Tag Archives: John Le Carre

Grab Bag

As the title suggests, this is going to be a bit of a grab-bag of thoughts I’ve had while getting back to work on the current WIP. (Which still lacks an actual title. Hmm.) I was going to follow on from writing a bit about the TV adaptation of American Gods last week by writing about the TV Handmaid’s Tale this week, but I’m not the best person to talk about it and I’m not sure that I have anything especially noteworthy to say at this point anyway. Except I guess that if you haven’t been watching it, you should a) brace yourself and b) go watch it, because it’s quite well done.

I am, as summer reluctantly comes to my part of the world, trying to get back at working on my current project somewhat systematically, with the aim (still?) being to have a complete first draft done by the fall. Part of what I’m trying to figure out is how I can make writing a scheduled part of my routine. I do much better with a lot of stuff when I have a plan to always do it at X time on whatever days of the week than when I just try to figure out when it gets done on the fly. This isn’t just the case for writing, it’s how I get myself to the gym and get my running done and a lot of other stuff. If I leave the time for things vague, they live in an eternal ‘later’, never getting actually taken care of. If I have in my mind that I do this (say) every morning starting at 9, then something takes place.

I don’t at all suggest that this is some iron rule for how to Be an Effective Writer, because that would be advice, and mostly I think everyone needs to figure out their own methods and process that works for them anyway. Some people probably do need to write every day, some people work well with specific word targets per week, some people need to Go To A Place and Work There. Despite (although also in some part because of) all the earnestly written declarations on how to Do Authoring, I think there’s no universal formula and you just gotta figure out what leads to you getting words on the page and then unapologetically do that. Of course that’s not an easy thing to figure out, but neither is trying to contort yourself to fit someone else’s process. I think I have a ‘morning writing’ thing going on now and we’ll see how that works.

Part of what caused me some difficulty recently (along with all kinds of Real Life stuff, and then also just being very tired) was the disappearance of a deadline. I’ve mentioned before that I work very well when I have a deadline (I do not miss deadlines) and that part of the adjustment from being a student to being basically employed by me post-education is not having deadlines imposed on me. Again, that eternal ‘not now, but soon’ becomes very attractive. I’m getting better at working without deadlines but if I’m being honest what I also do is seize on things that I can use as a deadline to restore that familiar motivation.

For this WIP, I had decided that I wanted to have it ready to pitch to the agent Guest of Honour that will be coming to this year’s Can*Con SFF conference in Ottawa, which seemed a solid idea. (Brief aside – I am on the programming team for Can*Con, we’ve got some very exciting stuff planned for this October, and you should definitely come if you can. All the details are not ready to release yet, but you can check out a lot about us here.) Unfortunately, I did the required research and found that she doesn’t rep the kind of thing that I’m working on. Which is of course fine, and of course she’s still an amazing Guest of Honour for Can*Con to have, but her usefulness to me as a deadline suddenly dematerialized, and not a lot got written for a while.

I really need to break myself of this deadline habit.

As I’m writing at the moment, I’m also reading, of course, and right now I’m reading the John Le Carré autobiography I mentioned a while back, and re-reading some William Gibson. They are, I guess obviously, very different writers, but to me they are also similar in that I deeply admire the way they craft with words. They’re both (to me) quite demanding writers, in that their writing requires your attention. Both can get a lot out of a little, conveying things of tremendous importance with a perfectly-chosen word or two, so you really can’t miss anything.

If you’ve been reading the blog for a long time, you’ll remember that there was a time when I tried, very hard, to write like William Gibson, and that it didn’t go very well. I don’t do that any more, but I find reading both him and Le Carré inspirational in the sense of reminding me what is possible to do with words when you put them together right, and to try to push myself to achieve something at least somewhat similar. This isn’t to say that other styles of writing can’t also be effective, can’t also be fun to read, and can’t also be artistic. But I guess the arguably subtler or more intricate mode of operation twangs something inside me just that little bit more, and is the style that I would be most content if I could produce something like. I’m not sure that I’m anywhere in that quadrant of the galaxy, but (all my wittering about struggles with the WIP notwithstanding) I am enjoying the effort.

