An Interview with Raymond Benson
This interview with RAYMOND BENSON was conducted by PAUL FUHR for the literary journal Paradigm (www.therainfarm.com/paradigm) and is posted here with their permission.
For nearly four decades, writer Raymond Benson has pursued many different creative avenues: novels, short stories, stage direction, music composition, and computer games. In 1996, Benson was selected by Ian Fleming Publications to become the fourth “official” author of the James Bond series of novels. Working in the long shadow of previous Bond writers Kingsley Amis, John Gardner, and Fleming himself, Benson proved up to the task. He wrote six original Bond novels (Zero Minus Ten, High Time to Kill, The Facts of Death, Doubleshot, Never Dream of Dying, and The Man with the Red Tattoo), wrote the first three Bond short stories since Fleming, and three movie novelizations. In 2002, he retired from writing Bond novels and his newest book, Sweetie’s Diamonds, was published in May 2007.
You have a very eclectic creative background. How difficult is it for you to slide between novels and, say, computer games? Do you ever find yourself torn between projects because of your many interests?
For the most part, I’ve gone from one to the other without mixing them. In other words, I was doing the theatre thing earlier in my life, when I was in my twenties and early thirties… got into the computer game industry throughout most of my thirties… and then became a novelist in my forties. However, I’ve occasionally dipped back into the former careers. For example, a play I co-wrote with a friend was produced in Chicago in 2005. I would like to direct for the stage again. There’s just no money in it!
Does your theater background affect your writing?
I would say so. My stage-directing professor back at the University of Texas was a huge influence on me—he was my mentor (Francis Hodge) not only for theatre but for just about everything I’ve done in the arts. I still use things he taught in class. I learned how to tell a story in many different ways. I also analyze my work in the same way I would analyze a play before directing it.
Describe the challenges and struggles you faced while writing role-playing games. Do you miss text-based adventures? Do you feel that you could leave things to a player’s imagination versus spelling it out on the page, or was it the other way around?
I don’t miss the computer game industry. It was very volatile. You’d work a while for one company and then suddenly they’d have financial troubles, lay everyone off, and you’d have to find another job. It’s a young person’s field. I was in on the ground floor, more or less, in the mid-eighties. I did three text-adventure computer games and then went off to do other things for a few years and then got back into computer games in the very early 90s. Even by then, the technology had grown and advanced tremendously. I stayed with it until 1997 and then left to write novels full time. By now, the technology would be so far past me that I’d have a hard time with it. So, no, I don’t have a desire to do it again. It was a fun, creative day-job for several years, though.
Text adventures were always my favorite computer games. I suppose that’s because I’m more of a literary person when it comes to computer games. Text adventures were more like interactive novels. Once graphics became the norm in games, they depended more and more on action rather than story-telling. All the games I designed—even the ones that weren’t text-adventures—were story-based role-playing adventure games, in which the player is a character who must solve puzzles and move through an interactive “story.” These have become somewhat out of fashion and have been replaced by the more action-oriented story-telling games like Splinter Cell or Metal Gear Solid.
What was your experience working with legendary architect I.M. Pei? How creative were your four years spent with his firm?
It was a day-job, but an interesting one. I worked in the Spec department, so I’d type up specifications for the buildings. I worked for Pei for four years and mostly during that time I typed specs for the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. When I finally got to visit the museum after it was completed, I felt like I had a tiny bit of ownership in it! I knew things about specific rooms that no one else did.
You’ve done several adaptations of screenplays and novels, including a game based on Stephen King’s The Mist. How difficult is to make projects like those “your own”?
I’m a founding member of the International Association of Media Tie-In Writers (www.iamtw.org). All of us in that organization have worked on tie-ins in some capacity, be it novelizations of movies or TV shows, novels based on video games or comics, or anything else that was created by someone else. Most of these projects have to be done quickly. For example, I wrote novelizations of the last three James Bond films that Pierce Brosnan was in. I had about six weeks to write each one. With “The Mist,” that was a short story that we were adapting into a computer game, so we had more time. It’s not really a consideration to make it “my own.” These things are always work-for-hire jobs and the job is to adapt it the best way we can and keep it faithful to the original. Maybe we put in something that is a little bit of ourselves and more often than not it’s unintentional. “The Mist” was so long ago I can’t remember what I may have put in it that was a bit of myself, but in the Bond novelizations, I was able to create two or three scenes in each book that were original. These scenes were not in the screenplays and I put them in to help explain some back-story or something. So with that, I felt I was contributing my two cents worth to the films.
Have you ever found established universes/franchises limiting to write for?
So far, no. I suppose it depends on the universe and how much I’m a fan. With James Bond, it was a dream-come-true kind of thing. Other work-for-hire I treat as just that: I do a professional job and then move on to the next one.
Have you ever considered working exclusively on your music?
