Raymond Benson knows something about superheroes. He’s been writing larger than life franchises and tie-ins for METAL GEAR SOLID, HITMAN, and JAMES BOND for decades. It makes him the perfect author to reinvent the genre. Or perhaps, just like the Prog Rock (Jethro Tull, Yes, Gentle Giant) he loves returns to vogue every generation, it’s time for a return to a fresh, humanized hero, even if she is still super.
It’s working …
“One of the most original heroines I’ve read in a long time…” — Sandra Brown
“A mashup of the work of Gloria Steinem, Ian Fleming, and Mario Puzo, all under the editorship of Stan Lee.” — LIBRARY JOURNAL
THE BLACK STILETTO: STARS & STRIPES is the third book in a projected five novel series.
Raymond, can you set up the series for those who have not read books one and two, please?
It’s a story about a woman ahead of her time, fiercely independent in a world where women weren’t allowed to be so. She’s a feminist before that term was in our vernacular. And while it’s about a woman who puts on a costume and mask and fights crime—she has no superpowers, really. More importantly, it’s also a story about a woman with Alzheimer’s and her son and a story about a father and daughter.
Here’s the cover copy for the third book.
It’s 1960 in the third Black Stiletto book, and the Black Stiletto, in her civilian persona, Judy Cooper, volunteers to work for JFK’s presidential campaign, only to become involved in a devious behind-the-scenes plot that could change the course of history. In the present, Judy’s son, Martin, must deal with increasing mental health issues, his mother’s demise from Alzheimer’s, and a new woman in his life. And then there’s Gina, the Stiletto’s granddaughter, who is exhibiting evidence that she is more like her grandmother than Martin would like.
The heroine Black Stiletto isn’t much like the June Cleaver stereotype we picture from the era is she? What was her genesis? And what are you going for?
I wanted to tackle more of a Batman-like character that didn’t have super powers. Judy Cooper (AKA the Black Stiletto) lives on the fringe, she is not really in normal society, living way down in the East Village, in a room above a gymnasium, like one of the guys. She steps out of a traditional role of women at that time.
Why set her story in the past?
Given the fact that the Black Stiletto series consists of two parallel stories–one in the present and one in the past–it made sense chronologically for Judy’s story to be told in that time period. I also envisioned her as something of a “female version of the Shadow.” Her vigilantism works best in an era before cell phones and computers.
At the same time I had a different story brewing in my head about a grown son taking care of his mother with Alzheimer’s, and he discovers some dramatic secret about her past. So I combined the two ideas and it clicked. And women do seem to like it, and men, too!
Writing a novel with much of it set in 1960, from a woman’s point of view, must require a great deal of research. What have you done to put yourself in the, um … stilettos of a woman in 1960?
The clothes and make-up and girls-only stuff that men know nothing about are the hard parts, but my wife and other readers vet my manuscripts to make sure I get that right. As for everything else, the task is no different from writing any other character. Authors often create characters who are different races and genders from themselves. It’s part of the job.
But that’s only part of the research requirement. Judy Talbot’s also a ‘Kennedy Girl’, how did you research this aspect and what were some of the most interesting parts of what you learned?
I put out a nationwide search for Kennedy Girls and found a couple who gave me some great info. The ‘Kennedy Girls’ were a group of female volunteers who acted as cheerleaders of sorts and appeared at the campaign speeches. It was a grass-roots movement, but Jackie Kennedy designed their costumes in some cities. They would sing songs like “Marching Down to Washington” or “High Hopes”. I also got some help from the Kennedy Library in Boston.
Was using the presidential campaign risky? With so many of us knowing the outcome, how do you keep the stakes high?
Everything in the story happens “behind the scenes” and only the Stiletto and the particular baddies in the book know what’s going on. Kennedy, the FBI, the CIA, the Secret Service—they’re all clueless! Which is why the events that occur in my novel are nowhere in the history books.
Why is mental health featured so prominently in your novel? The back copy hints that Martin must also deal with his own mental health issues, is he also struck with a dementia?
My mother-in-law died of Alzheimer’s, so I have first-hand experience in dealing with that. And I don’t mind admitting that I’ve dealt with depression and an anxiety issue for decades, so much of what Martin is going through comes from personal experience.
I hear that the BLACK STILETTO series is in development to become a television series, has that hampered or changed your plans for the novels? Given that you’re the founder of the International Association of Media Tie-In Writers, what changes when a studio is involved?
At this point, the rights are owned by Lonetree Entertainment, who is one of the producers of Denzel Washington’s next movie, THE EQUALIZER (based on the old TV show). There’s a pilot script written, and Lonetree is currently shopping it to networks and studios. So we’re in the “fingers-crossed” stage. To answer your question, I’m just writing the books as I would (the fourth one is done, I’m now starting the fifth and last one). I know as well as anyone that once Hollywood gets hold of your property, they change it. Most of the time. I’m prepared for that, I just hope I’m given the chance to prepare for that!
After 28 novels, can you give us what you feel is a key to writing a good thriller?
For me it’s reading a lot! I’ve always got a book going. Whenever young people ask me what they need to do to become a writer, that’s what I tell them. Read, read, read. It soaks in.
What are you working on next?
The fifth Black Stiletto book, of course! The fourth one, THE BLACK STILETTO: SECRETS & LIES will be published in January 2014, and the fifth one, titled THE BLACK STILETTO: ENDINGS & BEGINNINGS will come out in November of ’14.
Thank you, Raymond, and good luck with your launch in April!
Raymond Benson is the author of 28 published books. His “Black Stiletto” series now includes three entries and is being developed in Hollywood for a television series. He was the third–and first American–author to be commissioned by the Ian Fleming Estate to write continuation James Bond novels.
Learn more about Raymond on his website, Facebook and Twitter (@RaymondBenson). For more on BLACK STILETTO go to www.theblackstiletto.net. Be sure to watch the video, download the free teaser short story, and the official “Black Stiletto Song.”