Writing for Kids and the End Game for the Bernie Gunther Series

May 10, 2015   •   By Robert Birnbaum

AS PEOPLE WHO read my literary conversations know, I view books as an opportunity to exchange ideas, to “conversate” with writers, as in this, my third conversation with British author Philip Kerr. (Read my first here.)

Kerr is a charming and congenially contrarian raconteur. My first encounter with him, in 1993, was after reading his “near future thriller,” set 10 years into the future, A Philosophical Investigation. A serial murderer, code-named Wittgenstein, begins a homicidal campaign to eliminate men who have been found to be “physiologically prone to violent criminal tendencies.” In this story, Kerr weaves passages from the murderer’s journals into the third-person narrative, along with citations from the works of Ludwig Wittgenstein and other contemporary philosophers. But it was not until I had read a couple more of his stand-alones (of which there are 12) — The Shot (1999), which involves a historic assassination, Dark Matter: The Private Life of Sir Isaac Newton (2002) — that I thought of reading any of his celebrated Bernie Gunther series (of which there are 10; even the character has a fan club). Gunther turns out to be a deep and engaging character, as he traverses Nazi-era Berlin (and other far-flung places) as a non-Nazi Party member homicide detective. In addition to his other writings, Kerr has published seven “Children of the Lamp children’s books (as PB Kerr).

A keen eye for stage-setting detail and oblique but telling displays of the complexities of his characters are the marked characteristics of Kerr’s fiction. The stories are set in challenging backdrops where characters act out various peculiarities of behavior.

Kerr’s latest Bernie Gunther drama, entitled The Lady from Zagreb, has the dyspeptic Bernie compelled to do the infamous Dr. Goebbels’s bidding. His love interest is a bombshell film star of the Hedy Lamarr ilk, in the cauldron of cruelty and treachery of wartime Serbia. 

In the chat that follows, Kerr and I converse about the pitfalls of literary series, his disaffection with the land of his birth, Scotland, and American popular culture and politics.

Stay tuned for my next (fourth chat) with Philip Kerr, circa 2017.


ROBERT BIRNBAUM: You’ve been here a lot in the last few years — three times in the last five or six years?

PHILIP KERR: Yeah, yeah.

Starting to like it?

Well, I would say there’s only one thing worse than doing an American book tour, and it’s not being asked to do an American book tour. There are plenty of writers who’d be very glad to endure the inconvenience of staying in a nice hotel and —

This is a nice hotel.

I thought it was some old building that got converted.

It was. It might have been the old Boston Board of Education. A relatively recent trend or a trend of this millennium, to have these little boutique hotels.

Yeah. But with prices that aren’t little boutique prices. Expensive boutique hotels.

Well, of course, but I have to say that you compare the service or the attitude at a place like this to other places, it’s amazing. They’re very attentive, they’re very conscientious. I think that’s what service used to be, but who knows.

Yeah. Well, you’re right, big hotels give a slightly different service. I know, because I stay in a lot of hotels, I get to be very picky. I’ve gotten to a stage in my life where I’m not willing to stay in a dump. And publishers obviously are short of money, quite a few of them. So I’ve been in the awkward position occasionally of turning up and being presented with a hotel that, frankly, was …

What do you do then?

Well, it used to happen in France a bit more often. Because the French, you know, there’s that sort of lefty intellectual tradition that you shouldn’t really be concerned with such frippery as posh hotels. About five, six years ago I got asked to some kids’ book conference in Paris, and we were driving into one of the lesser districts in Paris, and then we stopped outside this particularly unprepossessing building, and I said to the girl in the car, “Tell you what, leave the case in the car, I’m going to go up and have a look.” And the room was like, well, if that was the bed, that was the wall. It was like — so I just came back downstairs and said, “Look, please don’t tell anyone, but I’m not going to stay here.” I would’ve stayed there when I was 19, and I’d have been really happy. Especially if there was a nice girl with me, and who cares, you know? So I said, “I know where there’s another hotel. We’ll just go there, and I’ll pay my own bill.”

