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Birnbaum v.

Charles McCarry

Once upon a time, the CIA was stocked with Yalie do-gooders, liberal spooks who were going to change the world. A conversation with the master novelist and former agent about a dying breed, posing as a reporter undercover, and the different ways to describe success in publishing.

The idea of traversing much of Massachusetts with the steadfast Rosie, in my ragtop, on a sunny summer weekday, was an additionally appealing element in my hegira to Northampton to chat with author Charles McCarry. Unfortunately the weather did not cooperate. Nonetheless, this western Massachusetts university town has innumerable charms. McCarry and I met at a coffee bar at Thorne’s, a downtown Northampton urban mall.

McCarry has published 10 novels which have been translated into over 20 languages including, The Miernik Dossier, The Tears of Autumn, The Secret Lovers, The Better Angels, The Last Supper, The Bride of the Wilderness, Second Sight, Shelley’s Heart, Lucky Bastard, and now Old Boys. In addition, he has written (or co-written) seven works of non-fiction, including Citizen Nader, the first biography of Ralph Nader (1972), and the memoirs of Alexander Haig and Donald Regan. He has been a journalist, a writer for the Saturday Evening Post, an editor-at-large for National Geographic, a contributor to publications as varied as the Washington Post and Esquire, and has also script-doctored numerous Hollywood films. For 10 years McCarry was an intelligence officer in the Central Intelligence Agency working under deep cover in Africa, Asia, and Europe. He and his family reside, part of the year, in the area of the Berkshires where he was born and raised.

Six (and now with Old Boys, seven) of McCarry’s novels feature Paul Christopher, an inestimably skilled intelligence agent whose preternatural abilities and erudition both draw him into riveting tangled webs and allow him to escape them. The superlatives from readers and peers are boundless, of which the dust jackets of his books give ample evidence. Christopher Buckley wrote of the much celebrated Shelley’s Heart, “This amazing book confirms what a lot of people have known for a long time, namely that Charles McCarry is not only one of our best writers in America but one of the most important.” For the Washington Post, Old Boys is, “at heart, a lament for a dying generation of American spies, an elegy for the human twilight, ‘Cocoon’ with a cloak and dagger. Here’s how one young Agency whippersnapper—a woman, no less—puts it to the old boys: ‘You’re well and gratefully remembered. But you and your old-timer friends are causing a lot of unnecessary trouble. You’re getting between our people and an important target. What is desired—and this comes from the very highest level—is for you and your shuffleboard team to get out of the way. And stay out of the way.’ Them, of course, be fightin’ words.”
 

All photos copyright © Robert Birnbaum
 

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Robert Birnbaum: Are you an “old boy”? Do you consider yourself an old boy?

Charles McCarry: I think so, yes.

RB: I read an amusing reference to a memorial service you went to and the chapel doors were locked during the eulogy because whatever was being said was classified information. Is that a true story?

CM: I think it’s true that the chapel was locked or at least that there were people watching the doors. I don’t think after all these years it was very classified.

RB: What are the old-boy types thinking now?
McCarry, by Robert Birnbaum
CM: I think Old Boys answers that question. I was having lunch with Richard Helms, a good friend of mine, several years ago. He was very upset with the younger generation. I said, “You know Dick, older generations have always been upset with younger generations.” He said, “Yes, but we have a lot more reason.” [laughs]

RB: A novel by Janette Turner Hospital, Due Preparations for the Plague is interesting because it deals with a hijacking and the aftermath. What she focused on was the notion that people who are involved in certain kinds of [clandestine] intelligence work ultimately—and what makes the work so corrosive to the practitioners—is that they can’t trust anyone.

CM: It used to be that was half true. You didn’t trust anybody on the outside. And you never took anybody at face value. But there was absolute trust within the organization. [chuckles]

RB: In Old Boys, they put their lives in each other’s hands.

CM: Yes, they did. I think that’s one of the most wearing things about the profession, or craft or trade or whatever it is. And that is that you do hold in your hands the lives and reputations of whomever you are dealing with. Now every time you recruit an agent of a foreign country, you suborn him to treason. That’s a capital crime in every country in the world. So, [pauses] it’s a little wearing when you have 15 or 20 of them or more.

