E. E. Knight (eeknight) wrote,
E. E. Knight

Ian Fleming on writing and a bit of Bond

This is a writing post, but you’ll have to bear with me for a few paragraphs.

It’s no surprise to regular readers of this blog that I’m a little geeky about postwar men’s entertainment. Mostly you’ve seen me play around with the “sweats” – adventure magazines featuring bizarre and kinky cover art sprinkled with utterly over-the-top adventure fiction, iffy sexual behavior articles, and the occasional truly excellent piece about military technology or some bit of historical action or why Charlie was giving us such hell in South Viet Nam.

Of course, the 800 pound gorilla in postwar men’s entertainment is Playboy. Hugh Hefner edited the first issue from an apartment kitchen table in Chicago and within a decade had built one of the world’s most recognized name brands through editorial acumen and market sense. I don’t worship the guy or think his pen dripped gold every time he set it to paper, but I admire the heck out of him.

I don’t want to yak about Playboy here other than to say I’ve read it since high school and collect some of the older issues (though I'll be happy to yak about it in another post if anyone's interested). I know this sounds like a cliche dripping with dust and cobwebs, but I collect mostly for the interviews and articles and a little fiction – though I’ll admit to acquiring some out of pure nostalgia for the centerfold or because it featured some actress I adore (*ahem* Kim Novak December 1963 *ahem*). And I like looking at vintage ads.

Playboy has interviewed several of the major popular authors since starting the interviews (trivia: first interview was Miles Davis, September 1962, though the “Playboy panels” before that laid track). I’ve made a special effort to get those and I have an almost complete collection. The remaining couple are not authors I’m much interested in or are politicians who wrote a “campaign book” etc.

I’ve had Ian Fleming (I commend Vampire Earth fans to a close study of his parent’s names) on my mind lately, because I just updated my Bond collection, so I thought I’d select a few key Q&As from his December 1964 interview (a bittersweet one, he’d been dead for four months, but they timed it for the release of Goldfinger -- Fleming did live to see the final cut). I’ve excised most of the biographical questions and some of the stuff about his lifestyle, habits, homes and so on to shave it down to just stuff of interest to writers (though he did have a fascinating life). And there are a few Bond factoids I couldn’t resist including.

Let me know if you find this useful. I’ll do more.

PB: It is the belief of some psychologists that neurosis is a necessary concomitant of the creative drive. As a creative writer, do you agree?

IF: I think that’s perfectly true. I think that to be a creative writer or a creative anything else, you’ve got to be neurotic. I certainly am in many respects. I’m not really quite certain how, but I am. I’m rather melancholic and probably slightly maniacal as well. It’s rather an involved subject, and I’m afraid my interest in it does not go deeper than the realization that the premise does apply to myself. Possibly it all began with an overpriveleged childhood.

PB: Did you really settle on the name James Bond, as reported, because you’ve been reading a book by a man of that name, and you thought it sounded “suitably flat and colorless”?

IF: Yes, that’s absolutely so. It was James Bond’s Birds of the West Indies, a famous ornithological work, and I wanted my hero to be entirely an anonymous instrument and to let the action of the book carry him along. I didn’t believe in the heroic Bulldog Drummond types. I mean, rather, I didn’t believe they could any longer exist in literature. I wanted this man more or less to follow the pattern of Raymond Chandler’s or Dashiell Hammett’s heroes – believable people, believable heroes.

PB: One reviewer has written of Bond, “He is the bad guy who smolders in every good citizen.” Do you agree?

IF: I don’t think that he is necessarily a good guy or a bad guy. Who is? He’s got his vices and very few perceptible virtues except patriotism and courage, which are probably not virtues anyway. He’s certainly got little in the way of politics, but I should think what politics he has are just a little bit left of center. And he’s got little culture. He’s a man of action, and he reads books on golf, and so on—when he reads anything. I quite agree that he’s not a person of much social attractiveness. But then, I didn’t intend for him to be a particularly likeable person. He’s a cipher, a blunt instrument in the hands of government.

PB: It was Stalin who organized SMERSH, the Soviet counterpart of the Gestapo, which served as Bond's adversary in several of your earlier books. What made you decide to abandon it in Thunderball for the ideologically unaligned gang of international conspirators which you call SPECTRE?

IF: I closed down SMERSH, although I was devoted to the good old apparat, because, first of all, Khrushchev did in fact disband SMERSH himself, although its operations are still carried out by a subsection of the KGB, the Russian secret service. But in that book -I think it was Thunderball that I was writing at the time of the proposed summit meeting-I thought well, it's no good going on if we're going to make friends with the Russians. I know them, I like them personally, as anyone would, as anyone would like the Chinese if he knew them. I thought, I don't want to go on ragging them like this. So I invented SPECTRE as an international crime organization which contained elements of SMERSH and the Gestapo and the Mafia-the cozy old Cosa Nostra-which, of course, is a much more elastic fictional device than SMERSH, which was no fictional device, but the real thing. But that was really the reason I did it, so as not to rag the Russians too much. But if they go on squeezing off cyanide pistols in people's faces, I may have to make them cosa mia again.