Well, less money leads to a decline in book tours. Yet, I haven’t run out of people to talk with.

I think they’re certainly not touring as many Brits as they used to. I mean it’s more expensive to tour Brits than it is to tour Americans, because, at some stage during an American book tour, obviously somebody would be near home, and they’ll have more friends that they want to stay with, all that. Whereas us Brits, we’ve got to be flown across the Atlantic.

Has anything ever happened to the movie of Dark Matter? It was supposed to be made into a film.

Yeah, well, these things take forever. We finally signed the contract, and they’ve got a scriptwriter and he’s written a script, so I believe they’re — it’s the people who made Downton Abbey and they seem quite keen, so we’ll wait and see. With all these, anything to do with movies and television, they just seem to take forever. My kids’ books, which I wrote God knows how many years ago, like, eight, nine years ago — we’re getting to a stage, finally, of maybe filming the first one. I’ll wait and see. I mean, I get paid, certainly, along the way, so frankly they’re — they have a little thing in the contract that’s called “first day principal photography,” which is quite basically when they have to pay you. You know, they promise to pay you when they sign an option.

Yeah. Do you have anything to do with the production of Dark Matter?

Very little. I mean I’ve met them a few times, and said, “Look, you know, it’s 15 years since I wrote it, so, just carry on.”

Have you paid attention to things like the film of Wolf Hall?

Yeah. I did watch it. I didn’t expect to like it, but I did like it. I expected it to be yet another thing about the fucking Tudors, you know. God, are we Tudor-ed out, really, I thought we’ve had —

I was thinking it was going to be another one of those crappy period pieces like The Borgias — which was awful.

Yeah, and then there was a thing called “The Tudors,” with Jonathan Rhys Meyers. It was awful. It was a kind of — it was like Game of Thrones.

I didn’t know of Mark Rylance who plays Cromwell. I don’t think I’ve seen him before, but he’s outstanding.

Yeah, he’s Spielberg’s new darling.

What else is he in?

He’s made a couple of movies quite recently, but I don’t know what they are. But Spielberg has a great thing, he loves English actors. Look at all his movies, nearly all of the films have top English actors. Ben Kingsley, Liam Neeson, Pete Postlethwaite.

I thought Neeson was Irish.

Well, okay, British. British.

If he was Scottish would you have minded if I’d …

No, no, the whole Scots thing sort of drives me nuts, so I don’t even think of myself as a Scot anymore.

I have to say, Wolf Hall was outstandingly popular among people I know, but I couldn’t read it.

Well, that’s an interesting thing to say. I couldn’t read it either. I mean it’s one of those novels that seems to set out to make it difficult for the reader, and why would you do that? I mean, you don’t know the identity, quite often, of the person who’s talking. Reading is enough of a challenge as it is now, so why go out of your way to make it difficult?

Like you, I didn’t expect to like the film, but I felt almost obliged to watch it because in recent years a lot of really terrific filmed narratives are almost replacing the big novel. They’re like the 19th-century Russian novel, they’re full of drama and characters. I was sent the DVDs and I watched all six hours. Yeah. I think the guy who wrote it, Peter …

Peter Straughan. He did Tinker Tailor — he’s a pretty good screenwriter.

The dialogue was really, I wouldn't say minimalist, but it was —

I think that’s good, I mean, you know, if you think of how the Tudors were. Quite often Cromwell just says nothing, and I think frankly if you’re confronted with a psychopath who can cut your head off at any moment, then it’s best to say nothing, quite often. I think people probably said nothing more often then.

Actually, you know what? I don’t think it’s changed. If anything, our politicians have learned to say nothing.

And yet they keep yapping away. Where are we now, 11 or 12 Bernie Gunther novels?


But you’ve already written — I read you wrote the next one, which is out next year?

If somebody’s written that then I hope they’ve written it for me, because …

Other Side of Silence, due out in 2016.

