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Online At-Home

Michael Connelly, interviewed by Laurie R. King
October 2002

 

Over the years, the NorCal East Bay chapter of Mystery Readers International has had many "At Homes" -- intimate evenings with favorite mystery writers. We've hosted Anne Perry, Lawrence Block, Sue Grafton, Elizabeth George, Janet LaPierre, Sharan Newman, Laurie King, Rochelle Krich, Carolyn Hart, James Ellroy, Steven Saylor, Janet Evanovich, Eddie Muller, Taffy Cannon, and many others.

These events are held in private homes, and they're similar to Literary Salons. Since so many of our cyber members and friends aren't able to attend these intimate evenings, I thought it would be fun to have a "visiting" author each month interviewed by another "visiting" author. This month we feature Michael Connelly interviewed by Laurie R. King.

[Michael]Michael Connelly decided to become a writer after discovering the books of Raymond Chandler while attending the University of Florida. After graduating in 1980, Connelly worked at newspapers in Daytona Beach and Fort Lauderdale, Florida, primarily specializing in the crime beat. In 1986 he and two other reporters spent several months interviewing survivors of a major airline crash. They wrote a magazine story on the crash and the survivors that was later short-listed for the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing. The magazine story also moved Connelly into the upper levels of journalism, landing him a job as a crime reporter for the Los Angeles Times, one of the largest papers in the country, and bringing him to the city of which his literary hero, Chandler, had written.

After three years on the crime beat, Connelly began writing his first novel to feature LAPD Detective Hieronymus Bosch. The novel, The Black Echo, based in part on a true crime that had occurred in Los Angeles, was published in 1992 and later won the Edgar Award for best first novel by the Mystery Writers of America. Connelly's other novels include The Black Ice, The Concrete Blonde, The Last Coyote, The Poet, Trunk Music, Void Moon, A Darkness More Than Night and Blood Work, which was made into a major motion picture starring Clint Eastwood. His latest book, Chasing The Dime, has just been released.

Connelly's books have won the Edgar, Anthony, Macavity, Nero, Barry, Maltese Falcon (Japan), .38 Caliber (France) and Grand Prix (France) awards.

--Janet Rudolph

 

Laurie R. King: Let's begin where you and Peter Robinson left off last month: If you could go back to the beginning and change anything, what would you change?

Michael Connelly: I would change very little because I have been very, very fortunate. A lot of things fell into place for me simply by happenstance. When that happens you don't really want to change anything, even if you could. Editorially my regrets are few and for the most part minor. I look back on my first published book and think I held on to it too long, babied it too long. I should have sent that out into the world at least a year earlier. That might seem to be a quibble but I don't know about you, I sometimes feel that I will not have enough time to do all I want to do -- both as a writer and a person. So I look at that year of inertia when it came time to look for an agent and publisher, as a year I could have written another book or gone to New Zealand or Italy or whatever. It sort of sticks in my craw a bit. (I realize I have never had to spell craw before. I hope that is right.) The other regret is that in the second Harry Bosch book -- The Black Ice -- revealed Harry's search and identification of his father in three pages. I realize now I could have gotten a whole book out of that and so I think that was a big mistake. But the truth is you write in the moment and with your head down and there is no way back then that I could have conceived of Harry having the longevity that he has had.

LK: You've recently moved, from Southern California to Florida. Leaving aside for the moment the truly revolting fact that you came away from the moving process with a book, where most of us get nothing more than back strain and a strong and lasting desire to weep, can you anticipate how this move will change your writing?

MC: The move was made out of family considerations and wanting my daughter to know her grandparents. But it came with a lot of concern for what it would do to my writing. I can report after about 15 months that it has actually had a very positive effect on my writing. This happened because it has forced me to write differently. To write more from memory and to be more creative -- I think -- because I am still writing about Los Angeles but I can't walk out my door and immediately drive to places I am writing about. So I think it has been a very good change for me after 11 books to start writing this way. I didn't see it happening this way but that has been what has happened. It was one more of those fortuitous things that have happened to me without any sort of plan.

LK: Your new book, Chasing the Dime (great title, by the way), was inspired by actual events. Can you say something about the process of making a novel out of what happened?

MC: The book had its origin in something that happened to me but it is only a springboard. The book sort of starts with what happened to me but then springs into something completely different. When I moved to Florida I got a new phone number, obviously, and it happened to have previously belonged to a woman who disappeared. I got numerous calls from friends and family members hoping to find her but she was long gone by the time I got the number reassigned to me. That's what my experience and the book have in common. In my case I was able to determine from the callers that the woman who had my number voluntarily disappeared. She was the sort of person who was likely to drop out and start over somewhere else. In the book there are indications of foul play from the beginning and it goes from there. Different stories but one certainly inspired the other and gave me a sort of creative urgency because the story came from my own experience. That had never really happened before, although Blood Work was inspired by a friend of mine who got a heart transplant.

LK: While we're on the topic of Chasing the Dime, let me ask, do you find that readers are eager to see a story that moves outside the tight circle of cops-and-murder, or do they just whine, "When do we find out about Harry?"

MC: It is hard to tell because I have readers who prefer Harry and readers who prefer the non-Harry books. My guess is you have the same experience. What is overriding that and most important is that readers generally are interested in a good character. They might be more comfortable with Harry because they think they know him, but they always seem willing to give somebody new a chance.

