Len Deighton interview - Jan 2014
© Pluriform 2014 and © The Deighton Dossier 2014 - not for reproduction without permission
For the first Q&A interview of 2014, the questions are split between questions submitted by readers, and some of my own (an indulgence, as the blog editor!). My questions specifically focus on the Samson Series of novels, my favourites which I’m reading again. A number of blog readers submitted a variety of different questions which Len’s been kind enough to answer. I hope you find the responses stimulating and continue your discussions as readers in the comments section below.
There are some familiar stories retold, some fascinating insights into the writing process for the thriller writer, his thoughts on Bond's reading matter and, intriguingly, a hint of ‘what might have been’ (or even, perhaps, what ‘might still be’) regarding the ‘missing’ story of Bernard, Fiona, Dicky et all once the Wall had fallen.
Terry K asked: Len, from what I read you’ve always seem to have had a keen interest in technology: you were one of the first people in London to have car phones, IBM word processors etc. Did you ever consider a career in engineering and do you still try to keep up with the latest technologies, smart phones and suchlike?
Len Deighton: “I admire engineers, but I am not clever enough to be one. As an example of engineering genius take Admiral H. Rickover, who put together the world’s first nuclear generator, installed it in a submarine and then master-minded the amazing stabilizing system that enabled missiles (with newly-developed solid fuel) to be fired from thirty feet under a rough sea and still be on target.
When I wrote Blood Tears and Folly, a history of WW2, it was the technology, (some of it primitive, some of it just common sense and some of it amazing) rather than the monumental stupidity that motivated my research and was the purpose of my book. I feel that historians do not give due importance to the role of technology in war. Neither do politicians. I wish more engineers and technically literate people wrote history books.”
On another aspect of this same narrow-minded attitude, I could never understand the opposition so many writers showed in respect of the word processor when it first appeared. Far too many writers still regard technology as an enemy. Word processors, like all technology, have to be used with care and respect. Properly used, technology can do the tedious work. Recently I got into my son’s car and it parked itself at the kerb, nicely positioned in a small space between other cars. I thought that was wonderful; I still do. My elder son worked on voice recognition computers but I wasn’t attracted to that idea because I find the shuffling and changing text on the screen works better for me than speech. But in the light of what is happening to phones, the use of voice recognition is likely to expand.”
Terry K also asked: I understand from Rob’s blog that you’ve written a text for a history of the aero engine. How’s that going, and where did this interest in aeroplane technology begin for you?
LD: “Yes, have written a history of aero-engines. I have kept the technical aspect to basic facts and simple machinery. I have included some almost incredible stories of the vendettas, the government graft and other human failures, as well as the astounding courage and dedication. I tracked down the truth about some myths and controversy’s i.e. whether the British or the Americans were first to put a Rolls Royce Merlin engine into a Mustang fighter plane (the answer is complicated). But my publisher Harper Collins thinks no one will buy books of that sort, so it’s on the shelf until some publisher with more faith in the intelligence of the reading public comes along.
I started the aero engine book when I discovered that airframe manufacturers have to go sniffing around the engine designers long before they start designing their aeroplanes. Engines have led the way, and called the shots, throughout the history of flight, and when the story is laid out in simple form, the history becomes logical, obvious and gripping.
When writing Fighter I came across the fact that because of inadequate power that the Pratt & Whitney engines provided to the early versions of the Boeing jumbo there was an interim solution whereby steam was injected into the engine. This gave a sudden powerful boost. It seemed to me that with an overabundance of heat produced in the engines, and surrounding cold air producing condensation, the power of bypass jets could be supplemented free of charge by combining the two and creating steam in the bypass.
My sons – both pilots - who know far more about these things say that, with today’s much improved jet engines, the steam would not provide enough extra power to make it worthwhile.”
Giacomo Pueroni asked: In the ‘eighties, Glidrose Publication [The James Bond library estate] started a new series of book about James Bond, written by John Gardner. Some informed sources say that other British writers were "in the running" for this books, before Gardner accepted. Were you one of them?
LD: “No, I was never asked to write a James Bond book. When John Gardner – a very good and experienced writer – took it on, I thought the job would be his from then on; that he would become the new Ian Fleming. I was surprised that they shuffled many different writers around.
Recently I was asked to write an Introduction to a reprinted Bond paperback. I wrote it, and although the publishers were happy, the Fleming executors said it was not suitable for the Bond reprint. I am not sure what they objected to, but he who pays the piper calls the tune so I let it go.
