Birnbaum v.

Philip Kerr

Our man in Boston sits down with the author of the “Berlin Noir” trilogy and other books, to talk about detectives, Nazis, and Impressionist writing.

Philip Kerr by Robert Birnbaum

British novelist Philip Kerr is best known for his well regarded Bernie Gunther series featuring a Berlin homicide detective operating in Nazi Germany and beyond.

Since 1989, Kerr has published seven of these thrillers, most recently Field Gray. The first three novels, now published in an omnibus “Berlin Noir” edition, were published in the early ‘90s. After an unplanned hiatus, Kerr resumed the Gunther story in 2007. He says below:

“I never intended to leave such a large gap between book three and book four. A lot of other stuff just got in the way. I feel kind of lucky that people are still as interested in this guy as I am. If anything, I’m more interested in him now than I was back in the day.”

Philip Kerr has also written eight stand-alone novels as well as a very popular children’s series, Children of the Lamp, under the pen name PB Kerr.

In our conversation below, held recently in the lobby of Boston’s Four Seasons Hotel, we discuss the latest entry in the Bernie Gunther saga, which takes Gunther from Cuba in 1951 to New York and back to post-war Europe. We also chat about radioactive cuff links, the pitfalls of writing a series, Martin Amis, and Kerr’s greatest ambition.


Robert Birnbaum: Do you think much about the fact that some 20 years ago you were included in a group of best young novelists chosen by Granta?

Philip Kerr: Hmm.

RB: Is that long forgotten? Is it still mentioned?

PK: Um, it is forgotten, mostly. Not by me. And not by the people who were in it. In a way it was quite a painful experience for all of us.

RB: [laughs]

PK: For a while it was like walking around with a Post-It note on your back that said, “Kick me.” You know, [that] some thoughtful person had attached when you weren’t looking. It was an excuse for the press to say, “Who are all these guys? We never heard of them.” But in a way that was the very point of the promotion, which was to say, “These are the people we think might be the writers of tomorrow.”

RB: Was the editor Bill Buford at the time?

PK: Yes.

RB: Well, that’s an American trick, of course. “Best” lists or something like that.

PK: [laughs] It was good, though—it was quite effective. I am not knocking it. That was in the days when people still felt it was a good idea to promote authors. Which doesn’t happen very often now.

RB: That was the first time Granta did that.

PK: It wasn’t, no.

RB: I thought you were in the first group.

PK: Oh, I remember the first group quite vividly. I was in the second group. The first group was—

RB: [Martin] Amis—

PK: Salman Rushdie, William Boyd—

RB: [Kazuo] Ishiguro.

PK: I am a lot younger than you think.

RB: [laughs] You look young.

PK: At the time it was called the “Best of Young British Novelists.” And I was touching 40.

RB: You just made the cut.

PK: I was bloody lucky to still be classed as a young novelist.

RB: I think they are doing under-25 these days. Does it strike you that in England you would be ridiculed, but in the U.S. that would not be the cause of any opprobrium?

PK: Well that’s the English. Whenever you create a list of anything in Britain, there will be lots of people who will disagree with it. If you were to create a list of the best soccer players, there were would be people saying, “Well, actually, no, these people are no good because you have left out Wayne Rooney and whatever.” And that’s part of the reason people do it—it creates controversy whenever you create them.

RB: Lists are loved here in the U.S. It’s a surefire journalistic gambit when you have nothing to write about.

PK: We have got used to it now—the idea of creating lists. At the time it was still a little bit of a novelty and we weren’t quite used to it. Like everything in Britain, we do it and we do it badly and it takes a long time for us to sort of—

RB: Tsk, tsk. Are you aware that Martin Amis is leaving England and his apparent exit interviews are very derisive of Britain—I’m reminded of a lyric from a Don Henley song: “Sometimes the light is best from a burning bridge.” Did you see those remarks?

You have to remember with something as difficult as novel writing—it’s like doing woodwork: You don’t make a Chippendale cabinet on your first day. PK: I did and I thought, “What’s wrong with him?”

RB: [laughs] How about you?

PK: Me?

