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Charlie Monk

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Time Out magazine - Brian Case
Florida Press News

TimeDavid Ambrose talks to Brian Case, Time out Magazine

David Ambrose's The Discrete Charm of Charlie Monk is a thriller with a difference. Charlie Monk is a genetically adjusted chimpanzee, raised in a laboratory and nurtured by virtual reality. As an assassin, he is unbeatably fast, technologically super-competent, and completely remorseless. But troubling flashes of a past that may or may not have been his start to invade his system, destroying discipline. Visual memory implants are the trickiest aspect of brainwashing.

‘He's James Bond to begin with, but nobody can be James Bond,' says Ambrose. ‘We go with the lie of the super-hero, but they don't exist, they're constructs of the imagination, so that's how I got into creating mine. I read a lot of physics, philosophy and psychology, and what I'm trying to do is ask metaphysical questions about consciousness, reality and identity within the form of the classic thriller. Where is the "I" in "me"? It doesn't exist in terms of brain function. Descartes's definition was abandoned long since. Nothing works at the moment.

‘Charlie Monk clings onto the idea of his humanity, but it may be a complete illusion. He may be a computer programme that thinks it's a real human being. And none of us can be more sure of who we are than Charlie.

‘At the end, I'm trying to mess with the reader's brain in a way that most thrillers don't. I tend to tell Frankenstein stories. Sod life-affirming! I've done that in Hollywood. I want them to say, "He writes mind-blowing books!"'

How close are we to producing a Charlie Monk? ‘I talked to geneticists who said, "Watch this space!" There's a huge amount of evidence that governments have been trying to create the totally obedient soldier. There was a psychiatrist working for the CIA out of a hospital in Canada, and he did the most appalling experiments on sick people using LSD and brain lesions. He didn't succeed in creating a Charlie Monk, but he killed a lot of people and drove a lot of others mad in the course of it.'

Was The Manchurian Candidate a big influence? ‘That's a good place to talk. It was one of the stories that always fascinated me. In fact, I worked with John Frankenheimer on The Year of the Gun. No, it wasn't very good. Most films aren't. And there's a good reason for it too.'

David Ambrose worked as a screenwriter in Hollywood for 12 years before turning back to his own writing. ‘I came to the conclusion that the only way to regard yourself as a screenwriter is to think of yourself as a secretary. Everybody has a right to have an opinion about your work except you. Couldn't Hamlet kill his uncle at the end of Act One? Pointless fighting it. You just say sod it. The novels are a way of getting my self-respect back. It's taken me almost 10 years to turn it around.'

Before Hollywood Ambrose wrote plays like Siege starring Alastair Sim, Stanley Holloway and Michael Bryant, and anticipates a revival of Abra Cadaver. What lured him into the movies was Orson Welles.

‘He was in Robert Siodmak's Battle for Rome; playing the Emperor Justinian in Romania and the script didn't work. I did three months rewriting on a daily basis. Everyone was scared shitless of him, so they sent the kid. I showed up at his hotel room and here was this enormous figure in a Mao suit, foot-long cigar, squinting at me. He told me he was on the wagon, poured me a tumbler of whisky, and proceeded to read through my scenes, grunting and puffing on his cigar. He said, "There's one problem. I can't play this. I'm what the French call ‘The King Actor' so I can't react to people. People have to react to me". So I had to go round to Laurence Harvey and the rest of the cast and say, Orson's going to have your line here. I got all the stick from their managers.

‘But Orson was great. We went to dinner in a black market restaurant in Bucharest, and fortunately he got fed up with sipping Perrier, doctor's orders, and fell off the wagon with a big thump. Thought he'd have a vodka and put a bottle away. We ended up living in a castle together. One thing I remember him saying was, "You're using ambiguity in the wrong way. You're using it as a smokescreen to hide behind because you don't know what you're saying. Ambiguity must be a scalpel". Such perception! I got a complete film course personally from Orson Welles'.

David Ambrose interviewed in The Florida Press News

If you liked "The Sixth Sense" and "Memento," there is a British author named David Ambrose, little known thus far on these shores, who should be at the top of the list on your next book run.

Ambrose's modus operandi is to rope you into a good page turning thriller and then play with your mind, much in the style of the late, great Philip K. Dick or the creepy early works of Ian McEwan.

