You’ve Had Your Six: James Bond Author Raymond Benson, March 30 at the Bettendorf Public Library Print
News/Features - Literature
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Wednesday, 09 March 2011 09:03

Raymond BensonWhen John Gardner retired from writing James Bond novels (after 15 years and 14 books) in 1996, the company that oversaw creator Ian Fleming’s literary estate chose as his successor somebody with impeccable credentials.

Despite being an American, Raymond Benson knew 007 – both the literary and cinematic character – backward and forward. In the mid-1980s, he had written and designed three Bond-based games: two computer titles and a role-playing adventure. More importantly, he had researched and authored The James Bond Bedside Companion, an unauthorized and exhaustive look at Fleming and the Bond books and movies that was originally published in 1984 and updated in 1988.

From 1997 to 2002, Benson wrote six original James Bond novels, three novelizations based on Bond movies, and three Bond short stories.

But it would be a disservice to pigeonhole the 55-year-old Benson – who lives in the Chicago suburbs – as merely a Bond writer. He has had a varied career in theatre, music, video games, and novels beyond his Bond output. His latest book, Homefront: The Voice of Freedom, is a prequel to the upcoming video game Homefront. (The book was co-written by John Milius, who also wrote the game.) And in September, Benson will publish the first of what he hopes to be a five-novel series of adventures aimed at women called The Black Stiletto. As he put it in a phone interview last week: “I’ve moved on from Bond.”

Well, mostly. Benson will be discussing the British super-spy at a March 30 lecture at the Bettendorf Public Library, and like the Bedside Companion, his lecture will cover all things Bond.

Casual Bond fans, Benson said, will likely be surprised that the movie character has often been a departure from Fleming’s conception. “The way he [Fleming] pictured Bond is certainly not what was portrayed in the movies,” he said. “He described Bond as looking a lot like Hoagy Carmichael. ... He’s certainly not the Sean Connery type.”

The differences go beyond looks. “The book Bond is ruthless, he’s cold, he’s a brooder,” Benson said. “He’s not a sophisticated man of the world the movies portray him as.”

While Benson said that Connery remains his favorite movie Bond, both Timothy Dalton and Daniel Craig brought the character closer to Fleming. (Roger Moore played Bond almost as a parody, Benson said, while Pierce Brosnan was an amalgamation of all the Bonds before him.)

That liquidity of the character, Benson said, is one of the reasons Bond has thrived for more than half a century. “They kept reinventing Bond for a new generation,” he said. “They’re all sort of styled to each individual actor, and they’re a reflection ... of what’s going on in the world” when they’re produced. “James Bond has lasted a lot longer than I’m sure Ian Fleming thought he would.”

At the outset, Benson said, Bond was only popular in England. But in the early 1960s, he noted, two things happened in the United States: John F. Kennedy called From Russia with Love one his dozen favorite books, and Playboy started to publish Fleming’s work. The film series kicked off in 1962 with Dr. No.

“Bond was discovered by the world at a very crucial time,” Benson said, noting that Bond sparked a fantasy-spy boom that was likely a function of fatigue with the Cold War. Bond and his successors “started to glamorize it.”

James Bond was also notable, Benson said, as “the first antihero really in cinema,” closely followed by Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Westerns.

Fleming died in 1964, and Kingsley Amis was commissioned to continue the series, which he did with 1968’s Colonel Sun. The novel franchise was then dormant until 1981, when John Gardner’s License Renewed was published. And when Gardner retired, Benson was approached.

Benson's six Bond novels have been republished in two volumes: 'The Union Trilogy' and 'Choice of Weapons'He was working full-time for a computer-gaming company when he got the call. As a tryout, he wrote a book outline and the first four chapters on spec. The prospect of writing Bond novels, he said, “was daunting,” especially considering that he had to please three different bosses: the Fleming estate and the series’ British and American publishers. But he said that because of his intimate knowledge of the character’s universe, “I knew I could do it.”

After he got the gig, it wasn’t an easy process. Benson had those three masters, and they sometimes weren’t on the same page when he got revision notes. “They were often contradictory ... ,” he said. And “sometimes I’d get notes three weeks after the first set of notes from another entity. It was kind of hair-pulling at times.”

Like Gardner, Benson didn’t set his Bond books in the1950s and ’60s, instead creating stories with an ageless Bond in the era and political climate in which each was written. But unlike Gardner, Benson didn’t try to update the Bond character to the times. He said he wrote with “the guy that I first imagined when I read Fleming’s books when I was a kid” in mind. “And that wasn’t Sean Connery. I saw this sort of shadowy figure. ...

“I tended to bring back his vices,” he added – smoking, drinking, and womanizing. “This would make him anachronistic, but it would make him stand out against today’s background.”

Most difficult, Benson said, “was the translation from American to English.”

Even though he was part of a lucrative franchise, Benson said he didn’t make big money. He traveled on his own dime to research locations, he said, and “I made enough money that it was comparable to a day job.”

With three different editors, fickle fans, and lots of writing-related travel, Benson said his tenure as the official Bond writer were “a roller coaster. ... I was living and breathing Bond for seven years, and nothing else. It was just very intense.”

And that led to the Bond book that you’ll likely never get the opportunity to read: Benson’s memoir of his 007 experiences. He wrote it, but he doesn’t think he’ll ever try to have it published. “There was a lot in me that I wanted to say,” he said. “I said it, but I didn’t want anybody hearing it.”

Raymond Benson will present the lecture “The James Bond Phenomenon” on Wednesday, March 30, at 7 p.m. in the Bettendorf Room of the Bettendorf Public Library (2950 Learning Campus Drive).

For more information on Benson, visit RaymondBenson.com.