No matter how many authors I interview in my life, I may never escape the jitters I feel whenever I start talking with somebody whose writing I admire. That anxiety hit me hard last October, during a trans-Atlantic telephone call with critic and Rap Sheet correspondent Ali Karim in London. He’d just informed me that Scottish novelist Philip Kerr, author of the Bernie Gunther crime series, had been named the 2009 recipient of the prestigious Ellis Peters Historical Award, given to him that night during a special reception in the British capital. In response, I casually told Karim that, if he happened to see Kerr amid the crowd of champagne-swilling celebrants, he should pass along my congratulations. “Well,” Karim said excitedly, “why don’t you tell him yourself?” And with that, my correspondent walked over to Philip Kerr--and handed him his cell phone.
There was considerable racket at Kerr’s end of the line, which one would expect at an awards fête, so he probably didn’t hear most of my agitated burbling about having enjoyed his Gunther novels, as well as his other fiction, over the last 20 years. But he thanked me, nonetheless, before ringing off ... and allowing me to wipe the sudden-sprouting sheen of sweat from my brow.
Kerr’s 1989 novel, March Violets, was one of the earliest historical mysteries I remember reading. It introduced protagonist Bernhard Gunther, a 38-year-old, part-Jewish former soldier (who’d seen action on the Turkish front during World War I) and ex-member of the Berlin Criminal Police, who’s become a private eye willing to take on “almost anything ... from insurance investigation to guarding wedding presents to finding missing persons.” The story takes place in 1936, when Gunther is hired by a steel millionaire whose schoolteacher daughter and her husband were recently shot to death, and their house torched. The industrialist wants Gunther to locate some diamonds that went missing from the dead couple’s safe, and bring down their murderer in the bargain. Pursing the case demands that Kerr’s man delve into Berlin’s colorfully sordid and corrupt corners, and allows him to reflect on the hypocrisies and political delusions of Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers’ Party--the Nazis. German attitudes toward “racial purity” are explored, as are Gunther’s tastes in women, and the P.I. even gets to spend some less-than-quality time at the Dachau concentration camp.
Britain’s Guardian newspaper called March Violets “an impressive debut” that “catches the nasty taste of the jackboot era and the wisecracking flavor of the pulps.” The Times of London went further yet, declaring Kerr’s work “the best first crime novel of the year.” With such a welcome in the literary realm, it’s no wonder that the author was able to sell two more Gunther novels--The Pale Criminal (1990) and A German Requiem (1991)--before abruptly discontinuing the series, and turning to other stories. He published a succession of standalone thrillers, among them A Philosophical Investigation (1992), Gridiron (aka The Grid, for which Kerr won the Bad Sex in Fiction Award), The Second Angel (1998), and Dark Matter: The Private Life of Sir Isaac Newton (2002).
But then in 2006, Bernie Gunther reappeared as unexpectedly as he had vanished 15 years before, in a fourth novel called The One from the Other, which I chose for January Magazine as one of my favorite books of that year. It was followed in 2008 by A Quiet Flame, a work that dispatched our “hero” to Buenos Aires, Argentina, under the guise of a Nazi war criminal--and again found a place on January Magazine’s “Best Books of the Year” list. And late last month, American publisher Putnam released the sixth Gunther outing, If the Dead Rise Not. The story takes Kerr’s protagonist back to Berlin in 1934, before the events of March Violets, and then jumps ahead to find the morally ambiguous Gunther in Havana 20 years later.
In my short review of If the Dead Rise Not, published in January after the original UK release of Kerr’s book, I wrote:
Kerr is a storyteller from whom other storytellers should steal. He has a sharp ear for clever and caustic dialogue, imbues his chief players with egos and emotions enough to make them seem genuine, is economical in incorporating real people into his fiction, and in Bernie Gunther gives us somebody we can always root for--even when the man does things that ought to land him behind bars. If the Dead Rise Not is not a perfect book: there are too many coincidences in its underdeveloped latter section, and it reaches a too-speedy conclusion. Then again, I’m judging by the high standards Philip Kerr has set for his series over six installments. By lesser measurements, this is Best Book of the Year material.Do you understand now why I might feel intimidated by speaking to Philip Kerr, without any time to prepare for that encounter?
