Apr 6, 2012

John Connolly Interview - from 2002

John Connolly

If human existence were a heavily wooded forest, John Connolly would be writing about the very center of it. That place among the tallest trees that has you looking around wondering how to get out and forgetting how you got in. Very little light reaches this place and every sound will have your heart pumping as the unknown creeps up behind you. His Bad Men are the shadows you see out of the corner of your eye and that snap of a twig in the midnight hour. What your mind conjures up doesn't live up to the reality of this forests beasts. His Charlie Parker is the guide that stands back to back with you, fending off the evil that men do as his own internal struggle darkens his eyes. As the night turns to dawn, and the dappled light finally reaches you again, you look down and see what the darkness has done to you. And you know you'll never be the same.
 - Jennifer Jordan

Jon:   Right off, I need to ask, as an Irish author - why an American protagonist?

John C:    Short question, but a very long answer.  Firstly, it was very much a reaction against what I felt Irish writers were expected to write about: famine, religion, sexual repression, Britain, terrorism, how  often it rains in Limerick.  When I was growing up, Irish fiction - although sometimes superbly crafted - was pretty miserable stuff.  In school, I once had to read 'Men Withering', in which an old man dies, and dies long and hard.  I'm sure it's a fine book, but it put me off reading for six months.  Also, we didn't really do crime writing in Ireland, crime writers tending to be the exception.  It's not a tradition we've really had, and a number of writers who might be considered to be writing crime have ended up using some of its structures to write about terrorism, which was our worst form of crime for so long.  Again, that wasn't an area I was interested in exploring.

Secondly, I was curious both about the United States - a place about
which I have mixed feelings, finding it both welcoming and threatening -and  American crime fiction, which seemed more concerned with empathy and  compassion than its British counterparts. (I was particularly influenced by Ross Macdonald.) I didn't feel like those structures necessarily transferred terribly well to other cultures or societies, so I decided to work with them in their original setting.

And, as an Irishman, I thought I could bring something slightly different to the US crime novel.  After all, there was no point in simply slavishly imitating, since American writers do crime rather well.  I suppose I bring an outsider's point of view, as well as the influence of a slightly different European tradition.  My writing style isn't really similar to what would be considered "classic" American crime writing - the prose isn't stripped down at all; the opposite in fact - and there are strong elements of the Gothic, which is something Irish writers (Bram Stoker, Sheridan Le Fanu) did very well.

Jon:   Your books are a bit dark. Does it have an effect on you, or does it stay with the book?

John C:  A bit dark!  There are those who might regard that as understatement. I suppose they are dark, but it's balanced throughout with a promise, if not the actuality, of hope and redemption.  And there's a certain amount of humor, too.

But, yes, it does affect me at time.  DARK HOLLOW was particularly difficult.  I'm not sure why, to be honest: I suppose it deals with a man teetering on the brink of hope or salvation, and uncertain of which way he's going to fall.  And I feel that if, as a writer, you're dealing with dark material, with death and suffering, then it should affect you, otherwise you're just a dabbler and there's no truth to what you're writing.  I think it should affect the reader too: I'm not sure that crime fiction should always be an "easy read" for the reader; otherwise it becomes voyeuristic, almost pornographic.

Jon:  The books have a real feeling for the locations. Have you been to these places or is it just damn good writing?

John C:  I go to a lot of trouble to get the locations right.  I stay in the places I use, talk to local people, find out about their history and the history of the area, take notes when I eat, walk the streets, drive.  It's like scouting locations for a movie.  I suppose there are probably easier ways to do it, but this is the only way I know how to work.  It's very time-consuming, but worth it at the end if the reader feels he or she inhabits a real world.  And because I don't write "realist" crime fiction, insofar as any crime writing is truly realist, it is important that the world of the novels is as real and believable as possible, so that when the strange or supernatural begins to infect it the reader is prepared to go along with it.

Jon:  The British covers are beautiful, and even the American covers are pretty cool. Do you have any input on the art?

