• Sun. Jul 14th, 2024

Exclusive: Kim Sherwood on 007, writing, and Fleming’s Feminism

ByFreddy Lowe

Mar 30, 2023
Kim Sherwood

Kim Sherwood will be known to many University of Edinburgh English Literature students as one of our best lecturers.  She is also a widely read, award-winning novelist, shortlisted (among other accolades) for the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year in 2019. What excited me above all is that she is the current author hired by the Ian Fleming Estate to expand the James Bond universe – and the trilogy’s first novel, Double or Nothing, was released in September 2022! After reading her (phenomenal) book, I got the chance to sit down with her – Bond fan to Bond fan – to talk about the series, her writing process, feminism, and loads more.

Kim appeared from her office just as I arrived, panting under an obscenely large rucksack (I was headed for the train station afterwards).  She welcomed me completely unphased, offered me tea from the staff kettle (I was so starstruck I almost forgot to say thanks), and then was generous enough to ask me about my first year at university.  No celebrity ego, no self-absorption, just a class act.

Freddy Lowe (FL): Firstly, congratulations!  This time last month was the release of A Wild and True Relation.  How has that been?

Kim Sherwood (KS): “It’s been fantastic, thank you.  It was supposed to be my first novel.  I spent fourteen years writing it from start to finish (obviously, with some other books in between!). It feels amazing to have it out now; it feels like completing a journey.  I feel very proud.”

FL: You’re a very literary author who has won loads of prizes – but with Bond, you find yourself in very mainstream genre fiction. Is that a different writing process?

KS: “There are a few differences.  The main difference is time.  Commercially published fiction like Bond comes out much more regularly, so you have about a year to write the book.  A Wild and True Relation took me fourteen years!  With Bond, I’ve become much more of a planner.  I used to be more organic with my writing: you can go where the characters take you, and if you write 40,000 words you don’t use, it’s not a problem. With Bond, I can’t do that!  I began by outlining the three novels, and the first thing I wrote was the final scene of Book 3, so I know where I’m heading.

Also, with literary fiction, the goal for the characters is more abstract: family, identity, or justice…something they can’t touch.  In a thriller, the characters are after the key to the bomb or the missing file – something more concrete!  So, process and structure are the key differences.”

FL: So, have you been given strict deadlines for the Double O series?

KS: “Yes, I’m working with the Fleming family and HarperCollins (as well as other publishers globally), and it is a strict calendar you’ve got to hit.  If you think of a new ending at 4:00 am before the deadline, you have to write it at 4:00 am because there’s no extra time!  The writing process almost feels like a thriller itself because there’s an urgent pace to it.”

FL: So you did a Harry Potter – you wrote the final chapter first!

KS: “Yes!  I got involved when my agent heard that the Flemings were searching for a new author.  They liked my first book, she told them what a fan I am, and they invited me to send them some ideas.  During that time, I was on a train – (we paused here to appreciate the second Harry Potter parallel) – and I suddenly thought, ‘I know how it would end!’” I started writing it feverishly.  That idea remains the same; I know where I’m heading.”

FL: And the idea of having Bond absent in the books – was that your idea or part of your brief?

KS: “It was my idea.  The Flemings wanted me to expand the cast of characters, which was very exciting but also presented a challenge!  If James Bond is there, the reader wants him, so if you want readers to pay attention to new characters, Bond has to step out of the spotlight.  I baked that challenge metafictionally into the novel: I decided to have him missing from the beginning so that he’s literally in the dark.  That way, we see him through flashback, and he’s absent and present all at once.”

FL: I’m pleased it was your idea because it was so effective!  Bond haunts the narrative, and all the characters want to find him, but simultaneously, the reader’s version of Bond isn’t tarnished because he’s not there.  Their version of Bond is allowed to haunt the pages.

KS: “Exactly!  I also wanted reader sympathy transferred onto the new characters.  Saying, “here’s a Bond novel, but Bond is missing – please care about these new characters,” is quite a demand.  But, if the new characters care about Bond and vice versa, there is a transference of sympathy onto the new spies.  Then the reader will (hopefully!) proceed to care about them individually.

When creating the new Double-O agents, I looked on the MI6 website and discovered their real drive for diversity.  If all spies look like Bond, there is a limit to the number of undercover missions they can take.  Diversity also allows for multiple perspectives that can view intelligence from different angles.  That was fascinating to learn about!  It permitted me to bring in an ensemble cast from a variety of backgrounds who were different from Bond.”

FL: So – to go back to the beginning, how did your Bond fandom start?

KS: “It started by watching Pierce Brosnan’s films on the TV.  I was completely transfixed by the spectacle.  My Bond obsession also grew alongside my obsession with writing: I used to crawl around people’s gardens, spy on my neighbours like Bond, and write elaborate mysteries based on their lives!  So my love of writing and Bond grew together.  Then at age 12, I bought From Russia With Love in Pan Paperback and was completely hooked on Fleming’s style.  I think people don’t talk enough about what a fantastic prose stylist he was.  I love the suspense, the sophistication, and the mystery of his world.  None of my family was interested in Bond, so it became a case of converting them all!”

FL: For those who haven’t read it, what is your Dragons’ Den pitch for Double or Nothing?

