ONE OF THE MEN IN THE ROOM WAS SHORT AND STOCKY. He spoke fluent English, but with a French accent. His briar pipe seemed an almost permanent fixture in his mouth. The second man - tall, lean, tending to be florid, had an impeccable English accent and chain-smoked cigarettes from an elegant holder.
Georges Simenon, creator of Inspector Maigret of the Sûreté, author of some 200 books, with an average of three books published every week in thirty-two countries, was enjoying the company of Ian Fleming for the first time, and discussing the business of thriller writing.
It was a unique occasion. The world's two most successful thriller authors, exchanging views and comparing their completely individual attitudes to work.
Fleming had been a Simenon fan for years, but Simenon, although he knew all about Bond and Fleming's style from critics and newspaper and magazine articles, had not, as yet, actually read any of the 007 books.
I have visited Simenon's thirty-room, sixteenth-century chateau overlooking Lake Geneva, on several occasions. This time I had gone to ask him for his memories of that meeting with Ian Fleming, and to compare Fleming's work approach with Simenon - the novelist he admired above all others.
We entered the heavy oak door of Simenon's office on the first floor of the château, and made ourselves comfortable beside his antique writing-desk. There were pipes everywhere - on his desk, on racks in an alcove, and there were also six large glass jars of tobacco. His charming, French-Canadian wife, Denise, who is also his brilliant business manager, was with us.
Simenon started to recall his discussion with Ian Fleming, in this same room, on the business of thriller writing . . .
'Fleming said he had first read my books just before the last war when he was on his way to Moscow. He had-stopped off en route in Holland and had seen a display of my books on a stall. He was attracted by their jackets and bought three or four to take to Russia. The appeal of the jackets really made him buy them.
'He was particularly keen on jacket-appeal, and was surprised when I told him that I never worried about a book once it was finished.
'He told me he always read my books in French because he admired their style and preferred reading them in their original form.
'I pointed out that some French critics considered I had no style at all! In many respects they are right because for some twenty years I have tried to avoid anything which is like literature. I like to keep my writing as simple as possible.'
'My friends think my writing isn't literature and therefore deserves no sympathy at all,' Fleming said.
'Thrillers may not be Literature with a capital L, but it is possible to write thrillers designed to be read as Literature. Practitioners in this vein have included such people as Edgar Allan Poe, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Eric Ambler, Graham Greene, and of course, Simenon. I see nothing shameful in aiming as high as these.
'There is no top limit to writing well. I try to write neatly, concisively, vividly, because I think that's the way to write, I think that approach largely comes from my training as a fast-writing journalist under circumstances in which you damned well have to be neat, correct, concise and vivid. My journalistic training was far more valuable to me than all the English literature education I ever had.
'I think that communicating enjoyment is a very good achievement even in the fairly modest seam of literature that comprises thriller writing.
'I think a writer should try to get an accurate ear for the spoken word and not, so to speak, put on a top hat when he sits down at his typewriter. He mustn't make the mistake of thinking that literature has to be literary.'
'That is absolutely correct,' Simenon agreed. 'It is not that we should write less in a literary manner, but we must avoid pretentiousness.
'I have a theory about the novel. We do not write novels as they did in Dickens' time. For many reasons. First there is photography. We do not have to describe any more. Everybody has seen the Eiffel Tower. There are many problems we do not have to explain any more. What Balzac had to explain we do not have to. Now in every newspaper there are articles telling you almost everything. We do not have any more to write long novels. A novel ought to be read in one sitting. You would not go one day to see the first act of Hamlet and one week later the second. It is the same with the novel. This is why I choose to write short novels.
'But then the problem is to give a maximum of destiny in a novel of 240 pages. What I do is put my characters in such a situation that they have to go to the end of themselves. Of course; everyone is a character for tragedy. If it does not happen to show itself, this is because we are lucky or timid or shy or too honest. You had the proof of it in the war.'
Simenon and Fleming found they both liked to write in a vacuum. 'Usually I write fast,' said Simenon 'a book in eleven days, a chapter a day. I work by intuition and have to keep pace with my nerves for I always doubt myself.
