Monday, 24 June 2013

Thirty Minutes with John Le Carre

This post was originally published over at the wonderful Author Allsorts blog, and is reproduced word-for-word here...

I’m attempting to transform myself into a proper novelist one podcast at a time.
The particular downloads I’m talking about here are episodes of Radio 4’s Book Club which has free archives readily available. It’s basically James Naughtie and guest scribbler exploring the writing process, characterisation, themes, influences and inspirations for the chosen novel, followed by some reader observations and questions. It’s always a great listen particularly, for some reason, when the guest in question is a crime or espionage thriller writer. PD James was wise and insightful, Ruth Rendell was fascinating, Elmore Leonard was frank and funny.

Then I listened to John Le Carre discussing his famous Smiley trilogy. Before I go on, I’ll level with you here, folks – I’ve never read of word of Le Carre. Radio adaptations and movies, yes – prose; not a damn syllable. Castigate me now, I fully deserve your scorn, etcetera.

The man was brilliant. Perhaps it was partly because his audience were drawn from students from the Falmouth School of Creative Writing as well as fans and regular readers, but Le Carre was in calm, clear and quietly inspirational advice-giving form, and as he talked I realised he was demonstrating without any fuss or fanfare the qualities that make great writers. Here, in distilled form, was what struck me:

“Those first three books” says le Carre breezily, “were written while still in harness.” Aside from being a lovely phrase, this was arresting for other reasons. Three novels planned and written whilst holding down a hugely stressful job as a member of the secret service? Wow. That dwarfs my struggles just a tad – yours too, I’ll bet. Guess I need to man up a bit.

Describing the trilogy Le Carre says, “It grew out of a great sense of failure I had. After writing a book which was widely regarded as awful, called ‘The Na├»ve and Sentimental Lover’, I lost a lot of confidence and felt very hurt.” Then here’s the killer line. The Le Carre response to setback: “I threw my lance into the middle of the enemy and thought I would fight it out. I’d plan a trilogy.” Superb, eh? I hope I have half his courage when Poison Boy bombs.

“I flailed around writing material for a full year,” Le Carre admits of one novel. “Then one day I took it up to The Beacon and set fire to the whole damn lot.” The crowd laugh appreciatively as he says this. But under that admission sits a strength of character that’s pretty awesome. Duly noted.

When asked how he plans books, Le Carre speaks with the kind of clarity of purpose only an expert can. “It’s childhood images to begin with,” he starts. “Then I want one character who can take the reader by the hand – one the reader can trust. Then I want terrain. Locations become characters. Then I want conflict. What do they want of this man? What demands are going to be made of him? These things are important for setting up a story.”

It was a masterclass of calm and good-humoured understatement, and it’s just sitting there waiting to be downloaded for free. That’s the thing with this great technological renaissance we’re living through: at its best, it’s about the democratisation of education – about universities in the UK and the states putting their lectures online for free; about John Le Carre and hundreds of others sharing the secrets of their creative processes for nothing but the cost of an internet connection.

So thanks, John.

All I need now is a copy of ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’ to add to my teetering TBR pile, and sufficient grit and gumption to be more like the man himself. The bar’s been set pretty high, I think you’ll agree…

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Selling my Guitar

I was talking to a group of kids, parents and teachers recently (and lovely it was too) promoting The Poison Boy.  Their questions were at once engaging, unexpected (“What kind of car do you drive?”) and direct. On the spot like that, there’s no time to think – I just answered. Here’s a sample exchange which surprised me; not the question so much as my response. One lad asked, “What most helped you become a writer?” and I answered, “Selling my guitar.”

Bizarre. I hadn’t thought of that old thing – a Gibson Epiphone – for ages. I’d forgotten all about getting rid of it. I stuck it on Gumtree two years ago and a guy with plasters on his fingers and dubious personal hygiene arrived, strummed it in my front room for a bit and handed over the forty quid. After he’d gone I had to open all the windows.

I’d bought it just after university when I was in a band called – depending on the week – Idiot Jukebox, My Fat Friend, Barson, Stepford Robinson or The Cup of Tea. Most of my creative energy was channelled into song writing and the quality of outcome was, ahem, variable. Though, once we sent a demo off to Cog Sinister and I got a call back asking whether the band could support The Fall on their upcoming ‘Middle Class Revolt’ tour. I was so terrified I bungled the call; went mute – blew it. Progress was generally glacial and that phone call, taken one evening in my tiny flat on Northen Grove, was the closest we ever came to any kind of success.

But ten years later I still had the guitar and I still played a few old songs now and again. “Selling my guitar”, though. Why that? All of us have dabbled before; it’s a quality of childhood – the skateboard, the skis, the fishing rods and tackle collecting dust in the garage or attic. We are encouraged by our education system, by friends, by parents, to get quite good at twenty different things rather than expert at one.

Recently I was reading Neil Gaiman’s ‘Make Good Art’ speech, a commencement address to the students of The University of the Arts, and was struck by his frank admission: “I escaped from school as soon as I could, when the prospect of four more years of enforced learning before I'd become the writer I wanted to be was stifling.” Here was a guy with tunnel vision. No dabbling from Mr Gaiman. He goes on to say, “I had a list I made when I was 15 of everything I wanted to do: to write an adult novel, a children's book, a comic, a movie, record an audiobook, write an episode of Doctor Who... and so on. I didn't have a career. I just did the next thing on the list.”

There, succinctly, is the reason I sold my guitar. I didn’t have the courage or maturity to know it at fifteen, but at least I do now.

So clear out your cupboards, people! You ain’t ever getting any better at cross-stitch or watercolours. Put that trombone on e-bay; sell your saxophone to a smelly stranger. Ditch all the paraphernalia of the dabbler and dedicate yourself to the pen and paper.

Then, in the words of Gaiman, just do “the next thing on the list.”