Interview with Young Bond author Charlie Higson

Young Bond author Charlie Higson
by John Cox

The day after the UK release of his fifth Young Bond novel, By Royal Command, I had the pleasure of sitting down for an informal iChat interview with author Charlie Higson. Now with the book just released in the U.S., here is a repeat of that 2008 interview.


JC. First, thank you for the thank you in the book!

CH. Well, you know, thank you. This modern world we live in, everything is sort of collaborative. You’ve been very useful to me through your site and through you yourself, sorting things out for me and giving me information and stuff. It was heartfelt, John.

JC. Well, I really appreciate it. You don’t know what that’s like for a Bond fan like me. And right next to Ian Fleming’s name too!

CH. (Laughs) Cheers.

JC. The book (By Royal Command) is great. It’s fantastic. A fantastic finish to the series.

CH. You know, I’ve been planning it from the start. When they first approached me and said they wanted a series of five books to deal with the Eton years, in studying Fleming and reading the obituary, I knew it would have to lead up to the incident with the maid. I also knew I’d have to tinker with it a bit because I knew I couldn’t get five books into a half at Eton, which is about six months. I always thought from the start it would be great to do something about national security and changing the facts to preserve certain reputations. And also it was discussed right from the beginning... Eton is right next door to Windsor, so the obvious story to do would be something involving the Royal Family. Something to do with protecting the security of the Royal Family. So right from the start I’ve been leading up to that point and I’ve always been really looking forward to writing that book and I knew it was going to be a quite interesting story and quite a serious story as well. So I was very pleased with how it all sort of came out.

JC. Did you feel pressure to come up with a satisfying “maid incident” -- which came from Fleming after all -- that wasn’t sexual?

CH. Well, I think it is sexual. (Laughs)

JC. I did notice while they’re in France there is a mysterious bit of missing time...

CH. It’s a bit like those old Hollywood films where you have to kind of pan away just before anything actually happens, go out through the open window, past the billowing curtains, where just about everyone watching goes, “Yeah, I know something else went on there.” I think for the more mature people reading it they can imagine what goes on between the chapters. In fact, I had a little bit more in the original draft about their journey though France and it did imply a little bit more. But, you know, it’s that eternal problem with writing for kids at the age I’m writing. I can’t be explicit. But I’m hoping older people reading will think, “He’s James Bond, I bet he got up to something a little bit more.” Obviously, the implication in Fleming’s original obituary was, basically, he shagged her and got thrown out of school. But I thought it would be fun to do a little bit more with it and say more was going on. It had to do with national security and protecting the Royal Family. (Laughs).

JC. Why did you make Roan, the maid, Irish?

CH. Well, I wanted her to be closer to home, and I wanted there to be a reason for her to be threatening the English national security. I’m a quarter Irish; in fact, the name Culliton is a real family name of mine. I could have made her English, but by making her Irish, it gave her an automatic reason to hate the English and the whole kind of English upper class system.

JC. It does make her dangerous and exotic -- and have we ever had an Irish Bond Girl before?

CH. You’re the person to ask. I don’t think so. He’s been pretty well stuck with Nazis, Russians, and Bulgarians.

JC. When did you decide to use Dr. Friend as the villain?

CH. I’ve been planning that for awhile. In fact, in the original draft of Double or Die, he was in that. He came back and he was working with the Russians to get hold of the computer device. But there was just too much going on, too much in the book already, so I pushed him on. I like bringing stuff back from earlier books and, in fact, it worked much better in this book because we have a way of tying it right back to the first book in this series. And it means I don’t have to come up with a new villain. (Laughs)

JC. I thought it was a great choice because it was a true surprise.

