Len Deighton Q&A interview five - June 2015

This interview is © Pluriform 2015 and The Deighton Dossier. It must not be reproduced in any form without express permission of the author and the website owner.

Questions from the Deighton Dossier

Deighton Dossier: As an author, what’s been your relationship or perspective on book reviewers? Are they crucial to an author’s success? Does a bad review get you down? Do you think over the year’s your books have been well reviewed?

Len Deighton: Critics or reviewers earn their living, and keep their jobs, by entertaining their readers rather than by accurate judgment. I understand this and, as a general policy, I avoid reading reviews. It is better to get on with the next project than to dwell upon the past. Like most authors, I usually finish a book with a vague discontent and a desire to start again and do it differently. But I don't do that; I send it off to my agent and listen to what she has to say about it.

DD: One of the books of yours I like, but which is perhaps less well known now, is Declarations of War, your collection of short stories with a military theme. Each story and main character is different but together, they provide a nice sense of continuity throughout history of man as soldier. What was the prompt for writing that book?

LD: For me, writing is a long, slow business. In the year or more while Declarations of War was written we were looking for a home. The ups and downs and running around that is a part of house-hunting made me feel I needed to write separate stories. I wrote them in flashy hotels, cramped apartments and the homes of friends but I kept to my military theme. For some stories I used the experiences of people I met and places I visited. Thus the book was planned and and written as a whole (although a recent reprinting added 'The Man Who Was a Coyote’, a story written later).

But be warned: publishers hate short stories because they persist in believing that immediately people think they are ancient odds and ends that have been published elsewhere eg in magazines.  No amount of explanation will convince them otherwise.

DD: I read somewhere that when you were writing Ipcress File, first as a screenplay, you put it down for a while before returning to it. I guess you could easily have left it on the shelf and got on with you life - but what prompted you to go back and finish it and, as a result, change your whole life?

LD: I met a literary agent at a party in Swiss Cottage in North London. After our friendly conversation at the party I went home and dusted off what I had written and, during a lengthy but failed attempt to live in the French countryside, knocked it into better shape. I had never had an ambition to be a writer, and I was perfectly happy, and adequately paid working as a free lance illustrator. But my book found a publisher and I devoted all my time and energy to becoming a professional writer.

DD: Your book Blitzkrieg has a forward by General Nehring. He seems an interesting character to know, to say the least. In your research for this book, you clearly engaged with a number of German veterans. I’d be interested, given what we know about the war as a whole, in your impressions of the German veterans who helped inform your work. What didyou make of them? Were they, essentially, the same as British or US veterans, or did the German army create a particular sort of soldier?

LD: It was my good luck to start writing about WWII - and in Blitzkrieg about the rise of the Nazi Party - while the top people (British, American, German and French people too) were still alive. Apart from the post-war military interrogators, historians ignored the Germans. Even German historians avoided them. This worked in my favour; high-ranking people such as General Walter Nehring (Chief of Staff to General Heinz Guderian) were pleased to be questioned by someone who had a basic knowledge of the war. On the Allied side, I knew  Major-General Francis de Guingand (Chief of Staff to General Montgomery).

Albert Speer (Hitler's Minister of Armaments) was unstinting in his help and advice. He was Hitler's architect and became the Minister of Armaments. He spent more time talking with Hitler than most of the other top Nazis. Speer served 20 years in prison in Spandau Berlin and was released in 1966. His two books provide the only serious inside look at Hitler and the criminals who ruled Germany from 1933 until the end of the war in 1945. Working on autobiographical notes after his release, Speer needed to remember some dates concerning him and his family in the early thirties. He could however remember that a Zeppelin flew over and this would enable him to confirm a time and place. 

