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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Selena Wang Interviews Charlie Higson

Charlie Higson, the author of the Young James Bond and The Enemy series was kind enough to agree to an interview with The Great Raven. I'd also like to welcome special guest blogger Selena Wang, a former student and current member of my lunchtime book club. Selena is a huge fan of Mr Higson's books for young adults.

The Young James Bond books are fast-moving and delightful, set in the 1930s, when the future spy is still at school at Eton. Somehow he always ends up having an adventure worthy of his future self.

The Enemy series - two books so far - is set after a horrible disease strikes people over fourteen, leaving the children to fend for themselves and cope with flesh-eating zombies who may once have been parents and other loved ones. It's one of the scariest things I have ever read - but it is also about friendship, courage and trust.

Selena: Where did you get inspiration for the Young James Bond series?

Well, obviously the James Bond books were inspired by James Bond himself! I grew up in the 1960s when James Bond was the biggest thing on the planet and I was hooked. First by the films, from when I was about six years old, and later on by the books. So, I guess Ian Fleming, who created James Bond and wrote the original books, was also a huge inspiration to me. I had no idea when I was younger that I would ever be asked to write my own James Bond books, but when I was approached the first thing I did was to go back and reread all the books to really get me in the mood for writing my own young Bond adventures.

As I say, writing the Young Bond books wasn’t my idea. I was approached completely out of the blue by someone from Ian Fleming Publications, the company that looks after James Bond. They had an idea to do a series of books about Bond before he became a secret agent. All I had to do was think up the ideas for the stories.

People always ask writers where they get their ideas from. Personally I find the Internet is very useful. There’s an online site called Ideas ‘R’ Us. You simply fill in a questionnaire with things like ‘what type of characters would you like in the story?’, ‘where would you like to set it?’, what genre - thriller, horror, fantasy, comedy - etc. Do you want it to be about secret agents/vampires/zombies/pirates/aliens/school kids/talking animals etc. How long do you want it to be? Do you want it based on real life events? Do you want to use parts of your own life or make it all up…? And so on, and so forth, and it sends you back ideas for books. Actually that’s a lie, of course there’s no such site, although perhaps there should be. But if you think of the online site as your brain it works in exactly the same way - you go through the whole process - of sending all those questions to your brain - and it all starts swilling around in there and with any luck your brain thinks up ideas for stories. As a writer you're always storing these ideas away, everything that happens to you, everything you read about, see on the TV, hear about, dream about, it all goes in there in case it might be of some use. Sometimes ideas for stories, and these are always the best ideas, come to you very quickly, almost fully formed. This happened when I was offered the job of writing the Young Bond books. Even as I was talking to the person who was explaining the idea to me I had an idea of how the whole first book would work and so I agreed to do the series straightaway. Also, writing is the same as any other skill - the more you do it the easier it becomes. The very act of writing one book will give you an idea for three or four other books. Often when you're hard at work you’ll hit on something and think “that’s a great idea but I can’t fit it in this book.” And you put it aside in that great big computer you call your brain and keep it for later.

Sue: LOL! There was one American SF writer who, on being asked where he got his ideas, said that he sent five dollars to a PO Box in the US city of Schenectady where a little old lady made ideas available. It sounds like your real source of ideas is much better!

Selena: Are there any aspects of your personality in either series?

It’s impossible to write a novel without putting quite a lot of your own personality into it. I think many writers would agree that nearly all the characters in their books are based on aspects of their own personality. In the end it is all that any of us really know. Ourselves. Our books also reflect our personalities in that we write about things that interest or excite us. The places I send James Bond, the adventures he gets into, are all things that I am interested in. The new series, the Enemy, is very much based where I live in London. The kids in it are based on the friends of my own boys. But some of the characters, even the girls, have aspects of my own personality. If I was to be honest, I would say that my own character is probably something of a mix of Arran, Ollie and Ed.

Selena: Are any characters in the Young Bond and The Enemy series based on real people?

I take aspects of people from real life, but have never based a character entirely on one person.

Sue and Selena: At the end of By Royal Command, James Bond goes to a new school in Scotland. Are you planning on writing any more about him there?

Not in the near future. I did have some stories about him worked out for his new life and his new school, but I am too busy working on my new series now, and I don't think that Ian Fleming Publications will hang on and wait for me for ever. Maybe they will get someone else in to write his new adventures.

Selena: Are you planning a new series? If so, can you tell us about it?

