions between Greece and Turkey over Cyprus. Any flack or political fallout from this? Did you feel compelled to take a point of view on the conflict, or did you go out of your way to keep the book, and Bond, neutral.
It was important that Bond and Britain stay neutral. I had to visit both sides of Cyprus–the Greek side and the Turkish side–so to get cooperation from both I had to present a very fair picture of the conflict. In the end of the book there is a rather maudlin plea for peace, and I guess that’s the viewpoint I wanted–and needed–to take.
I really enjoyed the DECADA. How did you come up with them? Was this revenge on old your old math teachers by any chance?
As I said, Panos came up with the idea of using a mathematician. Further discussion brought out Pythagoras and so I decided to make Romanos think he’s the reincarnated soul of Pythagoras. I hadn’t yet come up with The Union, but I was already thinking in terms of creating a SPECTRE-like organization. I guess the Decada was a trial run. Pythagoras really was the head of a secret society of mathematicians who had a lot of strange rites and practices.
Here’s another question from a fan. Peter asks: “Mr. Benson–I loved The Facts Of Death and personally thought it was your best novel. Were you inspired to have it take place mostly in Greece by Colonel Sun or would you have put the novel there anyway?”
It was the Cyprus situation that came first, so Greece–or Turkey–would have been the natural offshoot from there. I decided to go with Greece simply because of my connection with Panos and because I personally wanted to go to Greece!
Can you tell us about the research trip you took for this book?
I was still working out the best way to do research trips. For this one, I thought maybe I should go earlier in the year, so I went abroad in February 1997. That proved to be too early, because many places I wanted to see in Greece were still closed for the winter. Beginning with the next book, I found that the best time to go was between March and May. Anyway, this one started in England. I hadn’t been to the UK since 1988. There are a lot of sequences in the early part of the book that take place in London and the outskirts where Quarterdeck is supposed to be. I visited all of those places during those first few days, as well as did a lot of Glidrose/publishing business. I did interviews, I met the Fleming sisters, Lucy and Kate (Ian’s nieces) for the first time, I met Roddy Fleming (Ian’s nephew and head of the Fleming bank) for the first time, and I met my British editor for the first time. I then flew to Athens, where Panos met me. He had arranged to take a week off of work to be my guide around Greece. I couldn’t have done it without him. I stayed in the hotel where Bond stayed. We ate in the same places, visited the same casino, and went to all the locations in the book–except Santorini, which was closed for the winter. Chios was incredible. That abandoned, ancient city at the top of the cliff really exists. It was perfect for a Bond story. I flew to Cyprus on my own. I had arranged beforehand, as I did with Hong Kong, for guides to take me around to the places I needed to see. I spent a day and a half in southern Cyprus, where I toured the British military bases and the capital, Nicosia. I met with the U.S. Ambassador to Cyprus at the U.S. Embassy, my first time ever in a foreign embassy. We discussed the political situation at length, and this was helpful. The next day I went to the Turkish side. One has to walk across the no-man’s land separating the city–a very strange experience. It’s as if time had stopped in that little half-mile–things were just as they were left in 1974, when the Turks invaded the island. There are still overturned cars and remnants of explosions. The UN peacekeeping forces stay in a hotel in the middle of the no-man’s land. A Turkish tour guide met me on the other side and we spent the day traveling through the north. It’s all very beautiful country. It was an experience I never would have had, I’m sure, had I not been writing a novel.
The first third of the book is set in your former home state of Texas. Tell us about your choices here. Was the Tex-Mex restaurant where Bond and Leiter dine a favorite spot of yours?
I really wanted to bring Bond back to Texas. Yes, it’s my home state. Gardner had Bond in Texas for For Special Services. I wanted to take Bond to Austin, my favorite city in Texas. I figured that Felix Leiter was the best excuse for Bond to be in Texas. Fleming created Leiter as a Texan, so it made sense that he was living there now. It was easy enough to create a Texas-Greek connection in the plot, with M’s lover having taught at the university there. It was certainly a location I didn’t have to visit again to write about. I know Austin like the back of my hand. And yes, Chuy’s, the Tex-Mex restaurant, exists and it is indeed a favorite eatery. Bond always goes native when he’s in foreign places. Felix would certainly take him to a place like that because it is so representative of Austin and of Texas. I also have no qualms that Felix would order a pitcher of frozen margaritas because that’s just what you have to have when you’re eating Tex-Mex. Bond naturally turns up his nose at first, but once he’s eating and drinking, he enjoys it. I truly believe that would be his reaction. Chuy’s now has a sign on the wall that says something like “James Bond Ate Here.”
You said that The Facts of Death was an attempt to write an Eon-type Bond movie. Did you envision actors in the roles? If so, who?
I would love to have cast a young Anthony Quinn in the role of Romanos, but I otherwise didn’t have a modern actor in mind. I pictured Lena Olin as Hera. I didn’t have any actors in mind for other roles. I populated it with a lot of real people though. Ray Winninger and David Ashcraft–two investigators in the first chapter–are friends in Illinois. Chris Whitten, a dead soldier, is a friend in the UK. Stuart Howard finally appeared with his full name intact–as a Scotland Yard detective. He returns in DoubleShot too. Tom Zielinski, a Chicago-area friend, appears as the sperm clinic doctor. Jack Herman and Bill Johnson, Texan baddies, were both friends of mine from Austin. James Goodner, another Texan, appears as a law enforcement officer. And finally, Panos Sambrakos appears, more or less as himself.
