Tuesday, November 9, 2010

9mm: An interview with Michael Connelly

Welcome to the latest instalment in Crime Watch's ongoing series of author interviews; 9mm - 9 Murder Mystery questions put to a variety of New Zealand and international crime, thriller, and mystery authors.

I am hoping to share some more 9mm interviews with New Zealand-based authors with you soon, but today, for the 42nd instalment in our ongoing series, I have another fantastic international author for you; one of the true giants of the genre worldwide, and the modern maestro of contemporary LA crime fiction, Michael Connelly.

I was fortunate enough to interview Connelly by phone recently for an article in the Weekend Herald, New Zealand's biggest newspaper (read "King of crime offers clues to success" here), and it was an absolute pleasure to talk to him for more than an hour about all manner of things. Along with being a top-drawer storyteller, he is a very intelligent and humble guy, generous with his time and insights. Another highlight in a year of highlights, for me.

You can read more about Michael Connelly in my lengthy Crime Fiction Alphabet post (he was my 'C' author in Kerrie from Mysteries in Paradise's fantastic series) here, and at his own website here. But for now, he stares down the barrel of 9mm.


The Crime Watch 9mm Author Interview: Michael Connelly

Who is your favourite recurring crime fiction hero/detective?
I would have to say Phillip Marlowe. Not only the writing involved, but it was also reading the Marlowe books that made me want to become a writer, so I guess that’s what you’d call, I don’t know, a sentimental connection. If I hadn’t read the Marlowe books I might not have become a writer, so there’s that. But also I write about Los Angeles and Marlowe is a denizen of Los Angeles, and his hopeful cynicism ... I think is akin to what I’m trying to do with Harry Bosch. I know that sounds like a contradiction, but just hopeful cynicism for a place that has everything, all these possibilities, but most often falls short. That was captured in Philip Marlowe’s view, and hopefully I’m getting close to that, or every now and then I hit that, with Harry Bosch.

What was the very first book you remember reading and really loving, and why?
I read TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD when I was 13, so it wasn’t an easy read because I wasn’t a great reader, but it was one that I was not assigned at school - I’d gone to a library and a librarian told me I should read it. It was a library I would visit almost every day in the summer, so I’d read it and put it back on the shelf, and then come back [the next day] and find my spot and read it again, and not only is it a tremendous story that has echoed in my work, especially the Mickey Haller stuff, but it was the start of me reading for myself, which you know is a key thing in any writer’s evolution. When you start reading for yourself and you start looking for the stuff that inspires you, you’re on the road, and for me my road started with TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD.

Before your debut crime novel, what else had you written (if anything); unpublished manuscripts, short stories, articles?
No short stories, but I had written two novels that were never sent out, and they shouldn’t have been sent out - you know, they were learning processes and you know the second one was much better than the first one, and then the third one was the BLACK ECHO, which I felt should be sent out. In a way I look at it all as the process of my first book, but I did write two full novels before I wrote the one that got published.

Bosch wasn’t in them. They were private detective novels. I grew up in Fort Lauderdale, which is pretty much a tourist destination, and it was a place that at least in the ‘70s when I was growing up that a lot of runaways went to, it was like Spring Break, and anyway, it was a place that lured runaways. And I worked in beach restaurants as dishwashers and all these menial jobs and I knew many people who worked these same sorts of jobs who didn’t go home - they had no home, they were runaways, they lived on the street, or lived in daily motels or weekly motels. And that was where that influence came from, and both of those first two novels were about a private detective who specialised in finding runaway teenagers.

They were very helpful to me, they helped me to learn how to write a novel, and so I don’t look at them as failures in any regard. They were things that I needed to do. In that process is where I learned that, at least for me, the books I write were going to live and die with character. The protagonist was going to be what they were about, not a nice plot or a [tricky] plot, they were going to be about the protagonist. And these books didn’t have that, it wasn’t there yet. They were strong on plot, short on character, and that was the real learning process there. So therefore I wouldn’t want to put them out there, they’re not what I do - they were things that I learned from and like I said, they’re in a box somewhere, and that’s where they belong.

