John Connolly is the author of the popular Charlie Parker crime series. His latest novel is The Whisperers, the ninth book in the series. Other books include Dark Hollow, The White Road and The Black Angel.
Connolly published his first novel in 1999. Every Dead Thing was a critical success and earned him a nomination for the Bram Stoker Award for Best First Novel. It also won him the Shamus Award in 2000 for the Best First Private Eye Novel.
After completing his studies at Trinity College and Dublin City University, he worked as a freelance journalist for The Irish Times for five years. As well as publishing nine books so far in the Charlie Parker series, he’s also published one stand-alone book, Bad Men, and a collection of novellas and short stories called Nocturnes.
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* Please note these transcripts have been edited for readability
Thanks for joining us today, John.
It’s a pleasure. Thank you, Valerie.
We’re thrilled that you’re able to talk to us today on our podcast.
You can’t walk past a bookshop, or a gift store, or an airport where there isn’t a whole pile of many different John Connolly books. Your name jumps out everywhere. Did you always know you were going to be a novelist?
I’d liked writing, which isn’t the same thing all. I think most people who write for a living have always written. I get very distrustful of people who say, “Oh, I might sit down and write a book sometime.” You think, “You really won’t.” If you haven’t been doing it already you’re probably not going to do it.
I had always written, ever since I was a kid. I became a journalist because journalism was a way to be paid to write. But, I think that’s not uncommon. It’s not uncommon for people who want to be novelists or fiction writers to kind of take a sidetrack into journalism, and then suddenly find that they’re quite frustrated and try to get out at the other end again.
But, journalism was a good grounding for me. It taught me the discipline of writing, I suppose, that idea that you don’t wait for the muse to strike because the muse doesn’t really exist. You sit down at your desk whether you feel like you’re in the mood to write or not.
In a newspaper you have to write because there’s a space in the newspaper, and if you don’t fill it somebody else will fill it and will fill your job as well. So, it takes some of that preciousness off the act of writing I think. So, it was very useful in that way.
But, newspapers don’t like you making stuff up you know, who knew? So, if you want to be a fiction writer possibly not the best place for you to spend the rest of your life. So, I moved out eventually.
What was that transition like, because your first novel was in 1999, Every Dead Thing, how did you transition? Did you write it on the side why you were writing the news during the day?
Oh, absolutely. I think everybody who has produced their first novel is doing it while they’re- they’re fitting it in around life. I knew people while I was in college who went off to explore their creative abilities and spent most of it on beaches. I think if you are to say to yourself, “I’m going to take time off from work to write my great novel,” you’re probably going to take time off from work and watch children’s television in your vest for six months.
Actually most people write in the spaces between living, at least initially, and that’s what I did. It was probably a little bit harder as well as a little bit easier. Harder in the sense that if you’re an accountant, or if you’re a bus driver, or a train driver and you’re writing your novel, then coming home from being an accountant, bus driver, train driver, turning on a computer and starting to write is probably a pleasant break. If you’ve been writing all day to then come home and turn on your computer and begin writing again is actually a little bit difficult. But, as I said earlier some of the preciousness had been knocked out of me about it. I approached it with an air of practicality, I think.
At what point did you know that you could become full time, as a novelist then? Was there a milestone?
It wasn’t until the first check arrived in my bank account I realized I could do it. I was fortunate in that got an advance that was large enough to enable me to say, “I’m going to give up work and I’m going to give this a shot.” So far I haven’t had to go back to a proper, which is a big relief, because most writers have a second job and that second job is being a writer. For the most part writers work at other things during the day, and that subsidizes essentially their writing.
I would find it very difficult now, maybe because I’m so used to having it as a full time job, I would find it very difficult to fit it into those other spaces, but that’s in fact what most writers have to do. They have to find a little space in each day, or at the end of each week, that’s theirs and colonize it. You cut away all the stuff about family, and you cut away all your worries about work and you take that time for yourself and you write.
It is a craft. I always get very distrustful of writers who don’t like the word ‘craft’ being used in association with their work; Martin Amos is one. For whatever other qualities Martin Amos has, a tolerance for craft is not one of them. John Banville would be another. They both seem to think that there isn’t a distinction between art and craft, and that craft is somehow suspect and art isn’t.
