John le Carre gives his final interview ever
British author and master of spy fiction John le Carre. (CBS)
John Le Carre is the pen name of David John Moore Cornwell, whose work has revealed much about the world of British Intelligence for which he once worked. When he spoke with our Mark Phillips, he started things off with a revelation of his own:
"This is my last American interview," Le Carre said. "We don't have to publicize that ..."
When we sat down to interview John le Carre, we didn't know just how privileged we were.
He had already announced he'd done his last British interview. Now, John Le Carre says this session with us will be his last anywhere. He's stepping off the publicity treadmill.
Twenty-two novels and eleven film and TV adaptations later, it's not like he needs the attention.
"I'm physically in good shape," he said. "I'm going into my 80s. I want to write. I don't want to be doing the personal publicity any more."
Le Carre has been a book and movie machine for more than half a century. If anyone knows how to turn ideas into pages and then into movies, he does.
It's a collaborative effort where he writes, and then uses his wife Jane as his first sounding board ... a process we witnessed in a "Sunday Morning" visit with them fifteen years ago.
His work has been turned into four TV series, beginning in the 1970s with Alec Guinness as George Smiley, in "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy."
The seven movie adaptations began with Richard Burton's "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold" in 1965.
A "who's who" of modern screen deities - Anthony Hopkins, Sean Connery, Pierce Brosnan - have played le Carre's heros (or anti-heros) over the years. They were attracted by the ambiguity and swinging moral compass that always made his plots and characters more interesting.
The secret of le Carre's success in books and movies is his ability not just to see the frailties of the human condition, but to involve - even play with - his audience.
"I love the art of building up tension, and this relationship which the writer or the filmmaker has to the audience that sometimes the audience is ahead of what's going on and sometimes the audience is behind the writer - doesn't know," le Carre said. "Hitchcock talked a lot about that, and I think a lot about that. That my reader is comfortable - here he thinks he knows everything - but then reverse it and he's discomforted, and then bring him forward again."
Now one of his classic book and TV titles, "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy," is being re-made into a feature film with Gary Oldman as George Smiley.
Le Carre's spies live in a world of shades of grey - none of the good guy/bad guy clarity of the James Bond world.
That's not an accident.
"We had the image of James Bond," le Carre said. "He had this extraordinary life: the license to kill, all the girls he could eat and so on, and wonderful cars. He was the Superman with some kind of mysterious patriotic purpose.
"But people knew while they were watching that stuff, people knew then about this gray army of spooks that was around."
"Is it also in its own little way, turning Bond on its head, turning Ian Fleming on its head?" Phillips asked. "Everything Bond did, from smoke a cigarette to mix a drink to make love to women, Bond did better than anybody else. By creating a sporting environment in which the good guy doesn't necessarily always win, is that a little nose-thumb to that kind of spy racket?"
"With the bond type of novel, the reader thinks, 'I wish I was him!'" le Carre said.
"With the stuff I'm writing, they think, 'Oh, Christ, I hope I'm not him!'" he laughed.
If le Carre has been anything over the years, he's been adaptable. He just about owned the literary rights to the Cold War. But he also found other universal themes: The Arab-Israeli conflict in "The Little Drummer Girl" . . . and more recently, he's found new villains in the post-Cold War world.
Corporate villains, usually - the big pharmaceutical companies in "The Constant Gardner," and money laundering banks and the international arms and drug trade in others, like "The Tailor of Panama."
Now he's pulled two of his favorite themes together.
His latest book, "Our Kind of Traitor," is about crooked Russian oligarchs and their duplicitous friends in Western banking and intelligence.
There's still plenty of villainy out there.
"You're dealing with, how would you describe it? The immoral corporate world?" Phillips asked.
"Yes," he replied.
"Are bankers the villains here? Is the corporate ethos the villain here? What's the villain?"
"I think bankers will always get away with whatever they can get away with," le Carre said. "An impartial body here that examined the catastrophe after the fall of Lehman Brothers declared our banking system to be socially useless, which is quite strong language coming from the right-wing.
"But at the end of the Cold War in a lecture to the trainees at a spy school, George Smiley said, 'Now that we've dealt with the excesses of communism, we have to deal with the excesses of capitalism,'" le Carre said. "And I think that's what we're dealing with at the moment."
It's not that John le Carre hasn't done very for himself in the meantime, splitting his time between London and his spread on England's wild southwest coast.
He'll tell you the secret of his success is not to deliver a message in his books and movies, but to tell a good story.
"It has a good beginning and a good middle and a good end," he said. "I mean, I'm in the business of storytelling, not message making."
And that is the last thing he wants to say.
"Actually we're putting up on the website - even I think today - saying the door's closed," le Carre announced. "This really is it."
"How can I say thank you?" Phillips asked.
"No, you can't," the author laughed. "You don't have to."
Fiction by John le Carre:
"Call for the Dead" (1961)
"A Murder of Quality" (1962)
"The Spy Who Came in from the Cold" (1963)
"The Looking Glass War" (1965)
"A Small Town in Germany" (1968)
"The Naive and Sentimental Lover" (1971)
"Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" (1974)
"The Honourable Schoolboy" (1977)
"Smiley's People" (1979)
"The Little Drummer Girl" (1983)
"A Perfect Spy" (1986)
"The Russia House" (1989)
"The Secret Pilgrim" (1990)
"The Night Manager" (1993)
"Our Game" (1995)
"The Tailor of Panama" (1996)
"Single & Single" (1999)
"The Constant Gardener" (2001)
"Absolute Friends" (2003)
"The Mission Song" (2006)
"A Most Wanted Man" (2008)
"Our Kind of Traitor" (2010)
"The Unbearable Peace" (1991)
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