CH. I went to pains with the first one to make sure we never actually saw the dead body. As I say, the good thing about planning the series from the start was I did have a vague idea for a sequence of five books, and I knew I always wanted to bring him back at some point. He’s an interesting character, and because he was kind of secondary in the first book, it was nice to bring him back and put him into a starring role. And some of the other characters have reappeared in the other books, so, as I said, it’s nice to be able to plan it like that. You certainly get that feeling reading the Fleming books that he never really -- apart from the Blofeld novels -- that he never really had a chance to sit down and really plan things out. He was just kind of making it up as he went along and kind of catching up with himself, which is why there are some mistakes in continuity. So, as I said, because I knew I was ending up with this fifth book, I could plan that right from the start.

JC. But your original master plan was that Book 4 was going to be set in the Alps and then Book 5 was going to be all the Eton intrigue.

CH. Yes, I had the two plots worked out. I had the plot with the maid and all that business, and then I had another plot I was going to do which was Bond was at Eton and someone was trying to kill him for some reason that he didn’t know, and he was trying to get on with his lessons and be an ordinary kid and this person was stalking him. But, as I said before, I suddenly thought that’s going to give me two vaguely wintry books and there’s going to be no chance to go anywhere hot and exotic. So I thought if I shunted those stories together in a way I could have a clear book. I could take Bond completely away from Eton, go somewhere hot and exotic, and do just a foreign adventure romp that didn’t impinge on the overall story line. So the Alps stuff and everything else I could put in the fifth book and I was pleased with how that worked out.

JC. Reading this book, suddenly Hurricane Gold snapped into focus for me in this really interesting way. I always saw it as romp -- let’s do a good little standalone adventure away from Eton. But Hurricane Gold is brutal! What he goes through in the book is savage (Charlie laughs), and it really motivates who he is in this book. He comes back messed up and just wanting to be normal. So, in a way, Hurricane Gold now stands out not as a romp, but the horrible trial by fire that he went through, that he won’t talk about, and it goes a long ways toward creating who he becomes. It feels very planned.

CH. My idea for these books was always to start him off as a really normal school kid and then by going though these books -- over the course of five books it’s a bit like going through the Avenue of Death from Hurricane Gold -- he’s put through all these tasks and tests, and it definitely makes him stronger, but it also kind of destroys his soul to a certain extent. He becomes that sort of damaged person that he is in the adult books. He’s got this tough shell but a damaged interior. So, yes, I think you’re right. By the time he comes back to Eton, as you say, he’s trying to be an ordinary kid, but it’s very hard for him to do that, and once everything kicks off, he sets off down a path that he knows he can never come back from.

JC. Bond encounters the royal princesses in the new book. You’ve said that was based on a real story?

CH. My father-in-law used to live very near to Windsor Park, and he used to go down to Windsor Park and he would talk to the princesses through the hedge, at the lodge they were staying at. He also saw the King a couple of times because they used to do a thing for – I wanted to work it into the book but I just couldn’t fit it in – one of the big racetrack meetings they did, beforehand, the King would go and change from his car into the carriage that would take him down to the racetrack, and he would chat with the people in the park when he did that. But, you know, there was no such thing as security in those days. But another thing, at the time, the princesses weren’t due to become the Royal Family, they weren’t going to take over because the Prince of Wales was due to become the King and they weren’t next in line to the throne. There was a much more relaxed attitude about them. They were very popular with the general public, and, yeah, he used to go down and chat with them through the fence, and that’s what gave me the idea of the whole sequence, which was very useful to me as a way of tying James in on a personal level with what was going on there.

JC. I also really love the scene where Bond meets the Prince of Wales.

CH. I’d written that slightly differently originally. I had him being quite distant and awkward with James. Because he had no kids of his own, I’d written a character who couldn’t relate to kids. But then the Fleming family read it and, actually, there are members of the Fleming family who knew the Prince of Wales and they said, “No, no, he wasn’t like that at all. He was actually very friendly with kids, he got on very well with us, he was a very friendly character.” So I had to rewrite it. I had to tone down a couple things actually, having to do with the Royal Family, because the Fleming family do know the Royal Family. They are friends with them. So I had to be a little bit careful about what I said. But I still think I’ve screwed up my chances for a knighthood. (Laughs).

