Interviews

John le Carré, The Art of Fiction No. 149

Interviewed by George Plimpton

John le Carré was born in Poole, England, on October 19, 1931. He had a gloomy childhood, thanks to the disruptive motions of his father, an erratic businessman who kept the family moving from place to place. After attending a series of private English schools, le Carré was called upon for national service and spent several years in Vienna with the Army Intelligence Corps. When the term expired, he returned to England and enrolled at Lincoln College, Oxford. Graduation was followed by a procession of odd jobs, including one year in which he taught at Eton.

In 1960, le Carré, whose real name is David John Moore Cornwell, resumed his intelligence career with the Foreign Service. During this time he began writing novels, the first entitled Call for the Dead. His second book, A Murder of Quality, appeared in 1962 while le Carré was stationed at the British Embassy in Bonn. Two years later he resigned from the Foreign Service to devote himself entirely to writing. He achieved international fame as the author of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. His later books include A Small Town in Germany, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Smiley’s People, The Little Drummer Girl, A Perfect Spy, The Russia House, and Our Game, almost all of which have been adapted for movies and television.

The interview took place in the auditorium of New York’s YMHA on a late autumn day in 1996. Le Carré had arrived from London earlier that day to promote the publication of his sixteenth novel, The Tailor of Panama. The auditorium was packed. After the interview he cheerfully submitted to questioning by the crowd, then moved to an adjoining space where autograph-seekers, some carrying more than a dozen books, had formed a long queue that curled around the room. Le Carré, who likes to turn in early, looked fatigued. He stayed on until almost midnight, ministering to each request in a broad, legible hand.

 

INTERVIEWER

Can you say something about your early reading?  

JOHN LE CARRÉ

I grew up in a completely bookless household. It was my father’s boast that he had never read a book from end to end. I don’t remember any of his ladies being bookish. So I was entirely dependent on my schoolteachers for my early reading with the exception of The Wind in the Willows, which a stepmother read to me when I was in hospital. My earliest reading included Maugham, the heroic English storytellers—Henty, Sapper, Peter Cheyney, and thank heaven, the great and wonderful Conan Doyle. I graduated joyously to Dickens and erratically to Bernard Shaw and Galsworthy. And cautiously to the heavy contemporaries—Koestler, Gide, and Camus. But the big explosion in my reading occurred in my late teens when I was seduced by the German muse. I devoured the whole of German literature alive, as it seems to me now. I have probably read more German literature than I have English. Today my pleasure is with nineteenth-century storytellers: Balzac, Dickens, and the rest.  

INTERVIEWER

And among contemporary writers?  

LE CARRÉ

Everything by Marquez, and sudden batches of new writers. Most recently, practically everything by Beryl Bainbridge, just for the pleasure of her ear. I read most between books, and very little fiction while I am writing.  

INTERVIEWER

You taught at Eton for a while. What did you teach, and was your stay there of any value to your writing?  

LE CARRÉ

I taught principally German language and literature at Eton. But any master with private pupils must be prepared to teach anything they ask for. That can be as diverse as the early paintings of Salvador Dalí or how bumblebees manage to fly. Eton is a place of extremes, and these were good for me as a writer. The English upper classes can be seen at their best and worst. The good pupils are often brilliant, and they keep you on your toes and take you to the limits of your knowledge. The worst pupils provide a unique insight into the criminal mind. On all these counts my time at Eton provided me with riches. I even set one early novel in a school that was quite like Eton—A Murder of Quality.  

INTERVIEWER

Why did you change your name?  

LE CARRÉ

When I began writing. I was what was politely called “a foreign servant.” I went to my employers and said that I’d written my first novel. They read it and said they had no objections, but even if it were about butterflies, they said, I would have to choose a pseudonym. So then I went to my publisher, Victor Gollancz, who was Polish by origin, and he said, My advice to you, old fellow, is choose a good Anglo-Saxon couple of syllables. Monosyllables. He suggested something like Chunk-Smith. So as is my courteous way, I promised to be Chunk-Smith. After that, memory eludes me and the lie takes over. I was asked so many times why I chose this ridiculous name, then the writer’s imagination came to my help. I saw myself riding over Battersea Bridge, on top of a bus, looking down at a tailor’s shop. Funnily enough, it was a tailor’s shop, because I had a terrible obsession about buying clothes in order to become a diplomat in Bonn. And it was called something of this sort—le Carré. That satisfied everybody for years. But lies don’t last with age. I find a frightful compulsion towards truth these days. And the truth is, I don’t know.  