The thing that drives our society and has for a long time is a kind of paranoia that everything is a conspiracy. These guys were all nice boys who went to Yale and wouldn’t hurt a fly—in their own view. RB: You got out, though. You only spent 10 years in the trade.

CM: It was long enough. [both laugh] It’s a young man’s game. I think, in one of my novels, I said that it produces a kind of feeling after a certain number of years, of what the religious call “spiritual fatigue.”

RB: It’s the case that many don’t get out. They become lifers.

CM: I think that’s true in every profession. Journalists remain journalists. Doctors remain doctors. Dentists remain dentists. Also in the old days, I don’t know what the situation is now, but in my time there was a very great sense of brotherhood and a kind of mutual pride and a trust, of course. These are people who understand each other perfectly because they are all doing the same work. They have all been investigated into a faretheewell, so there are no secrets.

RB: Yet there are people who, like Barney Wolkowicz in one of your novels, turned out not to be what he seemed. So the investigations aren’t foolproof and some people escape detection.

CM: That’s one of the reasons they escape detection. And in the case of Aldrich Ames or [Robert] Hanssen in the FBI, no one suspected them because they were relatively insignificant people within the organization. And second, they were both in counter-intelligence and the Russians are very candid [on this that] that’s the way in. They are the cops who police their own agencies. So they have a right to know everything but no one has a right to know what they know.

RB: There’s no counter-counter-intelligence.

CM: Right.

RB: There is a sense, and it is reiterated in your novels, that the Cold War struggle against the Russians and Communists was very affirmative for the intelligence community and that there was an absolute faith they were on the right side. And after the Soviet Union collapsed there was great self-congratulation. Somewhere in Old Boys you write, “They did a lot of good in the world, little of it except through stupidity and inadvertence.”

CM: I don’t remember saying that. Some of it by inadvertence at least. I never met a stupid person in the agency. Or an assassin. Or a Republican.

RB: No Republicans? [laughs] Are you serious?

CM: I’m serious. They were, at least in the operations side where I was, there were wall-to-wall knee-jerk liberals. And they were befuddled that the left outside the agency regarded them as some sort of right-wing threat. Because they were the absolute opposite, in their own politics.

RB: Isn’t there something about a secret police that is inconsistent with our notions of democracy?

CM: To begin with, they are not secret police.

RB: That’s the perception.

CM: They have no police powers. They can’t arrest anybody. They can’t kidnap people.

RB: They have no domestic jurisdiction.

CM: That’s right. Except in the case of Operation Chaos, which was presidentially mandated, I doubt we have very much unless they were chasing Russians or Chinese. But, of course, the thing that drives our society and has for a long time is a kind of paranoia that everything is a conspiracy. These guys were all nice boys who went to Yale and wouldn’t hurt a fly—in their own view.

RB: Those were not Republicans?

CM: No. I tell you I literally never met a Republican in the CIA.

RB: I apparently have a bias that Yale was a big recruiting ground for the agency and that many Elis are Republican. And that at least unlike the last generation, that many of then came from well-to-do Eastern families and they joined the agency as a game. And saw the world was their playground.

CM: I think it’s certainly true that it was played as a game in the early days. But their sense was that the Russians were a bit slow, and indeed they were, in some cases. But they were all—how can I put it to you?—they were 20 IQ points up on any other group I was ever associated with. They were patriots. They worked 20-hour days. I don’t remember a sense of elitism. I remember a sense of gung-ho-ism, if you would. But as I say it was a different organization in those days.

It used to be fun, driving across Ohio, to stop in a small town and go in a library and pull a book off the shelf—and they were always all there. RB: So now you have written Old Boys, which reprises a number of characters including one who, after you first wrote about him, you said you were not going to write about again.

CM: Yes.

RB: So is this the sixth novel Paul Christopher appears in?

CM: I think so.

RB: And if I read Old Boys carefully, he is still alive.

CM: No, he isn’t. If he ever gets a genuine gravestone, “He’s not dead yet,” would be the proper [epitaph].

