Writers Workshop: The Spymaster

English: John le Carré at the "Zeit Forum...

David John Moore Cornwell is better known to us as John Le Carre. He worked for British intelligence (MI5 and MI6) during the height of the Cold War. It was during this period that he turned his attention to writing under his now famous pen name. In 1963, his novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, became a best-seller and his place among famous writers was established. Several of his novels have been taken to the big screen and television with considerable success, although Le Carre has sometimes disagreed with that conclusion.

I’m an unabashed fan of Le Carre for his ability to take a complex story line, with complex characters, and carry the reader right through to the end of the plot. He moves carefully, but always moves forward. At times, the plot carries the characters. At others, the characters dominate and fascinate us. He manages to strike a near-perfect balance between story line and character development in such a way that we keep turning those pages.

So, what better way to help improve our writing than from a master writer working within his special genre. Here are a few of Le Carre’s quotes that give us a tiny peak into his mind and style. Some are from the author himself. Others are spoken through his characters. There is a good deal of wisdom and insight here.

A desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world.” (Le Carre)

The more identities a man has, the more they express the person they conceal.” (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy)

Sometimes we have to do a thing in order to find out the reason for it. Sometimes our actions are questions, not answers.” (A perfect Spy)

Do you know what love is? I’ll tell you: it is whatever you can still betray.” (The Looking Glass War)

The monsters of our childhood do not fade away, neither are they ever wholly monstrous.” (Le Carre)

The cat sat on the mat is not a story. The cat sat on the other cat’s mat is a story.” (Le Carre)

The fact that you can only do a little is no excuse for doing nothing.” (A Most Wanted Man)

Having your book turned into a movie is like seeing your oxen turned into bouillon cubes.” (Le Carre)

Unfortunately it is the weak who destroy the strong.” (Le Carre)

Ideologies have no heart of their own. They’re the whores and angels of our striving selves.” (Le Carre)

After all, if you make your enemy look like a fool, you lose the justification for engaging him.” (Le Carre)

Our power knows no limits, yet we cannot find food for a starving child, or a home for a refugee. Our knowledge is without measure and we build the weapons that will destroy us. We live on the edge of ourselves, terrified of the darkness within. We have harmed, corrupted and ruined, we have made mistakes and deceived.” (Le Carre)

Let’s die of it before we’re too old.” (The Honourable Schoolboy)

Everyone who is not happy must be shot.” (The Little Drummer Girl)

A committee is an animal with four back legs.” (Le Carre)


4 thoughts on “Writers Workshop: The Spymaster

  1. I was not familiar with the profound wisdom of Le Carré so many thanks for these particular pearls, Michael.

    (This is particularly shameful of me as he lives in Cornwall and I did, until recently, live only about 3 miles from him).

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