Hate to disappoint, but John le Carré doesn't have any top-secret spy intel. "People approach me thinking I know amazing inside secrets. I truly don't," he says.
Le Carré's spy days are long behind him. Early in his writing career he worked for the British intelligence services MI5 and MI6. Drawing on that experience, le Carré — a pen name for David Cornwell — has spent more than 50 years writing some of the world's most acclaimed espionage novels, including The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Constant Gardner, and others.
His latest, Agent Running in the Field, tells the story of Nat, a veteran agent runner who returns home to London for one last posting — and to reclaim his championship at his old badminton club. A young man named Ed introduces himself and asks for a game. Before the story plays out, Nat and Ed find their secrets intertwined.
The novel is filled with timely references to Trump, Russia, Brexit and other topics of real-world international intrigue. Le Carré says that at a time when daily headlines compete with his thrillers, his approach is "to personalize everything. ... If I'm angry, I invest that in characters and I give them a motivation that expresses that anger," he says.
On his own feelings about badminton
I love it. I played it when I was young and ... it does have something rather beautiful about it. It's a very subtle game. It's rather quiet by comparison with squash. And it becomes suddenly extremely fast. ... Quite eccentric people play it — and I wanted that eccentricity, too.
On characters in the novel seeing Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump as two sides of the same coin
My characters articulate that suspicion. I don't think you should invest it directly in me. But I think that the appetite for superpower in both cases — for oligarchy, the dismissal of the truth, the contempt, actually, for the electorate and for the democratic system — that's common to both of them.
On using spy stories as a "vehicle"
I'm not writing about the secret services — I'm writing about England and Britain now, and the problems in Europe. ... For me, that intelligence experience that I had, that formative time in my life, has simply become a vehicle, a stage, a theater, that I use to express other things. The stories are engaging — people like spy stories, I like writing spy stories. But at the moment, with Britain as it is, if I had been in the navy instead of in the secret service and were now writing naval stories, well then, my fleet would be very close to sinking.
On nostalgia for the British Empire
There is this extraordinary elite that we have to deal with in our country of wealthy, landed people ... who nurse really very silly and completely out of date nostalgia about the war, about empire. And it's quite extraordinary that they still impel us, they still actually give the voice to so much of the misleading propaganda that is being pumped out at the moment.
On surveillance and technology
I'm a bit of a troglodyte ... Even operating my own iPhone and buying this and buying that and suddenly discovering that my tastes have been observed and are being pursued — I find that alone terrifying. How we control that? How we contain it? I truly don't know. One thing is sure — that the power is probably invested in Silicon Valley, not in any government. It's a nongovernmental issue if you like, and we have to get a grip on that. But it takes a far more sophisticated brain than mine to work out how you do it.
On whether there's a future for humans on the planet
If we can only shake off the rhetoric that drives us, and the lies that drive us, and we can address things like the ecology, things like the inequity of reward, the unfairness of the distribution of wealth at the most elementary levels. If we can make people feel that the social contract is back in place and they're part of it, then possibly we have a future.
But if we just go on cascading into expansion, blind expansion, if we go on believing that there is unlimited expansion in a limited globe, I think we are heading for destruction. The globe will survive but mankind won't. Not in this form.
Samantha Balaban and Martha Wexler produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.