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 Naïve 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…

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