RB: Do you still like living in Britain?

PK: I do, yeah, I do. I think there is a lot to be said for it. We are in some ways still the repositories of the culture—guardians of the language. We are to you what ancient Greece was to Rome.

RB: [Laughs]

PK: We are slightly laughable in some ways but the Romans—it was a nod to the gods that they knew the Greeks had originated. And philosophy. There was a sense that they were kind of decadent and an old culture that was just waiting to crumble. But at the same time there was an admiration for the Greeks in ancient Rome and that still applies to us a bit. I like to think it does, anyway.

RB: And Amis’s reasons for trashing Britain?

PK: I think Marty is looking for a bit of significance, really. And he is not finding it in Engand.

RB: Ever since his dental travails—

PK: To be fair to him, he did have something seriously wrong with his gums.

RB: Oh, sure.

PK: He is the kind of person wants to be taken more seriously. And we are not a country that takes anything seriously, in particular. Apart from money and celebrity. And I think he will find—correct me if I am wrong—the same here. [laughs] I don’t know that people take things that seriously here, either. My impression is that he is somebody who wants to seem to have more significance than he actually does. Which makes you think, “Why did he become a writer?”

RB: [laughs] His father?

PK: To be fair to him, I think he is a very talented writer in his own right. But he wants to be accorded some greater significance.

RB: He seems also to be publicizing his next novel, currently entitled State of England—a big bash on Britain.

PK: Let me say, I think he is a fine writer.

RB: No doubt. Though it is because I enjoy talking with him that I read his novels—which are not easy reading, not fun.

PK: Yes, I think he is a brilliant conversationalist. And he is a really excellent and interesting essayist. Possibly his novels are a little bit too complicated. He is the kind of writer who now tries to make it difficult for the reader. And in the beginning he was the kind of writer who didn’t. He made it easy for the reader. You can say what ever you like—if you have a message, if you have a soapbox that you want to put in the middle of your novel, that’s fine. I think you can do it more effectively if you have taken the trouble to entertain first. And you can slip the soapbox in.

RB: Who said literature was to entertain and instruct? Cicero? Also, Isaac Bashevis Singer, according to Richard Russo. You started out writing standalones, not writing Bernie Gunther novels.

PK: Yes.

RB: I read the standalones first. In fact, I read Field Gray because there was nothing else new by you and I had never read a Gunther novel. Are you only writing the children’s books and Bernie Gunther stories?

PK: For the moment. Like most people—like most people who write, I wrote from a very early age. About 10. By the time I got my first novel published I had already written five or six.

RB: Did you keep them?

PK: Fortunately not. They were all rightly rejected in my opinion. They were all rubbish. I was learning my craft. When I do meet kids, and I do quite often, and talk to them as a writer, I say, “Look, the most important thing to do is fail. Failing is so important for anybody. It’s only from your failure that you can measure your success. And learn.”

RB: If you are not crushed.

PK: If you are sensible you have to remember with something as difficult as novel writing—it’s like doing woodwork: You don’t make a Chippendale cabinet on your first day. You have to spend weeks, months, and years learning your craft.

RB: Your early work was practice.

PK: Yeah. Unfortunately we live in a society that is full of instant celebrity. American Idol, X Factor. All that nonsense. Nobody is prepared or wants to put the groundwork in. Nobody seems to think it’s important to the craft, the hard part.

RB: MFA programs are supposed to do that in the U.S.A. What was the your last standalone, Dark Matter, about Isaac Newton?

PK: Yes or Hitler’s Peace, one of the two.

RB: I had forgotten about Hitler’s Peace. The last two or three have been Bernie Gunther stories—I keep wanting to say “Gauthier.” I take it you have fun writing them.

PK: I do have fun. If you are not having fun as a writer and not enjoying your craft, there is something seriously wrong.

RB: The pre-WWII Berlin setting seems to have become popular. I have come across two novelists who are using it. Besides Alan Furst, who is doing something very different.

My middle son thinks in a quite tangential way, so occasionally when I get stuck on a plot, I will mention something to him, and he is so off the wall that he comes up with something.PK: I have never read anything any of them have written. Not out of spite, I just don’t want to—

RB: Confuse yourself?

