Please welcome John Connolly, New Mystery Reader's featured author for September as interviewed by Dana King, staff reviewer!
John Connolly’s debut novel, Every Dead Thing, elicited comments at both extremes. Attacked in some quarters for its darkness, praised in others for its willingness to take a mystery where no one else was going; at least no one with Connolly’s talent for picking his way through the macabre and the grotesque without becoming nihilistic.
Connolly’s most recent novel featuring former New York cop turned private eye Charlie Parker is The Black Angel. In it, Parker’s quest to understand his drives and demons takes him to an unexpected place to be confronted by a relentless tormenter.
In addition to the five Charlie Parker novels, Connolly has written a stand-alone (Bad Men) and a collection of novellas and short stories (Nocturnes).
Mr. Connolly was interviewed by New Mystery Reader contributor Dana King.
Dana: Your interviews and web site show you to be a engaging, well-grounded person. Do you feel you have to step outside of yourself for the darkness in your books, do you tap into the darker side all of us allegedly have, or are you just fooling everyone with your nice guy act?
But I will say this: I think mystery writers are fortunate to be able to do that. I think writers in general are. You get to explore things, to work them out in print, in a way that a lot of people don't, and it does bring a kind of release. I suppose it's also one of the pleasures that reading brings, to experience these things at one remove, and then to apply them, if necessary, to the way that you look at the world, or at yourself.
Ed McBain was said to have written books about people who happened to be cops; the mystery was merely a device through which the characters were discovered. The same is true of your books, notably The Black Angel, an exploration of not only Parker, but of Louis, and even Brightwell. Do you envision your novels as stories influenced by the qualities of the characters, or as character studies told in the style of a mystery?
I suppose it's character revealed through action. The characters will always be the most important thing to me, in part because there is so much of me in Parker, by this point, but the plotting is integral to exposing truths about them. I suppose that's why I've always found Elmore Leonard easier to admire than to read, if that's not heresy, especially the later novels. He's a great writer, and few people can inhabit the consciousness of a character better than he can, but he's never been very interested in plot, I feel.
Dana: The Charlie Parker novels describe an arc in the development of Parker’s character, and in his understanding of himself. Did you start out in Every Dead Thing with the intention of Parker’s knowledge of himself eventually coming to the point he reaches at the end of The Black Angel?
John: Gosh, no. I never even expected to be published. Most authors don't, I think (and those who do probably shouldn't be.) Before Every Dead Thing was accepted I had begun work on Dark Hollow, the second book, mainly because I'd become so used to the discipline of writing fiction alongside my work in the newspaper. (I was a journalist with The Irish Times in Dublin.) Then, when Every Dead Thing was accepted for publication, I realised for the first time that I might actually be able to stick with Parker, and explore the shadows of his life. I think The Killing Kind really marks the beginning of that realisation, and a change in the nature of the books. They become a sequence, rather than a series as such, each picking up a little on the books that preceded it, and each revealing a little more about Parker and his nature.
Having been a devotee of Robert B. Parker’s Spenser and Hawk for many years, I find the friendship of Charlie Parker and Louis to be even more revealing on multiple levels. Was Louis conceived from the beginning to be Parker’s counterweight and mirror, or did that evolve as you went along?
Every Dead Thing was such a dark book, and Parker such a damaged character, that I felt he needed someone to show some of the light at the edge of his shadows. Angel and Louis became the characters that drew some of the humanity out of him, but they've become more complex, and more ambiguous, as the novels have gone on. Like I said earlier, I'm not really much of a planner, and most of what has happened in the books has developed quite organically as a consequence of the nature of the characters as more and more about them is revealed to me, and to the readers. By The Black Angel Louis in particular represents a different side of Parker's nature, and the relationship offered by Angel and Louis to Parker is almost the mirror image of the one being offered by his girlfriend and his child. They represent two paths that are open to him, and only one can really be taken.
Dana: You credit Ross Macdonald, James Lee Burke, and Ed McBain as major influences in your writing. Can you point to specific aspects in your work that reflect those influences?
John: Well, McBain was the first crime novelist that I ever read, so he was really my introduction to the genre. I'm not sure how direct an influence he was, though, although perhaps his fascination with the minutiae of his characters' lives - their home life, their personal relationships - may have crept in. With Macdonald, it was Archer's empathy and compassion. At one point, Archer says: "I hear voices crying in the night and I go see what's the matter." I loved that about him, that inability to turn away from another's sufferings. As for Burke, his influence is largely stylistic and linguistic. Crime fiction doesn't have to use pared-down prose. It can be metaphorical, poetic, allusive. In that way, the divisions between genre fiction and literary fiction can be blurred.