Here’s one of those annoying questions only a hardcore Bond fan like me would ask. In this book you mention that Bond has a Bentley Mulsanne Turbo R, yet Gardner’s Bentley was a Mulsanne Turbo–the “R” is a newer model. Honest mistake? Or did you imagine James upgraded at some point?
Gardner upgraded it to the R in one of his later books! Better check again!
I will! 😉 This book introduces your own gee-wiz Bond car; the Jaguar XK8. How did you come to choose this car? Did you consult with Jaguar the way Gardner did with Saab and Bentley?
I had a discussion with Peter Janson-Smith about what new car I should give to Bond. The two choices were the Jaguar XK8 and the new Aston-Martin. I decided to go with the Jaguar simply because I liked it better personally. Even though Ford owns Jaguar now, it’s still a British car. It’s designed in Britain by British engineers. I did indeed contact Jaguar and worked with one of the designers of the car to come up with the gadgets. Contrary to what some Bond fans complained of, every single gadget we had in the car was something that was possible. If it wasn’t already in existence, it was on the drawing table. All that crazy stuff such as color-changing pigment and holograms–these were all suggested by the Jaguar guy. He even did some blueprint drawings of the car showing where the gadgets would be. We had so much stuff that I decided to save some of them for the next book, which is why the Jaguar appears in High Time to Kill.
Your original title for this book was The World Is Not Enough. Why was this title rejected? Were you surprised when it was later used as a title for a Bond film?
Would you believe that Glidrose and both publishers didn’t like the title? They thought it wasn’t “Bondian.” Go figure. I secretly enjoyed the irony of all that when EON came to produce their film titled–surprise, surprise–The World is Not Enough. I ended up using the title as a chapter title in the book. Peter came up with The Facts of Death. I rather like that title. It’s very Fleming-esque, in my opinion.
High Time to Kill
High Time to Kill is a clear fan favorite and arguably your most original approach to a James Bond story. Tell me how you came up with the idea to do a “James Bond meets Cliffhanger” type novel?
Sometime during 1997 I had read Into Thin Air and really liked it. I immediately thought how a great Bond story could be fashioned out of a mountain climbing scenario. So with that book, the entire premise centered around a mountain climbing expedition. Not only was it very Bondian and surprisingly had never been done before, but Ian Fleming was also a huge fan of climbing when he was a young man. It just seemed like something Fleming would have done eventually. Mountain climbing had a place in Bond’s past, too–his parents were killed in a climbing accident. So that’s where the idea came from. Then and there I knew the setting would be the Himalayas. The next thing was to come up with a reason for the mountain climbing to occur. So I did the old Hitchcock trick and invented a McGuffin–a device that really means nothing but is the impetus for the plot moving forward. My McGuffin was “Skin 17,” the formula for an aircraft hull that could withstand a speed of Mach 7. I consulted with a guy that worked for a military aircraft company and I learned enough about it that I could spin some convincing mumbo jumbo about it, and that’s all I needed. The rest of the story was a test of wills between two men–Bond and Marquis. And that’s really what the story is about–these two men pitted against each other in the most extreme conditions imaginable.
Fate plays a major role in this novel when events are turned on their head by a plane crash. Was it a conscious choice to introduce an act of God as an element in the world of James Bond, or was it just an irresistible “twist?”
It was a conscious choice. I had to get that pacemaker at the top of the mountain. Then it becomes a race to get up the mountain and retrieve it.
The microdot in the pacemaker… great! How on earth did you come up with that?
It just came to me. I really don’t remember how I thought of it.
What about the Visual Library?
That was just an idea I had. When you think about all the information that’s available now on the Internet, such a concept isn’t too far away. I’m sure that similar data resources must exist now.
Bond fan Devin would like to know what you had in mind when you created Roland Marquis and how you would compare him with the other villains you’ve created?
I really wanted another Bond, a guy that was his contemporary, someone with the same skill set, someone British, and I wanted the two of them to have a history. So they had been at school together and were rivals. It was perfect. Can’t you imagine Kenneth Branagh playing Marquis? That’s who was in my mind the entire time. He’d be great.
I particularly like the fact that altitude sickness motivates Marquis’s classic Bond villain megalomania in a very believable way. Was this a conscious choice, or just the happy result of fusing a James Bond story and a mountaineering adventure?
Well I had to get the altitude sickness in there somehow! Giving it to Marquis was the logical choice.
So what about the real people in High Time to Kill? You mentioned Kenneth Branagh as Roland Marquis–are there any other actors that you imagined playing roles?