INTERVIEWER

Which intelligence service were you in?  

LE CARRÉ

Even now, some residual sense of loyalty prevents me from talking much about it. I entered the secret world when I was young. I kind of lurched into it. There never seemed an alternative. I was first picked up when I was a young student in Bern, having run away from my first school. I retained what is politely called “a reporting responsibility.” Then, for my military service, I went to Austria. That was a very formative time, because one of my jobs was trolling through the displaced-persons camps, looking for people who were fake refugees, or for people whose circumstances were so attractive to us from an intelligence point of view that we might consider returning them, with their consent, to the countries they came from. For a person of, as I was then, barely twenty-one, it was an immense responsibility at an extraordinary moment in history, which, horrible as it was, I was very pleased to have shared. Afterwards, after teaching at Eton, I went into the cold-war setup properly. In all I don’t suppose that I spooked around for more than seven or eight years, and that’s forty years ago, but that was my little university for the purposes that I needed later to write. I think that if I’d gone to sea at that time I would have written about the sea. If I’d gone into advertising or stockbroking, that would have been my stuff. It was from there that I began abstracting and peopling my other world, my alternative, private world, which became my patch, and it became a Tolkien-like operation, except that none of my characters have hair between their toes.  

INTERVIEWER

Was there a moment during all of this when you really felt that you were going to write about it?  

LE CARRÉ

There was. I had the curious and very rewarding example when I was in the first of the two services that I joined of working with a man called John Bingham, whose real name was Lord Clanmorris. He was a thriller writer, and also an extremely good intelligence officer, a moleish, tubby fellow. He gave me not only the urge to write, but also a kind of outline of George Smiley, which I later filled in from other sources, notably my own. He and a don at Oxford who I knew very well became parts of this composite character called Smiley.  

INTERVIEWER

Did you find it easy? Did you have great confidence in yourself as a writer?  

LE CARRÉ

I have a great debt of gratitude to the press for this. In those days English newspapers were much too big to read on the train, so instead of fighting with my colleagues for the Times, I would write in little notebooks. I lived a long way out of London. The line has since been electrified, which is a great loss to literature. In those days it was an hour and a half each way. To give the best of the day to your work is most important. So if I could write for an hour and a half on the train, I was already completely jaded by the time I got to the office to start work. And then there was a resurgence of talent during the lunch hour. In the evening something again came back to me. I was always very careful to give my country second-best.  

INTERVIEWER

What sorts of things were you writing in these little notebooks?  

LE CARRÉ

I was writing the very first book, without any kind of skeleton, without any conscious model, but with this odd character, George Smiley, to go along with me. I’ve never been able to write a book without one very strong character in my rucksack. The moment I had Smiley as a figure, with that past, that memory, that uncomfortable private life and that excellence in his profession, I knew I had something I could live with and work with.  

INTERVIEWER

Do you always start with this image of character, rather than, say, plot?  

LE CARRÉ

Yes, usually somebody. In fact, I can’t remember setting off on my travels without some picture of a character to take with me. It really is a companion. I was traveling once in northeast Laos to write a book called The Honourable Schoolboy, and I got stuck up with the journalist David Greenway. We had to make a frightful journey to somewhere, and he turned to me and said, Which class would Smiley travel? So I said he would definitely be in that one with the wonderful washing urns and all of that—he’d mix with the natives. Greenway said, I’ll tell you what we’ll do: we’ll put Smiley in there and we’ll travel first-class.  

INTERVIEWER

You have a wonderful story about the germination of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.  

LE CARRÉ

That’s right. At that time I was very caught up in the cold war in Germany. I was stationed in Bonn, going to Berlin a lot, and that was the crucible of all that spy commerce in those days. One of my jobs at the embassy, one of my day jobs, you might say, was bringing over German dignitaries, introducing them to British politicians, and functioning as interpreter. I was sitting alone in London Airport, minding my own business, when a very rough-edged, kind of Trevor Howard figure, walked in and sat himself at the bar beside me. He fished in his pocket, put down a great handful of change in heaven-knows-which currencies and denominations, and then said, A large scotch. Between him and the barman, they just sorted out the money. He drank the scotch and left. I thought I picked up a very slight Irish accent. And that was really all, but there was a deadness in the face, and he looked, as we would have said in the spy world in those days, as if he’d had the hell posted out of him. It was the embodiment, suddenly, of somebody that I’d been looking for. It was he, and I never spoke to him, but he was my guy, Alec Leamas, and I knew he was going to die at the Berlin Wall.  

