Fergus Fleming: Interview

Fergus Fleming: Interview

To congratulate himself on completing his début novel Casino Royale in 1952, Ian Fleming ordered himself a gold-plated typewriter from New York: a Royal Quiet de Luxe costing $174. When it arrived, he wrote to his wife Anne. “My love. This is only a tiny letter to try out my new typewriter and to see if it will write golden words since it is made of gold.”

An extravagant purchase perhaps for an author whose literary career was only just beginning. But Ian Fleming worked hard to write those golden words. Between 1952 and his death in 1964 at the age of 56, he wrote 14 Bond novels, three works of non-fiction and a three-volume children’s story (Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang), while holding down several jobs in journalism and running both bibliophile magazine The Book Collector and publishing house Queen Anne Press.

With a chapter devoted to each of the Bond novels, the intensive final dozen years of Ian Fleming’s life is documented in The Man with the Golden Typewriter: Ian Fleming’s James Bond Letters, edited by his nephew; writer and editor Fergus Fleming. It is an engaging and witty selection that gives us a vivid sense of Ian Fleming’s writing life, and is particularly absorbing for anyone with an interest in the books business as it majors on letters sent by Fleming to his hardback publisher Jonathan Cape.

Fittingly, Fergus Fleming and I meet in a room at Bloomsbury’s offices at 50 Bedford Square which affords a view through the treetops towards the former premises of Jonathan Cape, at number 30. Fergus is the son of Ian’s younger brother Richard, who was a prominent banker. An acclaimed travel writer like his other uncle Peter, Fergus Fleming now co-runs Ian’s former publishing house, Queen Anne Press, which publishes high-quality limited editions. Yet he has always been reluctant to trade on his family connection. “I made quite a point at the beginning of not doing so,” he says. “You want to make your own name. But now I’m afraid I’ve outed myself as the nephew.”

Fergus Fleming has no memory of his uncle, who died when he was six. “His books were a constant presence in the house when I was growing up but my parents weren’t that bothered by Bond. But later, when I was in my teens, I remember my father taking me out of school to see one of the Bond films; I think it was ‘Live and Let Die’. We were driving home afterwards and after being silent for a while, my father said: ‘Good Lord. Just imagine what Ian has become.’“

Ian Fleming began writing the thrillers which would make him famous while on holiday in 1952 at Goldeneye, his much- loved house in Jamaica where he spent each January and February. Looming matrimony played a part in Bond’s creation. “After being a bachelor for 44 years, I was on the edge of marrying and so horrifying that I was in urgent need of the prospect was some activity to take my mind off it,” he wrote later.

Once Casino Royale had been accepted for publication, he threw himself into every detail of the book. “He had tremendous ambition. He very much wanted to get the money coming in and to be involved, which was perhaps unusual for the time. Certainly Cape was very taken aback, I think!,” says Fergus Fleming. Ian came up with the cover design, advised on sales and publicity, and kept a steely eye on finances. A series of letters from autumn 1952 finds him pushing for a higher cover price (“I am not in favour of reducing the price of the book to 10/6d. Hardly a novel is published today under 12/6d”) and suggesting a publication date of 15th April 1953 (“The ‘Royale’ in the title may help to pick up some extra sales over the coronation period”).

In September 1955, after quizzing Mark Bonham Carter of William Collins on thriller sales figures and with the publication of Diamonds are Forever imminent, he writes to Cape: “He says that between 8,000–10,000 is the sound barrier in these sort of books and the only way to get through it is to make a large print run and simply hovel it down the retailers’ mouths.” Ironically, Jonathan Cape himself paid Fleming’s books scant attention—Casino Royale was the only one he ever read. “He had little interest in thrillers, believing them to be short-run phenomena that rarely covered their costs,” Fergus Fleming says. By the time of Ian Fleming’s death, however, Mr Cape was forced to admit that the Bond books were the only thing keeping the publisher in profit.

As James Bond’s following grew, his creator—a committed and diligent letter-writer—entered into correspondence with many 007 fans (and quite a few of his detractors). A regular correspondent was a Miss Shirley Hillyard, who worked at Bedford Public Library. “We all like James Bond,” she had written “except the librarian who thinks he is very immoral, but perhaps that doesn’t matter when you are in the Secret Service.” The librarians later sent James Bond a get well soon card after he found himself on the poisonous end of Rosa Klebb’s blade in From Russia with Love.

Fleming’s letters also bear witness to the great care with which he researched the novels, discussing, for example, the relative weights of wristwatches and the relative merits of Bentleys and Aston Martins. A whole chapter is devoted to his exchanges with Glasgow gun expert Geoffrey Boothroyd, who first wrote to Fleming in 1956 to complain that Bond’s .25 Beretta was a “ladies’ gun”. Fleming subsequently appointed Boothroyd his fictional armourer, and 007 got a Walter PKK pistol. There are letters to the famous too: Winston Churchill and Fleming’s friends Noel Coward, W Somerset Maugham and a declining Raymond Chandler. And a certain publication called The Bookseller gets a mention too when Fleming corresponds with Cape about a proposed advertisement for Goldfinger in the magazine in 1959.

Reading the letters, Fergus Fleming found himself warming to his uncle. “Yes, he has this reputation of being a womanising cad, and maybe it was true to some extent. But what struck me is what a genuinely nice person he seems to have been.” He was also, we learn, a man dogged both by the fear of financial insecurity and the desire to succeed. “At one point he says: ‘You can write all you like but you’re only going to make money when you get into films.’ And he was right. The entire first paperback print for Live and Let Die earned him about £26”.

With the imminent release of “Spectre”, the 24th James Bond film, we now take 007’s global fame as read: the successful film franchise; the worldwide book sales of more than 100 million copies (excluding translations); and his starring role at the opening ceremony for the London Olympics in 2012. But as Fergus Fleming reminds us, for quite some time after his uncle’s death “Bond wasn’t such a big deal”.

Still, in retrospect, Cape playing hardball over Fleming’s desired 10,000 first print run for Casino Royale does seem a little parsimonious.

 

Picture: Philip Ford