Monday 27 September 2010

E14 Interviews: Charlie Higson

For those into their comedy, the name Charlie Higson needs no introduction. A veteran of the UK comedy scene, Higson is perhaps best known for his work on shows such as The Fast Show and the reboot of Randall and Hopkirk: Deceased. As an author, he is credited as re-inventing James Bond for a younger generation of readers with classics such as Silverfin. More recently, his works have moved to child-accessible zombie fiction with The Enemy and his most recent release, The Dead.

Despite all this super-mega-fame, however, he still found time to answer some questions for the fine readers of E14. Enjoy!
E14: First of all, many thanks for agreeing to answer our questions. You probably get this all the time, but what was the inspiration for this particular series?

CH: Obviously the main influence of writing these horror stories about zombies were all the zombie films I loved when I was younger - mainly Night Of The Living Dead and Dawn Of The Dead. Also of course 28 Days Later which is set in London ravaged by a strange disease. This probably in itself was inspired by The Day Of The Triffids, in which a man wakes up in hospital to find that nearly everybody else has gone blind.

I was also influenced by the original book of I Am Legend in which a man tries to survive in a world filled with vampires. To me the scariest books I’ve read have been by Stephen King. He has a very strong sense of character; you get to know the people in his books so that you care about what happens to them. I have tried to do the same in my books and not just film them with splatter and gore. When I was writing the James Bond books my biggest influence was the original Bond books of Ian Fleming. No surprise there.

E14: With the success of your James Bond novels, is there a certain pressure to deliver when you attempt an original intellectual property, or is it liberating?

CH: When I was first offered the job of writing the James Bond series I just thought "What a great idea! What fun!". I very quickly had an idea of how the first book would work and the style and atmosphere of the series. I wanted the books to be full-on James Bond style adventures and for kids reading them to really get into the idea of being going up against nasty adults and beating them. I made sure all the James Bond elements were in place and had a great time rereading all the original Ian Fleming books. It was great to be given a blueprint for the books by Fleming himself.

I figured if I just did what he had done it would all be ok. Working on the first draft was huge fun. I sat there with a big grin on my face thinking ‘Wow, I’m writing a James Bond book’. It was only when the book was about to be published that I suddenly thought ‘Oh my God, what have I taken on? This could all go horribly wrong.’ Fans could hate it, it could be rubbish. Luckily the fans liked it and the kids it was aimed at liked it too so I could relax after that.

E14: As a fellow Brit, it was refreshing for me to see a series set in London, as many of the notable zombie franchises are set in the USA. Was the decision to set the series in London a decision you made early on, and was it for a particular reason? Does the patriotic element factor into it at all?

CH: Whilst it might have been more commercial to set the whole thing in New York, as you say, I’m a Brit. I want to write the story I want to write, rather than the type of books that might sell best in America. I live in London, I like writing about London, I wanted the books to be about the sort of teenagers that my own boys hang out with. That was my inspiration for writing the books. Plus I often wonder, when I’m shopping at my local Waitrose, what it would be like if zombies attacked.

E14: You’re obviously critically acclaimed in many of the things you’ve written. Is there a particular style that sticks out for you as the favourite to write (horror, James Bond, comedy, etc)? What are some of the advantages of the different projects you’ve been involved in?

CH: I’ve been very lucky to have really enjoyed everything that I’ve done. Obviously making comedy programmes on television is a huge amount of fun, but it’s also a huge amount of hard work and can be very stressful. Writing books is a nice change from that. You’re your own boss, you can do what you like, when you like. It is nice to be able to do both. Comedy is an outlet for my lighter thoughts, horror for my darker ones. Being a huge James Bond fan meant that writing James Bond books was one of the best jobs I could ever imagine.

E14: A popular view, and one of the reasons I liked the first book of this series so much, is that in order for a series like this to be totally engaging, you have to create the impression that nobody is safe no matter how important the character is. Do you subscribe to this theory?

CH: I did a lot of events with kids around the James Bond series and kids would often say to me that they had found the books really exciting and sometimes quite frightening, but never too frightening because they always knew that James Bond was going to be all right at the end of it. For a horror film or book to be really scary you have to think that everybody in it is in peril and that any of them could be hurt or killed. There’s nothing worse than a predictable horror story in which you can work out at the beginning who’s going to make it to the end. I nailed my colours to the mast quite early on in The Enemy by making it very clear that major characters could die, even the reader’s favourite ones. I thought this would make it ten times more terrifying.

E14: How far ahead are you of the published books? For example, book two has just come out, are you already ahead to book six or seven? If not, how decisive are you on the events that will unfold in future novels?

CH: Boy, I wish I was at the end of book seven! I could go on holiday for a couple years. Darren Shan once claimed that he’d written his entire new series even before book one was out. The lucky so-and-so. I’m not that prolific, I can’t work that far ahead. At the moment I’m about halfway through writing book three of The Enemy series and book two has just come out. But I guess I have managed to squeeze in making a major new television comedy series between the first two books. So I haven’t been entirely lazy. It’s good to be about one book ahead - it gives you a sense of confidence.

E14: How much backstory was necessary in order to set the series in motion? Did you spend a lot of time fleshing out the characters before beginning the stories, or did you have more of a basic outline in mind to be developed?

CH: The first book starts in right in the middle of the action and we get to know the characters by what they do. They all have a specific role to play. As the book progresses we learn more about their backstories. I’m not sure I really knew that much about them before I started writing, I just knew what I wanted them to do. Here were a bunch of kids trying to survive and that was all that was important. One of my templates was the Greek myths and legends surrounding The Trojan Wars. Homer’s bunch of heroes all had their flaws. I wanted my heroes to be the same - they’re not perfect.

Sometimes I wanted to show through their back stories perhaps why the characters weren’t so perfect. Things happened to them in the past that made them who they are. There are secrets about the characters still, though, that only I know and they will come out as the series progresses, but I am laying little clues along the way so that when these revelations come to light readers can go back and see that all the information was already there - they just hadn’t spotted it.

E14: Are you reading anything good yourself at the moment?

CH: I read books all the time. I’m reading a lot of the Sharpe novels of Bernard Cornwell at the moment because he’s very good at describing action, battles and fighting of which there is a lot in my new series. I also try to keep up with what’s going on in the world of kids books, and I love Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines books. I’m also reading horror books, like old copies of the Pan books of horror, just so I can steal some ideas!

E14: What advice would you give those of our readers who aspire to be writers?

CH: Don’t do it! Please! I don’t need the competition. Seriously, though, the only advice you can ever give to a writer is to write. The same way as if you want to learn how to ride a bicycle you get on a bicycle and start pedaling. Once you’re good at it you can talk to some experts and learn new tricks, you can watch films and read books about it, but in the end it is pedaling those wheels that teaches you how to write. Write a lot, read a lot and don’t be too self-critical. Many people never get past the first page because they can’t bear to think what other people might think of their work. You’re writing for yourself, don’t worry about anyone else. If you can entertain yourself and amuse yourself with your writing that’s all that matters in the end.

Charlie Higson's latest book, The Dead, is available now in Hardback. More information on the book and the series is available at The Enemy's Official Website. Be sure to check back tomorrow for E14's review!

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