Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Not One to Be Overlooked

In case you haven’t noticed yet, I can become extremely enthusiastic about some writers. And one of those whose work I’ve followed with near-religious fervor is Michael Connelly, most recently the author of The Overlook.

I first met Connelly (shown on the right in this photograph, with yours truly) back in 2002, when I interviewed him for the British e-zine Shots. At the time, he was promoting his novel City of Bones, and foremost on my mind was inquiring about the genesis of Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch, the Los Angeles detective who has become his most consistent protagonist. Connelly told me:
To come up with Harry Bosch I drew from everything. At the time I was a police reporter. I had contact with real LAPD detectives and a lot came from that, but I also drew from the movies, books, TV detectives that I loved over my lifetime. So there’s things that stretch back to Joseph Wambaugh, Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, and people like that, and TV shows like Harry O and Kojak and even stuff like that, and then movies. I’ve always loved movies for example the 1971 [sic] The Long Goodbye, directed by Robert Altman, which most fans of Chandler think of as an abomination, but I enjoyed it as a movie. I have a real easy way of definitely separating movies and books.

At the time I was doing this--
James Ellroy was just getting to be well known, and so there these stories about him and his mother and how the obvious (I think) psychology of him working out whatever happened with him and his mother (the damage) by writing murder stories. So I jumped to the idea of a guy with a similar background who works it out by solving murders. So there’s this aspect.

The one thing you haven’t heard me say here is that there’s me in him. At the very beginning there was none of me in him, other than we’re both left-handed--that was the little secret connection that we had. I consciously tried to create someone that was completely different from me, because I thought it would be more interesting to write about. And over the course of eight books, you can’t but help but have a little bit of me go into him, and back and fro.
But, if the truth be told, it wasn’t a Bosch book that first brought Connelly to my attention.

In 1996, I was down in Southend-on-Sea, England, roaming the aisles of a WH Smith bookstore (this was when Smiths was still a real bookseller), when I spotted an interesting-looking volume: The Poet, by an American writer named Connelly. I checked to make sure that it wasn’t No. 37 or No. 53 in a long-running series, and was relieved to find that it was a standalone. At the time, UK publisher Orion had already sent to bookstores the first four of Connelly’s Harry Bosch novels--The Black Echo (1992), The Black Ice (1993), The Concrete Blonde (1994), and The Last Coyote (1995)--but they had not been big sellers here. All had been given noirish and somewhat surreal covers. However, The Poet was different. In this case, a white snowy road framed the blackness of the cover. It was icy-white. It looked chilling. And as it turned out, The Poet was Michael Connelly’s breakthrough book in Britain.

I recall even now returning home from Smiths, grabbing a comfortable seat in my kitchen, and starting The Poet. Before I knew it, the door opened and my wife entered. A glance at my watch revealed that two hours had passed. I hadn’t even noticed. I went on to finish the book later that night.

My second fond encounter with Connelly came in 2003, during the Bouchercon convention in Las Vegas. That’s where he told me that he was working on a novel that was set partly in Vegas, would have Harry Bosch intersecting with the principal characters from The Poet, and would tie up some of that earlier book’s loose ends. Sure enough, the following year Connelly delivered The Narrows to readers, and was thereafter gracious enough to sit down for another interview with yours truly.

Connelly is now a major bestseller in Britain, published by Orion (which also has Harlan Coben and Ian Rankin in its stable, making for a formidable trio). His new novels traditionally hit the No. 1 spot on book-sales lists upon release. And his 2005 standalone, The Lincoln Lawyer, got a further assist from Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan, co-hosts of Britain’s extremely popular Richard & Judy TV-magazine show, who selected it as one of their annual book club choices.

His new Bosch book, The Overlook, has been equally well-received. I was excited last year to hear that Connelly would be serializing a novella in The New York Times Magazine. Regardless of how different it is at times from previous Bosch outings, I found The Overlook (which I originally read online, and has since been modified slightly for book publication) to be one of the strongest entries in that series. And I couldn’t help but be amused by the fact that the L.A. detective’s boss in that story bears the same name as a dear friend of mine, Larry Gandle, the assistant editor of Deadly Pleasures magazine. (To listen to an extract from The Overlook, click here.)

Knowing of my passion for Connelly’s work, Gaby Young of Orion recently arranged an opportunity for me to speak with the author once more, during the Californian’s brief visit to the Waterstone’s bookstore in Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire. We discussed the technique of writing serial novels, the possibilities of Bosch retiring some time soon, and Connelly’s dips into the legal-thriller subgenre.

