When you move a border, suddenly life changes violently. I write about nationality.
I am a historian. I do a lot of research, and I try to get it right.
I started out when I was 29 – too young to write novels. I was broke. I was on unemployment insurance. I was supposed to be writing a Ph.D. dissertation, so I had a typewriter and a lot of paper.
I love Paris for the million reasons that everybody loves the city. It’s an incredibly romantic and beautiful place.
Romantic love, or sex, is the only good thing in a life that is being lived in a dark way.
The best Paris I know now is in my head.
I don’t just want my books to be about the ’30s and ’40s. I want them to read as if they had been written then. I think of them as ’40s novels, written in the conservative narrative past.
I’m basically an Upper West Side Jewish writer.
You can’t make accommodations in crucial situations and be heroic.
You write a lot of books; you hope you get better.
I invented the historical spy novel.
I have a very serious censorship office inside my head; it censors things that I could tell you that you would never forget, and I don’t want to be the person to stick that in your brain.
I don’t really write plots. I use history as the engine that drives everything.
If you can live in Paris, maybe you should.
My novels are about the European reality, not about chases. You want chases, get somebody else’s books.
I grew up reading genre writers, and to the degree that Eric Ambler and Graham Greene are genre writers, I’m a genre writer.
I read very little contemporary anything.
I don’t inflict horrors on readers. In my research, I’ve uncovered truly terrible documentations of cruelty and torture, but I leave that offstage. I always pull back and let the reader imagine the details. We all know to one degree or another the horrors of war.
I’m not really a mass market writer.
If you’re a writer, you’re always working.
Once you have your characters, they tell you what to write, you don’t tell them.
I write what I call ‘novels of consolation’ for people who are bright and sophisticated.
I expect that my readers have been to Europe, I expect them to have some feeling for a foreign language, I expect them to have read books – there are a lot of people like that! That’s my audience.
Whether you like it or not, Paris is the beating heart of Western civilisation. It’s where it all began and ended.
Good people don’t spend their time being good. Good people want to spend their time mowing the lawn and playing with the dog. But bad people spend all their time being bad. It is all they think about.
The idea that someone is going to write me, and I’m not going to answer – I was just raised not to do that. We are the result of our upbringing, and my upbringing was very much to meet obligations… You just didn’t let things go.
It takes me three months of research and nine months of work to produce a book. When I start writing, I do two pages a day; if I’m gonna do 320, that’s 160 days.
My grandmother, whom I adored, and who partly raised me, loved Liberace, and she watched Liberace every afternoon, and when she watched Liberace, she’d get dressed up and put on makeup because I think she thought if she could see Liberace, Liberace could see her.
I don’t work Sunday any more… The Sabbath is a very reasonable idea. Otherwise, you work yourself to death.
I wrote three mysteries and then a contemporary spy novel that was unbelievably derivative – completely based on ‘The Conversation,’ the movie with Gene Hackman. Amazingly, the character in the book looks exactly like… Gene Hackman.
What you get in the Cold War is ‘the wilderness of mirrors’ where you have to figure out what’s good and what’s evil. That’s good for John le Carre, but not me.
Anthony Powell taught me to write; he has such brilliant control of the mechanics of the novel.
Le Carre’s voice – patrician, cold, brilliant and amused – was perfect for the wilderness-of-mirrors undertow of the Cold War, and George Smiley is the all-time harassed bureaucrat of spy fiction.
I write about the period 1933-42, and I read books written during those years: books by foreign correspondents of the time, histories of the time written contemporaneously or just afterwards, autobiographies and biographies of people who were there, present-day histories of the period, and novels written during those times.
I was raised on John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series. Something about this genre – hard-boiled-private-eye-with-heart-of-gold – never failed to take me away from whatever difficulties haunted my daily world to a wonderful land where I was no more than an enthralled spectator.
When I read period material – and it ain’t on Google – I am always alert for that one incredible detail. I’ll read a whole book and get three words out of it, but they’ll be three really good words.
In the 1930s, there were so many different conflicts going on between the British, the French, the Russians, the Germans, the Spaniards, the Romanians and so on.
What I discovered is I don’t like to repeat lead characters because one of the most pleasurable things in a book to me is learning about the lead.
Let me put it this way: I don’t plan to retire. What would I do, become a brain surgeon? I mean, a brain surgeon can retire and write novels, but a novelist can’t retire and do brain surgery – or at least he better not.
I just became what I call an ‘anti-fascist novelist.’ There is no word that covers both the fascists and the Communists, which mean different things to people, but of course they’re the same: they’re tyranny states.
You have to have heart’s passion to write a novel.
A book must have moral purpose to be any good. Why, I don’t know.
I am there to entertain. I call my work high escape fiction; it’s high, it’s good – but it’s escape, and I have no delusions about that. I have no ambition to be a serious writer, whatever that means.
Poland is a wildly dramatic and tragic story. It’s just unbelievable what went on with those people. How they survive, I don’t really know. The Germans had a particular hatred for the Poles; they really considered them subhuman Slavs, and they were very brutal to them.
If you read the history of the national Socialist party, they’re all people who felt like life should have been better to them. They’re disappointed, vengeful, angry.
If I’m a genre writer, I’m at the edge. In the end, they do work like genre fiction. You have a hero, there’s a love interest, there’s always a chase, there’s fighting of some kind. You don’t have to do that in a novel. But you do in a genre novel.
I had a publishing history of murder mysteries.
I chose a time in the century which had the greatest moments for novels – the late ’30s and World War II.
