Interview with Moneypenny Diaries author Samantha Weinberg

Kate Westbrook aka Samantha Weinberg
by John Cox

Samantha Weinberg (a.k.a. Kate Westbrook) is the author of the new novel The Moneypenny Diaries, the first in a trilogy of books chronicling the heretofore untold adventures of M’s popular personal secretary. Until now, Miss Moneypenny has only been a figure behind a desk with a particular fascination for an agent with the number 007. But now she has a first name (Jane), a rich past (colonial Africa), and quite a few “Bondian” tales to tell of her own. The Moneypenny Diaries also reveal exactly what happened to 007 during those dark days between On Her Majesty’s Secrete Service and You Only Live Twice. We even get to see Bond and Moneypenny join forces and play a major role in the real-life Cuban Missile Crisis!

So how did a journalist and an award-winning author from Wiltshire come to write The Moneypenny Diaries and become the first woman ever to pen an official adventure of Agent 007?

Thanks to our friends at Ian Fleming Publications, I've been granted the extreme honor of being the first person to interview the author behind the pseudonym, Kate Westbrook.

(This interview originally appeared on CommanderBond.net on Oct 25, 2005.)

JC. First off, tell us a little about yourself and how you came to write The Moneypenny Diaries?

SW. It was two years ago, almost exactly, and arose out of a casual conversation with my agent, Gillon Aitken. He had just been taken on by IFP to act as a consultant for future literary projects and he asked, almost in passing, what I thought about the idea of Miss Moneypenny becoming the central character in a book. I remember exactly where I was when he said it; you could almost call it my Kennedy assassination moment. I replied immediately, that it was a terrific, fantastic idea, that any writer would jump at it, me especially, and how about the fictional diaries of Miss Moneypenny? I think he had already floated the general concept with IFP, who had reacted with enthusiasm. I spent the next month or so re-reading all the Fleming books and developing a brief outline, which we gave to IFP soon after the new year. They liked it, thank goodness, were willing to take a risk on someone who had never written a word of fiction before, and here I am…

JC. Miss Moneypenny is, arguably, as well known as the character of James Bond, yet we know nothing about her. Did this “blank slate” make your job easier, or were you intimidated that there was an expectation you might fail to meet?

Book 1: Guardian Angel (2005)
SW. Are you kidding? Hardly a day went past when I didn’t, at some point or other, quake at the thought of the huge responsibility that I had so blithely taken on. I was a Bond fan before—though not then a fanatic—and I’m sure that I would have bristled at the idea of someone taking a character that I thought I knew and, to all intents and purposes, reinventing her. I tried to make her as attractive and compelling as I could, stayed away from any personality warts, but even then… I still wonder at my bravery/foolhardiness.

JC. How did you arrive at the name Jane? What other names did you consider?

SW. I thought about it quite a bit, and played around with a number of names. She was called Rosemary at an early point—after Irene Moneypenny’s beloved pet goat—and before that, Gilda (guilder-moneypenny—sort of word association). But, in the end, I plumped for plain Jane, reasoning that if I had the surname Moneypenny, I wouldn’t have wanted to saddle my offspring with a polysyllabic first name.

JC. Moneypenny’s memories of her childhood in Africa are very beautifully done. What made you decide to give Moneypenny this background?

SW. That came almost immediately. I didn’t want to make her a caricature of what you might expect her to be—jolly hockey sticks, inherited pearls, daughter of landed gentry and so on. I wanted her to have an inner strength, with a touch of suppressed wildness, that would have prepared her for the adventures I was going to send her on. Talking to a couple of wonderful women who worked for SIS around that time, I discovered that a colonial background was not uncommon—indeed, it was to a degree encouraged, for those very reasons. On top of which, I’ve spent a lot of time in Africa—both of my parents are South African and I worked as a journalist in southern and eastern Africa for several years—so it was a world with which I felt comfortable.

JC. Why did you choose 1962 as the first year of The Moneypenny Diaries and decide to set the action around the true events of the Cuban Missile Crisis?

SW. From the outset, I was determined to stick as closely to Fleming’s Bond as I could, yet at the same time, to anchor the diaries in real historical events. The Cuban Missile Crisis was the first to come to mind. Then, when I re-read the books, looking for a gap in the time-line into which I could slot this adventure, Bond’s ‘gap year’, mentioned at beginning of You Only Live Twice, jumped out of me. Not only did it seem to take place conveniently in 1962, but I liked the idea of this more vulnerable Bond, of being able to make him more sympathetic to a contemporary audience—without denying the essence of Fleming’s creation.

JC. Star Wars franchise authors often comment on how Lucasfilm gives them a list of areas they should avoid in their novels—the origins of Yoda, for example, is off-limits. Did IFP present you with any similar guidelines or restrictions?

SW. From the outset, it appeared that we were reading off the same—metaphorical—page. I was always determined to focus on the literary Bond and to set the diaries in a period, Cold War context, which was what they were looking for. It was a happy example of productive synergy and I feel constantly lucky and privileged to be working with such a supportive bunch.

