Interview with Peter O'Donnell

Made by Simon Moss

Plots of books being discussed

SPOILER caution

To set the scene, we were sat in POD's study on Dec 3rd 1996. His study
is lined with bookcases full of books(!) on a whole range of subjects. On
the wall is the original picture of the Cobra Trap cover.

SM. Where did the idea for MB come from?

POD. In 1962, I had been writing for 20 plus years in all sorts of
publications. Womens magazines,childrens papers and also doing the strip
cartoons like Garth in the daily Mirror, so I knew all about the big
heros, and I thought it was about time someone came up with a female who
could do all the things the males had been doing. But, for me she had to
be plausible, so I had to give her the kind of background that would make
her plausible. I don't think you could take a girl from behind a ...I
don't know...a shop counter for example and turn her into a MB, it had to
be born in the blood and the bone.
So I went back to 1942, when I was a young sargent in the army, in charge
of a mobile radio detachment in the north of Persia, up near the Caucasus
Mountains, because the germans were expected to try to take the oilfields,
and there were lots of refugees, many had been on the move for years
through the Balkans, trying to evade the German army.
We were camped by a stream, having our evening meal, which was stew,and
suddenly this child appeared. she was alone, she was barefoot, she wore a
rag of a dress, she had all her belongings tied up in a blanket on her
head and she had a cord round her neck with something hanging on it, I
couldn't see it at the time. She sat down at a distance from us and
gnawing on something she removed from her bundle. I told one of the guys
to take a mess tin full of stew to her and a mug of tea to her, and when
she got up to go, I'd put a couple of tins of food near her, so she could
get them without coming too close to us, and a can opener too; She was
about twelve, she wasn't an Arab child because she said something to us
and we knew it wasn't Arabic, and the thing round her neck was a piece of
wood with a long nail lashed to it with a piece of wire, it was a weapon,
which she obviosly needed. I surmised that she was a refugee from
somewhere in the Balkans, and she had been on her own for some time,
because she wasn't phased, she was her own person, this little kid, and
washed the utensials in the stream, and brought them back to where we had
put the tins of food, and indicated where these for her, we said yes and
she opened her bundle and put them in. She stood there for a few seconds,
and then she gave us a smile, and you could have lit up a small village
with that smile, and then she said something and walked off into the
desert going south, and she was on her own, she walked like a little
Princess (!).........I never forgot that child, I hope she is alive today,
she would be in her 60's now. But when I wanted a background for MB,I knew
that child was the story, but I had to give her a slightly different
story, and to get her educated, which I did by having her take care of and
befriend an old academic Hungarian Jew,who was also on the run, and they
wandered through North Africa and the Middle East for about 4 years, she
looked after him and he taught her so she ended up at about 16 or 17 as a
qualified person for who I wanted MB to be.

SM. There is an old adage that says you should only write about what you
know, so does that mean that yours and Modesty's CV overlap somewhere?

POD. _laughs_ No, no no, I don't do the types of things MB does! I just
write about them! I know that old adage, and it is true up to a point, but
you have an imagination, and that is what a writer is supposed to use, and
where you have a factual background you have research to do. I do a lot of
research. There are over 30 years of National Geographic Magazine in that
bookcase behind you, which will give me photos and background to anywhere
in the world I want, and if I want something specific I will go and find
someone who can tell me. In one of my books I wanted some fencing scenes.
I don't know anything about fencing, but I got some books and studied
them, and worked out what I thought was a rough plot of the two scenes,
and then I went to the Amateur Fencing Assoc. and people are so helpful if
you  approach them, and they got two of their sword masters to go over the
scenes and they said " Oh you can't do that....that's all right and that
is almost the correct way to do it, how about doing it this way.....". So
I went away and re wrote it, went back and these two guys went through it
in slow motion and said yes, that works, put it in the book, so I did. So
that's what you have to do. I didn't have to be an expert to write two
fencing scenes.   

SM. You've written 13 MB books now, and the first was made into a film;
what did you think of that ?