Outside of writing, and touring and promotional commitments, what do you really like to do, leisure and activity-wise?
Well I live in Florida, I live by the water, I like to fish, but I look at fishing as a form of writing because once you get the line in the water there’s not a whole lot to do, and what I find is that if I’m in a difficult spot with writing, or I’m trying to build up my inspiration and energy and thinking about what I want to write, then fishing is really good. So it’s a leisure activity, and it’s a part of my process. I have found the thing that really takes me out of writing - that I can just go and not think about writing - is the sport of golf, because there’s just so many things going on that if I really feel like not thinking about writing, I’ll go out and play golf.

What is one thing that visitors to your hometown should do, that isn't in the tourist brochures, or perhaps they wouldn’t initially consider?
I would pick LA, and to me, something I do, I go out there a lot, and I’m still on Eastern Time so I wake up early, and one thing I do is go out on the boardwalk, the strand that runs along all the beach cities for some 20-something miles. I don’t walk the whole 20 miles, but I take long walks in the morning before the city wakes up, and it’s very dark and you see a lot of homeless people sleeping and encampments and all that, and you see the city from a different angle from what most people ever see it, and I’ve always enjoyed that.

If your life was a movie, which actor could you see playing you?
You know what, you’ve finally asked me a question that’s never been asked before… let me think about that for a second. I tempted to say Steve McQueen, but he wouldn’t take the part. I’d say James Gandolfini. Not because he looks like me or anything, but because - and maybe it’s because I like Tony Soprano or something - but he has a certain overconfidence and lack of confidence in certain things. And I’ve watched The Sopranos over the years, and I kind of recognise something about that in me - and also I’m on the spot here and I’m trying not to pick a pretty boy actor, because I don’t think that would be the proper way to go.

Of your books, which is your favourite, and why?
I would probably say THE LAST COYOTE, and it was probably wasn’t my best book because it was like my fourth book and I’ve written like 15 since then, but it’s probably my favourite because of a few reasons. One is that in my life it was the first book I wrote as a fulltime novelist, I was able in the months before I started writing it to retire from journalism, and so the year I was writing THE LAST COYOTE I was just amazed that I was a fulltime novelist, and I kind of revelled in that. And I also saw, I could quite clearly see, that the writing had improved because it was my only focus, and I wasn’t writing at night and then going to the newspaper during the day. It had my undivided attention and I could see improvements almost every day. That was very exciting to me. And the last part was that it’s the case of Harry’s life, it’s about his mother, and so it’s very meaningful on a character level to write that story. Obviously it was my fourth book and I had no idea that Harry Bosch would be around for at least another 15 years, but I was getting the idea that he had some longevity, and that I was going to be writing more about him. And to write more about him I had to kind of … this is a kind of foundation story of what he’s about.

What was your initial reaction, and how did you celebrate, when you were first accepted for publication? Or when you first saw your debut story in book form on a bookseller’s shelf?
I’m not very outwardly demonstrative, but it was a very solemn and fulfilling moment, because I was 36 years old, and I was 20 when I said I wanted to write crime novels. And it wasn’t a hard 16 years, it was a fun 16 years, working a great job at a newspaper, different newspapers, so it wasn’t like a brutal and difficult journey, but it was a journey, and a long journey, to hold the book. You know it comes in the mail, you open it up and hold it, and it’s just very hard to describe. And you know, here you are, I’m a writer and supposed to be a master of words, but you know that was one of the times in my life that I had no words to describe it. You know there were other things going in my life - my father had passed away before, he knew I was going to be published but he passed away before I actually could show him a book, so there’s like a bittersweetness in that because my father was very influential in helping me to get on that journey, and he was the one who had the idea of ‘why don’t you become a journalist, and you can treat it as research for the books you want to write’, and he really kind of came up with what appears now to be like a master plan, but was really like ‘well, maybe this will work - what can we do to get you in position to be able to write these novels that you feel you want to do’. So it was sad because he was very much a part of that. It was good that he knew, and I was able to tell him when he was sick, ‘hey, I just sold the book and it’s going to be published in a year’, and he didn’t make it that year, but he knew and he was proud, and so there’s that little kind of sadness mixed in with such a fulfilling and proud moment.