U.S. hardcover edition
JC. At one point you have your narrator write that the “the intertwined connections threatened to short-circuit my brain.” Is this how you felt in trying to create a piece of fiction, posing as fact, that purports to reveal the facts behind a work of fiction? (Apologies if this question short-circuits your brain.)

SW. Exactly! On several occasions, I had to retire to a dark room with a couple of aspirin and a damp flannel on my forehead. How was I going to get around the books? The films? Could I really make Jane Moneypenny’s father disappear in a operation planned by Ian Fleming himself? Was I crazy to try to muddy fact with fiction to such a degree? Still—to stretch a metaphor—I ploughed on.

JC. Are you familiar with The Authorized Biography of 007 by John Pearson, which takes a similar “true fiction” approach to 007?

SW. I wasn’t—until a couple of months ago, when I read about it on CBn (yes, I’m often floating about here, though have yet to summon the courage to sign up as a member). I very much enjoyed it, but I’m relieved that I hadn’t known about it before.

JC. When I first heard about this book, I expected James Bond would remain conspicuously “off-camera.” He would be referred to, but never really a part of the story. Was this idea ever considered, or from the beginning was it planned to have 007 an active participant in The Moneypenny Diaries, going on original adventures, etc?

SW. I never considered leaving 007 out of it. How could I? He’s central to who Moneypenny is and what she does. Besides, I thought it would be fun—if challenging—to look at him from a female perspective.

JC. The Moneypenny Diaries tells the full story of what happened to Bond following Tracy’s death in OHMSS. However, this is James Bond at a time in his life when he is not at the top of his game; he’s in a serious depression throughout much of the novel. Was there ever a concern about how the casual Bond fan—one who may only know Bond from the movies—would react to this unfamiliar characterization of 007?

SW. Yes, I did worry about it. But it was there in the books—so it was a part of how Fleming conceived Bond’s character. There are several examples of his more contemplative, unsure side, from Casino Royale onwards, and I thought these made him more appealing, more real, rather than less so. I love the films, but I find the books much more interesting, and I hoped—hope—that The Moneypenny Diaries might persuade some film fans to go back to Fleming’s original works.

JC. This is one of those “only a picky Bond fan would notice” questions, but in your footnote about SPECTRE the word “Terrorism” is omitted from the acronym? Was this an editorial decision, or a printing error?

SW. Neither, I’m afraid. My mistake. Sorry! It will be rectified for the paperback.

JC. You say Bond’s housekeeper May had known Bond since childhood and cared for his dying uncle. Is this from Fleming, or is it a sly tie-in with Charlie Higson’s current series of Young Bond novels?

SW. From SilverFin – I thought it might be fun to make some reference to it.

JC. At one point in the diaries Miss Moneypenny is armed by Major Boothroyd and learns to shoot on the SIS target range. It all feels very authentic. How did you research this? Did you have a similar learning experience, or have you had experience with guns?

SW. I try to research everything, to as greater degree as I can; a residue from my journalistic/non-fiction past, I suppose (or maybe indicative of a deficit of imagination?). For this book, I traveled to Cuba, Miami, Washington, Scotland and Switzerland—where I stayed with the real Sir Peter Smithers. For the shooting lessons, I first went to my local police station, in Devizes, Wiltshire, where I got a thorough briefing from the armourer, Ken Hedges (Boothroyd’s deputy is named after him). He showed me all the different guns, including the Baby Browning, hidden in a book, and demonstrated how to load and clean them. However, since handguns are outlawed in this country, I wasn’t allowed to shoot one. For that, I went to a range outside Miami, when I was there last November. To a great degree, Miss Moneypenny’s experiences and feelings as she shot the guns, were my own.

JC. I enjoyed the characterization of Major Jack Giddings, agent 006, and the rivalry between he and Bond. Was this a nod to Alec Treveylan from the film GoldenEye, or is the use of “006” purely coincidental?

SW. If it was a nod to GoldenEye, then it was a subconscious one. I think 006 is mentioned in one of the novels—but I thought I had come up with the rivalry myself!

Book 2: Secret Servant (2006)
JC. The Moneypenny Diaries reveals the existence of “X-Section,” a secret SIS interrogation center where Rosa Klebb died of a heart attack. Is X-Section your invention, or did it come from research? Is it a set-up for something that’s yet to come?

SW. It’s a bit of both. I was inspired partly by the ‘Soft Man’ and the ‘Hard Man’ in You Only Live Twice. But the naming of the section (after X-examination) and its deeper function are my own. And yes, it might well resurface in the volumes to come…

JC. There is a delightful entry in the diaries where Moneypenny relates what happened to some of the more famous “Bond Girls.” Solitaire married an American magician; Tatiana was given a new identity and government job, etc. Was this your idea, and how did you decide on these stories?

SW. Guilty—and I have to admit, that was one of my favourite sections to write. I just sat down and dreamed up their fates. So glad you enjoyed it—I had all of the girls in it at one point, but my editor thought it was overkill. Maybe I’ll be able to pick them off the cutting room floor for the next book?