RB: Sounds like a variation on the old Saturday Night Live joke about Generalissimo Franco. You have been credited in the two stand-alone novels [Shelley’s Heart and Lucky Bastard] with great prescience. Shelley’s Heart was based on a presidential election being stolen in 2000 and Lucky Bastard was about a philandering sociopathic president. Old Boys is about Middle Eastern fundamentalist/jihadists acquiring weapons of mass destruction. All these situations are a hair beyond plausible.

CM: Shelley’s Heart was the sequel to a book called The Better Angels, which was published in ‘79 and in that—I hesitate to take credit for this—I invented the suicide bomber, people who blew themselves up, on airplanes, in order to crash them into big cities. There was a figure very much like the Ayatollah Khomeini, of whom no one had heard at that point, who reappears in Old Boys. So I have no explanation for this. It just happens.

RB: Of the people who read you, they love your books. You are mentioned in high praise in the company of John Le Carre and Alan Furst. Yet you seem not to have the same commercial success. Have there been many reviews in the big bellwether publications like the New York Times?

CM: Yes, and they have always been very kind. I don’t think anyone can solve this particular mystery. [both laugh]

RB: I like the story about how you like to go to libraries and see how many times your books have been circulated.

CM: Yes, you can’t do that anymore because they all have computers. It used to be fun, driving across Ohio, to stop in a small town and go in a library and pull a book off the shelf—and they were always all there. And look and see that it had been taken out every four days.

RB: Are your books currently in print?

CM: No, but Overlook Press is bringing them all back. I think they begin in September with The Tears of Autumn and The Miernik Dossier.

RB: Well, that’s good that someone, every once in a while, views the literary moment as being a little longer than the commercial one. How is Old Boys selling?

CM: Briskly, I am told. Certainly the reviews have been very good. And I hear from people who have read it and like it who are not friends of mine. It seems to be moving along. So one hopes that it will keep moving along, but in the past the sequence has been: The publisher loves the book. Thinks it’s going to be the no. 1 bestseller. Sends it for quotes [blurbs], gets very good quotes back. Sends it out for review and gets very good reviews. Sells out the first printing and then everything stops. I think it’s a question of trying to beat the system. When MBAs take over anything—

RB: [laughs]

CM:—you tend to get a system that doesn’t make much sense except to other MBAs. So I guess that I have no idea what their philosophy of sales is. Certainly the independent bookseller who recommended good books to his clients and pushed certain books and authors is a dying breed. And bookselling, like virtually everything else, has been industrialized.

RB: Maybe. In Boston it seems that the independent booksellers have done better than the chain conglomerates. And, looking at author itineraries, I see that in every part of the country there are booksellers promoting literary fiction. All that aside, it takes four or five years for you to write something. In that time are you paying attention to the vagaries of the book business?

CM: Even at publication times, I try not to pay too much attention to the process. That’s the publisher’s field of endeavor, and he knows much more about it than I do. And there is very little I can do to influence the situation. I can go and speak and read and sign books and be pleasant. I love seeing readers and reading to them. I love hearing their questions. But most of the people—and I think most writers would say the same, but you talk to many more writers than I do—people who are fans are the ones who tend to come.

RB: Probably, although some bookstores have done well in establishing their reading series—so it’s not necessarily about the author. This does bring up the matter of you the writer engaging in the auxiliary activity of performing.

CM: Yes. Well, of course no one writes all the time. And normally when I finish a book time just slowwwwwws down. And I am happy to have the opportunity to go out and meet people.

Maybe six months after I left the agency, I went out on assignment, for of all magazines in the world, National Geographic. I introduced myself and showed credentials which I had never had before and was immediately accused of being in the CIA. RB: As far as I know, your covert activities career was accidental. Your aspirations were always to be a writer.

CM: Yes, from the womb, I would say. [laughs]

RB: I read some old feature on you that said by the time you left your mother’s house there were 10,000 books collected there.

CM: That’s right. My mother also patronized the library so she always had this enormous stack of books beside her. And she actually read them all. She lived to be 97.