Sometime afterwards Amazon asked me to write a non-fiction ‘kindle short’ and I wrote James Bond my search for his father. It is only available in e-book format. I enjoyed writing it, for it brought back many memories – mostly happy ones – of the film world into which I have briefly ventured as an author, producer, and as a screenwriter. The little book tells of my several remarkable engagements with the Bond empire; and friendships with Cubby Broccoli, Sean Connery, Ian Fleming, Harry Salzman and Kevin McClory. I wrote the screenplay of From Russia With Love and Never Say Never Again. I learned a great deal and enjoyed the travel and the technical knowledge I gained but in each case that old Hollywood axiom “screenplays are not written; they are rewritten” proved right. It wasn’t until I produced a film using my own script that I was able to ensure that the entirety of my story ideas went on to the screen. Meanwhile I am hoping that someone will offer to publish my little James Bond memoir and illustrate it.”
Craig Arthur asked: Is it right that in one of his Bond books, John Gardner wrote that you (along with James Joyce) were read by Bond? Bond’s favourite author in Gardner's Bond novels is Eric Ambler, but I believe the heroine in his novelScorpius is a huge Deighton fan! Also, which, if any, is your favourite Fleming novel?
LD: “I am not very well informed about the Bond books! I had never read one until I was asked to go to Istanbul to write From Russia With Love. I read it very carefully. I can’t remember which of the others I read but – subsequent to us talking at length about Japan – Ian gave me one of the first file copies of the story set in Japan, [You Only Live Twice], and I found that interesting and informative.”
Matthew Bradford asked: I believe you’re friends with writer John Gardner. There seems to be some interesting similarities between your careers: writing similar novels around the same time as each other, both of which were followed by dystopian thrillers - Golgartha and SS-GB - and then 1980s spy trilogies - Herbie Kruger and your Samson novels - and then historical spy novels - The Secret Families and Winter. Had that occurred to you? Was there a friendly rivalry, perhaps?
LD: “Yes, although I didn’t know him very well John was a good friend of mine. Knowing my interest in airships he very kindly arranged for me to fly in a blimp and after the flight he persuaded someone from Rolls Royce to let me drive one of their latest cars back to London. I found it rather stressful to have a RR expert sitting next to me watching my driving techniques.
As for our working programs I seldom talk about my ongoing writing projects. I very rarely use researchers, and even then they tend to be family or friends. John seemed to be equally reluctant to discuss his work (we talked about everything else) so if our writing coincided in any way it would have been entirely by chance.”
Matthew also asked: What did you think of Robert Ludlum’s work, since you reference him directly in Spy Sinker: Brett sees his wife reading a spy thriller with a critic's quote declaring it “Better than Ludlum!" written larger than the actual author's name on the cover. I always wondered if this was a tribute to him, or if you were slyly commenting on some cover that had declared another spy thriller "Better than Deighton!" in huge letters, obviously capitalising on your name, but swapped yours for Ludlum because obviously you couldn't exist in Samson's world!?
LD: “I suppose it was intended as an ironic joke that the wife of a senior SIS official would read the extravagances of a fictional spy. I confess that I have from time to time mentioned the titles of other writers but it is only in fun and I certainly do not intend any disrespect. I have always found writing books to be immensely time consuming and moderately stressful. It remains an uncertain way of earning a living. So I give every good wish to anyone who has gone through the torment and doubts that are part of completing a full-length book: however good or bad it is.”
Cameron Duncan asked: How do you feel about contemporary spy fiction? There is a great deal of nostalgia surrounding the Cold War. You, obviously, wrote contemporaneously about it. Do you think the current geo-political and intelligence world holds the same level of intrigue? Current spy fiction is very tech-focused, detailing global communications and all about counter terrorism scenarios, rather than the intensities of interpersonal relationships in that intelligence world you brought so vividly to life.
LD: When Conan Doyle created Sherlock Holmes, criminal detection was changing drastically. Alphonse Bertillon was starting hisService d’Indentité Judiciaire in Paris and Hans Gross had just finished that masterpiece of criminology System der Kriminalistik. A more scientific approach to scene-of-crime evidence was bringing photography, X-Rays, infra-red and ultra-violet light into forensic labs. Chemical analysis and Hollerith file cards came into use. Dust samples were analyzed. Physical categorization and fingerprint classification was transforming police methods everywhere.
