Renee Knight worked for the BBC directing arts documentaries before turning to writing. She has had television and film scripts commissioned by the BBC, Channel Four, and Capital Films In April 2013, she graduated from Faber Academy, a school sponsored by the eponymous British publisher, and known for nurturing breakthrough talent. Its alumni include S.J. Watson. Disclaimer is Renee’s first novel.
Disclaimer has a unique premise. Catherine, a successful documentary film-maker, receives a book entitled The Perfect Stranger. Turning the pages, she’s horrified to read about a day in her own life that occurred 20 years earlier, one she’s tried to forget. Intertwined with Catherine’s narrative is that of Stephen Brigstocke, an older, grieving widower who discovered among his late wife’s possessions, a manuscript that horrifies him. He has it bound into a book, and sends it to Catherine. The book contains details of her most closely guarded, terrible secret, one she’s kept hidden from her husband and son all these years. The only other person who knows what really happened, is dead; but The Perfect Stranger suggests Catherine’s secret is not buried with him.
Disclaimer has a unique concept. Can you articulate how it came to you?
I’d written an unpublished novel before this one. There was an event in my adolescence involving an old friend with whom I’ve maintained a friendship over the years. In that first book, I touched on that event, and when the manuscript was completed, it struck me my friend would recognize herself. So, I sent it to her before sending it off to my agent. While waiting to hear back from my friend, I was anxious about it, not wanting to hurt her. I kept thinking about it and the premise stayed with me: Wouldn’t it be shocking if you came across yourself in a book without any warning? One of my favorite things is going to bed at night with a good book—a time when you feel secure yet are at your most vulnerable. When I was waiting to hear back from my friend, the idea for this novel became embedded in my mind. My friend felt fine about my writing of her minor incident. As it turned out, the book wasn’t published, but the situation gave me the idea for this one.
What made you decide to use the present tense throughout major portions of the novel?
One character’s story takes place two years before the present time and I thought the present tense would provide immediacy for the reader. I kept thinking how I would feel if I were sitting in bed and came across a book about me. I tried writing in the past tense, but using the present tense seemed to fit better.
Disclaimer contains portions of The Perfect Stranger within it. In a sense, the novel-within-the novel becomes a character as well. Was that your intention?
Yes, in a way, it was. The book-within-a-book was the “missing” character. It’s the witness to an event. I found that element—the prose of The Perfect Stranger—the most straightforward to write.
In Disclaimer, you capture so very well the day-to-day life and feelings of people, both in the past and present times. Are there any novelists who’ve influenced you?
I think every book I’ve read has left its mark in some way. You can’t help but be influenced by what you read. There are writers who’ve had a direct impact on me. I particularly love the work of Lionel Shriver. I love reading Philip Roth, but I wouldn’t say he influenced my writing. I appreciate the honesty in other writers; actually, a fearlessness that’s apparent when people write.
One of the characters has “reinvented” the past and is therefore an unreliable narrator. Will you talk about that?
We all look at other people and often see them differently. You can have an unreliable narrator who isn’t necessarily knowingly being unreliable. I think in some sense, we’re all unreliable observers and narrators. There are only certain aspects of the truth we can manage, so we’re all guilty of finessing reality and of putting things into manageable, bite-sized pieces we can live with and contain. So yes, one character in the book is an unreliable narrator, but we only discover that later on. I think it’s an aspect of how people layer themselves; it’s how we protect and insulate ourselves from the secrets we harbor.
What was the transition like going from documentary film-making to penning a novel?
The film-making was some time ago. My children are teenagers and I stopped working in television when they were quite young. When they were older, I didn’t think I could go back to television. I’d been away from it for a long time and lost the appetite for it. That’s when I started writing. So there was a bridge between the television and novel writing. In between, I tried script writing. It felt closer to what I’d been doing, namely documentaries. I then wrote some short stories, and eventually got into that first novel. The novelistic form seems to come more naturally for me than screenwriting.
What are the differences for you between script-writing and novels?
What I love about novel-writing is the interiority of it. I love really being able to get into a character’s head. I think skilled directors can do that in film, but I have much more freedom saying what I want to in prose than I would in film.
Speaking of film and prose, I understand the film rights to Disclaimer have been sold to 20th Century Fox. How do you think it will translate into another medium?
Having said what I just did about script-writing, I am, in fact, adapting the novel into film form. I think it could work very well because it’s relatively small scale. The challenge is in dealing with the time shifts—the flashbacks—but I think the script’s addressing that problem.
I envision it having voice-overs.