JC. Well you did show that, at the time, the Prince of Wales was very sympathetic to the Nazis in Germany, that he admired them on one level.

CH. Some of the stuff I have the Prince of Wales say in that meeting is stuff that he had said. Obviously not in those circumstances, but in letters and through pronouncements that he made. They were actually his words a lot of the time. I think the way he felt was shared by a lot of people in the Royal Family. Nobody really knew what Hitler was up to and what he was like and what he was going to do and the evil and horror that was going on there. At the time, Hitler was seen, especially by those of the ruling classes, as our best bet as an ally against the communist threat that was going to come in and destroy everything we hold dear. Get rid of our democracy and our ruling classes and certainly the Royal Family -- they all would have been lined up against the wall and shot. And there was a feeling that maybe this Hitler fellow has it right and we should side with him. It was obviously a lot later that people realized how rotten Hitler was. The Prince of Wales, it’s pretty well documented, had strong sympathetic feelings toward him, and it’s true our British Royal Family were basically a German family.

JC. I like that Mrs. Simpson is also in that scene, and she’s not very friendly. In fact, she’s suspicious. I was thinking maybe she was a spy.

(Charlie laughs)

JC. You give Young Bond a watch in this adventure?

CH. As you know that’s via your website, John. I think for the real Bond purists I should have given him a Rolex because that’s his iconic watch. But I sort of love the idea of the Multifort. It just looked like a really interesting watch. And I think, for the time, it is the right watch for him to have. And it’s a nice little nod to CBn. [Read: CBn Forum Member Suggestion Makes The Cut In 'By Royal Command']

JC. Aside from the major Fleming references – the maid and Hans Oberhauser – I couldn’t find any small hidden Bond references like you’ve put into the other books.

CH. I can’t remember now… There are quite a lot of nods, actually, to Fleming’s life. Because Fleming himself spent quite a lot of time in Kitzbuhel after he’s left Sandhurst. He’d had a very difficult period of his life and he was kind of sent there to get his life together. It was a very important period in his life for him. So there are more Fleming references than Bond references.

JC. Speaking of Kitzbuhel, the Alpine sections are beautifully written. Did you do a research trip, or had you already been there?

CH. I’ve been skiing a couple of times as a kid, but I really felt I ought to go back, experience it fresh. And I really felt I ought to go to Kitzbuhel, which is where Fleming had been. It’s a lovely little town and a beautiful ski resort and the mountains there are fantastic. I went back to square one and we hired this guy to teach us to ski. And he basically had to treat us as if we’d never skied before. So I kind of went through the process that Bond went through. Although learning to ski in the 1930s was extremely more difficult than it is today. The skis where taller than you were and ridged hard wood, very straight. Modern skis are curved so when you go around a corner they’ll do all the turning for you and they’re very short and flexible. But the skis then were kind of these great long planks of wood. It would take you probably six weeks just to learn to ski down very basic slopes. Bond does learn pretty quickly, but he’s James Bond.

They’ve got some fantastic museums in Kitzbuhel as well; a lot of the early years of skiing are very much from that area and they had one of the first cable cars going up the mountain. There was a lot of good local information there. I managed to speak to the guy who runs the ski school there, and his family goes back in Kitzbuhel for generations, they founded the first ski school there, and he was saying just how difficult it would have been to learn to ski in those days. There were also no ski lifts, apart from cable cars. If you skied down a slope, you were going to have to walk back up. Now you go to Kitzbuhel and you can ski for miles. Literally, you can ski for days, all the way to Salzburg, because there’s a series of lifts and drags and cable cars and things. But back then it really was kind of an endurance sport, and it was fascinating to learn about all that properly. And, as I said, I did put myself through the same process that Bond went through. But I also managed to get hold of a ski instruction book written by a guy from the Alberg school from the 1930s. In fact, a lot of the skiing technique in those days was different from how we learn today, so I wouldn’t advise anyone to learn to ski based on information in my book.

