May 28, 2008

Centenary Exclusive: Interview With Moneypenny Diaries Author Samantha Weinberg (aka Kate Westbrook)

Centenary Exclusive:

Interview With Money-penny Diaries Author Samantha Weinberg

Today is the Centenary of Ian Fleming's birth, and his heirs have (rightly) turned that into a celebration. Everyone's talking about Sebastian Faulks' new James Bond novel, Devil May Care, commissioned specially for the event, which hits stores today. It's erroneously been described as the first new Bond novel since Raymond Benson's The Man With the Red Tattoo in 2001, but most Double O Section readers probably know that isn't the case. Ian Fleming Publications have put out two excellent series of Bond novels over the past several years, Charlie Higson's wildly successful Young Bond adventures, and Samantha Weinberg's trilogy of Moneypenny Diaries. While the third volume, Final Fling, was recently published in Britain, the first one (here simply titled The Moneypenny Diaries) is finally hitting U.S. shelves, and I thought I'd shine the Centenary spotlight on that today here at the Double O Section.

Weinberg, writing under the pseudonym of Kate Westbrook (Moneypenny's supposed niece and editor of her diaries) took a concept that many fans (myself included) found dubious, and skillfully spun it into some of the very best James Bond continuation novels to date. It's a radically new approach to a Bond novel, the most different tack taken since Ian Fleming himself deviated from his own formula to have Bond Girl Vivien Michelle narrate The Spy Who Loved Me in the first person. It was her own story, and 007 only came into it in the last third. The Moneypenny Diaries comes from a similar angle, but with a far more interesting protagonist in M's famous secretary, Miss Moneypenny.
While Miss Moneypenny only appeared briefly in each of Fleming's novels, she certainly left an impression. Any woman able to get the last word in on Bond like she does in this passage from Thunderball is bound to do so! Here, 007 has just emerged from M's office, confounded by orders to clean the toxins out of his body at a health clinic:
Miss Moneypenny gave a secret smile. 'You know he thinks the world of you - or perhaps you don't. Anyway, as soon as he saw your Medical he told me to book you in.' Miss Moneypenny screwed up her nose. 'But, James, do you really drink and smoke as much as that? It can't be good for you, you know.' She looked up at him with motherly eyes.
Bond controlled himself. He summoned a desperate effort at nonchalance, at the throw-away phrase, 'It's just that I'd rather die of drink than of thirst. As for the cigarettes, it's really only that I don't know what to do with my hands.' He heard the stale, hangover words fall like clinker in a dead grate. Cut out the schmalz! What you need is a double brandy and soda.
Miss Moneyepenny's warm lips pursed into a disapproving line. 'About the hands - that's not what I've heard.'
'Now don't you start on me, Penny.' Bond walked angrily towards the door. He turned round. 'Any more ticking-off from you and when I get out of this place I'll give you such a spanking you'll have to do your typing off a block of Dunlopillo.'
Miss Moneypenny smiled sweetly at him. 'I don't think you'll be able to do much spanking after living on nuts and lemon juice for two weeks, James.'
Yes, Moneypenny made quite an impression standing up to the irrepressible 007 in her few paragraphs. Lois Maxwell solidified that impression in the films, making the role her own and playing up the flirtatious interplay between Moneypenny and Bond into a staple of the film series. (So much so that it was sorely missed from the otherwise excellent Casino Royale.)
Now Samantha Weinberg has gone a step further, developing the fan-favorite supporting player into a leading lady--and giving her a first name in the process. Weinberg calls her Moneypenny Jane, and Jane Moneypenny makes a very engaging protagonist and narrator. This new take offers a new point of view on Bond's world, and the opportunity to eavesdrop on life in the Office while 007 is away on assignment. All of Fleming's support staff get larger roles in Weinberg's SIS: Moneypenny, M, Chief of Staff Bill Tanner, the disagreeable Captain Troop, and even the steady parade of attractive secretaries to the Double O Section.

