On the occasion of Ian Fleming's birthday, who was born on this date in 1908, Emily Temple at lithub.com offers a 1963 piece by the late, great thriller writer on how to write a thriller.
There is no literary spy—and perhaps no literary character, full stop—more famous than James Bond, which should already be enough of an argument for any aspiring writer, but particularly any aspiring writer of thrilling tales, to seek advice from his creator, Ian Fleming.
Luckily, I recently stumbled across an essay by Fleming, aptly entitled “How to Write a Thriller,” which appeared in the May 1963 issue of Books and Bookmen, only a little over a year before the author’s death.
“How To Write A Thriller,” by Ian Fleming (1963)
The craft of writing sophisticated thrillers is almost dead. Writers seem to be ashamed of inventing heroes who are white, villains who are black, and heroines who are a delicate shade of pink.
I am not an angry young, or even middle-aged, man. I am not “involved.” My books are not “engaged.” I have no message for suffering humanity and, though I was bullied at school and lost my virginity like so many of us used to do in the old days, I have never been tempted to foist these and other harrowing personal experiences on the public. My opuscula do not aim at changing people or making them go out and do something. They are written for warm-blooded heterosexuals in railway trains, airplanes and beds.
I have a charming relative who is an angry young littérateur of renown. He is maddened by the fact that more people read my books than his. Not long ago we had semi-friendly words on the subject and I tried to cool his boiling ego by saying that his artistic purpose was far, far higher than mine. He was engaged in “The Shakespeare Stakes.” The target of his books was the head and, to some extent at least, the heart. The target of my books, I said, lay somewhere between the solar plexus and, well, the upper thigh. These self-deprecatory remarks did nothing to mollify him and finally, with some impatience and perhaps with something of an ironical glint in my eye, I asked him how he described himself on his passport. “I bet you call yourself an Author,” I said. He agreed, with a shade of reluctance, perhaps because he scented sarcasm on the way. “Just so,” I said. “Well, I describe myself as a Writer. There are authors and artists, and then again there are writers and painters.”
This rather spiteful jibe, which forced him, most unwillingly, into the ranks of the Establishment, whilst stealing for myself the halo of a simple craftsman of the people, made the angry young man angrier than ever and I don’t now see him as often as I used to. But the point I wish to make is that if you decide to become a professional writer, you must, broadly speaking, decide whether you wish to write for fame, for pleasure or for money. I write, unashamedly, for pleasure and money.
I also feel that, while thrillers may not be Literature with a capital L, it is possible to write what I can best describe as “Thrillers designed to be read as literature,” the practitioners of which have included such as Edgar Allan Poe, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Eric Ambler and Graham Greene. I see nothing shameful in aiming as high as these.
You can read the rest of the piece via the below link:
You can also read my Crime Beat column on Ian Fleming via the below link: