It’s rare when two hobbies collide but it happened to me recently. I’m podcasting my way through Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries with a friend. I’ve previously written about the James Bond/Nero Wolfe team up we almost saw and while reading Rex Stout: A Majesty’s Life by John McAleer I was surprised to discover an intersection with John le Carré.
In 1964, just after The Spy Who Came in from the Cold came out, Mademoiselle Magazine ran a mystery issue and asked Rex Stout to interview the newly famous author.
Stout had been writing mysteries for over thirty years at that point and could knock out a Wolfe mystery in six weeks, something that doesn’t show in the writing and I’d never have guessed if I hadn’t read about it. It’s interesting to see the older writer’s view of le Carre. Stout can seem to tell that le Carré is already growing tired of the publicity roller coaster. We get the oft repeated story about passing a store to find his pen name but there are a few nuggets that only another writer could dig out I don’t recall seeing elsewhere.
Question: Did you revise?
Answer: It would be more accurate to say that I rewrote.
Q: As published, it has around 70,000 words. How many words in the first draft?
A: About 120,000.
Q: How many of the sentences as published are exactly the same as they were in the first draft? Half?
A: Oh, no. Very few. Almost none.
Q: Then as you wrote the first draft you were aware, as you wrote a sentence, that it probably wouldn’t be printed that way?
A: No, indeed. With each sentence I felt that it was immortal prose, especially the dialogue. But hardly any of the dialogue in the book is as I first wrote it. That’s because my strongest point is my critical faculty. As a critic I discarded pages and pages which I as writer had thought deathless. I discarded people, too. There were a dozen characters in the first draft that aren’t in the book at all.Mademoiselle Magazine, July 1964
It’s interesting to get a relatively contemporaneous look at his writing process for The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. I don’t recall reading such a detailed discussion on his revision process for the book and you can’t help wonder who all these characters cut out of the final book were.
Stout is impressed by le Carré’s apparent split personality when it comes to his writing –
What an operation! First, give the story teller a free hand and let him spin his yarn in the delusion that it is down for good. Second, let the critic tear it to pieces. Third, make them team up and like it. It sounds impossible, but it certainly worked with The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.Mademoiselle Magazine, July 1964
Honestly, it doesn’t sound that extraordinary, but if you look at it from Stout’s perspective, he’d knock out a book in a month and a half and never look back, it must have seemed a herculean task. The article overall is a very kind piece of writing from an established author to a successful, but new, author.
An aside – It also had a rather striking photo of le Carré that I hadn’t seen before. It was taken by Duane Michals, a regular photographer for Mademoiselle and other similar magazines of the time. Michaels later went on to acclaim for his more artistic photos. And in one of those synchronistic Sting/le Carré moments that only I seem to find, Michals was also the photographer for The Police’s final album, Synchronicity.