At 92Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center, The Paris Review has copresented an occasional series of live conversations with writers—many of which have formed the foundations of interviews in the quarterly. Recently, 92Y and The Paris Review have made recordings of these interviews available at 92Y’s Poetry Center Online and here at The Paris Review. Consider them deleted scenes from our Writers at Work interviews, or directors’ cuts, or surprisingly lifelike radio adaptations.
This week we’re debuting four new recordings from the series, and first up is John le Carré, who spoke to our founding editor George Plimpton back in October 1996—their conversation formed the basis of Le Carré’s Art of Fiction interview in the magazine the next year. Here, he touches on his discovery of his character George Smiley, his experience with intelligence services, and how he chose his inimitable pseudonym:
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.
A new biography of Le Carré appeared late last year.
If you’d like to listen to more of these collaborations, check out our previous installments: the Southerners (Gail Godwin, Reynolds Price, Tony Kushner, and Horton Foote) the poets (Maya Angelou, Denise Levertov, and Gary Snyder) and the travel writers (Paul Theroux, Jan Morris, and Peter Matthiessen).
We are able to share these recordings thanks to a generous gift in memory of Christopher Lightfoot Walker, longtime friend of the Poetry Center and The Paris Review.
Dan Piepenbring is the web editor of The Paris Review.