EEK: Though the interview doesn't explain this, I am guessing Fleming is referring to the murders of anti-Soviet Ukranians Lev Rebet and Stefan Bandera, killed in what was then West Germany, according to information supplied by KGB defector Bogdan Stashinsky, a professional assassin.

PB: Your books were often among those at the bedside of President Kennedy, who publicly declared himself an enthusiastic Bond fan. He was even said to have considered Bond his favorite fictional character. Did he ever tell you why?
IF: No, he didn't. In any case, I don't think Bond was President Kennedy's favorite fictional character; I think he was his favorite adventure character. But I think perhaps that Bond's sort of patriotic derring-do was in keeping with the President's own concept of endurance and courage and grace under pressure, and so on. Strangely enough, many politicians seem to like my books, I think perhaps because politicians like solutions, with everything properly tied up at the end. Politicians always hope for neat solutions, you know, but so rarely can they find them.

PB: Why do you pay so much attention to minutiae in your books?

IF: The main reason is that these things excite and interest me. I’m observant, I think, and when I walk down the street or when I go into a room, I observe things and remember them very accurately. It amuses me to use my powers of observation in my books and at the same time tell people what my favorite objects are, and my favorite foods and liquors and scents, private lives and private tastes are extremely interesting to me. I think that even the way in which a man shaves in the morning is well worth recording. The more we have of this kind of detailed stuff laid down around a character, the more interested we are in him.
I make notes of such details constantly; I write down my thoughts and comments and I note menus and so forth. I’ve just written down something I picked up in Istanbul the other day: “Now there is no more shade.” This is a Turkish expression, used when a great sultan, like Mustafa Kemal, dies. The general cry of the people was “Now there is no more shade,” which is rather an expressive way of saying now there is nothing to protect us, now that the great man has gone. I write things like that down and often use them later in my books.

PB: Of course, you have research done for you as well.

IF: Yes, but generally only after I’ve written the book. After I’ve finished a book I realize that I’ve been rather vague or thin on some topic or other, and then I go to the right man and try to get the true gen out of him and then rewrite that particular area.

PB: Are you interested in the skills of individual specialists? Would you, for example, go out of your way to meet Chic Gaylord of New York, who makes custom-tailored revolver and pistol holsters for the New York City police and the FBI?

IF: Quite honestly, the whole question of expertise in these matters bores me. Obviously, I want to know the facts. If a Gaylord holster is better than a Berns-Martin, I want to know about it, but there my interest rather ends. However, I’m not a bad shot; in fact, I shot for Sandhurst against West Point at one time. And just to see that my hand isn’t trembling too much, I like to have a shot at a tin can or something now and again.

PB: Speaking of firearms, does it amuse you that your imaginative device of Bond's permissive double-0 prefix licensing him to kill-should be taken so seriously by your readers when, in fact, any intelligence agent may find it necessary to kill in the line of duty, and to that extent might be considered to have the right to do so?

IF: Well, though this was purely a fictional device to make Bond's particular job more interesting, the double-0 prefix is not so entirely invented as all that. I pinched the idea from the fact that, in the Admiralty, at the beginning of the War, all top-secret signals had the double-0 prefix. This was changed subsequently for the usual security reasons, but it stuck in my mind and I borrowed it for Bond and he got stuck with it.

PB: You’ve been criticized for being “obsessed” with violence in your books. Do you feel the charge is justified?

IF: The simple fact is that, like all fictional heroes who find a tremendous popular acceptance, Bond must reflect his own time. We live in a violent era, perhaps the most violent man has known. In our last War, thirty million people were killed, of these, some six million were simply slaughtered, and most brutally. I hear it said that I invent fiendish cruelties and tortures to which Bond is subjected. But no one who knows, as I know, the things that were done to captured secret agents in the last War says this. No one says it who knows what went on in Algeria.

PB: Do you spend most of your time there at the typewriter?