Someone told Speer that I was an expert on the Zeppelins and he contacted me. It wasn't exactly true but I had co-written two specialist books about Zeppelin flights: The Orient Flight of the LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin and The Egypt Flight of the Graf Zeppelin and published articles about Zeppelin airmail in philatelic magazines. For my own amusement I had drawn maps showing the airships many flights, But there were many others who knew more than I did. Most notably there was Hans von Schiller, who was living in Stuttgart not far from Speer's home in Heidelberg. I knew Schiller well; he had served with the Zeppelins over many years and had commanded the Graf Zeppelin on numerous transatlantic flights. But I was dedicated to 20th century history, to German  history and to World War Two. I had written about it and planned to write more; a chance to meet Albert Speer was irresistible. 

It was easy for me to date Speer's sighting of the Graf Zeppelin and it began an exchange of letters and then an invitation for my my wife and I to visit him and his wife Margarete at his family home.So much has been written about Speer that I can't add much of great value. He was quietly spoken, polite and rather withdrawn. My primary impression was of a great calm. By the time I met Speer I had questioned countless veterans of the war, but I had never met anyone with comparable calm demeanor. Whether this was the result of 20 years solitary confinement, or whether this calm and capable demeanor had played a part in his becoming Hitler's confidente, was impossible to guess. He met my questions with full and frank replies. 

I must explain that my questions for Speer were devoted to facts rather than opinions. The war and German armaments were my prime interest. Sometimes the facts came unasked.  One evening the four of us went out to dine in a local restaurant with Speer at the wheel of his Mercedes. It was, he explained to me, a special model that Mercedes supplied only to him. 

'In what respect?' I asked.

'It has a Wankel engine,' he replied. 'During the war I supported the work done on the engine. I was very keen on it. They supply this special model as an appreciation.'

'Why did you support the work?'

'I wanted Wankel engines for bombers,' he said. 'They are so quiet.'

As someone who had survived three months of uninterrupted Luftwaffe bombing raids the thought made me shiver. I have written a book about the history of aero-engines (which still needs illustrations and a publisher) so this revelation was of major interest to me. The Wankel engine was a radical development in engines and I was interested in hearing about this little-known use of it.

Being with Speer gave me a chance to kill off one of the most infantile myths of the war (although in 1995 it was still being offered in the 'Macmillan Dictionary of the Second World War'). This was the story that the Rudolf Hess imprisoned in Spandau was an imposter. As I expected, Speer confirmed that his fellow prisoner was undoubtedly the man he'd known in Hitler's Germany. I was able to include this in a contribution I wrote for 'Flight From Reality - Rudolf Hess and his Mission to Scotland' published by Pimlico in 2002 for the University of Edinburgh. 

I tried to persuade Margarete Speer to write a book describing what domestic and social  life was like in Nazi Germany with all the wives and children of the Nazi elite to socialise with. She smiled knowingly and politely said yes yes but I could see that it was something she would never  do.

Albert Speer had a dry sense of humour and I remember him saying that his book never got to number one on the NY Times bestseller list because 'There was a book called 'Everything you always wanted to know about sex but were afraid to Ask' which stayed at the top for ever.'

I think it was a joke but he kept a straight face so I nodded sympathetically.

Through veterans associations I met many other men who had fought in the war. These lower ranking soldiers were explicit and brutally frank. The list is very long and I remain grateful to them all. There were many surprises; but of course I always cross-checked and double researched anything even slightly contentious.

One thing I noticed about German veterans was a determination to get everything exactly correct; had I written it down? Was my spelling right? (My wife speaks German fluently but they still liked to be sure there were no misunderstandings). 'The Italians alongside us fought like demons' said one Africa Corps veteran. 'D-Day was, in other words; a typical Luftwaffe balls-up' said a Waffen-SS veteran in perfect English. The failings, victories, defeats and even disgrace had to be recorded precisely.

DD: On the lighter side, your time as travel editor of Playboy in the sixties sounds like a very interesting period. How did that come about and what was the grandest tour you got to go on while editor?