There is a cinematic quality to Ambrose's storytelling that belies the heady intellectual themes of being and consciousness that ultimately send your mind spinning off the page and into the cosmos.

"I normally start a book from some sort of idea that fascinates me," he says by phone from his home in Provence, France. "I've written about consciousness ('The Man Who Turned Into Himself'), artificial intelligence ('Mother of God') and all the questions about what ghosts might be ('Superstition'). I'm fascinated by questions of consciousness and human identity."

In his fifth novel, "The Discrete Charm of Charlie Monk," Ambrose combines a tightly knit conspiracy thriller with a James Bond send up that manages to be, by turns, scary, funny, touching and profound often when you least expect it.

Charlie Monk is a secret agent par excellence with some curious blank spots in his childhood memories. Or is he a neurologically impaired patient who only dreams he is a secret agent? Or perhaps something altogether different, something not entirely human?

Only Dr. Susan Flemyng, a scientist who specializes in restoring, and sometimes creating, visual memory, holds the key to Monk's real identity.

If Alfred Hitchcock and Stephen Hawking had collaborated on a James Bond film directed by Luis Bunuel, the result would be "The Discrete Charm of Charlie Monk." It is all wickedly good fun.

The film world, it turns out, is where Ambrose learned how to capture and thrill.

At Oxford, he studied to be a trial lawyer, but his heart was in the theater, where he wrote and directed several plays. Upon graduation, he decided to take two years to pursue writing for film and TV.

He sold a couple of plays to British television before receiving a call in 1968 from his agent that would change his life: an American German production of "The Battle for Rome," shooting in Romania with Lawrence Harvey starring, needed a script doctor fast.

" There was a lot of competition because it was a nicely paid job, but in the end, for some obscure reason, they chose the very inexperienced writer me. I asked them later why and they said that all the writers they were talking to went boringly on at length about their philosophy of writing and what it meant and so forth 'I write rather after the fashion of Pinter' blah blah blah. And when they asked me how I wrote, I simply answered, 'As simply and clearly as possible.' And that did it."

Ambrose had been on set in Bucharest for a couple of weeks when Orson Welles joined the cast. The old master and the young apprentice got along swimmingly from their first marvelously drunken evening together.

"I couldn't believe he was so generous of his time talking to this kid, answering questions he must have answered a million times how had he thought of this on 'Citizen Kane' or that in 'The Magnificent Ambersons' and was it true he learned how to direct by watching 'Stagecoach' 37 times? He became a great mentor. It was like a private university from the greatest. I still use so much of what he taught me every day in any kind of writing."

Welles also did his best to brace his young charge for the bumps and bruises that Hollywood can dish out. "He told me one day, 'Everything you've ever heard about Hollywood is true even the lies," he recalls. Ambrose entitled his 1998 short story collection "Hollywood Lies" as a tribute to Welles.

Even as Ambrose thrived as a screenwriter on both sides of the Atlantic, his urge to write novels began to grow.

"I needed more independence and freedom, basically," he recalls. "When you are writing movies, you are in many ways little more than a glorified secretary really; you're the only person who is not actually allowed to have an opinion on the screenplay because you're the author of it. You just have to sit there and take notes and say, 'Hmm, that's a very good idea,' and before long you realize that your brain has atrophied."

When stateside job offers stopped suddenly during the Hollywood writers' strike, he worked on a two picture French production about the French Revolution that afforded him more autonomy than he'd ever known.

The total freedom of fiction writing seemed like the logical next step. "The Man Who Turned Into Himself," now a British cult classic, marked his 1993 debut.

Each of Ambrose's novels has been optioned for the screen; he's done screenplays for some of them, though doesn't insist on adapting his own work. If he had to cast his latest tale, he would pick Jude Law as the suave, lethal Charlie Monk and Julia Roberts as Dr. Flemyng.

Ambrose is cautiously optimistic that the popularity of "The Sixth Sense" and "Memento" may help his work find an American audience, whether on the page or the screen.

" I think they strengthen my case, certainly," he says. "Somebody once defined the typical Hollywood movie as any one of nine bankable stars outrunning a fireball. I think there is a thirst for things that stimulate the brain as well as flash amusingly past the eye. If you can entertain while provoking people into thinking about the broadest, deepest questions of being here, I think you're probably earning your ten bucks."

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