Eric Van Lustbader is the author of the internationally bestselling Jason Bourne thrillers, as well as the Jack McClure series, the latest installment of which is FATHER NIGHT. Here, Eric discusses the Christmas gift that also gave him a valuable revelation he would use for years to come. Ian Fleming’s Bond novel, YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE, taught him that a thriller can be so much more than the conventions of the genre. If used creatively, a novel can become a doorway to many other worlds and realities, and it is only the beating heart of humanity that can truly reach readers.
Christmas is always an odd time of year for me. My birthday is December 24th, so I rarely had a party (friends were at their respective families). It was also a lonely time, as Christmas was never a family affair either. On the other hand, my mother always made sure I got two presents: one for my birthday and one for Christmas.
Often, because she knew I loved to read as much as I loved to write, those presents were books.
Years before I wrote THE NINJA, my first thriller, I was a big James Bond fan. I was lucky enough to have come upon the series at the beginning, devouring CASINO ROYALE, reading the books as they came out: DR. NO, FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE. But it wasn’t until I read YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE that a panoply of surprising new worlds opened up to me. (Looking back now, I’m startled at the level of racism of Fleming’s writing, but that’s another story and a significant marker for the era in which he wrote.)
I was initially startled, then delighted to discover that the soul of Fleming’s novel was Japanese, a culture neither I nor Bond had ever explored before. From the first, I found myself spellbound in a way no previous Bond novel had been able to do. I was struck by the epigram at the beginning --- an almost-haiku Fleming devised after the 17th-century master poet, Matsuo Bash: You only live twice: once when you are born, And once when you look death in the face. That almost-haiku called to me almost as if it were alive. It set the stage for a story that made understandable a culture both exotic and concealed, a culture about which, not long after, I would write about myself.
Fleming’s two-part titles, “It is better to travel hopefully...” “ ...than to arrive,” continued to haunt me for many years. There is an undercurrent of sorrow in the novel that, for me, made it both compassionate and merciful, two sentiments that, up until that moment, seemed impossible for a spy novel to incorporate. Years later, when my love for Japanese art and culture flowered, when I was in the midst of my research for THE NINJA, I came to realize that in a dazzling feat of literary legerdemain, Fleming had somehow captured the fragile duality of Japanese culture: violence and beauty.
Today, I look out my office window at my Yoshino cherry tree and understand that there is only a single shining moment when its blossoms are at the peak of their yearning life. So, the Japanese believe, with life, itself fleeting, ephemeral, and, therefore, poignant. And now I can’t help but wonder whether I would have been drawn so deeply to Japanese culture had it not been for YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE. And after more than 30 years of writing internationally bestselling novels, including seven Jason Bourne books and five Jack McClure novels, I can certainly attest to the fact that it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive.
YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE was, for me, a doorway into my own future. It taught me that a thriller can be so much more than action, adventure, and a ticking time bomb of a plot. All these are necessary to the genre, of course, but, if used correctly, they become the clothes that cover the beating heart. This is what I tried to capture in THE NINJA, the following Nicholas Linnear novels --- all my books, in fact. What YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE taught me was that, no matter the fashion of the clothes, the beating heart can touch readers in many different ways. As a result, I have learned to use my writing to explore and comment on society, politics, philosophy, even religion.
YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE taught me that the richness of an author’s mind need not be hampered by the conventions of genre, that those very conventions --- trust, betrayal, vengeance, redemption, inversion --- can, if used creatively, become the doorways to many worlds, many realities, all reflecting our own.
At Christmastime, I always remember that moment of revelation and am grateful for it.