Le Carré on writing: a narrative masterclass
Having quoted a rather light-hearted bit from this excellent compilation of interviews, I’ve been reflecting on some of the things John Le Carré has said over the years about how he goes about his work, especially because of his insights into how and why narrative works (which thus helps us to engage with narratives of any sort). I’m particularly intrigued by the thought that good fiction writers have to be like effective spies!
Writers as spies
A spy, like a writer, lives outside the mainstream population. He steals his experience through bribes and reconstructs it. The writer, like the spy, is an illusionist. He creates images that he finds within himself; he illustrates his universe with words from this immense world. (1965 – p5)
Then to Michael Dean in 1974
Q: I have noticed that you have a remarkably accurate ear. How good is your eye?
A: In the first instance, I have absolutely no geographical sense. I can never work out which way the house faces. If I am in London, or anywhere, I can never find my way from one place to another. I think I have an eye for visual details, which stands me in good stead for making characters have little mannerisms, habits of dressing, twitches, particular features that seem expressive, grimaces. I think it is true that, sometimes, in compiling a character, one pinches this mannerism, that habit of speech, this form of dress and puts them together into a sort of package. It is a bit like a spy stealing from a community of which he is a part, and, adding to that, the fire of one’s own imagination. The way people walk characterises the person for you, too. For instance, that angular, bouncy walk Treasury civil servants do seem to have, which is very good in Monty Python, that strange way of springing on the toe and moving forward onto the other leg. (p30)
Creating Characters in Tension
There are, of course, books which are written in such a mechanical way that you impose upon the characters forms of behaviour. You have to get the parson into the wood-house at 2 a.m. In order to kill the duchess. Now that is a book where the plot is imposed upon the characters, and the characters hang around in the country house, until somebody screams upstairs and everybody clicks into life. There is the other kind of book where you take one character, you take another character and you put them into collision, and the collision arrives because they have different appetites, and you begin to get the essence of drama. The cat sat on the mat is not a story; the cat sat on the dog’s mat is the beginning of an exciting story, and out of that collision, perhaps, there comes a sense of retribution. Now you may call that God, or you may call it the presence of fatalistic forces in society, or you may call it man’s inhumanity to man. But, in the immortal words of P.G. Wodehouse, what it boils down to is that if your character does something wrong, sooner or later if he walks down a dark street, fate will slip out with a stuffed eel-skin and get him. (1974 – p31)
Then in 1978 to Michael Barber:
Q: Is it true that you once compared writing your novels to making a jam roll? – you open the pastry out, spread the jam, and then roll it up.
A: Well, if I did, I’m beginning to regret it! But it think as a rough principle I always begin with one character, and then perhaps two, and they seem to be in conflict with each other. “The cat sat on the mat” is not a story. “The cat sat on the dog’s mat is a story”. And I have a sense of atmosphere, the environment in which I want to set them, and a sense of how the ending will be. From there the story takes over by itself. (p48)
Then when you have your conflict, you want to throw readers right into the heart of it. Here he is in 1997:
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. (p157)
Plausibility not Authenticity
To Melvyn Bragg in 1976, he was still dodging claims (subsequently admitted to) that he had been a spy. But as a result he helpful articulated why plausibility is important to him:
If you write a story about street girls about London, you aren’t immediately accused of running a brothel. But if you write a spy story, the more credible, the more authentic, the more plausible it is, the less credit you get for an active imagination. I’d much rather have plausibility than authenticity – that is, after all, the writer’s trade. (p34)
It’s a theme he comes back to in 1996:
… every writer knows he is spurious; every fiction writer would rather be credible than authentic.
… Authentic is non-fiction, the reality. My stories have to resolve themselves. There has to be a beginning, a middle and an end. In the authentic world, almost no espionage is ever resolved, because you don’t want it to be resolved. You want the man or the woman to stay in place, to continue working for you. If he or she loses her effectiveness, you fade the person out and life goes on. Now, that doesn’t make a story – that’s ‘the cat sat on the mat.’ I have to tell ‘the cat sat on the dog’s mat’. I have to produce the tension, the danger, and so on. The disciplines of storytelling require that I shape, out of the monotony and everyday life of espionage, something that has a beginning, a middle and an end. (p140)
But interestingly, there are limits to how far you can push this – so in 1980 he explained to Miriam Gross:
But the one thing which is extremely difficult to dramatise is the persistent quality of human incompetence – particularly in British administration. I don’t think The Spy Who Came in from the Cold could happen, because I don’t believe it’s ever possible to operate such a clean conspiracy, where all the pieces fit together.
Whether it’s the Thorpe affair, or the Blunt affair, if you have to choose between conspiracy or cock-up, my instinct is to go for the cock-up every time. And in writing, one has to treat a very fine line between the reality of incompetence and the reader’s very human wish to visit a world where logic and action have a reasonable relationship to each other. (p61)
For more, keeping an eye on Le Carré’s official site is well worth it.