Historian Henry Chancellor was the first author to be given unlimited access to the archives of Ian Fleming Publications for a publishing project. After getting a peek inside the vault, Chancellor spent about a year creating a tome that is part biography of Fleming, part biography of Bond.
CBn spoke to him about his new book James Bond The Man and His World, as well his work on Ian Fleming: Bondmaker.
First, can you tell us a little bit about yourself, your interest in Bond and how you came to write this book?
You probably know from the publicity blurb a little bit about me. I came to write this book largely as a result of my previous book, Colditz: the definitive history. My publisher mentioned to me that the Fleming Estate were thinking of opening up the Fleming Archive and could I think of a way of turning it into a book. He probably suggested it knowing of my interest in spies, intelligence, etc. So I produced a book proposal and luckily for me they liked it.
What were the benefits and drawbacks of hiring someone primarily known as a World War II historian and documentary producer, rather than a ‘Bondologist’, to write this book?
I never pretended that I was a Bondologist—though now I probably am, whatever that means. I am certainly a huge Fleming fan. To write the kind of book I wanted to write I cannot honestly think it would have been of any advantage to be a signed up Bondologist. There seemed no point in trying to replicate John Griswold’s book, or any other book that provides the minutiae that is of interest only to the fan. My book was supposed to be broader and more contextual, and to start at the beginning with a blank sheet of paper was not a bad place to start. Though knowing about the Second World War was quite useful, as so much of Bond was inspired by Fleming’s war years.
Was it difficult switching gears from conventional history, like Colditz, to examining the fictional world Fleming created, where influences and origins may be a lot less clear?
Not at all. Fleming may have written fiction, but 95% of it was based on fact that had been filtered through the prism of his imagination and then polished up a bit. Trying to work out where these facts came from and how he used them is part of the process. Obviously it is difficult to pin point the precise way in which his creative juices worked, but my instinct was always to go back to the man himself. Understand Fleming, and you understand Bond.
When word first reached the Bond fan community that your book was coming out, a lot of people wondered how it would be different than Raymond Benson’s James Bond Bedside Companion. Were you conscious of the similarities and what steps did you take to differentiate your work from his?
When I begun I was aware of the pitfalls of this. I had a look at it and then deliberately returned it to the library. Six months later I took it out again, having finished my book, and saw that there were some elements in common; we both had chapters on Fleming, we both had a biographical description of Bond, we both had book synopses—but all of these are pretty much essential elements to a book of this type. Beyond that, there is not much similarity because I am only concerned with the literary creation, and mined the archive to do just that. In fact, I think my book is more like a biography of Fleming, seen through the eyes of his alter ego , 007.
When I helped with the preliminary organization and preservation of the IFP archive in 1994, I was amazed at the depth of correspondence between Ian Fleming and his fans. What was your favorite discovery within the IFP archives?
The letters are fantastic. How interesting it is that Fleming was so attentive to his fans, and was so influenced by them. My favourite letter was from a Berta Ruck in Wales, who was 82, and read James Bond aloud to her husband who was 86 and now blind. Both had been reading thrillers since the 1890s and were absolute Bond fans—so much so that they had to ration themselves to 10 pages a day. Her description of their daily dose of Bond while sitting in front of the fire was hilarious, and Fleming wrote back to say it was the nicest fan letter he had ever received.
How closely did you work with the book’s designer? Were there many images that had to be left out due to space constraints?
The designer has done a fantastic job, and my only contribution to that was to suggest good images from the archive and others—such as pictures of Aleister Crowley that I felt would be useful. I would say that everything from the archive has not been seen before. And inevitably some images had to be left out—not many though.
So much of the world is familiar with James Bond because of the films. What sort of assumptions did you make about your audience’s familiarity with the Bond novels?
None. Or rather some, because there are plenty of people who do not know that James Bond films are based on novels in the first place. So I assumed that they had heard of the novels and probably knew they were written by Ian Fleming.
Did you have a favorite Bond novel before you wrote this book, and did your research alter your appreciation of it?
My favourite book before was From Russia with Love. Afterwards I still like it—even though much of the documentary Russian section at the beginning is complete fiction.
You were a consultant to the recent BBC biography film on Ian Fleming. Can you tell me about that work and what was your opinion of the final product?
I was really there to tell them who I thought Fleming was, what kind of a man he was, and why he wrote James Bond. They did not have time to read all the books, biographies, search the archives etc so I just pointed them in the directions they wanted to go. Whether they succeeded or not I leave that for you to decide.
So Colditz, James Bond, what’s next for Henry Chancellor?
There’s a thread there. Escapers and secret agents. I’ll let you know.
A big thank you to Henry Chancellor for granting this interview, and to Lucy Dixon for facilitating it. James Bond: The Man and His World is now available for purchase at Amazon.co.uk.
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