Fortunately, the author didn’t hold this episode against me. When I asked to interview him by e-mail for The Rap Sheet, he quickly acquiesced. He didn’t even balk after I sent him dozens of questions. And then dozens more!
A little background on Kerr before we launch into this exchange: He was born in Edinburgh in 1956, one of three children in a very religious household. “Some Sundays I went to church three times,” he told Scotland on Sunday a couple of years back. In that same newspaper piece, we learned that the author was derided as a youngster for his “swarthy complexion,” which he inherited from his mother. “I got called ‘Paki’ and ‘nigger’ and was spat on,” Kerr recalled, adding that the nickname he acquired at what was then Melville College, in Edinburgh, was “Rastus--even the masters called me that. But it was more ignorance than prejudice. Let’s just say it was character-forming.”
Kerr attended university in Birmingham, England, where he studied--not happily--law. He went from there into jobs in advertising, accountancy, and television. But he knew long before entering the business world that what he really wanted to be was an author. It just took him a while to compose publishable fiction. Then he couldn’t stop doing it. He’s now married to another novelist, Jane Thynne, with whom he has a trio of children. And on top of his books for adults, he has penned the “Children of the Lamp” series for young readers, published under the byline “P.B. Kerr.”
During our interview, we discussed this author’s “evasive” Baptist father, his experiences as an advertising copywriter, why he abandoned and then returned to the Bernie Gunther series, the challenges of writing about Germany’s Nazi years, and what’s up next for his globe-trotting detective.
J. Kingston Pierce: At what point in your youth did you discover a love for books? And which authors were your earliest favorites?
Philip Kerr: I discovered a love for reading when I was about 7 or 8. I was an avid fan. Not the avid fan described by Thomas Harris in Red Dragon, but something close to obsessive anyway. ... There was nothing else to do in Edinburgh between 1956 and 1968 but read books. My father had a shelf of forbidden books: books that were forbidden to me, anyway, and these quickly became my favorites after I discovered the key to the cupboard in which the shelf was located. This was mostly James Bond, Mickey Spillane. Lady Chatterley’s Lover, of course; [I] must have read that when I was about 10. The Devils of Loudun, by Aldous Huxley (marvelous stuff--read it when I was about 11 or 12). Denis Wheatley, natch. But I liked Bond best. And of those, [I liked] Live and Let Die the most. I liked the old Pan paperback covers, which often had bullet-holes.
JKP: Did you have family or friends who encouraged your interest in reading? Were your parents bookish sorts?
PK: Nobody encouraged me in the slightest. My parents weren’t really bookish. My father joined the Book of the Month Club, but it was me who read the books. Scots people don’t go in for encouraging children so much as warning them against masturbation and reefers. My mother was forever warning me against smoking reefers; and she believed in white slavery. She was always telling my sister about the dangers of that. As a boy I rather liked the idea of white slavery. Still do. The Scots never really liked me. I’m dark, you see, and they thought I was a bit racially suspect. As a result, I don’t really like the Scots very much. It’s hard to feel much warmth for your own race when they’ve rejected you.
JKP: Do you have siblings? And are your parents still living?
PK: I have a sister, still living. And a sister, who’s not still living. [My] parents have moved on to the next world.
JKP: What did your parents do for a living?
PK: My father and mother were very religious. At one time my father considered becoming a minister. As a lay preacher. His best friend became a lay preacher and still is one. He and I get along very well.
My father was also a failed Liberal candidate for the 1964 general election. He was also an undertaker. My dad used to say that for us it was always Boxing Day.
JKP: It seems your father was a lot of things at various times.
PK: I’m not very comfortable answering questions about my dad. He died so very young, you see. I get evasive about him mainly because he was so evasive about himself. He did so many jobs in his short life that I can never decide which one sums him up. He had a difficult life. When he was 21 he discovered that his mother was in fact his aunt. His real mother was housekeeper to a rich Jewish family in New York, and I think she got shagged by the boss, although she never said for sure. She gave the baby to her sister and swore her to secrecy. Later on she married the butler; very Remains of the Day, I know, but it hurt my dad that they never sent for him. I think he would quite like to have been a New Yorker. Anything was better than being Scottish in the 1930s.