Yeah that’s the title.


That’s good [both laugh].

If you were motivated, how long would it take you to write the book for that title?

Well, I mean, it really depends on the book. The Lady from Zagreb actually wrote itself very quickly, because sometimes the story grabs you and you get in the groove very quickly. It becomes easier to write because in a way you want to find out what happens at the end. I mean I’ve got a rough idea, but there are certain scenes, you want to see how they’re going to play out as the characters assert themselves. So, we’ll see. I hate saying it’s going to take a year, or it’s going to take six months. I just don’t know until I’ve started.

Do you have an end game for Bernie Gunther?

No, I don’t. I stopped doing it — as you know, I did three [the Berlin Trilogy], and then I stopped for a long time. I think stopping for a while is often a very good thing because it lets you kind of regroup, think. So I don’t have an end game. I can’t see myself doing, Ian Rankin, doing twenty, or a Harry Bosch or whatever.

Or Simenon.

Yeah, because you see those stories are kind of author-led. They’re not history-led. I feel because I’ve got a character who’s very much based in history that I have to wait for the history to inspire me. Rather than just impose another story on a character.

I was amused by this on the book’s flyleaf: “Which just may be the best in the series.” What do you think?

Well, I certainly thought that last summer, when I finished writing it. I mean that’s how it is, you finish a book, you really love it, you think “Yeah, that’s pretty much …” I think they’re all good, they’re like kids, you know, you give birth to them and you love them all but you recognize that some are going to be better-received than others. I think The Lady from Zagreb is probably more romantic than a lot of them. I know the person who wrote that is a woman, so maybe they — this was slightly less masculine than some of the other ones.

More jokey. There’s more Philip Marlowe in this than I recall from previous novels.

Maybe there is, yeah. Maybe that comes out of the fact that there is a sort of strong, femme fatale character, like Carmen Sternwood [in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep].

Hedy Lamarr?

Yeah exactly, you know, a smart woman. Those are the characters I like to write about. I’ve never written about — well, I’ve not consciously written — someone who’s really dumb, because I just think it’d be really uninteresting.

Elmore Leonard would have dumb people, but they would be dumb in odd ways and entertaining ways.

Well yeah, exactly, and also, they’re dumb and therefore entertaining, that’s the way he takes them. He makes their dumbness entertaining. It’s like when you watch one of those awful Jerry Springer, Montel Williams–type shows, and they sample trailer trash from one end of the country to another, and you think — actually, I remember asking Leonard years ago, “Look, do you spend a lot of time with cops? Hang out?” He said, “No, I watch a lot of TV.” Actually I thought that was marvelous. This is before people knew about shows like Jerry Springer, and he said, “Yeah, we have a show, Jerry Springer, and you can kind of see all the trash in America you really need.” I thought, yeah, when you watch it today, they all seem just like some walk-ons in an Elmore Leonard novel.

I don’t usually like series. Despite that, for some reason, I read Connelly’s books (and I have always liked The Poet, which was his first stand-alone). But your stuff is, you’re right, it’s historical. It’s not different chapters of the same story, it’s different stories every time.

To that extent I’ve got something in common with Chandler. There’s no sense of chronology with any of those novels featuring Philip Marlowe. There’s no sense of anything that’s happened to him in between or whatever. None of the characters really make much of a reappearance, with the possible exception of Bernie Olds, who’s a Los Angeles detective.

In your books there are some people who make repeat appearances. Reinhard Heydrich is there in a few novels. I don’t remember if Goebbels is. By the way, there’s a new biography of Goebbels, by Peter Longerich.

Right. It looks like a doorstop, so, it’s probably best I don’t have it yet. When I was writing about Goebbels, I paid close attention to his speeches, how he handled himself — looked to him as often as I could, really, to try to get a sense of the man.

Is he the most interesting character of all the Nazis?

