On March 3, 2005 Ian Fleming Publications and Puffin Books will release SilverFin, the first of a series of Young Bond novels written by Charlie Higson, co-creator of the hugely popular BBC comedy series, ‘The Fast Show’, and a successful screenwriter and adult thriller novelist. Today CBn has the extreme honour of being the first James Bond website to interview Mr. Higson about SilverFin and the Young Bond series.
First off, can you tell us briefly how you got the job?
Ian Fleming Publications approached several writers–both children’s authors and adult novelists–in the end, I was the one they decided to go with. Exactly why is a question that only IFP can answer. But I think they were looking for someone who had a simple, direct writing style, who was a fan of Bond and who would be willing to work within the guidelines they had established for the books.
How did you go about researching life at Eton in the 1930s?
Eton is still there. Some of the buildings have been standing there since the Middle Ages. So the first place to start was at the school itself. The Flemings have a good relationship with the senior librarian there, Michael Meredith. Who has incidentally created a fine Ian Fleming archive in the library–including many first editions. I think the college is quite proud of its associations with James Bond (Ian Fleming of course went there in the twenties). Michael is a big Bond fan, and a great collector of books. He has been very helpful with my research and has been checking my manuscripts for authenticity and giving me the odd tip.
There is a wealth of material published about Eton, much of which I have read, but the most helpful book was one written by Bernard Fregusson about what it was like to be a boy at the school in the early thirties.
Will you go into the details about Bond’s expulsion from Eton at some point in a later book?
Of course I will. How could I not? I know this is going to be a sticky point about which the Bond fanatics will get most huffy–but, in my books, Bond is going to be at Eton for more than two halves! Shock horror. (A term is called a half at Eton) But, don’t worry, have patience, it’s all going to be explained in book 5–and it will work quite neatly with what Fleming wrote. I’m afraid you’ll just have to read the book to find out exactly how it works… (It will include an incident involving a boy’s maid and Bond’s removal from the school). But, do you really think that an obituary written by the head of the secret service about an active spy is going to be the whole truth?
I’m interested in how you came to use eels as such an integral part of the story. It’s brilliant, by the way…but how did it come about?
Nobody likes eels. My wife in particular has a thing about them. (Actually eels are fascinating and much misunderstood creatures, and I think I’ve given them a bad press in this book, which is a pity because they’re being wiped out at the moment.)
I needed a bad animal. Finding a new dangerous animal for a Bond project is tough (witness the killer bass in Austin Powers). We’ve had all the obvious ones–octopus, giant squid, tiger, sharks, crocodiles etc. etc. But I wanted something scary that kids could relate to and might actually think they could come across in their own lives. Eels were the obvious choice. But, as eels are fairly benign and would never attack a human, I had to make them mutated eels, which led me to some of the mechanics of the plot.
SilverFin is quite long for a children’s book–it’s actually the longest James Bond book yet written. Were you given a word restriction?
Is it longer than the Fleming books? Don’t be fooled by the page count, it’s large type for children!
(The second book is even longer, I’m afraid.)
I had no guidelines for length. I just wrote it as it came out, though it has of course been edited down and tightened since my first draft.
Kids like to be engrossed in books (Harry Potter seems quite popular, and something called Lord Of The Rings) and we also wanted to it to be clear that this was a proper novel not just a cheapo, quickie cash in, so I really wanted it to be something substantial.
Have you read any of the post Fleming novels, most notably “James Bond the Authorized Biography of 007” by John Pearson, which covers some of the same territory you cover in the Young Bond series?
No. I deliberately steered clear of anything post Fleming. My books are designed to fit in with what Fleming wrote and nothing else. I also didn’t want to be influenced by any of the other books, particularly the Pearson one (which I gather is actually rather good). One day I’ll read them. But for now my Bible is Fleming.
You choose to call him “James” throughout the novel instead of “Bond”, as Fleming, Gardner, and Benson did. Was this a deliberate choice, or, because of his age, did “James” just feel more natural?
