GUEST POST: On Research by PHILIP KERR

philip kerr Name: Philip Kerr

Author of: FIELD GREY (2010)
                 PRAGUE FATALE (2011)
                 A MAN WITHOUT BREATH (2013)
                 PRAYER (2013)
                 RESEARCH (2014)

On the web: www.philipkerr.org

July saw the publication of Philip Kerr’s latest standalone novel, Research, a thriller that takes more than a passing poke at the British publishing industry (we’ll have a full review of the novel tomorrow). John Houston, the bestselling author at the centre of Research likes, as the title suggests, to do as much research on the subject of his latest novel as he possibly can. To celebrate the novel’s publication, I’m very pleased and excited to welcome Philip Kerr to Reader Dad to talk about the research that went into the novel’s creation.

I did a lot of research for the book as you might expect from the title. I had a very pleasant few weeks visiting Monaco and the South of France in general and driving around, much as the two characters in the book do. I also visited Switzerland. Oh, and I used to live in Putney and Cornwall as Don Irvine does in the book. So these are all places that are very familiar to me.

I have wanted to do an in statu quo novel about the book business for a while. I have been a full time writer for 25 years and felt I could comment on the publishing business in a way that was both amusing and critical. Much of what the two leading characters say in the book reflects my own opinions about the state of the novel. That was fun to do. It’s set up to be a little like Sleuth, the Anthony Shaffer play that was a great film with Michael Caine and Laurence Olivier. You never really know who is who or why. That seems to me to be the essence of a good mystery story.

The two characters come from the world of advertising and that is my own background. I worked in advertising for eight years, and at several large agencies including Masius, and Saatchi. I was not a diligent copywriter. I spent much of my time writing novels. Masius was very convenient for the London Library; and Saatchi was equally convenient for the British Library, which, in those days, was in the British Museum – a ten minute stroll from Charlotte Street. (I hate the new one). Both of the characters are versions of me – extreme versions of myself. I like to imagine grotesque versions of myself in certain situations. These are Jekyll and Hyde characters, of course. With the difference being that, like most people, each man is both Jekyll and Hyde, and the mystery is working out which one is the real Mr Hyde, if such a thing can be said to exist at all.

I spent most of my years as a copywriter wanting to be a novelist and trying to make it happen. A lot of copywriters had novels in their drawers, so I wasn’t unusual in that respect. I got lucky in the same way that John Houston got lucky, although with rather less success than he had. I don’t know what I would have done if Penguin hadn’t bought my first novel (which was actually the fourth one I’d written) back in 1988.

The book business has changed enormously since then. When I was first published in 1989, it was all about the writer, not the book. Publishers felt they were in it for the long term, to build an author. There’s less time for that now. It’s all about the book. Paradoxically, however, I think we’re moving to a place where the author becomes paramount again, but for all the wrong reasons. Increasingly we require authors to be celebrities; and if not celebrities, personalities who can masquerade as celebrities. It’s no longer enough to write a book, you have to be prepared to support it in person with appearances and talks and stand-up routines. I do an annual American book tour that lasts about three weeks. During that time I become a one-man show. Not every author can or wants to do that. But if you’re not prepared to do that kind of thing, the business will leave you behind.

John Houston has become a celebrity author. Which is a kind of hell, I think. When a writer becomes a famous face he loses something important which is the ability to observe, anonymously.

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