Q&A with Charlie Higson
In the run-up to World Book Day 2012, we were joined by author and Fast Show star, Charlie Higson, for a Q&A. You asked him about James Bond, how to survive a zombie apocalypse, why people love getting a fright and why he quit his rock 'n' roll career with the Higsons to become a decorator.
Charlie's phenomenally successful Young Bond series has now sold over a million copies in the UK. He's also thrilled and terrified teenagers with his zombie-adventure series, which includes The Enemy, The Dead and The Fear. A huge fan of horror films and books, Charlie studied gothic literature at university.
Q. Bruxeur: How strongly do you feel about the issue of continuity within the James Bond universe? There was some controversy about you changing Fleming's backstory for Bond when Silverfin came out. Was this something that affected your approach for later books, or do you feel that the series doesn't need to be perfectly consistent?
A. Charlie: Well, Bruxeur, this looks like a very geeky, male, kind of question to turn up on Mumsnet. Are you really a mum? Maybe you're in drag. I shall try to be brief so as not to bore the non-James Bond fans out there (and I guess there must be one or two - the fools!).
My brief when the Fleming estate hired me was to stick as closely as possible to the facts that appear in Ian Fleming's original novels. This is tricky because Fleming tried to keep Bond roughly 35 years old over the course of 14 books so he had to keep changing the back-story and sliding the dates (such as when Bond might have been born, for instance).
We had to pick a birth date and stick with it, and we went with 1920. Any inconsistencies stem from Fleming's original books. He never went back and checked facts from one book to the next, and could never have imagined that 50 years later people would be poring over the details on websites like this.
Other than picking that date, I tried to be as faithful as I possibly could to Fleming's books, to be ruthlessly consistent, and to put in as many nods and references to the adult books as I could - except for one crucial fact. Fleming makes it pretty clear that Bond had a fairly ordinary life (apart from being expelled from Eton for misbehaving with one of the maids, of course) until the Second World War, when he joined the Secret Service and learned to be a killer.
I wanted my books to be full of all the action, adventure and fun that you find in the adult books and films, so we gave Bond a considerably more colourful childhood than Fleming envisaged. I think Bond nuts have accepted that my books are very much in the spirit of Fleming and very much written as a love letter to him.
Q. Finbar: My son is an avid reader of Young Bond books, so a big thank you for keeping a boy reading! He would like to know what are you most proud of in the Young Bond books?
A. Charlie: One of the great pleasures of being asked to write the Young Bond books was the fact that boys love Bond. And so do their dads. My books are a great thing for dads to share with their sons (and mums as well, of course). I know from my own experience of bringing up three boys how hard it is finding books that they like, and also how hard it is to find books that I that would be fun to read to them at bedtime. James Bond is about the only thing that was cool when I was a kid that's still cool now, and I know that a lot of fathers have enjoyed reading the books with their kids. And it's very important that dads do that, so that books aren't seen as 'girlie'.
So I guess that what I'm most proud of is the fact that boys (again, I'm not excluding girls, they love adventure just as much as boys) enjoy reading the books and get turned on to reading other books. I can't tell you how many letters I've had from grateful parents, schoolteachers, librarians, whatever, saying such-and-such a boy would never go near a book, but is now a big reader thanks to my books.
What I'm proudest of in the books themselves is that I managed to capture something of the spirit of Ian Fleming and his fantastic original Bond stories. And I think the one specific passage I'm most proud of is the rat-run sequence in Hurricane Gold. Kids seem to love the idea of it as well.
Q. marshmallowpies: What are your top three tips for dealing with a zombie invasion? Should you stay indoors? And do you have a favourite author from childhood who is a bit forgotten now and you'd like to rehabilitate for this generation's children? Mine would be John Buchan.
A. Charlie: The thing about zombies is - and I'm talking proper textbook Night Of The Living Dead-style cannibal zombies here - the grown-ups in my books are not, technically speaking, zombies, in that they haven't died and come back to life. They are adults who have become so diseased that they behave like cannibal zombies.
But the thing about proper zombies is that in real life they wouldn't really be much of a threat. We see all these films and TV series like The Walking Dead, where somehow the zombies have taken over and the whole of civilisation has collapsed. How come? It actually makes no sense at all. If corpses did start coming back to life it would take the police and the army probably only a couple of hours to blast their brains out and incinerate them. I mean, at any one time, how many fresh corpses are there actually lying about the place? Plus, they're slow-moving, stupid, unarmed and disorganised.