The point of view isn't the only new angle in The Moneypenny Diaries, however. Like Higson's novels, Weinberg's are period pieces, restoring 007 to the Cold War, Jet Age era that spawned him. This gives the author a freedom Fleming never had, as he was writing contemporary stories. She can integrate historical events into Bond's world. The first novel deals with the Cuban Missile Crisis, and 007's surprising role in it--as well as Moneypenny's. The second concerns notorious MI6 defector Kim Philby. And amidst these actual events, Weinberg weaves ongoing plot threads throughout the three novels like Moneypenny's quest for answers about her father's disappearance during WWII and, later, her attempts to identify a mole in the upper echelons of MI6.
Samantha Weinberg was kind enough to discuss some of these innovations, and more, with the Double O Section.
00: You've frequently credited your literary agent with the germ of the idea for The Moneypenny Diaries, but how much of it did he come up with, and how much did you create in your initial outline?

SW: We were discussing Bond in general when Gillon said, casually, 'What do you think about a Moneypenny biography?' My first reaction was: 'brilliant', and a second later, 'what about Moneypenny diaries?' It was that instinctive. From that point onwards, he left all the plot development to me, though I spoke to him several times during the process.
00: Who decided to integrate actual historical events into the books? And when did the ideas for the series' overarching plot lines (like Jane's father's disappearance and the mole in MI6) emerge?
SW: I wrote a brief outline - which included the concept of setting the diaries in real historical events - he read it, and then took it to the Fleming estate. When they expressed enthusiasm, I wrote a more detailed outline, which we then submitted to several publishers. By that point, the three main story lines for Volume 1 were established: the Cuban Missile Crisis, Jane's search for her father, and Bond/Office life in general. The first book followed the outline closely.

00: Did you plot out the overall story arc for the whole trilogy at that time, or did the plots for books 2 and 3 fall into place only after you'd already written the first one?

SW: I had some vague ideas. I always planned that Kate Westbrook would have an increasing role, and story arc of her own, as the series progressed. And that the second book would have something to do with the Cambridge spies. But none of the details; I literally (ha ha) left myself hanging at the end of book one with some loose ends that I didn’t have a clue how to resolve. (Particularly one relating to Colditz, which I only managed to navigate with the help of Henry Chancellor [author of James Bond: The Man and His World]).

It would have made my job a lot easier if I’d planned the entire trilogy at the beginning – and, with hindsight, I half wish I had – but it was also fun to try to wriggle my way out of some tight – albeit fictional – spots.

00: One of my favorite aspects of these books is the integration of actual historical events. Fleming didn't really have that opportunity (and sometimes when he tried it, the results were enjoyably embarrassing, such as Bond declaring in "Quantum of Solace" that his own loyalties lay with Castro's rebels, prior to the revelation that Castro was Communist!), and most of the continuation novels were also contemporary, so you're really the first author who's ever had the chance to incorporate Bond and Moneypenny into actual history. Did that daunt you at all?
SW: Quite the reverse. As a journalist/non-fiction writer, I feel much more comfortable with fact. So, having the history to hang the story off was a great comfort as well as a help. I enjoyed the research process enormously: digging through the archives, reading books about the period, talking to people and then, of course, hot-footing it off to Cuba to see the missile sites for myself.
00: Did you already have a great knowledge of the Cuban Missile Crisis, or the Philby affair, prior to writing the books, or did it mostly entail new research?
SW: I knew very little - so it was a lot of research. I have piles of books in my office. But it was fascinating and now I know a little more. [Editor's Note: Part of that research involved visiting Philby's fourth wife, Rufina, in Moscow - pictured below.]
00: In the second book, you portray Kim Philby as a complex, three-dimensional and even sympathetic character. What biographies did you rely on most, and to what extent did you extrapolate?
SW: Four main ones: Philby: KGB Masterspy by Phillip Knightley, Philby: The Long Road to Moscow by Patrick Seale and Maureen McConville, My Silent War by Philby himself, and, perhaps most importantly, Kim Philby: The Spy I Loved by Eleanor Philby. I also gleaned bits and pieces from Miranda Carter's biography of Blunt. I think/hope I painted a fairly true portrait of Philby, though it's probably on the sympathetic side; I tend to look for the emotion in people and probably rather under-emphasised the effects of what he'd done.
00: Very interesting! I didn't know about the Eleanor Philby book. I'll have to track that one down. Do you have any problems with corralling actual historical personalities to fit your fiction, or is it easier to write about people who already have well-documented stories?