Ali Karim: Good to see you in the UK again! So, what have you been up to while visiting us this time? And, by the way, congratulations on The Lincoln Lawyer making the Richard & Judy shortlist.

Michael Connelly: Thanks, Ali. It’s kind of quick trip this time. [I’ve] got a few events here and in London, as well as a visit to Dublin, Ireland. I haven’t a lot of time compared to my usual visits. I come as often as I can; it averages every other book, but because of Lincoln Lawyer, I’ve been over more often to the UK recently.

AK: The Overlook was originally serialized in The New York Times. Did you write the 3,000-word sections as you went along, or did you have the book done and then split it into sections for weekly publication?

MC: A little of both, the New York Times people insisted that they get the whole manuscript before they would publish anything, as they wanted to know where it was going to go, and what it was going to say. But I did write it with the clause that each chapter had to be as close to 3,000 words as possible.

AK: I’ve read it in both forms--as a serial and as a finished book--and I noticed it has subtle changes in book form. Did it require much reworking for that edition?

MC: I really welcomed the reworking, because the writing to fill the 3,000 words per chapter is not the normal way I would write my books; that constriction was very difficult for me. When I write a chapter of a book, I don’t really care how many words there are, per se, or how many pages--I just want a chapter that propels the story forward, to continue the momentum. So when I wrote the serial for the Times, it sort of hampered the way I write, and the flow of the book, if you will. So I knew pretty early on when I was writing it as a serial that I would rework it later for publication as a book.

AK: Can you tell us where the idea for this serial novel came from?

MC: The New York Times started doing this a couple of years ago, as a sort of nod to [Charles] Dickens, [who serialized his novels in the newspapers of his era]. And to be fair, that’s how some books were published in the past. [The Times folks] wanted to try to see if it would draw more people to read their Sunday magazine, so they approached me to do this awhile back, but the timing was not right then. A year later, they asked again and I agreed. They think that crime-thriller fiction lends itself to this serial-type of format, as in genre work there is often a hook in each chapter. That’s what they were looking for--stories that would bring people back each week.

AK: Most importantly, did you enjoy writing The Overlook as much as I enjoyed reading it?

MC: [Laughs] I can’t say I enjoyed writing it as much as my other books, but I am flattered that you enjoyed it. Writing this way is rather like having a boss watching over your shoulder yelling “3,000 words, 3,000 words, 3,000 words.” That I didn’t enjoy. But I really enjoyed rewriting it for novel publication. As I get to look at it again with a totally fresh mind and take it apart and rebuild it and write it the way I prefer, with the pacing that I wanted and also throw in some more current events to make it topical.

AK: Such as the 2006 polonium poisoning of Russian Alexander Litvinenko in London.

MC: Exactly. In fact, the timeframe was shifted by a year for the novel, compared to the serial. In fact, within the middle section of the book, I made some quite large changes, even introducing a whole new character that wasn’t in the serialization--that was something I wanted to do [when I was writing it for the Times], but just didn’t have the space or words to do. They wanted 14 to 16 chapters, so I added significant additional material [to the finished novel], and that was what I enjoyed most.

AK: Did you return to L.A. during your writing of The Overlook, as I know you relocated to Florida after we last talked.

MC: Yes, I return quite a bit. Until recently, I kept an apartment there. But I don’t miss L.A., as I am back there so often.

AK: I was amused to see that Harry’s old friend Rachel Walling, who last appeared in Echo Park [2006], returns in The Overlook. What made you made bring her back?

MC: [Laughs] It usually comes from my decision as to who do I want to spend a year with. And ... do I want to spend a year building a new character, or revisiting an old one? Basically, I am looking for what will keep me interested and excited, to motivate me to get up early, to write. Of course, Bosch is a main character, but the supporting characters are critical in making the book work also, and I really like to explore secondary characters. There was a lot of unfinished business between Harry and Rachel in Echo Park, so I thought I’d explore these issues. But the reality was that as The Overlook takes place within 12 hours, [and] with the 3,000-word chapters there’s still a lot of unexplored territory left. [Laughs]

AK: Harry Bosch must be moving into his late 50s by now. And you may laugh at this, but there are rumors circulating that Bosch, like Ian Rankin’s [Detective Inspector John] Rebus, could be coming to the end of the road, and that Walling will be taking over. Is there any truth to those rumors?