John C:  I have very little input on the American covers, although I hope that's going to change with the third book.  In Britain, it's been very collaborative, particularly for THE KILLING KIND and the forthcoming WHITE ROAD.  Hodder allows me to go off and find the illustrations that I like and then suggest the color schemes.  After that, it's up to Hodder's art department, who has been brilliant right from the beginning.

Jon:   The name Charlie "Bird" Parker is an obvious jazz reference. Are you a big jazz fan? What other kinds of music do you enjoy?

John C:   It's funny, I chose the name mainly for the nickname, since I liked the idea of a character so mired in mortality having a name associated with flight and freedom.  It irritates some people, but it's too late now. Also, it's kind of a small joke, since Parker hates jazz and his parents named him without realizing that he would be sharing his name with a jazz musician.  He listens to a lot of the music that I listen to: alternative country, indie rock, classic eighties.  I mean, he's only a year or two older than I am, although one of my friends was very distressed to think of a former policeman turned potentially violent private eye listening to The Blue Nile, who my friend regarded as kind of weedy.  I prefer sensitive.

Jon:   In the first book, one of the killers is getting ideas from anatomy drawings? Do these really exist?

John C:  Absolutely.  That whole tradition of anatomical drawing and modeling, of the obsession with the workings of the human body and the intimations of mortality that could be drawn from it, is factual.  I make up very little of what is in the books.  In THE KILLING KIND, the strange history of  religious obsession in the state of  Maine that forms the novel's backdrop is all true.

I tend to be a bit prickly about EVERY DEAD THING, at times.  I never really set out to write a standard serial killer novel, much as I've enjoyed some of them.  I wanted the Traveling Man to be one part of a larger web of corruption, from the level of city government right down to the individual human soul.  Maybe I didn't succeed, but I tried. That whole anatomical tradition is linked to something much stranger: the idea that this world is merely a passing thing, something to be endured, while the next world will provide the reward.  The idea crops up again in THE KILLING KIND: that idea of suffering being an integral part of the human experience.

Jon:  Do write you novels full time, or are you still doing some journalism work?

John C:  I still do occasional journalism: author interviews, mainly.  I remain a fan of good writing.

Jon:   I think Angel and Louis are great characters, are they going to stay a feature of the books?

John C:  I've been working toward something with Angel and Louis, and it kind of comes to fruition in the fourth book, THE WHITE ROAD.  They become far more ambiguous characters, colder, more violent, and estranged from both Parker and each other.  In the beginning, I used them to show aspects of Parker that might otherwise have been hidden: his sense of humor, his capacity to inspire love and loyalty in others, and also his first faltering steps toward redemption.  But as he has progressed, I think Louis and Angel have begun to find that his struggle with morality is different from their own, that he is genuinely, deeply tormented by the choices that he is forced to make.  In THE WHITE ROAD, some of the consequences of that struggle become  clearer.  We also learn a bit more about Angel and Louis, and why they are the way they are.  Louis's story does, I think, have a blackly comic element to it, while Angel's does not.

Jon:   People being the strange creatures that they are, do you get any flak about having gay characters in your books?

John C: No, I'm sure that there are some complete rednecks that won't read a book with gay characters in it, but they're in the minority.  The fact that they are gay is largely incidental.  It doesn't define them, any more than Parker's heterosexuality defines him.  Love is love.

Some gay readers have written to me to say how much they like them.  In fact, one confessed that he was a bit in love with both of them: not sure that you could actually love both of them, since they are, in some ways, polar opposites.

Jon: Any thoughts on having Parker travel out of the US?

John C: I suppose it's a possibility, but only as part of a larger plot set within the US.  I'm not a huge fan of blockbuster globetrotting thrillers.  In fact, I think one of the stand-alones may be set almost entirely in a very isolated, self-contained community, which is the exact opposite of the globetrotter model, really.

Jon:  Is there anything happening with film or television options?

John C: I'm very cautious when it comes to film.  I just think a lot of film adaptations of thrillers tend to be average at best, and generally poor.

Also, I get depressed when I see writers obsessively chasing the movie dollar or, worse, tailoring novels for film. I write books, not movie treatments.  In fact, I was kind of perversely proud that EVERY DEAD THING is probably unfilmable. I would have fewer difficulties with the later books, but it's still something I'm cautious about.