SW: I love writing about real characters and trying to flesh out their life from what's been written about them.

00: You mentioned travelling to Cuba. Did you travel to every location you write about in The Moneypenny Diaries?
SW: Pretty much, and I'm feeling rather guilty about it now. I probably spewed out a small country's carbon allowance on the excuse of following Miss Moneypenny around the world! I went to Cuba, Miami, Washington, Switzerland (where I stayed with Peter Smithers, just as
Kate did in Guardian Angel [as the first book is known in Britain]), Berlin, Moscow, and from there by train to St. Petersburg, Jamaica, North Uist [Scotland]. I never went to Skye though!

00: Well, I'm sorry for the carbon-induced guilt! If it's any consolation, the research paid off. You painted very vivid depictions of each of those places--especially Moscow in Volume 2. Which of those thrilling cities did you like best?

SW: Definitely Moscow. It was exciting, beautiful, dynamic, and very, very cold (we went during a ‘cold snap’ – temperatures fell to –28C). Jamaica was amazing too, staying at [Ian Fleming's house] Goldeneye, hanging out with Chris Blackwell who, of course, knew Fleming well. [Ed: Fleming reportedly had an affair with Island Records founder Chris Blackwell's mother, Blanche.]

00: All we usually get of MI6 headquarters in Fleming's books is a few chapters. Were you influenced at all by other spy novelists who spend more time on this side of the business, such as John Le Carré or Greg Rucka? To me, your books read like bridges between their school of more realistic spy fiction and Fleming's imaginative world, which is a fantastic feat!

SW: Thank you. I'm a big Le Carré fan, and reread most of his books as I was writing Moneypenny. That was pretty depressing, to tell you the truth; I knew I could never hope to come anywhere near his brilliant depiction of SIS. I also spoke to several former spies, who had worked at the Office during the Sixties and who were wonderfully - if cagily - helpful. My aim was to make it a bit more realistic, yet stick as closely as I could to Fleming. So I guess it's a glamourised version of the real thing.

00: Or a realized version of the glamour! Either way, it works wonderfully.
SW: Thanks.

00: When did you first read Ian Fleming? Were you introduced to James Bond through the books or the movies?
SW: I saw my first movie at a friend's 8th birthday party. (I was about 6.) It was From Russia With Love, and I'm not sure I really understood it much, though still found it thrilling. I read my first Fleming book (Moonraker, I think) in my early teens; I found it on my father's bookshelves and loved it. But by the time the Moneypenny idea came up, I'd read only about four or five of the books, but seen most of the films. Now, of course, I've read all of the books about fifteen times!

00: Do you have a favorite?
SW: Probably Casino Royale. I like Bond’s doubts.

00: Had you read other "diary" style novels? If so, which of those influenced you most?
SW: Apart from Bridget Jones and Adrian Mole? I was definitely influenced by William Boyd's Any Human Heart, which is a truly amazing book. I can't think of any other diary type novels off hand, but I dipped into several real diaries - Betjeman, Alan Clark, etc. - particularly for tips as to how to handle the introduction and footnotes, Kate Westbrook stuff. [Ed: The first two volumes contain wonderful footnotes by 'Kate Westbrook,' explaining details from Fleming or historically contextualizing the 'diaries.' They're fun for fans and instructional for neophytes to the world of Bond.]

00: I went in expecting Bridget Jones and was pleasantly surprised to find something different, more along the lines of A.S. Byatt's Possession or Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian (a novel I adore) in the way it combines the present narrative with the past narrative found in the diaries, as well as occasional sub-narratives like 007's reports.
SW: I loved Possession too – and must now track down The Historian.

00: Despite focusing on Moneypenny as the main character, your books are still very much James Bond novels. That makes you both the first woman to ever write a Bond novel (congratulations!), and the first author to write extensively in first person from 007's point of view (in his reports that Moneypenny reprints in her diaries). Was that at all daunting?

