Posted on March 25, 2016
This conversation between John le Carré and George Plimpton, part of a collaboration between 92Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center and The Paris Review, was recorded live at 92Y on October 20, 1996. We are able to share this recording thanks to a generous gift in memory of Christopher Lightfoot Walker, longtime friend of the Poetry Center and The Paris Review. Here is an excerpt to the full interview that ran in The Paris Review as The Art of Fiction No. 149 in the summer of 1997.
What happens then? You have your character; what process follows?
The process is empathy, fear and dramatization. I have to put him into conflict with something, and that conflict usually comes from within. They’re usually people who are torn in some way between personal and institutional loyalty. Then there’s external conflict. “The cat sat on the mat” is not the beginning of a story, but “the cat sat on the dog’s mat” is. I take him with me, and I know his habits and manners. I take my tailor to Panama, not knowing anything about the place, and immediately plunge myself into the rag trade, the clothing business. Speaking for my man, Harry Pendel, I inquire all over the place. What would be the chances of setting up a bespoke tailoring business to make really smart suits? I went so far as to visit estate agents and look at potential shops. I talked to the big wholesalers, who said, Yes, possibly, for bespoke tailoring, if you could invent the taste in Panama, and you could really win people away from buying Armani suits, then it would work. If it became the fashion, if it became the rage, if suddenly in the Union Club in Panama it was impossible to be seen without a Pendel & Braithwaite suit, it would work. So without actually buying the place and buying the stock, I get as realistic an appraisal of the possibilities of his life as I can. I go and find a house for him. I decided to marry him to a Zonian, who’s a kind of hybrid of American and Panamanian, a woman who’d been brought up in the Canal Zone, but who was American by sentiment and culture and birth. I took the trouble to mix with people with that kind of background. But I was very much doing Harry’s job for him, and I don’t think that writers have much center, really. I feel much more like an actor looking for a part. I put on Pendel’s clothes in my own mind. Similarly, if I’m some other character, if I’m in the previous book, which was also partly set in Panama, if I’m an old Brit spy waiting for his joe, his agent, to turn up at the Continental Hotel in Panama, then I’ll spend a few hours doing his job, watching the people go by, trying internally to evoke the tension of that moment. Is it he, is it he? Who is it? Can’t see . . . And so on.
Does your wife worry about these communion-like experiences?
She’s pretty used to it. It’s better than being married to one person.