'Each time I start a novel, Maigret or not-Maigret, I am almost sick with fear.
'I always think the miracle will not come again. For what is a novel? To try to make life with nothing! People speak about their shoes, their breakfast, their business, and with all these poor words you have to create life. It seems almost impossible.
'Each time I start, I'm afraid. Each time I finish it I'm enormously relieved. It is always so. With me, to start a plain novel needs one week of emptiness, to empty myself of all the things I have in mind, all business, even the smallest troubles, about children, about everything. I will play golf. I will go for long walks in the country. My wife will ask me at this time about everything she would have to decide for me and the family, during the novel. Then, after a few days, I start.
'It is difficult to explain what happens. If I knew before I started a story what was going to happen, I could not write it. I begin simply with nothing but a few well-defined characters. To write with a carefully thought out plan that is not life. One might as well be a stenographer. I just have to write to get rid of my emotions, otherwise I would be a psychopath.
'Little by little, I have a feeling the main character of the next novel is coming. To start a plain novel I must walk in the country. I walk all the time and then suddenly I have my character. And when I have my character I have at the same time the original setting for him. Most of the time as I walk, I can go near a tree and a particular smell will come in my memory. The same smell . . . oh yes . . . even twenty years ago . . . in such a place . . . I was alone. Little by little I remember the place, remember the somebody I met there, and the story of this man. Very often a story will come from the smell. It comes from a smell more often than from any other source. I have a sure hard memory for smells.
'Once I start, I finish quickly. Then, when I have finished the story, I'm like a boy just out of school. I play with the children. My wife and I go away for a few days but always after less than a week, I'm lonely for the children. I feel like crying for them. So we go back.
'After another month or so, I feel grumpy and ill at ease, and I know another book is struggling to come out although I can't tell exactly what it is all about.
'During such walks I "find" my novel. It may be the smell of lilac or the singing of a bird.
'Suddenly I might say to myself "It's in Holland," and I have the background. Then I look for people, always choosing people I know.'
When he has established his central figure, and those around he classifies them carefully.
'Then I take my main character and ask myself "What could happen to this person that could force him to reach the end of himself pushing him into a corner?"
'Then comes the hardest thing trying to put myself into that person's skin and living the part myself.'
Although Madame Simenon was once her husband's secretary, she still does not know what goes on in his office after he puts up the 'Do Not Disturb' sign on his door.
'I can only guess at some of the things by sheer deduction, but none concerning the actual business of writing.
'No one, not even I, is ever allowed into his room while he writes.'
She worries about his tendency to sometimes assume the part of one of his characters, and related how he slapped her face one day while writing Act of Passion a love-story of a forty-year-old man and a girl of twenty-five.
'He looked very pale when he came out of his office that night after the fourth day's work on the book,' she said.
'So I was very quiet during dinner and afterwards sat next to him in the living-room looking at television. It was a terribly bad play, and I said "even for a novel I can't stand this", when he turned suddenly and swish slapped my face.
'I was so stunned I could not even put up my hand. Then he looked at me, and said, "What have I done?"
'It was obvious to me he did not even realize it, and I thought to myself, "The poor woman in his book must have had a terrible time today."
'Later when he showed me what he had written, sure enough, the chapter was one of the most violent love scenes I had ever read, and ended with the girl being murdered out of love.'
In another of his books the central character was a grumpy old drunk, and after three days' work on it, Simenon began to behave just like him.
When it was finished, his wife told him that most of the staff had given notice to quit and only agreed when they saw him as his former self again 'to give him another chance'.
'So completely does he put himself into the skin of others when he writes, that he speaks, eats, even walks differently,' his wife said.
'I have known it go so far that if it was a week day but in his writing that day was a Sunday, he would ask me why the children were not at home, and at first would not believe me when I said they are at school.'
During the writing of Le President, about a man of eighty who suffers with gout, Simenon stooped more and more each day and ended up walking with a limp.
Although during work he only drinks coffee and Coca-Cola, of which he keeps a running supply beside his desk including a hot plate for the coffee, to keep up with the habits of his central figure in Strangers in the House, Simenon went to his cellar each day and fetched three bottles of Bordeaux. By evening they had disappeared and he would fetch three more bottles for the next day.