JKP: You’re a prominent author now, but that hasn’t always been your career direction. You enrolled at the University of Birmingham in 1974 and graduated in 1980 with a Master’s degree in Law. How did this interest in being a lawyer begin, and why did you not pursue it further?
PK: I had no interest in Law and detest lawyers. My father persuaded me that being a lawyer was better than being an undertaker or being unemployed. He was a very bourgeois man. It was him who wanted to be a lawyer, not me. I did a Master’s degree because I felt that as an undergraduate lawyer, I had received no education at all. The Master’s was an excuse to read German philosophy. And to put off the evil day of having to find a job. And to sleep with even more female students, several of them I tutored in jurisprudence for a term when my tutor died.
Writing was always my career direction. But any Mister Hyde needs his respectable Doctor Jekyll job. I read for the Law just to keep my father happy. But I hated it. Hated them [lawyers]. I never had any intention of becoming a lawyer, and as soon as my father was dead, I jacked it in for good.
JKP: In what year did your father pass away?
PK: 1978. He was 46. Religion didn’t do him any favors. God wasn’t listening to him. He doesn’t listen to me, either. But then I don’t listen to him. We’re not on speaking terms. Too much water under the bridge, I suppose. Anyway, who wants to go to Heaven when all the bad girls are in Hell?
JKP: In the 1980s you went to work as an advertising copywriter. For those who’ve never held such a job, what precisely does it entail?
PK: Being a copywriter is about taking seriously that which should never be taken seriously. It’s about staring out of windows, and in mirrors. It’s about talking bullshit, which I had been trained for, as a lawyer. It’s a job for the young and the inane. Don’t buy into [the American TV series] Mad Men. True ad men aren’t mad, [they’re] just prats with large glasses and loud suits. Tragically, many of them think they are involved in creating some kind of art, but they are unaware of the difference between “art” and “artistic.” [Advertising] is a career for juveniles, but it’s useful to a novelist, because you can often work on your novel while you’re supposed to be writing crap about coffee and cigarettes.
JKP: During those copywriting years, did you work principally for Saatchi & Saatchi, or are there other, less-prestigious agency names also decorating your résumé?
PK: Mostly less prestigious. And I certainly never did any work at Saatchi. It wasn’t really required. I am proud to say I worked in … a very untrendy part of the agency where copy could be turned in without the least thought. No one ever spoke to me; no one was interested in my ideas; no one paid the slightest attention to any kind of advertising I ever wrote. Really, it was the most extraordinary good luck on my part. As a result I can never be haunted by a campaign I wrote, like poor Fay [Weldon] and poor Salman [Rushdie]. … It’s never a good idea to fess up on the shit you do as a copywriter. It’s like naming people you’ve slept with. Best to draw a veil.
[When I worked for Saatchi & Saatchi] the agency was very near the British Library (the proper one, not the monstrosity near Euston Station); I used to slip out of the agency around 12 and come back around 4. No one noticed.
I [also] worked for another agency that was very convenient to the London Library. I did a lot of looking out of the window there, too. One day [in 1984] I was looking out of my window and saw WPC Yvonne Fletcher get shot by a Libyan from the next-door embassy. I think advertising was more interesting then.
JKP: What finally convinced you that becoming a novelist was the career path you really ought to take?
PK: I was always convinced of that. From the age of about 9, I think. I wrote several novels between the ages of 17 and 33. All of them were very bad, I think. But with each failure I learned a little more. Failure is very good for a novelist’s soul, assuming the existence of such a thing.
JKP: When you commenced work on March Violets, did you start with that story’s plot or with the character of Bernie Gunther?
PK: Can’t remember. What I do remember was that I wanted to write about Berlin, not about a detective, necessarily. But information on pre-war Berlin was rather hard to obtain in those days and I felt like I needed to be a detective to do it, which is what put it into my mind to write a detective story.
