Thursday, September 27, 2012

James Bond Interview: Raymond Benson

The following interview was originally posted at Chicago Buzznews in the Autumn of 2009.

Raymond Benson is most well known as the author who became the third major contributor to the James Bond collection of stories. Accepting the assignment in 1996, he spent the next seven years adding six novels, three short stories and three movie novelizations to the series. But before tackling this endeavor, Raymond had already spent more than two decades carving out a career for himself in several other areas of the entertainment industry. Musical Theatre Composition—Play Writing—Directing—Video Game Design.

Travis: It's a sunny afternoon on the last Wednesday in September of 2009, and I've gotten the opportunity to have a chat with Raymond Benson. How are you today Sir?

Raymond: I'm fine, Travis, thanks.

Travis: How does a boy from Texas wind up living in Chicago and becoming the "Official Bond Novelist"? What got you here and what brought you to the attention of Ian Fleming Publications?

Raymond: I grew up a Bond fan, having been a child of the 50s and 60s... Was fortunate to see the original Connery films in the theater... Started reading the books at the same time, so from the get-go I was heavily into Bond. But I became a normal person, finished high school, went to college in Austin, Texas, studied theatre, graduated with a degree, and went to New York City to direct plays. In the early 80s, I got the idea to write a non-fiction "encyclopedia" about Bond, because at the time there weren't any. Now they're a dime a dozen. It was 1981 when I made contact with a publisher, submitted a proposal, and lo and behold I got a contract to write the book. It took three years to complete. During that time I traveled to England and met members of Ian Fleming's family, his business associates, friends and colleagues... And then when the book came out in 1984, the Fleming people were pleased with it. This was THE JAMES BOND BEDSIDE COMPANION.

The book established me as something of a Bond expert, so I got involved with the American Fan Club and wrote articles for their fanzine, BONDAGE Magazine, spoke at fan conventions, and whatnot. Meanwhile, Glidrose Publications (that's what Ian Fleming Publications was called then) and I stayed in touch. I did small oddjobs for them (no pun intended).

Travis: (snickering)

Raymond: Then, in late 1995, John Gardner announced he wanted to retire from writing the Bond books. IFP contacted me to see if I was interested in taking over. I was flabbergasted. I had to write an outline of a story on spec. Once that was approved, I had to write the first four chapters on spec. Then, once that was approved, I was awarded the contract. The press release went out in March 1996 that I was the new author.

Travis: Sounds like a very interesting set of twists and turns

Raymond: It was a dream that I didn't think I was allowed to dream.

Travis: Do you think your experience in play writing and theatrical production helped?

Raymond: Absolutely. I owe a lot to my Directing professor, Francis Hodge, who wrote the most widely-used textbook on stage directing in the country. Hodge taught me how to tell a story, no matter what the medium-- theatre, writing, whatever. I've used all the principles in everything I've done.

Travis: Okay ... Besides the Bond stuff, what else have you done to keep yourself busy during the past thirty or so years?

Raymond: For a lot of the 1980s, I was directing plays and composing music in New York... the off- and off-off-Broadway scene. My career took a sharp unexpected left turn in 1985 just as home PCs were appearing and computer games were starting to happen. I landed a job writing and designing computer games (the role-playing, story-based adventure style games). This continued back in Texas in the early 90s. I worked for several game companies until I got the Bond gig. It was a game company that brought me to the Chicago suburbs, where I still live. But I've left that behind and now write books full time. I also dabble in film studies. I'm a film historian and teach Film History at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, IL, among other things. I've teamed up with Daily Herald film critic Dann Gire to do a series of programs at area libraries called "Dann & Raymond's Movie Club".

Travis: Your first Bond story (Blast From The Past) is essentially a direct sequel to Ian Fleming's 1964 novel You Only Live Twice. Why jump back to that story line?

Raymond: Because it's mentioned at the end of Fleming's book that Kissy Suzuki is pregnant with Bond's child.... and then we never hear what happened to it. John Pearson, in his "James Bond--the Authorized Biography of 007" (1973), said the boy was named James Suzuki. John Gardner never could use the character because the film company bought all rights to Bond's offspring. But we figured that if the character was DEAD, then it was fair game. So James Suzuki appears as a corpse in my story!

Travis: A lot of people who have only seen the movies don't realize that the producers basically kept the title on this one and tossed out about 70% of the original storyline. That Bond essentially did live twice because there was a period of several months where he had amnesia and thought he was someone else.

Raymond: Yes. More like 95% (wink).

Travis: I was trying to be kind (smirking). How did you go about laying the groundwork for your incarnation of James Bond?

Raymond: I was told by IFP that I could "use or ignore" anything that the other continuation authors (Amis, Pearson, Gardner) had done. I didn't contradict anything Gardner did, I just changed a few things back, like the whole "Captain"/"Commander" thing and the gun Bond uses.

Travis: Gardner had promoted him to Naval Captain at one point in his series but you started your series with him still being a Commander.

Raymond: Exactly. And I always felt that the Walther PPK should be Bond's gun, his signature piece, no matter what the time period. I also gave Bond back his vices. The smoking/drinking/womanizing. But there were some things of Gardner's I acknowledged... I mentioned a few of his women characters at some point.

Basically, the Bond continuation novels should not be taken as an extension of the series that was before it.... they are separate series by individual authors... the only thing we really need to be faithful to is Fleming's universe. After all, if we were REALLY being a continuation, then Bond would be in his 90s by now.

