Interview with John Katzenbach

Photo by John Katzenbach


John Katzenbach’s career as a novelist began in 1982, with the publication of In The Heat of the Summer, an edgy crime novel that examined the cult of celebrity, fame and media ethics. This novel was filmed as The Mean Season with Kurt Russell and Mariel Hemingway.
Since the publication of that first novel, John Katzenbach has written 12 other psychological thrillers and one acclaimed non-fiction book. Published in dozens of languages throughout the world, his novels have been on bestseller lists from Bonn to Buenos Aires. He has received awards in France, Germany and the United States. Three of his other novels have been filmed: Just Cause with Sean Connery and Laurence Fishburne in 1995; Hart’s War with Colin Farrell and Bruce Willis in 2002; and a French version of The Wrong Man — shown on France 2 Television as Faux Coupable. Two other novels — the international bestseller The Analyst and the award-winning bestseller The Madman’s Tale are currently in development with shooting dates in 2015.
His latest book — The Dead Student— is scheduled for publication by Grove/Atlantic/Mysterious Press in the fall of 2015, and simultaneously by Head of Zeus Publishing in Great Britain.
This biography is on his official Website of the author, but it’s very interesting to know more details of him here:

1. Dear John, I feel really honoured to have the chance of interviewing you. The first thing I want to ask you is where does the necessity of telling other people stories derive from?
J.: Damn. This is a really sophisticated and complex question. I like to think that the urge to tell stories is like a psychological itch that needs to be scratched from time to time. Growing up, I always was fascinated by the oddities and curiosities of human behavior. Why someone did something – whether on a page or in real life – was almost as intriguing to me as what they had done. So this fascination just grew into a need on my part. I think the day any writer stops being interested in human behavior is the day they put aside keyboard or pen and stop writing.

2. What was your beginning like? Was it difficult to have your novels published? What did you have to give up and what were you enriched of?
J.: A friend of mine once said that “writing is not for the faint of heart.” In my case, I grew up thinking that fiction was the most interesting form of writing. Loved novels from childhood on. But making a living at it is difficult, so I started as a journalist after college. Being a newspaper reporter is like an education in the strange and sometimes terrible things people do to each other. Translating some of those experiences into fiction is what started my career. Now, was it hard to get my first book published? Sure was. A dozen publishing houses turned it down. Then it was accepted. Then it became a Book of the Month Club Selection. Then it got a big film deal. Then it came out to great reviews. But I never forgot those first rejections. It’s always a good idea to keep disappointment in mind. Helps to keep any writer focused.

3. Your novel “ Un Finale Perfetto” has been published in Italy By Fazi Editore. What gave you the idea of writing it?
J.: “Un Finale Perfetto” stemmed from thoughts about being trapped and being pursued. I was also intrigued by notions of “the perfect crime” and recognized that this might just be different for different folks. And also, I was really intrigued by the dynamics of relationships – and answering the question whether people can band together to battle an anonymous threat. And — this is really a long-winded answer – I was tantalized by the writing process and what it means to different people. So I put all this into a stew that included a nod to Little Red Riding Hood and the dilemma she confronts in the fairy tale. If you think about it, hers is a psychologically rich fairy tale. And the Big Bad Wolf of the story is a character of depth and sophistication. After all, eating Little Red Riding Hood is only one of his goals. Connecting with her emotionally is the other.

4. The description of the three women made a deep impression on me. They are very dissimilar as regard age and experiences. They are seemingly frail, but at the same time they can do unexpected things. Do you think the script of the tales must remain unchanged even if the reader is an adult?
J.: Good question. In my novel, what I was trying to get at was this: can flaws and weaknesses can be combined into strength? Not an easy question to answer. Balancing between each of the three Reds — my targets in the book — was a trick. It was also what made writing the book fun.

5. I was surprised by the main character , who is considered “ the bad wolf “ throughout the novel, actually he is a writer frustrated by his failures and longing for his redemption towards the society that doesn’t appreciate him enough. What do you think about him?
J.: I’m very fond of the bad guy – The Big Bad Wolf in the novel — because he is so arrogant, conceited and yet so crippled by his needs. It’s always fun to write about ambition – especially where death is involved. You need to keep in mind that all psychological thrillers – and “Un Finale Perfetto” fits into this category – require a tension between the good guys and the bad guys. The novel is fueled by doubts – can they survive? Who will succeed? This means the author must keep that taut throughout. That was the challenge in this book, and what makes getting up every day and facing the blank page a challenge.

6. The plot reminds me the format of a reality: documenting the reactions of a human being facing the threat of an imminent death, shooting the fear that is reflected on the faces of unaware victims and studying their behaviour. It could be the plot of the next film, couldn’t it?
J.: Hah! Like I said – doubts. Also uncertainty. The best movies, like the best books, put viewers on an edge and keep them there for the whole story. Easy to say. Hard to do. Both on the page and on the screen.

7. What is the prevailing side in your novels? Do they want to be of condemnation or on the contrary they want to tell prevailingly crime novels? What message do you want to pass on?
J.: Message? Let me put this simply: all of my books explore human resilience. How do ordinary people overcome extraordinary obstacles? I like to probe the psychology of resistance and denial, along with the emotions of self-reliance. I like to tell exciting stories that make readers think. If I can do that – well, that’s enough of a message for me.

8.You wrote your first novel thirty years ago. In which way have John Katzenbach’s writings changed and how has today’s writer changed?
J.: Whoa… thirty years of writing! It seems like yesterday that I started my first novel. How have I changed? I guess I’m smarter now than then, but maybe I’m not. Probably not, alas. Who knows? I have a friend who believes that it takes you 3-4 novels just to figure out how to do it. I think he’s wrong. I think I’m still working on figuring it out – because every story I tell in every novel is different. I hope taking that approach keeps the stories fresh.

9. What writers were you inspired by?
J.: Inspiration: Dickens. Dostoesvsky. Stendhal. Hemingway (like every American writer). Best modern era books ever: Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita and John Fowles’ The Magus. Thriller I always recommend: Peter Hoeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow. What a great bit of story telling. Also just about anything by the great John LeCarre. And I like to recommend my friends: Don Winslow’s Savages, James Hall, Phil Caputo, Sara Paretsky, Sebastian Fitzek… I could go on.

10. What is the relation with your readers like? Tell us some amusing feedback you received.
J.: Actually, I really enjoy connecting with readers all over the world. Oddly enough – questions I get from Italy are significantly different from those from Germany or Spain. In Latin America, readers respond to one element, while in Great Britain it’s another. Many unusual stories, but here’s the one that still gets to me. My only historical novel was Hart’s War — which was a murder mystery set in a German POW camp in WW2. It was based loosely on my late father’s experiences during his imprisonment at Stalag Luft 3 for nearly three years. I worked very hard to get details right, knowing that inevitably I would mess something up. Sure enough, shortly after the book came out, I got a letter from a retired British fighter pilot in his 80s, who pointed out that I had gotten the armament on a 1943 Spitfire fighter plane wrong. That was the year they changed from machine guns to cannons. This was a single, unbelievably unimportant line in a book that ran 400 pages. But the ex-pilot said that it “ruined” the story for him. Here in the USA we have a phrase: sometimes you can’t win for losing which won’t translate into Italian – but which basically means that no matter how good something is, there’s always some foul-up that wrecks the best of plans. Trust me: I will never get the 1943 armament of a Spitfire wrong again if I end up writing about one. I promise.

Thanks for the great questions…

John Katzenbach