I think he’s the most intelligent. I think he’s the sharpest, and also, speaking as a novelist myself, it’s always interesting to read about someone who was a novelist. Goebbels, the first thing he did after he finished his PhD in Heidelberg was write a novel. So you kind of always feel a certain affinity.

How was the novel?

Well, I haven’t read it actually. I couldn’t get a copy.

No publisher wants to publish it.

Yeah, it’s called Michael. By all accounts he was very smooth and very articulate, very — he wasn’t necessarily the poison dwarf that you see making the total war speech, and all that.

I think our images of Nazis are pretty much caricatures. You have said that your sense is that most of the writers who wrote series wrote one or two too many.

Yeah, I’m still haunted by that possibility of myself, actually. I think, you know, you’re looking on Amazon and you see those one-star reviews now and again …

About your books?

Yeah, I mean, there are people who say it’s time Bernie got his gold watch — that kind of stuff. And those are the ones that get to you. It’s not five-star reviews that you pay attention to; it’s those odd one-star reviews. It’s like air travel, you know, when it goes well you don’t notice it at all, but when it goes badly you can’t help but pay attention to it. But I think that you should question yourself quite often and ask yourself if it’s time you did something else. From time to time I do.

Does your publisher pressure you, always looking to you for another Bernie Gunther novel?

They’ve been quite generous in the sense that they have allowed, they’ve permitted me to publish other stuff along the way. But it wasn’t what they wanted.

Do you alternate? One stand-alone, one Bernie, one children’s …

I wouldn’t say alternate, but yeah I try and mix it up. To some extent that makes it hell for the publishers, because they can’t — I know there are people who bought, you know, that children’s book, they went to Waterstones thinking it was a Bernie book, and you think how goddamn ignorant can you be anyway?

You could look at the cover.

Yeah, it doesn’t really look like a Bernie Gunther book, you know. But of course there are people who just automatically have you on order because they love Bernie Gunther.

Are there Bernie Gunther fan clubs?

Yeah, well there is one, at least that I know. In fact they’re a nice bunch of guys.

It would seem to me the key is your enjoyment in writing it.

If I didn’t have the mojo I couldn’t do it. Really, I couldn’t force myself to do it. I can’t really. Usually what happens is I don’t want to do it, and then I think of a story. I start thinking of a story, and then the story starts to interest me, and then, before I know it, I’ve gone to the places and — that’s quite often the best way to do it: force yourself to go to the place. Then you start to think: well this is really interesting.

Did you have any fears when you went to Serbia about talking to people about the Ustaše during World War II?

No, I didn’t have any fears —

Were people reticent about talking about the past?

Yes, they were. Not least because, of course, it’s so much more recent — it’s only 20 years, 22 years since they were killing each other. Of course, not for exactly the same reasons they killed each other in the Second World War. Then, the Croatians had the upper hand, and they were killing Serbs, and in the last lot the Serbs were trying to kill everyone else. They just hate each other. I mean, isn’t it always the way? The people who you live closest to are the people you hate most? It’s like near neighbors. It’s like the Scots and the English and the Irish and Welsh. They all — and frankly there’s no fucking difference at all between any of us. The Welsh think there are huge differences between the Welsh and the English. There aren’t. The Scots think there are huge differences between the English and the Scots. There aren’t. They’re just killing themselves; it’s one of the —

It seems to me, as much as I try to believe in the milk of human kindness — or as Twain said, the secret human kindness — that every group seems to have one other group that they hate. Every tribe has a scapegoat tribe.

It’s an utterly human thing to do.

To be hateful.

Yeah, I mean to have somebody that you, a kind of race of people, that you don’t like. People try and stop it happening, and it seems to me to be pointless, because it’s a — you can discourage it, maybe.

You can admit it and try to do some sort of anger management.

It doesn’t help when people try and manage it. Because people won’t be managed. People discourage you, you know, from making jokes about the Irish. That doesn’t make people in England feel any more virtuous as a result; it just means that you feel this huge pressure to be correct. Political correctness. But why shouldn’t you? I mean I think you’re free, in private. You should be able to sort of have your own opinions about X, Y, and Z, you know.