JKP: And how long did it take you to complete March Violets?
PK: Three years. But only because I was obliged to hold down a job at the time, writing about lavatory paper and cornflakes.
JKP: I read somewhere that your original inspiration for March Violets was Martin Cruz Smith’s 1981 novel, Gorky Park, rather than any of Raymond Chandler’s handful of works. In what specific manner(s) did Gorky Park inspire you?
PK: I don’t like the word inspiration. There never was such a thing for me. … I have never felt inspired by any book I have ever read. And certainly not Gorky Park. I enjoyed the book, but that’s it. I thought it worked well and I felt sort of vindicated in the idea that you didn’t need to be from somewhere to write about it. When I was a kid, my teachers--small minds--used to say “write about what you know”; and they thought I was being a clever little sod when I suggested that Shakespeare never wrote about what he knew. For example, he never went to Denmark. Ergo, he did not write about what he knew. My advice to people is never to write about [what] they know. Because who would want to read that?
JKP: Were there other novelists who helped point the way for you in terms of what you wanted to do with crime/detective fiction?
PK: Never knew any. Never met any. It wouldn’t have mattered. I doubt any of them could have told me anything. You teach yourself how to write, and if you’re sensible, you pay attention in your own classroom. Nobody knows how to write a novel; at least nobody can tell anyone else how to do it. You have to find it out for yourself.
My favorite novel was and always has been 1984. But it’s hard to see this has anything to do with what I do now. I quite liked Patricia Highsmith, I suppose. I always felt quite a lot in common with [Tom] Ripley. I’ve always seen myself as more of a perp than a victim.
JKP: What was your original conception of Bernie Gunther, and how do you think he’s evolved since that point? Is he still the man you imagined him to be in 1989?
PK: I wanted a German Everyman figure. That’s what I wanted him to be. That’s what he still is. … He’s a vehicle for political insight and philosophical conjecture. And for my own black sense of humor. ... I think of him as a little like Christian in The Pilgrim’s Progress. He’s weighed down by a great burden called sin; he’s looking for the shining light; he mounts the hill of difficulty; and along the way he meets Apollyon.
JKP: Would he be somebody you’d like to know as a friend?
PK: Lord, no. Bernie is like me in that he doesn’t have any friends. … I don’t feel the lack of friends, you understand. What I do doesn’t really encourage friendship. My only real friend is my wife. I seem quite friendly, however. I smile and chatter away and can work a room. Anyway, Bernie is an extension of my own inadequate personality, so I can’t imagine being friends with myself.
JKP: At what point did you realize you were writing a crime-fiction series? And were you hesitant about taking on such a project?
PK: I’m writing a series of political/historical novels that masquerade as crime novels. I would hesitate to write a crime series, yes. … I walked away from [the Gunther series] after three books. I suppose I walked away from it because everyone seemed to expect me to just keep on doing the same thing, again and again. And I thought this isn’t what I signed on for. I wanted to try other things. Something more ambitious, perhaps. ...
Policemen don’t interest me at all. To me a copper is someone to be avoided. I hate The Bill; I despise CSI; the only good cop series I ever saw was The Wire. That was honest at least. Policemen are even less interesting than lawyers.
JKP: Martin Cruz Smith, as I recall, hadn’t yet visited Moscow when he wrote Gorky Park. Had you at least visited Berlin before you started writing about that city?
PK: Yes, of course I’d been there. I can’t imagine writing about Germany without going there. I can imagine writing about a lot of places without going. But not Germany. I like Germany a lot.
JKP: Have you grown to appreciate Berlin more since you began writing about that city?
PK: Yes, very much so. Berliners are often rude and unhelpful. I like people who are rude and unhelpful as a race. By which I mean they don’t give a damn what people think about them. I’m afraid we in Britain care rather too much about giving offense. We creep around the sensibilities of others. Hitler didn’t like Berlin at all. That’s good enough for me. … I’d like to live [in Berlin], but I don’t think my wife would care for it. Berlin is wonderful. It’s very clean.
Last time I was there I went into a bookshop and saw my books on a Berlin table featuring [Christopher] Isherwood and [John] Le Carré. Just the three of us. That was a big deal for me.
