Monday, March 2, 2009

In the Handbasket: Raymond Benson

What exactly might novelist Raymond Benson have in common with Morgan Freeman and James Brown? As I brushed up on Raymond Benson's background for this brief interview, I kept thinking, "Raymond Benson gives 110% to everything he does, does it all well, and never quits." James Brown earned the title The Hardest Working Man in Showbusiness and as I web-searched, Morgan Freeman's name popped up as one of the hardest working men in Hollywood. Raymond Benson started out his professional life in the theater, but eventually turned his love for everything James Bond into a fruitful, decades-long literary career that has brought him to the publication of his latest original crime novel Dark Side of the Morgue. You can visit Raymond's website to find out just how full his creative life has been--but read on to catch a few of the tantalizing details he shared with the Handbasket.

(Oh, and he wrote this, too. Very cool.)


Welcome, Raymond!


Raymond, you've had a remarkable career--or several careers, I should say. Your credits include: author, composer, computer game designer, stage director, film historian, and film genres instructor. You were also the fourth official author of the James Bond 007 novels. Is there something that you're still yearning to do that you'd like to add to the list? Or perhaps wanted to try, but left it behind for one reason or another?

I suppose the dream job I know will never happen will be directing a film. But although I have extensive experience in directing actors in stage productions, and I have extensive knowledge of film and film history, I know nothing about the technical aspects of directing a movie. But then again, neither did Mike Nichols when he stepped on to the set of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" So I guess anything is possible. But hey, I'd be satisfied if one of my books ever made it to the silver screen, with or without me being involved.


Readers may not know that you're also an accomplished pianist. How does music complement your writing?

Certainly in the new rock 'n' roll thriller series, it does. I suppose I'm a music geek, just like I'm a movie geek (I'm a geek with a lot of things), so I know a lot about music, bands, albums, etc. All this filters in to the Spike Berenger novels. But in general I surround myself with music. I have a CD playing constantly--in my office at home, in the car... I write to music (doesn't matter what kind), eat to music, shower to music (usually my own voice--agh!)... the only drawback is sometimes there's a piece of music stuck in my head when I want to go to sleep and it drives me insane.


I'd love for you to create a soundtrack for your new novel DARK SIDE OF THE MORGUE for us. Are there six or seven songs or pieces of music that, when combined, would give us a musical portrait of Dark Side of the Morgue?

Actually there already is one! Instead of a "Table of Contents," there's a "Track Listing"! Every chapter is the title of a famous song, with the performer listed. The same was true of the first book, A HARD DAY'S DEATH. For example, chapter titles in DARK SIDE include: "Wouldn't it Be Nice?" by the Beach Boys; "Taxman" by the Beatles; "King of Pain" by the Police; "Would I Lie to You?" by Eurythmics; ""Walk on the Wild Side" by Lou Reed; "Soul Sacrifice" by Santana; "Brain Damage" by Pink Floyd... many more.

You began writing computer games in the early years of the genre, beginning with James Bond text games. Then, in 1990, you moved into games with graphics. Did you have any idea at the time what kind of influence computer and video gaming would have on contemporary culture?

You're right, I started doing it on the ground floor, in 1985. At that time we had no clue what computers would become for "everyday people"--at that time it was still an elite toy that some folks had but most didn't. My first computer was an Apple IIc. What a relic. My earliest games were written on that and of course can't be played today without that machine. By the early 90s, when I was writing/designing more sophisticated adventure games with graphics, it was still before Windows 95 revolutionized everything. So just about everything I made cannot be played today, which is a bummer. Really, though, for me, computer game designing was just doing what I'd always done--writing--it was just in a different medium. It was showbiz. I got out of the computer game industry for good in 1997, when my first Bond novel was published. Haven't looked back and don't care to. The technology has passed me by, and it's really a younger man's industry.

Since 2001 you've been writing your own thrillers and also doing an amazing amount of tie-in work that harks back to your computer game experience. Will you share some details about your Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell and Metal Gear Solid adventures?