LK: You're working in two series and have also done stand-alones. How do you perceive the differences in what you can do with each? If a book idea comes to you that is unrelated to a specific character, how do you know where that book belongs?

MC: That's a hard one to answer. I may sound facetious but I really think these stories are all interrelated and therefore really only one series. Harry Bosch is of course the main guy in all of this, but hopefully by the time I am finished writing it will all be tied up. In Chasing the Dime, for example, Bosch is not mentioned by name but he is sort of a ghost in the story. There is an unnamed reference to him and the protagonist of this book was just a kid fifteen years ago when his sister was murdered by a serial killer called The Dollmaker. If the reader is aware of the Bosch books then he or she will know that Harry killed the Dollmaker in an investigation/incident referred to in at least two of the early books. So it's all part of the same canvas. For the moment I'm the only one who sees the whole picture.

LK: How in general do you build a novel? What do its earliest stages look like -- tidy outline or snippets of paper and a lot of vague ideas?

MC: Mostly vague ideas referring to character and plot and then a dim light at the end of the tunnel. I usually grind the ideas in my head for a while and don't start the actual writing until I have that light -- the place I am going to with the story. I have outlined but not in many years. It is more dangerous but also more fulfilling for me not to outline. To not know exactly what I am going to write at the start of each day.

LK: You were a crime reporter, and now you write crime fiction. How has this affected your relationship with law enforcement personnel? Are they more willing to talk openly, or less?

MC: They are much more willing to open up to me now. For two reasons. One is I have a growing reputation in that field, particularly within the LAPD, of being a writer who is trying to accurately portray the pressures and difficulties of the job. So more often than not I will get an unsolicited offer of help from a homicide detective or cop who has read my books. This, of course, is wonderful because for so many years as a journalist the procuring of sources was the most difficult part. I wrote my first three books while I was still reporting and whether the cops who read the books appreciated my efforts or not, they could never fully open up or commit to me because I still had that press pass and I could still be a threat to them. Once I "retired" and turned in the press pass that wall disappeared almost overnight. I now have physical and intellectual access to things I never got close to as a reporter.

LK: You're published in a whole bunch of countries. Do you have any sense of how you're viewed outside the English-speaking sphere? For example, are you a mystery writer in Germany, or a writer?

MC: It seems that in a lot of foreign countries the crime novel is placed on a higher shelf and recognized more as a method of holding up a mirror to society. In the US there is more of a sense that these are entertainments or puzzles first, social investigations or character studies second. Consequently, when I have traveled overseas the questions I tend to get from media and people at book signings tend to be more in regard to the deeper themes and subjects of the books. This, of course, plays to my ego because I think those are my priorities as a writer and the plots are secondary to that. Also, I have found that foreign countries tend to look outward and try to view the world as a whole. The US, in this regard, is very inward. People in Italy or France are interested in the world view of an LAPD cop whereas I can't say it would be the same in regard to a Paris cop or a detective in Milan. Again, I benefit from this and had no idea it was out there. I think if you took my book sales in the UK, France and Italy combined it would total more books than I sell in the US. It is amazing and baffling.

LK: Have you found your perceptions shifting as you grow a family?

MC: For sure. I really believe that everything comes out in the wash. By that I mean that whatever is happening in a writer's life, good or bad, it has an effect on the writing. Five years ago I became a father and it changed my life in only good ways. I think it has come out in the wash. I think I'm a better writer because becoming a father made me a better person. I can't really quantify it any better than that.

LK: As crime writers, we spend our lives taking the stuff of atrocity and turning it into thoughtful entertainment. Where do we draw the line? Are there things you would not write about, because they are too tasteless? In other words, how long before you personally would feel comfortable writing a novel about the Twin Towers disaster?

MC: I think the only boundaries are individual and personal. A writer should be free to write about anything he or she wants to, including the twin towers. I have made small references to 9/11 in my past two books. Not as plot points but almost as character points. In a book I just finished there is an exploration of the changes in laws and practices of the FBI since 9/11. The best crime novels reflect what is happening in our society. So nothing should be off limits. But the writing experience is different from the reading experience. For me, when I think about a subject or issue or crime, I have to think about whether I want to spend a year thinking about this or this kind of person. A reader only has be to concerned with the three days of the reading experience. With that in mind, there are subject I personally stay away from because I fear that spending a year immersing myself in it will be too difficult. I wrote a book about a child killer once and part of the narrative is from his point of view. There was/is nothing wrong with that book. In fact, it's one of my most popular. But now that I am a father, I would not do that again. Not because I think there was anything wrong with the book but simply because I don't want to spend a year with that subject.

LK: If someone gave you a nice, juicy contract for two years of writing absolutely anything, or absolutely nothing, what would you do with those 104 weeks?

MC: I think I would spend the first 30 weeks not writing, just clearing my head and seeing parts of the world I haven't seen and going back to places I have seen and love. I wouldn't write, which would be difficult because I probably haven't gone more than a week without writing in the last 15 years. But then I would come home refreshed and I am sure very eager to write. I would write this story I've been kicking around in my head for a long time but haven't tackled because it is a complicated character and story. But with 74 weeks I think I could do it. That is longer than I have spent on a book since my first one, which weighed in about approximately 156 weeks.

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