JC. In the new adult James Bond novel, Devil May Care, Sebastian Faulks says Bond visited a casino in his youth called the Paradice...

CH. Yes, I know. I was very touched by that. I didn’t know he was going to do that. I was reading the book and I said, “Oh, that was nice of him.”

JC. So there’s no way that’s a coincidence? There’s no way that’s not a specific a reference to Double or Die?

CH. No, no. He put that in as a sort of nod to the Young Bond books, which was very nice of him, I thought.

JC. Tell me about your involvement with The Shadow War. You wrote the game, right?

CH. Well, we talked a lot about the structure of it and the areas we could kind of go into and the kind of scenarios, but the actual nuts and bolts, page by page writing of it had been done by the games team. But I came up with the concept of trying to follow the five books in sequence, starting with the castle and going to the Docklands via Eton. But how each actual game works and plays through, the games people have done that because they’re much more experienced in how these games work.

JC. Are any of the ideas in The Shadow War ideas that you couldn’t get into the books? I know there’s an upcoming mission that involves an airship, which, considering the books are set in 1930s, would be perfect.

CH. Airships are one of those things that…yes it’s 1930s, but because it was done in that Indiana Jones film, I steered clear of it in the books. Those Indiana Jones films did everything I wanted to do -- between Indiana Jones and Tin Tin, they kind of covered that area so well. I’ve toyed on a number of occasions with having a whole sequence with him stowing away on an airship and then flying away somewhere. But, for me, it’s so associated with The Last Crusade that I haven’t done that. But I thought, well, we’ll do it through the game. But then I saw on the website people getting quite excited thinking “Wow, we’re getting an airship sequence in the new book!” But they’re going to be disappointed.

JC. Well, we have had airships in at least three Bond adventures before (A View To A Kill, Role of Honor, The Golden Ghost), so...

CH. I’ve stuck with a train and a bus and a bit of hitchhiking. Not quite so glamorous, but…

JC. At last year’s Hurricane Gold launch party you talked about the possibility of a Young Bond short story. Any update?

CH. There had been some talk about doing it on World Book Day, they bring out these little books every year. It didn’t happen for that, but it’s still all there in my head. [NOTE: The story, "A Hard Man To Kill," appears in the new Young Bond companion book, Danger Society: The Young Bond Dossier]

JC. You went to Goldeneye recently.

CH. Yes, I did.

JC. How was that?

CH. That was fantastic. Way beyond my expectations. You know, it’s a fantastic resort. They’re in the process of developing it and really opening it up into a much more major resort; it will be interesting if they’re able to preserve the kind of unique atmosphere that there is. But, I think the actual Goldeneye part of it will remain pretty much as it is. The great thing is the house itself is pretty well unchanged since Fleming was there. The furniture and the interior design have changed, but the actual building is unchanged.

Basically he built it almost as a kind of beach house. It’s very basic. In the main living area there’s not even any glass in the windows. It’s just open shutters. For the time a lot of people thought, “What on earth are you doing?” Because they liked the typical colonial stuff – trying to reproduce a nice house in the South of England in Jamaica. But he just loved the local kind of relaxed atmosphere, so it’s a very informal building and as such it’s very peaceful to be there. And it’s run so fantastically well. It’s got a whole sort of laid back Jamaican thing and they’re very proud of the whole Ian Fleming James Bond heritage of it all. I’d advise anybody, if you get the chance, to go there.

JC. Did you write anything while you where there? Even just a paragraph at the desk?

CH. (Laughs) I was there to write a piece for a magazine, so I worked on that a little bit, which is going to be out… I think sometime around the release of the film. But no, I mean... the other sad thing was I was sent out there by the Imperial War Museum to publicize their exhibition, so most of his stuff had actually been shipped over to England for the exhibition. (Laughs) But there was still one of his desks there and I did sit at his desk and get photographed like countless other James Bond fans have done. But his presence is still pretty strong there and you can still get a strong idea of just how much Jamaica meant to Ian Fleming and how important that kind of atmosphere of Jamaica was in his writing. He was getting away from that kind of terrible gray, constricted English British lifestyle and going out to Jamaica where it’s warm, escapist… That feeling is there in his books. That, well, escapism.