John: I devour books, both fiction and non-fiction. About half, or less, would be mystery novels. I love Cormac McCarthy, again for his wonderful prose style, and for taking a genre that really was regarded as the barrel scrapings of fiction - the western novel - and reinventing and reinvigorating it. Among mystery writers, I admire George Pelecanos a lot for being willing to use crime fiction to explore themes of social injustice, even in the face of a certain degree of resistance. I'm interested to see what Dennis Lehane does next as well.
Dana: Many journalists who turn to fiction still read like journalists, with a keen eye for description but no beauty or imagination in their choice of language and style. That never appears to be a problem for you, yet you retain the keen eye for description and an ability to place the reader wherever you want. How do you balance your journalistic experience with the more artistic elements of your writing? (No offense meant toward journalism by that comment.)
John: None taken! They are very different disciplines. I think that there is a distinction between being a writer and a journalist. I went into journalism because it was a way to be paid to write, but I probably wasn't a journalist at heart. I was more interested in feature and colour writing, which gives the writer a little more latitude. Journalism taught me that anything can be researched, and gave me the discipline to do it, I think, but it was balanced by a love of fiction, and by a more literary approach to dealing with the world. That's not to say that I write great literature myself, but I recognise the importance of good writing. In journalism, words are primarily functional. They're not there to create an atmosphere, and journalists are taught very early on to excise anything that smacks of poetic flourishes. Fiction isn't like that. You can luxuriate in words, to some degree.
Dana: Your dislike for “cozies” is not unlike Raymond Chandler’s description of Hammett as giving “murder back to the kind of people that commit it for a reason, not just to provide a corpse.” Chandler was more interested in the realism of the situation and actions; would it be safe to say your interest is more in the human qualities, good and bad, that can be explored through the reasons and consequences of murder?
John: I don't dislike all cosies, per se. I dislike a certain philosophy, if it can be called that, which permeates some of the earlier work, and has continued to filter down to the present day. Christie is an interesting writer, but not because of her characters. She's a bit like a child who lifts an innocuous stone in order to expose all the bugs running around underneath. There's a fascination with the motives and petty jealousies that lie under the apparently placid surface of English village life. But she cheats: by and large, the people who die in the books are asking for it, and we're not invited to engage with their sufferings on any kind of human level. It's just a problem to be solved. And I think, in a nutshell, that's my problem with a certain type of cosy fiction: if you're writing books in which people die, then at some level I think you do have an obligation to acknowledge their sufferings, or to recognise that people die dreadfully and messily and that their loss tears apart the fabric of countless lives. Otherwise, it's just pornography: actions without consequences.
I never thought I was very interested in exploring the
psychology of evil, although as the question of evil began to arise more and
more in the novels I came to understand that I probably was. In the beginning, I
was interested in the impact of evil upon the lives of ostensibly good people,
and the way in which evil corrupts even beyond the original act. Mostly, now, I
think that the words of the Irish writer Edmund Burke kind of sum up a lot of
what interests me in the fiction I write. Paraphrasing, he once said that all
that it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to stand by and do nothing.
The Parker novels are fascinated by the importance of not standing by, but also
by the human cost of intervening. The more Parker involves himself, the more a
little of his humanity is chipped away, even as he tries to do the right thing.
Is it right to do evil to stop a greater evil? As Parker remarks in The Black
Angel: "The problem is that there are no small evils."
Dana: Your plots are complex without being so complicated and convoluted they distract the reader from the quality of the writing. Do you know where you’re going before you start, outline a few chapters ahead as you go, or sit down to work each day wondering what’s going to happen next?
John: I'm not much of a planner, I'm afraid, and I never outline. I like the fact that writing a book is, for me, a little like reading one: there's a process of discovery involved. Also, it's not as if I have someone standing over my shoulder watching me as I write. If I take a wrong turn, I can go back and find the path again, and I never show the book to anyone until it's ready to go to my editor. In fact, I don't even print it out until the day before I send it off to her. I think it's a psychological thing: when I print it off, it's almost an admission to myself that the lion's share of the work is done and the book is, as far as any book can ever be, finished.