Boys at Eton in the thirties called each other by their first names. And it just didn’t seem right to have a 13 year old boy referred to constantly by his surname in the text. I think it humanises him, calling him James, and makes him more of a real person for the young readers. OK, so he grows up to be James Bond, the icon, but he must once have been an ordinary boy.
(The girls in the films and books all call him “James” as well. It’s somehow more intimate.)
Aunt Charmian is established in Fleming, I believe, but is Uncle Max an original character? What made you give Bond a mentor who was a WWI spy?
Charmian is mentioned in You Only Live Twice. Max is my own invention.
It was decided very early on that James should very much not be a teenage spy figure; we didn’t want to go down the cheesy Cody Banks/Spy Kids route. We wanted him to be a real boy at a real school. Also, it’s clear from the adult novels that James didn’t get involved in spying until the Second World War. But I did want there to be some element of spying in the book, because that’s obviously what Bond is known for. So it felt right for him to have an uncle who had been a spy in the First World War. It gives us a taste of the world that James is going to be involved with when he grows up, and the man he is going to become.
Is the Bentley Aunt Charmian drives the same car Bond drives in the Fleming books?
It certainly is. I put an early Aston Martin in the book as well, for film fans, but I knew there had to be some mention of the Bentley for people who know Bond from the books (it also appears in From Russia With Love at the start of the movie when Connery is indulging in a spot of ‘lunch’ with Sylvia Trench). It says in Casino Royale that Bond bought himself a Bentley in the early thirties, but exactly how old he was when this happened is not definite (Fleming famously altered his timescale as he went along to keep Bond young.) But we will be covering this purchase in a later book.
Some fans have already expressed discomfort with what they sense are too many similarities to Harry Potter in the Young Bond series. Do you have any feelings or fears about SilverFin being perceived as being too Potteresque?
Oh, come on. Have they read the book?
There have been countless stories written about boys at school from Tom Brown’s schooldays onwards, you could say that they are all Potteresque! Or you could concede that they might all be different. If you write about a boy of thirteen (which is the correct age to appeal to our target audience) then he is going to be at school, there’s no way around it.
Bond was at Eton, a weird, crusty boarding school. Obviously, the success of the Potter novels meant that IFP were less nervous about whether kids of today could relate to someone at a weird, crusty, English boarding school, but otherwise there are no similarities. There are no wizards, goblins, magic spells or whatnot.
Bond has a regular set of friends at the school, but they are not a gang who go off on adventures together. James is very much his own man. Eton is the background to the books in much the same way that the secret service is the background to the adult books. It’s a springboard for adventures rather than the focus of all activity (as the school is in the Potter books).
The following question and answer contain SPOILERS. Highlight to read.
Near the end of the novel, Bond receives an injection of the SilverFin serum (meant to change people into ultimate and obedient soldiers). After the injection, Bond does undergo quite a radical change and in the end it’s said there something “cold and frightening” in his eyes. Are you suggesting that the SilverFin serum is what gave James Bond his darker, killer instincts and skills, and is this something that will be explored as the series goes on?
Do you know, I never thought of that! Honest to God, I didn’t. It’s an interesting idea… But no. I don’t want to imply that James in any way has superhuman attributes – the effects of the serum wear off. It was necessary for the action in the first book, though, for James to have some sort of help to get him through the otherwise impossible physical challenges (swimming underwater in a Scottish loch at Easter time for instance) without dying.
There are also echoes, of course, of his adult drug taking (he’s not averse to dropping a bit of speed to see him through a long night at the gaming table.) I think what has changed inside James in the book is not that he has taken this drug but that he has witnessed some awful things and seen death at close hand.
But I guess your idea might keep the websites talking for a while…
Fleming established that Bond lost his virginity–and his pocket book–to a prostitute in Paris when he was 16. Are you going to deal with this event, or Bond’s sexuality, in the later books?
I won’t be taking him that far, unfortunately. He’s only going be to about fourteen when my books finish. I’ll leave it to someone else to write about his first forays into adult sex.
Will your books become darker or more adult in tone as Bond travels into adolescence – sort of like how the Harry Potter books have matured along with their audience?