INTERVIEWER

What happens then? You have your character; what process follows?  

LE CARRÉ

The process is empathy, fear and dramatization. I have to put him into conflict with something, and that conflict usually comes from within. They’re usually people who are torn in some way between personal and institutional loyalty. Then there’s external conflict. “The cat sat on the mat” is not the beginning of a story, but “the cat sat on the dog’s mat” is. I take him with me, and I know his habits and manners. I take my tailor to Panama, not knowing anything about the place, and immediately plunge myself into the rag trade, the clothing business. Speaking for my man, Harry Pendel, I inquire all over the place. What would be the chances of setting up a bespoke tailoring business to make really smart suits? I went so far as to visit estate agents and look at potential shops. I talked to the big wholesalers, who said, Yes, possibly, for bespoke tailoring, if you could invent the taste in Panama, and you could really win people away from buying Armani suits, then it would work. If it became the fashion, if it became the rage, if suddenly in the Union Club in Panama it was impossible to be seen without a Pendel & Braithwaite suit, it would work. So without actually buying the place and buying the stock, I get as realistic an appraisal of the possibilities of his life as I can. I go and find a house for him. I decided to marry him to a Zonian, who’s a kind of hybrid of American and Panamanian, a woman who’d been brought up in the Canal Zone, but who was American by sentiment and culture and birth. I took the trouble to mix with people with that kind of background. But I was very much doing Harry’s job for him, and I don’t think that writers have much center, really. I feel much more like an actor looking for a part. I put on Pendel’s clothes in my own mind. Similarly, if I’m some other character, if I’m in the previous book, which was also partly set in Panama, if I’m an old Brit spy waiting for his joe, his agent, to turn up at the Continental Hotel in Panama, then I’ll spend a few hours doing his job, watching the people go by, trying internally to evoke the tension of that moment. Is it he, is it he? Who is it? Can’t see . . . And so on.  

INTERVIEWER

Does your wife worry about these communion-like experiences?  

LE CARRÉ

She’s pretty used to it. It’s better than being married to one person.  

INTERVIEWER

Does anybody help you with the research? Do you have an assistant?  

LE CARRÉ

I try, as in the spy trade, to find a really good local contact. Sometimes it’s a journalist; in this case, it was an American novelist of distinction called Richard Koster, who lives in Panama. Dick and I became buddies. He marked my card a good deal, said, These are the people to talk to. And then after that you start leapfrogging. I meet you through Dick, and you say, Well, the chap you should really talk to is so-and-so. Six people down the line you find yourself sitting with an arms dealer in a nightclub, and somebody’s really talking about himself. The thing is, if you are a good listener and not adversarial, people love to talk about themselves.  

INTERVIEWER

Do you make tape recordings?  

LE CARRÉ

No, I have a notebook, but all the notes I take are subjective, so that even the notes will be about the characters. Good lines will be given to the characters; they don’t just exist as plain lines. So there’s some kind of constant interaction between the fantasy that I brought with me to the location—the place as character—and what happens to me after that, the way the fantasy takes on some semblance of truth. What we want is not authenticity; it is credibility. In order to be credible, you have to dress the thing in clothes of authenticity.  

INTERVIEWER

How much control do you have over the characters? Does the book ever take completely unexpected turns?  

LE CARRÉ

All the turns are unexpected because I never impose much on the plot. Once I had Pendel and his Zonian wife and the baddie coming into the shop, I was as nervous and excited about what would happen as I hope the reader is. I don’t have charts and so forth. Like a moviemaker, I have a vision of what the audience will see as they leave the theater, what will be the last image in their heads. In this case, it’s the conflagration of Panama. I knew when I started playing with the satire of Panama and that wayward, extraordinary war that the United States fought there—ultimately for good reasons, but initially for very bad ones—that I wanted that to be repeated. I wanted a cycle of history to occur. When you’re my age, you have the feeling sometimes that you’re seeing the show come round again. For all the flailing and huffing and puffing, there is a kind of fatality about the process of war-making and the excuses we find for it, the consolation of belligerence in politics.  