RB: That speaks well for your longevity.
McCarry, by Robert Birnbaum
CM: And she began reading, they tell me, when she was about three. I think she got her way through practically everybody and everything. She was a great storyteller and had a tremendous influence on me. She had a repertoire of stories, almost all family stories and stories of her own girlhood. And if somebody said to her, “Mother, I’ve heard that story.” She’d pause for a moment, pick it up on the syllable and go on to the end. And she knew we had heard it before. We didn’t have to tell her [that].

RB: She is from this area [North Hampton, Mass.]?

CM: Yes, we are all from the Berkshires.

RB: Your career seemed not to be a great diversion from writing, because you continued to write as your cover.

CM: No. I never wrote as cover.

RB: Weren’t you writing while you worked for the agency?

CM: I was but I wasn’t using it as cover. Every other intelligence service in the world—the French, the Russians, you name it—has used journalism as cover.

RB: [laughs]

CM: And it’s worn out. To introduce yourself as journalist in the heart of Africa or Asia, they will immediately suspect you are some sort of spy. And in fact, in the 20 years I was in, under what was laughingly called deep cover—which is to say I was out in the world with an ordinary passport, I didn’t work out of an embassy—I worked out of a house. No one ever accused me of being a CIA agent.

RB: Ostensibly, what were you? When you traveled to Africa, what were you doing it for?

CM: I was a nice young American who wanted to be helpful. [both laugh] And usually people were glad to accept the help. But as I was saying, maybe six months after I left the agency, I went out on assignment, for of all magazines in the world, National Geographic. I introduced myself and showed credentials which I had never had before and was immediately accused of being in the CIA. [both laugh]

RB: What was your response?

CM: “No, I am not.” And they said, “Of course, that’s what they all say.” I used all sorts of different covers but never journalism. That was the reason. I have to say I had been a journalist and still was. I was a contributing writer for the Saturday Evening Post. But my agency connection was not something they knew about. I never mixed the two. It was a good thing, because I was sometimes gone for six weeks at a time. The phone would ring at midnight, “You’re needed in Mogadishu,” and off I would go. And my wife who had either three or four little kids and [was] living in a foreign country didn’t know where I was going or when I was coming back. And in those days telephones were—we are talking about the ‘50s and ‘60s, in Europe, let alone Asia—were pretty much unusable. Even if they weren’t too insecure. So when I came back after one of these [trips] I would often take a Saturday Evening Post assignment and take my wife with me and go to London and interview Michael Caine or go to Helsinki or write a story about a movie. Interview Otto Preminger or whatever. It had nothing to do with my work for the agency. I’d get compensatory time off because I had been working 24 hours a day for six weeks. So it was a way to restore our marriage and it seems to have worked, since we celebrated our 50th anniversary last September.

RB: Great. Amazing. Did you find yourself compartmentalizing your world, the way you viewed it?

CM: Yes, of course, I think one compartmentalizes everything in intelligence work. I compartmentalized my marriage. I compartmentalized my friendships. I compartmentalized my relationship with my parents. None of these people except my wife knew—until my cover was blown on the Today show.

Of all the things I have ever done and there have been a good many, the most interesting by a factor of 10 has been my life with my wife and my children RB: Is that a burden?

CM: No it’s not. You learn to do it. And again I will make an analogy with other professions. I don’t think that surgeons think about the last operation, whether they were successful or unsuccessful, except in terms of useful experience. I know, having been a journalist all my life, journalists don’t look back. Relief pitchers don’t look back. I think it’s a common human practice.

RB: There was Donnie Moore. Remember him?

CM: Yeah.

RB: A sad story.

CM: It’s common, and it’s common to trade craft. Anyone who has ever had an illicit love affair has practiced trade craft. It’s some how part of the matrix, that people instinctively know how to do. And there are secrets in every life. The secrets in an intelligence service are often no more interesting than your Great Aunt Hilda’s. When I finally got top-secret compartmentalized security clearance and I was given this file to open, I opened it and looked at and thought, “What’s so secret about this?”

RB: One of the stunning things about Old Boys was the secondary story, “The Amphora Scroll.” You had apparently been thinking about it for a long time.