Look at the blurring of public-private now.

Yeah. It seems to me if you’re in public life, you don’t have any kind of — nobody in public life is allowed to have a private life. Nobody’s allowed to have an opinion that may be — I’ll always remember, Clement Attlee, British Prime Minister back in the 1940s, was asked — he was going on holiday and the journalists said, “Where you going to go on holiday, Prime Minister?” And he said, “None of your goddamn business.” You know, now if you said that …

Well, it hasn’t been so long ago that the press was actually complicit in — think of Kennedy’s private life.

Oh my God, yes.

Everybody knew but they didn’t — now, can you imagine?

Yes. Yeah that’s what really pissed Nixon off. He knew how much Kennedy had gotten away with, and it really knocked him that he couldn’t get away with anything, it seemed.

That’s what happens when you’re not handsome. And you’ve worked hard to get to where you are.

As opposed to your dad buying it for you. Whatever you say about Nixon, he worked hard.

He worked hard, and he was smart, and he was not a politician. He was the least likely American president. He would have been a better Secretary of State.

Yes, yes.

Look what we got. Henry Kissinger. Henry “War Criminal” Kissinger. What do you think the chances are of any of these guys going to the Hague, being dragged off to the Hague?

Zero. Not least because you’ve got all those other political secrets. That’s why it’s interesting to look at the fates of Blair and Bush. Ten years afterward. Bush looks pretty much the same, he doesn’t look troubled by anything in particular. Blair, on the other hand, looks quite haunted, I think, by what —

I thought he was making a lot of money, though.

He is making a lot of money, but he’s the least popular ex-Prime Minister we’ve ever had.

I take it you’re pleased that the Scottish independence referendum was defeated?


I think you predicted it, too.

Well, I didn’t say that. What I didn’t predict was that the SNP, the Scottish nationalists, would be so mealy-mouthed about abiding by the result. It seems to me that they’ll be petitioning for independence again quite soon. What’s ridiculous is this idea that somehow the English pulled the wool over their eyes, lied about what Scotland would be given, for remaining part of the UK. You know, it grants the Scots no intelligence whatsoever, “Oh, we’re easy to trick.”

It’s like the old lie of Scottish history, which is that the English have been exploiting the Scots for hundreds of years, which is nonsense. Most of Scottish history is a lie anyway. It’s like one English army defeats another Scottish army, and actually quite often it turns out it’s a Scottish army that was paid by an English army.

I wasn’t allowed to vote because I live in England, although I was born in Scotland to Scottish parents. Like any other Scot who lived in London or somewhere like that, you weren’t allowed to vote.

You have to have a residency — there’s a residency requirement?

Well, to vote in the referendum, yeah.

How many Scots live in England, do you think?

Oh, couple million. The thing was, what struck me as absurd, and why if I’d had a Scottish passport I’d have torn it up, was that people from Spain, students from France and Greece who were living in Scotland, they were allowed to vote.


Yes, for the future of Scotland, and I wasn’t allowed to vote. So it’s like them saying, “Fuck you, you’re not a Scot.”

That just makes no sense — whoever happens to be living in Scotland at the time gets the say?

Yeah, so as far as I’m concerned, I’m no longer a Scot, that’s it. I’m through with them, and I’m happy to be English. I call myself English now. There are not many people who said this, but I think actually that’s the way I feel. If the Scots are stupid enough to persist with this nonsensical notion of independence — because the other thing that they never said was that they were going to base their whole economy on oil, all right? Well this is in October. Since October, oil has halved in price, so in other words, if the Scottish economy had been predicated on the existence of oil, then suddenly they’d have had half the money that they thought.

Who owns the North Sea oil?

Well, it’s debatable. You might as well say Norway and the Faroe Islands own it. I mean it’s halfway up the North Sea; it just happens to come ashore at Scotland. It’s marginally more Scottish than it is somewhere else.