INTERVIEWER

There’s a very different tone in The Tailor of Panama, isn’t there?  

LE CARRÉ

It’s much bouncier. I’ve got more than one string to my bow, and I thought I’d give this one a twang. If you see the world as gloomily as I see it, the only thing to do is laugh or shoot yourself. My guy does both.  

INTERVIEWER

It has been said the book mirrors what you feel about England at the moment.  

LE CARRÉ

While abroad, I don’t want to talk gloomily about my country. I’ve become interested recently not in the macro-interpretation of my country, but the micro-interpretation. I live in a tiny, desolate part of England, where the real effects of what I see as terrible misgovernment—central misgovernment—can be felt in detail upon agriculture, fishing, communication, and transport, all of those things. My definition of a decent society is one that first of all takes care of its losers, and protects its weak. What I see in my country, progressively over these years, is that the rich have got richer, the poor have got poorer. The rich have become indifferent through a philosophy of greed, and the poorer have become hopeless because they’re not properly cared for. That’s actually something that is happening in many Western societies. Your own, I am told, is not free from it. It’s certainly something one could see in process in the microcosm of Panama. There are vastly rich people there. Insiders will tell you that the country is still run by about thirty people, people who generate huge wealth and carve the thing up between themselves. Yet it’s a brand-new country from lunchtime on the thirty-first of December 1999. It will have total independence, having been a colony under the Colombians, the French, and the Americans. The canal will revert to their own possession. And we have the fascinating sight of a small country identifying itself, finding out who it will be. All sorts of people are waiting for a slice of the cake. Despite appalling unemployment and an appalling poverty record, they have it within their grasp to even out their society. But by what method is anyone’s guess. I tried to play one perception of the country against my own domestic concerns.  

INTERVIEWER

Did you have this attitude before you began your research in Panama?  

LE CARRÉ

It was something that dawned on me years earlier, actually. I went to Panama seven or eight years ago just to write one passage for The Night Manager. There was a drug dealer in that book who was buying arms, and there was a British arms dealer who was selling him the arms. When I was in Miami I asked the drug-enforcement people and the arms-control people where one would go to negotiate these transactions, and they said with one voice, Panama. Go to the Free Zone of Colon. You can buy and sell anything you want. I said, What about a firepower demonstration? and they said, That’s fine, just go up to the Costa Rican border. Everybody does it there.  

INTERVIEWER

What does that mean—tanks and F-16s?  

LE CARRÉ

Whatever you wanted. You can buy a little quiet, everyone will be cleared out of the area, and then you can do what you want. After meeting a number of arms dealers and people like that, I had a sense of the very venal nature of Panama. I think they’re trying to work on it, to get their act together for independence. What I saw was a Casablanca without heroes, and I thought I had to come back. But then I experienced the delight of recognizing that it—the country, I mean—was writing its own ticket for the year 2000. And the whole farce of the last American colony being handed over—we colonial Brits know what that means. The comedy built into that is irresistible.  

INTERVIEWER

So you did not have trouble finding adversarial situations for your heroes after the cold war.  

LE CARRÉ

No, I really loved it. I’m not saying that I made the transition easily. I think I stumbled a couple of times. All sorts of things that I’d got too used to were taken away. But I never wanted to write about Smiley again. I felt it was done, and I don’t like writing through an old man’s eyes. You know, the older you get, the younger you want to be. Also, I didn’t want to go back to that morbid face-off—I mean my stories were getting frozen into the ice. All of a sudden everything was up for grabs. It was extremely comic that the uninformed were saying that spying is over, hence le Carré is over. The one thing you can bet is that spying is never over. Spying is like the wiring in this building—it’s just a question of who takes it over and switches on the lights. It will go on and on and on.  

INTERVIEWER

But is espionage not different since the end of the cold war? Do you still keep in touch with spies?  