PK: I guess I would rather remain in my own little vacuum. And carry on plowing my own furrow instead of looking at the next guy. I mean, good luck to them, I say. I get sent books like that all the time to review.

RB: So there are many more than two authors?

PK: Yeah, there are. And I just say, “Look, I spend my whole life writing about this stuff, why would I would I want to—”

RB: Do you read Alan Furst?

PK: No. I mean, I read history. And I read biography, but I don’t read a lot of novels. You know what, I don’t read a lot at all. I am so knackered at the end of the day. I do a working day—I’ve spent nine until five—

RB: Every day, writing?

PK: Kind of. More or less.

RB: Or thinking, or chewing on your pencil.

PK: There is not a lot of chewing. It’s getting on with it. I am not the kind of person who believes in inspiration very much. I usually go after it with a big club in my hand and club it over the head and drag it back into my study.

RB: I was barely aware of your writing these children’s books. Are writing these books like a vacation for you?

PK: It kind of feels like it when I am doing it. I love getting in touch with my inner child, finding the 12-year-old me who is still inside the body of a very fat man, which I always tell kids—they love that. What they don’t ever appreciate is that none of us feels very much different when we become an adult. We are still the same person we always were. It’s just when you look in the mirror, it’s a little bit more of a shock than it was when you were 12.

RB: We should counsel the kids not to look in the mirror.

PK: Look when you are 12, but when you get my age it’s a little bit more of a shock. So it’s great writing for them.

RB: How many books are there?

PK: I have done seven already and I have an eighth coming later this year. In the beginning I thought it was really difficult to do. Before I ever tackled it.

RB: Why did you?

PK: I have kids of my own. And I wanted to connect with them. Also, [for them] to have some stake in what I did. So they felt I was writing for them. That was really where it came from.

RB: Are your kids your first readers?

PK: No. My middle son thinks in a quite tangential way, so occasionally when I get stuck on a plot, I will mention something to him, and he is so off the wall—

The Argentines made a very good effort to burn every record that there was. Writing a novel seemed the only way of actually filling in that gap. If they didn’t like it, to hell with them. Let’s face it: What were 5,000 to 8,000 war criminals doing living openly in Buenos Aires? RB: [laughs]

PK:—that he comes up with something. He usually misunderstands what I am saying and he will come out with something and it sparks some realization. And I say, “Yes!” It’s not like he suggests something. Listening to his thought processes sort of inspires me. And I think as a child again, which puts me back into his way of thinking rather than my own—which is the best part.

RB: When you are writing the Bernie Gunther stories what is your frame of mind?

PK: I think of myself like a method actor. I project my psyche into the period and really try and inhabit the character totally. So I cease to think as a 21-century man and I try and think as a man in the 1930’s.

RB: As a hard-boiled cop.

PK: Yeah, he is casually racist. Of the time. Everybody was. I try to make him true to the period.

RB: Do you admire him? Is he an admirable person?

PK: That’s a really good question, actually. I pity him. Because of the situation he finds himself in. I admire anyone who tries to do the right thing. He is a patriotic German who is a true democrat who loathes Nazism. Who finds himself increasingly compromised. And that’s all my fault—it’s what I have done to him [both laugh]. But that’s what makes an interesting character—putting him into situations where you actually do have to make some pretty tough choices.

RB: There are shades of Philip Marlowe in Gunther.

PK: That wouldn’t be unfair. When I first started writing them—an early conceit was to imagine what kind of Marlowe we would have had [if] instead of leaving Dulwich College, where Chandler went to school, instead of going to L.A. he went to Berlin. What kind of Marlowe would we have had? It tickled me a little bit to try and inhabit that same noir period, and in a way it’s much more fortunate, it suits the post-Weimar period, the Nazis, because the worst Marlowe had to deal with was a dodgy DA or a corrupt mayor. The great thing is, however parochial the crime that is occurring in the foreground, in the background is a huge—one of the crimes of, if not the millennium, certainly the century.

RB: And in the new book, the horrors of Stalinism.

