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

Eleanor Wachtel travelled to London to chat with the bestselling British author about his storied career and his latest book, A Legacy of Spies.
Writers & Company's Eleanor Wachtel has interviewed John le Carré three times. (Jane Eustace)
Listen to the full episode1:07:06

More than 50 years after his breakthrough novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, John le Carré is as much in the news as ever with the publication of his highly entertaining 2016 memoir The Pigeon Tunnel, a hit miniseries adapted from his novel The Night Manager and now a new book drawing on two of his classic literary works. The novel, A Legacy of Spies, sees the return of his most famous character, the enigmatic British spy George Smiley.

John le Carré can be as intriguing and elusive as his characters. Born David Cornwell in Dorset, England in 1931, he worked as a spy for Britain's intelligence service ― during the height of the Cold War in the 1950s and early 1960s ― before writing The Spy Who Came in from the Cold in 1963. Since then, he has published more than 20 books, exploring themes of international conflict, corruption and terrorism.

For this interview, a Canadian exclusive, 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." 

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 with my characters 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."

Drawing characters from his childhood

"[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." 

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.