CM: Oh, 30 years, I would say. I could never think of a way to use it. Ah, I didn’t want to write a costume drama, a costume novel. I didn’t want to make Jesus the protagonist or the antagonist of a novel. But at long last as I was writing this book—I never write from outlines or notes, I just think about things for 30 years and then one day when I have a first line, a character and general idea of what the story’s going to be and just sit down and write, 1,500 words a day until the characters say, “That’s enough.” In any case, I hadn’t intended to use this, but then as I got into the book, maybe two or three pages it became obvious to me that this was an opportunity and I wove it into the story. And it became, I hope, an interesting part of the story. It is an outrageous idea.

RB: It is. Any objections from the fundamentalist Christian right?

CM: I think it’s unlikely they’d read it. But one of my sons said, “Dad, you fixed it up so that you will be the first man in history to be subject of fatwa [religious directives] from both the Christians and the Muslims.

RB: What’s the Christian version of a fatwa?

CM: Excommunication. But you have to belong to a church to have that happen to them.

RB: Christians other than Catholics can be excommunicated?

CM: Oh, sure. I was raised as an Episcopalian. And Episcopalians get excommunicated.

RB: What do you have to do? Marry a same-sex partner?

CM: Half the church seems to be pretty tolerant of that. But what you have to do is commit heresy.

RB: Oh my.

CM: It’s possible that what I wrote could be considered heresy.

RB: You have mentioned in the past your great love for your family and thoughts about writing about fatherhood. You provided some qualifier—

CM: I hoped to be good enough.

RB: So what do you think now?

CM: I don’t think I am good enough. Of all the things I have ever done and there have been a good many, the most interesting by a factor of 10 has been my life with my wife and my children. And it’s such a complex and deep and all encompassing part of my life that I don’t think that I can write about it. So maybe not.

RB: When you say “good enough,” is it about getting the story right?

CM: Getting it right and capturing the nuances.

RB: Won’t this nag at you, that it’s something you want to do? Or do you let yourself off the hook by allowing that this goes past your capability?

CM: How can I answer that? [pauses] Frankly, I don’t think it goes beyond my capability. I could certainly write a novel about this if I wished to do so. However the experiences I suggested a moment ago have been so complete—and remember I am 74 years old—I have been married for 50 years and my oldest son is 47, so I have been at this for a long time. It’s so complete in itself that there is nothing that I could do on paper, by putting black ink on paper, to make it more complete. What attracts me in the way of material are situations that are some way in, my mind at least, incomplete.

RB: Why did you suggest in the past that it was something that you wanted to do?

CM: My mind was probably wandering when I answered the question. But what I just told you is the fact. It would be wonderful to do it because in a way it would permit me to relive all of the happy and pleasant and sometimes other kinds of moments that make up the experience. But I have already lived them once so I don’t have to do it again.

If you go to the store to buy an alarm clock and you get home and open the package and you find that they have wrapped up a Rolex wrist watch, you might be delighted by the mistake, but on the other hand what you really wanted was an alarm clock. RB: We touched a little on the book business, which has established marketing categories—genres. Do you see yourself as a genre writer?

CM: No, I never have. I think that may be the reason why my books, although they have been read by many, many people, have taken on a kind of samizdat existence, passed from hand to hand.

RB: In my own case I have probably given away a dozen copies of Shelley’s Heart.

CM: I think Dutton, my first publisher, put The Miernik Dossier into the wrong category. I had the naive idea when I began to write that I could write what I knew, which all writers are advised to do, and in my case that was the world of espionage. But I never read a thriller, apart from [James] Buchan and Eric Ambler whom I like very much. I certainly wasn’t a fan of thrillers. I found that they were quite far from the reality of the game. I wanted to write naturalistic novels about people who happened to be engaged in espionage. Had I been a pediatrician, I probably would have written, in my spare time, naturalistic novels about people who were pediatricians because that’s the world that I knew and understood. I also spent a lot of time in the sport of politics. I think that it’s possible that hard-core readers of thrillers were told that these were thrillers, took them home, and discovered that they weren’t and were perhaps disappointed. People who have read them seem to like them. They seem to read them as novels rather than thrillers. I have used this analogy before. If you go to the store to buy an alarm clock and you get home and open the package and you find that they have wrapped up a Rolex wrist watch, you might be delighted by the mistake, but on the other hand what you really wanted was an alarm clock. I think it has been a marketing problem. They might not have sold anymore if they had been sold as straight novels. Old Boys is a thriller. I just decided to go ahead and write one, remembering I really didn’t know how to do it, just for the heck of it. So we’ll see how that turns out.

