Author Interviews
5:58 am
Sat October 5, 2013

Spies And Novelists Both 'Accomplished Liars,' Says New Bond Author

Originally published on Sat October 5, 2013 9:11 am

William Boyd is one of the great living British novelists — and now he's tackling one of the great British heroes.

"I am now a James Bond pedant," Boyd tells NPR's Scott Simon. "I can bore for England on the subject of James Bond. But I knew I couldn't do it frivolously, I had to take it very seriously, however much fun I was having. And I had to make myself, you know, absolutely steeped in Bond and in Fleming and that world."

Steeped in Bond, not shaken, of course.

Boyd, whose previous books have won (or been shortlisted for) most of Britain's major literary awards, once wrote a novel in which Ian Fleming briefly appears. So when the Fleming family tapped him to write the next Bond novel, Boyd jumped at the chance, penning a story that includes exotic locations, a peculiar villain and compelling women. And then he sends 007 for his first trip to Africa.

Boyd says he began with the fact that Britain's signature British man of the world — with all regard for Prince Harry — isn't a real English gentleman at all. "Bond is half Scottish and half Swiss, which I think is very interesting, and I make quite a lot of play of that."


Interview Highlights

On 007's more unexpected qualities

Bond often sheds tears. He cries quite easily; he weeps; if he sees something revolting, like a mangled body, he'll vomit spontaneously. So the Bond of the novels is a totally different being from the Bond of the films, the famous "blunt instrument," as he was described. He's a complex, sensitive, troubled individual who makes mistakes, and so from a writing point of view, he's a really interesting character to come to grips with.

On whether there's a template for writing Bond novels

When you are offered the job, you're given a very free hand ... but of course there are certain boxes you have to tick, and I think you'd be a fool not to tick them, in the sense that there's the relationship with M, for example. Bond is almost obsessively interested in food and drink and clothing; his armaments and his weaponry are very important. He's a, as we call him over here, a petrolhead, he's very interested in automobiles and motoring. So in a way, if you're going to write a James Bond novel, why not, you know, reference these familiar tropes? The template, if you like, is self-imposed — I know what the Bond novels deliver, but what's interesting, in a way, is to deliver it — or see it delivered through the filter of my eyes, of William Boyd rather than Ian Fleming.

On the kinship between spies and novelists

Having written three spy novels now ... I began to see, there's a certain overlap between the world of the spy or the double agent and the world of the novelist. And I think that overlap occurs not in any kind of intrepid way — because most writers are abject cowards — but in the way they look at the world. And I think spies and novelists look at the world with the same intent, curious gaze. I mean, spies are looking at it to, as it were, cover their back.

But novelists look at the world in the same way — you walk down the street and your eye is roving, you're looking for interesting things, you're interpreting and analyzing almost unreflectingly — what a curious way to smoke a cigarette, or look at that hairstyle, or what kind of clothes are those? You're constantly allowing the phenomena, the cinema of every day life to flow by you as you take note, and I think that's what spies do. ... And, of course, the other thing is, spies and novelists are both very accomplished liars.

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

WILLIAM BOYD: I am now a James Bond pedant. I can bore for England on the subject of James Bond. But I knew I couldn't do it frivolously. I had to take it very seriously, however much fun I was having, and I had to make myself, you know, absolutely steeped in Bond and in Fleming and that world.

SIMON: Steeped in Bond - not shaken. That's William Boyd, the author and screenwriter, one of the living great living British novelists, on how he went about writing a new James Bond novel, "Solo." Mr. Boyd, whose previous books have won and been short-listed for - and/or - most of Britain's major literary awards, once wrote a novel in which Ian Fleming briefly appears. So, when the Fleming family invited him to write a Bond novel, William Boyd jumped at the chance to pen a story that includes exotic locations, a peculiar villain and compelling women. Then he sends 007 for his first trip to Africa. William Boyd says he began with the fact that Britain's signature British man of the world - with regard for Prince Harry - isn't a real English gentleman at all.

BOYD: Bond is half-Scottish and half-Swiss, which I think is very interesting. And I make quite a lot of play of that in the novel. Bond refers to himself in Fleming's novels, at one stage, I'm just a Scottish peasant. He is very Scottish. And here's another thing I discovered was that Bond often sheds tears. He cries quite easily; he weeps. If he sees something revolting, you know, like a mangled body, he'll vomit spontaneously. So, the Bond of the novels is a totally different being from the Bond of the films, the famous "blunt instrument," as he was described. He's a complex, sensitive, troubled individual who makes mistakes, and so from a writing point of view, he's a really interesting character to come to grips with.