Jon: With the new trend in publishing for authors to do stand-alone books, do you have any plans in that direction? And also, would you want to keep the series going in addition to stand-alones?

John C: Mystery readers are very loyal, but also very demanding. I know, for myself, how much I look forward to the next Robicheaux or the new Kenzie and Gennaro, so I sympathize.  It's nice to get a kind of "fix" of your favorite characters, to keep up with what's happening in their lives.  But that can be a kind of trap for writers, and can lead them to be unambitious.  Sometimes, what readers, editors, publishers or agents might want may not be best for you as a writer.

I think, after THE WHITE ROAD, there may be a non-crime novel: still genre, and still quite dark, but probably not what people would expect. Then, probably one or two out of the next three may be Parkers, but there will be a stand-alone somewhere along the line: either very traditional crime, or a book that takes the supernatural/ crime hybrid as far as it can go, from my point of view.  I love doing the Parker books, but I'm very anxious not to short-change readers or myself.

It's why I don't take an advance for books any more: an advance means that you commit to a date of publication, possibly for a novel that isn't ready yet but which you may have to give up, or to a novel that you may not want to write, but now you've taken the money and have to accede.  Each Parker novel has been quite different from the next, and has tried to push the envelope a little.  I'd like to continue to do that.  I will always return to him, I think.  I'll be curious to see what he's like when he's sixty.

Jon: Who are some of your favorite authors, and who would you consider influences?
John C: Macdonald, because of his compassion; Burke, for the quality of his writing; Lehane, because he's just so good and Mystic River is a superb novel; Harlan Coben, for being damn funny; Julia Wallis Martin, for the darkness and beauty of the novels; and Paul Johnston, for trying to do something a little different in creating futuristic, satirical crime novels. Oh, and Colin Batemen, who is Ireland's Carl Hiaasen.

Jon: You have a wonderful website. Do you feel that the internet plays an important role for authors?

John C:  I wanted the website so that people could contact me if they chose, could get to read other things I'd done (the BBC ghost stories, for example, or the author interviews) for free, could feel that I was as interested in  them as, I hope, they are in me.  It's really a way of staying in touch with people.

Jon:   What are some of your favorite movies?

John C:  Oh, that varies from day to day.  I've just been taking my videos out of boxes to shelve in my house, so let's see:  pretty much the whole Laurel & Hardy collection is there, early Steve Martin, Carpenter's 'The Thing', 'Southern Comfort' (a great action movie), Michael Mann's 'Last of the Mohicans', 'Chinatown', 'Annie Hall', 'Manhattan', 'Love and Death'.  Surprisingly, maybe, a lot of comedy, but very few crime movies.

Jon: As a fairly new author, how do you like doing store appearances? Is it a weird feeling to become a celebrity?

John C:  I love doing them. Well, I do as long as people show up, otherwise it gets a bit sad.  I'm always flattered when people show up, and I try to talk to them individually if they want to chat.  To be honest, I put quite a bit of effort into the store appearances: I hate writers who feel that it's enough just to read some chunk of their latest opus to a captive audience.  Most aren't good enough at reading their own work to hold an audience. I tend to just talk - about the books, about crime fiction, about whatever comes to mind at the time. I love what I do, and realize I'm very lucky to be doing it, but that's down to readers and booksellers. I owe them a lot, and when I do bookstore appearances I try to pay it back in some small way.

Jon: So, is there anything about you that would surprise people to know?

John C:  Er, I'm not tormented, at least, not all the time. And I have a Bob Wilson drawing in my kitchen, depicting a bunch of teddy bears loaded down with food and lemonade with the lead bear saying: "This looks like a nice spot..."

Jon:   When you write, do you have the book laid out in advance, or do you let the book show you where it needs to go?

John C: Half and half, really.  I've never plotted a book out in advance, but I tend to have an idea of where it's going to go. That usually changes, though: characters assume greater importance, plot lines assume more significance.  It's an interesting experience, both at once within and outside your control.

Jon:   How important are is an editor to the writing process?