RB: I just don’t think anyone knows what’s going to sell.

CM: Richard Condon used to say about books, “You do the best you can for the poor little things and then you send them out into the world hoping that they will be loved and understood, but understanding that that doesn’t always happen.”

RB: He was a wonderful writer who was a bestseller and, I think, not appreciated as being as good as he was.

CM: I think that that’s true. He had one great bestseller, The Manchurian Candidate. And the others did fine. Dick wrote continually.

RB: Everything I have ever read, and I have discovered some real obscure gems by Condon in bookstores, have been hilarious.

CM: They are hilarious, and they are brilliant, and he was a great stylist. I once said, in a quote for one of his books, he was the American Balzac. In a sense, he was. Dick’s great subject was money. He believed it ran everything. And that it was continually on everybody’s mind.

RB: If Paul Christopher, is not available what might you do for your next book? Any ideas?

CM: No, I wish that I did. I have an idea but it’s one that I abandoned a while ago and just may come back. My experience in the past is that my characters, Christopher in particular—I don’t bring them back until they come knocking on the door. And Christopher arrives with a new story to tell and new friends and new members of the family. And I am sure that nearly every novelist that you talk to has told you the same thing. But you know writing fiction doesn’t really happen on a conscious level.

RB: I saw Norman Mailer gave a talk recently where he made the point that you start with characters—you let them do what they do—

CM:—that’s right, just turn them loose. And the characters arrive who you had not imagined existed and they always do things that you had in no way foreseen. And usually one character mightily struggles to take over the book. And I think that’s what gives a novel life.

RB: I had a thought that Zarah was worthy of her own novel.

CM: Christopher’s daughter.

RB: It would represent something of a challenge for an older man to write from the point of view of a younger woman, but then that’s your job, isn’t it?

CM: Exactly. And I may at my age, I may be able to do it a little more objectively than I would have in the past. But Zarah had a major part in Second Sight. And a lot of readers, men especially, have asked if I was going to bring her back.

RB: Another aspect of your novels is that one feels informed but not in an oppressively didactic way. I feel I have a good sense of village life in the Atlas Mountains, whether or not I have any factual basis. Your descriptions are at least plausible.

CM: Well, one strives for plausibility. I do try to get it right, where the historical facts are concerned, but I don’t think there is any limit in the imagination.

RB: I just read a novel [Crossing California by Adam Langer] that is set in the neighborhood that I grew up in, in Chicago. The author makes the high school [that I attended] much older than it is. I thought, “Well, this a novel and what difference is it making, especially since most readers won’t know?”

CM: I think if they do it undermines the credibility of the book. It’s important, as you say—

RB: I just don’t understand what was gained by making the school older. It didn’t add anything.

CM: And he could have done something else. I haven’t read the book, so I can’t say.

RB: Well, the issue is, how much do you want to adhere to the facts?

CM: I think you want to stay close. For example, you are describing Xinxiang province in China, what it looks like and what it smells like, who lives there, how they think and how they behave. That is atmosphere and must be as truthful as you can make it. But having created the atmosphere you can populate this planet, which is a novel, with anybody you want. And they can do anything they want so long as they do it in the context of an authentic background.

RB: I like Alan Furst’s response to issues of authenticity of information. I asked him what the obligation to get the facts right was for him. He said “Because there was so much blood spilled around them. I feel obliged to get these things right.”

CM: Exactly. Furst is remarkable. I have never met him and as far as I know he never had any connection to intelligence work. But he understands it. He has done for inter-war intelligence in Europe and Eastern Europe what Prescott did for Peru. Through pure research, he has recreated something that is very close to the reality. It’s a monumental achievement in my view. He is also a very fine writer.

RB: What do you read?

CM: Almost no fiction. As a younger man I read fiction continually. For the last 10 or 12 years I have been reading biographies and history and things of that kind. I have no explanation for this.

