Originally published 23 March 2004
Today CommanderBond.net launches a series of in-depth interviews with author Raymond Benson. Raymond has had a long career “in Bondage.” As a Bond fan he wrote extensively for several fan club publications, and in 1984 wrote what is still considered to be the definitive study of the James Bond character in book and film, The James Bond Bedside Companion. He also wrote the computer game adaptations of Goldfinger and A View To A Kill, and a Role-Playing Game sequel to You Only Live Twice, “Back of Beyond.” Most recently, Benson was selected as the succeeding continuation author to John Gardner, and between 1996 and 2002 penned six original James Bond novels (Zero Minus Ten, The Facts of Death, High Time To Kill, Doubleshot, Never Dream of Dying, The Man With The Red Tattoo), three movie novelizations (Tomorrow Never Dies, The World Is Not Enough, Die Another Day), and three short stories (“Blast from the Past”, “Midsummer’s Nights Doom”, “Live At Five”).
Now Raymond talks candidly to his fans – and his critics – and reveals what it’s really like to write a James Bond novel. Was it a dream come true for a Bond fan to become “official,” or a nightmare for a serious author with a career and a life outside of 007? Most CBners know me to be an unabashed Benson admirer. It’s true. I’m biased. I think Raymond did an amazing job during his tenure and produced books that rival some of the classic Fleming novels in sheer Bondian entertainment. But that isn’t going to stop Raymond from answering criticisms.
So hold on as we turn the spotlight on Raymond Benson and illuminate the world of the literary 007 as never before, and discover what it’s really like to be entrusted with James Bond’s literary license to kill.
[Warning: This interview may contain spoilers.]
How does it feel not to be writing Bond now? What have you been doing with yourself in the past two years?
There are days when I miss it, but overall it feels pretty good. Look, it was a rollercoaster of a gig. It had its ups and downs. I’m eternally grateful to the 1996 Board of Directors of Glidrose Publications (now called Ian Fleming Publications) for giving me the opportunity to do it. I didn’t ask for it, you know. The man who worked as Ian Fleming’s original literary agent, Peter Janson-Smith, phoned me out of the blue in late 1995 and asked if I’d be willing to give it a shot since John Gardner had decided to stop. I was flabbergasted. Peter was Chairman of Glidrose at the time and Booker PLC, a conglomerate that had its fingers in a lot of businesses, still owned it. Booker’s literary side was small–it was just Glidrose and Agatha Christie Ltd. and maybe one or two other literary estates, and now they’re all on their own away from Booker. About three years into my tenure as the Bond author, the Fleming family bought back the 51% of Glidrose from Booker. There had been Flemings on the Board prior to that, of course. Anyway, for seven years the job gave me the opportunity to travel the world, meet a lot of people that I never would have met, and it got my name into the publishing world. The income wasn’t what people sometimes think it was–you’d be surprised how many people automatically assume I was making millions of dollars. Ha! I made the same amount of money as I would have made at a nine-to-five job. Now that it’s over, I’m back to the ranks of struggling writers that have to find other ways to supplement the writing income–I teach a college course in film studies, I do speaking engagements, I look for freelance work, I even do office temp work when I’m desperate. But I must say that the relief of not having that Bond thing hanging over me is pretty nice. I’m free to do whatever I want. I’ve been writing like crazy. I wrote Face Blind in 2002 and it was published in 2003. I wrote another suspense novel in 2003 but I’m biding my time with that one. Hopefully sometime this year you’ll see some announcements about it. Last fall I wrote my Bond memoirs, a small autobiography so to speak, that relates my lifelong experiences with 007. I don’t know what I’ll do with it. I can’t imagine anyone really being that interested. It would probably have to be one of those limited edition books that private presses have done, like Richard Kiel’s book, or Syd Cain’s book. Maybe I can get a thousand copies printed and sold. I haven’t decided. At the moment I’m developing a new project and looking for bread-and-butter writing work.
Did you know that The Man With the Red Tattoo would be your last Bond novel when you were writing it?
