John le Carré is an elusive guy, which I suppose is not surprising for someone who used to be a "spook," as he puts it, a spy, working undercover. I'd been trying to get an interview with him for some time and as far as I could tell, he hadn't been on CBC Radio in almost 15 years.
Earlier this year, I seemed to be closing in but I still had to wait for the publication of his latest political thriller, Our Kind of Traitor. Once that was confirmed — and it turned out to be the only Canadian interview in all media that he agreed to! — I had the pleasure of reading the new book and his recent novels over the summer, ostensibly for work. I mean, how good does it get? Well, this is how good: I then heard that he preferred to meet me at his home near Penzance in Cornwall, England, rather than at the CBC studio in London. Still, everything was arranged through assistants and publicists so I figured I'd be ushered into a room, set up, wait, he'd appear and that would be it. But much to my surprise, le Carré (whose real name is David Cornwell) and his wife welcomed me at the door, showed me around, pointed out possible places to have our conversation, and he reassured me that I could have as much time as I wanted — "three hours if you need it."
Their house is a spacious conversion of several cottages on an expanse of windswept coast in remote Cornwall, just nine km from Land's End. In fact, le Carré recently donated much of that shoreline to Britain's National Trust.
We spoke in the living room. Le Carré had prepared a fire against the blustery late August weather, but we didn't light it. I could see that there was a vast, beautiful garden but it faded into the mist, wind and rain. Inside, the large rooms were full of art on the walls and oriental rugs on tables. Le Carré was genial, relaxed, generous. We talked for two hours and then a total first in my experience — he called together everyone in the house and opened three bottles of champagne. It was 1 p.m. And while we were waiting for lunch (Cornish pasties and salads), he charmed us all with Alec Guinness imitations and stories about interviews on American television.
He described having lunch in London with Ralph Fiennes, who stars in the movie adaptation of The Constant Gardener. "Tell me who I am," Fiennes asked, wanting to know more about the character he plays, a middle-ranking British diplomat in the foreign office in Nairobi, Kenya. Le Carré explained everything about him in detail, his relationship with his activist wife, and so on, after which Fiennes asked, "Where do you get your hair cut?" (In Penzance.) In other words, it was all about watching le Carré — imitate him, his hair, his mannerisms, and he could get inside his not-quite-alter-ego creation.
Afterwards, as I pulled together my equipment and bundled into a taxi for the 30-minute drive back to the train station, with le Carré and his wife standing outside in the drizzle, waving goodbye, I thought about what a brilliant agent he must have been — inventive, imaginative, totally in control — and how, as he once said, spying is very close to the creative work of a writer. In this case, a writer who has entertained and captivated readers for 50 years.
Click here to listen to an excerpt from the upcoming interview!
Eleanor Wachtel is the host of Writers & Company, which is now in its 20th anniversary season.
This exclusive Canadian interview airs in two parts on Writers & Company on CBC Radio One on Sunday, Oct. 10, and Sunday, Oct. 17.
Image by Jost Hindersmann, lisenced via Wikimedia Commons.