RB: It’s not about a conscious decision not to be distracted by other writers?

CM: I certainly never read it [fiction] when I was writing. I tend to read fiction of the past. I am going to say a very politically incorrect thing. I am a great admirer of Somerset Maugham. His Ashendon stories are the very best writing about the actuality of intelligence work ever. And also I like the directness, the way he approaches the subject. Of Human Bondage, for example, published in 1915, pretty much was the first modern novel. Maugham said, “I wanted to send a long telegram to the reader.” And the telegraphic stylists who followed, Hemingway being the primary example, absorbed that clearly. Because no one had written like that before, that I know about. And I also liked his cynicism, or what was mistaken for his cynicism, [which] I think actually was a kind of realistic full-hearted acceptance of human nature. I am very fond of Waugh, though I haven’t read him for a long time. I love Melville, though I think he could have used an editor. [both laugh]

RB: I had a talk with Dagoberto Gilb, who told me he loved one of the Tolstoy novels but really would have loved to chop off 350 pages.

CM: [laughs]

RB: So you have tour, family, and you write—

CM: Yes. And I read. And I have lots of friends. Fewer than I used to have because of my age group. There are these offstage thuds going on all the time. [chuckles]

RB: And you attend these wakes and such?

CM: Yes, and I am often asked to do the eulogy, which is a difficult thing to do. [long pause] But it’s an even more difficult thing to refuse to do.

RB: Another part of your life has been to write, ghostwrite the memoirs, autobiographies of some pretty powerful people. Had you a hand in Richard Helm’s book?

CM: No. I was too close to him. I felt there had to be a certain sense of working with a stranger to make it come out properly. There was a tremendous amount to learn from those people and their lives. And from the files. Politics is at the same time much more subtle than people generally think. And a lot more simple. When you read note-takers’ encounters between heads-of-state, they talk to each other like a couple of taxi drivers after a fender bender. In the movies and novels they all speak in Victorian cadences but not in real life. You learn a lot and all of those books were bestsellers, and so it was good for the pension fund.

RB: Is there anyone alive who might ask you for help?

CM: I would have loved to have worked with Bill Clinton.

RB: How about [former CIA Director] Bill Casey?

CM: The trouble with Casey is that you couldn’t understand a word he said.

RB: But that was on purpose wasn’t it?

CM: At least that was the theory. But I am told by people who were in the OSS [Office of Strategic Services] with him that he was the same way when he was 26. [imitates Casey’s grumbling mumble] No, at my age I have relatively little writing time left, I would say, as matter of realism. So I will devote it to novels. I may live for 20 years but 15 of those I may be completely gaga, so when you still have your wits about you, you should probably use them for the thing you do the best.

RB: I have a sense that you have a very good recall of your [10] novels. You pretty much know everything that’s in them, yes?

CM: I have never read any of them except for Better Angels, which I had to read because Shelley’s Heart was a sequel. I found that I remembered everything except a dozen places where I would have changed a word or a transition.

RB: And you don’t write short stories.

CM: I have written one. I haven’t published one since I was 20.

RB: And your three unpublished novels, do they still exist?

CM: In a box in a storage space in Florida. And I hope that’s where they will remain. There’s nothing wrong with them.

RB: Why don’t you destroy them?

CM: It’s a learning process. When people told me that at the time I was not very receptive. The problem as I understood it myself after the third one was, technically, I wrote pretty much as well as I do now when I was 23, but I didn’t have enough experience of the world to write believably. So I decided not to write fiction until I had learned about the world. And about that point I went into the agency and after 10 years I had learned so much about the world that the last thing I wanted to do was write about it. So I did magazine journalism for another 10 years. My first novel wasn’t published until was 43.

RB: The Miernik Dossier. Had anyone written a novel in that way? You used 83 documents to tell that story.

CM: I think that there had been novels cut and pasted together. There was a writer called Anderson who had a big bestseller and I think it was before The Miernik Dossier—I think it was wiretaps. But up to that point no one had put together different kinds of material in that way. It went to many publishers and they all said the same thing: It was great writing but you are asking the reader to accept 10 points of view. And finally Saturday Review Press decided they would publish it for a minute advance. But it did well.

