Monday, August 17, 2009

The Power of 10

As the saying goes, sometimes it takes a decade to become an overnight success. In the case of Irish wordsmith John Connolly, he’s completed his first decade in style with his latest private eye Charlie Parker novel, The Lovers. Although I’ve read many fine works of fiction recently, The Lovers is the one that has haunted me most since I put it down.

Connolly has spent his career writing some of the most challenging crime fiction out there. I recall with clarity when I read his debut novel, Every Dead Thing, back in the autumn of 1999. That was a signal year for me, the same year that Thomas Harris ended a 10-year absence by releasing Hannibal (his much-anticipated sequel to The Silence of the Lambs) in a blaze of media interest. Connolly’s UK publisher, Hodder & Stoughton, had placed a sticker on the cover of Every Dead Thing comparing it favorably to Hannibal--and that sticker caught my eye, so I picked up Connolly’s book and read it over two nights. Despite its containing a pretty a tough opening sequence, in which Parker returns home after a night’s drinking to discover his wife and daughter butchered, I stuck with the story. And was glad I did. It didn’t surprise me in the least that Every Dead Thing went on to win the 2000 Shamus Award for Best First P.I. Novel.

Since then, I’ve followed Connolly’s career with interest. I have watched him take chances not only with his first standalone novel, Bad Men (2003), but also with his surreal The Book of Lost Things, various short ghost stories (many of which were adapted for radio as well as collected in Nocturnes [2004]), and his determination to push toward the gothic and supernatural in his Charlie Parker series. I vividly recall spending an afternoon with the author in Dublin during the winter of 2002, watching him consume a hearty meal and drink some fine wine while we taped a lengthy interview for January Magazine. I also remember hearing sometime later that he’d been involved in a roadway accident with a car and been knocked him from his bicycle. Later, Connolly laughed off that incident, even though I knew it affected his writing.

So now we come to the summer of 2009, and The Lovers. As impressed as I was with Connolly’s sixth Charlie Parker novel, The Unquiet, a couple of years ago, I was not prepared for the wonders he manages to offer up in The Lovers. Here’s an excerpt from my review of that novel for Shots:
This is the eighth novel in Connolly’s Charlie Parker P.I. series (though Parker made a cameo in the standalone Bad Men and featured in a novella from his Nocturnes collection). The Lovers is without doubt the finest novel in the series, as it pulls together many of the strands that Connolly wove in the preceding novels. Each word, sentence, paragraph, and page in this book seems to have been considered, polished, and refined to form a picture-perfect narrative, and one that is as chilling as it is poignant. ...

The tale starts with Charlie Parker investigating the mysterious nature of his father William Parker’s suicide, following his shooting of two young lovers with no apparent motive. Parker, following the issues he faced in The Reapers [2008], is working as a barman while his P.I. licence is suspended pending a police investigation. Parker has often pondered why evil seems to shadow his every move, and why death seems to be an integral part of his life. His investigation into his father’s suicide will place his own life into context and reveal why shadowy figures such as the Collector, the Travelling Man, et al. seem to be interested in him and those around him. As the case in which William Parker gunned down two young lovers in their car is shrouded in secrecy, [Charlie] Parker hunts down his father’s colleagues, retired NYPD cops Jimmy Gallaher and Eddie Grace. It seems that Parker’s parents’ marriage had a problem that would cascade into their son’s adult life. Adding to the mix is journalist Mickey Wallace, who is writing a lurid true-crime book on Charlie Parker’s life, and the Jewish cleric Epstein who knows more than he will reveal until the bodies start to pile up. The only people that Charlie Parker can rely on are [his psychopathic sidekicks] Louis and Angel, who watch his back as the secrets of The Lovers [are] revealed.
Just recently, I decided to ring John Connolly up. I know he’s a busy guy, but I wanted to ask him a few questions--not only about how the plot of The Lovers evolved, but about his research methods, coping with a serious computer problem, Stephen King’s forthcoming novel, and the influence of the supernatural on his fiction. He was kind enough to answer my queries, at length and cheerfully.

Ali Karim: The Lovers marks an important turning point for your man Charlie Parker. Exactly when did you realize that his parents were harboring such an awful secret? Or had you always known all those details of Parker’s back-story?

John Connolly: When I wrote the first book, one of my editors was anxious to get rid of the stuff about Parker’s father, as she felt there was a lot of trauma in the book already--which, to be fair, was true. At the time, I felt that it was important to leave it in, not only because Every Dead Thing is, in a way, a book about fathers and father figures, but also because, if I was allowed to continue writing, I knew that his father’s death was a subject to which I’d want to return at some point. As the series went on, it was something that simmered away in the background, and gradually I started to figure out how that story could be told. So, no, I didn’t know at the beginning, but then the whole process of writing the Parker books has been interesting for me in the way that it has begun to come together in recent years. There wasn’t a grand plan at the start, but a pattern has started to emerge as I’ve got to know and understand the characters in the series. I think that’s probably true of a lot of mystery writers: with each book that you write, you discover another layer to the main characters.