I'm a great believer in rewriting, and the books go through worrying numbers of start-to-finish drafts. In that way, I try to get the balance right between the writing and the plotting. I think rewriting is a very underrated craft...
Dana: Do you edit as you go, or do you write a draft from start to finish before going back to re-write and polish?
John: I write from start to finish first, then go back to the start and commence again. When I was writing Every Dead Thing I got hung up on the prologue for about four months because I thought everything had to be perfect before I could move on. Now I know that isn't the case, or at least it isn't for me. Also, the hardest part for me is eking out that first draft. Once that's done, I rest just a little easier, as I know that the idea was right and that I managed to make a book from it.
Dana: How do you decide when you’re done polishing?
John: I don't really write to a deadline set in a contract, as that's not the agreement that I have with my publishers, but I'll usually set myself some kind of deadline for completion. It makes life easier for them and for me. A book is never really finished. At some point you just have to accept that the changes you're making are tiny and aren't really going to change the nature of the book. By now, though, I have a good sense, I think, of when a book is ready to be printed off and allowed into someone else's world. With the book I'm working on now, I've decided to take a little more time with it than I'd originally indicated to my publisher. It's just not quite right, but it will be a little closer to right in a month or so.
Dana: Do you have a set amount of writing you do each day?
John: When I'm working on a first draft, I'll usually set myself a very easily attainable target: say, 1000 words. Unfortunately, that 1000 words sometimes isn't easily attainable at all, and I sweat the words out. Other times, it comes a little easier. I think it's important not to set targets so huge that you're put off the idea of even sitting down at the computer. Equally, if you set a target, and reach it ahead of time, you shouldn't feel guilty about leaving it at that and coming back to the work the next day, although if you're in the humor to keep going, well, that's fine too. As you can see, I have a reasonably relaxed attitude to it once the target is reached. When I'm redrafting, it's usually a chapter a day, as I find that I tend to focus very hard on that one chapter, whereas if I try to do two or three I start making fewer and fewer changes to the later chapters, and am probably scanning things rather than really paying attention to them.
To be honest, despite what I said earlier, I sometimes do feel a little guilty when it seems like I'm not doing much on certain days. Then again, better two or three hours of really productive work than eight hours of stuff done in a half-assed way, I suppose. . .
Dana: What advice can you give to a fledgling writer struggling to find to write amid the demands of work and family?
John: Well, first of all most writers, at least at the start, struggle to juggle those demands. I had a friend in college who took a year off after graduation to write her masterpiece, but probably spent most of the time sleeping, messing about, and watching too much daytime television. I don't think her book has ever been written. Perhaps it's right and proper that writing, at the start, should be something you have to fight for the time to do. I guess it allows you to discover how badly you want to do it.
It goes back to what I said earlier. I think you need to feel that you're making progress all the time, otherwise it's very disheartening. I wrote my first book in fits and starts over a five year period, but probably really knuckled down to it in the last two years of that, driven partly by frustration with my job (or lack thereof) at the newspaper. I remember taking a week or so off after being turned down for a permanent position and locking myself away in my room. I didn't go out, I didn't socialize, but I must have written a chunk of the second half of the book in those seven days. Sometimes, it takes a spur to drive you, but mostly it's baby steps. Writing a little every day helps, rather than saying that every week you're going to set aside the entirety of your only day off and sit down to write. Targets help: 100 words a day doesn't seem like much, but at the same time it doesn't take very long, and if you manage 700 words the first week, I pretty much guarantee you'll do 2000 the next. Try not to think of the book as this massive 100,000 word weight upon you, stretching off into the far distance. Look upon it as small victories to be achieved, little epiphanies. And try to enjoy it. That always helps.
Dana: What’s your next project, and when can we expect to be able to read it.?
John: After all this, my next novel isn't a
mystery novel, although it explores themes that have arisen in them, and there
are indications of its direction in Dark Hollow and, particularly, some of the
Nocturnes stories. I've always been fascinated by folk tales, and their
elemental nature, so the next book is to do with stories and the imagination,
and the power of these old tales. It's called The Book of Lost Things, and it
will probably appear some time next year, if my publishers decide that they want
it. As Neil Young once said, it's important to do things that might fail. It's
also important to balance that commercial imperative, and the desires of readers
and publishers, with what you need to do as a writer. After that, there will be
another Parker novel, which I'm looking forward to writing.