RB: I can’t believe that at least Shelley’s Heart isn’t in soft cover.

CM: You can’t believe it? [laughs]

RB: Any thoughts on writing programs?

CM: If the question is, do I think that writing can be taught? Sure. I don’t think that talent can be taught. You either have it or you don’t. But a lot of lightly talented writers have done very well in the world and many of them, their work has lived beyond their lifetime. A writer I also greatly admire and used to read was Herman Wouk. And the reason I liked him and the reason I liked Maugham—he was so downright and forthright. And wrote—it would be one cliché after another, page after page after page, but at the end, one had a very satisfied feeling.

RB: He wrote The Caine Mutiny, right?

CM: That’s right. He wrote with such honor, he believed in his characters. He played by the rules, and it was obvious that he was striving to write the truth. And in the end he nearly always succeeded. I think he was kind of an American Tolstoy.

RB: You like finding these—

CM: I like finding these analogies, yes. He wrote a trilogy, War and Remembrance, that was made into a television series. It’s interesting, if I can digress for a moment, how having a book made into a movie or a television series somehow legitimizes it. There is story about someone commiserating with Ross McDonald, saying something about what the movies had done to his books. He said, “The movies haven’t done anything to my books. There they are up on the shelf.”

RB: What about movies and your novels?

CM: The Better Angels was made into a movie.

RB: It was?

CM: It was called Wrong Is Right with Sean Connery, Katharine Ross, Leslie Nielsen, before he knew he was funny, and it was made by Richard Brooks, who is a well-known director. It bore very little resemblance to my book.

RB: And currently?
McCarry, by Robert Birnbaum
CM: All of my books have been optioned, some of them many times. I have learned to take the check and say thank you and have no expectations. I don’t know if anything is going on with Old Boys. There certainly are enough septuagenarians in Hollywood who could make up a great cast. But I think it would be a very expensive one.

RB: There was mention of a John Frankenheimer film that you were working on. Was it ever made?

CM: Yeah, but with a different director. It was called Breakdown and it did very well. It was no. 1 at the box office. I got no credit because I was a fixer. But I have done a lot of that.

RB: That’s a whole other line of work. I think Terrence Malick did that for years.

CM: It’s not unpleasant work. People out there are very smart.

RB: There are a good number of people who would disagree.

CM: I know that’s the way writers generally react. As with helping to write memoirs, I found it very instructive and the people very interesting. And generally very honest.

RB: I think it’s because you are so self-contained and satisfied that you remain above the fray that the movie business is noted for—does that sound right?

CM: And the reason for it is that I am such a small player. In the first place, I’m a writer. You know the old joke about the blonde that was so dumb that she slept with the writer. [both laugh]

RB: A variation on the “you’re just the writer” theme.

CM: But I offer a specific service. I try to do as well as I can. Sometimes it helps and sometimes it doesn’t. But it’s always enjoyable. I worked with Saul Zaentz a good deal, for example. Saul is the sort of man—he is the antitheses of the general idea of what a producer is like. Saul will owe you 25 cents and says he will pay it at 2:16 in the afternoon on the corner of 42nd and Lexington. He will be there with the quarter. He is a man of his word. I forget—he’s made six or seven pictures and five have won Best Picture Oscars. Saul is an artist even though he is a producer.

RB: Have you any sense of disappointment that you haven’t achieved the commercial success of a John Le Carre?

CM: No. Robert, I’m a happy man. I’ve lived the life I wanted to live. I have written the books I wanted to write. No one has ever tried to censor me or influence the way I wrote. My publishers have always been very supportive. I have made a living. My wife and I are comfortable in our old age. I don’t—someone once said, “I don’t need yachts.” You have to be true to your talent. And I think a writer must live in the world. How else are you going to know what’s happening in the world? And Condon was right. You do the best you can.
 

biopic

Robert Birnbaum is editor-at-large at Identity Theory. All the sketchy details of his life will be (re)fabricated in his memoir-in-progress, Just Talking: How to Do Things With Words. His weblog can be found here. More by Robert Birnbaum