So, my tip for surviving zombie uprising would be to stay indoors and catch up on a DVD box set (I'm enjoying Breaking Bad at the moment) because it would all be over by the morning.
As to your more serious question, an author that I rediscovered from my childhood when I was looking for books to read my kids was Norman Hunter. His Professor Branestawm books are fantastically funny and inventive and I've been doing my best to introduce them to modern kids. I've been gratified that they seem to love them just as much as I did when I was a boy.
Q. pertrean: You have obviously researched zombie invasion a great deal for your current set of books so my questions are: are you prepared for an invasion? Do you have an OFRS - Oh F**k Rucksack (emergency rucksack)? And if so, what is in it?
A. Charlie: I think I answered this question already when I replied to marshmallowpies. I reckon the main thing would be to make sure your phone was charged so that you could get some good footage to put on YouTube to enjoy once the very short-lived zombie uprising had been dealt with. In my book, a disease has struck that affects the living. That's crucial. Once all the responsible grown-ups have been wiped out, that's when things would start to get scary...
Q. Smadarama: Question from my son who loves the Enemy Series - in the Q&A at the end of The Dead you say that there were some characters that you became too attached to to kill off. He is interested to know which ones they were?
A. Charle: Ah, now that would be telling. And who knows I might still change my mind and bump them off in later books. Actually so far I have killed off more characters who I intended to keep, rather than the other way around.
When I was writing The Enemy I read it out to my youngest son as a bedtime story to get his reactions, and when we got to the end we both agreed that we had to kill off one more character, which was why poor old Freak bit the dust. I had been intending to keep him alive but we felt that we needed another death. And most of the characters in The Dead didn't make it to the end of the book, ditto The Fear.
When I start writing a book I don't always know which characters are going to grow on me and prove useful, and which will be crying out to be offed. I've now got a handful of them who I know I must never kill off, my fans would ever forgive me, even though some of them I had originally been planning to slaughter, but I really can't tell you who they are because it would spoil your enjoyment of the future books.
Q. mjhubba: As an author you obviously love books and so you must be really concerned about the number of library closures in the UK. I am currently campaigning to save the Upper Norwood Joint Library in Crystal Palace, London. What do you think about library closures? Do you have a message we could pass on to Croydon Council on your behalf?
A. Charlie: The biggest tragedy about the library closures is not the loss of the books on the bookshelves and the buildings themselves, it's a fact of life that people consume books in a different way now. Books are readily available through other outlets. I know there is still a hardcore of people who use libraries, though, and the closures will affect the poorest members of society. I also know that a lot of kids, in particular, still use libraries, and, my God, the closure of school libraries is an absolute disgrace.
But whether we still need the traditional old-fashioned model of the local librar, I'm not a 100% sure. Sorry. Books aren't going to disappear along with the libraries. No. The big tragedy is losing the librarians. They are irreplaceable. The librarians of this country are a hugely valuable resource. They are knowledgeable, campaigning, hard-working, they see at first-hand what is going on in the world of books, and they do so much to help people to read. If the librarians are lost, we lose so much.
Q. LineRunner: Charlie, why do think that young teenagers get such a kick out of being scared? My two absolutely love being frightened of the zombies. (Then they have to sleep with the light on.)
A. Charlie: Fear is a very powerful human emotion and I think it's important to experience all our emotions and get used to them when we're young. I remember for the launch of The Enemy we hired an attraction called the London Bridge Experience, where you basically get chased around a lot of dark cellars by people dressed as the zombies, freaks and serial killers. It's absolutely terrifying.
My kids came to the event and were very blasé about the whole thing, having been to the rather limp London Dungeon across the road. They strolled into the London Bridge Experience without really knowing what to expect. They emerged 10 minutes later at the other end, absolutely terrified. They were also incredibly excited, fired up and bursting with adrenaline. They wouldn't shut up and for the next two hours they spoke about nothing else. They were like soldiers who had survived some terrible battle, full of the joy of life. The sheer bloody terror had really woken them up and it was as if they'd drunk 100 cans of Coca-Cola in one gulp.
These things really are thrill rides, and to be safely scared is absolutely thrilling. We all love to be thrilled and it happens so rarely. There is the tradition, with really scary movies, of showing that you can hack it - "I survived watching this film!"
There are few more pleasurable experiences than being in a cinema full of people who all shriek at the same time (usually followed by an outburst of laughter). Small kids love being chased around by adults pretending to be monsters and squeal with delight. I think it's important that kids experience the extremes of emotions when they are young and learn how to deal with them so that if they are in a genuinely frightening situation later in life they can recognise the emotions and deal with them.
