I spy with my funny, random eye: The expatriate American writer Robert Littell talks to Peter Guttridge about God, the Cold War and chaos theory

Robert Littell, the expatriate American author the New York Times dubbed 'the American le Carre' doesn't like to be labelled as a spy writer. Sucking throat lozenges in a central London hotel, dapper but casual in sports coat and knitted tie, he recalls a blurb he recently wrote about himself for his American publishers. 'I said: 'Robert Littell is best known for the spy novels The Defection of A J Lewinter, The Amateur - which made a very dull film - An Agent In Place and The Once and Future Spy. His personal favourites are his historical novels The Revolutionist and Mother Russia. Go figure.' ' His chuckle turns into a cough and he apologises again for his sore throat.

He is a politely friendly man who is also watchful and cautious. Knowing his spy novels, you are tempted to read significance into his impish evasion of the most innocuous questions, and into the fact that this hotel is like a 'safe house', so discreet it has no sign outside to mark its existence. It is also a little disconcerting to know that he is 59 but see a man who looks 20 years younger.

'You should have seen my mother,' he says. 'At the age of 85 she lied about her age and got a job in a New York department store.' Littell, born in Brooklyn, is of Russian descent. His father was a physics teacher. Littell studied literature at university before doing his military service in the navy as a codebreaker and cipher expert, and then went into journalism, ending up as Newsweek's Soviet Union and Eastern European specialist.

In 1971, disillusioned with the Vietnam war and the Nixon era, he quit journalism - and America - to live with his French wife in the Dordogne. Four grown-up children later, they live there still in a 13th- century farmhouse, although he spends much of his time travelling and is a frequent visitor to Russia.

Whether he likes it or not - and he doesn't - he's best known as a spy writer, producing in the past 20 years a string of Cold War novels characterised by wit, intelligence and a knowing use of the genre's conventions. His agent fired him when Littell sent him his first novel, The Defection of A J Lewinter, but it went on to win the Golden Dagger Award for 1972 and was published in 14 countries.

Littell is fond of paradox and his spy novels delight in the 'they don't know that we know that they know we have the key' kind of plotting. In The Once And Future Spy, which, with An Agent In Place, proves there is still life in the spy novel, he pits a man whose article of faith is, 'There is one truth and it is knowable', against another whose refrain is 'Whose truth, which truth?' Littell doesn't think that the end of the Cold War has killed off the spy genre, but in his new novel, The Visiting Professor (Faber), he has moved away from it to present a comic vision of America which makes full use of his fondness for paradox. The main character, Lemuel Falk, is a Russian theoretical chaoticist invited to be a visiting professor at the Institute of Interdisciplinary Chaos-Related Studies in upstate New York.

His friend Vadim, a black- marketeer who has cornered the market in computer mice, persuades him to go because the streets of America are paved with Sony Walkmen. (Littell creates appealing characters - Vadim featured in An Agent In Place with the thankless task of advertising goods in a Russian market where everyone knows that advertised products are by definition bad since good products are snapped up without advertising.)

In America, Falk falls for a girl half his age and learns to speak her 'Yo, dude' brand of American. He puzzles over randomness - and over a billboard sign advertising an airline that flies 'to most Florida cities', wondering how one Florida city can be more Florida than another. It's a very funny novel.

'I began with Falk because I wanted to take him from chaos in Russia to chaos in America. And the science is a wonderful metaphor for the chaos that all over the world marked the end of the Cold War. Randomness too fascinated me, particularly this notion that computers these days are trying to develop randomness. That's a contradiction in terms because as soon as you try to produce randomness, it isn't random. In a way the search for randomness is the search for God and that enthralled me.'

The Visiting Professor is full of quirky, well-drawn characters. 'I used to start with plots then find characters but now I do it the other way around and I think that's better. I would hesitate to define a novel but if I had to, I would say that a novel is character. I wouldn't like to say what kind of novel this is though. It's a post-Cold War story written by a man who followed the Cold War closely. It's a story about America, a story about manners. It's my expatriate vision of America.'

It took Littell two years to finish this relatively short work, but then he is a perfectionist, a constant rewriter who reckons he probably reads his novels a thousand times before he is done with them. 'Writing is a wonderful occupation but it isn't fun. It's tough. You're never sure of yourself, plagued by self- doubt, wondering what kind of egg you're laying. Do you know that quote from Somerset Maugham? 'There are three rules to writing a novel. Unfortunately nobody knows what they are'.

'My ambition has always been to write good novels about serious things. That's why I used to object strongly to being called a spy writer. Le Carre is a marvellous novelist, not a spy writer. P D James is a marvellous novelist not a crime writer. You might say that they have a narrow range but it's no narrower than, say, Philip Roth, whom I also admire.'

He is about to start research in America on his new novel. He declines to give any details (quoting Hemingway's injunction that there are those who talk about writing and those who write) but you suspect he might be finished with spies. Ironically, spies are not yet done with him, since a new market for his Cold War novels has opened up. In Russia. 'A publishing house in St Petersburg is about to translate An Agent In Place. I never expected that my books would appear in Russia in my lifetime.' He chuckles again. 'Go figure.'

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
The crowd enjoy Latitude Festival 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
'I do think a woman's place is eventually in the home, but I see no harm in her having some fun before she gets there.'

Is this the end of the Dowager Countess?tv
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Martin of Coldplay performs live for fans at Enmore Theatre on June 19, 2014 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith from The Office ten years on

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams prepares to enter the House of Black and White as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones season five

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn