Monday, April 6, 2009

In the eye of Hurricane Gold

On Tuesday, April 7, James Bond returns to the USA in Charlie Higson’s fourth Young Bond novel, Hurricane Gold. What follows is an excerpt from our interview with Charlie on the eve of the book’s UK release.

TBB: Hurricane Gold is set entirely in Mexico, which is a great choice because James Bond has never been to Mexico.

CH: I was actually torn between Mexico and North Africa as a location. But then I read somewhere that Fleming was never keen on North Africa and always dismissed it as a location for Bond. I don’t know what his objections were but he didn’t like the idea of North Africa. So I thought well, Mexico. And then I can start in Mexico and end up in the Caribbean. Geographically it makes sense. I thought I really had to have something in the books of the Caribbean because it was such a big deal for Fleming. And I’ve always loved Mexico and wanted to write something about Mexico. I love the food and the music and growing up on all those cheesy westerns and 1930s thrillers that are set there. So it was just quite fun for me.

TBB: Unless it’s a surprise, can you tell us what the title Hurricane Gold refers to?

CH: Well, as with all the other titles, it came very late in the day after many, many different titles. In fact, my working title for the book was “Lagrimas Negras”, which was very quickly rejected by the publishers as being incomprehensible to English readers. As I said, we went through lots of titles. There was originally in the book a big sequence that was set in a gold mine. But I changed that because I felt in Blood Fever we’d kind of done the silver mine thing. So in the end I changed it to an abandoned oil field, which there were a lot of in the 1930s in Mexico. There was a big oil boom there.

But the publishers had got very excited about the idea of gold. And obviously there was a lot of stuff about the Mayans and Mayan gold in the book. And they said “we’d love to have gold in the title somewhere” because they were working on this concept of making a gold book (ED NOTE: The all-gold edition of Hurricane Gold was released by Puffin in the UK). These days, you’ve got to think about marketing even as you’re writing the book. And there is a hurricane early on in the book. So those were the two themes. Then I was kind of knocking around and I thought “Hurricane Gold” actually sounds quite good. It’s quite a nice combination for a title. So I suggested that to them and they jumped at it, at which point, as with SilverFin, I had to go back and work it into the book a bit.

But I did—I came up with an ancient Mayan saying, which I created, which is the concept of “hurricane gold”, which is a great treasure which if you hang on to it, it will destroy you and all your family and bring your house down about your head. And that’s kind of the theme of the book is this secret that everybody’s fighting to get hold of which is destroying anybody who does get hold of it. So if you read to the end of the book the title does makes sense. And I quite like when you do get a kind of theme or something you can think up, even after you’ve written maybe the first or second draft, and then you can go back and work it in. It gives an extra dimension to the book.

TBB: I know you test your books out on your boys as you write them. What’s their reaction to Hurricane Gold and do they have a favorite Young Bond novel? Or maybe a favorite gruesome death?

CH: (Laughs) They like all the deaths. Yes. I mean, actually funny enough, the bit that still really sticks in their mind—certainly with the two youngest ones, because they were very young when they read it—is the opening sequence of SilverFin with the eels and the mutant man in the loch, which does seem to freak out quite a lot of kids, that chapter, which is kind of nice. No, they don’t have a favorite particularly. And yeah, luckily they did really like the new one. I made sure it’s fairly non-stop action from the beginning. It’s a kind of… not exactly a roller-coaster ride, but the central image—theme—of the book is this rat run, a homage, if you like, to Doctor No and his… I don’t know how he describes it, but his kind of “corridor of pain” that James Bond has to work his way through. The guy who runs this island has his own equivalent. It’s much bigger and more elaborate.

TBB: Is that the Avenue Of Death?

CH: It’s the Avenue Of Death, yes, which is a series of passages with traps and dangers you have to work your way through. And so to a certain extent the whole book is structured like that when James starts off, and he’s got to work his way through these series of disasters and problems, and eventually he arrives at the island and then he has to do the whole thing again in miniature in the Avenue Of Death. So I did make sure that it was pretty rollicking action from the beginning so my kids don’t get bored. Because I remember when I was reading Blood Fever to them, we were about halfway through, and one of them said to me: “Dad, when’s the story going to start?” And I was thinking, “What are you talking about? We’re halfway through the book. It’s been nothing but plot.” But what they actually meant was, “When’s there going to be another fight?” As far as they’re concerned, that’s what story is. It’s a lot of fighting—loosely separated with a bit of talking and some scene-setting. So I kind of felt, Let’s start the story on page one in Hurricane Gold and then push it through. So it’s a good reaction. Jim, my twelve-year-old, said a really nice thing to me. When I finished it, he was silent for a moment, and then he said, “Oh, I wish I could have adventures like James Bond.” And that’s exactly the response I want to have from kids—just think “What a great adventure! Wouldn’t that be fun to do!” So luckily, yeah, they do still enjoy the books. I have made sure that there’re a lot of very grisly and gruesome deaths in the book that will stick in a child’s mind.