Yes. I think there will be some voice-overs which were frowned on ten or fifteen years ago. But, they seem to be coming back. They can work well so long as the voice-over stands up on its own; if it’s knitted into the film.
What’s coming next for Renee Knight?
I’ll be doing that scary second novel because it was a two-book deal. I do have an idea for it.
Will you share something about it with us?
I won’t go into it too deeply only because I’m nervous about talking myself out if it. I’ve got two characters in my head. It’s not a familial relationship so it wouldn’t fall under the domestic noir label. It looks at themes such as extreme loyalty and the question of how far you would go for someone else. It will be another psychological thriller.
Congratulations on writing Disclaimer, a deeply probing, intense psychological thriller that was gripping and very difficult to put down.
Ace Atkins is well-known to thriller-lovers everywhere. He was a Pulitzer Prize nominated journalist, has written standalone novels, and is known for his Nick Travers and Quinn Colson series. Ace’s writing style has been compared to that of Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos. In 2011, Ace was chosen by the estate of Robert B. Parker to continue writing the Spenser series of novels. His latest, the 4th in the series, is Kickback.
Kickback begins with 17-year old Dillon Yates playing a prank by setting up a Twitter account in the name of his school’s vice principal. He’s charged with criminal activity and sentenced by Judge Joe Scali to a lockdown juvenile facility in Blackburn, Massachusetts, where there’s zero tolerance for even the most minor juvenile offenses. Dillon’s mother hires Spenser to learn the truth behind a rash of harsh sentences for kids who have committed minor transgressions. Spenser and his friend Hawk wend their way through the Boston underworld and other locales, uncovering a viper’s nest of corruption and greed.
Before we talk about books, let me ask how you got the name Ace.
It was my Dad’s name. He was a professional football player in the old AFL and the NFL. A sportswriter dubbed him Ace, and it became his name. So, when I was born, that nickname was given to me. I’ve always been called Ace. In a sense, it’s a family name. The only time I’m called by my given name, William, is if I’m pulled over by a cop for speeding. (Laughter).
Your writing style in the Quinn Colson series is Southern literary. In the Spenser novels, it’s hardboiled, Boston noir. Tell us about that.
I really got into writing by reading some terrific detective writers. In high school, I read Robert Parker, Raymond Chandler, and other crime writers. That genre—detective and crime fiction—was my entry point into loving books. I’m from the South and went to Auburn University. Coming from that region, I was surrounded by notions of Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Robert Penn Warren and other Southern writers. Those two worlds kind of melded into the type of books I write. For the Spenser books, I’m following a Hammett, Chandler path. All those novels influenced me, but Hammett, Chandler, and to some extent Hemingway, inspired me in writing the Spenser books.
You write a Quinn Colson novel and a Spenser book each year. Last October, you told me about different ways you approach writing each, even including the beverages you drink. Will you share that with us?
I’ll drink anything put in front of me. (Laughter). When I’m working on Spenser, I do drink more beer. It’s a bit of a mental trick, but having a Sam Adams makes it feel like I’m in Boston.
Spenser and Quinn are such totally different characters. Are there other mental tricks you use to get into one mode or the other?
You’re right. It’s a totally different thought process from one to the other. It’s like speaking two different languages. One little trick I use is music. When I’m writing Robert B. Parker, I listen to the music he really loved. That’s classic jazz—Ella Fitzgerald, Mel Torme, Louis Armstrong or John Coltrane. When I hear that music, it sounds like Spenser to me. When I write about Quinn Colson and the American South, I listen to country music—Johnny Cash, Charlie Pride, and Loretta Lynn. The music helps me re-focus, and think in a different way.
Do you listen to music while you’re writing?
For the most part, no. If I do, it’s an instrumental, something like Miles Davis. If lyrics or vocals are involved, it’s too distracting. For me, the music is part of the background of my life—in the car or at home—while I’m writing one or the other series.
If I didn’t know better, the Spenser novels would make me believe you’ve lived in Boston for years.
My parents are Southern and I’ve spent most of my life in the South. But, when my Dad became a football coach, depending on the team, we lived in different regions—San Francisco when he worked for the Forty-Niners; Detroit when he was with the Lions; and Buffalo when he coached for the Bills. I had to adapt to a new culture with each move.
Going to Boston and really soaking it up is not only extremely important, but I’m very familiar with doing that kind of thing. When I was a newspaper reporter covering central Florida, learning about a city was simply part of what I did.
Boston’s a very different city from five years ago when Bob Parker was alive. For the Spenser books, it’s part of my job to get it right and capture the city’s ambience. So, I spend a lot of time there. I want to make sure the novel has authentic descriptions. If I haven’t been to a specific place, I would never put it in a Spenser book.