But, although Sherlock Holmes makes passing reference to science, and in A Study in Scarlet even visits a laboratory, his methods are human and relatively commonplace. He uses his eyes, his nose and his brain. He recognises typefaces, mud stains and tobacco ash, and conjures a convincing life story after looking at a well-worn gold watch with pawnbroker’s marks. Holmes’ dramatic conclusions were done without chemical analysis, without spectroscopes or even microscopes. It was the observation, common sense and reasoning power that kept the pages turning.
Doyle knew that his readers wanted dialog and characterization. They wanted to read about bizarre millionaires, exotic nobility, nocturnal beasts and horrible villains, not about quiet men dressed in clean white coats in laboratories using litmus paper, test tubes and Bunsen burners. And Doyle even made sure that his hero was an eccentric, even if his reasoning power was cold and logical. The only normal character is Watson. He is exactly like us, and like his author, except for having this very strange friend in his Baker Street home. I found it interesting that the writer and critic Hugh Greene said: “Even physically Conan Doyle resembled Watson, and when I occasionally caught a glimpse of him in Crowborough in the last years of his life one might have been looking at Dr. Watson.”
Conan Doyle got it right. For authors, people matter. Holmes outwitted his opponents in dramatic and dangerous conclusions. Modern futuristic stories that depend upon excessive technology have a hard up-hill struggle no matter how diligent the research.”
Questions from the Deighton Dossier editor on the Samson series of novels
I’m doing one of my regular read-throughs of all nine (or ten, if you count Winter) novels in the Samson triple trilogy. So, I thought I’d ask Len some questions about these.
Rob Mallows: Spy Sinker is published in 1990, but clearly written in the late eighties when there was Glasnost but still no obvious signs of the Wall coming down. It’s very prescient in its imagining of how East Germany could be brought down by Bret’s Sinker plan, which in the end was very close to what happened with the role of the churches and middle classes in the DDR crucial. Was that whole story arc just lucky happenstance, or did you get guidance on what might happen from ‘sources’, shall we say?
LD: “First, let me say that Washington and London had no idea that the Wall would fall: soon or ever. I had the advantage of spending a great proportion of my time in the DDR and in East Berlin. My biggest mistake was in thinking the collapse would come sooner than it did, and perhaps I became a bore about this. I was friendly with several DDR officials who became more and more outspoken every day. I also befriended West Berlin radio taxi drivers who were always the first to sniff what was happening across the whole city. And yes, the churchgoers – especially those in the DDR, the Lutherans - were very brave and resourceful in their opposition to the regime and monumentally patient.
In the DDR the professional middle class, and academics in particular, remained in support of the communist regime right up to the very end. (Many similar people in the West shared their views.) When the day came, it was these people in the DDR who spoke English and had contacts in the West. These intellectuals promptly and deftly rewrote history to give themselves the major heroic part in the revolution. And the western press and TV – mostly monolingual and ill-prepared - carried that untrue account. (The same thing happened in Poland where the Catholic Church and the workers were deprived of their rightful place in the story.)”
RM: Related to that, did you plan the nine novels in one long story arc? Or did you plan out Game, Set & Match as one trilogy, then Hook, Line and Sinker as another trilogy, similarly with Faith, Hope and Charity, all planned from the start? And on the latter three, they were all written four years after the Wall fell and the Warsaw Pact had opened up. Did the change in Europe prompt you to add to the previous two trilogies, or did it just give you more justification to build on the original angle about George and Poland, which you’d explored only briefly in describing his and Tessa’s marriage?
LD: “I like diagrams (I suppose that’s something to do with my six years studying art). I like to have them on the wall so I can be constantly reminded of what progress I am making. I had a firm plan for the first trilogy and a ghost plan for the next three trilogies (the final one describing the collapse was ‘ghosted’ but never written).
I didn’t write all ten books in succession. I was afraid I would go stale if I did. So I deliberately planned, researched and wrote other books of a completely different kind in between the Samson books (much to the frustration and opposition of my publisher). But this enabled me to come back to the Samson story with fresh energy and a new eye.
Of course the opening up of Germany gave me a chance to approach more and more East Germans of a different kind and in a different way. With less danger they were more open. I relished some new anecdotal materiel but there were no revelations that brought changes in the ‘ghost’ plan.
Yes, George was there to give me a foothold in Poland. I almost got carried away by the Polish episodes: it is such a mysterious country both in the national psychology and the landscape. It was a long term interest: several of my friends – since my days at school - are Polish.”