Such is the strain on Simenon in trying to be someone else in every phase of their daily life during his brief writing spells, that each of his books is preceded by what his wife describes as 'the incubation period'. Simenon calls it 'battle stations'.
Madame Simenon explained:
'It was something very odd which I could not grasp during the first eighteen months of our life together.
'Then I realized that it was a sort of incubation period, always cropping up just before each new book.
'Normally a gay person, full of vitality and strength, there would suddenly come a time when he looked and acted strange, became short-tempered and even morose.
'I used to think that I had done something to hurt him or had been guilty of some stupidity in my work, yet doubting the latter because I knew how very little he cared about anything financial or business.
The answer usually came three or four days later when he would announce to me, "Ha, I am going to start a new book."
'When I spoke to him about his strange behaviour before each new novel, he admitted that for years he had felt "sort of badly inside my skin" a few days before he felt the urge to write.
'I suppose like all women in love, and afraid their husband would be taken ill, I used to call up one of our doctor friends whenever Jo went through this stage, and ask them to give him a casual look over so as to satisfy myself there was nothing really wrong with him.
'This became a regular habit and when Jo realized what I had done he actually agreed it was a good idea, and we have kept it up ever since.
'He knows that he has to finish the book in one stretch without interruption, and that missing one day, thus breaking the terrific strain of his concentration, could cause him to have to throw away all the work he has done. Then the characters he has created would be like stillborn babies to him which he would never be able to use again.'
'All my books have been written on my annual visits to my house in Jamaica,' said Fleming, explaining his writing approach.
'Before I go there, I have already noted some plot ideas, so I am ready to start work as soon as I arrive. I have more or less thought out what I am going to write.
'I get up with the birds, which is about half past seven, and my wife and I go for a swim before breakfast. We don't wear swimsuits because it's so private there. Then we have a good breakfast, usually of scrambled eggs, and afterwards, I sit in the sun awhile. From nine-thirty till twelve-thirty, I write, and keep to a strict work routine.
'I do it all on the typewriter. I sit in my bedroom and type fifteen hundred words straight off, without looking back on what I wrote the day before. You dare not interrupt the writing of a fast narrative with too much introspection and self-criticism. The essential thing is writing cursively to achieve narrative speed, and leave putting mistakes right when the book is finished.
'When my morning work is done, I go out with my snorkle and spear around the reefs, then come back for a good lunch followed by a siesta for an hour or so. Then another swim and back for a final hour's typing from six to seven, to complete a good 2,000 words for the day.
'After dinner, and, perhaps, a game of Scrabble with my wife, I go to bed early and fall straight off to sleep.
'This routine continues for about six weeks, and only after the manuscript is complete, do I spend a week or so correcting glaring errors and rewriting brief passages. Only at this stage do I reconsider words and phrases, and verify spelling and facts. By not looking back as I write, I don't risk becoming disgusted with what I have done, Once you look back, you are lost.
'I never mind revising because I feel the book is finished, the work done, and I can play with it.'
Simenon confessed that he hates revising . . . 'It seems to me so disgusting when I read my book over again. I find myself saying: "This is not at all interesting, nobody will read it, it is so flat and dull and unconclusive."
'When I have written a novel I am disgusted with it for a month, sometimes for years. Sometimes when I remember such-and-such a novel, I have a kind of tenderness for it. I do not read it again, but I remember it and I think I am happy to have written it. I remember, for instance, Three Rooms in Manhattan, which I wrote after meeting my second wife, and I have the feeling that there I had a tenderness, a sense of the woman, I did not have before. But it is absolutely personal. It is not because the book has more or less value.'
Simenon detailed his work routine . . . 'Up sharp at ten past six in the morning, wash and dress hurriedly, prepare own coffee, wishing no one to be up before I start work.
'I give my wife one kiss and one kiss only as I try hard to concentrate from the minute I awake. By the time I go to my office I am already what my wife calls "inhabited" by my characters.
'The first thing I do after putting the "Do Not Disturb" sign on my door, is to line up a dozen pipes and fill them with tobacco, so that I do not have to interrupt my work.
