LINDA HOLMES, HOST:
Hi, I'm Linda Holmes. The POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR team is off today, so we're bringing you an episode of NPR's Book of the Day podcast. It's NPR's daily podcast, if you're looking for a good read or just want to keep up with the books everyone is talking about. Here's our pal, Andrew Limbong.
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ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: Hey, it's NPR's Book of the Day. I'm Andrew Limbong. You know those reading ruts where - I don't know - it's hard to get into the mood? Sometimes my brain gets distracted when I'm reading, and, like, five pages in, I realize I haven't retained anything. This is where a good thriller actually really comes in handy. You know, you put down that arduous biography of some dude or whatever you've been trying to finish and pick up something heavy on plot and murders and spies and lying liars, and that reading rut just washes away. If you're stuck, we've got you. Today, we're going to hear about two thrillers. One's a 2015 interview with Anthony Horowitz about writing a more modern James Bond book. That's a follow-up to the Bond classic "Goldfinger." But first, former NPR host Lulu Garcia-Navarro talks to Chris Hadfield, who was an astronaut who just wrote a new thriller set in outer space called "The Apollo Murders." It takes place in the '70s - right? - and he talks about bringing real-world facts into his narrative, like the secret space station the Soviets had with a machine gun mounted to the top. Spies in space - it's fun stuff. Here's the interview.
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CHRIS HADFIELD: (Singing) Ground Control to Major Tom.
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: ISS Commander Chris Hadfield was orbiting the Earth at thousands of miles an hour as he sang David Bowie's "Space Oddity" in 2015.
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HADFIELD: (Singing) This is Ground Control to Major Tom. You've really made the grade.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Unlike Major Tom, he made it back to Earth and began writing bestselling books about the final frontier. His new novel is called "The Apollo Murders." It follows a fictional Apollo mission, 18, during the space race and the Cold War in the early 1970s. And he joins us now. Hello, Chris Hadfield.
HADFIELD: Hello, Lulu. How are you today?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I am very well. So talk me through the plot a little bit - about what the ostensible mission of the space flight is, but what the secret mission is, because there's two things going on here.
HADFIELD: Oh, yeah, there are a lot of things going on. But the Apollo missions, of course, went to the Moon, and there were supposed to be Apollo 18 and Apollo 19, but Nixon cancelled them for financial reasons. So the plot is he went to the Air Force, the U.S. Air Force, to get enough money and used the real military astronauts to be the crew of Apollo 18. And part of the reason that the military wanted to do it was, at the time, the Soviets had a secret spy space station for real called Almaz that for real had a machine gun mounted on the outside of it. And part of the mission was to go up and get a better understanding of that secret space station Almaz and maybe do something dubious there and then to continue on to the Moon. Because in reality, the Almaz space station mysteriously malfunctioned in the spring of '73 and deorbited, and so that works into my plot.
And then going on to the Moon, where there was a Soviet rover called Lunokhod (ph) driving around - which also in real life mysteriously malfunctioned in the spring of '73. And that works into my plot of the American astronauts and cosmonauts and the Soviet space program, American space program, and then coming back down to the big, exciting final climax at splashdown just north of Hawaii.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. I mean, you mentioned the machine gun, and that is - I don't want to give too much away, but it's a very important plot point up in space where you basically imagine what it would be like to have a gunfight between two different space capsules.
HADFIELD: Yeah, I was a fighter pilot during the Cold War, and I used to intercept Soviet bombers that were in North American airspace with a fully armed F-18 (ph). And sticking out the back of those Soviet bombers was a great big tail gun. And the amazing fact that they took one of those bombers' tail guns and mounted it on their secret space station, most people don't know about that. So it was fun to get all the details and get them right and make that an intrinsic part of the plot of "The Apollo Murders."
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, you talk about the sort of ancillary purpose of this book, not just being a cracking good yarn, but also taking you into what it is like to be an astronaut and what people talk about. And one of the ways this really works is because the action is in space and the protagonists are very far away from help at home. But the book pivots sort of back and forth between Houston and the teams in space or Russia and the teams in space. What did you want to get at about that dynamic?