RM: Spy Sinker is in the third person, not Samson’s narrative voice. Challenge or welcome relief, to tell this story in a new way?
LD: “Samson is a character in the books; he is not the ‘authorial voice’. I wanted to emphasize this device. I wanted the reader to see Bernard as the people around him saw him. Writing Sinker gave me a chance to expand the writing style beyond the limitations of the first person (ie taking the reader only where Samson goes).
Sinker provides an overview. Now the reader knows things that still puzzle the characters. In the same way as Spy Sinker, the prequel Winter can be read as part of any sequence of the Bernard Samson series. If you read it before the nine Samson books, you learn the earlier life of many characters. For instance, you will know all about Inge Winter, and will perhaps guess who Ingrid Winter might be, while Bernard puzzles about both of them. Read Winter after the other nine books and it is like opening a security file and finding all the secrets buried there. Either way, the whole series is designed to provide a long and slowly unraveling story with shocks and surprises – plus a little history and geography.”
RM: That twelve year period during which you were writing the Samson novels were a time of great political change - from the coldest period of the Cold War to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the freedom of the East European states. How much were your stories influenced by this changing history, i.e. did things like Gorbachev’s election in the USSR encourage you to change the story or the characters in ways in which you’d not envisaged before?
LD: “The changes in East Europe and the USSR were almost entirely based upon Russia’s growing shortage of Western money. This was needed to prop up the satellites – which were in debt to Western Banks - and buy ever more expensive wheat to supplement continuous crop failures. With skill and prescience President Reagan pressed the Western Banks to harass the Eastern government for repayments of their loaned money. And he manipulated the markets (for that, read Saudi Arabia) to bring down the price of oil (upon exports of which the USSR depended). All this impoverished the USSR economy. So the political changes were an inevitable consequence of the battle for economic health. (This is a complicated story that I might one day write as a non-fiction book.) On a more local scale, visible even to the tourist, the Russian army was soaked in vodka, ragged in attire, months behind with soldier’s pay and deprived of vital equipment.”
RM: The characters in the novels are what give them their edge; they’re so rounded and believable for that period. To what extent were any of the characters inspired by people you’d met, say in East Berlin or in London? I’m thinking for example of Stinnes and Werner Volkmann.
LD: “Conan Doyle pointed out that basing fictional characters upon real people is limiting. Doyle said, the author will always know more about the characters he creates – their history, motivation, and secret thoughts – than he can ever know about real people.
It is true. And I have always claimed that all the characters I write about are created from my imagination but every now and again I find an example that contradicts that. When Sinker was published there was a small, bookshop poster showing all the characters in the books. The artist was Adrian Bailey a brilliant painter with whom I had been at art school. Discussing this project with him, I mentioned various mutual friends and acquaintances who filled the physical descriptions of the cast of Sinker.
That made me realise that I had taken many of the appearances of real people but given them entirely different characteristics. Werner was physically and sartorially based on an Austrian lawyer friend living in London. But much of Werner’s clear thinking, his sense of duty, unstinting generosity and view of the world was that of Leslie Kaye with whom back in the fifties I had managed a dress factory in East London.
Again, in spirit rather that in physical appearance, the indomitable, unpredictable and often illogical Lisl Hennig (always determined to have the last word) is my Irish mother. In appearance Lisl is like the owner-manager of a cramped old-fashioned Berlin hotel I liked. Cold-blooded Stinnes was more like a Russian-born East German official who didn’t like me and was keen to make that plain. Leuschner’s café, complete with broken juke box, was a meeting place where many confidences were exchanged. More than one of my friends have asserted that Bernard is just like me.”
RM: Where and when does Winter fit into the nine trilogies (it was published between London Match and Spy Hook). That is, did you originally plan to publish it to support the Samson novels; was it an afterthought by you after developing Samson’s background in the first trilogy; or was it perhaps a suggestion from your editor or someone else to pursue this as a one-off?
LD: “My wife and I were living in the cramped garret of a popular Gasthof in a village on the Ammersee, a lake just outside Munich. Our sons were attending a nearby German school. For some time I had been scribbling notes about a story that would be in effect a history of Germany 1900-1945 but I kept putting it off.