One of the decisions I made in writing this current WIP was to write it just as I wanted to, to just really let myself use exactly the words I wanted to. I was going to thoroughly ignore the questions of ‘is this the right voice?’ and ‘what kind of audience does this appeal to’? I was just going to write something that pleased me, do it as well as I could, and then see what people thought of it. The basic idea is/was kind of crazy anyway, so if it ended up something that appealed to no-one else but me it wouldn’t necessarily be the end of the world. Fortunately for me, what I’ve heard back from the Eager Volunteers and my writers’ circle has so far been very kind and very encouraging, which of course makes me more confident to go on doing things this way. Again, I’m not suggesting this is always the right way to do things, but at the moment it’s having good results for me.

Anyway. I’ve got a little over 30,000 words (much of it non-sequential, of course) written, and if I can get down to this over the summer I should be able to finish my story in time for the autumn. Then I will begin a whole new set of challenges, but that’s something to worry about another day. That’s what I’ve got for you this week. Thanks for reading.

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John Le Carré

When I started writing this blog one of the first things I did was talk about some of the writers I particularly admire or who I think have influenced me in my own writing. I haven’t done that in a while, but as I have just started reading The Pigeon Tunnel, John Le Carré’s autobiography, I thought I would do it again.

I admire Le Carré’s work for a couple of reasons. One is that his stories are just really good stories. Most of what he writes are contemporary spy stories, and no doubt due in part to his background as an intelligence officer, Le Carré writes them very well. I guess obviously I’m not in a position to comment on how accurate or realistic the books are, but they are to me thoroughly convincing and plausible portrayal of how the secret world is likely to work. Le Carré’s perspective on this contrasts very strongly with the many more romantic versions we are given, most famously in the James Bond stories.

When I was younger I read a lot of Ian Fleming’s Bond novels, due at least in part to a massive compendium volume of them being for sale at a church garage sale, a sale at which ‘fill a bag of books for a buck’ was advertised. It probably says nothing good about me that I spent a couple of extra dollars on a massive hockey bag, packed it with books (including the Fleming) and argued that there had been no limits placed on what constituted a ‘bag’. I left with my haul, my mother’s chagrin and, no doubt, my fate in the afterlife thoroughly imperilled.

Anyway I read the Bond stories and with the flashy spectacle of the movies it is easy to forget that Fleming’s books are actually pretty solid. There are a lot of problems; they are also racist, or at least portray a very racist society, and although there are reasons for Bond’s serial misogyny, it doesn’t really change the fact that women get an extremely raw deal both from the stories’ hero and their creator. Especially from a modern point of view, Bond is difficult to actually like, and I sometimes wonder how much we’re supposed to.

Nevertheless, they are well-crafted thriller tales and teenage me read them and enjoyed them and parts of them still stick with me. There is a part of Doctor No where a badly injured Bond is trying to climb up the inside of an air shaft (best not to think about why) and is trying not to think about how far it is, just focusing on each tiny step along the way. ‘Take the silver inches one by one, and conquer them’, is how Bond envisions his task, and from time to time when I am faced with some seemingly insurmountable and endless challenge, whether mental or physical, I will say that to myself as I try to get at it.

That’s pretty good. Overall, I mention all this because Fleming’s famous spy is I guess an idealized version of the British intelligence officer, larger than life and impressively heroic. Bond is smooth and cool and deadly. By contrast, most of Le Carré’s spies are not. His most famous creation, George Smiley, is short and pudgy and socially clumsy. It’s interesting – to me, anyway, that both Fleming and Le Carré had real world experience in the world of intelligence, yet portray it so differently. I’m not sure if that speaks to their backgrounds (Fleming from a wealthy family, Le Carré from a much more troubled one), their experiences with the espionage trade, or simply their aims as authors.

