Writers & 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.
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)

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. His highly entertaining memoir The Pigeon Tunnel was published in 2016, and his novels The Night Manager and The Little Drummer Girl have recently been adapted into hit miniseries. 

In 2017, le Carré published his latest novel, A Legacy of Spies, which sees 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 will publish his 25th novel, Agent Running in the Field

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.

Le Carré died on Dec. 12, 2020.

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." 

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." 

This interview originally aired on Sept. 10, 2017.

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.