Not really. When I was in New York City and doing theatre full time, a lot of what I was doing was theatre music. So I suppose at that time you could say I was working almost exclusively on it. These days, it’s more of a side thing, a hobby, something I love to do but don’t expect to make money doing. I’ve always fancied recording an album someday, but I’d need a producer who knows his way around the studio, and I’d need the financing to do it. Maybe someday…
In 1985, you were commissioned to do a stage play of Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale. While you can’t produce or publish this yourself, could you share some details about its structure or action? What did you take from the source material and what did you leave behind? How does one go about staging Fleming’s novel? Do you regret not seeing it produced?
At the time, the Fleming literary estate owned certain rights in that one particular novel, including stage adaptation rights. Because of my theatre background, they asked me to try and adapt the novel to a play. It’s really the only novel that could be adapted to a stage play, because most of the story is indoors in a casino.
My play turned out to be very faithful to the book. The action was made up of stage fighting—no gadgets or special effects. I cut down the cast to five actors: Bond, Vesper, Le Chiffre, Felix Leiter, and an actor who would play all kinds of different roles—waiters, croupiers, henchmen. A staged reading of the play was performed in New York in early 1986 and it went very well. But the Fleming estate ultimately decided not to pursue a real production. Then, sometime in the nineties, EON Productions (the film company that makes the movies) bought the remaining rights of Casino Royale and in 1999 acquired the film rights from Columbia. So, the stage play cannot be produced without the movie people’s permission. It’s weird. I own the copyright of the play, but the Fleming Estate owns the publication rights and the movie people own the production rights.
So I can’t do a thing with it.
An obvious question: What did you think of the recent film version of Casino Royale?
In many ways it was the first real James Bond film. I loved it.
When you were announced as the new author of the James Bond series, were you ever intimidated by the shadow of Fleming, Amis, and Gardner? Early on, did you find yourself imitating a style, keeping certain “Bond” elements, or rewriting your work to meet expectations?
One would have to be a fool not to be intimidated. I was stepping into very big shoes. Before I began, I had a few talks with the Fleming people to decide what direction my books should go. There was some discussion about keeping Bond in the Cold War era and “freezing” him in time. Ultimately, though, it was decided that we should keep him updated, like in the films. I was also told to make “M” a woman, like the new films. Other than that, I was free to do what I wanted. I was required to write an outline for each book, which had to be approved by the Fleming people. I never had any problems. They knew that I knew what Bond could do and couldn’t, what was right in the universe and what wasn’t. I didn’t try to mimic Fleming’s style—that would have been a disaster—and besides, I don’t think anyone can really do that. What I tried to do was simply stay true to the spirit of Fleming’s books but write them the way I felt they should be. Sure, there are certain Bond elements that have to be there, and I wanted them to be there.
What goes into creating the perfect James Bond villain, in your opinion?
That’s the toughest part of doing the Bond books. A good villain and plot. So much has already been done that you really have to work hard at coming up with something new. I would always try to tie in my villains with the history of a particular country. The plots of my Bond novels usually have something to do with Britain’s concern over a hot spot in the world: Hong Kong, Cyprus, Gibraltar … wherever the United Kingdom has interests. The plot, the location, and the villain were usually all related somehow.
How did you get involved with writing a biography of Jethro Tull? Was it liberating to do a band biography versus writing thrillers and spy novels?
That was something I did for fun, mainly because I’m a huge fan of the band but also because I’m friends with them as well. I didn’t even have to do much research for it … I knew it all in my head!
What is your day-to-day writing routine like?
It depends on the phase of the book. During the Conceptual phase, I daydream a lot, fret a lot, pull my hair a lot. Maybe I’ll jot down a one-sentence idea or two . . . and this goes on for days or weeks until I finally have something concrete to start jamming on. I may do some preliminary research on a location or [plot device] “MacGuffin.” Then I’ll write down short paragraphs that might give me a handle on what the book is about. Kind of like a blurb on the back of a book.
Then I start expanding that to include a beginning and an end. By then, I’m into the Outlining phase. My outlines (really prose treatments) are very detailed, broken down by chapters, in which I lay out everything that is going to happen in each chapter. I spend at least a month on the outline, sometimes more. This then becomes the blueprint of my novel.
Then the Research phase is next. I try to travel to the locations in my books to get first-hand experience of the places, sights, sounds, food, smells, people . . . and if I can’t do that, then I use all the resources available to a writer: the Internet, libraries, people, whatever. Once I have my research and my outline, then I’m ready to write. I like to complete a full scene every day. That scene could be two pages long or it could be twenty pages long. Sometimes it’s a whole chapter.
I go through the entire first draft without stopping to correct or change things. Once the first draft is done, then I go back and correct, re-write, add, delete, plug holes, whatever needs to be done. And then re-write again. Usually after the third draft, I let my readers take a look. It’s always good to have readers you trust. Depending on what they have to say, I may do another draft. When I’m satisfied, it then goes to my agent.
Will you continue to write novels, or are you thinking of venturing into other creative waters?
I’ve started writing screenplays. I wrote three screenplays and a treatment during 2006 (two were based on my existing novels). But that’s even a more difficult field to break into than novels! I will continue to concentrate on the novels but will also dabble with screenplays.
Thanks for your time.