JC. It’s a basic assumption (born more of the films than books) that Miss Moneypenny is secretly in love with 007. Yet in reading The Moneypenny Diaries, I sometimes felt it was the other way around—that James Bond secretly yearns for the “simple life” with her. In your mind, is Moneypenny in love with James Bond, or is he in love with her? Or is this all about how things can be seen differently from a different point of view?

SW. Is any relationship that simple? Do you think the film Miss M was really in love with James Bond—or was it also fun flirtation for her, a chance to play to his vanity? That’s how I chose to view it—they were close, liked and admired each other greatly, and sometimes wished it went further… (and maybe it still will?). I believe it’s a complex relationship, based at some fundamental level on their shared experience of losing both parents before their time. James Bond occasionally yearns—especially when, as in this case, he is not at the top of his game—for less ‘splendid protuberances’ on which to lay his tired brow. Moneypenny, cut off from her home, without children or family apart from Helena, enjoys being needed and is flattered by the attention of a renowned heart-breaker. But, I always feel, she thinks of him as a boy. Although she is younger than him (and that, incidentally, is the reason for making her join the SIS at a later date than Fleming’s books implied, to give her the energy and bravery to tackle scary situations—not, as it has been suggested, to fit in with the timescale of Mau Mau), she is wise beyond her years.

JC. Do you, or have you ever, kept a diary?

SW. I don’t now, but I have, sporadically, since childhood, particularly when traveling. I sometimes find half-filled books, and am both full of envy for my younger self who had the time and energy to write them, and embarrassed by the purpleness of my prose.

Book 3: Final Fling (2008)

JC. Sorry if this is off-topic, but it is the question on lips of all Bond fans at the moment: What do you think of Daniel Craig as the new 007 and could you envision him as the James Bond of The Moneypenny Diaries?

SW. I’m rather in favour of him, despite his apparent press conference nerves. He’s a good actor, I think he looks the part (as long as his hair is dyed) and if the script’s as good as it’s meant to be, I think he will mark a welcome return—for me, anyway—to the rather less smooth Bond I have in my imagination.

JC. In this same vein, did you picture in your mind any of the actresses who have portrayed Miss Moneypenny when you were writing this book?

SW. I tried not to, but it was hard. Although the character I created looked nothing like her in my mind, Lois Maxwell’s face kept popping up. She was my first Moneypenny, and thus hard to banish.

JC. IFP and the publishers launched a clever ad campaign that concealed your identity and the fact that The Moneypenny Diaries was a work of fiction. Was this the plan for the book from the beginning, and how far were you asked to participate? Were you able to reveal to friends and co-workers that you were “Kate Westbrook”?

SW. From the beginning, it was my plan to push the Diaries as close to reality as I could—while remaining true to Fleming’s works. That was Kate Westbrook’s role; to enable the actual diary entries to appear authentic, without having to include extraneous background. Once Kate was installed as editor, it seemed a fun idea—and we all agreed, IFP, Gillon and my editor—to try to make her a plausible person, a bridge, as it were, between the fiction and reality. If the reader started to believe in her existence, then might they not begin to question whether Miss Moneypenny was real too? It was a bit of fun—and one that we all entered into. I got a Kate Westbrook e-mail address and whenever I saw or spoke to my editor or anyone at IFP, referred to myself—and was referred to—as ‘Kate’. This even stretched to wearing a wig and coloured contact lenses for media interviews and at the launch party! Apart from family and close friends, I told no one what I was working on (this is not as hard as it might sound—we live in a rural area and when I’m working, I tend to go into a sort of self-imposed purdah). There was also, however, a more legitimate side to it; so much of a spy’s work is carried out in the shadows; they have cover names and legends, they live secret, obscured lives. I was just echoing their existence, entering into the spirit of things.

JC. You have the narrator say that “Bond” is not the real surname of agent 007 and the diaries do not reveal it. Have you privately decided what his real name is and will you ever reveal it?

SW. No, and I haven’t decided yet.

JC. The novel ends with many cliffhangers. Can you share with us any hints of what to expect in Miss Moneypenny’s 1963 diary?

SW. As you say, there are a couple of on-going story lines that I am bound to follow—Miss Moneypenny is going to keep on her father’s trail, for instance, there has to be some resolution over the Prenderghast affair and, of course, Bond does return, with a bang, at the beginning of The Man With the Golden Gun. I don’t want to give too much else away, but she will definitely be getting out of the office again, and probably heading eastwards, towards the Iron Curtain.

JC. Thank you very much for you time. We wish you continued success with The Moneypenny Diaries and all your future endeavors.

SW. Thank you. Great questions. I enjoyed it immensely!

Samantha Weinberg has worked as a journalist in southern Africa, the United States and London. She is the award-winning author of Last of the Pirates: the Search for Bob Denard, the international bestseller A Fish Caught in Time: the Search for the Coelacanth and Pointing From The Grave which won the 2003 CWA Gold Dagger for Non-fiction. She lives in Wiltshire where she is currently at work on the next installment of The Moneypenny Diaries.

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