The Secret World of John le Carré: An Interview


John le Carre

John le Carré

Why do you write?
Writing is a restless obsession that is never appeased. It is a compulsion to persuade and project oneself. Writers don’t have a life; they write. The need to write comes from an urge to communicate. Creating order from chaos is the innermost room of a writer’s desire.

Why do you write about politics?

Politics raises many interesting questions. Why are we doing this to one another? Do we psychologically need an adversary? Do we dignify ourselves by building up our enemies? Are we unable to survive without tension?

Why do you use a pen name?
Pen names are a chance to escape, to watch the world without being watched.

What is writing about for you?

Writing is an ectoplasm around reality, where possibilities can be explored. Fiction is about making a secret world, taking off from reality and exploring the possibilities of your own character. Any characters are yourself set in different circumstances. Fiction aims to put the bomb under the bed (Hitchcock). In other words, ‘the cat sat on the mat’ is not a story; but ‘the cat sat on the dog’s mat’ is the beginning of a story.

Writing is about storytelling, not preaching. The story has to do the work. Storytelling is about what a character goes through – no direct moral sentiment is expressed, it comes across as part of the story. A narrator says: ‘I am God. Put your hand in mine; I know everything’.

The writer has to ask several questions, including: what voice do I use? Who’s listening to me? How can I engage that person? Everything has a perspective; the writer sees it through someone else’s eyes, functioning as a medium. Writing is about exploring concepts.

How much does drawing on the past help?

The credit balance of a writer is his childhood’ (Graham Greene). ‘However, an unhappy childhood is not a necessity; happy/humourous books are also needed. Experience life: work for someone impossible. Learn about other forms of writing: report writing teaches you about consolidating, and having to watch the language. You become attuned to the exact meaning of words.

Does writing get any easier?

Writing doesn’t get easier with time; every novel is a first novel. There is no such thing as a secure writer: every novel is an impossible mountain. The more you write, the more you demand from yourself. When you are young, you do it, you just put words down on paper; when you’re older you are more circumspect. Every book may be the last book; you write to stay alive.

How do you start a new project?
The first page is the hardest, and can take months, and even then you are constantly coming back to put things in and take things out. What’s the final frame? How will the reader feel as they close the book?

How do you research a novel?
Talk to people who know. Go to your location and wander around. Pick up the phone.

Do you plot in advance?
Plotting may raise expectations that can’t be fulfilled. Flow charts, with a plan for next few chapters, can be helpful. But it’s there to be strayed from. The characters are more important, it is vital to have a main character with a CV and a full background. Characters must have a past. The plot needs to be flexible; it is possible to know vaguely where it’s going to end without needing a rigid structure.

Do you have a routine?

Mornings are for new work, afternoons for updating, revising, editing. Some days work – others don’t. Some days you’ll write 10 pages, others only 10 words.

How do you know that you’ve finished?

Writing is about endless drafts, taking out the adverbs and replacing them with better verbs. Nobody is ever 100% happy; someone has to snatch the brush from your hand in order to get it published. You are always looking for the narrative thrust, asking the question: ‘must I turn the pages of this book?

Do you write novels with a film version in mind?

Writers dream of film versions because of the temptation to reach a mass audience who will probably never read the book. You are trying to fit an average of 20 hours reading time into 100 minutes, and this makes adaptations an unenviable task. It is about compression, trying to fit a cow into an OXO cube. Minimalist books are easier to turn into movies; they show rather than tell and leave room for the directors. When writing an adaptation, it is a matter of identifying the scenes and drawing on the big moment, maintaining the rhythm of storytelling. Casting also plays a big part, i.e. twinning characters/actors. The writer always needs to ask: when should I get off the bus?

Do you have any general tips for writers?

Always carry a notebook, you can then exploit things visually and imaginatively. Life is the writer’s paintbox: make notes on the train instead of reading the newspaper. Ask questions: what will the scene achieve? Having a mirror in your writing room allows you to observe body language, and obtain a sense of theatre. Be aware of the time of day, season and smell. Writing needs to satisfy the reader’s senses. And remember: the cock-up element is the one that counts.


From Wikipedia:

David John Moore Cornwell (born 19 October 1931), pen name John le Carré (pron.: /lə ˈkɑrˌeɪ/), is a British author of espionage novels. During the 1950s and the 1960s, Cornwell worked for the British intelligence services MI5 and MI6, when he began writing novels under a pen name. His third novel The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (1963) became an international best-seller, and remains one of his best-known works. Following the novel’s success, he left MI6 to become a full-time author.

Le Carré has since established himself as an important writer of espionage fiction. In 1990, he received the Helmerich Award which is presented annually by the Tulsa Library Trust. In 2008, The Times ranked Le Carré 22nd on its list of “The 50 greatest British writers since 1945”. In 2011, he won the Goethe Medal, a yearly prize given by the Goethe Institute.

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