I imagined Nicole Kidman as Hope Kendall. Jean Reno as Paul Baack. That’s about it. Real people–Paul Baack, of course, was one of my good friends in the Chicago area (at the time). He and Tom Zielinski have a Bond website called Her Majesty’s Secret Servant. The real Paul Baack isn’t Dutch, of course. Steven Harding, the Union baddie that helps steal the formula, is a real person, a friend I knew in Austin. The name Roland Marquis belongs to a real person that I know in the Chicago area. When I first met him I told him what a cool name he had and asked if I could use it for a Bond villain. He was flattered. The character in the book has no resemblance whatsoever to the real person, though–just the name. Randall Rice, the alias Harding uses, is a friend of mine from Texas. And finally, David Reinhardt, the shooting range instructor at MI6, is my longtime friend and fellow Ian Fleming Foundation board member who hails from Canada.
HTTK is the first part of a 3 book trilogy. Tell us what made you decide to tackle a trilogy of Bond books?
I didn’t know it was going to be a trilogy until I’d completed the outline for HTTK. Then I realized that I had this organization, The Union, and a mysterious leader, Le Gerant, and I thought I could bring these guys back. I talked it over with Peter and he said to go ahead, as long as each book could be read on its own without having to depend on the other two books. I think I accomplished that–you really don’t need to have read HTTK to enjoy DoubleShot, and you don’t need to have read DoubleShot to enjoy Never Dream of Dying. When you think about it, there are remnants of the plot in NDOD that continue on into The Man With the Red Tattoo. Sure, it flows better and probably is a more satisfying experience if you do read them in the proper order. The same can be said for Thunderball, OHMSS, You Only Live Twice, and The Man with the Golden Gun.
You’ve been complimented on how well you flesh out locations, and HTTK is one of your best books in this regard, yet you didn’t take a research trip to Nepal for this book. Can you tell us that story?
I meant to go to Nepal and had it all set up. The tour agency I was dealing with–and they specialized on Nepal–screwed up. Once again, I began in England, then went to Belgium, where a good part of the novel takes place. In Belgium I visited all those locations in the book, including a doctor’s office, the police station, the hospital, and the hotel. I stayed in the Sarah Bernhardt Suite at the Metropole and had a lot of fun imagining how I could smash it up with a fight scene. At the hospital I donned greens and actually stood in an operating room and watched open heart surgery being performed. I went back to London and was all set to fly to Kathmandu–via India. You have to fly to India, spend the night there, and catch the plane to Kathmandu the next morning. I had my visa for Nepal, the plane tickets, and I went to Heathrow to board the plane. The agent says, “Where’s your visa for India?” Huh? “You need a visa for India.” The tour agency never told me that. They had completely forgotten to arrange that little important bit. Well, it would have taken me 24 hours to get a visa for India. My time in Nepal was going to be very limited as it was–only four days. By the time I could get a visa for India and make the trip, I’d have two days in Nepal before I had to turn around and come back. It wasn’t worth the wear and tear on my physical self. I was just going to Kathmandu. I wasn’t going to climb any mountains! So, instead, I spent a couple of days with the Gurkha regiment in Aldershot. They were extremely helpful. They supplied me with videos, photos, books, and spent hours answering my questions. They gave me Nepalese food. I got to know them well enough to create the character Chandra. It turned out that this was all I needed.
How did you research the mountain climbing details? The equipment, the effects of altitude sickness, etc.?
The mountain climbing stuff came from pure research. Books, videos, websites, what have you. My most valuable resource was a guy named Scott McKee, the first American that got to Kangchenjunga’s summit via the north face. He supplied me with maps and the routes that he took, described his day-to-day experiences, and read my book for accuracy when I was done. According to him, I was dead on.
When this book first appeared on Amazon.com it was titled A Better Way To Die. What happened? Was there a last minute title change ?
Yes. That was my working title, based on the Gurkha motto. Everyone seemed to like it but at the last minute I think it was Putnam’s marketing people that suddenly wanted it changed. I really don’t know why. So we had to scramble for a new title. Someone at Putnam came up with High Time to Kill. I wasn’t crazy about the title, but I could live with it.
You dedicate HTTK to your two mentors; Francis Hodge and Peter Janson-Smith. Can you share a bit with us about these two individuals and how they influenced your life and career?
Peter Janson-Smith you know about. He was Fleming’s literary agent and the man that guided Glidrose for many, many years until his retirement in 2000. He trusted me enough to give me the job of writing Bond novels. He had to have the Board’s approval, of course, and I’m sure he had a hell of a job convincing them! He’s been a good friend since I first met him in 1982. He gave me a lot of guidance during the writing of the books and he was a good editor. Francis Hodge was my directing professor at the University of Texas at Austin. I majored in theatre with an emphasis on directing. Did you ever see that movie, The Paper Chase, with John Houseman? Francis Hodge was a lot like the John Houseman character in that film. He had a lot of mystique in the Drama Department and he was a great teacher. Students were simultaneously afraid of him and in awe of him. He wrote the most widely used directing textbook in the country (Play Directing–Analysis, Communication, and Style). I learned more about life from Dr. Hodge than from anyone else. But most importantly, he really taught me how to tell a story. Everything I learned from him I have applied toward my writing.
TO BE CONTINUED…
In Part III we continue our look at the works of Raymond Benson.
To discuss this interview visit this thread in the CBn Forums.