LE CARRÉ

I have a few people, Americans mainly, some Israelis. The Brits don’t talk to me. It’s necessary to understand what real intelligence work is. It will never cease. It’s absolutely essential that we have it. At its best, it is simply the left arm of healthy governmental curiosity. It brings to a strong government what it needs to know. It’s the collection of information, a journalistic job, if you will, but done in secret. All the rest of it—intervention, destabilization, assassination, all that junk—is in my view not only anticonstitutional but unproductive and silly. You can never foresee the consequences. But it’s a good job as long as intelligence services collect sensible information and report it to their governments, and as long as that intelligence is properly used, thought about and evaluated. Then you come to the question of targets of intelligence: what are the proper targets of the CIA? That’s a policy problem. For me, they are much more widespread than you would suppose. I think they should be extended to the ecology, to the pollution of rivers and those things. There is, for example, one plant in northern Russia that disseminates more pollution than the whole of Scandinavia. One plant alone. I think things of that sort are so life-threatening that they should be included in the CIA’s brief. And counterterrorism: you cannot make a case for not spying on terrorist organizations. You’ve got to spy the hell out of them. But countersubversion—that’s a really murky target. That is when a government defines what political thoughts are poisonous to the nation, and I find that a terribly dangerous area. And then of course the maverick weapons—they’ve been left all over the place, partly by us. I mean, where are the Stingers we gave to the Afghans? Also, if you meddle in people’s affairs, you then have to live with the consequences. Look at Afghanistan. We recruited the Muslim extremist movement to assist us in the fight against Russia, and we let loose a demon. Intervention is a very dangerous game, and it always has consequences, and they are almost always embarrassing.  

INTERVIEWER

Which is the best of the secret services?  

LE CARRÉ

You know, it’s a bit like schoolmastering: you can never quite tell how good the next chap is. You never see your colleagues at work. If you get one good source—while the CIA and the British had Penkovsky, for example, they had acres of absolutely wonderful material, and they were putting it out under different source-names, for reasons of security—then you look absolutely great to your paymasters. But when Penkovsky ended, suddenly they were all dressed up and had nowhere to go. They looked awful. I am sure that the best intelligence services must still be Israel’s. They’ve made awful mistakes, as intelligence services will, but that’s because Mossad and Shin Bet are splendidly motivated. If Israel loses a battle, it loses the war; if it loses the war, it loses its country. Everybody in Israel knows what security means, and everybody pulls together. There is no political division between the parties on the subject of security, not until you get to the anguished problems of settlements and so forth. So they are not only the best, and have a very long tradition of being so, but they’re the best motivated. It’s much harder now to evaluate the Brits or the Americans or anyone else. As I say, I know next to nothing about the Brits, but what I do hear is that they’re far better than they used to be.  

INTERVIEWER

Did you know Philby?  

LE CARRÉ

No, I didn’t. Philby was my secret sharer who I never met. By the time I went into the secret world, as I now know, Philby had passed my name to his Russian controllers. It’s a very curious feeling to know that every halfway-perilous thing one did was already known to the Russians miles ahead. I mean I know that good men are scarce. I did not do anything very dangerous or brave. The older you get, the braver you get. I wasn’t very brave. And no, I didn’t know Philby. When I went to Moscow for the first time, in 1987, I met a man called Gendrik Borovik who said, There’s a very good friend of mine, excellent patriot from your country who would like to meet with you. His name is Kim Philby. I said, Gendrik, you can’t possibly do that to me. I’m going to the ambassador’s for dinner tomorrow night. I can’t be the guest of the queen’s ambassador one night, and the queen’s biggest traitor the next. It won’t do.  

INTERVIEWER

I’m surprised you could resist it.  

LE CARRÉ

I know, it was tough to resist, but I did. The invitation was renewed and I still wouldn’t go. Then a British journalist, Phil Knightly, went and saw Philby right at the end of his life. Philby knew he was dying. Knightly said, What do you think of le Carré? Philby replied, I don’t know. I quite like the books, but the fellow doesn’t care for me. He must know something about me. So I puzzled about that. And I think in fact I did know something about him. Kim Philby had a monstrous father, St. John Philby, who ended up selling Rolls-Royces to King Fahd in Saudi Arabia and acting as his advisor. He became a Muslim convert and had a couple of wives—two or three. In fact, I think Fahd gave him a wife. He became a very powerful, unpleasant, and anti-British figure in our peculiar empire. Kim grew up under this tyrannous old monster, and when Kim was twelve or thirteen, his father gave him to the Bedouin to be turned into a man. Kim went off into the desert. This was a boy who then went to English public school. I think that the cumulative effect of having such a ferocious father, and a mother he barely knew, produced in him some kind of natural dissenting nature. Indeed he became a subvert. I think he really carried, metaphorically, a pistol in his pocket for the whole of society. If anything embraced him, he wanted to kill it.