PK: Yeah, and it gives a wonderful echo, that you can make the most of.

RB: You mention the 40,000 Polish officers massacred but never name it—

PK: The Katyn Forest massacre.

RB: It wasn’t called that at the time?

PK: No, I wanted to deal with it as they would have dealt with it, as they would have understood it. To us it’s easily identifiable as the Katyn Forest massacre; to them it would have been something different.

RB: And it wasn’t settled at the time.

PK: No, there was a lot of debate about who blamed who.

RB: How old will we see Bernie get?

PK: [laughs] Well, that’s a good question. He is certainly approximately my age, which it didn’t really occur to me as I was doing it. If you look at someone who I do admire, like John le Carre and what he did with Smiley: The great thing about Smiley is when he gets older. The Smiley who is sort of retired is a much more interesting character than the one who appears in some of the early novels. Yes, it would be sort of interesting to write about the character when he is older. But for the fact that—

RB: Where will he end up? You have any idea where he will end up?

PK: No, none at all.

RB: He’s been to Argentina, Cuba, on his way to Haiti—

PK: I always worry about writers who know what is going to happen in books one through seven. I would call it J.K. Rowling-itis.

RB: [laughs]

PK: That you know precisely what—well, maybe she does, maybe she doesn’t. I think, well, I like the unpredictability, that’s what makes it interesting for me to write. I don’t know where he is going to end up. I am mindful of the reality that most crime writers write one or two, if not more, too many. And they flog it to death.

RB: I don’t like series—I avoid them with a few exceptions. You have managed to get past some of the traps and pitfalls. Gunther is not predictable, the same gestures and habits. And there is so much going on around him. He doesn’t wear a rut into the same places.

PK: Right, that’s why I did it. And when I came back after the long lay-off between books three and four, I wanted to move him around. To make him a Flying Dutchman figure. I thought, if I move him to different locations it won’t seem like you say, he has worn a rut on a particular street in Berlin. And there were so many other places that it seemed legitimate to take him. Like Buenos Aires. I was desperate to write a novel about someone inhabiting that society in Buenos Aires in the 1950s. You know what, nobody else had done it. The Argentines themselves made a very good effort to burn every record that there was. So frankly, writing a novel seemed the only way of actually filling in that gap. So I felt it was an entirely legitimate bit of speculation. And if they didn’t like it, to hell with them anyway. Let’s face it: What were 5,000 to 8,000 war criminals doing living openly in Buenos Aires? They weren’t upset when Eichmann was kidnapped because they were shocked that Eichmann had been living in their country. They were pissed off that Israelis had snatched him from under their noses. I kind of think, Fuck ‘em. [Laughs]

RB: A nasty people. Their contribution to civilization was flying dissidents over the ocean and throwing them out of the airplane.

PK: Exactly, and if that’s how you deal with your political opponents, then you have to put up with what other people are going to write about what happened in your society.

RB: I would have liked to see more of Gunther in Cuba.

PK: I probably would, too. The previous book, If the Dead Rise Not, has quite a large chunk set in Cuba.

RB: Oh, that’s the novel I was finally sent yesterday. [laughs]

PK: That one explains how he gets to Cuba. And what he does there. Cuba is a wonderful place. I am very fond of it. I loved going there and ideally would have liked to do a bit more writing there. Sometimes you have to be aware that you are indulging yourself.

RB: How much research do you feel obliged to do?

PK: I aspire to being accurate and that’s as much as I can do. Obviously I have the benefit of hindsight.

RB: It is fiction.

PK: Yes, it is. It’s as much as I can do to create a true verisimilitude of the way it was. I think of myself—if doesn’t sound too pretentious—as an Impressionist painter. Like Georges Seurat. I mine these little details I find and store them away. So I can put them on my painter’s palette and then put tiny little spots of color on. Up close they don’t really mean very much, but when you take 20 steps back you see this fantastic shimmering painting which creates a kind of moment in time. And that’s really what I am after—an impression, if you like—of how it was.

RB: Do you feel compelled, as time passes and archives are made more available, to stay current?

PK: I find it really irritating, actually.

