I first met author Raymond Benson while working on a series of articles about famous people from the Permian Basin of West Texas. Raymond has the distinction of being, up to that time, the only American to pen James Bond novels for Ian Fleming Publications, Ltd. He also authored the first two Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell books under the pseudonym David Michaels.
In addition, Raymond has designed video games, produced plays, written novelizations of numerous Bond films, and currently has his own series of suspense novels (Check out the Black Stiletto series available from Amazon and B&N.com). As if all that weren't enough, he is one of the world’s foremost experts on Ian Fleming and James Bond, as well as an accomplished pianist.
I have to start with a Bond question: You know the franchise intimately. When Daniel Craig took over as Bond, it was a highly controversial decision. You've seen your own share of Bond controversy, being an American who carried on the franchise. What is your take on the current state of Bondage?
Bond is in a good place. Daniel Craig is doing very well in the role and the last film was the most successful one in the franchise, which is the longest and most successful franchise produced by a single production company in cinema history. The literary side is still prolific with new authors appearing to write the adult Bond books, as well as the young adult “Young Bond” books.
The last few Bond books have featured different authors each time out. Any idea why they aren't going with one author? Any desire on your part to take another turn at Bond? As Bond (Sean Connery) says in “Dr. No” when he’s about to shoot Professor Dent—“You’ve had your six.” I had my six. They don’t go backwards and re-hire authors, just like they don’t go back and re-hire actors to play the role (except in the case of Connery in 1971). Since my tenure as Bond author, the publishing landscape has changed and the copyright holders changed their publishing philosophy... by hiring a big name author to do one book every three years or so, the publication becomes more of an event.
I’m thrilled to see your Bond books are back in print after a hiatus of several years. As you reflect on that period, what are your takeaways? It’s been 13 years since my last Bond novel, so it’s been a while. I remember those seven years (1996-2002) as Bond author as being on a roller-coaster. A lot of work, a lot of angst, a lot of pleasure. The biggest perks were traveling the world and meeting cool people. Now I feel as if I’ve moved on; that was a part of my life and career that was important, but now... I’m on to other things.
My favorite Bond book of yours is The Facts of Death. Which one of your Bond books gets the most continued praise from fans and why? Everyone has an opinion, but I think “High Time to Kill” might be the one most fans mention. It’s my favorite. For one thing, it takes place in the Himalayas, which is a location never used in any of the films or other books. It’s a mountain climbing adventure, and that made it unique, I guess.
Having the weight of the Bond franchise’s success on your shoulders was quite a responsibility. You also carried the Tom Clancy Splinter Cell series. Take us behind the scenes on what’s involved. Also, how much freedom did you have to take characters where you would verses following a prescribed formula? I wrote only the first two Splinter Cell books. The videogame was already established with, I think, two titles. So the character was pretty much set by games, but I had full freedom to create the stories. For the first book I was told I could create new characters for Sam Fisher’s team, which I did. Fans preferred the team from the games, so in my second book, Fisher meets and hooks up with the familiar characters. There are several authors who do this kind of “media tie-in” work. It’s good bread-and-butter work. They can be original novels tied to a specific, already-created universe, or they can be strict adaptations of an existing storyline. My Bond film novelizations followed the screenplays. My “Metal Gear Solid” books followed the plots of the two videogames. On the other hand, the Splinter Cell books and other media tie-in novels have all been original stories. It depends on what the licensor wants. It’s work for hire.
When a character like M is killed off in Skyfall, it has a seismic affect on the franchise. I'm assuming that currently, the screenwriters are the engine pulling the train. Take us behind the scenes on how those changes affect things like novels written for Ian Fleming Publications. The film series does not affect the literary series. Two separate entities. The only time they intentionally connected was when in 1996 I was told by the Fleming people to “make M a woman” in my books to mirror the Brosnan-era films, when Judi Dench was cast as M. Otherwise, there is no attempt to create canonical universes between the literary Bond and cinematic Bond.
Tell us about your Black Stiletto series. It’s my magnum opus, so far. It’s a five-book serial, one big story told in five parts. The Black Stiletto was a feminist before that word was in our vernacular. In the late 1950s, she puts on a mask and costume, calls herself the Black Stiletto, and becomes a vigilante for social justice. She’s active for five years (each book is one year in her career) and becomes world-famous—but no one knows her identity. Then she mysteriously disappears and over the years becomes a legend. Cut to the present—a grown man is taking care of his mother, who has Alzheimer’s and is in a nursing home. He discovers that *she* was the Black Stiletto, and has to deal with that burden of knowledge, as well as protect her from elements of the past that she was hiding from. So it’s two parallel stories, one in the past, one in the present. It’s not only action/adventure, but it’s a family story, too.
