Die, Sicko, Die: An Interview with Charlie Higson

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.’

After finishing with Young Bond, Higson’s next series was the zombie-horror The Enemy, written because he enjoyed writing gruesome scenes as well as action-adventure and also because he wanted to write something that would scare his own children. Initially planned as a 3-book series, the ending of the first volume, where the main characters find themselves split up, dictated that an entirely new set of characters needed to be introduced.  This resulted in a second volume that started a separate, parallel story that, gradually over the five books so far, began to intertwine with the original narrative, producing a complex, multi-stranded tale. Conscious that it was a major deviation from the usual linear narrative, he tried the story out on his own sons and, when they responded positively he thought that it might work. As Higson explains, ‘We sometimes think kids are stupider than they are and that we need to spoon-feed them but, I thought, let’s try something radically different rather than doing that linear thing and I thought they would like how the two books gradually come together  and it worked very well.’  Also, since he likes stories where the same event is seen from different perspectives and different characters’ points of view and how different they can look, he has tried to separate out the various plot strands in the different books to incorporate this.

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.

As the children in The Enemy series live in a very dangerous world, it was inevitable that characters would die. He found it hard to kill off some of these characters, but was conscious that in the interest of the story they had to die. He also wanted to take the reader out of their comfort zone, to ‘pull the rug out by having them think, this is a main character; he can’t possibly die.’ While there was a desire to make the books as frightening and unsettling as possible by making it clear early on that anyone might die, he was also aware that killing off character after character could, in itself, become just as predictable. Higson was conscious that, in the Young Bond series, some readers had commented that even though the books were suspenseful they were always aware that Bond wasn’t ever going to die because they had seen him as an adult in the films so he wanted to remove that level of complacency in the newer series.

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.