Louis Begley Discusses His New Book: ‘Kill and Be Killed’

Louis Begley and his book "Kill and Be Killed"
Louis Begley and his book "Kill and Be Killed," Photo: Courtesy Louis Begley

Sagaponack resident and PEN/Hemingway Award-winning author Louis Begley is reading from his new novel, Kill and Be Killed (Nan A. Talese Doubleday, 2016) at Canio’s Books in Sag Harbor this Saturday, April 9 at 5 p.m.

Published just this week, Kill and Be Killed continues the story of former Marine Corps Force Recon officer, combat veteran and novelist Jack Dana, who avenges the murder of his uncle in Begley’s first thriller, Killer Come Hither, which was published exactly one year ago.

In the sequel, Dana has killed his uncle’s assassin and retreated to the serenity of a small Venetian island, Torcello. There he begins writing again and works on a plan to win back his ex-girlfriend, Kerry, who left Dana following his violent turn in the first book.

Fortunately for readers, and unfortunately for our hero, his break from vengeance doesn’t last long. Kerry is found dead of a very uncharacteristic overdose, sending Dana back to New York City, where a new adventure begins against Abner Brown, the Texas billionaire, right-winger and criminal mastermind responsible for orchestrating Kerry’s death and the murder of his uncle Harry.

Before writing Killer Come Hither and Kill and Be Killed, Begley became well known and lauded for his literary fiction, including a novel about the Holocaust, Wartime Lies, and his Albert Schmidt series, set in the world of New York’s Upper East Side elite. The Jack Dana series marks his first departure into genre fiction.

How did you start writing this series of thrillers?
It came into my mind, this particular situation of an intruder who kills an elderly gent…kills him, kills his cat—the guy’s really quite defenseless because he was taking a nap when the guy walked in. It’s sort of a possibility that terrifies me, so there was that as a seed. I was also giving a great deal of thought about the two wars that we’ve fought and about the kids who went to fight them. And how different this war is from other American wars—fought by citizen armies. These wars are fought by professional armies—most of the kids who enlisted being kids who didn’t have much of a future ahead of them. They thought this would be a road to a profession or trade or something or other. I think things have not worked out very well for veterans of these wars.

I wonder if there are not kids who were born to privilege who might have decided right after 9-11 that they wouldn’t leave the fighting to these poor jokers, these poor chumps. That’s how the idea of Jack Dana, the protagonist, the Yalie, came into my head. This is really how I write all my books. I get a predicament and a character, and the story really weaves itself around those two poles.

You put Jack in the Marines, was there a reason for that?
Yes, because I wanted to have a guy who was super tough and super trained in killing.

You were in the U.S. Army, but did you spend time talking to Marines?
Yes I did. I have a former Marine officer friend. He was my military consultant. He’s an Afghanistan and Iraq veteran.

In your process, do you just sort of write and allow the characters to come into themselves or do you have everything figured out and paced?
Oh no, I don’t write outlines. I know how the book’s going to end, but I don’t necessarily know what’s going to happen in between. But some of these things are simply compelling. I knew that Jack was going to Torcello. It’s so appropriate—irresistible.

You sound like you have a real affinity for him. You feel very close to your characters, I guess.
I do, I do. Otherwise I couldn’t write about them!

Going into writing a thriller, versus say a picture of the Holocaust…is the pacing a lot different? Did you find you had to adjust your style or did it come naturally?
I think the style is very the same…I don’t write a thriller, I write a novel.

What about the reading at Canio’s? What are you intending to do there? Do you have a chapter picked out?
Usually what I do is I read the beginning of the book. That way I don’t give away the plot, and everybody is sort of at the same page. If you start in the middle of the book you have to really explain it to everybody. I’ll probably start at the beginning, read for about 10–15 minutes, maybe talk first, and then read and then take questions.

Are you here full time or do you still have a place in New York?
I’m in New York right now. We have a place in New York and what we do is we now spend a very long summer in Sagaponack, say from mid-June to the end of September and we come out weekends if the weather is good.

To see Louis Begley read Kill and Be Killed, and to get a signed copy, stop by Canio’s Books (290 Main Street) in Sag Harbor on Saturday, April 9 at 5 p.m. For more info, visit caniosbooks.com.

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