Raymond Benson, BFA ’78, is an artistic jack-of-all-trades. From writing James Bond novels to directing plays, this longtime creative says flexibility and enthusiasm are key.
For nearly 30 years, Raymond Benson has been writing James Bond novels, Tom Clancy spinoffs, and his own thrillers; designing video games; directing, writing, and composing music for the theater; teaching at colleges, and even playing piano in a klezmer band.
“I’ve been all over the map,” Benson laughs. “When you’re in the arts, you have to be flexible.”
Benson, who has written more than 25 books, would have preferred concentrating on his own novels had that been economically feasible. Instead, he’s found professional success outside the limelight.
“Everyone wants to be a New York Times-bestselling author,” he says. “But you can count on four hands the folks who make oodles of money. My original books are not bestsellers. I make enough money off them, but the work-for-hire jobs pay my way.”
Benson partially broke away from work-for-hire when he left the world of 007 in 2003 to devote more time to his own novels, the first of which was Evil Hours.
“Now I’m really pushing The Black Stiletto series,” says Benson, who lives in Buffalo Grove, Ill.
The Black Stiletto was published in 2011, followed by The Black Stiletto: Black & White this past May. The third thriller in the series, The Black Stiletto: Stars & Stripes, will be published in February. Benson has already outlined Nos. 4 and 5 and sold film rights to the series to Lonetree Entertainment, co-producer of Denzel Washington’s forthcoming The Equalizer.
Benson’s big break came when his first book, The James Bond Bedside Companion, was published in 1984. That caught the eye of the Bond literary representatives, who offered Benson a chance to join the 007 franchise, for which he wrote six original 007 novels and three film novelizations. Then came two Tom Clancy tie-ins, which he wrote under the pseudonym David Michaels.
Benson himself was overshadowed by the Bond brand—despite his name being on the book covers—and anonymous in the case of the Clancy projects, but he didn’t suffer a bruised ego.
“If the project and money are right, I do it,” he says.
Young people often ask Benson how to make it as a writer. His advice: read a lot, and take your own path when it comes to publishing.
“Reading is my number-one tenant. You can’t be a writer if you don’t read,” he says. “As for the business part, everybody’s experience is different. My entry into publishing was unorthodox. I started back in the ’80s when it was easier to get published. I didn’t have an agent. I came up with The James Bond Bedside Companion idea and pitched it to a publisher and got a contract. Then in 1995 the Ian Fleming estate called and offered me the job of writing Bond books. That just doesn’t happen.”
In many respects, due to financial necessity and feeding his many interests, Benson’s professional life hasn’t changed much since he wrote his first Bond novel, Zero Minus Ten, in 1996. He continues to design video games and write novelization tie-ins of those games, dabble in the theater, teach (film history at the College of DuPage, a community college in suburban Chicago), and play the piano in solo concerts and review films. Benson and journalist Dann Gire present “Dann and Raymond’s Movie Club” at public libraries.
“I keep my foot in everything,” he says, “and I attribute my success to what I learned from Francis Hodge, a professor of directing in UT’s drama department.” Hodge died in 2008. “He taught me how to tell a story, how to communicate a story, and I’ve used that in everything I’ve done.”
Benson doesn’t deny that making a living in the arts is difficult at best. Still, he encourages young people to pursue their dreams, saying: “You have to have enthusiasm. If you don’t love what you’re doing, especially in the arts, you shouldn’t be doing it.”
Photos courtesy Raymond Benson.