TBB: The girl in the book is named Precious Stone, which I think is a dynamite name. How do you come up with a Bond Girl name that’s outrageous but not Austin Powers parody?

CH: It’s very tricky, and I’ve noticed on the websites it does kick up a storm of discussion about “Is this a crap name or not?” I don’t know. Any of the Fleming names you could have put them down on paper, if you’d never read the book and knew nothing about Bond, and said “This girl is called ‘that’”, you’d think “Well, I’m not sure about that as a name”. But once you read the book and you accept it and she becomes a character then you buy into it. I think if in the process of the book the character works and the girl becomes interesting, you can, if you want, call her anything you like. But, yeah, it’s hard to think of those names. Especially as I can’t do anything sexual—which Fleming was fond of—because of who I’m writing for.

Actually in the first draft of the book she wasn’t called Precious, she was called Amaryllis Stone. I like the name Amaryllis and, obviously, there was a Fleming connection. A cousin, I think she was a cello player, who is alluded to in From A View To A Kill rather cheekily by Fleming. So yeah, there is a member of the Fleming family called Amaryllis and I just thought it was a great name to use. But the character in the book starts as a real bitch, a real nasty piece of work. Spoilt. But as she goes through these adventures with James—they’re kind of thrown together—she toughens up and you realize that underneath it all, she’s quite tough. By the end, the two of them are, taking on the world together.

But IFP were a little worried. They thought, “Well, you know, she does start a slightly unpleasant character. Might it upset the family?” So, I wasn’t totally wedded to the name, so I thought, “Well, I’ll try and think of another name.” And she already had the surname of “Stone” so I thought “Well, actually, Precious Stone is quite a good name, and it’s quite good for the character, this kind of southern belle who lives with her father who absolutely dotes on, and so he’s called her “Precious” and she’s lived up to her name. I think it’s the kind of thing that by the end of the book hopefully you sort of forget what she’s called and just accept the character on the page. And actually, I’m not sure if in the book it’s ever spelled out as “Precious Stone”. She’s always called “Precious”. I think maybe it’s mentioned toward the end what her name is. But we know she’s called “Precious”, and her surname is “Stone”. But she’s always referred to as “Precious” rather than as “Precious Stone”.

TBB: I think it’s a great name, and Precious wasn’t an uncommon name in the ’30s…

CH: No. Exactly.

TBB: The character of Jack Stone, the World War I ace? Is he based on anything in real life?

CH: Nothing specific, no. In fact, when I started, he wasn’t a World War I flying ace, he was a kind of oil magnate. But in the writing of it, I wanted to slightly change where he was coming from. There’s quite a lot of themes in the book about what happens to heroes when they’re not needed anymore, and it became quite interesting in terms of the whole sort of myth of Bond—you know, how someone in wartime can be a great hero, doing great things, and then if you do those same things in peacetime… because in wartime to be a hero, you’ve got to kill a lot of people. So this is someone who was a big star, big hero, did all the kind of air shows after the war and all that sort of barn-storming stuff and then is quietly forgotten by the world and his money disappears. So he has to… well, you’re going to have to read to find out what happens to him.

But there’s a lot of discussion about “What is a hero?” and what happens when a country doesn’t need its heroes any more and forgets about them. I read quite a lot about the air aces. Most of them were killed before they were about 20. They were about 18 or 19 year olds when they were air aces.

TBB: A very interesting character for James Bond to encounter…

CH: He is—and as the book goes on one realizes that Jack Stone is not all that he seems. And there’s a lot of stuff about the relationship between Precious and her dad, and, of course, James Bond not having a father, he’s sort of jealous, I suppose, in a way, of her relationship with her father.

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Hurricane Gold will be released by Disney-Hyperion on April 7 and can be pre-ordered now on Amazon.com.

Award winning portrait of Charlie Higson by Anton Artemenkov is used with permission. 

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