RB: [laughs]

PK: I look all these wonderful books that come out and think, “Oh my God, I would have killed to have that book 20 years ago.” I just read a rather good book the other day called The Garden of Beasts by Erik Larsen. It’s about the life of the American ambassador to Hitler in 1934—George Dodds. It’s a marvelous story.

RB: Larsen is a wonderful writer

PK: Yes he is. He is a very involving writer. A lot of is based on Martha Dodd’s own diary—she became a Soviet spy. You couldn’t make that stuff up. The daughter of the American ambassador whose lovers include—she is being measured up to be the lover of Hitler by a guy named Putsy Heffstengel, who was a sort of socialite. And then she has numerous affairs with Nazis and then she takes up with this guy who works for the NKVD and eventually is recruited in the Soviet secret service. I mean, you couldn’t make that stuff up. That’s what’s so wonderful about it.

RB: And you learned things about the Nazi hierarchy that you didn’t know before?

PK: I am just using that as an illustration. There are lots of other books that have come out—a book by Fredrick Taylor about de-Nazification. To have had that book would have been very useful. There is now almost like a modern industry of books about Nazism and Nazi revolution. I have thought quite carefully about it and it’s because it’s the one time in modern history where there is a clearly identifiable set of good guys and a clearly identifiable set of bad guys.

Over the years I have sold so many things to Hollywood, none of which have got made. It never ceases to surprise me how much people will pay for things that never actually see the light of day.RB: The Good War.

PK: Yeah, exactly. Since then we have had Korea. Well, that wasn’t clear-cut. Vietnam—well, where do you go from there? Afghanistan, Iraq? Nothing is clear anymore—who is good and who is bad. One man’s revolutionary or terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. And you know, I am quite a pacifist. I was against both of the recent wars and certainly against what is happening in Libya. I think it’s stupid to piss around—what are they thinking of?

RB: Do you get readers upbraiding you for factual issues?

PK: I get the odd person who writes and points out some trivial detail that I got wrong. In one of the recent novels I mentioned the synagogue, the Oranienburger Strasse in Berlin, which was the largest synagogue at the time. It had a congregation of 8,000 people. I visited it to research it properly. The mistake I made was that they were not strict Jews. It was a kind of reformed Jewish congregation. I had described the guys as wearing more intense traditional Hasidic stuff. And they wouldn’t ever had worn that. So it was a fact I got wrong. And I put my hands up to that. I felt in spirit it was OK. A forgivable mistake. What was interesting about writing that scene was, when I wrote it, I deliberately put myself in the position of imagining all these people were Muslims. So that I would mine my own borderline racism about Muslims in our society. I thought this was a terribly useful thing to do, to catch myself off, if you like. So that in the same way I look on people wearing burkhas and djellabas in modern 21st-century society and thinking “Why don’t they dress like us?” I was able to use that for how Germans would have reacted to strict Hasidic Jews, who were obvious as well. It was a useful thing to do.

RB: More method acting.

PK: Yes.

RB: Now you have written seven Gunther novels. You say you haven’t given up writing the standalones: What would move you to write one? One great idea?

PK: A bit of that, certainly. I remember when I was writing the first three [The Berlin Trilogy] I thought after three, should I stop? Because, let’s face it, when Chandler wrote Marlowe, he wrote seven or eight, but there are only three that were any good. And so I didn’t want to bore myself, bore the reader. As I say, it always happens that you write one too many anyway. But if you can limit it to one too many, know you have written one too many, then that’s OK.

RB: You frequently go to L.A. to see about film work—no one is making films from your work?

PK: The film rights are owned by a German film producer. Ironically, he is a film producer who originally had an association with FA Babelsburg, which in the ‘30s was managed by Goebbels. He is getting quite old now.

RB: How long has he held the rights?

PK: A good 15 years. He hasn’t done anything with it. We are optimistic that we can persuade him to take on a co-producer, at the very least.

RB: Do you know why he hasn’t done anything?

PK: Just he is getting on a bit. But none of this surprises me. Over the years I have sold so many things to Hollywood, none of which have got made. It never ceases to surprise me how much people will pay for things that never actually see the light of day.