What is life like in England these days?

It’s full of moaners. It’s people moaning about everything. If they’re not moaning about not having any money, they’re moaning about their boss, their work, the tubes, the trains, the notion — I mean, we’re a nation of comedians as well. Napoleon called us a nation of shopkeepers. Now, we’re a nation of comedians, because everything is a joke. People are, the radio and television is all about comedians and jokes about everything — from the Queen to the Prime Minister, we take nothing seriously.

I have to say that I certainly understand it. I was watching this brouhaha about the Rolling Stone story, the rape story? Many people are astounded that there are no consequences for the Rolling Stone staff, or Rolling Stone. Jon Stewart’s take on it, his five minutes on it, ended up being the default view, the appropriate view. He started out by saying, “A newsworthy source like Rolling Stone, noted for having given the last U2 album 5 stars …” and then he goes into the details. It is absurd.

There used to be a satirical magazine in London called, well there still is, called Private Eye, and Richard Ingrams, who I know, used to be the editor, and at the editorial meetings when gossip came up and the question was, was it going to be in the paper, in the magazine, his standard of inclusion was “Do we want it to be true?” Is it true? That doesn’t matter. Do we want it to be true? So, consequently, they would print stuff that nobody else would print, and as a result it was much funnier. And they got sued all the time, whereas today I don’t think they do that at all, I mean they actually try and check the facts, and as a result it ain’t funny.

I see more and more people like Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, now John Oliver, who are hilarious but do great journalism. Oliver did a thing on drones that I thought was … I mean talk about horrific program. He made it funny and he made it horrific. Andy Borowitz at The New Yorker, do you read his stuff at all?

No, I don’t read The New Yorker anymore.

There’s a magazine in the Midwest called The Onion. All these venues are pretty much our version of the way Private Eye would take the absurdities that come out of Washington. 

I look at American media quite a lot. I see the same things happening in the UK, but there used to be, for instance, that you would have a decent, what we call chat show. With, for my money, the really great Dick Cavett. Great thing about Dick Cavett was he took the backseat. He wasn’t the interesting guy, and now the interesting guy is the guy behind the desk and in the chair. It’s all about them, and nobody kind of wants to find out anything really interesting. The way Cavett used to go at it, he had some of the best people in the world, he would charm them and flatter them a little bit.

Some of those shows are classics.

Yes, you watch the one with Orson Welles, for instance.

Or the confrontations between Gore Vidal and William Buckley.

Yeah, Mailer and Buckley.

Charlie Rose is the only thing that I can think of now.

Piers Morgan.

You know, people are intelligent —

Yeah. His program didn’t last long. Did he not last very long because he was asking serious questions?

Was he?

Well yeah, kind of, by the standards of, say, Jay Leno.

There is someone else I’m thinking of that does — oh, Jeremy Paxman. Is Jeremy Paxman still around?

Yeah, but that was a sort of proper news show. And also he was the Grand Inquisitor.

I saw him interview Tony Blair once, and he asked Blair a question which Blair basically skirted three or four times, and finally he asked it again, and Blair said, “I’m going to answer this question the way I want to answer it.” At least it was obvious what Blair was doing.

These are good guys who know what they’re doing. But people just get laughed at, let off the hook, as if nobody’s interested in anything other than the next laugh.

Yeah, it’s a shame. I mean, the Brian Williams scandal, there was lots of talk about who’s going to replace him, was he going to come back? Now people are saying, that whole notion of the anchorman is a myth, and nightly broadcast news doesn’t really have an impact.

Yeah, well you watch, for my money, one of the greatest films of all time, Network, and there you have it. It’s almost like a moment which is predicting the collapse of the seriousness of the television news. You’ve got a guy who’s having a nervous breakdown, who’s been an anchorman for a long time. It’s a marvelous, marvelous script. The other thing is, no one would make a film like that now. I mean look at the editing. There are scenes in that film that are four minutes long — there’s no cutting.