But, I’ve always thought that art is derived from craft, that it comes out of that, you know, chipping away at the rock face every single day, of writing a sentence that isn’t great and going back to it and honing it. All of that is craft. To demean it seems to me to be an unfortunate approach to what we do.
I also don’t think you get to say that what you do is art. I think that’s for other people to say. Time decides it. Writers are probably the last people who should be asked to define their own work.
You write crime. Where did that interest in crime come from?
Well, I’m suspect about the use of the term ‘crime’ now. I suppose that I’ve always felt that I write mysteries, because I think that offers more scope for what I do. I think crime is very limiting and I think people approach it with a certain set of preconceptions, which I always been a bit concerned about. But, it was the initial genre that I read.
I think most writers write what they read. When I was growing up I read American fiction. As I kind of substrata, I read American crime fiction. The other genre I read a lot of what supernatural fiction, particularly older short story writers. I’ve always felt that short stories are possibly the form to which the supernatural is best suited.
So, when I came to write my own books it seemed quite natural to me to write a kind of hybrid, to use a little bit of the mystery genre and a little bit of the supernatural genre, and try to create something slightly different. But, yeah, the subjects I was interested in pursuing, I guess, redemption, empathy, justice, all seemed to me to be ideally suited to the mystery genre. They almost come as a baggage with that immediately. You have that framework that you can use.
Then the supernatural- crime fiction, mystery fiction is a very conservative genre, or crime fiction is very conservative, mystery is slightly less so. But, crime fiction is very conservative, and has a particular loathing for miscegenation. It hates mixing. If crime fiction was a white person it would other marry other white people. It does not like messing about with other genres, and it particularly hates the supernatural, because it views it as its own antithesis.
I think crime fiction is supposed to be rationalist. It’s an error to assume that supernatural fiction is irrational, because it’s not; it’s anti-rationalist. The two could actually co-exist quite peacefully along side each other.
That’s where all that comes from. It was a genre that suited me, that I had an affection for. That’s the primary thing when you begin writing, you need to find something that you love. You usually explore a form for which you have an affection in, and which you have an interest.
All writers are the product of the writers that they’ve read. Very few people drop out of the womb as completely original artists. They’re not. They are a sum of all the people who have come before them, and then you add your .1% of inspiration that happens to come from yourself in an effort to make it slightly different from what’s come before.
You mentioned that the supernatural themes are ideal for short stories. You’ve published a book of short stories. Tell us about that and how different the writing process is when you’ve got these much shorter, self-contained stories as opposed to a much longer novel.
Initially the short stories- I think I realized after my fifth book that I was going to this for awhile, that nobody was going to come along and reclaim my furniture and tell me that a terrible mistake had been made. When you realize that you’re going to be doing something for a while- genre writers have two decisions to make. One is a) whether they’re going to keep writing the same book over and over again, or whether they’re going to try and explore something different. And, if they are going to try to explore something different are they going to explore it within the genre, or are they going to step outside the genre? They’re the two issues.
As I said, because I was writing kind of hybrid anyway, it seemed natural to kind of take that element of the supernatural out and explore it by itself. With short stories they’re- I actually took a year off just to write short stories. I’d been approached by the BBC in London asking me if I wanted to do anything for them. I think they thought that I wanted to write TV movies or something. And, I’ve always loved radio, and I’ve always loved the human voice. I think people listen to radio and watch television- they don’t necessarily listen to what’s being said on the television. But, radio requires a particular focus.
I love the idea of writing ghost stories for the radio. I love the idea of somebody driving home at night, or sitting alone in the kitchen having a story being told to them. I think ghost stories in particular are very suited to that kind of that tradition, that sense of somebody in parting knowledge to you in that way.
Short stories don’t have to have a beginning, middle and an end. Story stories are essentially a glimpse of something. They usually leave the reader to fill in the blanks at the end, which is lovely. That’s not just the case in supernatural fiction. My favorite short stories are probably Hunters in the Snow, by Tobias Wolff, and The Girls in Their Summer Dresses, by Irwin Shaw. Both of which essentially end at a point where a novel would continue, a novel would explore the ramifications of what’s occurred.
