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Interview With an Author: Dr. Kathryn Harkup

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author Kathryn Harkup and her latest book, Superspy Science
Author Kathryn Harkup and her latest book, Superspy Science

Kathryn Harkup is a former chemist turned author. She writes and gives regular public talks on the disgusting and dangerous side of science. Her first book was the international best-seller A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie, which was shortlisted for a Mystery Readers International Macavity Award and a BMA Book Award. She has also written Making the Monster: The Science of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Death by Shakespeare: Snakebites, Stabbings and Broken Hearts. Her latest book is Superspy Science: The Science of James Bond and she recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for Superspy Science?

I seem to have developed a track record in writing about gruesome ways to die in pop culture—such as the poisonings in Agatha Christie novels or the many and varied deaths in Shakespeare’s plays. The world of James Bond was another big franchise that features many creative ways to be killed, or nearly killed so it was an obvious choice.

Are you a fan of James Bond? How familiar were you with the James Bond novels or films before you started working on Superspy Science?

I grew up in the Roger Moore era of Bond films. There was scarcely a Christmas that went by without sitting down to watch a Bond film on the telly. And they have regularly cropped up on TV and in the cinema throughout my life. They have always been part of the background. I have always enjoyed watching what are thoroughly entertaining adventure stories executed with a lot of style.

How long did it take you to do the necessary research and then write Superspy Science?

There were many long weeks of watching back-to-back Bond films with a pen and paper ready in one hand and a finger of the other hovering over the pause button. Then there were the novels to read and the biographies, background information, and scientific details to dig into. Overall it took a couple of years.

What was the most interesting or surprising thing that you learned during your research?

I was surprised by how close to reality some aspects of the films and books really were and how it was sometimes something that seemed really far-fetched. For example, Hugo Drax building a space station in secret is a scientific stretch, but there is an International Space Station orbiting high above us right now (though it is not as glamorous and far from secret). Even the idea of producing a gravity-like effect by rotating the station is possible, even if not in the way it is portrayed on-screen. However, the most impressive detail is the shuttles that take Drax’s crew of beautiful people to his station. They were based on the shuttles NASA was developing at the time. Because NASA had a few technical delays, the public got to see the shuttles in the Bond film before they were launched for real.

Do you have a favorite of Fleming’s novels? A favorite of the motion pictures?

The novel Moonraker will always stand out for me because the entire story takes place in the region of England where I grew up. I can read about car chases (or car versus lorry escapades) along roads I have driven over and Bond speeding through the town I grew up in past the pub I used to drink in.

For the films, I will always have a soft spot for Live and Let Die. There are many aspects that have not aged well in this film, but the theme tune, the crocodile farm, the boat chase, and the best villain—Baron Samedi—still make it worth watching again.

Do you have a favorite Bond actor? A least favorite? (I realize that you may not want to address this one, and if that is the case, please don’t. But I also realize it might be fun to answer.)?

My favourite Bond actor is Bob Holness. He was the first to play Bond in a radio play of Casino Royale in South Africa. He was hugely popular in the UK in his later life for hosting a TV quiz show called Blockbusters—a firm student favourite in its day. I can also claim him as a distant relative (a very distant relative, no doubt to the relief of his close family).

If you could cast the next actor to play James Bond, whom would you pick?

I have no clue or insight. I couldn’t even begin to guess. But, whoever it is, I wish them luck.

What, in your opinion, is the most outrageous or ridiculous of Bond’s gadgets?

There are quite a few to choose from but the invisible car is just silly.

Is there a gadget that Fleming or the filmmakers created for Bond that seemed fantastic when introduced but has since become reality?

There is one particularly good example in Thunderball—the rebreather. Bond puts this tiny gadget between his lips so he can breathe for an extra few minutes underwater. Just long enough to find the secret underwater entrance to the villain's lair or fight off a group of wet-suited henchmen armed with harpoons. Apparently, the Secret Services saw the film and got in touch with the filmmakers, curious as to how they had succeeded in making a gadget they had been trying to develop themselves. The filmmakers had to confess the gadget was a prop, and the actors were holding their breath. But, several decades later, a real-life gadget was developed that fitted in the mouth and drew oxygen from the surrounding water, a bit like fish gills. It’s not quite the same as the Bond gadget but it is pretty close.

Next year, James Bond will celebrate his 70th anniversary! Do you have an idea or theory regarding why/how James Bond has become and continues to be so ingrained in western culture and beloved by legions of fans?

At a guess, it is because all the films and the novels include lots of different elements that appeal to many different people. Exciting adventures, brilliant bad guys, cool cars, gadgets galore, thrilling stunts, big explosions, danger, sex, exotic locations, and all delivered with what appears to be effortless cool.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

American Gods by Neil Gaiman and The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy Gentleman by Laurence Sterne.

What is the last piece of art (music, movies, tv, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?

Recently, I got to see the Lycurgus Cup in person. I have written about this piece of Roman glassware before and seen photos of it, but seeing it up close really makes you appreciate the workmanship involved in producing it. The cup is a beautiful object, but I also got to geek out on some chemistry. Thanks to tiny particles of silver and gold trapped inside the glass, when light shines on the cup, it looks an opaque green, but when light shines through it, it appears a transparent red. All thanks to Roman metal nanotechnology.

What are you working on now?

I have recently submitted another manuscript for a book called The Secret Lives of Molecules. Until the edits have been done for that book, I am on a writing hiatus and catching up on all the other things I ignored while I was writing.

Book cover for Superspy Science: Science, Death and Tech in the World of James Bond
Superspy Science: Science, Death and Tech in the World of James Bond
Harkup, Kathryn