RB. Would you like to see your stories made?

PK: Well, I would and I wouldn’t actually. I tell myself, would it ever be as good as Chinatown?

RB: Oh, come on. That’s a very high standard.

PK: [laughs] It is a high standard. And I think it wouldn’t actually. The thing I like about Chinatown is—the thing I think is a genius thing about it, is the ending. Because at the end, if you remember, Gittes is standing there when Faye Dunaway has been shot and he is looking stunned as if he doesn’t understand, and his partner takes him away, and says, “Forget it. Don’t try and understand it—it’s Chinatown.” [The actual quote is “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”—ed.] And of course that is the metaphor for the whole noir thing, which is that, when you look at Chandler and The Big Sleep and pictures like that, you don’t understand those either. You are not meant to.

I like coming to the States. I like America. I go in a slightly artificial way. Going to L.A. is artificial, anyway. It’s stimulating. I like talking to those people.RB: Who can follow The Big Sleep?

PK: Exactly. And it doesn’t matter. That was where Polanski was so clever. He got that. It doesn’t matter that you haven’t understood the plot of Chinatown about the water and all that kind of stuff. What matters is that there has been a resolution and it’s a tragic resolution, and seeing that, that’s all that matters.

RB: You must have seen The Grifters?

PK: Yes.

RB: That was another great noir film. But I don’t remember the resolution. Was there an ending?

PK: I don’t remember either.

RB: I do remember Angelica Huston being incredible in the film.

PK: She was a great actress. And still is. But like most women now she is struggling to find great parts. And that is the tragedy of women in Hollywood.

RB: You don’t read much fiction—do you go to a lot of movies?

PK: I do, I do. I love watching movies. And I get sad—we’ve seen the best time. The ‘70s was a golden time for cinema. The late ‘60s, early ‘70s. When films like Chinatown were being made. Network—I was talking to someone who had never seen Network who was my age. I couldn’t believe it. It was one of the greatest films about television ever. And it has some fantastic dialogue—great speeches.

RB: You would expect that from Paddy Chayefsky.

PK: He treats the viewer with respect. Each scene lasts longer than a few seconds. That’s the trouble with cinemas now. It’s edited beyond intelligence. Whereas in that film you have scenes that go on for three or four minutes.

RB: I just thought of a great film set in Nazi Germany, The Counterfeiters. Do you know it?

PK: Yes, it’s set in a German prisoner-of-war camp about a plot to counterfeit British and American currency. Well, if you like that, you may like The Lives of Others. You must see that—The Lives of Others is so much better. It’s about the Stasi spying on people in the 1970s. A wonderful film. It was made by the same people who made Downfall, which is about Hitler in the bunker. There will never be a better film about Hitler in the bunker.

RB: This is great—good to talk to you. So, do you travel to the Continent often?

PK: Oh, yeah, yeah. I go all the time.

RB: Has the European Union changed anything?

PK: It certainly has. For a start, what people have woken up to is the fact—I hate to sound like a prophet crying in the wilderness—I used to say it’s not going to work, the Euro. Basically, the idea of bringing another country up to an economic standard that is possessed by the super-rich countries seems inherently absurd. I used to tease the Germans when I used to go there years ago—I still go—but then I would say, “What’s it like to pay for the Irish to have a better standard of living?” And they would say, “Oh, we know you don’t like the Euro.” But now the Germans are waking up to the fact that they are having to pay for it.

RB: Oh, yeah, the great Irish Tiger.

PK: Irish Kitten, more like.

RB: Have you spent much time in the U.S.A?

PK: I’ve spent enough time. I like coming to the States. I like America.

RB: What’s enough time? A few weeks at a time?

PK: I go in a slightly artificial way. Going to L.A. is artificial, anyway. It’s stimulating. I like talking to those people.

RB: Have you been to Chicago? Montana?

PK: I have never been to Montana. I have been to Chicago. I’ve been to strange places—New Mexico. I was researching a novel that didn’t quite come off in New Mexico. I remember one thing, which is rather bizarre: I was driving past the Trinity site—where they exploded the bomb. And there was a little caravan selling plants and things on the side of the road.

