Crime Files chats to Philip Kerr

Philip Kerr talks to Crime Files about his internationally bestselling Bernie Gunther series.

Posted on November 6, 2015 in Author Q&A
Tags: lady from zagreb, philip kerr

How would you describe your lead character, Bernie Gunther?

Well he’s obviously exactly like me: clever, witty, irresistible to women, tough. Seriously though, he’s someone who’s lived in interesting times which, as any fule kno, is a variant on the ancient Chinese proverb: It’s better to be a dog in a peaceful time than be a man in a chaotic period. As a result, he’s someone who’s made difficult choices and these have tested his character to the limit. I like painting him into a corner morally. He hates me, you know. He really hates me. And I can’t say that I blame him.

The period from the 1930s-50s is one that continues to be such a rich landscape for detective fiction. Why do you think that is and what is it that drew you to writing about that part of history?

I did a post-grad degree in Law and German Philosophy which got me interested in the whole pan-German/ Romantic movement that was a sort of intellectual platform for Nazism. The idea of ‘Germanness’ all stems from the latter half of the nineteenth century. What interested me was the life of the ordinary German during the thirties. I wanted to find out more and the central figure of a detective seemed a good way to do it.

He’s a sort of Everyman character through which I try to show the dilemmas that faced ordinary decent people. It’s very easy for us in the UK to stay on our moral high ground and tell ourselves that we would have behaved very differently. I’m not at all sure that this is the case. Anyway it’s a great subject for a crime novel. I can stage a routine crime on the forestage while on the backstage a real crime – the crime of the millennium – is taking place. That’s a fantastic bonus for a crime writer.

At such a developed stage in the series are you finding his adventures easier to write or more difficult?

Yes. Very much so. Each one I write I wonder if it will be the last. Because the stories are inspired by history and there’s a finite supply of that, of course. It’s a lot more complicated than just making stuff up. Each one I write I wonder if it’s time to stop. Probably I will write one novel too many about Bernie and I am haunted by the possibility that I may have done so already. Oops.

Have you enjoyed writing the Bernie Gunther novels the most out of all your work?

Each book is different. And enjoyable. I love writing books. I get very restless and dissatisfied when I’m not writing something. I start to feel like the ghost of someone else. As if I am not quite properly there.

What do you like to do when you are not writing?

Well this happens so very seldom that I really don’t know. It seems like I am almost always writing. And why not, this is my hobby as well as my chosen profession. A better question would be what do I do with myself in the spaces between writing. Well, exercise is important. Mens sana in corpore sano. I train hard. Yoga quite a bit. I’ve lost weight so that I can stand on my head with greater ease.

I don’t listen to music very much. Waste of time most of it. And nearly every album I have bought in the last ten years has been crap. I used to paint a bit. I used to do a lot of things. I used to read more than I do now. Writing eats up time like a kind of virus. There is very little left except my wife, my children, my home cinema, Arsenal.

Do you have a favourite writer?

Dickens I like. Gibbon, because he hates Christians and writes so well. George Orwell. No one favourite of course. How could there be? Shakespeare is God. He was never the Earl of Oxford. What a terrible idea that was. No God wrote the plays in human form and the form was a the son of a glove maker called Bill Shakespeare. God does things like that.

As Peter Shaffer says in his play Amadeus: Salieri hates God because ‘you choose for your instrument a boastful, lusty, smutty infantile boy and give me for reward only the ability to recognise the incarnation’. People who deny the divinity of Shakespeare should be castrated. Well, there I have answered: Shakespeare.

Who is your favourite fictional character?

Winston Smith.

Thank you, Philip!

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