Tag Archives: John le Carré

Writing Fiction: Where?

  • John le Carre wrote on a train. ‘I have a great debt of gratitude to the press for this. In those days English newspapers were much too big to read on the train, so instead of fighting with my colleagues for the Times, I would write in little notebooks. I lived a long way out of London. The line has since been electrified, which is a great loss to literature. In those days it was an hour and a half each way.’
  • Anthony Trollope also did this. To make the best use of the time he spent on train journeys for the post office, he had a portable desk made, and wrote as he travelled. At home he rose at 5.30 and wrote for three hours, 250 words every fifteen minutes. To record his progress he kept a diary recording the number of pages written each day. Keeping to this regime, Trollope went on to produce an amazing output of 47 novels.
  • Agatha Christie wrote in the bath.  She had two important demands for the renovation of her mansion. She informed her architect, “I want a big bath, and I need a ledge because I like to eat apples.”
  • Dickens used to walk 25 miles a day, talking with his characters or mimicking them as he stode along the country paths.
  • Gertrude Stein discovered that the driver’s seat of her Model T Ford was a perfect place to write. Shopping expeditions around Paris were particularly productive for the writer. While her partner, Alice B. Toklas, ran errands, Stein would stay in their parked car and write.
  • Maya Angelou, author of I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, rises at 5am and checks into a hotel, where staff are instructed to remove all stimuli from the walls of her room. She takes legal pads, a bottle of sherry, playing cards, a Bible and Roget’s Thesaurus, writing 12 pages before leaving in the afternoon and editing the pages that evening.
  • Ernest Hemingway wrote standing up. While working on The Old Man And The Sea, he ascribed to a ‘done by noon, drunk by three’ routine in which he would get up at dawn, write standing up at his typewriter until he’d emptied his head, then empty the famous Floridita bar.
  • Sir Walter Scott crafted “Marmion,” his bestselling epic poem, on horseback, in the undulating hills near Edinburgh, Scotland. Presumably in his head rather than trying to keep his pen still. Though one might assume a leisurely pace is necessary for creative concentration atop a horse, Scott preferred to contemplate the lines of the poem at a faster clip. “I had many a grand gallop among these braes when I was thinking of ‘Marmion’,” he recalled.
  • Many writers choose libraries, intermediate spaces that aren’t totally isolated but are quiet, protected, and controlled. Herman Melville wrote at the New York Society Library; Virginia Woolf, George Eliot, and George Bernard Shaw all worked in the famous Reading Room at the British Museum.
  • Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir had regular tables and hours at the Café Flore and later the Deux Magots, and knew they would be surrounded by people but not intruded upon. J.K. Rowling wrote at the Elephant House café in Edinburgh – presumably, not any more.











Research: Trainspotters

John le Carre at the Hay Festival 2013 on his first research in the Middle East: ‘I set off… first to Israel, where Shlomo Gazit, who was Head of Military Intelligence took me over, showed me that world.  And then I went, sometimes by way of Cyprus, sometimes directly over the Allenby Bridge up to Beirut, where the PLO were still hanging out and with some difficulty I got alongside Arafat.  And Arafat took me on for probably altogether ten days and sent me down to South Lebanon to Sidon where I stayed with Salah Tamari who was the chief of fighters down there.’ 

Interesting.  My first research interview was with a train spotter, and I was terrified.  I was writing a ‘western’ about trainspotting and thought that it would probably be best if I found out what they actually did.  Their local hangout is Platform Five at London Bridge.  Men with rucksacks and notepads, all facing in different directions.  I was certain they would tell me where to go, so I approached the nearest one cautiously and asked if he’d mind a few questions.  Twenty minutes later, after he had told me about carriage numbers, and the York Railway Hotel, and ‘Units’ and ‘Wagons’, and the websites and magazines, and being on sick pay, and the notepads he had that went back to 1965, I said my thank-yous and started to walk away.  ‘There’s also plane spotting!’ he shouted after me. 

What I learnt was that most people don’t mind being asked about what they do.  In fact, like most of us, they’re dying for someone to ask, and to listen.  Doesn’t matter if they’re in the Jordan Valley or the wilds of Platform Five.