JKP: How conscientious are you about getting the details of Berlin right? Or do you look to capture the general feeling of the city’s history, rather than its details?
PK: I try to be very conscientious. I take enormous troubles to get things right. But one always has to remember that the best research you can do is the research you do in your own head. Imagination is all.
JKP: Could you imagine yourself living in Berlin during World War II? And if so, what might you have thought the things going on there?
PK: Yes, I could have imagined it. That is what I’ve been doing for quite a while now. This act of imagining is necessary in order to write a book about the period. I think I’d have been trying my best to stay out of the way of trouble. I’ve never seen myself as the heroic type. For example, whenever I watch [the old Second World War sitcom] Dad’s Army, my favorite character was always Private Walker. And in The Great Escape I liked the James Garner character best. I think I would have been heavily involved with the black market--during and after the war.
JKP: It seems to me it would have been a challenge to write about Nazis and their assumption of power in Germany, without painting them in black-and-white terms. Yet your stories, while clearly damning of Hitler’s regime, are more nuanced than one might expect. You manage to separate the German people from their government--not wholly (the responsibility for Hitler’s rise was partly their’s, of course), but enough to make clear that Germans were not all bad, even if their leaders looked to be. Has that been a difficult balance to maintain?
PK: Not difficult, no. I think very few Germans were bad, as you put it. Just their leaders. What you have to remember was that in the last months of [the] Weimar [Republic], Germans were at a very low ebb--after the depression, and the inflation, and the Great War, and the failure of one government after another; and there was a big problem with law and order on the streets. People were scared of the Communists. I’d have been scared of them, too, after what happened in Russia. People just wanted a stable government and to feel good about themselves again. It’s easy to feel sympathy with people under those circumstances. Yes, the Nazis were bastards. But in the beginning I don’t think they seemed like worse bastards than any of the other bastards. If the Nazis hadn’t got elected, then maybe the Communists would have got elected. [Joseph] Stalin’s record doesn’t encourage one to believe that the Reds would have behaved any better than the fascists.
JKP: I remember reading your first three Gunther novels as they were published, and loving every one of them. But then suddenly, you stopped writing the series. What in the hell happened?
PK: I wrote other books. I never signed on to be a writer just to do a series. Je ne regrette rien. Besides, it’s not always a good idea to give people what they want until they want it more. When I finished Book 3 (German Requiem) of the original trilogy, I didn’t have the impression that I was putting aside anything important. I think it has only been the act of putting aside the character and then coming back to him after an absence of 15 years that there has come to be a greater interest in this character.
JKP: If I’m not mistaken, you wrote nine novels between German Requiem and Bernie Gunther’s comeback in The One from the Other. The first of those was called A Philosophical Investigation, a serial-killer thriller set in London in the second decade of the 21st century. How did writing that book help clear your mind and ready you to tackle different sorts of fiction, after three Gunther novels?
PK: [A Philosophical Investigation] was the best crime novel I’ve ever written and was probably way ahead of its time. As someone who had read philosophy as a post-graduate, I wanted to deal with the crime novel from a philosophical POV. I wanted to understand the reading public’s obsession with crime-writing and murder. I also wanted to pay homage to [George] Orwell, I guess, by inhabiting similar territory for a while.
JKP: My two favorite works of yours during that interim period are 1993’s Dead Meat (which has to do with the murder of a journalist in post-Soviet St. Petersburg, Russia, and the rivalry between police and a rising tide of mobsters/scam artists) and 2002’s Dark Matter (which places scientist Sir Isaac Newton in the role of detective, hired by the Royal Mint in the late 17th century to expose and perhaps apprehend currency counterfeiters). Can you say a little bit about the inspiration of those two books, and your work on them?
PK: Too long ago. Ancient history. I can’t really remember. I’m story led, I’ll say that much. I get an idea for a book and then if it starts to obsess me, the only way to exorcise it is to write it.