No. I knew I wanted a break, though. Keep in mind, each book was begun a year-and-a-half before its publication. I started Tattoo in the fall of 2000. By the summer of 2001, when I was in the middle of writing it, I was experiencing all kinds of major heartache with regard to Bond. Some of this has been reported before, but lets just say there was a small faction of fans out there that didn’t like my work and had begun a campaign to throw a negative light on me and my work. These few individuals went to great lengths to trash me on Bond website message boards, the Bond newsgroup, and other places. I received threatening emails. One guy wrote to major literary critics and implored them to trash me in editorials. He also wrote to my publishers (my editor at Hodder said that the guy was “obviously insane”). This same person spread around the fan community a disgusting and cruel libelous document that portrayed me as someone that was into criminal behavior. It was so utterly unbelievable that fanswould act this way. It was sick, and I do mean sick. Anyway, on top of all that, I was really feeling the pressure of trying to come up with new and different situations for Bond. Tattoo was a struggle. Maybe it shows, I don’t know. Of all my Bond novels, it’s my least favorite, but there are a number of people who like it a lot. I was actually going to ask Glidrose for a year off that summer. John Gardner had two separate instances during his tenure when he had a year off. I needed a break from Bond. I had some things of my own I wanted to write. Before I could ask, though, the new Board at Glidrose, or rather, IFP, had decided to suspend the continuation novels for a while. The Board changed sometime around 2000 or 2001, I can’t remember. Peter Janson-Smith retired and was out of the picture. A lot of Flemings from the banking side of the family came into the organization. I really don’t know and can’t comment upon what their plans were at the time or what they are for the future. I do know they wanted to promote Ian Fleming’s works more during the 50th anniversary year (2003), hence the re-issues by Penguin in the UK and USA. Perhaps the feeling was that any author of the Bond series should write only a few books and then stop. So Tattoo was my last book, by mutual agreement. As Connery says in DR. NO, “You’ve had your six.” Well, I had mine. Don’t get me wrong, I’m eternally grateful and have no regrets at all… it’s just that there were elements about the job that left a sour taste.
Would you do more if asked?
I don’t know. Maybe. I doubt I’d be asked. I’m certainly not averse to doing more work for IFP in some capacity and we’ve left the door open for that to happen. No one’s burned any bridges. I’m sure they’ll probably hire a new continuation novel writer someday. I think whoever it is would be more successful if IFP waits a while–a long while.
Will your short stories ever be collected into a single volume?
If Ian Fleming Publications ever decides to do it, then yes. It’s really up to them. I know that we’d really like to find a venue for the uncut version of “Blast From the Past.” As has been reported before, 1/3 of that story was cut by Playboy for space reasons. The “director’s cut,” so to speak, has been published in Italian and in French, but never in English. Maybe if enough people write to IFP and ask for it, something might happen! I do know that IFP are not keen on including “Midsummer Night’s Doom.” That story was commissioned by Playboy strictly as a joke-piece– it was for their 35th anniversary issue and Mr. Hefner and I thought it would be a goof to have James Bond meet Hugh Hefner. That story is more of a celebration of Playboy than it is a Bond story and I hope fans look at it that way. It was a fun piece to write and it’s not to be taken seriously.
On your website your credits show that you once adapted Casino Royale as a stageplay? Was this “official?” Was Glidrose going to produce this? What happened?
At the time it was official. It was late 1985 and I proposed to Glidrose that I write a James Bond stage play. Because of the complicated rights situation (EON owned all performing rights for Bond, except, oddly enough, “Casino Royale”), the only thing I could do was adapt “Casino Royale.” Frankly, that’s really the only novel that *could* adapt to the stage. I wrote the play in 2-3 months and then held a staged reading of it in New York City in February 1986, using professional actors. The reading went very well and we then had a discussion with the audience about what worked and what didn’t. It’s a shame that Peter and his colleague at Glidrose couldn’t attend that reading because the outcome might have been different. Anyway, Glidrose paid me (which is more than what a lot of playwrights get!) and then they submitted the play to a British theatrical agent. She was very elderly and in my opinion she just didn’t get it. She recommended that the play not be produced. After further thought, Glidrose shelved it with the ultimate decision that a James Bond stage play simply wouldn’t work. The films had Bond in a monopoly and there was no way a play could compete. I disagreed, but it was their property. Since that time, EON bought the rights to “Casino Royale,” so now *they* own the production rights– however I own the actual copyright of the play itself. But I can’t do anything with it. I can’t publish it or produce it (because Glidrose owns publishing rights and EON owns production rights).