I went through a comparable, though perhaps less vicious version of that with my own peculiar papa, who was in and out of prison. He was tremendously dominating. I too had no mother through those years. I felt, thinking about Philby and his father, and myself and my father, that there could have been a time when I, if properly spoken to by the right wise man or woman, could have been seduced into some kind of underground act of revenge against society.  

INTERVIEWER

Now that you no longer write on the train to London, what is your working day like?  

LE CARRÉ

Well, I still don’t type. I write by hand, and my wife types everything up, endlessly, repeatedly. I correct by hand too. I am an absolute monk about my work. It’s like being an athlete: you have to find out which are the best hours of the day. I’m a morning person. I like to drink in the evening, go to sleep on a good idea and wake up with the idea solved or advanced. I believe in sleep. And I go straight to work, often very early. If a book’s getting to the end of its run, I’ll start at four-thirty or five o’clock in the morning and go through to lunchtime. In the afternoon I’ll take a walk, and then, over a scotch, take a look at what Jane’s typed out, and fiddle with it a bit more. But I always try to go to sleep before I finish working, just a little bit before. Then I know where I’ll go the next morning, but I won’t quite know what I am going to do when I go. And then in the morning it seems to deliver the answer.

For the last few years I have lived only in the deep country. I’ve always kept away from writers and the literary set. I’d much rather talk to the woodcutter than a fellow writer. I like the primary material. I don’t like exchanging ideas much. I don’t like talking about my work, believe it or not. I’m a total bore, actually.  

INTERVIEWER

With this monkish routine, how many words do you produce each day?  

LE CARRÉ

I don’t know. When it’s going well it goes terribly fast. It isn’t at all surprising to write a chapter in a day, which for me is about twenty-two pages. When it’s going badly, it isn’t really going badly; it’s just the beginning. The first page and the first chapter are a matter of endless fiddling, cutting out all the good bits, putting in a whole lot of verbiage. Actually, it’s my only way of thinking. Without a pen in my hand I can’t think. And by the way, not every aspect of the monk is observed.  

INTERVIEWER

What are the “good” parts you cut out? Do you keep them for further use?  

LE CARRÉ

The good parts are usually the bits of gorgeous prose that stick out like sore thumbs. No, I have never made use of them later. If I fish them out of a drawer, they usually embarrass me and I chuck them away.  

INTERVIEWER

Do you go from A to Z or do you bounce all over the place?  

LE CARRÉ

I go from A to Z, but via a whole lot of hieroglyphics we’ve never met.  

INTERVIEWER

What do you say to Norman Rush, who charged you with anti-Semitism in his review of The Tailor of Panama?  

LE CARRÉ

I tell you, I have had some pretty big tomatoes thrown at me in my time, but this one missed. This one is completely nutty. For those of you who don’t know—and I imagine the whole of New York knows—I am a red-toothed anti-Semite. And the reason for this, according to today’s Times, is that my beloved Harry Pendel, who is the very heart of the story, is described by the writer of this piece as a Jew. Now, you and I know perfectly well that in Jewish law a Jew has to have a Jewish mum. Harry Pendel’s mum was an Irish Catholic. That’s our first problem. However, I made Harry Pendel a mixture of different traditions, as I myself am a mixture of different traditions—son of a criminal, working-class kid, sent to a smart school, learned to speak proper. He was my cocktail. He was the equivalent of me in literary terms. I am told by today’s Sunday Times that he is a Judas Iscariot avatar. Now Hindus in the audience may be distressed by this misuse of avatar, and I hope that political correctness will assert itself, and that the gentleman will apologize to Hindus for misusing these religious symbols. I can only say that it simply isn’t me; he’s writing about a mirage, he’s writing about something in his own head. All my life, ever since I started writing, because of the extraordinary childhood I had—the early introduction to the refugee problem in central Europe and what not—I have been fascinated, enchanted, drawn to and horrified by the plight of middle European Jews. It has infected my writing—book number one, book number three, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, I could go on. It is the one issue in my own life on which I may say I have a clean record. I just want to say that. And if I blame anyone, it is only The New York Times. All writers write dotty stuff; I do the same. The editor should have said, This guy’s gone off the reservation. If there’s anybody here connected with that paper, I hope they’ll go back and, I don’t know, light a fire or something.  