To a certain extent, yes, but not too much. I wanted to show Bond hardening and growing up through the books; becoming tougher and more cynical and disillusioned with the world. But they are designed to be a series of children’s books, and children don’t like things to change too much from one book to the next in a series. So, as long as I can write them quickly enough and not be outgrown by my initial audience, than he won’t age/change that much.
He’s going to have a very busy year!
Gardner and Benson both spoke about the difficulty of finding a title that satisfied everyone. Was SilverFin your title and your first choice? If not, can you tell us some of the unused titles?
There have been some amusing spoof titles on some of the websites and I can see how some fans might find SilverFin a little too close to Goldfinger. But I agree with B&G, coming up with a title was the hardest part. There have been too many other Bond titles over the years. We wanted something that sounded suitably Bondian but wasn’t too specific in it’s meaning. Between IFP, myself, the publishers and everyone else involved we came up with loads of titles – and in the end SilverFin was the one most of us agreed on.
You wait, after a while it’ll stand up in its own right, and you won’t think twice about it.
Some rejected titles.
My working title was ‘Out Of Breath.’ But this was a little too Elmore Leonard. Later on there were various permutations of ‘Silver’, including…
SilverBack (it’s a type of gorilla – rejected)
SilverSkin (it’s a type of onion – rejected)
SilverHead (it sounds a bit like a gay sex act – rejected)
SilverFist (it sounds even more like a gay sex act – rejected)
We’ve heard there are five books planned. Is this true? Which book are you currently writing at the moment?
That’s the plan. I have finished the first two and am about to start work on the third… which will be out in at least two years’ time…
I’m pleased to see you will be reading the SilverFin audio book yourself. How did this come about and will you be reading the future books as well?
So far I have recorded the abridged version. I don’t know if there are any plans for a full-length reading and if so who might read it.
I got the job after had to read a couple of passages for some American publicity and everyone thought it came out OK. I have a profile as a performer in Britain, so I suppose as something of a minor celebrity I was what they were looking for to read the audio book.
Whether I’ll do any more, I do know. We’ll have to see how people react to the first one. I enjoyed doing it, although I wish I hadn’t put in quite so many different accents. (My American accent is pretty rotten.)
Some fans have been hostile towards the idea of a series about a 13-year-old James Bond. Will you look at fan forums like the one here at CBn to gauge fan reactions to SilverFin? Or do you avoid the Internet and fan sites?
I look at all the websites and have been following the arguments with great interest (I occasionally join in, using a pseudonym), but it doesn’t mean I have to agree with them!
It’s useful to know what people are thinking, though, of course, these books are aimed at a younger readership than the fans who take part in the forums. It’s always interesting to see what people think. I fully understand the fans’ reservations and scorn – I’d have felt the same way if I’d heard that someone else was doing this project – but I hope I can prove a few people wrong.
(Though I do get the impression that a lot of the fanatics will be disappointed if these books are popular!)
If given the opportunity at some point, would you like to write an adult James Bond novel?
That’s a tricky one. What would you do with James Bond today that hasn’t already been done? That was the attraction of going back to the early thirties; it gives you a new canvas and you can go back to basics. But James Bond in the modern world… Hmm…
I’d love to work on a film script, but a novel, I don’t know, perhaps if it was set back in the forties during the war, on in the fifties between a couple of the Fleming books. But I haven’t been asked, so I don’t have to worry about this. Right now I’m enjoying writing the kids’ books and they’re going to keep me busy for a good few years…
Finally, can you share with us ANY details about Book 2–a title maybe?
The second book takes place largely in Sardinia and involves bandits, art theft and people smuggling. My working title was ‘Double M’, but don’t expect it to be called this when it comes out.
Book three will take place largely in the darker corners of London. Book four will be set in the Alps and book 5 in outer space (only joking).
Thank you so much for your time. Everyone at CBn wishes you the best
of luck with SilverFin and the Young Bond series.
Pre-order the U.S. hardcover edition of SilverFin (April 27, 2005)
Pre-order the U.S. paperback edition of SilverFin (April 27, 2005)