John le Carré is the pen name of David John Moore Cornwell, the British author of espionage novels, including The Spy Who Came in from the Cold; Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; The Russia House; The Tailor of Panama; The Constant Gardener, and many others.
He worked briefly for British intelligence, MI5 and MI6, in the 1950s and 1960s. As he tells on his website: “In the old days it was convenient to bill me as a spy turned writer. I was nothing of the kind. I am a writer who, when I was very young, spent a few ineffectual but extremely formative years in British Intelligence.”
From a 1997 interview with Cornwell in the Paris Review with George Plimpton, the author said that after teaching (at Eton):
In all I don’t suppose that I spooked around for more than seven or eight years . . . but that was my little university for the purposes that I needed later to write. I think that if I’d gone to sea at that time I would have written about the sea. If I’d gone into advertising or stockbroking, that would have been my stuff.
It was from there that I began abstracting and peopling my other world, my alternative, private world, which became my patch, and it became a Tolkien-like operation, except that none of my characters have hair between their toes.
He says he starts a book with character:
I’ve never been able to write a book without one very strong character in my rucksack.
The moment I had Smiley as a figure, with that past, that memory, that uncomfortable private life and that excellence in his profession, I knew I had something I could live with and work with.
What happens next? Plimpton asked.
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.
In another interview with Cornwell/John le Carré in the New York Times, the interviewer asked:
Q. Is it true that you once compared writing your novels to making a jam roll? You open the pastry out, spread the jam and then roll it up.
A. . . . I think as a rough principle I always begin with one character and then perhaps two, and they seem to be in conflict with each other. . . . “The cat sat on the mat” is not a story. “The cat sat on the dog’s mat” is a story.
And I have a sense of atmosphere, the environment in which I want to set them, and a sense of how the ending will be. From there the story takes over by itself.
But the layer cake you refer to – yes, I like to lead the story forward . . . on a whole variety of levels, and try to make all these levels then converge and pay off at the end.
A central character, a conflict over who’s sitting on whose mat, and a jelly roll/layer cake of a story . . . it’s a recipe for great fiction.