So you wouldn’t just use Google Earth for describing streets and locales?
(Laughter) No. If I write about a place, I’ve been there. Fortunately, it’s not tough for me to do because most of the Spenser stuff takes place in good restaurants and bars. (More laughter). That’s been one of the great perks of this job because Boston is such a terrific city. I love going there every few months. Two things have been great about writing the Spenser series: one was getting to know Boston and the other was getting to know Bob’s widow, Joan Parker.
What challenges did you face continuing a series with a pre-formed character, style, and setting?
As a fan of the Spenser books for many years, the biggest challenge for me was, most of all, continuity. I wanted to create an authentic Spenser novel where the feel of Bob’s books was replicated. I wanted the reader who’d finished Bob’s last book to pick up Lullaby and feel it was written by him. The important thing was for Spenser to live on.
More generally, do you break any writing “rules” when crafting your novels?
When I was a young writer, I used to read lots of stuff about what to do and not do when writing. I try to conform to the rules I like. (Laughter). I think the best rules I ever read for a writer came from Elmore Leonard. He was a stylistic genius. His most famous rule, and the one I try to live by, is ‘If it looks or reads like writing, take it out and rewrite it.’ As a young man, I tried to be fancy with my prose, but two of my favorite stylists were Parker and Leonard. They wrote spare, compact prose and their word choices were economical and just perfect. The corollary to that first Elmore Leonard rule is “I cut out the parts most people skip over.’ It’s sometimes tough to do, but I try to follow those two rules.
Do you have a favorite among all your novels?
I do. It’s a novel called Infamous. It’s the story of George ‘Machinegun’ Kelly. I did enough research to write a non-fiction book, so the novel is based on truth, but has a natural story arc. Parts of the book are almost verbatim renderings of actual events. It’s like a Coen Brothers screwball comedy. Let me tell you about an interview I had with a one-hundred-two year old man, who as a bank teller in 1932, was held up by Machinegun Kelly. Kelly held a .38 behind his ear as the teller emptied his cash drawer. I commented, ‘You must’ve been scared to death.’ The old gent said, ‘No, not at all. Kelly was polite and kept apologizing.’ Actually, Kelly’s wife was really the mastermind, a Lady Macbeth type, and was almost like a press agent. In fact, she’s the one who came up with the moniker, ‘Machinegun.’
At some point, I hope to return to writing creative fiction based on fact.
You mean faction?
Yes, I really love it. I love doing the research and writing about historical periods and people. Infamous was the fourth faction book I’d done, and I hope to get back to that kind of writing.
If you weren’t a writer, what would you be doing?
I would be unemployed. (Laughter).
I was a journalist. When I left the newspaper business, little did I know it was the final phase of that long and proud tradition. If I didn’t have my writing, I’d probably be working for a magazine. I’d be a reporter in some capacity. I’ve got no other talents.
Or, I’d be a gumshoe.
What’s coming next from Ace Atkins?
Next, is The Redeemers, another Quinn Colson book. It’s a darkly funny Southern crime novel.
Congratulations on writing Kickback, another gritty and riveting Spenser novel in the best tradition of Robert B. Parker.
Alex Grecian is the author of the Scotland Yard Murder Squad novels which include the New York Times bestseller, The Yard, The Black Country, The Devil’s Workshop and his latest, The Harvest Man. After leaving a career in advertising, Alex began writing fiction. He wrote comic books and co-created the critically acclaimed graphic novel series Proof. He has been nominated for the Barry Award, Strand Magazine Critics Award, and has won others.
The Harvest Man is the fourth in the Murder Squad series. Set in 1890, Walter Day, a Scotland Yard Detective Investigator, has been sidelined with an injury inflicted by Jack the Ripper who is still terrorizing London. But a new monster has surfaced, the Harvest Man—who carves victims’ faces off their skulls—so Day is recalled to investigate. His former associate, Nevil Hammersmith, who has been dropped from the force, launches his own investigation. With two serial killers—or perhaps three—on the loose, the investigation becomes urgent. But the Ripper has been playing a game with Walter Day, and a huge surprise awaits the reader.
After reading The Harvest Man, I was surprised to learn you’re American, not English. What made you decide to write London-based crime thrillers set in the late 19th century?
That’s the kind of stuff I read growing up and was influenced greatly by it. Actually, it was never my intention to write a series of Victorian novels. I was going to write only one to get it out of my system. But, after the first was published, there was interest in a sequel. I realized I could do things with these characters I couldn’t do with contemporary characters. I picked up the gauntlet and haven’t been able to put it down since.