LD: In the late sixties Playboy was run by an energetic man named Spectorsky (Hugh Heffner was a sort of super chief who spent most of his time in the 'Playboy Mansion' where I stayed when in Chicago. 'Spec'  had seen the Continental Dossier and the London Dossier which I had compiled from other people's expert writings. 'Spec' wanted to attract big international advertisers such as airlines, and he needed travel articles that would help to do that. He asked me to become Travel Editor: travel anywhere with a very generous expense account. Had I not been committed to the pre production work  on my two films - Only When I Larf and Oh! What a Lovely War -  I might have enjoyed this assignment more than I did. But it was a demanding and interesting appointment.

The grandest trip was to Hawaii where I had a helicopter to use like an air taxi hopping from place to place. But most enjoyable was the time my wife and I spent in a tiny rural town in Japan. No one there spoke English.  The locals were curious about these two tall round-eyes who had suddenly appeared. But the food was wonderful, the beds remarkable and everyone was polite and friendly. It was almost magical: so perfect that I never wrote about it.

 

Questions from readers of the Deighton Dossier

Craig Arthur: I’m interested in your writing process as author. How have you approached the generation of ideas, the research, the structuring of your books. How much pre-planning went into your fiction projects, such as the nine-books of the Samson series?

LD: I have met authors who like to make up their stories as they go along. That idea fills me with horror. I like to plan slowly and carefully. I use wall-charts to which I canrefer easily and quickly. For Bomber my work-room was papered with charts and diagrams, maps and target maps, photos and character notes. A sectional drawing of a Lancaster bomber was valuable to me. For some major characters, both German and British - I clipped photos of people from newspapers, magazines or snapshots.

For me, writing a book is a lengthy process so I spend a long time in preparation before committing myself to the writing. I am always ready to dump material that is not going the way I planned. The Samson series was sketched out roughly as a chart even before Berlin Game was started. I prefer  to decide upon the setting first. I dont want to write stories that could have happened anywhere: I like stories that could only have happened in the place or places I have chosen: in this case communist Berlin, West Berlin and London. I had lived on both sides of the Wall and come to know Berlin rather well over the years; and I wasborn in London. I wanted these places to be important. Over the nine books there were episodes in such places as Mexico and Poland where I also had friends and relatives.

Of course characterisation and dialog is the make or break element of most books. The Bernard Samson stories were devoted to him and to the people around him. Here is a man troubled by his sincere love for two women. In an old Berlin hotel Tante Lisl is like a mother to him, and his immediate superior Frank feels responsible for Bernard and all his problems. But the relationships are a tangle of emotions and in London Bernard's sardonic relationship with his immediate superior - Dicky - gives the story its lemon-juice flavour.

Eero Ranio: Your cooking books are very well known. I’d like to know if you still cook regularly at home the meals you wrote about in your books, and what would be your dream meal - any dish, any restaurant?

LD: Yes, my wife and I share the cooking, and we prefer to eat at home rather than in restaurants. At present I am publishing a cookstrip in the Observer Monthly Food Magazine. I am greatly helped in cooking and experimenting for the strip by my younger son. Both my sons are accomplished cooks and I am often in awe of what complex recipes they will tackle.

My own tastes are simple; I enjoy the dishes that my mother made so perfectly: Lancashire hot-pot, stewed eels, steak and kidney pudding, bread and butter pudding and my mother’s wonderful sherry trifle.

Brian Miller: Continuing the food theme, there are really strong food and wine elements in many of your novels which are as important in many ways to the reader as the guns and the espionage action. What do food and wine give to an author in terms of how they help reveal characters and themes?

"Man is what he eats" the Romans told us. It is true; our bodies and our minds require nourishment. and we are the product of that intake. We observe our friends, and their choice of clothes, food, drink. We notice their conversation and sense of humour, which conjures up our image of them. So it is with the characters in a book. All of these blending elements - and sometimes contradictory ones -  paint a coherent picture for our readers.

But food is also a battlefield of pretension and bewilderment. Restaurants spend more time writing menus than cooking food. More and more meals arrive in cardboard boxes. Liberal salt prolongs shelf life, and amazing colour photos lift expectations that stall. Dinner party scenes abound in my books: I can't resist the opportunities they provide for double-meaning dialogue.