HADFIELD: Well, it's the reality of it. You're in space alone and you're facing the actual danger by yourself, but we have the world's ultimate help desk there with you all the time, you know? And you're talking to an astronaut who's on Earth, who's sitting in Mission Control. They have that huge team there in Mission Control to talk to you. And I was lucky enough to work in Mission Control for 25 shuttle missions in a row. I was NASA's chief capsule communicator, so I got to work in the same room that is set in this book for where they would have been talking to the crew and working with Gene Kranz, you know, who - Apollo 13, failure is not an option - you know, that Gene Kranz. So that crossover between how it actually works can give people insight into that and then make that a really intrinsic part of the story so they can see just how the stones get turned over and how things unfold as it goes along.
And I think, you know, it would have been the ultimate locked-room story with just three people, especially if the title is "The Apollo Murders," because that means at least two of them die, you know?
HADFIELD: That's going to be tough with a crew of three. So it was - I - you know, I needed a little more complexity of plot than that.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Does writing about space and what you gave your entire career to sort of bring you closer to it again? What compels you, I guess, to sort of bring this fictionalized world that you knew so intimately to life and to readers?
HADFIELD: Yeah, you're using a past tense that isn't real for me.
HADFIELD: Like, I am an astronaut. I served for 21 years. It's always in my thoughts. It's kind of foundational to who I am. But like, if I asked you to write about being a human being, well, you'd go, well, shoot, that's who I am. Of course, you know, it's not past tense. I wasn't a human being before.
This is what is always around me and what - every time I look up at the sky or just, you know, daydream, this is what I'm thinking about. And there's so much stuff going on in space right now and on the surface of the moon, you know, the stuff we're discovering and the technology that's coming, so I don't know that it's ever been more topical.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, you mention all the exciting things going on in space now, and I am curious where you think things are. Are you - I mean, are you excited by the commercial push into space?
HADFIELD: Spaceflight has always been commercial. You know, the space shuttle was built by Rockwell for profit, and even the lunar lander that's in "The Apollo Murders" that's on the cover, it was built by Grumman, a commercial company, for profit. The real question is how cheap can the products be? And it - you used to have to be a trillionaire to fly in space. An entire country was the only entity on Earth that could afford to fly in space.
And then the price came down in the '80s or '90s, where a very wealthy person could buy a ride with the Soviets, and several people did that. And now, the price has come down another 10 or 100 times; where, gosh, you know, a 90-year-old actor, Bill Shatner, can, you know, fly with Blue Origin - or, you know, where it's now safe enough and simple enough that you don't have to be particularly qualified at all to be able to have a very minimal, but still, a space flight experience.
It's still early, and it's still imperfect, and we've got to figure out the regulations and how to work it into society, sort of like airplanes 110 years ago. But it's a really interesting trajectory, and it's a natural follow on to the type of work that I've been doing my whole life. And there's a whole universe out there still that's going to require professional astronauts. I'm not too worried about, you know, that no one's going to get...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: No jobs for people like you (laughter)?
HADFIELD: Well, that people aren't going to get confused that someone going for a ride is actually someone who's flying the ship.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: At one point before spaceflight in the book, Alan Shephard leads the, quote, "Astronaut's prayer." And we can't say it on the radio, but it is something like, dear Lord, please don't let me mess up.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Is that a real thing, was that your invention?
HADFIELD: I flew on the space shuttle twice as part of the flight crew. I flew on Atlantis and then on Endeavour. And both times on the way out to the launch pad, the director of flight operations or the chief astronaut, whoever was in the van with us, said that exact prayer. So that's...
HADFIELD: That's a real thing, yeah. And it's actually something you say, you know, during - when you're out on a spacewalk or whatever, you know, where you're about to do something where it's - there's - it's irreversible and the consequence of doing it wrong is huge - you know, life and death or billions of dollars worth of equipment. So yeah, that little prayer is good. It's - you know, it kind of gets your mind focused and pay attention to what's happening. And yeah, it's real.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's retired astronaut and ISS commander Chris Hadfield. His new book is "The Apollo Murders." Thank you very much.