So I think it's very important to scare kids early on to give them something for their nightmares to feed on, just so long as they are fantasy scares. There are plenty of real, and really nasty, frightening things in the world so a few nightmares about witches, ghosts, ogres or zombies won't do them any harm and will get them used to genuinely dangerous things.
Q. aristocat: Do your children like your books? Are they your best critics?
A. Charlie: Luckily, my children do like my books. Bond is still pretty hip and cool, and I think my boys were quite proud that their dad was writing James Bond stories. It was important that other kids at school liked the books and that they were considered OK, or it would have been a great embarrassment to them. It would have been very different if I'd been writing Flower Fairies, or Angelina Ballerina, for instance.
I wrote the James Bond books for my boys, and read them out as bedtime stories. It was the only way of knowing if my writing would work for children and is the main reason why the books are so violent. My sons would demand that characters be knocked off in increasingly gory ways. They were also happy to make it clear if any passages in the books were boring, usually by falling asleep.
My youngest has always come up with great ideas as well, for incidents and characters and plotlines. So I learned a lot from my boys about writing for kids. Luckily, now that my boys are older, The Enemy series is viewed as being cool, and grown-up as well.
Q. Mulranno: When are you going to reform the Higsons?
A. Charlie: When I left university I was a singer in a pop group for six years. There are plenty of clips on YouTube if you want to check me out, and, if you do, it will soon become clear that I was not the world's greatest vocalist. I was a good performer and a good front man and we were a very popular live band, but we never quite worked out how to translate what we did to vinyl (as it was in those days). Again, check Spotify for recordings.
I knew at the time that while I was having great fun - we toured the world, got free beer and the adulation of young girls - I didn't want to be in a band forever. I knew that I wasn't really cut out to be a rock superstar, and when I found I could make more money as a decorator I quit the band went into decorating.
They were great days, though and I'm glad I got all that rock-and-roll malarkey out of my system. I've still got the CDs and actually my boys do quite like some of the songs. I'm 53 now, though. I know, in terms of the rock aristocracy, that's quite young (Mick Jagger is about 102) but I'm not sure I could drag myself up on stage and prance about entertaining an audience with any conviction again.
We last got together for the bass player's 50th birthday. Actually, the gig went really well. It seems that just about every other band from the 80s has reformed, and there are even festivals just for bands how are getting back together, but the reality of lugging the gear around, and sound checks, and egos, and rehearsals, all the mundane aspects of being in a band, far outweigh my desire to get up there and belt out a couple of choruses of "Hoop, hup, be-doobie-doobie-doobie". Although...
Q. pictish: OK, this question comes from my son, aged 10, who is a big fan of The Enemy and The Dead. He hasn't read The Fear yet. Charlie, why did you choose to have people over the age of 14 to become zombies?
A. Charlie: Having written the Young Bond books, which were very much in the action-adventure genre, I wanted to pick a different genre for my new series. As someone who has loved horror all his life, it was the obvious choice. I picked zombies because for me they're the most frightening of the screen monsters and they're a big favourite of my boys.
I wanted to do something more with it, though, than just have zombies chase people around, and as I've said above, zombies are a bit limited for a whole series. I also wanted to give it a few twists of my own, so I went back to a fantasy that I had as a kid. In fact,it was an idea that I'd used for a coupe of (unpublished) novels I wrote as a teenager: what if all the adults in the world disappeared for one reason or another and kids had the place to themselves?
I love the idea of children trying to survive in a world without adults, where they could use all the things that the adults have left behind. They can live in Buckingham Palace, for instance, or play with all the cool weapons and armour in the Tower Of London.
So I put the two ideas together - zombies and a world without adults. I came up the idea of an illness wiping out everybody over the age of 14, except for the unlucky few who are wandering around, hideously diseased, trying to catch any surviving children and eat them. I chose the age of 14 because I figured kids at that age were still children, though on the verge of becoming 'adults'. I thought the idea of teenagers of 16 running around in gangs and fighting might be something that they already did.
It's interesting that my American publishers have made the kids in the books all two years older and have the cut-off point for the disease at 16. Partly because Americans are a bunch of wimps, partly because the publishers were worried that some stuffy adults might complain about the terrible things that happen to children in my books, and partly because they felt that my fictional kids were too grown-up and sophisticated for 14 year olds. Maybe English kids are more grown-up than American ones, who knows.