Simon Clark [Simon had many questions so I picked the best!]: If you hadn’t been successful as a fiction or food writer, what occupation would you have chosen. Did you envisage a long career in illustration and advertising?

LD: Yes, at one time I wanted nothing other than a career as an illustrator. Photographers, illustrators and art directors are a congenial fraternity; a little world of cheerful friends. Writers are far more competitive.

SC: You moved to America many years ago. As an Englishman, what attracted you to the life in America?

LD: In the nineteen fifties New York was the place to be for an illustrator. A dazzling array of magazines and advertisements showed the work of a lively, witty and creative new wave of artists and photographers too. Eventually London caught up, and by the sixties the flow reversed and many American creative people enjoyed working for London agencies.

SC: Your first novel, The Ipcress File, was published in 1962, at a time when the Beatles were starting to grab attention. In the ‘sixties, both you and the Beatles were arguably at the top of your professions. What recollection did you have of the Beatles at that time?

LD: It’s a long story. I was enjoying a prolonged stay in Paris researching An Expensive Pace to Die. They assigned a plain clothes policeman to show me around and he seemed to delight in shocking me as we went into the strange underworld of Paris at that time.

But I had a more normal social life too and one of the friends I made was Lloyd Chandler, a Canadian prospector who had struck uranium and come to Europe to enjoy his sudden wealth. Although Lloyd's lifestyle was modest, he was generous and eccentric. He threw to me the keys and made me a present of his rather battered Jaguar E-Type when his local taxi service had closed for the night and I needed to get back to central Paris. I was able to return it to him only with the greatest difficulty and with the aid of a third party.

Lloyd's uranium windfall persuaded him to donate money to Bertrand Russell's 'Ban the Bomb' movement and the two men became friends. During a visit to Russell at his home in Wales, Lloyd was told how worried he was about a letter he'd written in the nineteen thirties promising his autobiography to a publisher. Now he was writing hisautobiography: must he take their first offer? Who would advise him? Lloyd said Len Deighton would know the answer. What made him say this I have no idea!

I knew nothing of any of this when some months later in London  I had a call from Russell on the rather primitive radio phone that I had installed in my VW Beetle. Deciding it was a hoax I ignored it and the calls that followed for a week but eventually decided I should respond. Who could resist an invitation to visit the world's most famous philosopher? My wife and I spent a couple of delightful days with Bertrand Russell and even my slight grasp of copyright law enabled me to set his mind at rest about the letters. He had other problems: his papers, and archives covering his longlife, were scattered in various grand houses and private libraries in Britain and he would like to have the material collected, sorted and made into a catalog.

I suggested that he should meet my friend Ray Hawkey and my accountant Anton Felton. It worked out well. There were about 100,000 items and a limited edition catalog was published in an edition of 300. Anton Felton became Russell's Executor.

It was on the second day of our visit that Bertrand Russell mentioned the Beatles to me, saying that they wanted to make an 'anti-war film' and wanted me to produce it. My wife and I cooked an elaborate curry meal, with all the side dishes and accompaniments. It covered the long bare dining-room table at our home in Merrick Square, in south London.

Paul McCartney came and we devoured the vast curry, drank beer and talked and talked until the small hours of the morning. I was writing and producing Oh! What A Lovely War. To create a narrative I had made the central characters into the Smith Family and the four Beatles could have fitted into this role. But understandably, they wanted to have their own music and their own lyrics. The two projects just wouldn't fit together and, although Paul and I hoped that we could do something together at some future date, we never did.

Robert ‘Raki’ Rakison: In some American first editions of your novel *XPD*, there was a laid-in copy of a postcard of the Hindenburg. As a reader and collector I’d be interested to know: why was such a lagniappe included?

DD: I am completely baffled by what you tell me, Publishers are apt to do very strange things - quite often.

© Pluriform 2015 and The Deighton Dossier. It must not be reproduced in any form without express permission of the author and the website owner.

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