Why do you think the Bond novels don’t sell as well as they once did?
There’s no simple reason. I’ve heard fans complain about the lack of promotion and all that and to some extent that could be a part of it. But the real reason lies in the fact that there is apathy toward Bond novels on the retail side of the publishing business. There seems to be an attitude on the bookshop level that Bond novels don’t sell and so they don’t order many copies. The books aren’t prominently displayed in the shops and therefore go unnoticed. Reviewers tend to ignore them, as they are thought of as inferior imitations of Ian Fleming. Make no mistake–Gardner’s Bond books and my Bond books were not failures. They made money for the publishers. There was never a title that was in the red. The publishers had it down to a science as to how many copies to print. They knew how many they would sell. I think Zero Minus Ten’s first printing in America was something like 30,000. In Britain there were only 5,000 printed. That’s not a tremendous amount, but they all sold. The book was reprinted in both countries. But in order to be a New York Times Bestseller, a book has to sell at least 100,000. It’s been a long, long time since a Bond novel sold that many copies. I think that’s one reason why IFP chose to suspend the books for a while, even though both Hodder and Putnam were happy with the sales and would have kept going. The problem is that very few non-Bond fans seek out the books and buy them. They serve a niche market. The Star Wars and Star Trek books do better than Bond novels because there’s a much bigger fan base for those franchises. Another reason could be that people are so indoctrinated by the films that the books may seem like footnotes. Since the filmmakers don’t bother to film John Gardner’s or my books, book retailers can’t expect them to move in great numbers. It’s a shame, really.
Some people have accused you of bad-mouthing John Gardner. There’s an oft-quoted line from The James Bond Bedside Companion in which you said that Gardner’s books were like eating at McDonald’s. What do you say to that?
What I said with the McDonald’s thing was over 20 years ago, when I was in my twenties, when I was just a smart aleck Bond fan trying to write clever critiques. I’ve since apologized to John and I tried to make it up to him by writing that lengthy and detailed analysis of his books for “007” magazine in 1993. I have great respect for John. I’ve never said anything negative about his books since then, certainly since I got the Bond gig, and whatever mild criticisms I made in the Bedside Companion (other than the McDonald’s line) were nothing compared to what I see written about him–and me–on Bond fan website message boards! I enjoyed Gardner’s books–I own them all in first editions, some of them signed, and I’ve read several of them more than twice.
What about accusations that you “messed with” ideas that previous authors had?
Fans have to realize that every author’s oeuvre of Bond novels should be taken as a whole and separate from other authors’– with the exception that Fleming’s original books are the groundwork, the basis for the Universe. That original Universe is free to plunder, and that includes characters Fleming created. A writer of Star Trek or Star Wars would do the same thing. I didn’t look at my Bond books as a continuation of Gardner’s series. I started my own series. I was given carte blanche to use or ignore anything in Colonel Sun, the Gardner books, and even the John Pearson fictional biography. Anything I changed from earlier books was certainly not done out of spite! I wanted my Bond to use the old Walther PPK because I felt that was Bond’s gun, just as the Batmobile is Batman’s car! I was told to make M a woman to be in sync with the films–that wasn’t Gardner’s idea. Someone accused me of refuting events in Pearson’s book because at the end of it he says that Irma Bunt was in Australia. The Pearson book is a fabulous book but it’s not considered a Bond “continuation novel” by Glidrose (it treats Bond as a retiree!). And the fact is that I didn’t refute it–my “Blast From the Past” story suggests that Irma Bunt was “last seen” in Australia but she turns up in New York.
Were you given restrictions or guidelines for the books?