I wrote a long fantasy novel when I was a teenager and have been rereading it recently, with quite a lot of work it just might be publishable…

Selena: Each book so far in The Enemy series is about a different group, although some characters from The Enemy are in The Dead. Are you planning to combine them in the next book?

Yes, The Fear (book 3) carries on the process of joining up the two main groups of characters.

Selena: Will there be any more Young Bond graphic novels?

Not in the near future, they take a long time to make and don’t sell as many copies as normal novels, so Puffin have no plans for any more.

Sue: Pity! Our students simply love graphic novels and those are doing well in my library. :-(

When in 2011 will the next book in The Enemy series come out? (SB: We live in Australia, Mr Higson, so do you have an Australian release date?)

Assuming that Penguin Australia publish at the same time, it will be out in September.

Selena: How much research did you have to do for Young Bond, because it was set a long time ago?

I had to do lots. Luckily the 1930s were a fascinating time with a lot going on so I found it all quite interesting. I also had to research a lot about Eton school, to make those parts realistic. Doing research gives you good ideas for storylines.

I went to Sardinia to research bits of Blood Fever. Then I went to the Austrian Alps and learnt to ski to help with my research for By Royal Command. Unfortunately I didn’t have time to travel to Mexico to research Hurricane Gold, which I would have loved to do, but I was too busy writing the book! The thing with kids’ books is that the readers need the next book right now! And you all grow up so quickly, so I had to write the books quite fast to keep you satisfied, which meant less time for travel. Lots of my books are set in London because I live in London. I like writing about the city, so I don’t have to travel far to do my research but it is good fun poking around some interesting and obscure areas.

Selena: I really enjoyed all the riddles and puzzles in Double or Die. Did you think of them all yourself or did someone help you?

I did most of them myself, though I did have some help from a couple of guys who make up cryptic crosswords for newspapers. Maybe in the end the clues were too hard, I don’t think any kids solved any of them!

Selena: The Enemy series is based in London, I want to ask if all the streets and place you mention in the series are real? (Such as: the museum, the schools……) - and did you go there for research?

It’s all real. If you wanted you could come over and retrace all the kids’ footsteps. The only ‘made up’ part was Rowhurst school, which is based on my old school, Sevenoaks.

Selena: I’ve also been reading the Alex Rider series. What do you think are some differences between James Bond and Alex Rider?

I think Anthony Horowitz is a brilliant author. I think his books are very exciting with a cliffhanger in every chapter. I probably wouldn’t have started writing kids’ books if it wasn’t for Anthony. Before his Alex Rider series they weren’t really a lot of action adventure stories for boys out there and publishers didn’t think boys liked to read, but of course they do like to read if they’re given the right books, and Anthony’s books - full of action and gadgets and heroism - work really well (for girls as well!), which is why Ian Fleming Publications thought it might be good to try some young James Bond books. So I will always be a huge fan of Anthony.

The main difference is that Anthony’s books are set in the modern world, and are based on the James Bond we see in the new films, and my books are set in the past and are more based on the James Bond we find in the original Ian Fleming books.

Selena: It’s unusual, for the time, that James Bond has friends who are Indian and Chinese. Why did you give him these friends?

Actually I’m not sure it was completely unusual for the time. The mix at Eton was not wide in terms of class, but other countries have upper classes as well! Eton has always had a lot of foreign pupils studying there. There has been a tradition of rich foreigners, and foreign aristocracy, sending their children to the school, as it was considered to be the best in the world. There have been some quite exotic boys at the school, like the future King of Siam. I wanted to show that Bond was able to make friends with all types of people and also that he was an unusual boy, almost something of an outsider, and so had a group of multi-cultural friends. He does also befriend some posh English boys, of course. I wanted to show that perhaps James Bond was more at home mixing with the more unconventional boys at the school

Questions by Sue, Selena’s teacher

I see you’ve been writing for adults till now, but you seem to have settled nicely into writing for children and young adults. Was the change hard?