SW: Yes. Not at first, as the historical significance of writing the diaries hadn't crossed my mind. But once I discovered the fan sites and appreciated how many people knew - and cared - so much about Fleming's world, I realised I was carrying a heavy responsibility - and that I could have a 00 agent after me if I got anything wrong!

00: Did those forays onto fansites like and its forums actually influence you at all in writing the later books?

SW: I only discovered the fan sites after finishing the first book. I tried not to let them influence me, though perhaps they had something to do with dropping the ‘James Bond was not his real name’ line. [Ed: The first volume states in a footnote that Ian Fleming changed the name in order to fictionalize accounts of an actual agent, which makes sense given the conceit of the book that Bond and his world were real. This caused a bit of an uproar in fan communities, however.]
00: Could you see yourself spending more time with Bond, perhaps penning a straightforward, Fleming-style 007 adventure, or is the new, female perspective on him the thing that interests you most?

SW: I think I've finished my Bond adventures, haven't I? I'm not sure I could have done a straight 007 adventure - not without making Bond more sympathetic than he is, which would have been wrong, and a shame.
00: You've really made Moneypenny your own, so much so that it's actually increased my appreciation for her when she turns up in Fleming novels I'm re-reading. I feel that I know so much more about her. Do you still think of her as Fleming's character, or as your own?
SW: A bit of both, if that doesn't sound too arrogant. I'm not sure the Moneypenny in my head and the one that was in his are exactly the same people. Perhaps we can both keep our versions of her? There can never be too many Moneypennies in this world.
00: What was the mandate from Ian Fleming Publications (and what was your personal goal)with regards to a target audience?
SW: They didn't try to direct me in any way, and from my point of view, I just wanted to find the widest audience I could.
00: Were you writing these books for existing Bond fans, who know the Fleming books well, or for newcomers?
SW: Again, both. I think, with hindsight, I had the existing fans a bit too much in my mind while I was writing Guardian Angel. Maybe some of the details would have been lost - and even off-putting - to the Fleming virgin? I don't know. It was an especially difficult line to tread during Final Fling. The denouement/twist was hard to judge.
00: Were you specifically targeting a female readership?
SW: No, though I think my publishers were! I knew most of the Bond fans were men, but perhaps more women would be interested in the Moneypenny viewpoint. To a great extent, I fear that the reason the books haven't taken off in a major way is because they fell between two stools: men thought they might be too girly (an understandable reaction to a cover with a pink bow on it [as the original UK paperback unfortunately featured]), while women worried that they would relate to an extant Fleming world that they felt no part of.

00: That's the real Catch 22 of the whole concept. I hope that both audiences ultimately get past any such misgivings, because I really do think the books play well to each group. I've been doing my best to assure spy fans that they're not chicklit; perhaps there's a comparable blog out there that assures the Bridget Jones crowd you don't really need to know anything about Bond beyond what everyone who's ever seen a movie knows!

SW: And that they can ignore footnotes if they find them too daunting!

00: I think that the Mirror quote that's appeared on the more recent books calling them "Bridget Jones crossed with Spooks, but set in the 60s" really sums it up quite well for browsers. It may be the sort of simplification that authors cringe at, but that seems the best way to sell it. The Spooks [MI-5 in the U.S.] connection crossed my mind as well, with its workplace politics in the Intelligence Community--albeit a different branch. Had you seen that show at all?
SW: Yes, love it.
00: Along the same lines, had you read anything by Stella Rimmington, whose autobiography and novels speak with great authority on the myriad trials facing a woman in the security services, even (in the case of her memoir) in roughly the same era as Moneypenny?
SW: I read the first novel, At Risk, and really enjoyed it. Must track down the others. But I didn’t want to get too confused between MI5 and 6; they are very different organisations, with different cultures.