That’s difficult to answer. At the very beginning, Peter and I discussed the direction the books should go. There was some talk about setting them in the Cold War era and freezing Bond in time. In the end it was decided that we should stay in sync with the films and keep Bond updated. I was also told that I should do my best to blend elements of the original literary Bond with elements of the more widely known cinematic Bond. Thus, there had to be more action than what was in Fleming’s books, more gadgetry, a little more humor… If my books seem to feel like film stories, that’s probably why. I write very cinematically anyway. I think The Facts of Death is my most EON-like novel. I purposefully set out to write something that felt like a Bond movie with that one. As far as restrictions go, there was surprisingly little. There were a couple of instances when I wanted to dig deeper into Bond’s psyche and personal life and that was suppressed. None of my plot outlines were rejected. Glidrose always had a few comments and minor suggested comments on the outlines before I began to write. Both the British and American publishers had a lot of say as well. It’s not easy at all being the recipient of three editing factions! Most authors have to deal with only one.
Did you set out wanting to use characters from Fleming’s books? There seem to be a lot of them in your novels.
Actually, yes, I really did want to. I like Fleming’s characters and I see no reason at all why they can’t make reappearances. Look, I wrote Bond novels the way I, as a fan, would have liked to see them. I always enjoyed it when John Gardner brought back an old character. It reminds one that the books are part of the old Universe. I felt it was important to tie my books back to Fleming and using old characters was the best way to do it. You know, what’s the difference between bringing back M, Boothroyd, and Moneypenny and bringing back Felix Leiter, Rene Mathis, Marc-Ange Draco, Bill Tanner, the Governor of the Bahamas, and Tiger Tanaka? When you really think about it, the list of characters I brought back isn’t very long.
Speaking of Marc-Ange Draco, some fans have criticized you for what you did with the character in Never Dream of Dying.
Glidrose and the publishers *loved* the idea of what I did with Draco. It was a twist and it was unexpected. The fans that criticized me for what I did with Draco don’t realize that Draco was always a bad guy, even when Bond first met him in OHMSS! He was the head of the Corsican mafia, for God’s sake. He was the godfather! He was a murderer, a smuggler, a gangster, and whatever else you want to call him. He just happened to become an ally of Bond’s in OHMSS simply because of the connection with his daughter. How do you think Draco felt after Tracy’s murder? Could he have blamed Bond? Of course! Could he have held a grudge? Of course! What I did with Draco was perfectly reasonable, given his character as Fleming created him. Don’t let the touchy-feely characterization of Gabriele Ferzetti in the film get in the way of who this guy really was. If you ask me, Ferzetti played him way too friendly. The entire basis of that novel began as an idea in my head–how would Bond react if he was forced to kill a family member? That was how the story began. So I started thinking about what family members there could be. I didn’t want to invent one, like a long-lost brother or something ridiculous. The only family member was Draco, even though he wasn’t really family anymore. John Gardner had supposedly killed off Draco in one of his books but he did it in such a way that it was left open to be refuted. It was a one-line throwaway and for all intents and purposes, it could have simply been a rumor. Which is how I treated it. I wasn’t “going against” what Gardner did, I simply turned it around so that I could use it for my purposes. But you know something–there is one mistake I made in Never Dream of Dying. I had Chi-Chi still alive. When I re-read OHMSS prior to writing my book, I completely missed the one-line throwaway of Fleming’s that implied that Chi-Chi was dead at the end. Oh well. You really, really can’t win ’em all. Especially in a Universe as large and complex as Bond’s.
Another criticism that book received was that it was more sexually explicit. Can you comment on that?