HADFIELD: Thank you, Lulu.
LIMBONG: Working with intellectual property from the past can be kind of tricky, especially when you're dealing with characters or plot points that haven't aged well. In this interview from 2015, writer Anthony Horowitz talks to NPR's Robert Siegel about updating James Bond for the present day and what to do about a certain criminal named Pussy Galore.
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ROBERT SIEGEL: The challenge facing Anthony Horowitz in the new James Bond novel he's written, "Trigger Mortis," is that cool is a moving target. What was cool in the 1950s and '60s can seem geriatric all these decades later.
Horowitz is an English writer. He's written novels for young adults, for older adults, movies, television series. He created the detective show "Foyle's War," a public TV staple here in the States. He wrote "Trigger Mortis" on assignment from the estate of Ian Fleming. It is set just a few weeks after the end of Fleming's "Goldfinger."
Anthony Horowitz, welcome to the program.
ANTHONY HOROWITZ: Thank you, Robert.
SIEGEL: And let's start with things that were cool when Ian Fleming was writing James Bond novels that are just simply uncool today.
HOROWITZ: (Laughter) Well, I would have said the first one that springs to mind is probably smoking. James Bond smoked, I think, about 20 or 30 cigarettes a day - Moreland with three rings. And I don't think many people would admire that these days. And perhaps some of the attitudes in the books were cooler than even the violence maybe these days we think twice about. Of course, that's - one of the interesting things is trying to bridge this astonishing gap between the sort of '50s and '60s, when the books were written and were thriving, and nowadays, where so many perceptions have changed.
SIEGEL: Well, what is the enduring essence of cool that James Bond was 60 years ago and still is in the 21st century?
HOROWITZ: It's a very difficult question to answer because, you know, Bond has changed so much. I mean, when Sean Connery turned round and asked for a cocktail shaken but not stirred, it was cool to have that precision, that sort of absolute perfection in taste. And it follows in all the products that he demanded. You know, the right clothes, the right shoes, the right drinks, the right food, the right restaurants, the right women - everything had to be absolutely precise. Back then, particularly at a time when luxury goods had been in such short supply for so long, it was the height of cool to be so precise in your demands.
SIEGEL: Yes. You decided to have "Trigger Mortis," this book, begin just a few weeks after the end of "Goldfinger." At the end of that story, Bond is with Goldfinger's criminal associate, Pussy Galore. In fact, the return of Pussy Galore is a selling point of the novel. Is there any greater anachronism than a lesbian character who succumbs to Bond because he's the first real man she ever encountered?
HOROWITZ: (Laughter) Well, that was one of the dangerous areas, if you like, that I had to be very, very careful about in treating this book because to suggest for a minute that Pussy Galore was a sort of a gay woman who could somehow, in inverted commas, "be cured" by her first relationship with a heterosexual man would, I think, be deeply, deeply offensive today. And of course, it's not something which I consider to be even remotely true at all. And so in the book, in dealing with her, I had to take that on board and very carefully referenced her upbringing, but then gave the whole story a twist that I think gives it almost, dare I say it, a feminist edge - certainly a modern one.
SIEGEL: She's a very strong character in the...
HOROWITZ: Well, it's not only she's a strong character, but at the end of the day, she is a very independent character. And without wishing to give away too much of the story, you know, what she does to Bond, the way she reacts to him and the way their relationship develops and even ends is, I think, a learning curve for him.
SIEGEL: Now, explain this to us. You're working with some things that were written by Ian Fleming that are the property of the Fleming estate. Sometimes this sounds a bit like the exiled Cubans who nurtured Havana seedling tobacco...
SIEGEL: ...That drove a thousand miles from Cuba. I mean, how much was actually there from Ian Fleming for you to work with?
