Two weeks ago, Salon interviewed author John le Carri, whose
latest book, "The Tailor of Panama," is a best-seller. We also
invited Salon readers to e-mail questions for le Carri. Here are
some of those questions and the author's answers.
As much as I love the new stuff, and as much as I look forward to reading this new book, I must confess that I miss Smiley and the Circus. Surely, there is material in the world to resurrect old Smiley one more time. Do you intend to write another book for his last case?
Everyone wants Smiley back except me. Yes, of course I could dig him out of retirement. Or go historical, and write about his time as a humble British spy pitted against Nazi Germany: you remember he actually lived in Germany during the run up to '39?
The trick of the thing is to leave the feast at its height, while everyone wants more. To go on writing Smiley has become, for me, a formulaic temptation. I have to enter his age bracket yet again, and to accept the limitations imposed by a recurrent, formulaic character. Without him, I can be anyone, go anywhere, travel light, explore new frontiers. Which would you do, if you were me?
Seems as if every British import that has appeared on our PBS television is available now on videotape, except "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy." Why? A rights issue? Know a source? Wasn't there a production of "The Honorable Schoolboy" as well?
A faithful, dedicated fan.
I agree with you. It's daft. Paramount and the BBC are jointly responsible for not distributing the videos of the BBC TV productions of "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" and "Smiley's People." Yes, it's a rights issue of some sort, but nothing that common sense couldn't solve in five minutes. The other series the BBC made was "A Perfect Spy." "Honorable Schoolboy" was not made.
In your interview with Salon, you talk about past accusations of anti-Semitism. Author Norman Rush, in his New York Times review of your new book, raised the issue again. What do you think of his reference to Harry Pendel as "yet another literary avatar of Judas," who "defames" the only "saintly" Panamanian and also betrays his "Christian" wife?
A rabbi reviewing an earlier book of mine, "A Perfect Spy," for an Israeli paper said that my writing "bespeaks a familiarity with Jewish learning well beyond the knowledge of many, if not most Jews. It strengthens this writer's intuition that he has an unusual empathy with Jews."
The New York Times' Sunday review of "The Tailor of Panama" contained a totally deranged view of my main character, shared by no other reviewer, editor, agent or reader. Pendel and Judas could not be further apart. The trouble with political correctness is, it is not only blinkered and unfamiliar with the real world; it has no sense of humor. I don't blame the reviewer. All writers have off days, go off the reservation from time to time, invent imaginary fires. But I blame the New York Times for giving currency to such insulting nonsense. That's my last word on the subject, anywhere. (See the New York Times next Sunday.) [Sunday November 17, 1996]
Dear Mr. le Carri:
I have read all your books and have been an avid fan for years. My question is this: do you plan your books beforehand, or do you, like Elmore Leonard, just sit down and start writing with a few characters in mind? Second, do you write books for what you perceive as your "market," or do you simply write the story that moves you? Finally, how much research do you do for a novel and how much of what we get is simply made up?
Thanking you for a bunch of great books.
Mine's the Elmore Leonard way: have a few elements, and step into the blue. No, I wouldn't know my "market" if it got up and bit me. Research means goofing around imagining I'm one of my characters and living his life in my head.
What does John think of Len Deighton's Bernard Sampson novels? Deighton, in my mind is the only author who comes close to le Carri in terms of atmosphere and characterization.
Oh, doom, here it comes. I don't read modern thrillers and I've never read Deighton. Sorry, but there we are. Spare reading time goes to the greats, mostly 19th century.
What a privilege to write you! Was Axel Axel ("A Perfect Spy") modeled after a person or a composite of persons, or was he a totally created character?
Axel Axel was inspired a little by two rather lost German-Czech fellows with whom I shared lodgings in Bern when I was a student there in 1949. Neither fits the final portrait, because in the end you have to give people bits of yourself so that you can understand them.
You wrote a wonderful short story, "The Growth of Marie Louise," which I
discovered in, of all places, a large coffee-table book on wine. I
consider it a little jewel of a story, one of my very favorites, and I
would like to know where I might find it in a more conventional form an
anthology or another book of yours?
