-Interview by Molly Odintz
Philip Kerr’s latest Bernie Gunther novel, The Other Side of Silence, was released this past Tuesday, heralding a visit from the author to our fine store. Come by BookPeople this Saturday to meet one of the best historical mystery writers ever – I say this as a mega-fan, but everyone knows how good this series is. Kerr will be speaking and signing his latest addition to the Bernie Gunther series this upcoming Saturday, April 2nd, at 4 PM. Kerr was kind enough to answer a few questions from us before the event.
Molly O: In your latest, you seem to take inspiration from classic espionage fiction, and le Carré especially. You’ve made use of a number of different subgenres in your Gunther novels, even using some golden-era detective novel conventions. How do you decide which subgenres to draw upon for each Gunther story? Who are some of your biggest influences, as far as style is concerned?
“I tried to make the [Somerset] Maugham in my book as much like the real one as possible. This was easier than it might have been because of course he too was a novelist, and like me he had similar preoccupations and concerns. I felt I understood him. Sympathised. We are very alike in many ways. He just happens to have been gay and rich. I am straight and not so rich. But in all other ways we are quite alike. I think I am as much of a bitch as he is. And very probably as promiscuous.”
Philip Kerr: I don’t make a conscious decision to draw on any subgenre. I don’t pay a lot of attention to any genre. I like le Carré. I think he’s a fine novelist. It just so happens he writes about spies. My biggest influences are people like Chandler, le Carré, F.Scott Fitzgerald. Each story contains its own dynamic and I try not to draw on anyone else except History itself. I don’t observe conventions so to speak. I just try and make the story as real and unpredictable as possible.
MO: I’m going to ask you a very serious question – HOW IS BERNIE GUNTHER STILL ALIVE? I know that as a series character he has to keep going, but does it become increasingly difficult to ensure his survival through the many challenges you put him through?
PK: Many people survived in fairly extraordinary circumstances. Much of his resistance occurs inside his head. He makes jokes, but these are only ever made to people who are as cynical as he is. Plus he’s a Berliner and many Berliners shared a similarly dim view of the Nazis.
MO: Somerset Maugham was such a fun character – how much did your Somerset Maugham match the real one?
PK: I tried to make the Maugham in my book as much like the real one as possible. This was easier than it might have been because of course he too was a novelist, and like me he had similar preoccupations and concerns. I felt I understood him. Sympathised. We are very alike in many ways. He just happens to have been gay and rich. I am straight and not so rich. But in all other ways we are quite alike. I think I am as much of a bitch as he is. And very probably as promiscuous.
MO: Crime novels are, in one sense, about the strongest in society; those most likely, able and willing to take advantage of others. They are also the stories of those who are weakest in society; the story of those taken advantage of, or those who turn to extralegal sources of income or assistance because the legal system is stacked against them. You’ve explored this balance between those who exploit and those most vulnerable to exploitation at its most extreme, in your stories of Nazi Germany, but in The Other Side of Silence, you explore the vulnerability of gay men to blackmail and other forms of exploitation in the 1950s. What drew you to this subject?
PK: I thought it was a good story. The one fact that intrigued me and which I felt I could build the whole novel on was the visit of Guy Burgess to Maugham’s house in 1937. Given the fact that Maugham was often blackmailed I felt this visit could have been used to blackmail him. Plus, I used to live with some gay friends when I was at university and I wanted to draw on this experience. The conversations at the Villa Mauresque are often drawn from real life.
MO: For such a cynical character, Bernie Gunther seems predisposed towards love, falling for a different femme fatale in each book. Why is he still willing to embrace romance, despite a high probability that any suitor of his will either end up dead or try to kill him?
PK: Romance and a willingness to fall in love are the kind of experience that any hero in a novel should be open to. If nothing else a new woman means a new plot point. The stories simply wouldn’t work if Bernie had a nice wife waiting at home. Anyway, he’s only flesh and blood and I doubt any man could have resisted some of these women.
I doubt [Bernie Gunther]’ll ever retire happily. Nor will I. I like to think I’ll die at my desk half way through a new book.
MO: When writing historical fiction, how do you balance story and fact?
PK: I work the stories in between the lines of real history. That’s the fun part for me. To take the real and mix it up with the fiction. I try not to cheat with anything real. But where there is a gap in what is real I feel I can work effectively.
MO: Bernie Gunther has traveled much of the world by now, and run into most of the mid-20th-century’s most important figures. He’s like a darker and more modern Flashman. What’s next for Bernie? Will he keep getting kicked out of the world’s countries, and dumped by the world’s femme fatales while getting exploited by the world’s dictators, or will he get a nice happy retirement someday?
PK: I doubt he’ll ever retire happily. Nor will I. I like to think I’ll die at my desk half way through a new book.
MO: I’ve read a few crime novels that treat blackmail as a particularly heinous crime. For 19th century characters, or high-status characters, the loss of reputation or financial resources is framed as just as bad as, if not worse than, murder. Why does blackmail get such a bad rap?
PK: It’s a really heinous crime because for some people it never ends. Murder is over very quickly. Blackmail can carry on for years. This makes it more culpable. And punishments should reflect this.
Philip Kerr’s latest Bernie Gunther novel, The Other Side of Silence, was released this past Tuesday. You can find copies on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. Copies of previous volumes in the series will be available for sale at the event, including the spectacular Berlin Noir trilogy that first established Kerr as a household name, a historical fiction expert, and a true heir to the mid-century masters of noir and espionage thrillers.