Oh my gosh… These are Bond novels. They’re supposed to be racy! If you ask me, my books, and Gardner’s books, weren’t explicit enough! Do the people that said this even have a clue that in Fleming’s day, the Bond novels were considered to be dirty books? Kids weren’t allowed to read them. There was more sex in Fleming’s books than there was action! If you took the level of scandalous sex in Fleming’s books and applied it to Bond books today, they’d be X-rated. Fleming wanted to shock and tease and tantalize his readers. In order to do that today, the books would really have to go to extremes. And believe me, there are plenty of thrillers on the best-seller lists that go way beyond my stupid little paragraph that was in Never Dream of Dying. Fleming himself was becoming bolder as he got into the 1960s. The Man With the Golden Gun has the word “screw” in it. That had never been in a Bond novel before. I truly believe that if Fleming were writing today, the books would be terribly explicit. The guy had that kind of mind! (I have a hand-written letter that Fleming wrote to a friend, in which he describes himself as having “the mind of a sexy Boy Scout”!) Now, I’ll tell you about that scene in Never Dream of Dying. Both Peter Janson-Smith and my editor at Hodder & Stoughton asked me to put more sex into the book, and this was after I had completed the manuscript and turned it in. So I spiced up the sex scene between Bond and Tylyn. And I really wanted to do something besides boring old intercourse in a missionary position. Oh My God, the word “clitoris” is in a Bond book! Benson’s a pornographer! Yep, that’s what people called me. They called me and my Bond books pornographic. Unbelievable. Utterly ridiculous, childish, and totally out of character for any true fan of what James Bond is all about. And here’s the real irony–I got more compliments from women about that scene than I’d ever received. That’s the truth. My wife reads everything I write before it’s published and believe me, if anything struck her as pornographic, she would have said so. When I told her about what some fans were saying about that one paragraph, she wrinkled her brow and said, “I don’t get it. Are they mad?”
What do you say when you’re accused of being a “bad writer”?
I write what is referred to as “commercial fiction.” Believe me, Glidrose wouldn’t have hired me if they thought I was a “bad writer.” I had to write the first four chapters of the first book on spec before I got the contract. These had to be approved by not only Glidrose but also the British and American publishers. If the books had been as bad as some of my critics say, my publishers wouldn’t have published them! Did you know that 99% of those kinds of complaints only came from people on Bond fan message boards? They didn’t come from professional reviewers except perhaps in a couple of cases. If those Bond curmudgeons didn’t read the books for the sole purpose of picking them apart, they might see there’s some pretty good stuff in them. Look, I’m not Ian Fleming and never will be. Then again, NO ONE will be in this day and age. I’m convinced that if Casino Royale was delivered to a publisher today, it wouldn’t get published! Publishers want an easy-to-read style when it comes to thrillers, except in the cases they call “literary thrillers” such as Mystic River. What a lot of people who frequent these Bond site message boards don’t realize is that there is a huge contingency of Bond fans that don’t frequent websites and message boards. I would hear from them by snail mail, or in person at book signings or other appearances. There are plenty of people that appreciate–and yes, even like–my work. And I’m very grateful to and humbled by my fans and supporters. I don’t take it for granted.
This returns to something you mentioned earlier … In one of your old “Benson on Bond” columns in ‘OO7’ Magazine you spoke about how Bond belonged to the Cold War era just as Sherlock Holmes belonged to the Victorian era. Like Holmes, do you think he’ll eventually return for good?
That’s really not up to me. That’s up to the copyright holders. I rather doubt that the film people will do it. As for the books, who knows…? I think it would be a smart idea.
You once interviewed Timothy Dalton for that same magazine. What was that like? Was he really “Fleming’s Bond”?
In my opinion his on-screen characterization of Bond was Fleming’s Bond. He’s really a talented and intelligent actor. He brought years of theatrical experience to the role and approached it the way any stage-disciplined actor would– by studying the source material at length. He read all of Fleming’s books to prepare and insisted on playing it seriously. It’s too bad the general public (and some Bond fans) didn’t take to him. I really liked Dalton’s Bond and I really liked his two films. It boggles my mind that Licence to Kill is so controversial. There’s really more of a true Ian Fleming story in that script than in most of the post-60s Bond movies.
You’ve been involved in the Bond fan community for a long time. How has it changed over the years?
