Bernie Gunther Novelist Philip Kerr’s Advice for Aspiring Writers: “Walk The City”

Philip Kerr has built an incredible following for his Bernie Gunther World War II-era historical thrillers, a series which continues with A Man Without Breath, the ninth Bernie Gunther novel, now available in paperback. After the initial “Berlin Noir” trilogy of books that began the series in 1989 (March Violets, The Pale Criminal, and A German Requiem), Kerr left his character of Bernie to write several other books. Fifteen years after the initial trilogy, Kerr returned to the series, and has since penned six new Bernie Gunther novels.

In addition to the recent Bernie Gunther paperback release of A Man Without Breath, Kerr releases Prayer on May 6, his first new standalone novel in more than a decade. Prayer tells the story of present-day religious extremism in the United States seen through the eyes of FBI Special Agent Gil Martins who, while investigating domestic terrorism cases in Houston, discovers a disturbing link to a series of crimes that further challenge his own faith.

Kerr has also written a very popular children’s series, The Children of the Lamp, under the pen name P.B. Kerr. His newest book for young readers, released last month, is The Winter Horses, an inspiring story of survival in 1941 Nazi-occupied Ukraine.

For Kerr, the motivation for his now infamous Bernie Gunther character came out of personal trips to Berlin, where Kerr was inspired to write his Chandler-esque protagonist. Similarly, for his newest novel Prayer, Kerr traveled to the Houston as part of his research for Prayer. In a piece for the U.K.-based Foyles bookstores, Kerr explained how his visit to several Houston megachurches, as well as the local FBI field office investigating domestic terror cases, were primary sources of inspiration for Prayer‘s FBI Agent Martins.

In this conversation and interview recorded at Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C., Kerr discusses the importance of this type of in-person, on-the-ground research as a vital element of the writing process.

I’m very much a writer that believes in yes, doing the book research at home, but there’s not substitute for actually tramping around the streets and experiencing the city on foot. I always say to anyone who’s planning to write a book: Walk. Walk the city. Never have a professional researcher because they will always filter the information. You have to encounter the experience—not just the facts, but the feeling as well. It’s a bit Robert DeNiro, this kind of method acting theory of how to write a book, but it does work. Because you get ideas and you get feelings and you get sensations and they go into the book.

In the segment, Kerr goes on to relate the story of one particularly unsettling research trip, to Wewelsburg Castle, once headquarters to SS leader Heinrich Himmler, now a macabre reminder of some of Nazi Germany’s darkest days. During his night’s stay at the 17th century fort, Kerr stopped down the street at a pub and discovered he was dining in a still-operating fascist gathering spot, with photos on the wall of modern-day Nazis. After an uncomfortable night’s sleep, Kerr woke early to sneak about the nearly deserted castle.

“That’s the kind of thing you do, in order to find truth, as it were, in order to experience the stuff you’ve actually been writing about. And a lot of that went into the book. I firmly believe this is the best way to do it. I do take it to absurd levels0–and I know it’s absurd–but if I seem like a geek, so be it.”

This interview was created in joint partnership between Bibliostar.TV and Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C. Politics & Prose is an independent bookstore in Washington, D.C., hosting more than 450 author events per year, as well as book club meetings, classes, and more. More information at Politics &



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