I basically wrote five books with ‘Night Soldiers,’ called them novellas, and came in with a 600-page manuscript.
I’d never been in a police state. I didn’t know what it was. I knew that it was, in the general way that people know that two and two is four, but it had no emotional value for me until I found myself in the middle of it.
My theory is that sometimes writers write books because they want to read them, and they aren’t there to be read. And I think that was true of me.
I would have loved to have another 10 Eric Ambler books.
I’ve never lived in Eastern Europe, although both my wife and I have ancestors in Poland and Russia – but I can see the scenes I create.
Yes, I’m a reasonably good self-taught historian of the 1930s and ’40s. I’ve never wanted to write about another time or place. I wouldn’t know what to say about contemporary society.
I started writing in my 20s. I just wanted to write, but I didn’t have anything to write about, so in the beginning, I wrote entertainments – mainly murder mysteries.
For me, Anthony Powell is a religion. I read ‘A Dance to the Music of Time’ every few years.
I think I honestly invented my own genre, the historical spy novel.
Moscow had this incredible, intense atmosphere of intrigue and darkness and secrecy.
Spy novels are traditionally about lone wolves, but how many people actually live like that?
I was going to be the best failed novelist in Paris. That was certainly not the worst thing in the world that one could be.
I’ve evolved in my writing to tell a more emotional story – my publisher, Random House, has urged that.
People know accuracy when they read it; they can feel it.
The 1930s was a funny time. People knew they might not live for another six months, so if they were attracted to one another, there was no time to dawdle.
For something that’s supposed to be secret, there is a lot of intelligence history. Every time I read one book, two more are published.
I could not spend the rest of my life sitting in Brazil writing down who called whom uncle and aunt.
You could be a victim, you could be a hero, you could be a villain, or you could be a fugitive. But you could not just stand by. If you were in Europe between 1933 and 1945, you had to be something.
My father died when I was young, and my mother, Ruth, went to work in an office selling theater and movie parties. She put me through private school, Horace Mann, in Riverdale. She sent me to camp so that I would learn to compete. She was a lioness, and I was her cub.
I wrote out little mysteries in longhand, and my mother typed them out on an old Remington.
I never got any training in how to write novels as an English major at Oberlin, but I got some great training for writing novels from anthropology and from Margaret Mead.
Women take great care of themselves in France. It’s a culture dedicated to making women beautiful and to manners.
French women will always look up at a man, even if he is four inches shorter than she is.
We’re the roughest people in the way we play and live, and that is because Americans come from people who all got up one morning and went 5,000 miles, and that was a time in the 19th century when it wasn’t so easy to do.
I read very little contemporary anything… I don’t think I read what other people read, but then why would I, considering what I do?
I love the gray areas, but I like the gray areas as considered by bright, educated, courageous people.
I figured I would always be a candidate for man of the year in the virtue-is-its-own-reward category. What that did was force me to concentrate on the work.
I had the experience of a monk copying documents, applying myself assiduously to my work. And I thought whatever happened, happened – this is just what I do in my life.
Seattle’s support system got me through those early, difficult years. It was a very funky, very friendly, very relaxed place that had it all for a writer.
I love the combination of the words ‘spies’ and ‘Balkans.’ It’s like meat and potatoes.
The only way you can handle big kinds of questions is to simply state briefly what the truth was. What am I going to tell you about the Holocaust? Would you like three pages about it? I don’t think you would… I don’t think anything different than you think – it was horrible.
Graham Greene’s work must be included in any survey of top-rank spy novels, and ‘Our Man in Havana’ may be his best.
‘The Levanter’ features some of the strongest action scenes to be found in Ambler – who can, in some of his fiction, stay in one place for a whole novel.
Fast-paced from start to finish, ‘The Honourable Schoolboy’ is fired by le Carre’s conviction regarding evil done and its consequences.
I look for the dark story, where something secret was done. I read and read and pick up the trail of a true story. I use nothing but true stories. They are so much better than phony ones.
I knew I was a writer; I wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t know what to write.
The brutalization of humans by other humans never fails to get to me in some angry-making way. It shot up in me like an explosion.
I like to say I sit alone in my room, and I fight the language. I am wildly obsessive. I can’t let something go if I think it’s wrong.
I’ve always liked lost, old New York.
I never wanted to be a Cold War novelist.
For John le Carre, it was always who’s betraying who: the hall-of-mirrors kind of thing. When you go back to the ’30s, it’s a case of good vs. evil, and no kidding. When I have a hero who believes France and Britain are on the right side, a reader is not going to question that.
Struggling writers are often advised to pick a simple genre, but it doesn’t work that way.
Robert Ludlum, all of them, write the absolute best they can. You can’t tone it down. You just do what you do, and if it comes out literary, so be it.
The way I work: I pick a country. I learn the political history – I mean I really learn it; I read until it sinks in. Once I read the political history, I can project and find the clandestine history. And then I people it with the characters.
Venice has always fascinated me. Every country in Europe then was run by kings and the Vatican except Venice, which was basically run by councils. I’ve always wondered why.
I spend my life writing fiction, so reading fiction isn’t much of an escape. That’s not always true, but I don’t read much contemporary fiction.
When I get asked about novelists I like, they tend to be white, male, and British, like Graham Greene. They write the kind of declarative sentences I like. I don’t like to be deflected by acrobatics.
When I went to prep school in New York City, I had to ride the subway and learned how to do homework on the train. I can work and read through anything.