In the Autumn of 1980...
I was living in the Republic of Ireland: about two miles outside Wicklow town.
There, on a glorious morning when the leaves were turning to red and gold, I received a letter from HRF Keating, the author of those wonderful Inspector Ghote books. In fact I did not recognise his handwriting so I put it into the pile I usually held back until my lunch break: the letters I thought were either love or hate mail. When I finally opened the envelope – Basildon Bond notepaper – I found that Harry Keating was acting as a go-between for Glidrose, the literary copyright holders in the James Bond books. They were sounding me out: would I consider writing a continuation James Bond novel?
My immediate reaction was ‘Thank you but no thank you.’ I had contracts and ideas that would keep me in work for at least a decade. In fact after lunch I wrote a letter saying very politely that I didn’t think it was for me, but that wasn’t the end of the matter. I haven’t told this story in its entirety until now but I put the refusal letter into an envelope and even stuck a stamp on it. Apart from not really liking the Bond books very much I am coming clean for the first time – I considered that to write more of them was a no-win situation. Kingsley Amis had done one within a few years of Ian Fleming’s death and the reviews had not been wildly enthusiastic. I remembered him saying that it was a thankless task.
But my refusal did not get mailed. Later that evening my agent telephoned and during the course of our conversation I told him about the feeler from Glidrose. There was a long pause after which he said, “You realise it’s a great honour to be asked.” I said yes, I knew that but the job really wasn’t for me. Though I had started my career by writing comedy spy novels I had been working for a long time on books that tried to depict the real world of the Secret Intelligence and the Security Services. “Bond is fantasy.” I said, “the kind of fantasy that’s sometimes unpleasant.” He asked me to sleep on it saying that I was well qualified to write the books, and he finished by telling me, “If you don’t write them they’ll get somebody else.” Later I was to find out that they indeed had a provisional list of six names and I was the first to be approached.
By the following morning I was starting to think of it as more of a challenge, and I could never resist challenges even though I still had great reservations. So, within a week I was asked to fly to London to discuss the possibilities with the Board of Glidrose Publications. By then I had made up my mind that I would only take on Bond if they allowed me to go about it in my own way. What I wanted to do was take the character and bring Fleming’s Bond into the eighties as the same man but with all he would have learned had he lived through the sixties and seventies. There was another tenuous link between Bond and myself: in the early sixties about two days before my first Boysie Oakes book was published news came of Ian Fleming’s death. Immediately there were Press stories indicating that the cowardly B Oakes was about to take the place of Bond. He wasn’t of course but the Press are great dreamers.
I described to the Glidrose Board how I wanted to put Bond to sleep where Fleming had left him in the sixties, waking him up now in the 80s having made sure he had not aged, but had accumulated modern thinking on the question of Intelligence and Security matters. Most of all I wanted him to have operational know-how: the reality of correct tradecraft and modern gee-whiz technology. When I finished talking the board gave what I can only describe as a corporate beam and said this was the way they had already decided it should go. I had satisfied the members of the Glidrose Board that I was the one to do the job.
I left my agent to settle the trivial details of contractual obligations and money – there was certainly not as much of it as people have since imagined – while I went back to Ireland to write a synopsis of the first Bond and finish the book I was currently writing.
The hardest thing about doing the Bonds was of course coming up with the story lines. After all I was working on some highly complex books of my own and it was far from easy to seek out a Bond synopsis alongside books of my own like The Secret Houses and The Secret Families. I tend to start books with a character or an idea, after that it is usually an intuitive business. I hated to tie myself down to one straight narrative, but that was what they wanted which meant that I had to produce a set of circumstances with a narrative and peripheral characters who appealed not only to Glidrose but to the British Publishers, Hodder and Cape – an odd marriage brought about by Tom Maschler for what seemed to me to be his own vanity – and the American publishers Putnam.
Over the next few months I trotted over to London to do bits of research and report progress. I seem to recall that I had to give them the first four chapters so that they could judge if this business was going to work. Eventually I completed Licence Renewed and then the somewhat cumbersome editing began. Just as I had to satisfy all three with a synopsis so the editing had to be done three ways. Glidrose had their say, followed by the London publishers and then New York. It was a mightily strange way of going about editing a book but Peter Janson-Smith – Glidrose’s man in charge of the process – made it as easy as could possibly be allowed. By the time we got to the final book, some fourteen years later, I owed him a great debt of gratitude because he did the hard work of haggling with editors. For instance, my editor at Hodder was Richard Cohen and Richard really approached editing just as he approached his chosen sport fencing with sabre. After we had done all the fine print editing I recall that Richard suddenly decided he really wanted a completely different book. Richard Cohen was a bit of a control freak at the time and I had been involved in his strange techniques before. He was, in fact, a wonderful editor if you could keep him within the book as it was written, but he caused many problems if you allowed him to run amuck and go down roads you had already rejected. On this occasion, with the first Bond, he didn’t get what would have been a total rewrite, thanks to Peter Janson-Smith.
Peter’s editing technique was not always interpreted correctly. I was amazed to read recently, in Kingsley Amis’s letters, that Kingsley was convinced I was absolutely no good at producing a thriller of drama and tension. In fact he had commented to Philip Larkin that Peter Janson-Smith had thrown the manuscript of Licence Renewed back at me because it was so bad. This, of course, never happened except in the sense that I would take every manuscript back to do the necessary work to make a better book and comply with those changes I had accepted from the editor.