00: When the first novel was initially published in the UK, it was launched with an intriguing marketing campaign, pretending that the whole thing was "real." How involved were you in creating that conceit, and do you feel that it was ultimately successful?
SW: Sadly, I was involved in it; we all - me, Gillon, IFP - came up with the concept at the very beginning, when we were talking to the different publishers. We all got very carried away with the cloak and dagger aspect: no one at the publishing house apart from my editor knew my real name, and I told none of my friends what I was doing. I even wore a wig and coloured contact lenses to the launch party. But, with hindsight, it was a stupid error and I wish we had just hung them on the back of Bond and let the books talk for themselves.
00: Did you have any input in the covers? Personally, the first two hardcovers left me a little cold, but once Stina Persson became involved, they really took off, and did a much better job of conveying what was inside.
SW: I am shown the covers, but have little else to do with them. Ditto IFP. I didn't mind the first hardback - though now it looks a little dull. I hated the first paperback which, to me, reeked of chicklit and bore no relation to the content of the book. We went with the publisher's view that the second hardback would be more commercial (which it wasn't), but majorly put our feet down - with some vehemence - when they tried to sell us on a ghastly, pencil drawn, chick lit cover for the paperback of Secret Servant [Volume 2]. Fortunately, they took us seriously and that's when they went to Stina Persson. I love her covers, particularly the paperback of Secret Servant (the colours are great). If Final Fling sells well in hardback, [U.K. publisher] John Murray have promised to re-jacket Guardian Angel to coincide with the paperback publication of Final Fling.

00: I sure hope that happens! How do you feel about the American jacket?

SW: I love the US hardback. I think it's eye-catching and reflects the period well. I think it's entirely fitting that you can't see Moneypenny's face.

00: Will St. Martin's publish the entire trilogy in the US?
SW: I hope so, though the deal hasn't been done. It depends on how the first book does. All my digits are crossed...

00: Mine too, then! Do you see yourself writing any further Moneypenny short stories, as you did for a few magazines around the time Casino Royale came out?
SW: I have no plans to do so at present, but maybe later this year?

00: Intriguing. Do you think the ones you did write will ever be collected, perhaps in the paperback edition of Final Fling or in a wider collection of Bond stories by various authors?
SW: That would be lovely.

00: What's next for you? Do you have any other fiction in the future, and will you return to the spy genre?
SW: I've been having a rest. I realised the other day that my children were 1 1/2 and 3 1/2 when I started out on this journey and they've only really known me as Mother Moneypenny! I have a few ideas as to what might be next and no, it probably won't be in the spy genre. But
maybe in the future?
00: Any plans for a U.S. book tour?
SW: I'm probably coming to New York in October on the Queen Mary to give a talk [on the ship] about Moneypenny (with Lucy Fleming and [For Your Eyes Only: Ian Fleming and James Bond author] Ben Macintyre - tbc). But, as yet, no plans for a tour. I felt so guilty after all the Moneypenny gadding around, I gave up flying two years ago, so it would be hard to do an extensive tour.

00: Sorry to hear it. Finally, what is your favorite spy novel and spy film?
SW: So difficult. Okay, so not counting Fleming: Our Man in Havana (book) and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (film).
00: Both great books and great movies! Thank you very much for your time, and good luck storming America!
The Moneypenny Diaries is available for purchase now in U.S. bookstores and from The Moneypenny Diaries: Secret Servant and The Moneypenny Diaries: Final Fling are both available for purchase from
Read my review of The Moneypenny Diaries: Secret Servant here.
Read my review of Samantha Weinberg's Moneypenny short story, "For Your Eyes Only, James" here.
Read my review of Samantha Weinberg's Moneypenny short story, "Moneypenny's First Date With Bond" here.
Read my interview with U.K. Moneypenny Diaries cover artist Stina Persson here.
Read Samantha Weinberg's environmental blog, Green Wife, here.


Paul Bishop said...

WOW! Fantastic post! Thanks for your efforts.

Anonymous said...

Excellent interview! And I love those pics of Samantha in Russia.

Matthew Kresal said...

Nice interview. I have to admit that despite having read every other continuation novel, I've never gotten into Young Bond or the Moneypenny Diaries. The former due to being well into my teens by the time they came out and the latter due in part to their not being available here in the US for awhile (though I somehow apparently failed to notice when they did get released here). That and the whole mismanaged cloak and dagger style launch campaign which left a bad taste in my mouth. Glad to read they realized that was a bit of a mistake and probably hurt rather than helped the books.