I think there are some people who would make a film like that. I don’t know if you saw HBO’s True Detective.

Yeah. Marvelous, absolutely marvelous, and the writing was of such a high order. I mean it got metaphysical. The scenes when Rust Cohle is sort of doing, “I’ll tell you what Marty, I just saw,” and he goes off on this kind of stuff that, it sounds like Christopher Marlowe, you know, it’s wonderful.

I agree, but talk about absurdity, McConaughey has become a spokesman for Lincoln Mercury, sitting there saying, “I drove a Lincoln long before it became cool, not because someone is paying me.”

Yeah, well frankly, I used to be rude about him. I used to call him Matthew Mahogany, you know, in the days when he made sort of fluff with Jennifer Lopez. Now I think he’s matured into one of the best actors in America, so I think we can forgive him one lousy commercial.

So what’s next for you, besides this tour? The endless tour?

Well, I’m writing a kids’ book at the moment. I say a kids’ book, you have to call it …

How old are your kids now?

Well, 22, 18, and 15. It’s young adult, actually. I don’t know what’s a kid and what’s a young adult now, to be honest.

You call it young adult and they sell better.

Well, you get old adults who buy it. Adults who feel comfortable reading it.

Are any of your early stand-alones besides Dark Matter being produced as films — has anybody sniffed around at them?

Some of them have sold for a lot of money. Like The Second Angel, which went to Warner Brothers and they paid two and a half million dollars for it, and I’ve never even seen a script.

What a silly business that is.

Yes, never even seen a script.

How many scriptwriters are there that have actually made an incredible living and never had one thing made?

Well, you’re looking at one. Pretty near that. I mean I’ve had — lots of books were bought and nothing got made.

I always wondered about The Shot. I thought that that would be grist for the American film mill, because it’s —

There is a great scene in that book, which I’d love to see. At one stage you see — De Niro was keen on it, and so was, who’s the film director who made The Manchurian Candidate? Frankenheimer, John Frankenheimer. Frankenheimer, before he died, was keen on making The Shot with De Niro. I spoke to them both about it, and it would have been great.

I think James Ellroy ends one of his novels on 22 November 1963. I’m trying to recall treatments of the JFK assassination in fiction.

I was talking to an audience here last night, and I was saying, I love the history we don’t already know, or think we know. I said, “I’ll give you a really good example of that: put your hands up all those who have heard of the first attempt to kill John F. Kennedy.” Nobody moved, and they all looked like, “What?” I said, “Yeah, in 1960, in November 1960.” Do you know about that?


Oh, right. Well, it’s a fantastic story. It’s in my book The Shot. Basically what happens is —

But that’s a novel. A fiction.

Oh, yeah, but in November 1960 Kennedy was putting together his cabinet, he was in Palm Beach. People like George Smathers and McNamara were being invited down and sleuthed in the Kennedy family compound. All the world’s press were parked outside, but also, Jackie had just had a baby, John Jr. Meanwhile, in New Hampshire, a retired postal worker called Richard Pavlick, who hated Joe Kennedy for no good reason other than that he was just Joe Kennedy, felt —

He was hateable.

— yeah — he felt Kennedy had just bought his son the presidency, so he filled a station wagon with gelignite and drove down to Palm Beach and parked outside the house to wait for Kennedy to come out and blow himself and Kennedy up. Now, what he hadn’t counted on was that every time Kennedy came out, being the smooth media operator he was, he brought Jackie and the baby with him so that they could have their pictures taken by the TV cameras, and he couldn’t bring himself to kill the baby. So John Jr. saved his father’s life. Eventually, three days later, the car was there for three whole days, a patrolman said, “Guy looks like he’s illegally parked,” and went over, leaned in the window to say, “You’ve got to move on, buddy,” and noticed the car was full of explosives, and arrested the guy, and he spent the rest of his life in a lunatic asylum. That’s what I mean, history’s full of — it was on the front page of The New York Times in 1960.