On the whole, though, I suspect Le Carré’s version of espionage, ‘delivering I knew not what to I knew not whom’ is rather nearer to the truth than Fleming’s, and his flawed characters rather more like most of the spymasters of the real world. Smiley is not a lethal weapon one-on-one, struggles with his personal relationships, but his mind is a machine of tremendous precision, and he is particularly acute at discerning people’s weaknesses and how to make use of them. Smiley is not really a hero in the conventional sense, I don’t think – he does his duty and does it well, but we don’t get a great sense of idealism out of him. We see his moral and ethical struggles through many of the books, eventually ending with his determination to do what is required to defeat his opposite number on the Soviet side; whether the personal cost that Smiley paid for all this is worth it or not is left for the reader to determine. A great deal of espionage in Le Carré’s books is at best uncomfortable, and often downright unpleasant manipulations of people who may or may not deserve their fates, in the interests of powerful men and nations who may or may not deserve their defeats, and their victories.

Le Carré’s fictional worlds are less clearly divided into the good and the bad than many other spy stories, and in many of them basically decent people (like George Smiley) end up doing inarguably ghastly things to achieve their aims, leaving both them and the audience wondering if it was worth it. To me, although the secret war of Le Carré’s agents and assets comes across as fairly thoroughly awful, making it difficult to really identify with any of the factions at work, his characters are intensely human, and it is extremely easy to identify with them, and to feel their triumphs, their struggles, and their failures.

Rather than monolithically heroic and villainous sides, Le Carré gives us a rather more murky picture where fighting the struggle in the shadows exacts a massive price on everyone who participates, and I wonder if that’s one of the points he is trying to make. It seems to me one of the consistent themes of Le Carré’s stories that he appears suspicious and cynical of large and powerful organizations and institutions (of whatever kind – his Constant Gardener takes a justifiably harsh view of drug companies) but he’s immensely sympathetic towards individual people, and the dilemmas they often find themselves in. That’s a point of view that I find myself increasingly identifying with.

So, I guess obviously, I like John Le Carre’s stories quite a lot. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a wonderful novel, and The Night Manager is another particular favourite, as is The Secret Pilgrim. In addition to just (?) enjoying the books, though, I also deeply admire Le Carré as a writer. He is a fantastically skilled craftsman with words, choosing each one with what seems to be unerring precision and creating prose that conveys intense feelings of mood and emotion. Because of this, I don’t find him an easy read by any standard; because each word means so much I find I have to pay very close attention to Le Carré as I read, and so late at night when I’m growing tired and my focus is slipping, I can’t quite keep up with him. Le Carré conveys important information in what seem to be fleeting phrases and word choices, so if you miss a ‘little thing’, you’ve missed a lot. It’s interesting (I think) that that attention to precise detail is also one of the skills that are most essential to his fictional spies.

I don’t really think of this as a flaw. Not all writing needs to be an easy, relaxed read, any more than everything we eat needs to taste the same. Le Carré’s stuff demands effort, demands your entire engagement (or at least it does from me), but if you’re able to give it you are richly rewarded. I suppose there is, for a writer, some sort of practical limit here – if you make your writing too difficult to engage with and appreciate, there will be too few readers willing to rise to the challenge. There is, perhaps, some ideal balance of artistry with words and ease of access for the reader, some perfect mastery of story there to be achieved.

In my view, John Le Carré is very close to it.

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Literally as I wrote this, I got a news alert that Roger Moore, probably most famous for his portrayal of James Bond, has died. Due to my age, Moore was the actor that I first knew as Bond, and I think his A View to a Kill was likely the first Bond movie that I watched in its entirety. As I’ve just written, I have a lot of problems with James Bond these days, but the Moore-era Bond with the Union Jack parachute and all the rest of it was undeniably fun and Mr. Moore’s performance gave me stories that I enjoyed.