You mentioned reading as a youngster. Which authors were your earliest influences?
I loved the Sherlock Holmes stories which I read over and over again; and Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan books, which turned out to influence me greatly. I was most interested in the novels where he left the jungle and went back to England. As an American kid, it felt alien at first, but after reading a number of the books, it began feeling natural and I just absorbed all of it. Victorian society really fascinated me.
I also loved comic books. The Flash was my favorite comic book character.
One of the striking aspects of The Harvest Man was the description of the beginnings of forensic crime-solving techniques. Will you talk about that?
My books are occasionally called mysteries, but there’s not a whole lot of mystery to them. They’re police procedurals. The structure of the first two books was based on Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels. I loved those books and thought it would be interesting to write a police procedural set in Victorian England. I wondered how police procedures worked back then, so, once I had my detectives in place, I began researching and discovered Victorian England had no forensic examiners, and it turned out they had no forensic procedures. I created Dr. Kingsley as a forensic examiner who was far ahead of his time. I wanted to craft a story concerning what it was like to try to find a murderer back then. I don’t see how anyone got caught. (Laughter). The police were limited to strands of hair and footprints; but even that didn’t happen very often. Criminal apprehension was mostly a foot chase, with the police being more dogged than the criminal.
You’ve certainly never visited turn-of-the century London. How did you manage to capture the atmosphere of those times so intricately?
No one alive has actually visited there. (Laughter). I read a lot of fiction from those times, especially Dickens, to pick up the atmospherics of the time and place. I have two whole walls of books about day-to-day life during that era. I also have a gigantic map from that period, so I can pinpoint streets where things happened. Basically, I do a great deal of research.
You’ve written comics and graphic novels. How does that impact your writing?
When you write a comic book script, you’re describing for the artist everything that will be drawn in a panel. You’re doing that five or six times for each page, because a comic book’s action is segmented into panels. You learn to think visually, putting yourself into that panel and describing everything the artist needs to render in the scene. When you write a novel, you use a separate set of models, creatively speaking. It’s not as rigid as a comic book, but I carry over some habits, and end up thinking visually. So, when I’m writing a scene, I’m in that room and describe everything about it. I think writing comic books is a good training ground for writing novels.
You left your day job to begin writing full-time and have been very successful. What has surprised you about the writing life?
What surprises me most is the self-discipline you must exercise as a writer. It’s much easier to lie on the couch and eat potato chips or watch Better Call Saul than sit down and write another paragraph. It’s much easier to go to work where you have people waiting for you at the office, and you’ll be in trouble if you don’t show up. I’ve had to relearn self-discipline in writing these books. So, the autonomy is great, but it’s also challenging. It can be tough not having a boss, but I guess my wife fits that description. (Laughter).
What’s your writing day like?
I used to get up at three o’clock in the morning to get my writing done before the rest of the household woke up. Once my son went off to school, I began getting up at six and now work from about ten until three in the afternoon. I then pick up my son from school. My workday revolves around my family life.
What do you love about the writing life?
I think a lot about this. I do love it. If I weren’t being paid to write, I would still be writing. It’s almost a compulsion. There are things I want to say and try, such as new structures and techniques. But what I love most is finishing a book (Laughter). If you weren’t a writer today, what would you be doing?
I think I would be a professional thief. I think I could pull that off. I’d be an Ocean’s Eleven kind of guy. I love figuring out a caper; how to break into a place. Every time we’re anywhere, I’m looking for a spot to hide until the place closes.
You’re having a diner party and can invite five people from any walk of life, living or dead. Who would they be?
I would invite Graham Greene, my favorite author. I’d also invite Stephen King because I’ve learned so much from him. Then I’d invite JFK. I’d like to have William S. Burroughs, and J.K. Rowling as guests, too.
What’s coming next from Alex Grecian?
I’m wrapping up my comic book series, Rasputin and the Mad Monk. It’s a supernatural, historical take on Rasputin. Next year, the sequel to The Harvest Man is due. It’s called Lost and Gone Forever.
Congratulations on penning The Harvest Man, a suspense-filled, atmospheric historical thriller taking the reader back to 1890 London. I truly felt like I was there during that time.
Dennis Lehane is known to millions of readers. His novels Mystic River, Gone, Baby, Gone, and Shutter Island became blockbuster movies, with the most recent film being The Drop, which is based on his short story, Animal Rescue.
A Drink Before the War won the Shamus Award. Mystic River won both the Anthony and the Barry Awards for Best Novel, and the Massachusetts Award in Fiction. Live by Night won the Edgar Award for Best Novel, and the Florida Book Award Gold Medal for Fiction.