When writing a letter to a friend in Vienna, I impulsively added a PS asking him to visit a newspaper library and tell me what the weather was like in Vienna on the last day of 1899. At about the same time it occurred to me that a story with an earlier Germany-Austria setting could be a prequel for the Bernard Samson stories. My friend’s weather report became the basis of the first page ofWinter. I like to get things right and had my friend not come back so promptly I might never have written Winter. As it happened the first draft was mostly done in that attic. Living in an attic with a low sloping ceiling encourages work because every time you stop and stand up you hit your head.
In the same village I became friendly with a man who turned out to be a close relative of General Gehlen. (War buffs will know that Gehlen’s WW2 intelligence files and network concerning the USSR gave him an exalted role in the postwar US Intelligence system.) During our prolonged stay my wife and I became friends with the two owners and for relaxation we enjoyed helping in the Gasthof kitchen. By the time the first draft of Winter was complete we had a working knowledge of Bavarian and Swabian cooking. To say nothing of the christenings, weddings and other celebrations which were a part of Bavarian village life. It was a wonderful experience.”
RM: The cover designs for the UK first editions. Ray Hawkey produced the excellent ‘apple’ themed images for Game, Setand Match, which provided a unity to all the novels. But then Spy Hook had the wall motif, Spy Line was just a title and Spy Sinker included a Fiona character. Any particular reason for this loss of a trilogy design, which sort of reappeared withFaith, Hope and Charity with jacket illustrations by Joe Partridge of Bernard and Gloria, Dicky and Werner? Publisher’s prerogative?
LD: “First let me say there are many covers. Hardbacks, trade paperbacks, paperbacks, foreign editions etc. US publishers like to offer their own graphic ideas which are usually inferior. Then there are reprints. It adds up to hundreds of covers. Sometimes there have been publicity campaigns to which the designs must fit. These decisions are often a matter of compromise. I have admired Ray Hawkey’s work ever since we were at art school together and Ray did some groundbreaking work on The Ipcress File and then my subsequent covers. The designs he provided for the three Game Set and Match covers had the unprecedented success of being on the three UK hardbacks, the three US hardbacks and the three UK paperbacks and three US paperbacks too. This was probably a unique record. Subsequent covers differed. I don’t remember exactly which titles were which but the publisher, Rosie Cheetham, one of the finest editors I ever worked with, was unhappy with the proposed three covers all using a very similar wall motif. I separately had the same feeling, and the artwork for the second and third Wall was scrapped.”
I am depending upon my memory and perhaps forgetting some superb covers, but Ray’s use of the landscape painting for Bomber was striking and so was the broken champagne bottle for Close-Up and the dead bird in the snow that went on the hardbackWinter.
Despite all the doubts I had about computer graphics, the paintbrush style cover designs based upon Joe Partridges photos were superb. I was watching with close interest when the in-house designers were working on some of them. A large part of the striking success came from the casting of the photographer’s models – Dicky, Gloria and Bernard etc – and I can claim no part in that.
My old friend Arnold Schwartzman produced the mammoth series of covers for the recent reprints using his amazing collection of Cold War ephemera. He reproduced authentic air tickets so that the spines spelled out BERNARDSAMSON. When – albeit rarely – they are to be found on bookshop selves, the result is dramatic. But my years studying art left me in awe of the painter’s skill, and the eight magnificent realistic covers Gordon Crabb painted with such care and research for the paperback editions of Expensive Place, Declarations of War, Twinkle Twinkle, SS-GB, Close-Up, Spy Story, Yesterdays Spy, Billion Dollar Brain and Horse Under Water remain my favourites. It has always been my belief that depicting people on covers for fiction works is better than any other graphic solution.
Coming soon are three covers for the reprints of my history books; Blitzkrieg, Fighter and Blood Tears & Folly. They depict women in the war and extend the notion of the war in a way that is striking and thought-provoking and no author can ask for more than that.”
RM: Finally, I may have asked you this before, but was there every any temptation after Faith, Hope and Charity to explore the fall of the Eastern Bloc from the perspective of Bernard, Fiona, Dicky, Bret and Sir Henry, i.e. to see through to the end what they’d all been involved in across nine novels?
LD: “Well, the final trilogy was a ‘ghost’ idea but I never moved very far in writing it. I did think of telling the whole story again in one volume but I couldn’t decide how to do it; eg in the first person, third person or some entirely different viewpoint, for example, Bernard’s son. I’m still thinking about it.”
© Pluriform 2014 and © The Deighton Dossier 2014 - not for reproduction without permission