Since 1983 mystery fans have enjoyed Michael Bond’s series of detective comedies featuring retired Sûreté member Monsieur Pamplemousse and his dog Pommes Frites, and since 1958 children have been delighting in Bond’s books chronicling the very funny adventures of Paddington Bear-one of the most beloved children’s characters of all time.
The Monsieur Pamplemousse series is a unique blend of comedy and mystery. As an inspector for the prestigious restaurant rating directory Le Guide, Monsieur Pamplemousse (along with Pommes Frites) travels around the country sampling the finest cuisine and wines at the best restaurants in France, while stumbling into one hilarious mystery after another. Mr. Bond has recently completed another novel, Monsieur Pamplemousse on Probation. He spoke to us about his early writing career, the inspiration behind his two most famous characters, and the state of writing in general.
TSM: You’ve probably been asked this many times, but how did you create Paddington?
MB: Well, one morning I had a blank sheet of paper in my typewriter, and, as I am sure you know only too well, unless you put some words on it nobody else is going to. I had bought my first wife a toy bear the previous Christmas as a stocking filler and because we lived near Paddington Station we called it Paddington. I think the names of characters are important because they conjure up an immediate picture, and certainly to English ears, Paddington is a very safe sounding name; solid and dependable. It was sitting on the mantelpiece and to get my mind working I started writing a few words about it. They caught my fancy, so I wrote on, and by the end of the morning I had what turned out to be the first chapter of a book. It wasn’t intended for any particular age group, which is probably the ideal way to write a children’s book. Most children hate being written down to anyway, and provided the meaning is clear within the context, they don’t even mind long words. I used to like long words myself when I was a child, even if I did mispronounce them. “Established” I thought of as “estuarated,” and it still comes back to me that way when I see it over a shop doorway. I wrote the first book very quickly-a chapter a day for eight days. As with all books in a series, the first is comparatively easy because you go wherever your fancy takes you. The ones that follow are often more difficult because the parameters are set and it’s too late to change them. Paddington is very firmly set in his particular surroundings in London. He’s not the sort of character who would go to the moon or do anything adventurous like that.
TSM: Were you surprised by Paddington’s success?
MB: Well, yes and no, and it certainly wasn’t instant. The book went the rounds of half a dozen publishers and it was rejected for one reason or another, either because they already had a bear character or it was the wrong length or whatever. I think if you’re an author and something isn’t right with what you’ve written there’s a little voice inside you which tells you so, and you ignore it at your peril. Deep down I was very happy with it, and even now I wouldn’t change anything. The first book-A Bear Called Paddington-did well in the sense that it got on to one or two best seller lists and a “recommended reading” list for schools. But with books you are writing for a relatively small audience. Generally speaking, however successful it is, the audience is relatively small compared with television. So it wasn’t really until some years later when I decided to try my hand at adapting it for the relatively new medium that the series really took off. Suddenly, instead of sales figures measured in tens of thousands, you have an audience of millions. Then there is the fact that because the cost of making animated films is so high, there has to be a lot of merchandising (to use a horrible word) to help pay for them, and that adds to the general awareness. If you create a character who lends himself to that kind of thing, although the books remain the foundation stone, you become involved in many other areas you probably hadn’t even dreamed of.
TSM: I remember reading one of your books when I was a young boy, and I kept thinking “Paddington”-what a great name. Then I grew up and read Agatha Christie’s 4:50 From Paddington and I thought to myself, so that’s where the name is from-it’s from Paddington Station.
MB: Yes, years ago I had a letter from a small boy in America who said he was so used to Paddington being the name of a bear it seemed a funny name for a station.
TSM: So do you think of the plot beforehand or does the plot sort of happen as you go along?
MB: Usually with the Monsieur Pamplemousse books it starts with a setting or a situation and it develops as I go along. I’m very fond of France, and compared with England it’s much bigger and being bounded by other countries more varied, so there are always new areas to explore. I find that I visit a place, maybe staying a week (to get the feel of it) and doing research, and in that way ideas are triggered. Not necessarily at the time, but often much later. For instance, Monsieur Pamplemousse Stands Firm came about some time after I’d visited a place called Arcachon, which is on the west coast of France, near Bordeaux. I had always avoided it because, looking on the map, it’s a very dull, flat area. Then, when I went there, I actually fell in love with it. It’s very French, a major oyster growing area on the edge of a big inland sea, and there were hardly any foreigners about. One of the scenic features is that all along that part of the coast there are enormous sand dunes, and just outside Arcachon they have the biggest one in Europe. In fact, if you try to walk up it, it takes about a quarter of an hour to get to the top.
