Graham Greene, the 81-year-old British author of more than 50 books, managed to look comfortable, though faced with questions from a standing-room-only invitational audience at Georgetown's ornate Victorian Healy Hall last night. He crossed his legs, showing off his neat slip-on shoes, and answered more questions than were asked.
"I'm afraid that living on the dangerous edge is part of my character," he said. "Because I was bored at 18, I played Russian roulette four times. First I took only one shot. Then I was bored with that, so I tried two shots. Sheer boredom. I gave it up at 19 and escaped."
Greene said he is never bored when he is writing. He prefers to write about characters from his imagination rather than real people. "Perhaps because I was psychoanalyzed when I was 16, I've always been interested in dreams. I write in the morning and revise at night. Sometimes at the end of the day I have a knotty problem. In sleep, I find the passage works out. In "Getting to Know the General," I had two characters, both real. I couldn't cheat. When an imaginary character suddenly does something I never thought about, or says something you wouldn't say, then you know he's alive."
Sometimes when he's writing a book, he finds a sentence or a paragraph that seems without purpose. "But then at the end of the book, I find that's a key line."
He said he is still bored between books, so he goes looking for danger. He went to Kenya during the Mau Mau attacks and to Vietnam, among other places. He didn't make the trips with the idea of writing books about those places, "only articles to pay my expenses." When he found he wanted to write "The Quiet American," he went back to Vietnam four times. English politics wouldn't make a novel for him, he said with some irony, because he likes to write about places where the politics affect life and death.
Greene worked in intelligence during World War II. His spy novels "Our Man in Havana" and "The Third Man" are among his most popular. Greene served in a unit headed by double agent Kim Philby, who defected to Russia in 1963. He said he corresponded with Philby for some time after the defection. Greene liked Philby. "I think if I'd known he was a Russian spy, I would have given him 24 hours to get out of the country." he said.
"Sometimes when he wrote something of interest, I passed it along [to the authorities]. But the correspondence petered out. His last letter was about Henry James."
Because of the audience and the stained-glass setting, many of the questions were related to Catholicism. Greene says he is not a Catholic writer but "a writer who just happens to be Catholic. I say that because I don't want to be a burden to the church."
He said he is uncomfortable with Pope John Paul II. "Pope John Paul is the most political pope we have had, yet he objects to priests in politics."
The pope condemns such action on the part of Latin American priests, Greene said. He added that he approved of the priests who preach against the death squads. "I don't agree with priests who carry a rifle," he said. "But I don't see how we can condemn a priest who helps the poor."
Greene has been criticized by Catholic officials. "The Labyrinthine Ways," published in Britain as "The Power and the Glory," was criticized by a British cardinal who said the book dealt with "extraordinary subjects" and wanted him to change it in accordance with the cardinal's criticism. Later Greene met Pope Paul VI, who said he liked Greene's "Stamboul Train" and "The Power and the Glory."
The pope, when told of the cardinal's reaction, said something like, "Oh, him." And he advised Greene to remember "you'll always offend some Catholics." Greene said he didn't think the current pope would have such an attitude.
Greene's rare appearance came about in part because his later manuscripts and correspondence are in the collections of rare books and manuscripts at Georgetown University Library.
At the beginning of the question-and-answer program, it was announced that no tape recorders or outside photographers were permitted. The formal questions, from the Rev. John Breslin, director of the Georgetown Press, and Raymond Reno, a Georgetown English professor, were followed by questions from the audience. Televison newsman Paul Anthony was master of ceremonies.