INTERVIEWER

In every book of yours there seems to be a division between the first hundred pages and the rest of the story, which tends to be much clearer than the initial section. Why is that?  

LE CARRÉ

I have bad habits, like we all do, and one of them is to spend much too much time on the first hundred pages of a book. I always think that if I had another life, I would write the first hundred pages and then start again. It’s a principle of mine to come into the story as late as possible, and to tell it as fast as you can. The later you join the story, the more quickly you draw the audience into the middle. But beginning late requires a lot of retrospective stuff, and that’s a problem I think I will always be dealing with.  

INTERVIEWER

Your characters always seem to be searching for their own identities.  

LE CARRÉ

Yes, that’s true, but it’s part of the golden center that one can never touch. I’m looking for mine, they’re looking for theirs.  

INTERVIEWER

Do you set out intending to say something about morality?  

LE CARRÉ

No, it isn’t as altruistic as that. I think it’s the unconscious, irreconcilable fact inside one’s own self, feeling a very flawed person and really making a search through the possibilities of one’s own character. I think that most of my books are part of some process of self-education, often about the places I go to. Most of all, they are about the peculiar tension between institutional loyalty and loyalty to oneself; the mystery of patriotism, for a Brit of my age and generation, where it runs, how it should be defined, what it’s worth and what a corrupting force it can be when misapplied. All that stuff is just in me and it comes out in the characters. I don’t mean to preach, but I know I do, and I’m a very flawed person. It’s quite ridiculous.  

INTERVIEWER

A number of books purporting to be guides to your work have been published. What do you think of these and do you cooperate with the authors?  

LE CARRÉ

I haven’t read any of them. I became very embarrassed by that stuff. But of course I was very proud, as anybody would be, of creating a private world out of the real one, and of making it work in literary terms. After three BBC television series of my stuff, I began to get withdrawal symptoms about the Smiley cult and the le Carré cult. I didn’t want to be that person. One way of dealing with that was simply to refuse to read the critical spin-off, and refuse to take notice of it. The Tailor of Panama is the first book in a long time on which I have read reviews. Usually Jane reads them. I always argue that you should not accept the value of good reviews, because if you do you have to accept the bad ones.  

INTERVIEWER

What is it like to talk to an arms dealer?  

LE CARRÉ

I just do my absolute best to be a fly on the wall. The most acute moment of this sort was when I went to Moscow to explore for Our Game. I went with the Chechen and the Ingush groups that were hanging around in Moscow. All I wanted to do, exactly as when I was with the Palestinians in south Lebanon, was listen, find out what made them tick, just listen. But I also wanted to meet a Russian mafia boss, and through a variety of contacts, mainly ex-KGB people, it was finally made possible for me at two or three in the morning to meet Dima. Dima came into the nightclub, which he owned and which was guarded by young men with Kalashnikovs and grenades strapped to their belts. He came in wearing Ray-Bans with his hookers and his men and his people. He looked like the Michelin Man, he was so blown up with steroids. The music was so loud I had to kneel down to get close enough to his ear to talk to him, so I seemed to be actually kneeling in his presence. My interpreter was kneeling beside me. Dima gave me the whole spiel about how Russia is anarchic . . . yes, I’ve killed people; yes, I’ve done this and that . . . but actually I’ve done nothing against the law; it was all self-defense. Anyway, the law doesn’t work for post-Communist Russia. And I said, Dima, let me ask you a question. In the United States, great crooks have with time become serious members of society. They’ve built museums and hospitals and stadiums. When, Dima, do you think that you might feel it was necessary to take on your responsibility for your grandchildren, your great-grandchildren? Dima started talking and my interpreter all of a sudden fell into a dark silence. I said, What is it, Vladimir? What’s he saying? He said, Mr. David, I am very sorry, but he says fuck off.  

INTERVIEWER

Have you ever considered writing more nonfiction, to add to the scattering of articles you have already written?  