RB: Mutant plants?

PK: Well, I pulled over and they had some Trinitite cuff links, which were made from incinerated sand. So I bought the cuff links and I put them on. I like cuff links, as you can see. What I noticed was the radio reception I had had before stopping was excellent but the minute I was driving along with these bloody cuff links the reception was awful.

RB: [laughs]

PK: I became obsessed and after 50 miles I threw them out the window.

RB: You didn’t get a Geiger counter?

PK: [laughs] It was safer just to chuck them. So, yeah, I like driving in the States. You get to see the country and talk to real people.

RB: I like that, too—I cannot abide flying. I haven’t flown since 1997.

PK: You are lucky—I have taken eight flights in the last 10 days.

RB: So, being a young man, and having written for a good part of your life—

PK:—ish. Youngish man. Thank you very much, though. [laughs]

RB: Do you foresee writing for the rest of your life?

PK: Oh, yeah. I don’t see any harm in that. That seems—I think you are lucky if you can say, “This is what I am going to do.” The idea of retirement is an appalling one. The great thing—you never need to retire if you are a writer. Here my examples are the likes of John le Carre, who is 82 and is still turning out fine, fine books.

RB: Yes, he is. He is seemingly getting angrier, though.

PK: Well, I like that too. That’s even better. He is still a man with bees in his bonnet. Good for him.

RB: Do you know John Lawton’s work?

PK: No.

RB: He has a character, homicide detective for Scotland Yard, of a Russian émigré family, set in wartime Britain. Anyway, do you have any grand ambitions for your work?

PK: I have a grand ambition for me.

RB: Yes?

PK: I don’t aspire to literary prizes or anything. It’s nice to get accolades and that kind of thing.

RB: It’s unseemly to ask for them.

PK: I am always pleasantly surprised when it does happen. I would like to write a screenplay that got made into a movie. So often I write into a void. And nobody seems interested in reading screenplays, either. Frankly, I write damn good ones. In the last year and a half I have written three.

RB: Don’t you have any wealthy and/or influential friends?

PK: Well, I have a very influential agent.

RB: Perhaps you might befriend some young stars.

PK: I should, really, shouldn’t I? I think, dare I say, I have an Oscar-winning performance film for someone? A true story based in America, and it is about a guy called George Helmsley in Tennessee in the 1920s who was a snake-handling preacher. He would handle rattlesnakes and it was a huge phenomenon. Eighty-thousand people would come and watch these guys doing it. And at the time I thought this was a great part for Leonardo. He could do it.

RB: George Clooney.

PK: Yeah. And it’s American history. You think, how could it fail?

RB: Why don’t you write it as a novel and have someone make the movie from it?

PK: [laughs]

RB: That might be one way to get it made.

PK: I suppose it is, actually.

RB: More work. You’d have to fill in the blanks.

PK: I guess that’s true. I just think, write the screenplay, why waste time? I could see exactly what it would look like as a movie and that’s how I wrote it.

RB: Start a production company.

PK: Ah, well, maybe. [expressing exasperation]

RB: Forget that—

PK: I respect the art form and therefore I want to write for it. Rather than have it as a novel first and then turned into something. The art form of cinema is such that you should be able to write directly for it. But Hollywood wants franchises. They want franchises—they don’t seem to want great stories. From their own history.

RB: Is that what your agent says?

PK: He’s very good so I could never criticize and he works for a big agency called CAA. I have to respect his opinion. He deals with studios. He doesn’t have a lot of dealing with independents. And I would never change agents because he and I are friends—we go back 20 years and I respect his opinion.

RB: If this property, if I may, is literary, that’s what independents do.

PK: I think it would be. It’s just that I don’t have a lot of contact with independent producers. I’d like to, but you know—

RB: Well, yeah. So that’s your grand ambition.

PK: Yeah. Yeah.


PK: [laughs]

RB: Have you started on another Bernie Gunther book?

PK: Yeah, I have.

RB: Does it get easier to write these?

PK: I try not to let it become easier.

RB: How do you do that?