Amis was in fact quite amusing. I met him at a lunch party Len Deighton gave at the Savoy for Eric Ambler’s birthday. Out of devilment I said to him, “Kingsley, you’re quite right: the Bond books are terrible hokum. No good at all. Dreadful,” – he had reviewed Licence Renewed for, I think, The Times Literary Supplement, and it was a review in which he set about me with a cat o’ nine tails, the Rack and the Chinese Water Torture. Kingsley looked at me in bewilderment, spluttering, “Oh no. my dear chap, no! No!”
I tried to round out Bond and put him in the real world but incredibly the die-hard fans wouldn’t have any of it. So, many of the books became the kind of fiction you read in Boys Own stories. In the USA the first five or six made it splendidly onto the New York Times best-seller list, yet the same was not true in the United Kingdom a reflection of the way the books were handled. While they sold well the Bond continuation novels were kept at arms’ length by newspaper literary editors, which was just as well for it stopped me falling into the trap of believing my own publicity.
While the job remained a challenge, it was far from easy, but once I got the bit between my teeth I wasn’t going to let go – and I didn’t. The hardware – sometimes dismissed by reviewers as fiction – was all real. I made sure that I actually handled and tested the gee-whiz technology and the weaponry that 007 used in the books and I also tried to make sure that I visited, or at least had visited, everywhere I sent him. Of the simple technology for instance the telescopic baton now used extensively by police forces throughout the world and often called the asp after its makers, ‘Armaments Systems and Procedures’, saw its first outing in Death is Forever: before that book the baton had not been heard of.
I often felt that I was underwriting the books by spending a lot of my earnings on research trips, but the weapons were easy because, as a former Royal Marine Commando, I had already handled most of the lethal items: I had been a small arms expert and also knew a lot about explosives. Knowledge in this direction does tend to sort out the men from the boys, and real experience is a very useful tool that lends itself to the writer of these kind of books. For instance, many years ago I permitted myself a wry smile when I read, in a novel set in World War II by a very well-known author, of the ‘silent’ Sten gun. These weapons only saw the light of day towards the end of the war and I had a very junior hand in testing them in Wales. They were, alas, silent for about ten rounds after which they created a terrible din.
As I had prophesied it was a no-win situation and I must state now that I do not normally read reviews, though this has got me into trouble at times and in the early days of the Bonds I was forced to read some for a laugh. I found that there were some reviewers who nit-picked and found fault in an amazing way. I recall that I was taken to task because I let 007 drink tea when he had never done so in the Fleming books; others were able to detect the difficulties under which any writer struggled in trying to follow Ian Fleming. Believe me when I say that unless I was going to slavishly reproduce Fleming’s Bond I was always going to get knocked simply because I wasn’t Fleming. Many people did not take the point that all fictional characters have to grow and strengthen. To allow Bond to have remained static in a changing world as some seem to desire – would, I still believe, have been death.
There were those who made fools of themselves in print over my version of Bond, reviewers who committed great howlers such as – ‘A computer has no moving parts,’ or ‘all cigarettes are white.’ Again there was one idiot who suggested that I did not have Fleming’s vocabulary – a difficult trick I would have thought.
I have always believed that the editor who begins a session with the words, “I’m not happy with the title,” has nothing to say about the book. Many reviewers said that my titles were poor. Little did they know what I’d saved them from because publishers almost to a man (or woman) wanted title changes and the Americans in particular suggested the most appalling new titles: I recall such wonders as Oh No, Mr. Bond! And Bond Fights Back. Those two finally became, after many protests on my part, the dreadful No Deals Mr. Bond while my original title for Icebreaker was instantly turned down only to be picked up again a month later after turkey after turkey had to be rejected. My former agent is convinced to this day that he was responsible for Death is Forever, which was actually taken from some dialogue in a Stephen King book. I tried to explain it to him but he still claimed that he was the one. I can’t think why because it isn’t a very sophisticated title. Peter Janson-Smith came up with two of the titles, though by now I’ve forgotten which, and somewhere I have the original lengthy list of quite abominable titles suggested by publishers.
Because I’ve been asked many times I should declare that I think the best of my Bonds is The Man from Barbarossa: it was also Glidrose’s favourite, but when we handed it to the American publishers they screamed in agony – “This isn’t the mixture as before,” they shrieked. Which was exactly what I was aiming for. If you don’t at least try to take a new and different path and a truly creative approach in writing the Bonds they simply become flat, dull and unattractive and I am sad that nobody has seen fit to really follow in the footsteps of what I tried to do. The only thing that I remain in any way bitter about is the canard invented by Glidrose who had supported me since the first book that the public were not ready for the changes I had made. This is a gross distortion of the facts and was said many times as I know from the tapes of BBC radio shows plugging the first Benson book.
I took on the task to improve, not to stay firmly within the painted lines of the original, and in the end I had to acknowledge that I’d done all I was capable of doing. By that time I was dying – quite literally of oesophageal cancer – and it is really a minor miracle that I am still sitting at the word processor today. Yet the Bonds were a splendid experience: I met some terrific people, I was able to stretch my imagination and I got to write my own books in between the Bonds.
– John Gardner, 2001