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How Thrillers Are Made

Louis Begley reflects on a writing career, begun at age 56.

Elena Dijour / Shutterstock

Each morning, whether I’m in Manhattan or at my house in Long Island, I read obituaries looking for names of my contemporaries much as 60 years ago, sitting on the terrace of a Paris café, I scanned the Herald Tribune’s shipping news to see whether acquaintances had landed in Cherbourg or Le Havre. A normal enough occupation for an 82-year-old nearing the end of his life. And I take stock of my literary production. I have published 12 novels, two books of nonfiction, a number of short stories, and many articles and book reviews. I am working—desultorily—on a new novel or perhaps two novels. For the last nine months I have been the happy owner of a French bulldog named Grisha. Training him and taking him for walks accounts for a great deal of time that might otherwise be devoted to writing.

This may look like a lean harvest for someone my age. But as I’ve been often told, I am a late starter. I wrote my first novel, Wartime Lies, in 1989, when I was 56. It was published in early 1991 when I was 57. It follows that I’ve been a professional writer for only 25 years, rather than 50 or more, as would be typical for my early blooming colleagues. Moreover, until 2004, I was a full-time practicing lawyer, and I wrote my own stuff only on weekends and vacations.

My late start has led readers and journalists to ask why I didn’t become a professional writer sooner, right after college, like for instance my college classmate John Updike. If we disregard for a moment the elephant in the room, which is John’s tremendous talent and fluency, he had an essential advantage. From the beginning he had a beloved subject: Shillington, where he had lived as a boy, transformed into mythical Olinger.

I had no Olinger. I was born in Poland in 1933, lived there through World War II, and came to the United Sates only in March 1947. When I composed my first short stories as a senior in high school and as a college freshman and sophomore, I believed I was only qualified to write about Poland during World War II. I didn’t understand my new surroundings—Brooklyn where my parents and I had settled and their friends who were mostly other refugees from Poland—in a way that made them useful as a writer’s material. So I kept on making up those little wartime stories until, during my junior year at college, I dropped the creative writing course I was taking. The instructor liked my work and encouraged me. The problem was that I didn’t. I told him that since I had no other material I had better shut up.

And afterward? I plunged into grownup life. I was drafted and served in the army; I married; I went to law school; I had three children; I went to work for a very good law firm; I found I loved practicing law; 42 years ago I remarried and have lived happily ever since. And why did I break my silence and write Wartime Lies in 1989? The explanation is prosaic: I was on a sabbatical from my law firm from August through November 1989, my children were grown, there were no claims on my time that took priority. On August 1, I sat down at my desk, opened my brand new Toshiba laptop, and began to write. I wrote every day with what seems to me in retrospect great steadiness. In August I wrote at our summer place in Eastern Long Island, and I continued during our sojourns in Venice, Seville, and finally Paris, where I finished the book and revised it.

Wartime Lies was well received by critics, readers, and prize juries, and was translated into 14 or 15 languages. Of my other books, only About Schmidt has done so well in terms of number of copies sold. 

Meanwhile, I kept writing, part time until 2004, when I retired from the practice of law, and full-time since then. As a professional novelist, I haven’t returned to the subject of Poland and the extermination of Jews during World War II, except tangentially. I have found my “grownup” subject matter on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, in the Berkshires, and in the Hamptons. My protagonists travel to France, Venice, Warsaw, Tokyo, and Brazil. Without having set out to do so, I seem to have grown into the role of a chronicler of the Eastern Seaboard’s upper crust. The reason is that I write about what I know. I deal with lawyers and writers and men working in advertising and investment banking. I’ve known some hugely rich people and have had fun inserting billionaires into my novels. There are as well gay personages and themes in my books. I am not gay myself, but I have had many friends who were. Gay themes and personages interest me because they are vivid and distinct.

My two most recent novels, Killer, Come Hither and the sequel, Kill and Be Killed, are a departure in that nothing else I had written before can be described as a thriller or a crime novel. Also, the protagonist, Jack Dana—a former Marine Corps infantry officer and war hero—is very different from the characters with whom I’d been hanging out. But, in other ways, both of these books fit right in. The milieu—lawyers and rich men—is my hunting ground; Jack is an intellectual and a writer, as well as a trained killer.

How did I come up with the idea of writing these thrillers? My wife and I live in a house in Sagaponack, in Eastern Long Island, just a few miles from Sag Harbor. It’s a house in the woods. We have neighbors, but they’re hardly ever there. We don’t lock our doors. We don’t set the burglar alarm when we’re in the house. It would be exceedingly easy for an intruder to enter and surprise us. I’d like to keep a loaded pistol under the bed. When I was in the army I was a very good shot and I believe that even today I wouldn’t miss a figure that appeared in our bedroom door, but my wife won’t allow me to have a firearm in the house. As a result, when I can’t sleep I sometimes scare myself imagining the following scene:

We are in bed. I wake up hearing what might be footsteps in the corridor leading to the bedroom. Soon the door opens. In it stands a large man. In one hand he holds a flashlight he directs at the bed. I don’t know what he has in his other hand. It hardly matters. I don’t wear pajamas, but I spring out of the bed. Why? To defend my wife. Defend her—how? What can this preposterous figure, a small naked man, accomplish? There is no answer to these questions. 

Fortunately that is where the scene usually ends. The nighttime intruder, the sense of helplessness, the certainty that the worst is certain to happen, are the seeds from which Killer grew.  

There are other themes in these thrillers that are important to me. First among them is the situation of the men and women who volunteered to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq. Overwhelmingly drawn from the underprivileged strata of our rich and unequal society, many of them mutilated or suffering from PTSD, they’ve come back to dysfunctional Veterans’ Administration healthcare and an indifferent civilian public. Pity for them and anger at the system of which they are victims have led me to imagine a protagonist like Jack Dana, a child of privilege, whose sense of honor and patriotic duty compels him to join the Marines right after September 11. He doesn’t want to leave the fighting to them.

The villain is Abner Brown, an unimaginably rich billionaire and philanthropist, whose political views place him far to the right of the John Birch society and the Tea Party. He commissions the savage murder by a hit man of Jack’s uncle Harry. Killer Come Hither tells the story of the crime and Jack’s revenge. In my latest book, Kill and Be Killed, Jack avenges the murder of his beautiful girlfriend, again orchestrated by Abner. At his side is a beautiful lawyer, Heidi, but their relationship is surprisingly complicated. I find Heidi irresistible and hope that readers will agree with that judgment.