What is the strangest or most unusual experience you have ever had at a book signing, author event, or literary festival?
Um, one time I was doing an event at a bookstore in Charlotte and there was a guy dressed up as Davey Crockett, with the hat, and he would not stop asking questions, and I soon realised there was something a little off about him, and he would not stop following me, and eventually two people in the store had to hold him while I left in my car, without him being able to follow me. And that was quite strange.


Thank you Michael Connelly. We really appreciate you taking the time to talk with Crime Watch.

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So what do you think of this 9mm interview? Have you read THE REVERSAL, or any of Michael Connelly's other books? Have you met Connelly at any author events? What do you think? Are you looking forward to the film adaptation of THE LINCOLN LAWYER? Who should play Harry Bosch if those stories ever make it to the big screen? I'd love to read your comments. Please share your thoughts.

12 comments:

  1. Craig - Thanks for this terrific interview! Harry Bosch is one of my favourite literary characters, and it's wonderful to learn about about his creator. And I know exactly what Connelly means about hopeful cynicism. Exactly. What a great term!!

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  2. Yes Margot, that was one of his comments that stuck with me long after our interview - "hopeful cynicism". But then, he is the master of the 'telling detail', the pithy yet insightful description of people and places.

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  3. Craig - Thanks for this interview. Certainly Michael Connelly is one of the greatest.

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  4. The Last Coyote is my favorite Harry Bosch.

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  5. I really need to read THE LAST COYOTE, one of the Bosch books I haven't got to yet (have read about 8-9 of them)...

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  6. I have read every Michael Connelly book and love them all! Great interview. I loved learning how he came to write his novels.

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  7. Craig - The Last Coyote was the very first of Michael's books that I read. It was a while back. It was then; and still is now, my favorite book of all time.
    I own all 22 of his books. You have given me a new insight into his life experiences. Thank you. I appreciate that.

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  8. Excellent interview, Craig. I've seen Connelly in live interviews and read other ones, and the questions are always so predictable that he drifts into automatic pilot. Your questions, while not exactly outside the box, were enough to truly engage him, to make him say things I've not heard him say before.

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  9. Thanks for the comment Mike. Yes, I try to build up a good rapport with authors, even if I'm asking some somewhat standard questions - it doesn't really come across in the questions of these 9mm interviews sometimes, but one of the reasons I get quite good answers from a lot of authors, is that engagement - and I don't necessarily ask the questions exactly how I've printed them above (ie I ask the question in a more chatty way, and linked to things we're already talking about etc, kind of organically weaving it into the conversation).

    I've had several authors tell me over the past year or so that my interviews (even though they can be long - often an hour or more), never really feel like interviews, more like talking to a friend about things that interest them both. I was quite chuffed when a few big name bestsellers said that, as that's exactly the kind of 'vibe' I go for, because as you say, it means sometimes you get little extra insights and gems, even from things they've already talked about a lot in the past.

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  10. "...more like talking to a friend about things that interest them both..."

    And it shows. Well done. I particularly liked the revelation that Connelly likes to walk the boardwalk in the early morning hours. I can almost see him.

    The Last Coyote is my favorite too, because it reveals so much of the inner Bosch.

    Thanks, Craig.

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  11. Thanks for the comment Livia. Looks like I'm definitely going to have to get my hands on THE LAST COYOTE asap. One of the few Bosch books I haven't read yet (along with TRUNK MUSIC and THE BLACK ICE).

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  12. Love the interview! Thanks, Craig.

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