~post by Molly
Philip Kerr takes a break from his Bernie Gunther character to write Prayer, a contemporary story of an FBI agent going after religious extremists in Texas. Molly caught up with Mr. Kerr and gave him a grilling in this Q&A. Also, take the time to read Molly’s outstanding review of Prayer.
MYSTERYPEOPLE: In your new novel Prayer, there is quite a bit about not just religious people but religious theory and theology. What was your inspiration for exploring religious concepts in such detail? Where does the root of your enjoyment of religious theory lie?
PHILIP KERR: I was brought up in a very religious home. My parents were evangelical Baptists, and until the age of 14 I went to church as many as three times on a Sunday. At home we never started a meal, without speaking to Jesus. But I knew I was never going to hack it as a Christian. There was too much going on inside my head. I wouldn’t call myself an atheist; I think a more respectable intellectual position is to say that logically one cannot prove the non-existence of God any more than one can prove his existence. But God is different from most organised religion which seems like nonsense to me. What it boils down to is this: if your truth and my truth are very different, we have to agree, logically that neither of us has a monopoly on truth. However religion doesn’t work like that. Religion says that if your truth is not the same as my truth than you are an infidel or a heretic, or an apostate, or some other pejorative beloved of religion. Which makes for a good place to start a crime novel.
MP: Some of the later scenes in Prayer can be described as, well, spooky, and much of the plot reads more like a horror story than a detective novel. Did you deliberately set out to bring in a bit of Edgar Allen Poe to your writing or did the crimes you conceived for the novel lead to that naturally?
PK: It’s meant to be Gothic, yes. Texan Gothic. Sounds good, huh? Don’t get me wrong; I love Texas. I brought my wife and kids when I was researching Prayer and we had one of the best vacations ever in Houston. We stayed at the Houstonian. We got a personal guided tour of the Johnson Space Center by a shuttle commander who likes my books. We visited Galveston. We went to Dealey Plaza. The weather was great. I hung out with the FBI, who couldn’t have been more accommodating. I wanted to make a standard police procedural turn into something else, in the same way that Bill Blatty did with The Exorcist. I have always loved that book. And the film. But I wondered how Blatty might have approached his story if he was writing it today. And that was my starting point.
MP: I noticed that a commonality between the Bernie Gunther novels and this new novel, set in modern day Houston, is that you draw from right-wing extremism for villains in both. What brings you to a particular fascination with the crimes perpetrated by those who are motivated by racist and anti-Semitic doctrine? And why focus on religious extremism in particular when previously you have been more concerned with the extremes of political doctrines?
PK: I think there’s just a lot of intolerance around, especially in religion. My truth is better than your truth etc. The world would be a lot better off if people just decided to let God look after his own reputation, honour, etc; if he is God he doesn’t need the help of men to fight his battles for him. Anti-Semitism I find especially baffling; surely after what happened in WWII it’s time we all agreed to let the Jews off the hook – so to speak – for what happened to Jesus. Haredim aside Jews are just ordinary folk like you or I. Let’s pick on someone else for a change.
MP: Two things struck me as particularly of the zeitgeist in the book. First, you introduced several gay characters. Second, you also spent some time on the main character’s OCD, which to me felt like part of a new awareness of mental health issues across the board. Do you feel that writing fiction set in the present day allows you to explore modern themes more easily than when saddled with the attitudes of the past in your historical fiction?
PK: It’s very liberating, yes, to write a present day story. Interestingly the gay character in the book didn’t reveal herself as gay to me, until I had to write that page. It was a big surprise, but I like it when characters take charge of their own destinies like that. The OCD thing was interesting to me because I think a lot of detectives are obsessives anyway. They have to be. Watch True Detective and tell me that those two characters are both normal regular guys; they’re not; they’re fucked up. Big time. I loved that show.
MP: Much of your book could be set in, forgive me for saying, any old southern town. Why Texas, and why, in particular, Houston? You seem interested in the history of Texas as a history of violence, particularly politicized violence, and is this a significant part of your choice of setting?
PK: Well, let me come back to my love for Texas. If you come from Scotland like I do, you’re reared on a love of the idea of Texas from a very early age. I was weaned on John Wayne films. That plus the fact that my Dad worked for an American firm, and many of his colleagues were from Texas meant I always wanted to go. When I first went to Texas I thought it would be very red neck and in fact it wasn’t like that in the least. I found Texans to be very thoughtful, courteous people. But why did I pick Texas? Simple. Everything is larger in Texas – everyone knows this. Which is probably why they have the largest churches in the world. That’s why I picked Houston.
You can read Molly’s review of Prayer by Philip Kerr here.