A short story shows you the incident and then essentially leaves you to fill in the blanks, and you have that wonderful sense with the short story- you occasionally revisit it in your mind. It hangs on in there because you have been left with this sense of a whole other play waiting to emerge after you’ve finished a short story and turned off to the next one.
So, I really like that about it.
For the supernatural what bedevils long supernatural fiction is the fact that if you read a four or five hundred page novel, the author is kind due now to give you an ending and an explanation.
You know? They really do. If you don’t get one you tend to be a little dissatisfied. I read Dan Simmons, The Terror, recently. It’s a beautifully written book about arctic exploration, but it doesn’t have an ending. It just kind of stops. It’s a long ‘ole book, and as a reader you feel slightly cheated. Yet, I see the difficult that Simmons had, and the difficulty that long fiction writers have in the supernatural, which is that the explanation for what occurred is never going to be as interesting as the mystery that you’re presented with at the beginning. It simply can’t be.
So, in short fiction you’re under no obligation to provide that explanation, all you do is pull aside the curtain for a moment and allow people to glimpse at this kind of underlying chaos, and then pull it back closed again.
I was very influenced by M.R. James, who I think- it’s where the English ghost story reaches it’s kind of apogee. He has a short story called A Warning to the Curious, which I think is a lovely idea. That idea if you go poking around you get a sense of how tenuous our connection is with reality and rationalism, that underneath it is all of this immensely complicated, frightening stuff.
James is very good at that, at showing somebody who has a view of the world that is essentially placid, civilized, rationalist, being exposed to this underlying chaos and having their lives changed forever afterwards. But, James at no point really explains what it is that they’ve seen, you just get this sense of something yucky.
So, I loved doing that with the short stories. I get a real kick out of it. I got to experiment with narrative voices. Those short stories then fed into what I did later, because now I tend to write every second novel as an experiment. It tends to be often outside the genre, or tends to be a different genre. The foundations of that lay, in taking that year off to explore other ways of telling stories, and finding that I could do that, and then being fortunate enough to have a publisher who’s very willing to accept these genre experiments and publish them without ever asking me what I was doing, or without ever kind of having a huge expectation for how many they were going to sell. But, I was prepared to do it because it allowed me to develop as a writer, and in that sense I’ve been very, very lucky.
With that hybrid of rationalism and the supernatural- I mean it’s obvious where you would go to research things like crime, where do you go to research things like the supernatural?
Well, you see my love of the supernatural is largely literary. I’m a skeptic, a healthy skeptic about these things. So, I find that most of this stuff, these are creatures of the Id, they’re all in there in your head anyway, they are manifestations of fears and concerns. Supernatural fiction is a very, it’s a bit like chicken. It’s a very good carrier for other things. You can import a whole lot of contemporary fears, a whole lot of contemporary concerns through supernatural fiction. It’s always been there.
If you look at vampire fiction, vampire fiction is essentially a carrier for explorations of sexuality. That’s what it’s always been.
So, it’s definitely Myer writing these peculiar Twilight books, which are, you know, on one level are about sexual abstinence, but you know, vampire fiction has always been about sexual abstinence, you know? If you got bitten by the vampire, you turned into the vampire. So, it was a good idea not to be bitten. So, she’s not- people sometimes accuse her of being, you know, importing a degree of Mormonism into vampire fiction. It was already there. So, there are different ways of looking at sexuality.
So, you can either read a vampire story as a straightforward story about people being bitten by things that flut about as bats. Or, you can see this kind of very interesting subtext to it.
So, I suppose I approach supernatural fiction in that, the supernatural in my fiction in that way.
But, also in terms of mystery fiction I write slightly darker mystery fiction, and what the central characters in mystery fiction dark, and mystery fiction all have in common is they are all people are looking for redemption. Harry Bosch in Michael Connelly’s books is looking for redemption. Dave Robicheaux in James Lee Burke’s books is looking for redemption.