MC: I don’t know about “taking over.” I hope that the trajectory of the series is as close to reality as possible. I’ve tried to treat Harry and the [L.A. police] department as real as possible. I live by that principle, and so Harry won’t be able to do the job more than a few more years, due to his age in the LAPD. So I am facing that prospect, which may mean that it may not be the end of the series, but could be the end of him very soon, as he will have to hand back his badge. And perhaps it will be the end of the series--who knows? As far as anyone taking over? Not sure about Walling taking over, perhaps it could even be his new partner. Harry is mentoring him ...

AK: Yes, Iggy Ferras is an interesting partner. But without spoiling things, do you really reckon that he’s going to survive Bosch? Bosch’s partners often have a tough time.

MC: [Laughs] You’re right. Some of Harry’s partners don’t do well, but I like that character, and I am exploring him currently. And I reckon he’ll be around a little while at least. But then again I don’t look too much further into the future ...

AK: OK, here’s a tough question but one I have to ask: As Harry’s creator, how do you account for his popularity?

MC: I think it is the thing about him being the outsider looking in. He’s an outsider in an insider’s job, which in many ways connects us all, as we all wonder what’s going wrong on the inside, and on some level we all feel like outsiders. I think there is an empathic connection between Harry Bosch and the reader, which I consider is his appeal.

AK: I really enjoyed your collection of journalistic essays, Crime Beat: A Decade of Covering Cops and Killers [2006]. Can you tell us ow this book came about?

MC: It wasn’t my decision to release Crime Beat. It came via a small publisher in Los Angeles, who asked me if I wanted to get involved in a book of journalistic essays of mine. So to get any control I had to join him, as I didn’t have any control of the material, because the newspapers have the rights to [those stories]. The publisher had collected the pieces and got the rights to publish them, and so I got involved to help him pick the best stories, and therefore we picked stories that had a subtle echo to the fiction I would eventually write.

AK: I loved protagonist Mickey Haller and The Lincoln Lawyer. Where did that legal thriller come from?

MC: It was a long time coming. First of all, I love the legal thriller as a subgenre and had been looking for years for something that could become a story that could get me into that field. There are some great big titans of publishing involved in legal thrillers, so I wanted something that would be unique and be mine. It sort of fell into my lap, when I met a real “Lincoln lawyer” at a baseball game in Los Angeles. He told me how he operates as an attorney, and before the conversation was over I knew that this was my way in. It, however, took me a few years before I had the confidence to give it a go, as I was not so confident in that world as I am, say, with that of the LAPD and Harry Bosch.

I needed to do a huge amount of research and spend time with lawyers, sitting in courtrooms and so forth ... When it finally came time to write the book, it came very quickly, as (a) I had been researching it for so long, and (b) I was excited by this new character--a clean slate. Whereas, say, with Harry Bosch I’m dragging around 12 books of back story, with Mickey Haller--he was brand new with no baggage. When I go with a new character, I can usually write much faster, so in that particular year I squeezed out two books--the Haller book, as well as a Bosch novel [The Closers].

AK: I heard you’re doing a follow-up to The Lincoln Lawyer. True?

MC: Yes--but it’s not really a follow-up, it’s a Haller book and even Bosch makes a small appearance. But at this stage I haven’t a title.

AK: Finally, I thought you’d given up on screenwriting after we last talked. But is it true that you’ve been commissioned to write a screenplay for a film version of the [1980s] Edward Woodward TV vehicle, The Equalizer?

MC: Yes, I told you that I gave up because of the difficulty in that world called Hollywood. [Laughs] And at times I feel like telling you that I’m ready to give up again. [Laughs] Seriously, the screenplay is nearly done, [with] about a couple of weeks to go to deadline, and hopefully it might get made. Then again, someone else might do a rewrite. It’s been an interesting experience. These things help me focus or refocus on what I enjoy the most, which is writing the books. So, hopefully I’ll finish this thing next week and get back to the Haller book, which I had to stop to fit in the screenplay. I’m raring to get back to it.

* * *

For your viewing pleasure, I’ve put together some bits of video from Michael Connelly’s Milton Keynes visit. Here he talks about The Overlook. Here he talks about writing a serial novel. And here Connelly talks about his process of naming characters.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You're at Thriller Fest, yet you find the time to post this wonderful piece, too. Man, you make me feel lazy. Nice job here, Ali.

See you at the bar tomorrow.