Writers and Company

John le Carré on his legacy as a spy-turned-novelist

Eleanor Wachtel travelled to London in 2017 to chat with the bestselling British author about his storied career and the book A Legacy of Spies. le Carré died on Dec. 12, 2020.

Eleanor Wachtel spoke with John le Carré in 2017

Writers & Company's Eleanor Wachtel has interviewed John le Carré three times.
Writers & Company's Eleanor Wachtel has interviewed John le Carré three times. (Jane Eustace)

This summer, as Writers & Company wraps up after a remarkable 33 year run, Eleanor Wachtel presents ten of her favourite episodes chosen from the show's archive. 

*This episode originally aired Sept. 10, 2017.

More than 50 years after his breakthrough novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, John le Carré was still captivating audiences with his thrilling work. His highly entertaining memoir The Pigeon Tunnel was published in 2016, and his novels The Night Manager and The Little Drummer Girl have been adapted into hit miniseries. 

In 2017, le Carré published A Legacy of Spies, which saw the return of his most famous character, the enigmatic British spy George Smiley. It became a number one bestseller and received wide acclaim, with the Guardian describing it as "breathtaking." 

In October 2019, the then 87-year-old author published his 25th novel, Agent Running in the Field. Following le Carré's death on Dec. 12, 2020, his last full-length novel Silverview was published posthumously in October 2021. 

Born David Cornwell in Dorset, England in 1931, le Carré worked as a spy for Britain's intelligence service during the height of the Cold War in the 1950s and early 1960s. His books continue to draw on this experience, exploring themes of international conflict, corruption and terrorism.

In this 2017 interview, John le Carré spoke to Eleanor Wachtel at his home in North London.

The origins of George Smiley as a plain and unassuming character

"I made him, I suppose, a most improbable figure. One of the meek who inherit the earth. The kind of man you wouldn't give a second look to; I took trouble to make him anonymous. 

"This wasn't his cover, but it was his nature. It's the reason why many people take up the secret life — for some people it's a refuge. For some people, it's the comradeship, the sense you are working in a good cause in a secret place, unacknowledged. Which, in itself, is a kind of safety.

"I had the sense of having created a secret companion, a literary companion. I don't claim to sit at the same table as Joseph Conrad, but Conrad has his Marlow. And Marlow did for Conrad what Conrad hadn't done for himself in life. Marlow became Conrad's own secret sharer. And Smiley was mine. [When] I wrote that first novel about him, I thought, yes, yes, his memory, his voice, I can use. Also, he does something else as an older, wiser voice in my ear. He moderates me. 

Two middle-aged British man in suits and jackets stand in a field.
Terence Rigby and Alec Guinness in the 1979 BBC series Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. (BBC)

"As a human being, as a writer, if I'm pressing for extremes and becoming over-emotional on the page, if I'm writing a Smiley story, it is somehow he who gets me straight.

"When I was writing Smiley in those early days, I was also very fond of drawing, and I did little drawings in the margin of a little tubby man with spectacles, carrying his horse uphill. His sense of duty in those days was extremely strong. So in a rather monkish way he renounced love, accepted the imperfections of love, and gave his all to the service."  

Returning to George Smiley

"The pleasure of recovering George Smiley, Peter Guillam and the rest of the clan was so great, and it was so easy to write about them, that it came rather quickly. I was able to set up a situation where the past came back to challenge the present. 

"What was the past? The past was a total ideological commitment to the cause of anti-communism. What is the present? A space. A really haunted place where we have no ideology; [where] the one thing that joins us is a common fear; where social democracy is being assailed from the east and the west at the same time; where the Europe that Smiley loves is shrinking, is under siege; and we Brits, of all awful, stupid things, are walking out on Europe, just at the moment when they need us most. So, these simplistic notions were in my head and I got to work on the book.

"I find myself quite often stopped in the street. And I'm usually stopped by men approaching my age who just want to talk about Smiley. And there is clearly some identification there, which, if I knew its origin, I suppose I would play upon it, but I truly don't. 

"He is simply that man with that sense of endurance. That corrosive eye. And, fundamentally, a good heart, but a man who is dealing a great pain with moral complexity." 

Middle-aged British man stands in full suit in between rows of desks with typewriters and bright lamps.
Gary Oldman as George Smiley in the 2011 film adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Jack English, Focus Features)

Drawing characters from his childhood and early life 

"[I had a] really rather extraordinary childhood, where my father Ronnie ​― this strange wastrel of a man, very brilliant, totally bent ​― had an amazing community of middle European people around him, immigrants during the war, all of them with criminal intent or criminal connections. So there was a real criminal fraternity to look at. And at that time I had no particular moral judgment, I just thought that was the way the world worked. So from that early community came an extraordinary wealth of characters. As Graham Greene said, 'The childhood we have is our bank balance, our account balance as writers.'

"I joined that world [spying] in my very early formative years. My first mission was when I was about seventeen. For my military service, I was in occupied Austria and I ran very small-time agents into what was then the Russian zone. And then, one way or another, I remained within the intelligence community until I was 31. 

"Now that's a huge chunk of life. If I'd been at sea during that period, I'd have written about the sea. If I'd been in advertising, I'd have written about advertising. But this period gave me an extraordinary cast of characters from whom to draw. Not people you just steal and put on the page. You can't do that. But ideas of people, varieties of people, possibilities of characters, as they came into my life at that time."

John le Carré's interview has been edited and condensed. 

Music to close the broadcast interview: "Prélude no. 18 in F minor," composed and performed by Jeroen van Veen.