New York Times bestselling author Raymond Benson has won numerous awards as a short story writer, novelist and game designer. He is perhaps best known for his work as the official James Bond continuation author from 1996 to 2002, publishing six original 007 novels, three film novelizations, and three short stories. He received the Lovey Award for Best Suspense Novel of 2014 with The Black Stiletto: Secrets and Lies. He continues to write and teach in the Chicago area.
Would you please tell us about your series The Black Stiletto and how you got the inspiration for the story?
Library Journal nailed it when they called it a “mashup of the work of Gloria Steinem, Ian Fleming, and Mario Puzo, all under the editorship of Stan Lee.” It’s about a feminist before that word was in our vernacular; she’s a young woman who goes to New York in the 1950s and becomes a vigilante fighting crime and social injustice. She’s active for 5 years and then mysteriously disappears. Cut to the present—a grown man is taking care of his mother, who has Alzheimer’s, and he discovers that she was the Black Stiletto! So it’s two parallel stories—one in the present, which deals with family, Alzheimer’s, and threats from the past; and one in the past, told in first person by the Stiletto herself, about her exploits.
I had been toying with an idea about a grown man who discovers some dark secret about his dying mother with Alzheimer’s, but I didn’t know what that secret was. Then, I had lunch with my agent and he suggested that I write something women would like. I facetiously offered, “How about a female superhero?” We laughed and then he got serious and said, “You know, that’s not a bad idea.” So I went home and thought about it—and I put the two ideas together, and voila!
With such a diverse background, scripts, games, etc., do you have a favorite or how do you decide what to work on next?
Writing novels is my favorite thing, it’s what I’ve been doing solidly for nearly 20 years. I still perform music, it’s a big part of my life. And I still have a connection to the video game world in that I’ve written several tie-in novelizations for popular video games. I’m also a film historian; I teach college-level Film History and write for Cinema Retro Magazine.
Can you describe your process? How do your ideas come to you and what are your first steps to getting the story out on paper?
There are six distinct phases. The first is the Concept Phase, where it looks like I’m not doing anything. Next comes Preliminary Research, in which I look into some of the ideas I’m thinking about. Third—the Outline Phase. The hardest one, the phase in which I tear my hair out and have sleepless nights and am grumpy for a month or two (see my answer on outlining below). Fourth—Nitty Gritty Research. With all my Bond novels, I traveled to the locations, walked in Bond’s footsteps, stayed in his hotels, ate the food, drank the drinks, but I didn’t jump out of airplanes without a parachute. Fifth—the Writing Phase. I try to write a scene a day. It may be a full chapter, maybe not. I don’t look back at what I’ve written. The next day I plow ahead with the next scene. I do that until there’s a finished first draft. This establishes pace. THEN I go to the sixth phase—Revising. I go back to the beginning and revise, edit, add, delete, whatever I need to do. I do that at least twice. Then I have my trusted beta readers take a look. Maybe there’s another revision after I get their notes, maybe not.
My first published book (in 1984) was a non-fiction, encyclopedic coffee-table book on the history of Bond (The James Bond Bedside Companion). During the process I went to England for research; there I met members of Ian Fleming’s family, his business people, his friends, most importantly, the folks at his company (then called Glidrose Publications) who control the literary side of Bond. At the time, John Gardner was writing the books (Glidrose periodically hires authors to continue the novels). Cut to 11 years later—I receive a call from Glidrose. They tell me Gardner wants to stop writing the books, and would I be interested in giving it a shot? OMG. After I picked myself up off the floor, I said, “Sure.” I had to first write an outline on spec, and it had to be approved by not only Glidrose, but also the British and American publishers. When that was okayed, I had to write the first four chapters on spec with the same approval process. Then I got the contract.
Did you receive only acclaim or were some fans unhappy with anyone other than Ian Fleming working on the great character?
Ha, are you kidding? No one gets only acclaim! Being the first American Bond author, there were a few British Bond fans who wanted to kill me. You can’t please everyone. But I did receive much praise and garnered a lot of fans all over the world. It was a roller-coaster of a gig.
Outliner or Pantser? Did you always work this way?
Outliner. I don’t understand how thriller authors do it without an outline. My outlines are really prose treatments broken into block paragraphs (each paragraph represents a chapter). I spend a lot of time on the outline, working out the plot, twists, and turns. I want to know how it ends. Once the outline is done and I’ve completed all my research, then writing the book is easy. But I know exactly what I’m going to write every day when I sit down to do it by following the “map” I created.
What is the greatest difference between writing a short story and a novel (other than the obvious length)?
I find it much more difficult to write a short story. They’re very self-contained and need to have a single, powerful point to it. A good analogy is that you tell the story of a novel on a huge canvas and have a lot of room. With a short story, you’re telling it on a sketch pad.
What is your next or current project?
I’ve just begun a science fiction novel, my first one. I’ve done some sci fi short stories, and some of my tie-in novelization work was in the science fiction arena, but this will be my first original SF novel.
Do you have a favorite author/book from childhood? Any books you read over and over?
I read the Ian Fleming Bonds again every once in a while. I first read them when I was 9-10 years old, so I suppose you can say they’re from my childhood! My favorite author is the late Ruth Rendell, and I re-read her stuff all the time—with over 60 titles, they’re always fresh. One favorite book that I do re-read a lot is Replay by Ken Grimwood.
What do you read most of now and what have you read recently that you wish you’d written?
I read a lot of thrillers and mysteries because that’s what I write. What do I wish I’d written?—hard to say. Maybe Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger. What a beautiful novel.
If you were mentoring new writers, and only had time for one lesson, what would you share to give them the greatest chance of success?
Read a lot. If you don’t read a lot and especially the types of books you want to write, you won’t be a good writer.
What should new writers be looking for when reading in order to help them with their own writing?
How an author constructs a story. How an author reveals character, or exposition, or plot surprises.
Do you have a dream project you’ve yet to see finished?
I’d like to see The Black Stiletto become a television series. It’s currently being developed as one. Fingers crossed. Other than that, I’d like to write a Star Wars novel, I’d like to re-mount some musicals I wrote back in my theater days, I’d like to record an album, I’d like to . . . this could take all day so I’ll stop there.
Readers can check out Raymond Benson’s website for more information on his books, short stories, and upcoming projects.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=1608091031]