Redemption for me, coming from a Catholic background, brings with it a certain amount of spiritual baggage.
So, I like that element. I like introducing an older element of mystery to the books, because mystery is- its origins, the origins of that word are primarily supernatural.
So, it doesn’t seem that strange to me to bring this stuff into the genre. Also I think while, as I said, crime fiction is in that very conservative way is very uncomfortable with the mixing of rationalist and anti-rationalist viewpoints. Most people aren’t. If you read a crime case in the newspaper and you read about some guy- say a woman who’s killed her children, OK? Which for most of us is infanticide by a woman. It just seems to be a really terrible crime, because it goes against all our instincts, and our sense of what it is to be a mother.
So, you will read that story, you will maybe follow the court case to its ending, and you will get a series of explanations for how things occurred. “This was the cycle of events…” and perhaps the person was under pressure, or there was a disruption in the relationship. We think, “OK, that’s a rationalist explanation for what has occurred,” but instinctively we think, “Actually, that’s not enough to explain that.” You know, there is something ineffable that we can’t quite understand.
That’s where the anti-rationalist bit comes in.
If you’re writing crime fiction about good and evil most of us, again, when it comes to evil have a rationalist viewpoint and an anti-rationalist view point. You know, “What is it to be evil?” “What is it to do an evil act?” Most of us are not evil. Most of us don’t do evil things. We do selfish things. But, we’re not actually evil.
So, immediately we have a kind of contrast between what is standard bad doing, if you want to use that phrase, which usually is derived from human selfishness, and something that’s larger and more complex, which is, you know, the wellspring for which evil draws. Some of us will take it as subjective, some of us will take as objective. Some of us will think that there is something beyond the human, which is a source for this evil. And some of us will think we’re all evil as essentially human, that somewhere inside of us we have the capacity to do these things.
So, crime fiction is very interested in that gray area, or the kind of crime mystery that I like is very interested in that gray area. For me, then, the supernatural allows me to explore those things, because another thing that mystery fiction is interested in is the distinction between law and justice. It recognizes that they are not the same thing. Anyone who’s every been involved with the law will recognize that law and justice are not the same things. And, the writer William Gaddis once said that in the next world we get justice, in this world we have the law.
So, all of these kinds of issues, for me, lend themselves to a particular interpretation of mystery fiction with which some of my peers don’t necessarily agree.
Your latest book, The Whisperers, is the ninth novel featuring Charlie Parker. Tell us about your latest book, and tell us initially how Charlie Parker came about, and how you formed him.
Well, the first piece of fiction that I wrote after a long period of writing non-fiction for the newspaper was the prologue to Every Dead Thing, which was about a man coming home and finding that everything he loved had been taken from him. It became kind of an exploration of grief, and how somebody could be almost broken by grief, almost broken, but not quite, and would set about rebuilding his life.
And, since then they’ve become interested in- they’re still interested in that subject, but they’re also interested in mythologies, those stories and myths that we tell about our lives, whether they’re personal, or social, or political.
And, so The Whisperers, I guess, feeds into that to some degree because I became very interested in the aftermath of the war in Iraq, and particularly the effect that war has on a society, and on individuals who fight in it. It has no real interest in whether or not the war in Iraq is good or bad, or justified or not justified. What it is interested in is the myths that accrue around war, and also the effect that it has on soldiers returning home, and post traumatic stress disorder.
Because I had somebody who came to my signings who served in Vietnam, and suffered from it, and used to talk to me a lot about it. So, writers are magpie-ish by nature. We’re always looking for shiny things, the little shiny thing that you can steal that will make a story.
And, so I had two things going on. I had somebody’s very personal narrative of what they’d gone through, and at the same time there was a very public discussion of this conflict that was ongoing. I saw a way to blend the two to explore something that was of interest to me. And, so that’s kind of where The Whisperers came from.
So what are you working on now? Is it another Charlie Parker novel, or something else?
No, again, I’ve kind of reached that stage where every second book has to be something different, in part because I want to keep the Parker novels fresh. One way of doing that is not to do one every year, and also because I want to exercise different muscles. As a writer I’m curious about writing, and I’m curious about ways of story telling.
