Double or Nothing author on writing a Bond novel without James Bond
Kim Sherwood speaks exclusively to RadioTimes.com about creating a new roster of 00 agents and keeping the legacy of Ian Fleming alive.
Up until now, all of the official novels in the James Bond canon – both Ian Fleming's originals and those published by various authors since his death – have had a few things in common. Each book has presented a glamorous and thrilling espionage adventure complete with fast cars, memorable villains, and more often than not a couple of martinis ordered shaken, not stirred.
And while most of those elements are present in Kim Sherwood's recently published novel Double or Nothing, there is one thing that is rather conspicuous by its absence: 007 himself. For the first time in Bond history, the iconic spy is not the star of the book, which instead focuses on a brand new roster of 00 agents who must track him down after he goes missing.
For Sherwood – who is the first woman to write an official Bond novel – this idea of writing the story without Bond presented both a challenge and a uniquely exciting opportunity.
"When I was told that the Flemings were keen on me bringing in these new characters, that was really exciting to get to think of new 00 heroes," she explains in an exclusive interview with RadioTimes.com.
"But then you think, well, how are these people going to actually sit on the page next to Bond? Because I thought about him like a star – you know, he's an icon. And like a star, he takes up the spotlight, and he has his own gravity. So whether he's on the page or the screen, all eyes are turned to him.
"So my solution to that was to kind of bake the challenge into the plot itself and have Bond missing from the beginning. And then my hope and my intention was that because we have these new 00 characters who are trying to find him, and who have very important relationships with him, the reader's sympathy would transfer onto those new characters – because Bond cares for them, and they care for Bond."
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Of course, even without the central character himself, there were a number of ways in which Sherwood could draw on the legacy of Ian Fleming to create a world that felt distinctly Bond-esque. In preparation for the writing process, she reread the original novels and rewatched a number of the Bond films, explaining that she wanted to honour those classic texts while still bringing in a contemporary feel.
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"I felt like there was an essence of Fleming that I could still capture in the book while making it modern and bringing in these new characters, and re-reading really helped me with that," she says. "He has a really particular poetic style, he uses these very uncanny images – he's a very visual writer and you can really see his impact on the films in the style of his writing.
"So it's looking back at that, and I was trying to become conscious of how he influenced me as a teenager – because I'd read all of the books as a teenager and loved them, and that was when I was developing as a writer. So I've tried to become conscious of where the connecting points were, between how I've grown as a writer and my love for Fleming's writing, and making those connecting points as strong as possible so the reader would feel like they are in the world of Fleming."
Of course, as Sherwood points out, there were also a number of "essential ingredients" that she could sprinkle throughout the novel to help create that timeless Bond atmosphere. "Part of it's an attitude," she explains. "The world of Bond is gritty and glamorous, and it's finding that cocktail, getting the mixture right, because Bond is a character who occupies the light and the dark.
"He embraces the finer things in life, as we see in the films across the years, as a way to counterbalance the dark world that he lives in. So it's finding that tonal balance is important. And then you've got almost the materiality of Bond – these totems of Bond... You've got to have nice clothes, fast cars, you've got to have a certain, I think, humour to the dialogue.
"There has to be a kind of wit to it and a pace to it. But all of that is underscored with a certain darkness and even melancholy. People who don't know the books might be surprised by what an introspective and melancholy character Bond is increasingly through the series. So it was trying to capture that balance."
When it came to creating the new 00-agents, Sherwood developed what she refers to as a "two-pronged approach" – the first part of which was to do extensive research into the kind of people who would become a spy in today's world.
"I went on the MI6 website, where you can see the job adverts and they're really funny because they're things like: 'Do you know multiple languages? Do you like to travel? Do you have loose morals?'" she laughs.
"Reading between the lines, it was really clear that they were looking for people from really diverse and distinct backgrounds, and I did some research into that and I got really interested in this idea of perspective blindness, which is when everybody in the group is from the same background and comes to something with the same perspective, they'll all miss the same clues.
"This was kind of developed as an idea within intelligence agencies, particularly post-911 when intelligence agencies realised just how monocultural they were, and how diversity could be a strategic asset. So that was really interesting. and that made me think 'Well, it's kind of an invitation to widen out this world and create a more inclusive and modern and realistic and representational MI6'.
"So I thought, 'Well, if I have this more diverse, inclusive, MI6, I can create heroes from all sorts of different backgrounds, and hopefully invite more readers to see themselves as the hero of the story.' So we can have a female 00, we can have a black gay 00, we can have a Muslim double 00 – people bringing in their different perspectives as an asset to the team."
Meanwhile, the other prong to Sherwood's approach was to think about the attitudes and philosophies of the Bond world, and how she might go about subverting and updating some of them. As an example, she explains that when it came to the character of Johanna Harwood (003), she was interested in toying around with the idea of what it meant to have a license to kill.
"[It] sounds kind of cool and fun, but when you think about it is an enormous ethical responsibility, because you're judge, jury, and executioner all in one," she says. "So I was really interested in that, and what kind of person would be prepared to take on that responsibility.
"So I started to think about what's the opposite of a license to kill, and it struck me that it's the Hippocratic Oath. And then I thought, what would it take in somebody's life to move from having sworn the Hippocratic Oath to taking on a license to kill?
"And that's where Harwood's character came from: she starts off a career as a trauma surgeon and then something happens that brings her to Moneypenny's attention as the head of a 00 section, and she is recruited and takes on this licence to kill. So part of it came from that – kind of almost wanting to query and explore some of these really core ideas to Bond."
Although the main target audience for the new book might well be long-term fans of the James Bond franchise, Sherwood's aim was that the novels would also appeal to those with rather less experience of delving into Fleming's classic texts – and she's certainly been encouraged by the early response since the novel was released last year.
"A lot of people have told me that this is the first Bond novel they've ever read," she says. "So I feel very honoured to be a gateway to Bond. Because it is a new take, there are new characters, you can come in if you've never read Bond and you've only seen a few of the films.
"I think you can come into Double or Nothing fresh and hopefully get invested in these new characters. But if you're a diehard fan there's also a lot of deep history there for you. So my hope and my intention was that it could be a way to bring in new readers and new fans while also building on people's existing love for the legacy of Bond."
Kim Sherwood will be at CrimeFest on Friday 12th May. 150 authors take part in the UK’s largest crime fiction convention hosted in Bristol from 11th-14th May. Find out more at www.crimefest.com.
No Time to Die is available to stream on Prime Video, with other Bond films also available to purchase – try Amazon Prime Video for free for 30 days.
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