Anyway, we spent about a week there, and when we came away I didn’t really have any ideas at all for a story. Then, about six months later, the daily paper arrived and on the front page there was a picture of that very dune. It was a winter when all of Europe had suffered terrible gales and the sand had shifted to reveal an old army tank which had been there for, I suppose, about fifty years. At the time I happened to be reading about the state of Germany immediately after the war when people were unearthing a lot of buried treasure and artworks which had been looted by the Germans. I also read that a lot of it had “disappeared” a second time, only to turn up in America. So the two things came together in my mind and out of it sprang a story which involved Monsieur Pamplemousse staying in Arcachon when some characters turned up out of the blue hoping to retrieve their loot. Wondering how they might pin-point the spot where it was buried in the sand dune, I remembered that on the far side of the inland sea there was a lighthouse which could be used to take a bearing from the hotel where they would be staying. Then more research revealed that just after the war the original had been knocked down and moved to a new site about a hundred yards away, which of course they wouldn’t know about, so straight away there was a twist in the plot. Having started off with no ideas at all and ended up with the bones of a situation, I returned to Arcachon to take lots of reference photographs, because however well you think you know a place as soon as you begin to write about it you realise how little remains in your memory. Were the streets cobbled? What colour were the roof tiles? All the little details that help to make a story believable.
TSM: How did you create Pamplemousse? Was he inspired by anyone you met or knew?
MB: I always find that I need something tangible to focus on. I think if you have a clear picture in your mind of what a character looks like you start to build up a kind of mental dossier of how he or she will react in a given situation. Plots should develop through the character’s reactions and mode of behaviour and not the other way round. With Paddington for instance, if I put him into, say, a tennis match, but have no idea for a story, because I know him so well the dialogue immediately starts to come to life, and one idea triggers off another. I really modelled M. Pamplemousse on an old French film star called Raimu. I first saw him just after the war in a wonderful Marcel Pagnol trilogy-Marius, Fanny and César-in which he played the part of a bar owner in Marseilles. Afterwards I went to see everything he was in. He always stayed in my mind. I suppose I started writing detective fiction largely because of my mother. She used to go down to the local library every Friday and return with an armful of mystery books, so I was brought up in a house where they were part of the furniture. For that I shall always be grateful.
TSM: My mother as well used to love detective stories, whether it was Sherlock Holmes or Arsène Lupin.
MB: Mine only read English writers; Freeman Wills Croft and John Rhode were her particular favourites as I remember. She liked the gentleman detective type of stories, which were popular at the time. She didn’t care for the American ones because she thought they were too violent. I really only came across them for the first time when I was in the forces. I went out to Canada when I was in the Air Force to do my flying training and I discovered this whole new world of Dashiell Hammett and Earle Stanley Gardner and many others. They were wonderful. After the war I got hooked on George Simenon and for many years read everything he ever wrote. However, because humour is my particular forte, when I came to take up the genre I wanted a character who, although he was a loner like Maigret, solved his crimes largely by accident rather than design. Don’t ask me why, but in the beginning Monsieur Pamplemousse was going to be the last detective in Paris who rode a bicycle. I even bought myself a French racing machine to get the feel of the whole thing. Then I discovered that the saddle was much harder than I remembered as a boy and the hills had become much steeper, so I gave up the idea. Also, I wanted get my character outside Paris and I didn’t, at the time, know a great deal about French Police procedure.
The idea remained in my mind for a number of years. From time to time I took it out and dusted it, then put it away again. Then one year my wife and I were on holiday in France and we stayed at a hotel in the Rhône Valley where the speciality of the chef was a chicken which had been sewn up inside a pig’s bladder along with other things, before being cooked. When it was brought to the table the maître d’ cut the bladder and it fell open to reveal the chicken. There was a lot of ceremony attached to it all, and while I was watching I suddenly wondered what would happen if instead of a chicken it was someone’s head. (Well, you have to think of something to pass the time!)
TSM: Yes, I remember that was the first M. Pamplemousse book. That was such a surprise. It was very funny. Going back to your mother-did she encourage you to write?
MB: No, but she certainly encouraged me to read. When I was small I never went to bed without a story. But I doubt if she ever pictured me writing for a living. In fact, when I eventually gave up working for the BBC in order to write full time, I think both my parents were worried that I had given up a nice, safe job for what sounded to them like a very precarious existence.