So, I had written a book for children a little while ago called The Gates, which is the first time I had ever written a book published explicitly for children. I had such a good time writing that that I thought, “I want to write another one of those.”
So, those books tend not to be written to contract. I tend to say to my publishers, “Look, I’m going off for a little while. I’m going to do something. If you like it, it’s great. If you don’t like it, it will hurt a bit, but we’re not going to have a huge falling out over it.” And, so they’ve been good like that.
So, I’ve nearly finished a sequel to The Gates. I think I’ll then go back to Charlie Parker, and then I have an idea for a novel about food that I want to write.
So, with writers it’s never a matter of not having enough ideas. There are always going to be more ideas than you can use. It’s just deciding upon one and sticking with it, because I think in terms of people who want to be writers and who want to write, I think they make two mistakes. One is that they think that writers find writing easy, and they don’t. I think if you’re lucky 5,000 words out of every 150,000 come easy and the rest you sweat out, and you usually would rather do anything but sit at your desk and write them. So, in that way it’s a bit like going to the gym. It’s better to have written than to actually write sometimes.
Also, there is this ternary of ideas that I think if I were to ask all these writers who’ve tried to write a novel and abandon it where they’ve abandoned it, between 20,000-40,000 words, I reckon in 95% of the cases would be the point, because that’s the moment, a.), of which you hit the wall, it’s the equivalent to the wall in marathon running, which in a marathon comes much later, but in writing a book it comes very, very early on.
And also because you starting doubting the worth of the idea that you’re working on. You start thinking, “This was a mistake, and actually I have a much better idea for a book. So, I’ll put this away as a failed start and I’ll go back to the next one again.”
And, there are no bad ideas. There’s just a flaw in the execution of the idea that you’re working on. As soon as you begin skipping and saying, “Well, I’ll leave that one, and I’ll go off and start something else,” you end up with a floor full of half finished short stories, half-written poems, and half-written novels.
Every book that I’ve written I’ve had that doubt that sets in at 20,000 words and I’ve wanted to throw it away, for every single book.
It never changes. It never goes away.
How do you get over that doubt?
You have to accept that progress is going to be slower, and you have to discipline yourself not to move on. That’s it. There’s no trick to it.
You just have to say to yourself, “There is no bad idea.” “The only bad idea would be leaving this idea and going on to another one. That would be a bad idea.” That you have to maintain your focus on the book at hand. You have to find the thing about it that appealed to you from the beginning and hold on to it, and recognize that there is going to be a dissipation of energy, that there is going to be a dissipation of enthusiasm, that’s it’s actually going to be a hard slog. But, hey, if writing was easy everybody would do it.
Simon Rusty says writers are people who finish books.
Are your doubts greater when you do your experimental stuff?
No, actually they’re usually greater when I’m doing the Parker novels, because I think I live in fear of repetition, I live in fear of letting the series down, I suppose. Inevitably if your genre fiction is generic. That’s what it is. It tends to be the same, but slightly different every time.
So, actually in a way literary writers are both fortunate and unfortunate. They’re unfortunate in the sense that they don’t have that framework that genre writers can fall back on, especially genre writers who write a series. You know, you’ve got a character, you’ve got sidekicks, there’s a certain amount of stuff already done when you sit down to write a novel, the trick is finding something fresh and new to say about it.
Literary writers are fortunate in that there is always going to be something fresh with each book. In terms of the subject matter there won’t be, because literary writers, like genre writers, only have a certain number of subjects that they write about- all writers do. There’s just one or two things that you’re concerned by and interested in. They will always be at the core of your books.
But, it is sometimes easier to approach a new subject with a degree of enthusiasm than it is to go back to a series and think, “I’m with these people again, how do I find a way to make the familiar new?” So, that is the challenge.
Sometimes it’s actually wonderful to do something like The Gates, which is about a small boy facing the hoards of Hell, you can let your imagination run riot in a way that you simply can’t within the framework of a series in crime fiction or mystery fiction.
So, there are plus points and bad points to each. Flicking between them allows you kind of to get the best of both worlds, and to come to each with a sense of enthusiasm and freshness.