John C: Hmmmm. I think I'm pretty open to editorial suggestions, but so far I haven't had any that were terribly controversial.  I think American editors are more hands-on: they tend to give detailed notes, while my British editor adopts a more softly, softly approach.  Most of the editorial stuff I've received has been very minor.  Funnily enough, I tend to be much harsher on my books than my editors, and keep making changes right up to the wire.  For example, my agent saw one ending to DARK HOLLOW my editor a second, and the readers a third.

Jon: Would you care to give an insight to the other two endings for DARK HOLLOW?

John C: Um, one was just a complete misfire, so I'll let it lie.  The other just involved a slightly brighter ray of happiness for Parker at the end, with Rachel arriving on his doorstep.  It was a nice scene (actually, someone who read it in proof burst into tears, but I think she may have been oversensitive) but just felt a bit premature.

Jon: Does your reading audience seem to be more male or female?

John C:I think I have a nice balance but, by and large, I think it's probably more women than men.  But that reflects the patterns within mystery fiction as a whole, I think, and readers in general.  Women read more than men.

Jon:   Do you put any of yourself in to your books? Are you at all like Bird?

John C:  There's a lot of me in Parker: I share his sense of humor, his view of the world.  I'm interested in the ideas of morality and compassion that infuse the books.  I think, like a great many people, I wish I was a better person than I am.  In Parker, I get to explore how one might apply that wish to life.

Jon:   What other things occupy your time besides writing?

John C:  I cook.  I go to the gym.  I travel a lot.  And I read.

Jon:  If you could go back in time and speak to a younger John Connolly, what would you tell him?

John C:  Don't take yourself so seriously.  Be nicer to people.  And when you have the opportunity to have a pint with your dad, take it, because when you'll want to do it later, he won't be there.

 Jon:   You do some relentless touring, almost non stop it seems. Does it take its toll on you?

John C:  I think it was Henry Rollins who said that you're only 75 per cent as interesting as you think you are. After eight or nine weeks of non-stop touring, you begin to feel that 75 percent is a vast overestimation of your capacity to interest other people.

       I like touring. It's deeply flattering when people come along to a store and let you know that they enjoy your books, because writing is such a solitary pursuit for much of the time. The downside, apart from being a bit tiring, is that it's really hard for me to write when I'm on the road. I need to be at home, with a certain routine in place. In the end, there are only a limited number of outcomes to the that situation: either you curtail touring so you can write, or you begin rushing the books to fit the time available to you, or the books simply start to take longer to produce. I'm going for a combination of the first and third options. That, or death.

Jon: I really enjoyed BAD MEN. Are you going to be writing more in this  direction?

John C: I'm a genre writer, but I'm curious about experimenting in a number of genres. I've always been interested in supernatural fiction, and there's a strong element of that in the Parker novels. In part, it's because I have a  pretty flexible definition of what "mystery" means to me, stretching from  its use to describe crime novels right back to a much older definition of the word, which has religious/ supernatural origins. A mystery, as the word was originally understood, is a revelation - usually divine in origin - which cannot be understood by human reasoning alone. So I suppose that I  don't see any conflict between crime and the supernatural. Rather, one  seems to me to be a natural from the other.

Jon:  What are you working on right now?

John C: I've more or less finished a collection of ghost stories, the centerpiece  of which is a long Parker novella currently entitled THE REFLECTING EYE, although that may change. That book will be followed pretty soon after by the next full-length Parker novel, if I'm spared.

Jon: What's the last book you read and what did you think of it?

John C: The last book I read was Louise Welsh's THE CUTTING ROOM. I liked it a lot, although it told me a little more about certain types of sexual activity than I really needed to know.

Jon:   Steve Martin. Why does he make you laugh?

John C: Happy Feet. Bunny rabbit ears. "The Absent-Minded Waiter." Attempting to seduce Kathleen Turner in "The Man With Two Brains" while seated with his hat on his lap, then being rebuffed and, massively frustrated, walking  toward the window, his hat still dangling from his groin. The camera  focuses on his face as, from below, we hear glass breaking...

Jon:  What's the one thing that's always in your refrigerator ?

John C:  Skimmed milk.  I'm a healthy boy.

This interview along with others is available in