Charlie Higson is an English actor, comedian, author and former singer. Famous for his work as a writer for the comedy sketch show The Fast Show, he has more recently become very successful as a YA author with his Young Bond and The Enemy series. I had the opportunity to talk to him while he was on a recent book tour to Dublin about his writing career and The Fallen, the latest novel in The Enemy series.
Inevitably, the first question I asked was how did a successful comedy author transition from adult to children’s writing. Higson replied that it had been planned out and there wasn’t ever really a transition; it was all about finding the time. He had written four adult books earlier in his career but such were the demands of The Fast Show in his capacity as actor, co-writer and co-producer that each series took a year to produce so there wasn’t time to do anything else. Eventually he scaled back his TV work and was looking for an action adventure story to write for his boys when, out of the blue, he was approached by the Ian Fleming Estate and asked if he would be interested in writing books based on a young James Bond. Being a massive Bond fan, as were his sons, it was just what he was looking for so he agreed to do one to see how it would work.
He wasn’t unduly daunted by the Bond legacy in both film and fiction. He hugely enjoyed writing the book as it gave him an opportunity to put in all the things he enjoyed reading about as a child, remarking that just being able to type the words, ‘The name’s Bond, James Bond,’ gave him a childlike thrill. To obviate any potential negative publicity to the idea of a Young Bond prior to the book’s launch, his publisher cleverly didn’t announce the novel until after it was written, to ensure they were happy with it. It was at this stage the enormity of what he’d done struck Higson: ‘I’ve just written James Bond.’ Fortunately, despite initial outrage from the James Bond fan-sites at the idea of a Young Bond, they were quickly won over when they discovered it had been written with a great deal of affection for Fleming and his legacy.
Part of the pleasure in writing the books was scaling down iconic Bond moments (girls with outrageous names, tense card games and megalomaniacs) while still making them accessible to younger readers. At the same time Higson wanted to develop the character over the course of the books to show how an ordinary kid might develop into the cold-blooded government assassin he became as an adult. While remaining true to Bond canon, the character needed to have a slightly more modern sensibility so readers could identify with him yet not have him be, as he put it, ‘a mini-Pierce Brosnan, who was the incumbent James Bond at the time of writing.’ Higson was also conscious of managing the reader’s expectations since, being set in the 1930’s, there wasn’t the plethora of gadgets of today’s Bond films. As he put it, ‘If you can tell a good story and grab your reader, they wouldn’t really mind and wouldn’t really notice.’
Another aspect he enjoyed about writing a long series was that there was room for change in the characters in that some might start out as good and turn bad, and vice versa. With the readers hopefully investing in some of these characters, they might become more aware of how circumstances can change how characters behave and perhaps understand the reasons why, in some situations, they can act in unpleasant ways.
Aware that zombies, as a horror trope, are in themselves quite limited, Higson decided to give them a modicum of intelligence and, in some cases, a convincing backstory, to ensure that they became something far more dangerous than the shambling, moaning zombies the reader might be accustomed to. In fact, some zombies become significant characters in themselves and play an important part in developing the story beyond being just one-dimensional scary narrative enablers. This was something that Higson was conscious of as he finished the first volume: ‘I didn’t want to do more of the same; that if you can expand the narrative and take it into unexpected areas then, when you get to the end of the final volume and look back and think, wow, we’ve come a long way from that first book in a short time period.’ Acknowledging the complexity of the plot, Higson is thankful that he gets a year to write each book. He knows, in his head, where all the characters are, but is conscious that sometimes keeping track of characters’ backstories, particularly minor characters, can be problematic so he gratefully appreciates the work that his editors do.
When I asked him about his influences, he said, ‘I grew up in the 1960’s which was a fantastic decade for historical fiction for kids’ as well as reading myths and legends: ‘Anything that took me out of my mundane little world on an adventure. If a hero had a sword, I was there.’ That later transformed into reading fantasy such as Tolkien and the prolific Michael Moorcock of whom he was a big fan. He sees parallels between what he read then and The Enemy, since, now that the adults aren’t around and technology doesn’t function any more, the kids are plunged back into a sort of medieval existence, wearing armour and using spears and swords and living in castles. He confessed that that he’s more influenced by horror films than books, but he’s a big fan of Stephen King, particularly his earlier work. He also acknowledges the influence of the Pan Books of Horror during his teenage years as ‘being reliably gruesome and gory’. Asked what his plans are when The Enemy series is finally finished, Higson concedes that in publishing you have to be thinking that far ahead: ‘I’ve got some ideas knocking around. I’m quite keen to do a fantasy series, as I loved reading fantasy when I was young teenager. There hasn’t really been a big breakthrough British fantasy series for that age-group.’
Bob Burke is the author of the award winning Third Pig Detective Agency series. When not watching Munster Rugby or being a lowly paid chauffeur for his three sons, he tries to motivate himself to write something.