PK: I make it hard because I pick stuff that is not well known. I have to get off my ass—I mean, that’s what I mean by hard. I have to go find out stuff and go somewhere—

RB: So Bernie ends up in Australia?

PK: Prague.

RB: I’m told that is a lovely city.

PK: It is—a true medieval city.

RB: Going to a lovely city is what you call making it hard for yourself?

PK: In the sense that I am not wholly familiar with the city. Which is no bad thing. It’s not a bad place to have a week of staying in a nice hotel and walking around the city.

RB: That’s what you do: spend a week or two there to familiarize?

PK: You can’t get much more than an impression. It doesn’t half help. It’s a bit like—coming back to being an artist, it’s like walking around with a sketchbook and you just walk around and do some nice drawings. It’s the same with writing. You walk around and you make written sketches of things you see. And things that occur to you. And that’s why it’s worth going.

RB: It just occurred to me: Why not take your screenplay to the BBC?

PK: To be honest, they are as useless as a lot of film studios.

RB: [Laughs] I guess they wouldn’t be inclined to make something based in America.

PK: They ought to get away from making things about fucking royalty. Frankly, I have nothing against Colin Firth—he deserved his Oscar—but at the same time I don’t want us to be just a nation that just makes films about bloody queens.

RB: I just read a piece by Hitchens about the nuptials. He suggests that Kate Middleton get out quickly.

PK: She’s young, so no one’s actually said to her “Do you know what you are doing, darling?” If I was him I would have cleared off and gone to live in America.

RB: What explains—Americans don’t have anything better to do, so I can see their attention, but what is the British investment in these people? They are just not noble.

PK: They have a hugely important constitutional role—

RB: Hugely important, seriously? What do they do?

PK: The Queen is really the legislative basis for the whole thing, in constitutional terms. She is a figurehead and doesn’t really do anything, but in terms of who and what she is, the institution of monarchy gives the whole thing validity. That was fine 100 years ago—it’s time we became a republic. I am not a monarchist at all. When the Queen goes, and I like her a lot—

RB: Because?

PK: Because she has done nothing.

RB: [laughs]

PK: And she hasn’t put her foot in it. And she has not said anything silly. That’s damned difficult. To do that for 50 years. Just think about it. Never to put her foot wrong. Never to say something stupid.

RB: What an enviable record.

PK: Yeah, it’s a brilliant record. How many politicians could you say that of? Most of them find it difficult to last for four years without fucking it up.

RB: Do you pay attention to American politics?

PK: Oh, yeah, all the time. The great thing is if you never say anything you never have to defend yourself. She does make speeches, but frankly they are speeches that are so anodyne. There was the famous “annus horribilus” [speech] where she talked about what a crummy year she had had. That made everyone sit up and pay attention. Her house had burned down, so, let’s face it, she was entitled to say that. I have just come back from Canada and I never tire of teasing the Canadians that it was about time they chose their own head of state instead of—

RB: Have the Australians done it yet?

PK: They haven’t done it yet and I was there last year and I said the same thing to them.

RB: There is a movement to de-monarchize?

PK: Yeah, but really what we come back to is what I was just saying, the great thing about having a head of state who doesn’t say anything or put her foot in it is that you can all agree for once that that person is the head of state. There is nothing to argue over. It’s kind of immature. As a mature state, even if you end up with someone you hate and, God you guys seem to manage to elect somebody that only half the country likes anyway.

RB: Not even half. It’s a terrible thing to have elected Ronald Reagan, who I underestimated.

PK: Me too.

RB: But his great skill was simply to be liked by the voters. Therefore he could do anything.

PK: Yes, get one for the Gipper. To me he was a cowboy idiot. When they elected Reagan you thought that was as low as they could get. And when you see Bush Jr., you wish you had Reagan again. Didn’t everyone think that? Bush Jr. was such a—

RB: HBO put out a documentary, Reagan, recently, which really made it clear that the Reagan persona had great weight. Speaking of HBO, do you know The Wire?

PK: Yes, I do. Loved it. Absolutely adored it.

RB: Thanks very much.

PK: It was my pleasure.