SIMON: I say this with respect for Ian Fleming and certainly for you - at the same time, is there a formula, what they now might call a template for a Bond novel?

BOYD: When you are offered the job, you're given a very free hand. I mean, there's no sense in which you have to kind of write a kind of pastiche, you know, Bond novel or channel Ian Fleming in some way. And I wrote this novel entirely in my own voice in the style I would use for one of my own novels. But of course there are certain boxes you have to tick, and I think you'd be a fool not to tick them, in the sense that, you know, there's the relationship with M, for example. You know, Bond is almost obsessively interested in food and drink and clothing; his armaments and his weaponry are very important. He's a, as we call them over here, a petrol-head, he's very interested in automobiles and motoring.

So, in a way, if you're going to write a James Bond novel, why not, you know, reference these familiar tropes? The template, if you like, is self-imposed. I know what the Bond novels deliver, but what's interesting, in a way, is to deliver it, or to see it delivered through the filter of my eyes, of William Boyd, rather than Ian Fleming.

SIMON: Of course, every Bond novel needs a distinctive villain. Kobus Breed - am I pronouncing that correctly?

BOYD: Yes, absolutely - Kobus Breed, yeah.

SIMON: A villain who cries.

BOYD: Well, he can't stop himself because he's been shot in the face in the past and his tear glands won't stop operating - one eye, in one eye only. So one eye is permanently crying. An interesting development, I thought. Again, that's one of the Bond tropes. You've got to have a sufficiently nasty, psychopathic villain.

SIMON: Yeah. And I have to ask you about - well, I wouldn't mind talking about both of the blond - of the Bond girls. And to forestall a lot of emails, I think it would sound awkward to refer to them as Bond women, although I know in this day and age that's probably what we should do, but the story's set in the '60s, and they were Bond girls then. The young woman named Blessing.

BOYD: Yes, except I would just say, Scott, that "Bond girls" is a description from the movies. And my whole experience has been that the movie Bond really bears no real resemblance to the literary Bond. So, I would call them women. And...

SIMON: All right. Bond women.

BOYD: Women that Bond meets and has a relationship with. So, yes, there are two. One of them, who is called Bryce Fitzjohn, is an actress in England and she's quite close in age to Bond, who in my novel is 45 years old. So, he's a mature, an experienced man. I thought it'd be interesting to give him a love affair with somebody, you know, close-ish in age to him. But then having sent into Africa, I thought it would be interesting for him to have an affair with an African woman. And she's half-Zanzari and half-English, but she speaks the local languages. And so she's much younger than Bond - she's 20 years younger than he is.

And so, a real contrast between the two women that he has a relationship with, and they're very intense and genuine. And, again, that's true of the novels. Bond is not just interested in, you know, casual sex. He wants a relationship and very often the women he has relationships with are damaged in some way. And I think this reflects Ian Fleming's psyche, in that he gave Bond a lot of his tastes and a lot of his traits and his needs and complexes. And so I think it was very intriguing to create, you know, living, breathing women for Bond to meet and for some sort of feeling to grow up between them.

SIMON: Yeah. Is there some kinship between people in espionage and novelists?

BOYD: Well, I think there is in a funny sort of way. And having written three spy novels now, you know, in World War I, World War II and the Cold War, I began to see, there's a certain overlap between the world of the spy or the double agent and the world of the novelist. And I think that overlap occurs not in any kind of intrepid way - because most writers are abject cowards - but in the way that they look at the world. And I think spies and novelists look at the world with the same intent, curious gaze. I mean, spies are looking at it to, as it were, cover their back. But novelists look at the world in the same way. You walk down the street and your eye is roving, and you're looking for interesting things, you're interpreting and analyzing almost unreflectingly, and you - what a curious way to smoke a cigarette, or look at that hairstyle, or what kind of clothes are those? You're constantly allowing the phenomena, the cinema of everyday life to sort of flow by you as you take note, and I think that's what spies do.

So, I think there's - and, of course, the other thing is, we're - spies and novelists are both very accomplished liars. And in a way, our survival depends on our ability to lie convincingly. The spy, to convince people that he's the person he's claiming to be, and novelists, in order to be able to write fictions that beguile and enthrall. So, there is an overlap but it's to do, I think, with observation and mendacity.

SIMON: William Boyd. His new novel - a James Bond novel - is "Solo." Speaking with us from London. Mr. Boyd, thank you so much.

BOYD: Thank you very much. It's been a pleasure.

SIMON: And if you'd like to read "Solo" for yourself, it's published by Harper Collins and available for purchase on October 8th. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.