What gave you the idea to write about a retired superhero with Alzheimer’s? My mother-in-law died of Alzheimer’s. My wife and I went through around twelve years dealing with it. I had in my mind to write some kind of story about a son who finds out a dark secret about his mother with Alzheimer’s—but I didn’t know what that was. Then, one day, I was having lunch with my literary manager, Peter Miller, and he suggested that I need to write something the female readers would like because women buy the most books. I facetiously said, “Well, with all the superhero movies out now, why not a female superhero?” We laughed and then he got serious and said, “You know, that’s not a bad idea.” So I went home, thought about it, and voila!—I combined that idea with the other one about the son... the dark secret he discovers is that his mother was once a superhero. Well, no super powers, but a masked vigilante. Same thing.
Though Alzheimer’s is involved, there’s nothing slow or infirmed about your series. Talk about the use of flashbacks and parallel story lines. It was a challenging thing to do, because I knew it was five books from the beginning. When I started, I knew what the first book was, and I knew how the serial would end in book five. I *didn’t* know what took place in-between! It was also fun to research the time period of 1958-1962. Bringing in all the references to the pop culture at the time was a blast and, I think, helps the believability of the story.
The series moves along at a great clip. Library Journal said Black Stiletto is Ian Fleming meets Stan Lee. That’s pretty high praise. Actually Library Journal said it was a “mashup of the work of Gloria Steinem, Ian Fleming, and Mario Puzo, all under the editorship of Stan Lee.” That’s a pretty apt description! They nailed it. The series is done. The books come to a very satisfying conclusion. As for the future of the books?—they've been optioned in Hollywood for a possible movie or TV series. I can only keep the fingers crossed and hope that something happens.
Who were your literary role models? How did they influence your writing? Ian Fleming was obviously an influence. I started reading Fleming when I was nine years old in the sixties. Growing up I liked Alistair MacLean and some science fiction. As an adult I started to read Stephen King and John Irving and Larry McMurtry and Richard Adams and all sorts of folks. My favorite living writer is Ruth Rendell. These days I read a lot of thrillers because that’s what I write.
People imagine the life of an author as glamorous. For me, just starting out, ninety-nine percent of it is sitting hunched over a keyboard. Not much glamorous about that. As a very accomplished author, what’s your take on the literary life? Glamorous? Are you kidding? There’s nothing glamorous about it. It’s a lonely profession, but you’re usually your own boss. With the advent of the Internet and social media, the writer’s job is now not only to write but to market oneself. I spend a good part of the day doing the Facebook and Twitter thing because it’s expected. Agents and publishers today won’t bother with an author unless they have a social media presence. But now there’s also the e-book and self-publishing model that is changing the face of publishing, and with that the job is even more do-it-yourself, including the publicity. Like with any of the arts, making a living as a writer is elusive. You simply have to love it and be convinced there is nothing else you could do.
Currently, you live in the Chicago area. You've also resided in New York and also know London well. What influence did Midland/Odessa (born in Midland, raised in Odessa) have on you? How does it continue to affect you? Never lived in London, but I made frequent trips there during the Bond years. The New York years were important, I spent a good eleven years there. Austin, Texas, was also a major memory-builder, as I went to college there in the seventies. But West Texas? Oddly, I've often used it as a setting in my original novels. Odessa figures prominently in the Black Stiletto books. A fictional town not unlike Odessa appears in a few of my other books, including one I just completed that is a stand-alone drama dealing with the death penalty.
Who are some authors and/or musicians to whom you’d like to give props for either influencing your work or simply entertaining you between projects?
That list could fill pages. You know, I’m also a film historian and I teach Film History at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, so the movies do influence me. I’m also a musician and lover of music of all types. But to just name a few “heroes”--- Authors: Ian Fleming, Ruth Rendell, Jim Thompson, Richard Adams. Film: Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, Ingmar Bergman, David Lynch, Woody Allen. Music: The Beatles, Ennio Morricone, Jethro Tull, Robert Wyatt, Mike Oldfield, Frank Zappa, and many purveyors of “progressive rock.”
To learn more about this talented author, visit his webpage: www.raymondbenson.com.