I recently interviewed British thriller writer Philip Kerr in front of a live audience at Chester County Book Company. Philip’s latest novel is the The Lady from Zagreb, and it’s his tenth Bernie Gunther thriller. Bernie Gunther is a private investigator who works to solve crimes which are set against the backdrop of the much larger crimes against humanity being committed in Nazi Germany. In these novels, Bernie often encounters top-level Nazis such as Joseph Goebbels and Reinhard Heydrich, and he finds himself trying to do the right thing, while also trying to survive. Publishers Weekly calls the series, “A searing look at the inhumanity of the Nazis.” The writer Jonathan Ames has called Philip Kerr, “the only bona fide heir to Raymond Chandler.” The Daily Beast wrote, “The Bernie Gunther books are the best crime series around today.”
Here’s some words of writing wisdom from Philip Kerr.
On where ideas for his novels come from:
“Sometimes it just seems as though books sometime arrive in your head and it’s almost impossible to try and second guess where they came from. There’s a painting by Rembrandt called Belshazzar’s Feast and you see this disembodied hand writing on the wall… and sometimes that’s what it feels like, there’s a disembodied hand that’s writing the books. I sometimes feel that the writer is the person who stays at home and the author is the person who goes on tour.”
On visiting a concentration camp to research:
“I very much believe it’s like being a method actor, you know, like Robert Deniro driving a cab around New York in order to make the film Taxi Driver, so I can feel it. So I stood alone in one of these cattle cars for about ten – fifteen minutes, just really trying to think myself into the situation of the people who were there… and got thoroughly depressed as a result, but that’s kind of one’s duty, one’s job really, because you realize that in order to write about this sort of thing you have a duty to be careful of the memories of the people who met their ends there. I strive for as much factual accuracy, but emotional accuracy too, because I think it’s really important that if you are going to write about this, you do it as well as you possible can and deal with it as sensitively as you can too.”
On the balance of writing about Nazi officers:
“I believe the only way to write about them is to encounter them as men and women first, to find their humanity, because the only way you can understand them and get under their skin to make them come alive as characters is to understand that at one stage they were normal people and it was a gradual process.”
On writing about women in his noir novels:
“The thing about the women in most of my novels is I like really intelligent women. I like women to be more intelligent than me, for instance, these are the women I’m particularly attracted to, like my wife for example, she is much more intelligent than I am. I can’t see the point in being attracted to people who aren’t more intelligent than you. For instance if you want to learn how to play tennis there’s no point in playing someone who isn’t any good, you want to play someone like John McEnroe, and you’ll maybe improve as a tennis player, it’s great to be with someone who is a sharp inquiring mind.”
On learning the craft of writing and inspiration from P.D. James:
“I think I’m still learning. The day you think you stopped learning, you might as well pack up. I still think my best novel is ahead of me – I sincerely hope so. In fact, I did an event with the late P.D. James, who at the time – I think Phyillis must have been 91 – and I said this, ‘I think the best work is ahead of me’ and she said, ‘I’m so glad you said that Philip because I think the same,’ and I thought great! Good for you! It’s fantastic! It’s actually really important to a writer. You can’t keep doing what you do without believing that the best is yet to come.”
Thanks to Chester County Book Company for hosting the Philip Kerr interview and asking me to play a part. As of this writing, they have a few autographed copies of The Lady from Zagreb by Philip Kerr remaining. Oh, and thanks to Robb Cadigan for the top photo.