I got the SPLINTER CELL novelization gig because it was the same publisher who did my Bond novels in the States. Same editor, too. So I was lucky in that my name was put forward to Clancy's people, who were in charge of the books along with the videogame company that co-owned the rights. I got the job to write the first two books. The David Michaels thing was an in-house pseudonym the publisher insisted on, as they were placing that name on all Tom Clancy videogame tie-ins, no matter who the actual author was. So far I think there are three David Michaels! :) METAL GEAR SOLID worked pretty much the same way, only this time I was on the actual videogame designer's short list of authors he wanted to do the novelizations. Through the publisher, Konami approached my manager and asked if I'd be interested. So I've done those two books, which are actual blow-by-blow novelizations of the actual games, whereas the Splinter Cell books were original storylines. The tie-in business is wild and crazy. I'm a member of the International Association of Media Tie-In Writers (www.iamtw.org), made up of a motley crew of writers who work in this field--the folks who write novels based on Star Wars, Star Trek, Buffy, Law & Order, CSI, movie adaptations, TV adaptations... and it's nice work if you can get it.

As an educator, how do you think that computer and video games (and film) have affected young people's understanding of the way narrative works?

I'll probably get in trouble by saying this, but I don't think this is a good thing. Yes, the computer and video games have indeed affected young people's understanding of how a narrative works. I think you can see the answer in the types of action movies being produced by Hollywood these days. It's all slam-bang, boom, crash, with plenty of CGI special effects--and very little story and character development. I'm old-school, I like my novels/films/whatever to take their time and tell a good story.

What happens at Dann and Raymond's Movie Club?

We all have a blast! Dann Gire is the film critic for Chicago's DAILY HERALD newspaper and president/founder of the Chicago Film Critics Association. He and I have teamed up to form a live show, a la Siskel & Ebert, in which we present 2-hour programs on various film topics. We include clips, jokes, history, trivia, and usually pick our 15 or 16 favorite films of that particular topic (a genre, a director, a star). We've been doing it for two years now and it's becoming more and more popular. We do shows twice a month at suburban libraries (with extra one-off shows when they get added). Our show last week on the Oscar nominations drew a record crowd of 125 people (for a public library, that's outstanding)!



Is there any more James Bond in store for you?


No, I'm not the official writer anymore. That gig lasted seven years (ended in 2002), and it was quite a rollercoaster. But my stuff is now being reprinted. An anthology of three novels and a short story, entitled THE UNION TRILOGY, came out in the fall of 2008. A second anthology with the other three original novels and remaining two short stories, called CHOICE OF WEAPONS, will come out for summer of 2010.



What aspect of writing your new novel DARK SIDE OF THE MORGUE gave you the greatest pleasure?

The rock 'n' roll books are just plain fun to write! The character, Spike Berenger, has a lot of me in him (although I deliberately describe his appearance differently), so his tastes in music are my tastes. He's a musician, too, although he plays guitar and I play piano. With two books out, it's still early to know if they will catch on and there will be more. The publisher is on a "wait and see" basis right now, especially with the economic problems the publishing industry is having. But I would love to do more and keep the Spike Berenger Rock 'n' Roll Hits coming.


Finally, a most appropriate question from my nine year-old son Bengal: "Have you ever been a spy?"

Only in my dreams. :)

5 comments:

Allison Brennan said...

Hi Raymond! Wow, even after sharing two meals with you at Thrillerfest last year, and several drinks, I learned more about you through Laura's wonderful interview. You have great taste in music, BTW . . . ;)

My son, nearly 8, wants to write computer games. For Halloween he had to dress as what he wants to be when he grows up and give a report on what his job does, so he put on jeans and a black t-shirt with funky graphics of different game controllers, and then created a storyboard based on his favorite video game (Pikmin 2) . . . I think there were 40 panels, and his teacher cut him off after 5 . . .

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

Hi, Raymond! I'm just dropping in to say hello; I'm currently reading Morgue (I'll post my review at Front Street Reviews) -- if there's any promo I can help you with beyond that, especially via my Win a Book blog, drop me a note.

Now, excuse me, but I've got a book to read!

Basil Sands said...

Terrific interview. Very interesting life Raymond. It sounds like you've got one of those writers dream careers.

donnas said...

Great interview. Very interesting. Your books sound great and I am going to have to be on the lookout for them now.

Raymond Benson said...

Hi everyone--

First, a big thanks to Laura for this interview. I really appreciate it!

Allison-- there's even more about me you don't know. :) Very cool about your son...like any of our artistic professions, the computer/videogaming industry is a tough one and who knows what it will be like by the time he's of age. But by all means, encourage his dreams.

Susan-- Thank you! I look forward to the review!

Basil-- It's a dream career all right. If only I made money at it...!

Donna-- There's a Shop page on my website where you can order whatever is still in print! And thank you! :)

Cheers all--
Raymond