World Gone By continues the saga of Joe Coughlin, who made his debut in The Given Day, and returned in Live by Night. It’s now the height of World War II. Having lost his wife in a hail of gunfire ten years earlier, Joe is consigliore to the Bartolo crime family in Tampa. He lives peacefully with his son, Tomas, and moves easily among the various underworld figures of the time. Joe finds out someone has mysteriously placed a contract on his life. Trying to learn more, Joe goes on a chilling journey through the black, white, and Cuban underworlds where he crosses paths with the Lansky-Luciano mob, Tampa’s social elite; and also with the mob-backed Cuban government of Fulgencio Batista.
You once said you knew with the publication of A Drink Before the War, you would be labelled a genre writer. You said, “And there’s no way out of that, so let’s just go all the way. And I’m so glad I did. It’s been the greatest accident of my life.” Will you talk about that?
I don’t know if it’s still true of me, now, but it was certainly true when I came out of graduate school in 1993. The genre was very much ghettoized. Sometimes it was for good reasons; in some cases it was unfair. What I and others were rebelling against was the notion that literary fiction was literature. It was its own ghettoized genre, or should have been, according to that kind of thinking. I was growing very tired of what a writer once referred to as ‘stories about the vaguely dissatisfied in Connecticut.’ At the time, it was dominating literary fiction. I became enamored of writing about what Cormack McCarthy called ‘fiction of mortal events.’ That’s why I drifted into crime fiction. I think crime fiction has social value, and I was very interested in writing about social issues such as race, class—you know, the haves and have-nots in American society. It seemed like a natural fit with the crime novel.
Now, twenty years later, while we may not have knocked the genre gate down, we’ve stormed it. Some lines of distinction between so-called literature and crime fiction have become a bit blurred. Now, some crime fiction is allowed into the club. (Laughter).
Tell us about the Irish-American storytelling culture in which you grew up.
My parents came from Ireland and moved to a section of Boston where they were surrounded by their siblings and in-laws. We grew up with all our uncles and aunts nearby. They gathered every Friday and Saturday at one or another’s house. They would sit around and just tell stories. My brother and I began noticing every six or seven weeks, the same story would come back into the rotation. But, it was tweaked. We began to understand—whether consciously or not—a good story wasn’t necessarily concerned with facts. It was concerned with a basic truth. As an adult, I realize what my parents, uncles and aunts were doing by telling these stories again and again—all about the old country. They were trying to make sense of the diaspora; to make sense of having left the place they loved.
Do you think they romanticized the old country?
Oh, of course. When I went to Ireland, I expected to step back into the 1930s. You know, nobody got divorced; no one ever said a cuss word; and everything was just perfect. That image was calcified in my home in Boston. But in Ireland, time had moved on. They were living their lives.
When I was in graduate school, my mentor would describe storytelling as ‘the lie that tells the truth.’
Many of your novels, including World Gone By, are filled with moral ambiguity. Tell us about that.
The vast majority of what we call morality is simply fear of being caught. Just look at any comment section in articles on the Internet, where people remain anonymous and say whatever they think. Or, watch people when they’re driving their cars. Maybe a small percentage of us with moral fiber will categorically not do certain things, even if we’re not being watched, but with the vast majority, all bets are off.
I don’t know too many really bad people; and I don’t know too many saints. I think most people fall in-between. And, that’s what I write about. Bad people don’t wake up each morning thinking ‘I’m a bad person.” They think, ‘I’m a good person in my heart, even if I have to do some bad things.’ That’s true of bankers, and it’s true of stockbrokers who short stock. And that’s true of gangsters, who short people (Laughter).
In 2001, Mystic River was your first novel outside the Kenzie-Gennaro series. It wasn’t until 2010, when you brought the duo back in Moonlight Mile. Did you get pressure from fans to return to that series?
I didn’t really get pressure; I got wishes. Fans continue to show up at nearly every signing and want to know if Patrick and Angela will ever come back. My answer is, ‘I don’t know.’ I haven’t retired them. They’ve sort of taken these longer and longer vacations from me.
It seems to me you’ve taken a more expansive path in the last few years. Is that a fair statement?
Yes. I would say that path began after Mystic River. For the first time in my life, I became aware of other people’s expectation about what I would do next. I didn’t respond well to that pressure. It wasn’t why I got into writing in the first place. So, I made a conscious choice to zig when everyone thought I would zag. That’s when I wrote Shutter Island. Writing that book was really fun. I was able to do what I’d wanted to do for a very long time, which was to write about the Boston police strike. I’ve stayed on that independent path, despite knowing I’ve lost some fans along the way, but that’s okay.
