Nov 4, 2010

Repost: Moneypenny Diaries Interview

Continuing this week's blogiversary celebration, here's another repost - and it's a direct follow-up to yesterday's re-posted review of The Moneypenny Diaries: Secret Servant. Here's the first part of an interview I conducted with James Bond continuation author Samantha Weinberg in 2008, along with a link to the lengthy full interview at the end. This is one of my favorite posts I've done here. Ms. Weinberg was an extremely gracious and forthcoming interviewee. Sadly, I think this interview was probably the biggest promotional push any of these books got, so it makes that much more sense to spotlight it again...

Centenary Exclusive:

Interview With Moneypenny 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?

Go here to see Weinberg's answer and read the entire interview.

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