LE CARRÉ

I think that for as long as I can do the novel, and I really feel the buzz, that’s what I should do. Also, the professional deformation of persistent fiction writing makes it very hard to stick to the truth. It’s an awful thing to say, but I’ve almost ceased to be an accurate reporter, because the systems and the cogs won’t stop turning. I have to get it down very quickly and stick to it, or I start embroidering in no time.  

INTERVIEWER

How do you settle on an ending?  

LE CARRÉ

Most of the endings are apocalyptic. I don’t believe I’ve ever doubted endings. I play around endlessly with the beginning and the middle, but the end is always a goal. Certainly, when I saw the Berlin Wall going up—I was there to flesh out our station in Berlin—when I conceived that story, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, which I wrote in five weeks, I was determined that he would be killed at the wall. They both would. A Perfect Spy and The Tailor of Panama had to be ended with a forfeit. It’s the Gothic gloom that takes over in me at some point.  

INTERVIEWER

Did you ever want to be an actor or write for the stage?  

LE CARRÉ

I’ve often thought of writing for the stage. Other people always think that I should be an actor, and once, catastrophically, I appeared in one of my own films. I had about eight words to say, and we did sixteen takes. George Roy Hill kept looking at me and saying, David, that’s too broad. David, that’s dull. Do it again. Either he was just torturing me or I was as bad as I think I was.

Novel writing spoils you, that’s the problem. In novel writing you dress the stage, you dress your characters, you know exactly how they speak, you know in your own imagination exactly how they look. You want everybody to have a different perception of them. I think I’m forfeit for the stage, as I am for screenwriting. I simply cannot entrust the other jobs to other people. It’s a strange thing, but it’s so.  

INTERVIEWER

How did you develop the character of Jim Prideaux in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy?  

LE CARRÉ

Jim Prideaux was a schoolmaster who had been terribly betrayed by a man he greatly loved in the British secret services. I taught quite a lot when I was young. Before I taught at Eton I taught at a school for disadvantaged kids. During that time I met a lot of the strange underlife of Brits who go into private-school teaching. There was a very good schoolmaster at one of the schools where I taught—a big, rugged fellow with a limp. I used to think that that was the outer shell for Jim. And in that story Jim was set against a little boy who was a watcher, a little spy fellow. In fact, that child was written into my life because I was a duty master one night at this school for disadvantaged kids, and somebody came to me and said, Please, Jameson is trying to kill himself. They took me to this stairwell in a big Victorian house, and there was a little kid standing on the banister at the top, with a marble floor forty feet below. Everyone was petrified. And I just went and scooped him up. He didn’t jump. And when we were alone I said, Why did you do that? He said, I just can’t do the routine. I can’t make my bed. I can never make it to class promptly. Everybody teases me. It was that little child in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy whom Jim Prideaux espoused; they make a common bond. I love people who can spot a victim, and Jim could because he was one himself.  

INTERVIEWER

What is your opinion of ex-Stasi chief Markus Wolf? Did he help inspire you to create Karla?  

LE CARRÉ

Markus Wolf was the head boy of East German intelligence, the branch that was charged with spying on West Germany. He was imprisoned briefly after the wall came down and Germany was unified. He was brought before a constitutional court in Karlsruhe, I think—they tried to put him inside for all the bad stuff he’d done. And one of the things that was said about Markus Wolf was that he had been the model for my character Fiedler in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Now, that is, in a word, sheer nonsense. I knew nothing of Markus Wolf when I wrote The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. If you want my personal opinion, it’s a brand of postwar euphoria that I absolutely loathe. Actually, your Spitfires were nearly as good as our Messerschmitts. In my view, Markus Wolf knowingly served a completely corrupt and disgusting regime, and there was no justification whatever for the methods he used. I think that Markus Wolf is the modern equivalent of Albert Speer. I think that sooner or later, instead of being a good German, he will be revealed for the nasty little twerp he was.  

INTERVIEWER

Our last question. If you could construct a composite writer, what attributes would be conferred?  

LE CARRÉ

I would give to a composite writer all the virtues I have not got, but the trouble is, I am not sure he would be able to write. I would give him clarity of vision, independence of public acclaim, the early experience of happy heterosexual love between two good parents, and a voracious appetite for other people’s writing. Then I would fall asleep.