POD.(laughs) It makes my nose bleed just to think of it!!!!!. I wrote the
script for British Lion, the biggest film company in England in the 60's,
but after that it was rewritten by - wait a minute - another Englishman
Sidney Gilliat, a Scotsman, an Italian woman in Italian and translated
back into English and a West Indian and the outcome was only one line of
script remained (laughs) literally one line!! It was a well earned
disaster, the photography was superb, it was directed by Joseph Losely a
great director but entirely the wrong horse for the course. He was
bessoted with Monica Vitti, who was playing the part of MB, and she was
the wrong horse for the course too. There was an awful amount of waste in
the film, as there is in most films. They got a voice tutor for Monica to
teach her the lines she had to say, as she didn't speak any English at
all, and this voice tutor was over here for 16 weeks, and she was put up
at a top London hotel and driven every day in a limosine to
Sheperton....and the voice tutor they chose was an Austrian
Baroness (laughs) and by the time it was finished, and they ran it, they
decided they had better re voice which they did. They dubbed all MB's
speeches. I don't know who it was, but it certainly wasn't Monica Vitti's
voice ! (laughs).

SM. I see from the sleeve notes to your new book Cobra Trap that there is
a new film in production.

POD. I think there may well be. An option was bought almost 3 years ago
now, an 18 month option, and it took forever to get off the ground, but
there are 2 British producers,I'm glad to say,  and it is being backed by
Miramax films, a division of the Disney corporation.But they have got an
American scriptwriter who doesn't seem to understand the character at all,
and the script that was finally turned out after nearly a years work was
quite hopeless, so that went down the tube. They renewed the option for
another 18 months, but in the meantime Neil Gaiman, a very successful
young scriptwriter, he created The Sandman,and he has been a fan of MB
since he was a youngster at college. He lives in America now, and he met
the producers and he is keen to do a script of I,Lucifer which has a fair
bit of fantasy in it, and my understanding is he hopes to have the first
draft of the script finished by the end of January, so if that works, we
could be in production by the summer...I dont hold my breath though,I've
been down this road a number of times and anything can go wrong.Even if
you get a good script, you dont know who you will get as a director, and
anything can happen. Don't ask me who would play MB, I've no idea.

SM. Who would *you* like to play Modesty ?

POD. I have no idea. I won't be specific, but I would like them to find a
virtually unknown girl, although she would have to have suitable
experience in film acting, but unknown to the extent that Sean Connery was
unknown when he was chosen to play James Bond. This is so they could
secure a three film deal, without having to pay astronomical fees if she
takes off. I mistrust what the American film industry call bankable
stars,I think you could do really well with an unknown actress, if you
could find her, and some interesting guest characters, because the book
has some very interesting characters in it, you know, like Maggie Smith.

SM. We are sat here in your office, and I can see you are working on the
cartoon strip for the Evening Standard (Note -  this is the London daily
paper),but as it is fairly common knowledge that Modesty and Willie both
die in Cobra Trap, what is the future for them ?

POD. Well, the thing is I'm 76 now, and I retired from writing books 10
years ago, but I kept the strip cartoon going,and during this time I kept
thinking how Modesty and Willie would end, as I didnt want to leave them
in mid air with no ending, and I couldn't concieve they would end up in an
old folks home, tottering around on zimmer frames (laughs), and I thought
they would probably end up doing something rather worthwhile in a small
way perhaps, so what I did, I moved 20 - 25 years into the future, so
Modesty would be around 52,or something , and Willie a few years older,
and I had something crop up, that demanded their attention....I'm not
going to give the plot away!....but the fact is they go together, they go
under rather good circumstances. I think it is a most satisfying end to
the saga, and from the reactions I have had..I must say a lot of tears
have been shed, and not only female tears, quite a few chaps have
confessed to shedding a manly tear or two, but, that was the way I
thought it should end, and it seems to have been satisfying to the
readers, bit it does allow for 20 odd years of adventures between now and
then. In fact, as they have this facility of ageing only one year in every
15, you have almost 300 years of adventures, which will probably see me

SM. So, when the films take off, you've left the door open to write some
more books?

POD. No no, there will be no more books. That is the last one, but I
continue to do the cartoon strip, and I will continue to do it untill I
feel I cannot do it justice, then I'll pack it in. But what I am saying is
there is plenty of scope for more cartoon adventures, If I live to be 120
I could still be doing them them, there is no shortage of time for me !! 

Thanks to Peter O'Donnell and Simon Moss for this.