Richard Norris asks Charlie Higson about his young James Bond book, Silverfin.
“I wanted to show how the destruction of innocence can make an ordinary boy, a killer.” Charlie Higson
From writing characters for Harry Enfield, (Stavros, Loads of Money) TV’s Saturday Night Live and The Fast Show, Charlie Higson’s adult and kid-based novels have shown the world he’s got it all covered. But how does this giant of TV and literature take the world’s most famous secret agent and reinvent him? I spoke to Charlie at his home in North London, about how he developed his first young James Bond novel, Silverfin.
As a wannabe writer, sitting with Charlie in his living room, glasses of water with a laptop recording sitting next to them, I realise how privileged I am to know the man. Like Rik Mayall, Charlie Higson has made a huge impact on aspects of my life, so it was a thrill for him to agree on being interviewed about a character we share a common interest in, James Bond. His first of 5 in the series entitled Silverfin, find a pre-Fleming Bond at the beginning of a most dangerous and exciting life as an Eton school boy.
How did it start, for you?
I’ve always been a writer since I was a Kid. Because I enjoy the process. I enjoy making stuff up and just by writing something down, you can create a whole world and it always struck me as a sort of magic. And so, you know that’s almost the easiest form of creativity as you know. As a kid, most people will probably find writing easier than say drawing. You can tell the whole story and create characters, a world all that stuff and so I wrote to entertain myself and for the love of creativity and I carried on writing through my teenage years and when I went to university.
Did you come up with the concept of a young James Bond?
I was approached by the Ian Fleming estate. It was all very secretive, they came and said they wanted to revitalise the literary side of Bond and remind people where it came from. They wanted to get new Bond books written by proper writers and I’m thinking, how do you write a new James Bond? How do you do something with Bond that’s not been done before in the books and films. I didn’t know really know where you’d start and then they said they wanted to show his early life and do it for kids at which point I thought ah yeah, that’s quite exciting because we’ve never seen that. There’s room for me to bring something of my own trip. At the time I’d been looking to write for my three boys. I wanted to write an action-adventure thing that they’d enjoy.
So, you had the plot just nowhere to place it?
Almost. As they spoke of the idea, the plot for the first book sort of sprang already formed straight into my brain. I thought I could put into the book everything that boys love to do and everything that I loved in books when I was a kid. I needed to set out my story. I needed to set out the level of kind of threat and intensity of the book in that first chapter so that kids’ reading it would know if they wanted to keep reading this book? Was it going to be too much for me or am I going to really get into it? Also, I had to set up how this is going to be a big, exciting world with this (Bond) stuff and because I didn’t have that great device that Fleming came up with. This is your mission get to it, yeah. I couldn’t have him as an actual teenage spy. He had to be an ordinary school kid who stumbled on all these adventures. So instead, I tried to make his early school days as exciting and as James Bond like as I could but scaled it down to a level that kids could relate to.
“Fleming said ‘if you get the everyday details right, that gives you the licence to add elements of fantasy.’ Charlie Higson
How did you research a huge character that really has no background?
Before writing the book (Silverfin) I had never been that keen on research. I just wanted to get on and write the story. The only real time that we do find out about his background is in the penultimate novel You Only Live Twice, where everybody thinks Bond has died and M writes an obituary that’s printed in the times. That tells us all the back story that’s what I really had to go on. But the hardest part was knowing what it was like to be a schoolboy at Eaton in the 1930s. The librarian and Historian there showed me around there. I was fortunate enough to find an old diary, written by a boy about his experiences in his first year in the Thirties. It’s funny when you’re writing a historical book. It’s the little things, the sort of ordinary domestic details that can trip you up. You need to know what things were used at the time.
The challenges in creating the man audiences know as action man James Bond just a kid, must have been a nightmare?
People always used to ask me, who’s your favourite Bond, yeah, and obviously, for men of my generation, it’s Sean Connery. And again, it’s like which of the Bonds is the Bond in the book. I tried as far as possible to make the Bond in the book as much as possible like Ian Fleming’s James Bond. Old school. Also, we can’t pretend that we haven’t seen all those films so all of that did feed into the books and you know there’s a certain energy from the films, so what I was putting into my books and my bond was a sort of amalgamation of the best bits of all of them but at school. I wanted to show how an ordinary boy through the awful things that happened to him could grow up to be a killer, an assassin as it were. And there is huge mythology that has built up around Bond. There are all the trappings that you must have to make it a Bond and so I wanted to try and use as much as that but on a scale that kids could relate to. It was quite tricky because what is Bond known for? Driving fast cars, living in hotels all around the world. Eating in restaurants. Drinking lots of alcohol, smoking and having sex with lots of women and his job is to kill people. None of which you can have a 13-year-old boy doing in a children’s book. It’s a perfect fantasy for a bloke because he’s cut away from all responsibilities and burdens that in real life you have to deal with. There’s a classic structure to a James Bond book. Bond is given the mission by M. He approaches the villain. They have an initial competition. He gets close to the villain, enters his world and meets the girl along the way. He’s captured by the villain. Is tortured, escapes, comes back kills a villain and then sleeps with the girl. I had to work out how I do some of that. It’s a bit unsavoury having an adult torturing a child, so I did come up with different ways. The adult tortures James Bond by forcing him to drink a bottle of gin. That is a rite of passage all teenagers go through. We get hold of a bottle of gin with our mates and go to the park and drink it, puking up thinking we’re going to die. I thought yes, that is a good way to work these kinds of adult things into the books. As a writer, you draw on real life experiences. As it was about growing up and being a teenager, you can put all that stuff in it but in the guise of being just an adventure book.
“One of the other continuation authors said before about writing these books was that your polishing somebody else’s gold”
Was it difficult, to hand over your Young James Bond to another writer?
I wrote around 5 Bond books and well, it was my choice. I didn’t create James Bond and I wanted to write something that was mine. But having done those books I feel I could write a whole new one. As a new adult James Bond novel. I’ve gone inside the world enough.