So, Mystic River changed your writing life?
Yes. It changed the perception of me as a writer—almost overnight. Suddenly, I was viewed as a literary writer. Until that point, people thought, ‘He produces really well-written genre novels.’ That was my label. So, after Mystic River, I was suddenly writing literature. A lot of debates began after that. It was a strange and wonderful place to be.
So, you’re right, it led me to decide to follow a more idiosyncratic path.
I saw the film Mystic River and then read the novel. As fine as the film was, the book was even more powerful. Did the film have an impact on your writing life?
No. I don’t ever, ever, ever think of films when I write. To me, writing a book is a very intimate conversation I’m having with an imagined reader. It’s not a film script. A film script is just a blueprint—like an architectural diagram.
You once said, ‘Character is action. It’s the oldest law of writing. It goes back to Aristotle. Plot is just a vehicle in which your characters act.’ Will you amplify that?
I think a book is a journey by which a main character, or several characters, ultimately reach a reckoning with themselves. The plot is just the car driving them down the road on that journey. I don’t need a spectacular car. I just need one that’s serviceable. I’m not a car guy. With the exception of Shutter Island, I never wrote an original plot. All I do is make the plot serviceable, like the car. I work really hard on a plot, because you need to work hardest at the things that don’t come naturally. I don’t work hard at dialogue. It just flows. I barely rewrite it. Plot takes up the majority of my worry when I write a book because it’s the last thing I consider.
What has surprised you about the writing life?
That it’s as cool as I hoped it would be. (Laughter). You know, one of my favorite movies is Broadcast News. One scene describes my own life. There’s an interchange where William Hurt says to Albert Brooks, ‘What do you do when your reality exceeds your dreams?’ Albert Brooks say, ‘Keep it to yourself.’
That’s where I find myself. I go on book tours; I’m interviewed by people; and it gets put in newspapers. Even twenty years down the line, it still seems surreal to me. Surreal in a wonderful way. You know, last night at a book signing, someone asked me if I’d sign a paperback. I said, ‘Of course.’ And he said, ‘Some authors don’t sign them.’ I said, ‘What the hell did they get into writing for?’ I mean, there was a time when you were a complete nobody, and in your fantasy life you thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if somebody actually wanted me to sign one of my books?’ I still live in that place—where it all seems like a fantasy.
The thing is: I get paid to make shit up. I’d be doing it for free. I walk around thinking, ‘These lunatics actually pay me to do this.’ If a planeload of money was dumped on me, I’d continue doing what I do.
I was going to ask what you love about the writing life, but you’ve already answered that.
They pay me to make shit up and I can keep my own hours. (Laughter).
If you weren’t writing, what would you be doing?
Everybody has some fantasy about this kind of thing. I’m thinking I would be a carpenter. There’s no reason for me to think that since I’ve never shown I can do anything with my hands. But I feel that’s what I’d like to do if I wasn’t writing.
You would certainly see the results of your labor.
Yes. I need to see the results of anything I do, whether it’s a book or a cabinet.
If you could have five people to a dinner party, from any walk of life, living or dead, who would they be?
First, I’d have Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I’d also invite FDR and Bill Murray. And then…Keith Richards. I would also like to have dinner with Joan of Arc.
What would you be talking about?
With that group? What a party it would be. There would be no problem with conversation.
Congratulations on writing World Gone By, described by Kirkus as “a multilayered, morally ambiguous novel of family, blood and betrayal.” And I agree completely with that assessment.
Advance reviews by well-known authors are coming in for The Lovers’ Tango. I’m very gratified by the response. Other authors who’ve endorsed the novel are James Rollins, (Sigma Force series) Phillip Margolin, (many legal thrillers), Jon Land (Caitlin Strong series), and Scott Pratt (the Joe Dillard series). The novel is available on Amazon for pre-order as a Kindle or print edition as well as at Barnes and Noble and local bookstores.
I’m often asked why I write crime-thriller novels. Sometimes, I think the answer is easy: I love to read them, so I write them, too.
But why crime? Why thrillers? You can tap the range of human emotions and experiences in virtually any genre, so what about crime novels is so attractive?
I suppose partly it’s because these things could actually occur—they could really happen to people like you and me. I mean, the chance you’ll encounter a ghost, be transported to another planet, or have some paranormal or sci-fi experience is pretty remote. Often, it’s pure fantasy. Basically, these aren’t possible. But you could very well be the victim of some thug’s violent intentions, or end up being the target of extortion, or threats, or you could unwittingly run afoul of some criminal enterprise.