I wrote several unpublished books in my younger days in a variety of different styles - I was a fan of fantasy, then sci-fi, then Gothic fiction and post-modernist writers like William Burroughs… while I was at university I wrote a couple of very long and complex arty student type of novels. I was then turned on to crime writing by a friend, particularly hard-boiled American crime fiction. I fell in love with that direct stripped down style of writing. There aren’t pages and pages of flowery descriptions, there’s a lot of dialogue, the writers grab you on the first page and don’t let you go. I decided to try writing some crime books in this style found that I enjoyed it. The first one I wrote, King of the Ants, was published. This coincided with my burgeoning career writing comedy for television. But, after four novels, the TV work took over. It took up all my time and, let’s face it, paid a lot better than writing books. Cut to 10 years later I now have three boys of my own and want to write something for them. I was looking around for ideas when I was approached by my old editor from when I’d been writing the adult books, she was now working for Ian Fleming Publications and thought that I might be right for the new Young Bond series. She knew I had three boys, she knew I was a big James Bond fan, and most importantly she felt that my writing style would work very well for children. I obviously couldn’t use so much bad language and had to remove any sexual content but otherwise I didn’t really change my approach when writing for children. The interesting thing, though, is that you cannot take for granted what they will know about the world. The 1930s were a fascinating time politically and I wanted to get a lot of this into my books but I would be writing away and suddenly realize that the average ten year old doesn’t know the difference between a Communist and Fascist, so my job was to explain often quite complex ideas to children in a way that they wouldn’t feel as if they were being given some kind of history lesson. I found this a challenge but, of course, by having my central character, James Bond, a boy himself it meant that other people could explain things to him. I’ve always liked books that tell you stuff, Fleming was very good at telling us stuff, and I think if you get it right kids quite like being told stuff. I was slightly worried when I started SilverFin that they might not like my style so I read it out to my own boys as a bedtime story as I finished each chapter - which is why the books are so violent. To keep up their interest I soon realized I would have to kill someone on nearly every page.

In another Q and A you said you were inspired by I Am Legend for The Enemy, but the premise of that book (which I’ve read) is that everyone turns into a vampire except the hero. Is your zombie disease based on a real one?
This is what it says on Wikipedia about the book…

I Am Legend is a 1954 horror fiction novel by American writer Richard Matheson. It was influential in the development of the zombie genre and in popularizing the concept of a worldwide apocalypse due to disease. The novel was a success and was adapted to film as The Last Man on Earth in 1964, as The Omega Man in 1971, and as I Am Legend in 2007, along with an unofficial direct to video production capitalizing on that film, I Am Omega. It was also the inspiration behind the 1968 film Night of the Living Dead.

I Am Legend inspired many and varied horror films and books. The idea of one lone figure in a changed world trying to fight against unhuman foes is very potent. It’s interesting how they treat the monsters in each the different film versions of the book. In the Charlton Heston version, the vampires are given many of the characteristics of the Manson family. And in the Will Smith version they are sort of alien zombie figures. Richard Matheson was very good at trying to bring a level of reality to his fantasy scenarios, he always worked in some kind of scientific and medical background to the supernatural goings-on and rooted his stories in everyday reality. I’ve tried to do the same in my books. The disease in The Enemy is not based on a real disease, no, but I’m in the process now talking to various doctors and scientists trying to find out how it might actually work. I wanted my monsters to have elements of the classic cannibal zombie as well as the vampire. The ultraviolet rays of the sun increase the effects of the disease and so, like vampires, the grown-ups don’t like going out in daylight. The zombie and the vampire are very similar anyway, they’re both undead, they both feast off the living.

In each Young Bond novel there’s a brave and beautiful girl, i.e. a sort of “Bond Girl”. Is this deliberate or did you just want to include female characters? Either way, do you think the girls fit into their time, the 1930s?
The girls are very much Bond girls. You can’t have a James Bond story without a strong female element. Fleming has been criticised for the depiction of his female characters and of male-female relationships and female desires. But he did at least put some memorable and entertaining girls into his books. He was attracted to strong healthy no-nonsense outdoorsy types and most of his Bond girls fit this mould. I wanted my girls to be similar. Wilder Lawless in the first book very much stands up to James Bond and saves his skin on one important occasion. I wanted to get across to boys read that girls could be fun and have a sense of adventure too. I probably had the most fun writing the character of Precious Stone in Hurricane Gold. She starts out a spoiled pampered rich brat and ends up a lean mean fighting machine navigating the terrors of the rat-run alongside James.

The 1930s were a very interesting time, there was a big growth in female equality and a big growth in vigorous outdoor pursuits like cycling, hiking, skiing, whatever. Women started wearing trousers in more ways than one. I think girls and boys did mix pretty well and particularly in England there grew up a strong breed of tough female adventurers who came to the fore in the 20s and 30s and of course fully came into their own in the Second World War, which gave a great boost to female equality.

Thanks very much for your wonderful interview, Mr Higson! We're looking forward to your next book ... and the one after that... :-)

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