HOROWITZ: When the estate approached me - and I have to say straight away that I was enormously flattered and felt very privileged to be approached by them to do this continuation novel. I was the first of the modern Bond authors to be offered five television treatment that he originally wrote for American television. These shows were never made because the films took off and suddenly a TV series was out of the question. The estate found these documents quite recently and had the idea that they would fold one of them into the new book. And so I was asked to choose one. And the one that popped out at me was this story called "Murder on Wheels," which has a Russian plot by SMERSH to kill an English racing driver in order to show the superiority of their vehicles. In fact, it only contained about, I would say, 4- or 500 words that I could use. But the strange thing is, Robert, that they were incredibly valuable to me - just to have a few words by M written by Ian Fleming, a few words by Bond himself and this scenario. It was a wonderful inspiration.
SIEGEL: You've been a Bond-ophile (ph) for almost your entire life.
HOROWITZ: Well, I am of that age. I mean, I was 8 years old when "Dr. No" came out, the first of the Bond films. And I can actually mark out my whole life by the queuing up for different cinemas to go and see "From Russia With Love" and "Goldfinger." These were big, big events for me.
SIEGEL: Now, you've made some rather critical remarks of some recent Bond movies and also about the prospect of the actor Idris Elba becoming the next bond. You said he's a terrific actor, but I can think of other Black actors who would do better for me if Idris Elba were considered. He's a bit too rough to play the part, too street for Bond. You've since apologized. What did you mean by too street for Bond?
HOROWITZ: Well, it was an inappropriate word. I didn't mean to cause offense. And it was a clumsy choice of words, and I have apologized because it was stupid. What did I mean by street? I was thinking, really, I suppose, of the part he plays in the British TV show "Luther," which I'm sure you see on American television, too. I meant by gritty, down to earth, what we would call a street cop. I see now that that was misconstrued. It was a clumsy choice. I regret it.
SIEGEL: Daniel Craig strikes me as a lot less smooth than some of the earlier people who played James Bond.
SIEGEL: Wasn't he a step toward a slightly rougher character?
HOROWITZ: You're probably right. And, I mean, you know, that's why I'm a writer, not a casting director. I would imagine Idris Elba can be anything he wants to be. I mean, in every film and every television show he does, he acts and he is brilliant at it. And you're right. I mean, Daniel Craig is in some respects more gritty, dare I say, than other Bonds were. But, you know, what's so great about this character is is that no matter who plays him - and incidentally, I want to say that I think Daniel Craig is a brilliant Bond, particularly in "Casino Royale," which is probably one of my favorite of all the Bond films. You know, everyone bring something to the party, and the character endures and changes and morphs and moves with the times.
SIEGEL: I'm wondering if you were as taken with one exchange from Daniel Craig's "Casino Royale" as I was, which is when the bartender asks him if he wants the martini shaken or stirred.
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DANIEL CRAIG: (As James Bond) Vodka martini.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Shaken or stirred?
CRAIG: (As James Bond) Do I look like I give a damn?
SIEGEL: (Laughter) Do I look if I give a damn...
HOROWITZ: I'll tell you something. I was asked recently about one of the magazine articles that I've done for my favorite line out of a Bond film, and that is the one I chose.
SIEGEL: (Laughter) And this is after...
HOROWITZ: Great, great line. It's a great - and I'll tell you something...
SIEGEL: That came after 40 years of hearing that - of hearing what his answer was.
HOROWITZ: And the idea of finishing the film with the line, my name is Bond, James Bond - and he waits for the whole movie, and then he says it, and then there's a blackout. That's genius.
SIEGEL: Anthony Horowitz, author of, among so many books, the new James Bond novel, "Trigger Mortis." Thanks for talking with us.
HOROWITZ: It's been a pleasure, Robert. Thank you.
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LIMBONG: And that's it for this week on NPR's Book of the Day. Let us know what you think. You can write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Andrew Limbong. The podcast is produced by Megan Lim and edited by Petra Mayer, Meghan Sullivan and Tayla Burney. Show elements this week were produced and edited by Reena Advani, Victoria Whitley-Berry, Ed McNulty, Hafsa Fathima, D. Parvaz, Vince Pearson, Hadeel Al-Shalchi and Daniel Hensel. Beth Donovan is our managing editor. Thanks for listening.
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