In other words, crime novels tap into the prospect of possibility which makes them ever more frightening. These things could actually occur.
But more than fear drives these novels. Greed, lust, avarice, revenge, cowardice, nobility—all run rampant in crime and thriller novels. And it’s vicarious, so the tension, anxiety, and outright fear occur to someone else—not you. You can live it through a character’s experiences, not your own. That makes it tolerable—even enjoyable. You can pull back anytime you want.
Even more striking (and this is not limited to crime or thriller fiction) is that many characters in crime novels are larger-than-life. If they’re well-developed they draw the reader inexorably into their spheres.
Think of Vito Corleone in The Godfather, of Harry Bosch in Michael Connelly’s novels, or imagine Ben and Chon in Don Winslow’s novel Savages, or Eddie Coyle in George V. Higgins’ classic crime novel The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Then there are Rambo and Sherriff Teasle in David Morrell’s fascinating novel, First Blood. Or think about characters in novels like Get Shorty, by Elmore Leonard, or those in Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River. They live and breathe on the page. You can’t help but love some, and hate others. You end up rooting for some, while you want to see the demise of others.
Perhaps it boils down to basics—the Good versus Evil dichotomy of human existence. Maybe it’s more complicated than that. Maybe it’s for many reasons, some beyond conscious awareness.
No one really knows what makes these stories so alluring.
But a good crime-thriller taps into something very deep.
Mark Rubinstein,Author of The Lovers’ Tango
Philip Kerr obtained a master’s degree in law and philosophy from the University of Birmingham in the UK. He worked as an advertising copywriter for Saatchi and Saatchi before becoming a full-time writer in 1989. He is best known for the Bernie Gunther series of historical thrillers set in Germany during the 1930s, World War II, and the Cold War. He was a finalist for the Edgar Award, the Shamus Award, and winner of the British Crime Writers Association Ellis Peters Award for Best Historical Crime Fiction. He has also written a Young Adult series, Children of the Lamp, under the name P.B. Kerr.
In The Lady From Zagreb, the tenth book in the Gunther series, Bernie—a former homicide detective totally unsympathetic to the Nazi regime—finds himself at the height of the war, forced to run errands for the notorious Joseph Goebbels, the Minister of Propaganda. Bernie is tasked to convince Darla Dresner, a beautiful young actress living in Switzerland, to return to Germany to star in a propaganda film. But it becomes personal: Bernie falls deeply in love with her.
The mission takes Bernie from Berlin to Zurich, then to Zagreb and the brutal killing fields of Croatia. Events become complicated, and Bernie realizes he’s fallen into a viper’s nest of intrigue and betrayal. The brutal operatives of Allen Dulles and various other nefarious political operatives lie in wait.
In The Lady From Zagreb, and the entire series, you’ve created an extraordinarily likable character in Bernie Gunther. Given his circumstances, this seems difficult to have achieved. How would you describe his personality?
Like me, he’s temperamentally unemployable. He’s good at his job and he’s sort of tolerated by the Nazis. You didn’t have to be a Nazi in order for them to find a use for you. He’s a romantic figure; someone who loves his country but despairs that it’s been high-jacked by a bunch of gangsters. He wonders what he can do about it. He doesn’t always behave heroically. Part of what redeems him is he doesn’t let himself off the hook insofar as guilt is concerned. He has a dark and razor sharp sense of humor, which is how Berliners were depicted in the film Cabaret and by Joel Grey’s character as Master of Ceremonies.
It’s quite mordant, isn’t it?
Yes. It’s in accord with my own sense of humor. It’s quite an English characteristic. We have a cruel sense of humor.
You’ve just encapsulated his personality very well.
I’ve been with Bernie for a long time. I wrote the first book nearly thirty years ago. If you told me then I‘d be promoting him in 2015, I’d be quite surprised.
How has Bernie Gunther evolved over these thirty years?
In the beginning, he was younger and a bit more muscular. He got the girls rather more readily than he does now. He’s older, wiser, and more grizzled. He thinks more about things now, and moves around. In one novel, he goes to South America where he meets some of the war criminals who relocated there after the war ended. He changes, I think, quite radically, over the years. The basic character structure is still there, but so many things happened during the war, and he changed as things progressed.
Your Author’s Notes describe a Swiss plan to forestall an invasion by Hitler, who, as you wrote, was still considering such an invasion as late as 1944. Tell us about that.
The Swiss were surrounded by hostile forces: Italy, the Vichy government in France, and the Nazis. The Swiss realized they would have to step very carefully to avoid being invaded. Hitler knew if he had Switzerland, he could control the mountain passes leading to Italy. He realized the Allies were planning attacks up through the boot of Italy.
