'Kill and be Killed,' A Conversation with Louis Begley

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Photo: Louis Begley

Louis Begley is best known to readers of literary fiction for his observations about life among the upper crust denizens of New York City. One of his earlier novels, About Schmidt, was made into a movie starring Jack Nicholson. His first novel, Wartime Lies, won the PEN/Hemingway Award and the Irish Times/Aer Lingus International Fiction Prize. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Last year, Louis Begley made his suspense/thriller debut with Killer Come Hither. His new novel, Kill and be Killed, is the much anticipated sequel. After avenging the death of his Uncle Harry, Jack Dana has taken refuge on Torcello, an island in the Lagoon of Venice. There, he is focused on his writing. He also plans to win back his girlfriend, Kerry. But Kerry is found dead, which brings Jack back to New York where he must face a deadly and ruthless enemy who will stop at nothing to end Jack's life.

Jack Dana is a fascinating protagonist. Will you tell our readers a little about him?
Jack is a flower of Old New England. His parents were highly educated people. His father was a Harvard philosophy professor; his mother was a musician with a Boston group. Jack went to Yale; he then went to Harvard and studied classical history. He was a brilliant student who earned a Rhodes scholarship and was then asked to join the Harvard Society of Fellows, an extremely high academic honor. His parents are both dead and his only link to family was his uncle Harry, a distinguished lawyer and a bachelor, who became his surrogate parent.

After 9/11, Jack's conscience was such he would not let himself stand off to the side while underprivileged kids went off to war. He became a marine infantry officer who was deployed to Iraq and then Afghanistan, where he became a war hero and was seriously wounded. While in Walter Reed Army Hospital, he began writing a book and discovered his true profession--that of being a writer. His first book was a success, and he went on to write other books, which was what he was doing in Venice in Kill and be Killed.

Kill and be Killed has wonderful descriptions of New York nightlife, weapons, military tactics, and of various financial doings. Tell us about your research.
I haven't done very much research. I imagine your mention of 'financial doings' relates in the novel to the criminal empire of Abner Brown [Laughter]. I spent forty-five years practicing law concentrating on large international transactions and advising very rich men. I just happen to know how various things are done in the world of family finance, as well as international finance. I drew on that knowledge.

And for New York nightlife and weaponry?
I served in the U.S. Army as a heavy weapons infantryman. I tapped into those memories which were burnished by my consultations with a young friend who is a former marine infantry officer. As for nightlife, I have to admit being a very serious, elderly gent, and a very happily married one, I did not conduct any field research. [Laughter]. It was purely imagination.

There's something very striking about your two thrillers. Though tense and suspenseful, the writing is beautiful, even lyrical. Tell us a bit about your writing style.
Is it awful for me to say that I think I write well? [More laughter]. In correcting the German translation of Kill and be Killed, it struck me my dialogue is quite funny. But how and why the writing style comes about--I really can't tell you. It's something you either have or you don't. I'll tell you though, I'm a very good listener. I try to get onto the longest line at the supermarket so I can hear what people in front of me are saying. I love going to our garage and waiting while the oil is being changed. I enjoy listening to conversations. I pay attention to how people talk. As for description, it's the way I write. I've been a compulsive reader since I was five years old, and that habit has to have influenced my writing.

Was there anything specific that made you transition from writing literary fiction to the suspense-thriller genre of storytelling?
Actually, no. The last non-thriller novel I wrote was Memories of a Marriage which was published in 2012. It's a novel told in the present day that looks back to people's youth. I live in a world of septuagenarians and octogenarians, and I'm a bit tired of them.

When we last spoke I talked about a recurring nightmare of an intruder making his way into our bedroom at night, and I sometimes jump out of bed trying to protect my wife. I still experience that dream. That kind of nightmarish scenario became something I thought I would like to write about. In addition, I was opposed to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and am horrified by the plight of our returning veterans. I conceived of a young man of privilege who went to war, and created Jack Dana. So, all these elements came together and resulted in these thrillers.

Do you feel there are significant differences between genre and literary fiction?
Not in my case. I haven't read many detective or thriller novels. But I have this protagonist who I have now grown to like enormously. I also have a villain and a continuity of evil that give me the opportunity to return to Jack Dana's landscape.

But in answer to your question, I write the Jack Dana novels just the way I would write any other.

You have such a varied and long career, both as an attorney and a novelist. Do you find any difference working with an editor today as compared to years ago?
I've been very fortunate to have Nan Talese as my editor. She's so talented and there have never been any difficulties. Before Nan, I had two other editors at Knopf, Elisabeth Sifton and George Andreou. They were excellent. I've never had any of the problems that can occur between authors and editors.

Which authors do you enjoy reading nowadays?
I enjoy reading Dante's Divine Comedy. I've just reread Camus' The Plague and The Stranger. And right now, I'm reading Jane Mayer's Dark Money.

Which question are you asked most frequently in interviews like this?
The question I'm asked most frequently is 'Why did you start writing so late?'
And the answer is?
I didn't think I had anything to say. It's very much tied to my background. I arrived in this country at the age of thirteen. I went to college at sixteen. And then, I got caught up in my life. What broke the barrier was a sabbatical my firm offered me during which I began writing Wartime Lies. I guess I was ready to tackle the subject of what happened in Europe at that time.

What's coming next from Louis Begley?
I have two projects in mind, but they're both in early stages, so I won't say a word about them. But, something will happen.

To read more about Louis Begley see my conversation with him on the Huffington Post, dated April 7th, 2015. http://tinyurl.com/zbhug5c

Congratulations on writing Kill and be Killed, a gripping thriller filled with tension, danger, and the unknown; and written in such graceful prose, it deserves to be called a literary thriller.

Mark Rubinstein's latest novel is The Lovers' Tango, a finalist for the Benjamin Franklin Gold Award in Popular Fiction.