4/17: 'Field Gray' author Philip Kerr at Poisoned Pen in Phoenix
In the character of Bernie Gunther, Philip Kerr has crafted a classic noir hero. The detective is a first-class wise guy who operates in Berlin in the '30s and '40s. Englishman Kerr has featured Gunther in seven books, with "Field Gray" being the latest.
Kerr has had success with several other books, including his "Children of the Lamp" series of books for youngsters. Kerr, 55, talked about the inspiration for Gunther.
Question: A Bernie Gunther book was your publishing debut. Did you know it would be a series?
Answer: No, I didn't. When I first started, I was just desperate to be published. I'd been writing for about 10 years without being published. (Laughing) There's nothing like failure to sort of incentivize you. When I finally got published, my publisher suggested doing another two (Bernie Gunther books).
Q: But then you had a 15-year gap between the third and fourth books.
A: I thought that I just didn't sign on to do one thing for the rest of my publishing life. I thought I'd put him aside and maybe come back to Bernie Gunther later. It seemed to me then and still sort of does that a lot of crime writing sort of repeats itself. Crime writers find a goose that will lay a golden egg year on year, and I didn't want to do that.
Q: So why come back to him?
A: I did lots of other stuff, but I'd go somewhere, and I'd find that people would ask, "When are you going to do another Bernie Gunther book?" I thought I'd better do it before people stop asking. Then I thought it would be nice to come back to a character after such a long period of time. I can write about him now from my own perspective of being older and slower and fatter and maybe wiser. It gave me a new insight into what I could do with the character.
Q: Had your style changed in the intervening years?
A: I'm less muscular. The muscles have turned into middle-age spread. And writing about the character in his late 40s and early 50s - now he was not automatically getting the girl and not necessarily able to punch his way out of a situation. Older, I guess for my money, is more interesting.
Q: What about as a writer? Do you look back at the early Gunther books and think, "I could do that so much better now?"
A: I try not re-read myself, but occasionally I do when I have to check something. The first sensation I have is it feels completely independent of me. It's like a child that has grown up and gone away to university. I'll think, "God, that's not bad, actually." Sometimes occasionally I'll wince a little bit, like maybe I pushed the envelope too far.
Q: How much of you is in Bernie?
A: I feel like a Robert De Niro. It's kind of method . I get into the character and think myself into the place and period and time. It's a character I sort of put on. I guess there's a lot of wish fulfillment, too. I wish I was as witty as he was. Comedy and wit are sort of his only source of rebellion. Berliners have a savvy sense of humor, which I rather I like. It's British, in a way. We're quite cruel people, and we pretend we're not.
Q: The British can say mean things with a nice tone in their voice, and Americans will not get the insult.
A: (Laughing) Exactly. If you say anything nicely, it doesn't matter what was actually said.
Q: Do you have a planned ending for Bernie?
A: Rather like an old soldier, he'll probably fade away, possibly like my own career as a writer. I might just fade away, too. I'll write Bernie as long as I feel I'm moving forward and doing something new with it. The minute I feel I'm repeating myself, I'll probably stop. When you find yourself as a detective writer who knocks it out year after year, like a treadmill - I couldn't feel comfortable doing that. It would be like going to an office.
Q: Bernie and the books seem so cinematic. Will there be a film?
A: There is always interest. The film rights are held by a German film producer who is like a lot of film producers. He doesn't seem to be making a huge effort to get anything done.
Q: Didn't Spielberg's company option "Children of the Lamp?"
A: Like five or six years ago. I can give you a scoop here: They bought it twice, because the first time they had it, they forgot they had it. They let it lapse. When they inquired about its fate, my agent had the gleeful task of telling them they had just owned it three weeks before. (Chuckling) I suppose it's gratifying that they bought it all over again.
Q: Who should play Bernie on screen?
A: I quite like Dominic West from "The Wire" because he's laconic, insolent and violent. He's a consummate actor. And the thing I really love about Dominic West is you watch the entire series of "The Wire" and you're unaware that he went to Eton (College in Berkshire). You think, "My God, he went to Eton!" You'd think he was from
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