'Next, I switch on a hot-plate to keep coffee permanently simmering at my side.
'For the next two to two and a half hours I punch away at my typewriter, with few or no corrections or revisions, writing a complete chapter, which is my self-imposed quota for one day.
'Between nine and nine-thirty I go upstairs and hand my wife the pages an old sentimental habit which she reads while I take a bath, and shave, before we go out for a walk.
'I am still completely immersed in my work, so we talk little and spend the rest of the day quietly, carefully avoiding anything which could distract me to the point . of losing my thread.
'It's early nights for us during those days, with lights out by 10, ready to repeat the same routine for one whole week, by which time the book is finished.'
Unlike his Maigrets, which account for only one-third of his production, he drafts the others by hand, again at the rate of one chapter a day, while barricading himself in his office from four to eight.
He types these out next morning, yet seldom looking at his draft of the previous day.
The two authors were amused to discover that they both suffered from the same bad habit the too-often-used-word-habit.
'In each novel I write, I find myself using a word repeatedly,' said Simenon. 'In one book I will always use the word "mais" "but" in another always "perhaps", and then it takes me days to edit out all the "perhapses" from my manuscript. The word changes for each novel.
'Fleming described this trouble as being like a painter who finds that he has painted a "face" somewhere in his picture that everyone sees but him. At the time of our meeting he was going through a period of using the word "just". I keep on putting this damned word in,' he said.
'We found that we had something else in common the manner in which our wives react to our latest works. When my wife reads my freshly cut typed copy every day, she never corrects anything, and doesn't even discuss it with me.
'He was most upset that his wife also made no comment after she reads his book.'
They compared notes on writing from personal experience ...
'He wondered whether I needed to meet a lot of people and to travel a great deal and see more of life in order to write more about life,' Simenon recalled.
'I explained that this was no longer important to me and that I used my memories of people I had met in the past. I learned more of people from my children.
'I never put a precise experience of my own into a book, but everything is experience to an author, every minute of his life. I am a man of very few ideas. After all, there are very few original plots in the world; all are based on perhaps five or six ideas.
'Always when I meet someone I try to make a diagnosis, not consciously, but I like to get at the character of a person. I cannot bear it if I am not able to understand a person.
'For fiction I go to real life. But I never consciously use something I know, or some person I know. Nor do I travel as a writer, looking at somebody or taking notes; although years later, it comes back and I use it. Fleming said that many of his plots were based on something he had read in a newspaper. He constantly found that things he had read even, apparently far-fetched things had a way of coming true. In addition, he made a point of drawing heavily on his personal experiences as a world traveller.
'He felt that you had to know thrilling things before you could write about them. He considered that imagination alone isn't enough, although stories heard from friends, or read in the newspapers, can be built up by a fertile imagination, plus a certain amount of research and documentation, into fiction narratives that ring true.
'I agreed that a complete novelist should make the full round of life. I mean that at twenty, for instance, he should write of the ideas and ideals of someone his own age; at thirty, the same thing again; at forty the same; at sixty, and so on.
'I do not believe that reading is sufficient or good for a writer, since what you read is life already digested. I have to take raw life.
'How do I get it? I live. Like everybody. But I am never conscious that something will be of use in my novels. I will never say: "That is a plot which will come in one of my novels." If I meet anyone, I never say: "This will be one of my characters." People I meet become my characters, but never before ten years, and always changed.
'Fleming explained that he got a lot of his place and character names while motoring. If he passed through a street anywhere and saw a good name outside a shop, he always made a note of it. That was Balzac's way. All his names came from shops.
'Fleming found some very good villain's names in German Switzerland. He was most upset that one wonderful potential villain's name which he had seen, couldn't be used because it proved to be the name of a very respectable builder. He complained it was getting more and more difficult to find good names for villains, and he was finding it increasingly difficult to find good villains. Of course his villains are not like my villains. His are so black, and, as he said himself, people are not really like that. He simply made them like that. He felt that, nowadays, writers seemed to be ashamed of inventing heroes who are white, villains who are black, and heroines who are a delicate shade of pink.
