John le Carré … in from the cold

John le Carré in from the cold


British author John le Carré was born in 1931. After being educated at the Universities of Bern and Oxford, he went on to teach at Eton before becoming an MI5 officer. In 1960, he was transferred to MI6, the foreign intelligence service, and worked under “Second Secretary” cover in the British Embassy at Bonn. 


It was during this period that he discovered his passion for writing, publishing Call for the Dead in 1961 and A Murder of Quality in 1962 before writing what is largely considered to be one of the great novels of the twentieth century, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. The novel launched his career and in 1964, le Carré left the service to devote himself to writing.


In 1979, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was adapted for BBC TV as a seven part series starring Alec Guinness. The BBC later adapted Smiley’s People for TV in 1982, also starring Alec Guinness as George Smiley.Several of le Carré’s novels have been adapted for the cinema including The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965) The Tailor of Panama (2001) ; The Constant Gardener (2005) and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011) .


In 1996, John le Carré  was interviewed in the Paris Review – The Art of Fiction. During the early days of his writing career he had a long train-journey to and from his work.

In those days English newspapers were much too big to read on the train, so instead of fighting with my colleagues for the Times, I would write in little notebooks. I lived a long way out of London. The line has since been electrified, which is a great loss to literature. In those days it was an hour and a half each way. To give the best of the day to your work is most important. So if I could write for an hour and a half on the train, I was already completely jaded by the time I got to the office to start work. And then there was a resurgence of talent during the lunch hour. In the evening something again came back to me. I was always very careful to give my country second-best.


He was also asked about his working day when he became a full-time writer.

Well, I still don’t type. I write by hand, and my wife types everything up, endlessly, repeatedly. I correct by hand too. I am an absolute monk about my work. It’s like being an athlete: you have to find out which are the best hours of the day. I’m a morning person. I like to drink in the evening, go to sleep on a good idea and wake up with the idea solved or advanced. I believe in sleep. And I go straight to work, often very early. If a book’s getting to the end of its run, I’ll start at four-thirty or five o’clock in the morning and go through to lunchtime. In the afternoon I’ll take a walk, and then, over a scotch, take a look at what Jane’s typed out, and fiddle with it a bit more. But I always try to go to sleep before I finish working, just a little bit before. Then I know where I’ll go the next morning, but I won’t quite know what I am going to do when I go. And then in the morning it seems to deliver the answer.


When it’s going well it goes terribly fast. It isn’t at all surprising to write a chapter in a day, which for me is about twenty-two pages. When it’s going badly, it isn’t really going badly; it’s just the beginning. The first page and the first chapter are a matter of endless fiddling, cutting out all the good bits, putting in a whole lot of verbiage. Actually, it’s my only way of thinking. Without a pen in my hand I can’t think. 


John le Carré near his Cornwall home. Photograph: Adrian Sherratt /Rex Features

For the last few years I have lived only in the deep country. I’ve always kept away from writers and the literary set. I’d much rather talk to the woodcutter than a fellow writer. I like the primary material. I don’t like exchanging ideas much. I don’t like talking about my work, believe it or not. I’m a total bore, actually.  

John le Carré s Website

Full Paris Review article


4 responses to “John le Carré … in from the cold

  1. Great insights about a great man. Thank you, Kris! I was amazed to read about writing from hand. Wayne Dyer also does this by today. I couldn’t do it. Too much to shift around and ideas I want to squeeze in… lol

  2. Hi Erika. I do my WordPress on Kindle mostly. I’m an old fashioned lad when it comes to writing fiction though. Yellow-lined paper and pencil/bic biro. Rubbing out etc. Each to his own I guess. All the best.

  3. Until a few years ago , I still wrote by hand a good part of the time.I liked seeing it on paper. I am like that with reading as well. I would rather read a BOOK than read it online.
    Very good insight and I enjoyed the post.
    Have a good evening, Kris…

    • For me it a physical process … brain to hand to pencil to paper and lots of rubbing out. Same as keyboard and delete and cut and paste. Certainly very physical during the drafting etc. but at the end … giving in to the computer because of the presentation it enables. Something like that anyway.
      I love sharpening pencils and the smell of the paper as well. Just plain bonkers, I guess.All the best.

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