Writers and Company

John le Carré on war, terror and his new biography (encore episode)

Eleanor Wachtel talks to the private thriller writer John le Carré. This interview originally aired in 2013.
John le Carré is seen at his home in August, 2008. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

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 — more movie adaptations are in the works, and a massive new biography by Andrew Sisman was just released.

John le Carré himself can be as intriguing, and elusive, as his characters. Born David Cornwell in Dorset, England in 1931, le Carré would go on to become a spy before writing the blockbuster novel The Spy Who Came in From the Cold in 1963. Since then, he has published more than 20 books, exploring international conflict, corruption and terrorism. In 2013, he spoke to Eleanor Wachtel just after the release of his 23rd novel, A Delicate Truth.


What drew me to Adam Sisman was I had read the Hugh Trevor-Roper biography he wrote. I had known Trevor-Roper, and actually deeply disliked him, and after reading Sisman's biography, I was able to admire Trevor-Roper. And that is quite an achievement. So I thought, "If not he, who? If not now, when?" It probably is a necessary event in my life.

It's pretty strange. Now, when I begin to survey my life, it seems as if it's all warts. It is some sort of gift of love to my children, it's something that I couldn't do for myself. I think, objectively, it's been an extraordinary life. There weren't many people with my eye line who were able to report what they felt and saw, and able to fictionalize it, at the height of the Cold War. In that way, for better or worse, I played a decent role in writing about that world. 


Obviously, the connection between making war and the industrial process is demonstrated all through history. Now, because that war is so high tech, industry has an even bigger part to play. In fact, with the development of extremely sophisticated weaponry, corporations can obtain a stranglehold on the military industrial complex, on the defense budget itself, and indeed on the selection of priorities, targets, even battlefields. It is a very disturbing alliance, it always has been.


When you create these super weapons and when you create all these different shades of drones and so forth, the desire to use them is implicit all the time. You can't have a  massive strike force and a massive standing army without looking around for battlefields, without looking around for enemies, without, if necessary, creating enemies  and magnifying their strength. We did that in the Cold War, to a crazy extent. By the time the Cold War was over, we realized that we'd been fantasizing about the strength of the Soviet threat. Basically, the supremacy of the United States was immense and always has been. The balance of terror was never quite what it was cracked up to be.


I had long wanted to write about him. It was such an exotic childhood, such a rich childhood, that he provided, that I should be the envy of every novelist on that account. But while he was alive, I simply couldn't do it. After his death I felt free to do it, but it was a weepy. I thought the only way to get out of this is to make the son even worse than the father. So, I went back to the drawing board, and from then on it flew. It helped me to remember, necessarily perhaps, that I treated my father very badly and I always felt guilty about that. When you have a parent who is such a strong force, as my father was, you don't know if you love him or hate him, but you are of  his flesh, of his blood, and you will never escape that.

John le Carré's comments have been edited and condensed.

Music to close the interview: "Prélude nr.18 in F minor," composed and performed by Jeroen van Veen. From the album Minimal Piano Collection.