AK: The revelations in The Lovers are very shocking, as you pull many strands together. Can you tell us a little about the process involved in writing that novel?

JC: Well, usually what happens is that midway through writing a book I start to get ideas for the next book; so during the writing of The Reapers I was accumulating information and strands for The Lovers. I suppose that process had begun as far back as The Unquiet, as that’s the novel in which hints are first given about Parker’s parentage. To be honest, the writing of The Lovers was difficult, and blighted at times. I lost the first twenty- or thirty-thousand words due to a computer mishap, and had to go back and start again. Then I had to do a lot of historical research, as large sections of the book are not set in the present day. And I think I was worried as well, because it was going to be the book that altered perceptions of the series, in particular the way in which the supernatural has been used so far. In the end, I’ve been kind of surprised at how well it has been received.

AK: You always fill your novels with vignettes and insights, many of which are surreal. Not to give too much away, but the one from The Lovers that really burned into my mind was the death of the infant at that party with the coats.

JC: That’s based on an actual incident, one that had always stayed with Peter English, the ex-NYPD guy who helped me a lot with the research for the book. I spent a lot of time talking with him, and listening, and making notes. When he told me that story, I felt that it could be incorporated into the novel, as I could see how it might have affected Parker’s father. Graham Greene said that a writer needs to have a little shard of ice in his heart, and it was in my willingness to use that story that I recognized the essential truth of Greene’s statement as it applied to my own work: to hear something as terrible as that and think, well, I can use it ...

I think that the research element appeals to the journalist in me, but I tend to use only a fraction of what I discover. That’s the trick, I suppose: to know what to keep, and what to throw away, and not be too precious about it.

AK: You mentioned that computer incident, which lost you a substantial portion of The Lovers, and which you also wrote about in your blog last year. What exactly happened, and how did you manage to recover from that disaster?

JC: Oh, it was dumb, just dumb. Somehow, I’d given the same name to the file on my laptop and the file on my desktop [computer]. My desktop had a huge chunk of the book, while my laptop had a couple of new chapters. I simply replaced the desktop file with the laptop file and, bang, it was gone. I was in shock for a few hours, then just shrugged my shoulders and recognized that there was nothing for it but to start again. I don’t know if what I lost was better than what I ended up with, though. In the end, I rewrite so much that losing a first draft is much less frustrating that, say, losing a 10th draft.

AK: I loved the supernatural elements in The Unquiet and The Lovers, more than I have your works that avoid the “woo-hoo” angles, such as The Reapers. Which do you prefer writing, straight P.I. fiction or supernatural-tinged P.I. tales?

JC: I think that the books in which the supernatural element is used feel richer and more layered to me. There are plenty of straightforward crime novelists out there, and what they do they do very well. But there are fewer, I think, who are prepared to experiment and hybridize, mainly because there still seems to be resistance to it among the more conservative sections of the genre. That comes, I think, from a fundamental misunderstanding of how it can be used.

In my books, it’s not a case of “the ghost did it.” I simply don’t find metaphysical and anti-rationalist concepts inimical or alien to the genre. I guess, if I have to defend myself, I take a wider, more inclusive view of the genre’s possibilities, and that can’t be a bad thing. Ultimately, open-minded beats narrow-minded every time.

AK: 2009 marks 10 years for you as a published novelist. What has the journey been like? And what have been its high and low points?

JC: Crumbs. High points? Being published to begin with, and still being published now. Also, the fact that my publishers have adopted a very hands-off approach to what I do, and I’ve been permitted to experiment through books like Nocturnes, The Book of Lost Things and, later this year, The Gates. That’s come at a cost, though, in that the sales of the Parker books would probably be higher if I was producing one of them every year instead of exploring other avenues with every second book. “The same, but slightly different” is the way to top the bestseller lists. So exploring different genres doesn’t help, but I’m comfortable with the balance that I’ve achieved.

There really aren’t many low points. I’ve seen a bit of the world, I’ve made some wonderful friends, and I make my living doing something that I love. Like Raymond Carver said, “It’s all gravy.”

AK: So tell us more about The Gates, which you’ve described as a young adult novel that “involves Satanism and quantum physics.” Will Charlie Parker make an appearance in that story?

JC: Hah! No, Parker doesn’t make an appearance in The Gates. It’s actually very different from what I’ve done before. Well, there are probably slight echoes of The Book of Lost Things, but essentially The Gates is a mischievous book. It’s about a small boy and his dog who discover that their new neighbors are Satanists who are trying to open the gates of Hell. The book is filled with odd little footnotes about science and history. It’s probably the lightest book I’ve written, and the most purely entertaining. Frankly, writing it was a blast.

AK: Finally, have you read any books lately that have cast a long shadow over your mind, that you’ve found particularly impressive?

JC: Well, I read the new Stephen King, Under the Dome, which cast a long shadow because it’s huge: almost 900 pages. It’s pulpy, and violent, and generally good fun but, my, it’s long. Mostly, though, I’m reading research books for The Whisperers, the next Parker novel, so it’s either war or archeology for me.

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