Travis: A very good point. I think it's safe to say that the books exist in one universe and the movies occupy another. Should we say something similar about Gardner's 007 and your 007?

Raymond: Yes. Gardner's and mine both exist in separate universes than Fleming's!

Travis: And I think that each (to a certain extent) is dictated by the decades that the authors are in.

Raymond: Yes they are. IFP had also asked me to make the character and storyline "more like the movies."

Travis: When you did the novelizations for the movies Tomorrow Never Dies, The World Is Not Enough and Die Another Day ... What did you have to do to fit the stories into the reality and you'd already spun?

Raymond: With the first one, "Tomorrow Never Dies", I tried to fit it in with the continuity after "Zero Minus Ten" (my first Bond novel) and mentioned that 007 had been to Hong Kong etc.... but then after that I realized it wasn't worth the trouble. EON didn't care about the novelizations fitting in with my original books, and neither did IFP. They were treated like separate entities, just tie-ins to the respective movies, which is what they were. I don't consider the three novelizations part of my "oeuvre", so to speak

Travis: Gotcha. If one of your novels or short stories got made into a Bond movie? Would you see a serious windfall or would most of the money go to Fleming's estate?

Raymond: I'd see some money, but nothing serious. It would be nice enough (grin).

Travis: You're also one of the authors who have written Spy Novels under the pen name of David Michaels? How did that come about?

Raymond: Tom Clancy's publisher also happened to be the same publisher who did my Bond novels in America. The editor approached me to adapt Clancy's "Splinter Cell" videogame into original novels featuring the character Sam Fisher. But the publisher wanted an in-house pseudonym for ALL the books that would be written based on Clancy's extensive videogame franchises. Hence "David Michaels" was created. I was the first David Michaels. There have been at least two more since me.

Travis: Much like Glidrose / IFP tried to do before hiring Gardner.

Raymond: "Robert Markham"?

Travis: Yeah. Several different authors were supposed to use that name but only one novel (Colonel Sun) came out that way. And there was something of a screw up and some of the printed editions of Colonel Sun identified the author as "Kingsley Amis writing as Robert Markham". Then things languished for a few years before Gardner took over.

Raymond: Yep.

Travis: Would you go back and be David Michaels again, if the offer was right?

Raymond: Not sure... would depend on what I was doing at the time and what the offer was. But I've just done something similar—METAL GEAR SOLID, two books, only this time under my own name.

Travis: Okay. What's going on there?

Raymond: It was pretty the much the same type of thing. The only difference is that the Splinter Cell novels were original stories. The Metal Gear Solid books are strict novelizations of the games' story lines.

Travis: But you do get actual credit as Raymond for the novelizations?

Raymond: Yes. First one came out in 2008, the second one comes out next month.

Travis: And you've recently put out a couple of novels that focus on a private detective named Spike Berenger? What's going on in his little corner of the world?

Raymond: Those two books are "rock 'n' roll thrillers"... where I skew the rock 'n' roll world to be a very dangerous place... so Spike Berenger and his "Rockin' Security" team must be called into action. The first book, A HARD DAY'S DEATH, takes place in New York, the second one DARK SIDE OF THE MORGUE is in Chicago. There's also a short story that was in Crimespree Magazine, ON THE THRESHOLD OF DEATH. Lots of humor, music references, cameos by real rock stars... sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll! Instead of a Table of Contents, there's a Track Listing. Instead of Acknowledgments, there's Liner Notes.

Travis: (snickering) Should we look forward to seeing Spike again?

Raymond: Don't know.

Travis: The muse hasn't either flirted with you or smacked your face and told you to take a hike?

Raymond: The muse isn't the problem... it's the economy and publishing industry!

Travis: Ahhhh ... As Mike Williamson said in my last interview ... "Tis a very fickle business"

Raymond: That's a polite word for it. :)

Travis: My Mama did raise me to be a gentleman. Which was balanced by Daddy raising me to be a scoundrel.

OK .... 7 Quick Questions On The Movies!

Favorite Bond Movie
Favorite Bond Actor
Favorite Bond Supporting Actor
Favorite Bond Villain
Favorite Bond Babe
Favorite Bond Gadget
Favorite Bond Supporting Character

Raymond: Hmmmm ...

Movie: From Russia With Love
Actor: Connery
Supporting Actor: If you strictly mean Felix Leiter, then Rik Van Nutter. Moving beyond that character ... Pedro Armendariz was great, and Topol was good.
Villain: Auric Goldfinger
Babe: Tatiana Romanova
Gadget: Aston Martin DB5
Supporting Character? I was friends with Desmond Llewelyn, so I'll say Q

Travis: Okay. Anything else before I condense this down and send it off?

Raymond: CHOICE OF WEAPONS, my second Bond anthology, comes out next spring. THE UNION TRILOGY is still in the stores.

Travis: It has been a pleasure.

Raymond: Thanks!

Travis: You're very welcome.

-- Interview Update --

Since this interview was originally published, Raymond has come out with a new series of novels.  He has just released his second book in the series.

The Black Stiletto stories begin with a very intriguing premise. A son comes across evidence which causes him to believe that his mother was a masked vigilante back in the 1950s and 1960s.

The Black Stiletto -- 2011
(Hardcover, Paperback & Kindle Edition)

The Black Stiletto: Black and White -- 2012
(Hardcover & Kindle Edition)

Both stories can be found on Amazon.


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