JKP: I found it interesting when your 2005 novel, Hitler’s Peace, saw print. The work is set in the waning days of World War II, and has to do with plots against Stalin, President Franklin Roosevelt, and Prime Minister Winston Churchill, all of whom are headed for a conference in Tehran in 1943. The book seemed to signal your interest in returning to Bernie Gunther’s world. Was that just hopeful thinking on my part, or did you see Hitler’s Peace as a transition back into the Gunther series?
PK: No. That seemed like another good story idea. Only when I was finished did it occur to me to go back to Gunther. I realized there were lots of things I could do with him that I hadn’t thought of before. I got older, I guess. And I figured that this new perspective might well affect Gunther II for the best.
JKP: From the standpoint of a writer, do you think you got everything you could out of your years of not writing about Bernie?
PK: Oh, yes. I think it was the best thing that could have happened to me. I can’t think of anyone who has had the luxury of leaving a character behind for 15 years and then coming back to him. In that interim period I think the first three books achieved a kind of critical mass. Lots of people read them and liked them, and so when I came back to writing about [Gunther] they were waiting for me. Lucky.
JKP: What finally made you ready to return to writing Gunther books?
PK: It wasn’t that I never thought I would write about BG again. It was just that I had other stuff to do. I wanted to write about BG, however, in a way that made it seem fresh; thus Bernie's travels from Austria to Argentina, to Cuba and on from there. He’s become a modern Flying Dutchman.
JKP: While I enjoyed Gunther’s comeback in The One from the Other, I think you really hit the ball out of the park (to use one of those notorious American clichés) with A Quiet Flame. It’s definitely one of my favorite entries in this series, partly because it makes such excellent use of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Or at least I thought it did, until I read somewhere that you didn’t actually visit the Argentine capital before writing about it. Is that true?
PK: Each time I get this question I give a different answer, because I don’t think it really matters whether I went there or not. ... What’s important is how it feels in a novel. Did I go to Cuba? Yes and no. These are kind of private things. It’s like Penn and Teller showing you how a trick is done. I prefer not to discuss things, because I don’t usually want to be drawn in to having to comment on something I only know a little about. I get asked to talk about Berlin, that’s fine. The cat’s out of the bag on that. But I don’t ever want to talk about Argentina or Cuba because I don’t really know these places well.
JKP: Another quality I appreciated in A Quiet Flame was your sense of humor. How important is humor in the fiction-writing you do?
PK: Very, very important. The humor is the driving force of the books. The humor is what stops the books from being very depressing. Bernie’s humor is his own act of true resistance.
JKP: Real-life personalities often appear in your Gunther stories, whether it be Juan Perón or Adolf Eichmann or Hermann Goering. What challenges do you see in incorporating authentic characters into your fiction? And are there real-life players you have avoided using, because you’re not sure you could do them justice?
PK: Nope. Haven’t avoided anyone except Hitler. It’s useful to bring on a real-life villain, because they’re always more villainous than any villain I could invent myself. Chandler talks about having a guy come through a door with a gun in his hand when he didn’t know what to do next; me, I prefer to have a real-life Nazi come through the door. The trick is to get in touch with their humanity. To understand them as people. When you can do that, they come alive. I don’t believe, as Spinoza says, that to understand all is to forgive all. Actually, I think to understand all is to forgive less. Anyway, using real-life characters is one of the great pleasures I have in writing these books.
JKP: Before I leave the subject of A Quiet Flame, I must put in a word for the enchanting and resourceful Anna Yagubsky, with whom Bernie gets more than a little comfortable in that story. You’ve linked Gunther with many fair young women, but Anna--at least in my opinion--is your finest, fullest female creation yet. Can we ever expect to make her acquaintance again? And do you base your female characters on women you know?
PK: Yes. But that’s my secret. I love women. I’m a sad old romantic at heart, you see. I like love stories.
JKP: Is there a woman in the Gunther stories whom you would like to have known in real life?
PK: Yes, Noreen Charalambides [from If the Dead Rise Not]. Although she’s based on Lillian Hellman.
JKP: In both A Quiet Flame and your latest book, Bernie is drawn into cases that relate to events or investigations from his past. Is that a story structure that appeals particularly to you, and that you intend to use more as Bernie gets older, and his past slowly catches up to him?