Alas, Marie Louise only ever existed in the wine book and a magazine, I forgot which. Maybe when I'm dead my publishers will put out an anthology of small writings, but I'm prepared to wait!
I wonder if it is possible for you to say something about
the tradition of the spy novel/thriller. Who, for example, did you read when you were younger, and which contemporary writers have made an impression upon you?
I don't really know much about the tradition of spy-writing. Kipling, Conrad, Buchan and Greene are probably the main players. Then there are awful, mercifully-forgotten chauvinistic writers like Peter Cheyney and Co. And an anti-German rabble-rouser called E. Phillips Oppenheim who practically launched World War One singlehanded. And of course there's the Bible, which shows how good the Israelis were even before they got the Mossad.
When I was younger, I read the big adventure stories: H. Rider Haggard, Dumas, P.C. Wren, [Robert Louis] Stevenson. Then the big historians, first English, then French. My taste was always for big-soul stuff: large context, man as pawn, courage in adversity, etc. It just sort of grew out of all that. But the other tutor was experience itself.
Mr. le Carri, I'm curious how your stories begin. Do you start with an unshakable image? A character? A phrase or sentence that lodges in your mind? A question that arises from your reading of the newspaper?
I have a character, maybe two. I have a place, and the place is a character and a crucible. I have a picture of the final shot of the book, of how the reader should feel when he closes it. After that I just grope my way along, using every opportunity to make a scene or a new character and listening to the tide gathering.
Having recently read "Our Game," and being Russian, I cannot help but wonder at the constant love-hate that your characters feel towards Russia,
Russians, Russian things, Russian ideas. I am also quite a bit surprised that I
find so many similarities in the mentalities of your spies and my own
common Russian set of mind. For instance:
"Frontier posts have always made me nervous, those of my own country
the most. Though I count myself a patriot, a weight rolls off my
shoulders each time I leave my homeland, and when I return I have a
sense of resuming a life sentence." ("Our Game")
Goodness, this was exactly what I felt every time I crossed the Soviet
border in the airport of St. Petersburg (and Leningrad too), but you
write about Britain! Is there no difference between the totalitarian Soviet
(Russian) regime and the supposedly constitutional British monarchy
I also noticed a significant increase in the hatred your heroes seemed to feel toward Russia:
"Until October '92, I forgot how much I hated Russians."
(Of course, an Ingush says that, but you wrote that, right?)
"And if you want to piss, save it till we've killed some Russians." (An
It is stupid, of course, to identify your heroes with yourself, but
isn't that a little bit of your own position? Probably, I should mention that I am not in the least offended (as a Russian) by all the quotations above, and my curiosity is of the worst kind intellectual.
I remain the greatest admirer of your talent.
This is seriously bad stuff, Dmitri. When I put dialogue into characters' mouths and minds, I'm really not betraying secret prejudices of my own. So please don't bring me into that firing line. I love Russia and hate what Russians are doing to each other. My first visit to Russia in 1987 was the most exciting single cultural leap I ever made. Russia remains one of the very few countries where I feel I could live and continue with my own very English thoughts. Yes, when I write as an Ingush I try to be an Ingush. As you say, that's my job, that's being a chameleon, that's empathic. But it isn't the clue to my feelings about Russia!
Who are your favorite living American writers?
Ray D. Slatton
Ray, I dicker. I had spiritual love affairs with John Cheever and Saul Bellow. I even wrote Cheever a couple of fan letters. If you include South America, I love Marquez. I had a great time recently with "Snow Falling On Cedars." But mostly my reading is antiquated. Have you any suggestions?
Mr. le Carri: "The Little Drummer Girl" was my absolute favorite, partly because of the way you handled the Israeli-Palestinian issue and partly because the heroine was a shiksa who fell in love with a Jewish man, like me. But I wanted to ask, now that the Cold War is over, what is the biggest international problem facing us?
Us. Our Western greed. The insane notion that unlimited expansion can take place in a shrinking globe. Having taken on the evils of communism, we shall now have to address the evils of capitalism.