But going back to M. Pamplemousse, the other element that came about during that fateful meal was that I decided my character wouldn’t be a working detective. Instead, I would make him an ex-member of the Paris Sûreté who had blotted his copybook and been forced to take early retirement. Since then he had become an Inspector for Le Guide-the oldest and most prestigious restaurant guide in France. In that way he would be free to travel the length and breadth of the country and would meet his adventures en route. Another thing happened. The restaurant where we were eating had a lovely non-descript black dog called Giankin, who kept a watchful eye on everything that was going on, never interfering but occasionally licking his lips in approval. I decided a dog would make an ideal travelling companion for Monsieur Pamplemousse, especially if it was one with gourmet tendencies and could help pass judgement on the food. And so Pommes Frites, a bloodhound who also had to take early retirement from the Paris Sûreté, was born.
TSM: Have you brought any of your own characteristics to Pamplemousse? For example your love of travel or your appreciation of French cuisine and wines?
MB: Yes. And the nice thing about it is that all three come under the heading of legitimate research! Apart from that, like me, Monsieur Pamplemousse is a Capricorn by birth. When Capricorns set their sights on something, they don’t necessarily reach their goal in a hurry, but they are determined to get there in the end, which is a useful attribute for a detective to have. I suppose most characters have something of the author in them, although having said that I’m not like Paddington. He’s more what I would like to be. I think he has his life very well organised.
TSM: Yes, I know. What’s great is that when Paddington goes somewhere he’s treated as a human being.
MB: He certainly gets more respect than I do at times! I sometimes wish I had his “hard stare.” I think the important thing about the stories is that nobody ever says: “Oh gosh-a talking bear!” They totally accept him at face value. If they didn’t the whole thing would collapse like a pricked balloon. When I first dabbled in radio plays, I wrote one or two that were set in France and usually had some young man staying in a village where there would be a statue of a beautiful girl who was rumoured to come alive for the night whenever there was a full moon, which of course there always was . . .They were mostly rejected on the grounds that “We like the writing, but we don’t do fantasy.” The fact is that all stories are fantasy. Monsieur Pamplemousse is fantasy. A bear living as a human being in Notting Hill Gate in London is fantasy in the extreme, but because nobody in the stories every queries it or finds it all strange it becomes acceptable and totally believable. If an author believes in his characters that’s half the battle. If you don’t believe in them yourself then no one else is going to.
TSM: The Pamplemousse stories are light-hearted. They don’t really have any violence. What do you think of the mysteries that are being published today, where the emphasis seems to be more on graphic violence than on the mystery itself?
MB: I find that certainly with some books it worries me from a technical point of view, because so much of it seems to go unpunished. The pages are often littered with dead bodies. But I suppose we live in a violent age and sadly one gets anaesthetised to it. I’ve recently discovered Lawrence Block and although his books are often violent it isn’t gratuitous.
TSM: They’re a pleasure to read. All of the books are great mysteries but how do you manage to tie the element of humour into the mystery plot?
MB: Well, that’s the way I write. The humour creeps in, and I tend to look for humorous situations. I wouldn’t be capable of writing a serious book, although in the field of detective/mystery writing humorous books are in the minority. But then, there are so many different categories. Last year I was in a big store in Paris and the book department had mounted a display-I think there were about twenty five different tables-ranging from historical detective, police detective, private eye, an enormous range of detective stories within the genre, but not many humorous ones.
TSM: I think that very few writers can successfully combine humour and mystery.
MB: I’ve just finished reading one-I’m afraid I can’t remember the writer’s name-where Groucho Marx is the detective. I came across it by chance and it’s really very good.
TSM: In your writing career is there anything which you would have liked to have written or which you would like to write in the future which you have not yet written?
MB: Paddington has done most things, but he has yet to be involved in a feature film-and that may well happen. I have a number of children’s books, Paddington and others in the pipeline. As for Monsieur Pamplemousse-I would certainly like to carry on with him for a while. You get very fond of your own characters, you know. They become part of your life.
TSM: Finally-your children-did they grow up reading Paddington Bear?
MB: My daughter, Karen, was born the same year, almost the same month, that the first Paddington book came out, so she was quite literally brought up with it. In fact, she thought for some time that I wrote a book and sent it off, then the publisher sent me a printed version and that was the end of it. She came home very excited one day and said: “Daddy, I’ve seen one of your books in a shop and it’s the same as mine!” The concept of numbers is hard to grasp when you are small. I have three grandchildren now. My grandson, he’s my best . . .
TSM: … Fan?
MB: Not just fan-he’s a salesman. If he goes into a supermarket, he goes straight up to the cashier and says: “My grandfather writes books about Paddington Bear.” So he’s very useful. I’m encouraging him to do that.
TSM: You should have him try to sell Pamplemousse as well.
MB: I’m working up to that!