Do you have- when you are writing do you have a daily writing routine? Do you have any things that you need to do before you start writing?
Not really. A couple of days a week I go to the gym first thing in the morning and then get a cup of coffee and go back to write. But, usually I’m at my desk in the morning and I will write until lunch time.
I set myself a target each day. It’s usually a fairly easily obtainable target, because I don’t want to put myself off, the idea of sitting down at my desk. So, when I’m writing a draft, 1,000 words; if I do more, fantastic. If I have to eek out those 1,000 words, once I get to 1,000 and I’m having one of those days I’ll stop.
And, if I’m editing, which I love, it will be a chapter or sometimes two chapters a day, and that speeds up as I get towards the end of a book, similarly when I’m reaching the end of a novel and I’m writing. I’ll always been writing more than 1,000 words a day because I’m on the home stretch. But, there will be a middle section, that section after 20,000 words where if I get a 1,000 words a day done I’ll be happy, because at least the book is moving forward.
I think the worst thing is to set yourself unobtainable targets that make you think, “I’m going to be sitting at my desk for the next nine hours trying to do this.”
Nobody wants to do that.
Now you just said that you love editing. Now, I have to say I actually speak to very few writers who say that they love that part of the process. Why do you?
Because, I think it was Hemingway who said, “There are no great writers, just re-writers.”
For me the first draft is just a sketch. It will be long, but there will be characters that are barely defined. To be fair, every writer is different. There are some writers who will produce a cracking first draft, and they have editors that go- so I know George Pelecanos writes half a chapter in the morning, edits it in the afternoon and then doesn’t go back over it. That’s the way he works.
I re-write my novels 12 or 13 times start to finish, that’s the way that I work. There is kind of process of layering that goes on in the writing, and I get very attuned to the rhythms of it.
I’m concerned with the quality of the writing. There was always an impression that mystery fiction, you know, it didn’t have to be terribly well-written. People read it for the plot or the characters and the writing didn’t really matter so much. I’ve never felt that way. I felt it was worthy of the same care and attention as literary fiction.
In that sense I love that process of editing because I get to refine what I do, and I get to tease out things about characters. I live with them so long that I- they get a depth that they wouldn’t otherwise have. If I were to hand over a second draft of my book it would be terrible. It would be almost unreadable. I love that idea of honing it, and in that sense books are never finished, my books are never finished. It’s just at some point I have to hand them over, but I could keep re-writing them over and over, and over again.
I think there will a process of diminishing returns, because in the end I will be making changes that only ants would spot, but there is a pleasure in feeling that, “Actually, yes, that draft has improved the book. And, I know that if I do it again the book will be improved a little bit more.” Books you can’t re-write enough. Books will always be improved by re-writing.
You’re very prolific, and yet you say you sit down, you have a target, but you’ve written quite a number of books. You seem very energetic as well. Do you take time out?
Not really. There is less and less time now. You know this year was supposed to be a slightly easier year, but I published one book already. I’ll deliver another one a little bit later this year. I have a lot of touring to do, because as you build up this store of books you have more and more obligations to the publishers who publish them, and I can’t write on the road. I’m not very good at it. I like being in my office and having that space. But, it means that when I am there I have to be hugely disciplined.
So, no, there isn’t- and I think most writers who have kind of have reached the stage that I’m at where you’ve written 13 books now, and there’s a certain expectation of what you’re going to produce, probably don’t take very much time off, because there isn’t really that choice anymore. You’re bound to your books, and for that reason you better like what you do, and you better have a sense of discipline about it.
So, I don’t. I figure I’m going to write myself into the grave, but nevertheless it was- I had someone ask me when I was younger, to go back to your first question- what would I have wanted to do when I grew up. I would have probably wanted to be a writer. So, I’m fortunate in that way.
Someone once said that the secret of happiness is to find something that you would do as a hobby and then convince somebody to pay you to do it. And, I’ve done that. So, I don’t really begrudge the time that I spend writing and touring. It’s a lovely way to earn a living.
On that note, thank you very much for your time today, John.
It’s been a pleasure. Thank you, Valerie.