JC. You’re now doing a new series for Puffin, and I’ve heard you call it “28 Days Later for kids”? [NOTE: The first book in the series, The Enemy, is out now]

CH. 28 Days Later for kids, yeah. It’s no way original this idea. It’s ripped off a lot of things. I did an event at the Edinburgh literary festival the other day and I talked through the idea, and a kid stuck his hand up and said, “That idea sounds exactly the same as I Am Legend.” I said, “Yes, it is. That’s what I nicked it off.” But it’s done for kids. The idea is most people over the age of 14 have been wiped out by disease. It’s set in London, the first book. It was always a fancy of mine as a know, wouldn’t it be great if all the adults would just sort of disappear and you could do what you want in London, live in all these amazing buildings, have it to yourself? So that’s the idea. But some adults are left and they’re like a marauding band of these creatures who are trying to catch the kids to eat them. So it’s kids versus adults.

JC. Sounds great. So it’s going to be a three book set?

CH. I’ve been commissioned to do three books to start with and then we’ll see how it goes. It’s quite fun to be writing something different from Bond. It’s weird to be stopping Young Bond after all this time but, you know, I will be doing more. Another thing is, I’ve done a couple events where kids have said, “I really enjoy reading the books, but I always know James Bond is going to live at the end of the book.” You know that even watching the films, no matter what jeopardy you put him in, he’s always going to come through at the end, which is why there’s always been a tradition in James Bond of killing off wives, girlfriends, and sidekicks. So what’s nice in doing this new series, which is an ensemble piece, is you can create a gang of kids and, at the start, you really don’t know who are going to survive to the end. So that’s quite liberating for me.

JC. Have you had any discussions about movie rights?

CH. Early days. Early days. And they’re quite violent, so I don’t know… Well, there’s quite a lot of discussion about kids and violence and what they should be exposed to.

JC. That reminds me. I forgot to ask... By Royal Command is much less violent than the last books, certainly Double or Die and Hurricane Gold. Is that just because the story lent itself to less violence, or did you want to tone it down?

CH. No, I didn't want to tone it down. I’ve still got the odd body hanging on the wall with the sort of guts spilling out, things like that. And we got a big gun battle at the end with people being shot. I try and get as much violence in as I can because that’s what the kids love. (Laughs). But it wasn’t a conscious decision to tone it down. I think the body count is still pretty high.

JC. Finally, while there hasn’t been any official news, it certainly sounds like there are going to be more Young Bond books?

CH. As I said, I was originally commissioned to do these five books…well, not commissioned, but we talked about doing a series of five books. So I worked out a story over five books which would end with the maid incident and Bond leaving Eton. And I knew whatever happened I was going to take a break after that. But, you know, they say it’s done very well, done very well for IFP, done very well for Puffin, done very well for me, so obviously there is a great desire between the three camps to do more books. The decision as to exactly how we do the books and where we go ultimately lies with IFP.

As I said, I’m going to take a break. I’ve started this new series and we’ll see how that goes. But there are so many areas of James Bond that you could write about and it would be fun to write about. And I definitely want to be involved in the world of James Bond in one form or another. But one of the problems is the problem of sex really. James Bond in the end of By Royal Command is 14, getting on towards 15, and he’s James Bond. It’s very close to when we start talking more about the sex. And that’s something you have to deal with in the books. How many more I can spin out with him being with these girls and not really doing that much before he’s going to be there in Paris in that brothel with his wallet ready to be stolen... I can only alter the facts so many times. (Laughs)

But there are ways of getting around that and I’m sure I will be doing some more stuff with James Bond in one form or another in the future.

Thank you, Charlie.

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