PK: Yes, that’s how it’s going to work.
JKP: What were your intentions with If the Dead Rise Not, and how far do you think you went in satisfying your expectations?
PK: I intended to write my best novel to date, and that’s what I think I did.
JKP: It was for The Dead Rise Not that you finally won the Ellis Peters Historical Award last year, after being nominated for that same commendation one or two times before. How did that win feel, and do you think it can have any impact on your career?
PK: You live long enough and stay in print long enough, they give you an award eventually. It’s a Mexican stand-off. I’m not sure it has much of en effect except that people find something to hang on you. A validation perhaps. I’m happy to get as many awards as possible. I like making speeches. ... Can I have an Edgar now please?
JKP: I find it interesting that, in addition to your composing adult novels, you have also penned a small series of children’s books under the name P.B. Kerr. What motivated you to try your hand at fiction for younger readers?
PK: To connect with my own children. I love writing for kids. I like to get in touch with my inner 12-year-old.
JKP: How many children do you and your wife have?
PK: Three children. Various ages. Various sexes. They don’t like me mentioning their names.
JKP: What satisfactions do you get from writing books for young people that you don’t receive from writing books for adults?
PK: They write and tell me that they like my books. Which is nice. They don’t bother writing unless they have something nice to say. Adults are rather more mealy-mouthed with their praise. They might say they like your books, but feel obliged to let you know that there was a spelling mistake on page 300. Gee, thanks. But there are satisfactions that are only peculiar to writing for children. This is mainly the experience of trusting one’s imagination completely. Of giving yourself up to it in a way that doesn’t attend writing for adults.
JKP: And I just have to ask this question: In the byline P.B. Kerr, what does the “B” stand for? Can you tell us what is your middle name is?
JKP: You’ve composed five “Children of the Lamp” books thus far. Are you planning to continue that series? Do you have other children’s books on the drawing board?
PK: I’ve written six. Number six will be published in the autumn. I wrote another children’s book a while back that was called One Small Step . And I have others on the drawing board, yes.
JKP: And what of your man Bernie Gunther? Are you currently working on another novel about him? What location is he off to next?
PK: Yes, I’m working on another at the moment. I can’t tell you too much about it except that there’s quite a bit of it set in a Soviet POW camp.
JKP: How many Gunther books would you like to produce before turning to something else again?
PK: I don’t know how many I can write without repeating myself. I want to grow the character in different places and in different time periods. I don’t want to be a bore.
JKP: How many hours a day do you spend writing?
PK: [John] Updike speaks of a writer keeping surgery hours. I like that. I go in my office between 8 and 6. I’m there for most of the time, and quite a bit of it is spent writing.
JKP: What sorts of books do you read nowadays? And have you read any crime/mystery/thriller fiction that you’d like to recommend?
PK: I don’t read much that isn’t something to do with what I’m writing. I certainly don’t read crime and mystery while I’m doing it. I wouldn’t want to get any ideas from anyone else. I’m never happy to recommend books by anyone really. Why should my opinion matter?
JKP: What is the one thing you now wish you’d known about the life of a novelist before you embarked on this career?
PK: Hmm. I guess that it’s harder to lose weight when you’re older. Sitting at a desk all day, it’s easy to get fat. I wish I’d eaten less at the beginning. Trained myself to live on less food.
JKP: What single thing do you find most interesting about yourself or your personal history?
PK: I don't find myself in the last bit interesting. Increasingly, the difference between being a writer and writing is troublesome. I spend my whole life not talking, just scribbling; and then I have to go to a literary festival and be Mr. Saturday Night. That’s tough. It’s like being two people. I’ve sometimes thought I should employ someone to be me. Ideally, he would speak several languages, and be universally charming.
JKP: Finally, if you could have written any other novel that currently appears under somebody else’s byline, what would it have been?
PK: The Bible. I’d love to have written that. I might have changed the last chapter, however. I’m not very keen on the end.
READ MORE: “The Rap Sheet: Philip Kerr on Politics, Morals, and Crime,” by J. Kingston Pierce (Kirkus Reviews).