For that I will always be grateful.

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We also draw very close to the Limestone Genre Expo in Kingston, which runs June 3-4 and will feature many fantastic discussions on how we create and consume fiction, as well as a chance to meet writers and people who love books. I will be there for the second time, and I’m looking forward to it very much. My publishers, Renaissance Press, will also be there with their growing range of titles, so you can get yourself a copy of The King in Darkness or Bonhomme Sept-Heures if you don’t have one, and I will be at the table at various times through the weekend if you would like to say hi or have me scrawl something in your book.

Limestone was a great weekend last year, and I’m really looking forward to it again. Hope to see many of you there. Details here.

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Not Guilty

In my last post I wrote about a book series being a ‘guilty pleasure’ and (entirely true to form) I have felt somewhat bad about it ever since. The term is a rather disparaging one and even if we ignore the vast gulf in achievement between me and Bernard Cornwell, it seems a little inappropriate to be throwing a negative label on books and stories that I obviously like.

Because I do like them, the Sharpe series and a whole other array of stories that I reach for when I’m in the mood for a story, but not one that is going to ask much of me. I just want to relax and enjoy, not be stretched and challenged. Not all books are good for this. When I read The Quantum Thief a few years ago, it was an amazing ride, but I had to be sharp before I was ready to climb on board. This is a story that will leave you behind if you can’t keep up. I find John Le Carre’s books somewhat similarly challenging because he uses language so subtly and well that if you don’t really pay attention to every word and consider it carefully you will probably miss some tiny important thing, and the gradual accretion of all these tiny important things will lead to you not really understanding what’s happening.

Sometimes, I’m not in the right space to do that. Sometimes I want an easy ride, and I do genuinely like the stories that give that to me. Grabbing another random example, while I would genuinely put John Carpenter’s The Thing up there as an absolute classic of the SF/horror genre, I also just as genuinely like Big Trouble in Little China, albeit in a rather different way. William Gibson is my all-time favourite writer, but some days I’m just not up to the challenge and just need a murder mystery.

There is, to be sure, enjoyment to be had in stories that challenge us, and I wouldn’t want to suggest otherwise. Being asked to think of things in a whole different way is amazing at the same time as it is kind of scary. There’s the pleasure of solving a puzzle when you unpick the mystery of what’s going on in a story that has been trying to hide it from you. Engaging the intellect is exercise, and it feels good.

Except I’m not always in the right place, mentally or physically, to exercise (like this week, as I continue to try to get rid of a stubborn virus) and then I know I will be suffering rather than strengthening my faculties, either by trying to run 10 kilometers or by trying to tackle Bring up the Bodies. But I still want to read (it is a very rare day when I don’t read anything) and so then perhaps (especially given my previously-discussed tendency to re-read old favourites) it is time for one of Sharpe’s Spanish battlefields.

I especially like these things when I am tired, or upset, or sick. I just want something I can get some enjoyment, perhaps some distraction, from and not need to work very hard at getting it. Sometimes I just need a reminder (or the illusion, if we’re being cynical) that good can triumph over evil and that there is such a thing as a happy ending. So in many ways these books are the ones that have been with me when I have been at my worst and have helped me feel better, so I really should be as kind to them as they have been to me.

It’s a reminder about the power of story (for some people at least) that things like this can make one feel a little better during our low points. I think stories can do all kinds of amazing things, and this is one of them, at least for me. Really, a story that provides comfort or inspiration or amusement to a person who is in need is pretty darned good, which is another excellent reason not to throw a negative label on them.

Essentially I think I need another term for the kind of books I enjoy at those times when I just want to sit back and be amused. In some ways those are my favourite ones and I don’t want to malign them. Anyway, I promise not to call them guilty pleasures any more.

Late last week I got to see early sketches of book cover designs for The King in Darkness. Having another artist produce something (even if it was only sketches) for a story I wrote was very exciting. Things are moving ahead!

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