KS: “James Bond is missing, either captured or killed.  MI6 don’t know.  There is a new generation of double-O agents who are simultaneously trying to find him and trying to avert a climate catastrophe.  It brings Bond into the 21st Century and hopefully combines thrilling adventure with our modern concerns.  It also prioritises inclusivity, female heroes, and heroes of colour.  One of the spies, Joseph Dryden, is disabled, and his disability endows him with a certain power.  If society has repeatedly tried to stamp out an aspect of someone’s lived experience, it (unfortunately!) equips them with a resilience that helps them face adversity.  We often see disabled characters as the villains, so, as a writer with a disability, I wanted to challenge that.”

FL: With this kind of book, you regrettably open yourself to criticism of Bond-bashing, which is not what Double or Nothing is at all!  You punch up these new characters without punching down on Bond. 

KS: “Absolutely – that is key!  I love Bond’s character and don’t want to change him.  I don’t want to diminish him to elevate others.  A gut reaction from people is, ‘if we have female heroes, does that mean I can’t have my male heroes anymore’?  Not at all!  We just have more heroes!”

FL: There is a social perception that ‘Bond’ and ‘feminism’ are antonyms.  I love that you are a living contradiction of that stereotype.  What feminist parts of you are gratified when watching the films?

KS: “Of course, there are criticisms to be levelled at any action film concerning the treatment of female characters. However, Bond films privilege multifaceted women and include them throughout.  Many adventure stories reserve female characters as a ‘prize’ for the hero at the end of the book.  However, with Fleming, the women have their own missions and are sometimes nervous that Bond will interfere!  Fleming prioritised female characters and innovated the genre!  In the films, we have some phenomenal female leads with some iconic lines, especially Goldfinger’s Pussy Galore.  So many brilliant moments.  Additionally, they are reflections of their time. In the 1960s, feminism was gathering pace.  Some films will reflect that; others will reflect the backlash against it.  They are always interesting artefacts that tell us where we’ve come from.  Also, many women contributed to Bond: Dana Broccoli, Barbara Broccoli, the costume designers… many women are making it possible behind the scenes.”

To finish, Kim and I embarked on a game of ‘This or That’ in my nosy attempt to discover more about her individually!

FL: Day or Night?

KS: “Night.  I write better at night.  Nobody can email or call you.”

FL: Summer or Winter?

KS: “Summer.  I hate the cold.  I don’t know why I live in Scotland.”

FL: Edinburgh or London?

KS: “A dead heat!  I will always be a Londoner, but I bought my first house in Edinburgh.”

FL: Poetry or plays?

KS: “Poetry.  My grandfather loved poetry; that was a special part of our relationship.”

FL: Chocolate or cheese?

KS: “Cheese!  I’d miss cheese.  I tried being vegan; it did not work, mainly because of the cheese.”

FL: Wine or whisky?

KS: “Neither is my favourite…I’d go for a martini!  Though I have no choice but to like vodka martinis, I do genuinely enjoy them.  I’ve learned not to drink them at events.  People often give them to me onstage, which is fun, and then you take one sip and think ‘whoa’!  But, between wine and whisky, I would choose wine.”

FL: North or South?

KS: “North.  Always North.”

FL: Dog or Cat?

KS: “I love both, but dogs.”

FL: Sean Connery or Roger Moore?

KS: “Sean Connery.  Not even hard.  Moore is my husband’s favourite; much of our getting to know each other was arguing about the two.  I love Roger Moore, but Sean Connery epitomises Bond.  Likewise, George Lazenby’s Bond isn’t my Bond, but I appreciate what he’s doing.”

FL: Early or late Bond films?

KS: “It’s another dead heat.  I love early and late; ‘middle’ isn’t so much for me.”

FL: Goldeneye or Tomorrow Never Dies?

KS: Goldeneye is a classic and one of the best.  I sometimes lean towards Tomorrow Never Dies; I like the idea of Bond’s ex returning!”

FL: Skyfall or Spectre?

KS: Skyfall.  Another classic.”

FL: Serious Bond or camp Bond?

KS: “Both have their place.  For me, serious Bond.  Even serious Bond has camp elements.  Otherwise, it becomes John le Carré!”

FL: Billie Eilish or Adele?

KS: “Adele.  I like them both, but I like the operatic scale of Skyfall.

FL: Casino Royale or No Time To Die?

KS: Casino RoyaleNo Time To Die had so much to admire, but again, Casino Royale is a classic that brought in Daniel Craig, who revitalised the series.”

FL: 50GS or the MI6 building?

KS: “The MI6 building!”

FL: Songs-wise, Goldfinger or Diamonds are Forever?

KS: “That’s hard.  I think I prefer the film Goldfinger and the song Diamonds are Forever.  I often sing them in a medley – a delight for everyone around me!”

FL: And finally – two much-derided Bond films – Die Another Day or Quantum of Solace?

KS: Die Another Day!  I love the idea of Bond being captured and returning traumatised.  It came at an awkward time in cinematic history, and the effects aren’t quite there, but there is much to admire.”

*

Kim also revealed to me that Book 2 is in the copyediting stage!  The thrilling first adventure Double or Nothing is out now and published by HarperCollins, available from all major book retailers.

Image courtesy of Rosie Sherwood

By Freddy Lowe

Former Literature Editor Writer and Editor for the 2023 Edinburgh Fringe Writer and Editor for the 2023 Edinburgh International Book Festival