When Simenon has established his main character and those around, he classifies them carefully, studies everything about them, inventing even names for their grandmothers, telephone numbers and additional data of which a great deal may never be used in his book.
He insists on using the same type of yellow 6 by 9 inch envelope as he has done for many years, on which to jot down all the notes about his characters and makes a rough sketch of the district in which the story takes place.
For names to suit his characters he consults his unique collection of no fewer than 200 telephone directories from all parts of the world.
'Comparing our work, Fleming, who said he had read about 50 of my books, considered that I produce novels of suspense whereas he wrote thrillers a thing of action and no psychology to explain why he had to be a villain. He never tried to examine his characters in depth, whereas all my books do exactly that.'
Said Fleming 'The target of my books lies somewhere between the solar plexus and the upper thigh.
'I like to generate a sense of urgency, of almost intolerable excitement. The essence of a thriller is that you have to try and force the reader to turn the next page.
'I don't write to a pattern. I have no priority on the basic things sex, money, fast cars, luxury living, and so forth. I never write coolly. I get terribly excited myself.
'I write for warm-blooded heterosexuals in railway trains, aeroplanes, and beds.
'In my case, though not in the cases of such masters as Ambler, Hammet and Simenon my plots are fantastic, while being often based upon truth. They go wildly beyond the probable not, I think, beyond the possible.
'To anchor my fantastic plots I employed the device of using real names of things and places. The constant use of real and familiar names and objects reassures the reader that both he and the writer have their feet on the ground in spite of being involved in a fantastic adventure. That is why I started using the technical device of referring to say, a Ronson lighter, a 4½-litre Bentley with an Amherst-Villiers supercharger, the Ritz Hotel in London, the 21 Club in New York, the exact names of even the smallest details. All of this gives the reader the feeling of feasibility.
'And I think pace is very important in books where there is some sort of mystery and people want you to get on with the action. They don't want to linger too long wondering what the hero is up to, and why.'
Commenting on that last point, Simenon told Fleming: 'Pace is even more important in the books you write than in the books I write.'
When Fleming raised the question of taking note of critics and their criticisms, Simenon answered: 'My wife sometimes shows me one or two, and that's all. I don't read them.
'I have had no really hostile criticism, but sometimes people have the idea I am more an amuseur than somebody very profound. Certainly I haven't the feeling that I come with something very strong, very important. I have no sense of social purpose.
'I know nothing about the value of my books. If you ask me what value I will say one day: "None at all. They will die with me." But another day I might say: "We will have to see."
'Fleming said he was as interested in his bad reviews as in his good ones. Bad reviews interested him equally because they often raised a legitimate and interesting complaint.
'He didn't really mind if someone gave him a kick in the pants, because, as he said, if you go out into the market place, you must expect plenty of tomatoes among the roses.'
His attitude was:
'I'm more interested in action than in cerebration. I enjoy exaggeration and things larger than life.
'It amuses me to have a villain with a great bulbous head whereas, as you know, they are generally little people with nothing at all extraordinary looking about them.'
And, final words from the world's two most successful thriller writers on the business of writing to thrill . .
From Simenon: 'I wouldn't let my sons be writers if I could help it. It's better to go into banking or insurance. But, if you MUST write . . . write. But keep away from literary circles, where people only TALK books, but seldom WRITE them.'
From Fleming: 'I write about what pleases and stimulates me.
'I write the sort of book that I, personally, would like to read if somebody else would write them for me. They are the kind of books to while away time on a journey, when you are ill in bed, or when you want to do away with boredom or worry.
'I greatly enjoy knowing that other people, quite intelligent people, find my books amusing and entertaining. But I'm not really surprised, because they entertain and amuse me, too.
'When I've finished writing James Bond, I don't think I shall write any more. I'm getting very close to the end of my tether.'
As I was about to leave Simenon's home, he added this parting tribute to Fleming.
'I retain Ian Fleming's visit to me as a souvenir of that of an enthusiastic fellow-author a man dedicated to his work, and moreover, that of a thorough gentleman, gifted with exceptional humour.
'I regret that his untimely death deprived me of the opportunity of getting to know him better, and of becoming closer friends.'