The Internet changed it in drastic ways, and not necessarily for the better. Back in the 70s and 80s, there wasn’t a whole lot that could bring fans together and that’s about the only good thing the Internet has done for fans. In some of the bigger cities there were occasional collectors’ shows and pseudo unofficial Bond conventions where fans could meet each other and buy, sell, and trade stuff. There were the fan clubs that published fanzines. I was heavily involved with the American fan club in the 80s and contributed several articles to “Bondage” magazine. I also contributed to “007” magazine in the UK. In the 80s there was a small “inner circle” of Bond fans that were writing on a somewhat professional basis. These guys, including me, have gone on to write real books, join the board of directors of the Ian Fleming Foundation, work on real EON or Glidrose projects, and have moved on beyond Bond. We’re all in our forties and fifties now. This younger crop of Bond fans doesn’t realize what it was like then, when the Bond fan community was an incredibly friendly place to be. Now they have the Internet and the zillions of Bond websites and the newsgroup and there isn’t a lot of respect for one another. It’s all about flaming each other and throwing opinions around and one-upsmanship. When I got the gig to write the Bond novels, there were some complaints that a “fan” shouldn’t be writing them. Well, gee, if a fan–that is, someone that cares about Bond–doesn’t write them, who should? Someone that doesn’t know the Bond Universe? Besides, I wasn’t just a fan. I had been writing professionally since the early 80s. I had spent years working in theatre, the computer game industry, and other disciplines that had honed my craft. That’s the reason Peter at Glidrose came to me. I was already a professional writer but most importantly, I knew my Bond. In the 80s, my James Bond Bedside Companion was considered something of a Bond Bible. There weren’t many books on Bond available in the 80s and now there are dozens. That book afforded me a different kind of respect back then than I get today from the young fans that populate Bond websites.
Speaking of the Bedside Companion, do you think you’ll ever update it?
No. That book is a relic of a time and place that I occupied when I was a very different person. When I wrote that book, I really was a fan that embarked on the project as a labor of love. It’s my good fortune that it was well received. It went out of print in the early 90s and it’s best that it stays that way. I still sell a print-on-demand facsimile of the 1988 edition through my website and on Amazon.com Marketplace, simply because there’s a demand for it. But since I eventually became one of the official Bond authors, it’s not my place to critique other authors’ books or the films. I’d have to do that in order to update the book. It just wouldn’t be ethical. Another reason is that it was unauthorized by EON. Today, EON has several of its own, authorized books out there that from a pictorial standpoint out-class the Bedside Companion by a long shot. There are quite a few typos and other minor mistakes in the book, too. For example, in the novels section, I call the sisters in Goldfinger Jill and Tilly Masterson, like they’re called in the film. They’re actually named Masterton. That book was a monster to write, it took three years from conception to publication. I’m glad it still holds up, seeing that it’s full of opinions by a young, smart aleck Bond fan. Gosh, the Bedside Companion is twenty years old this year–can you believe it? I can’t.
Are you still a Bond fan?
Of course! But it’s different now. I’m on the other side of it. I look back at Bond with fondness. I will still see the films as they come out and probably read the books if and when they are published. But the days of me writing fan-ish articles and critiques are long gone. I like to think I’ve moved on. There are plenty of other things that keep me engaged. I’m a huge fan of many different things, from various types of music and films to other authors and genres. Hey, I’m a guy who likes both James Bond and Ingmar Bergman (and I’ll bet there’s nowhere else on the Internet that you can find those two names in the same sentence!).
Do you have any advice for the next writer, whoever it may be?
Make sure you’ve got thick skin and stay away from Bond websites! Actually I say that with tongue in cheek. The fans are very valuable to the Bond franchise and I say God bless them all–even the ones that didn’t like my work. I certainly didn’t expect everyone to. It’s a much tougher job that anyone out there fathoms. It’s a balancing act between pleasing IFP and the publishers, pleasing the fans, and pleasing oneself. The pressure to produce on a timely basis is immense. One had better love it simply for the sake of Bond. Some folks might say that John Gardner and I sound slightly bitter when we speak about Bond. I now understand perfectly how John Gardner feels about his experience as Bond writer. I’m totally convinced that anyone that fills those shoes will not walk away unscathed. Still–I wouldn’t trade the experience for the world.
TO BE CONTINUED…
In Part II we look at the specific works of Raymond Benson.