Writing

Louis Begley on Character and Genre

Editor’s Note: Louis Begley lives in New York City. His previous novels include Wartime Lies, Man Who Was Late, As Max Saw It, About Schimdt, Mistler’s Exit, Schmidt Delivered, and Shipwreck. His latest, now available, is Killer, Come Hither. We asked Louis Begley what brought him to the storyline and shifting genre of Killer, Come Hither. In his own words, here’s the answer.

Readers have been understandably curious about my “changing genres” in midstream: What did I think of the experience of producing a thriller after ten novels of a very different sort, and what made me want to do it? The answer to the first part of the question is that I had an unusually good time writing Killer, Come Hither. As for the second part, I do not think that Killer belongs to a different genre from, to take a random example, my very recent Memories of a Marriage. Like all my fiction, Killer is a novel in the realist tradition, by which I mean that I depict in it the world as I know and see it, anchor my plot in a recognizable place and time, and try hard to make my personages’ thoughts and behavior plausible. Certainly the setting – Manhattan and the Hamptons – and the law firm milieu will be familiar to my readers. The real differences between Killer and my other novels lies in the nature of the action and some of the characters I have introduced. It’s a tale of inexorable and bloody revenge. The hero, Jack Dana, is considerably younger than most of my protagonists, and there is no one in my other fiction quite like the arch villain, Abner Brown, or the appalling hit man, Slobo.

With that disclaimer out of the way, I will try to explain what made me do it. Why did I write Killer, Come Hither rather than some other novel with a storyline and a cast of characters more in keeping with my other East Coast-centered fiction? For the same reason, I believe, as I wrote my other novels. A situation, or a character around whom a story could be told, comes into my head and takes hold of my imagination. After a while both the story and the character take on a vitality that cannot be repressed and I begin to write. The one exception to this general statement is my first book, Wartime Lies, based on what I saw as a child in Poland during World War II. Wartime Lies is a novel, and not a memoir, but the connection between my life and what I relate is unquestionable. This was a case then, unique in my fiction, of a book having its inception in a true story that I knew had to be told rather than an invented situation or a character.

Killer, Come Hither followed the established pattern. I have been haunted for years by the terror of an intruder’s presence, at night, in my wife’s and my house in the country. I am a light sleeper, a noise I don’t identify awakes me, and there he is, framed by the door of our bedroom, invariably wearing a watch cap or a ski mask. In one hand he holds a flashlight that he shines on us. I don’t see the other hand but I’m sure that in it is a knife or a gun. I know I must leap from the bed and do something. But what? Struggle with the intruder? Distract him long enough for my wife to escape through the other door, which leads to the garden? That is where the vision ends. It is the kernel of what happens to Harry Dana, the uncle and surrogate father of my protagonist Jack Dana, whose murder Jack avenges. The rest of the story came, like all my stories, other than the one told in Wartime Lies, entirely from my imagination. That doesn’t mean, of course, that I don’t use material that surrounds me and that I know intimately: towns and their streets, beaches, restaurants, hotels. Or, for that matter, people. I never put family, friends, or acquaintances into my novels in their “unprocessed” natural state. But I appropriate certain features, habits, tics, and patterns of speech and behavior. Like all other novelists, I draw on my writer’s capital.

As I’ve already said, I had fun writing Killer, Come Hither. A major reason for it was having Captain Jack Dana as a protagonist. He was a pleasant change from my circle of senior citizens. I liked looking at law firm shenanigans through his eyes. Readers might want to know where and how I “found” Jack. Entirely in my imagination, is the answer. I had been thinking for a long time about how the military has changed from the time when I served in the mid-1950s, from a mostly draftee to an entirely professional army, how the cruel brunt of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has been borne by kids who come disproportionately from families that haven’t made it into the middle class, and how an idealistic young man coming out of one of the elite universities after 9/11 might have been moved to feel that he had a debt to pay to his country and to act on that feeling. Writing is a magical business. A short time before I got down to writing Killer, Come Hither, I met such a young man: brilliant, accomplished, and a brave Marine. Jack is not in any way based on that young officer, but he validated my invention.