The Swiss had a plan to blow up the mountain passes and thus deny the Nazis passage to resupply German troops in Italy. They actually set explosives which were ready to blow up the mountain passes.
The Bernie Gunther novels are suffused with morally hazy issues. Bernie navigates his way through them with aplomb. Will you talk about that?
I don’t really like heroes who always behave heroically. That’s not interesting to me. So, I put Bernie in situations where the choices to be made are difficult ones. For instance, in a previous book, a soldier threatened to reveal the existence of a high-level Wehrmacht plot to assassinate Hitler. Because Bernie could see no alternative to preventing this man from disclosing the plot, he ends up murdering him. The war created its own imperatives. I try imagining what I’d have done in a similar situation. It’s a more interesting question if you take it one step removed: if you had an opportunity to kill someone who would interrupt a plot to kill Hitler, what would you do? It makes Bernie more interesting.
And far more of a complex character, as well.
Yes, there was a big fan of Bernie’s who couldn’t believe Bernie could kill someone in cold blood. I asked him what he would have done if he believed this man was going to spoil a plot to kill Hitler. He had to admit he might have done the same thing.
In an interview about the novel, you revealed quite a surprise about Joseph Goebbels. Tell us about it.
The Nazi leadership was often well-educated. Goebbels had a doctorate from Heidelberg University. When he was a struggling young man, he wanted to be a novelist. He wrote a novel called Michael. Like most young novelists, he was unsuccessful in getting it published, as, by the way, I was with my first few novels. When he became Minister of Propaganda and was in charge of all German publications, of course the novel was published.
You’ve had ten Bernie Gunther novels and other works published. What has surprised you about the writing life?
What has surprised me is how the writing life is changing on a year-by-year basis.
The first surprise to me is that people are not as interested in reading as they once were. We’re witnessing the death of newspapers, and publishing may go the same way.
The writing life has changed dramatically as compared to when I first started. It used to be you published a book every few years. Now, the writer and the author are two different people. The writer stays at home; the author goes on book tours and becomes a raconteur and personality. Increasingly, the latter is required.
Now, it’s not enough to just write a book. You have to become something of a celebrity-promotor of the book. It’s a bit like schizophrenia because the very thing that makes you a novelist—being fond of your own company, staying home and writing—almost disqualifies you from going on the road and being articulate in front of people as you hawk your novels. There’s only one thing worse than doing a book tour, and that’s not being asked to do one. (Laughter).
What do you love about the writing life?
I love sitting at my desk and facing a quiet day with a pen in my hand, and putting myself into a story. It’s kind of weird, isn’t it? I mean, to absent myself from real life, and make up stories is strange, but I started doing this when I was ten years old. It was all I wanted to do. I just think I’ve been incredibly fortunate having pulled it off and not really having to hold down a job.
You mentioned holding a pen. Do you write by hand?
Yes. I write by hand and then transfer the text onto the computer. I like the process of actually having a pen in my hand. Things flow more easily for me that way.
If you weren’t a writer, what would you be doing?
If I weren’t a writer, I think I might have thrown myself more enthusiastically into advertising. But, it’s difficult to imagine being a diligent copywriter. It would be quite exasperating for me. I did so many things. I started out as a lawyer. Then I went into advertising, and eventually drifted into journalism. There are all sorts of things I could have been doing, but perhaps like Bernie Gunther, I may be temperamentally unemployable.
You’re having a dinner party. If you could invite five people over for dinner, from any walk of life, living or dead, who would they be?
I’d go for an interesting mix. I’d invite Charles Darwin. I’m struck by his enormous powers of observation. If I could have Martin Luther there, it would be very interesting to see the two of them come up against each other. Edward Gibbons would also be part of the group, and then there would be Isaac Newton. Those three—Newton, Darwin and Gibbons—would be a triumvirate of excellence not just in their specific fields, but as men of letters. It would be fun to have a woman there, too. Very possibly Hedy Lamarr who, apart from having been one of the best-looking women in the world, was the co-inventor of a gyroscopic system for guiding submarine torpedoes. It’s a little-known fact that she had a brilliant mind.
What’s next for Philip Kerr?
I’m writing another Young Adult novel and publishing a series of novels about soccer in Europe. I try to do new things. I can’t bear doing the same thing again and again, which is a danger of doing a series. I like setting new challenges for myself.
Congratulations on writing The Lady From Zagreb, a gripping historical thriller taking the reader to another time and place, and it does so with chilling realism.