IF: By no means. I get up with the birds, which is about half past seven, because they wake one up, and then I go and bathe in the ocean before breakfast. We don’t have to wear a swimsut there, because it’s so private; my wife and I bathe and swim a hundred yards or so and come back and have a marvelous proper breakfast with some splendid scrambled eggs made by my housekeeper, who’s particularly good at them and then I sit out in the garden to get a sunburn until about ten. Only then do I set to work. I sit in my bedroom and type about fifteen hundred words straight-away, without looking back on what I wrote the day before. I have more or less thought out what I’m going to write, and in my case, even if I make a lot of mistakes, I think, well, hell, when the book’s finished I can change it all. I think the main thing is to write fast and cursively in order to get narrative speed.
Then, about a quarter past twelve, I chuck that and go down, with a snorkel and a spear, around the reefs looking for lobsters or whatever there may be, sometimes find them, sometimes don’t, and then I come back. I have a couple of pink gins, and we have a very good lunch, ordinary Jamaican food, and I have a siesta from about half past two until four. Then I sit again in the garden for about an hour or so, have another swim, and then I spend from six to seven – the dusk comes very suddenly in Jamaica: at six o’clock it suddenly gets very dark – doing another five hundred words. I then number the pages, of which by that time there are about seven, put them away in a folder, and have a couple of powerful drinks, then dinner, occasionally a game of Scrabble with my wife—at which she thinks she is very much better than I am, but I know I’m the best—and straight off to bed and into a dead sleep.

EEK: I of course immediately called up my agent and asked when I'd be on the oceanside vacation house naked spearfishing lifestyle plan, but hung it up after ten minutes of uninterrupted laughter. I was running short on minutes in our long-distance plan. In fairness, Fleming was born well off, thus the Eton and Sandhurst and going to school in Munich and Geneva and all that.

PB: And you return to England in March with a completed manuscript?

IF: Except for minor revisions, yes.

PB: mystery writer Raymond Chandler has said of you, “He writes more correctly, neatly, concisely, and vividly than most of our ‘serious’ novelists” On the other hand, New York Times critic Anthony Boucher has said that in his view you write “monumentally badly.” Do you have any comment on the contrasting appraisals?

IF: I dare say Ray Chandler said that because he was a friend of mine. As for Anthony Boucher, he’s never liked my books, and it shows what a good reviewer he is that he says so. Others, happily—such as Cyril Connolly—think otherwise. There is no doubt, however, that I—and even Anthony Boucher—should write better. There is not top limit to writing well. I try to write neatly and concisely and vividly because I think that’s the way to write, but I think a large amount of that comes, as I said earlier, from my training as a fast-writing journalist, under circumstances in which you damned well had to be neat and correct and concise and vivid. I’m afraid I think Reuter’s training was much more valuable to me that all the reading in English literature I did at Eton or in Geneva or wherever.

PB: you have said that you write unashamedly for money. Is that true?

IF: Yes, it is. I do write for money—but also for pleasure. I’m very glad that people say kind things about my books—because, naturally, if they didn’t say so, I shouldn’t make any money, and consequently I shouldn’t enjoy the writing so much. I think that communicating enjoyment is certainly a very good achievement, even in the fairly modest seam of literature that comprises thriller writing. But it’s true that I write below my ultimate capacity—or at least I think I probably do. If I really settled down and decide to write a War and Peace among thrillers, if I shut myself up and decided to do this and nothing else, I dare say if I tried to do it in the modern vein I might conceivably succeed.
But I’m more interested in action than in celebration, and I should think that the great War and Peace thriller would be more likely to be written by a man like Graham Greene or a Georges Simenon, because either of them would do it more truthfully and accurately than I ever could. I enjoy exaggeration and things larger than life. It amuses me to have a villain with a great bulbous head, whereas, as you know, they’re generally little people with nothing at all extraordinary-looking about them. Then, too, I’m afraid I shouldn’t be able to write in sufficient depth to make this hypothetical thriller stand up as a classic.

PB: Why not?

IF: I’m too interested in surface things, and I’m too interested in maintaining a fast pace, in writing at speed. I’m afraid I shouldn’t have the patience to delve into the necessary psychological introspection and historical background. But in the end, I must say, I’m very happy writing as I do. And I greatly enjoy knowing that other people, quite intelligent people, find my books amusing and entertaining. But I’m not really surprised, because they entertain and amuse me too.

EEK: I wish I'd spent more time reading the interviews and less time flogging the dolphin to the centerfolds as a youth, because I might have saved myself some time. I didn't have any success with my fiction until I started writing to "entertain and amuse" myself, as Fleming put it. I've said it before and I'll say it again: the author needs to excite himself, or make himself cry, or turn himself on, or make himself laugh (apologies for the sexist language, ladies) in order to do the same for others.

I liked Fleming's emphasis on his work being fantasy -- he didn't try to write realistic spy novels, he wanted tough-guy adventures. I don't want to go so far as to say he's one of the founding fathers of modern urban fantasy, but he is something of a kooky old great uncle on that family tree. Bond's world works for the same reasons so many other urban fantasies do: he's 85% grounded in the real world, which allows you to suspend your disbelief about the remaining 15% involving cat-eating Koreans with mutant hands or women who walk around calling themselves "Pussy Galore."

For more thoughts on Fleming as fantasy writer, I've got another article on movies coming up on the Black Gate blog, but I'm not sure when they'll do my Bond piece.

Tags: writing

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