One of the things that bothers me in this great nation of ours, our exceptional nation, is the bad way history is taught.

A few years ago I was in Houston to visit the Johnson Space Center with a good friend of mine who was a shuttle commander. He asked would I like to see the parts that the tourists don’t often see, a personal guided tour? I said, “Yeah, we’d love it,” my family, so we went on the shuttle. Sat at the controls. We went into the space station mock-up they’ve got, which is exactly the same, we went in the new Mission Control, which was live, operating. Then, finally — this is the bit you’ll love — we walked down this dingy, deserted corridor, my friend’s got his hands in his pockets looking for some keys, and finally, there’s this anonymous door. He says, “I think this is the key,” he turns it, nope, it’s another one. Finally the door opens, reaches in, switches on the light. It’s Mission Control. The Mission Control. I said, “God, that’s so cool.” This is the most famous room in the whole of science and endeavor. This is like having the great Golden Hind, or Columbus’s ships.

The first Alexandria library.

Exactly, and I said, “It’s in mothballs.” Everything’s there, all the computers, just like the Tom Hanks movie, Apollo 13. The lights are off and no one’s home. I said, “There are people who’d pay 500 bucks just to walk in here on a special VIP tour.”

I would think there are filmmakers who’d pay to use it as a location.

Yeah, he said, “Yeah, we can’t really figure out what to do with it.” It’s actually, for security reasons, in the same building as the shuttle.

Send it to Disneyland.

Well, do something with it, but this is typical of America and its own history. It’s almost like you don’t know what to do with it when you’ve got it.

Well, we like to put up statues and stuff. You know the story about George Washington? That he would send his junior officers out in the night to bonk their wives?

No, I didn’t know that.

Well, to me that’s a story that really ought to get out there, one of the ways of showing these guys are human, that they were not figureheads or objects.

Yeah. With Bernie Gunther, you see, I like to — the reason I like writing about him is that although he’s notionally a hero, occasionally he does some fairly antihero things. I like heroes who are not always heroic, because they’re interesting to write about.

I must have asked you this already, but why hasn’t someone made a film?

Well, there are some contractual issues with a previous producer who’s attached. Shifting him is quite, getting him to — he’s very old, you see.

Yeah. So someone controls it right now. So eventually?

I think so. My worry is that I’ll look like George R. R. Martin by the time it happens. I’ll be a sort of fat old guy with a Dylan cap, you know.

For the sake of speculation who would you see cast as Bernie Gunther?

Michael Fassbender.


Yeah. Well, he’s English, he looks German, he’s good-looking, he’s cheeky, he’s got that sort of twinkle in his eye. He was great in Inglourious Basterds. He’d be my ideal.

Did you see The Counselor?

Is that the one where Cameron Diaz spreads her … on the windscreen?

Yes. That was pretty unique. I wonder if McCarthy thought that up.

I hope so. The bit I like is probably him having to say to her, “Okay Cameron, this is the scene, and this is what I want you to do.”

I did like the method of killing someone by putting this device around their neck that tightened — what did you think?

Seems like an awful lot of trouble to go to when you can just do it rather more simply with a .38.

I’ve just read Don Winslow’s The Cartel, his follow-up to The Power of the Dog, which is about the endless War on Drugs. These guys, the cartels, the Zetas, all these people, have the most incredible ways of killing people. They don’t just kill people, because they’re also sending a message — they would throw people that they had tortured, who were still alive, into burning barrels.

Yeah, well this is quite the same, obviously, as the Russian FSB — that’s why they used lethal polonium-210. It’s easy to kill people, let’s face it, but polonium is a nasty and unpleasant death, so they’re not just saying, “We’ll kill you.” We’ll kill you in an extremely unpleasant way, and so, it behooves you to behave.


Robert Birnbaum has interviewed many writers for LARB and other outlets.