Michael Connelly interview

Book and Magazine Collector, September 2004

Along with James Ellroy, Elmore Leonard, and James Lee Burke, the less colourfully named Michael Connelly is one of America’s most prominent and successful crime writers. Continuing the tradition of Raymond Chandler, his books explore the sprawling, often nightmarish cityscape of Los Angeles. There can be few more improbable venues for my meeting with such a writer than sleepy, picturesque Norwich. Accompanied by his publicist, he was visiting the local branch of Ottakar’s as part of the British leg of his latest promotional tour. Our conversation took place in the shop’s cluttered staff-room, the physically imposing, gravelly-voiced Connelly seated beside me in a baggy armchair. I got our discussion underway by asking whether he’d always been a fan of crime fiction. 

I’ve read across the board, but I’ve been drawn to crime fiction since I was sixteen years old, and I was a witness to a crime. I ended up being interviewed by the police. I became fascinated by their world. Right after that, I started reading a lot of crime fiction, true crime books, and crime stories in the newspapers. 

Were you a keen reader before that? 

Like a lot of students, I had difficulty reading what was assigned to me, but if I found a book on my own I was more prone to motor through it. I’d pick up things my mother had already read. She was a voracious reader, mostly of British crime novels: P.D. James, Agatha Christie, people like that. 

When did you first start writing fiction? 

Around 1984. I was in college when I decided I wanted to try to do it. I went into journalism as a means to that end. I thought it would teach me how to write and would also enable me to get into the world I wanted to write about. For a number of years I was a police reporter. Then I felt I should give it a go and write some fiction. I was doing that at night after work. My first book was finally published in 1992. 

Did you find your journalistic background helpful? 

Very. I worked on some papers that issued new editions throughout the day, so I’d have to rewrite stories five, six time-a-day, updating them each time. I’d have constant deadlines, so when I moved into writing books and had only one deadline a year that was almost laughable. One of the things I’ve always had going for me is a strong work-ethic which, I think, came from journalism. Being a reporter also allowed me to get into the world of cops, so I hope my books have a veneer of accuracy to them that comes from my journalistic instincts and methods of doing research. Plus I think that my prose has been influenced by that ‘less is more’ journalistic discipline. When you’re writing newspaper stories, you never have enough room to say what you want to say, so you learn to be succinct. I think that’s carried over into my books. 

Most young writers have a writer they’re trying to imitate. Was that the case for you? 

When I reached the stage where I was trying to write my own fiction, I started out wondering what would’ve happened if Raymond Chandler and Joseph Wambaugh had got together and created a character. Of course, Chandler wrote all those classic private eye novels. On the other hand, Wambaugh redefined the so-called ‘police procedural novel’. I wanted to borrow elements from both and, hopefully, come up with something that was uniquely mine. At that time I was reading a lot of books by James Lee Burke. I love the detail and the descriptive passages in his novels. I found his work very exciting, though it didn’t make me want to try to do the same type of thing.

I’ve read that your first novel was inspired by a real crime. Is that true of any of your other novels? 

There’s a kernel of fact in all of them, though some are more specifically based on real events than others. Take my fifth novel, for example: it was called Trunk Music, and it was really a fictional solving of a murder that I wrote when I was a journalist, though the real murder was never solved. Another of my novels, Angel’s Flight, deals with racial difficulties and the Los Angeles riots of ’92. That was drawn from some of my own experiences. 

Also I like to insert certain real incidents into my books for background colour, though my editor frequently cuts them because they sound so implausible. I guess it bears out that old line about truth being stranger than fiction. Now that’s certainly true of one of the few such stories I managed to finesse past my editor. It was borrowed from an L.A. court case where the cops raided a house being used by an armed gang. But the Defence Attorney challenged the legality of the raid because the police need permission from the owner before they can enter a house. In that incident, they’d heard a voice inviting them in, but the voice turned out to belong to a parrot. There was then this big legal debate over whether that constituted permission. 

Are you one of those novelists who avoids reading other peoples’ fiction while they’re writing a novel? 

I only read crime fiction if it’s set in the U.K. because there’s just enough difference in the slang and the procedure. That way, it doesn’t intrude into what I’m writing.

Who are your favourite British crime writers? 

Ian Rankin’s really good. I also like Mo Hayder, Val McDermid, John Harvey, and Peter Robinson. In general, I like writers who are taking chances. Maybe that says something about me. I’m not sure I’m taking the chances I should. I love what Denis Lehane did in Mystic River. He followed it with a book that’s very experimental, which must have taken a lot of courage. He seems to be one of those people who’s not sitting around and thinking ‘What do they want from me next?’ He’s thinking ‘What do I want to try next?’ 

When people are getting a bit defensive about crime fiction, they often argue that it’s one of the few areas of contemporary fiction that examines social problems… 

A lot of that’s to do with the speed involved in crime fiction. Most people working in the genre are like me: they write a book-a-year. That gives them the ability to be of-the-moment in discussing issues facing society, so I think that’s improved the validity of crime novel, making it more than just a mere entertainment or a puzzle. Whether or not literary critics see that doesn’t bother me. What matters to me is that readers are seeing that, and that probably helps explain to me why crime fiction is one of the most popular forms of entertainment on all levels — film, TV, books. At readings I always get this question: 

D’you think you’ll ever write something else other than crime fiction?

I don’t want to promise I’ll never do anything, but it seems to me that whatever story I want to tell, whether it’s a character journey or a reflection of something in society, it can be done within the genre, so I feel I probably won’t ever stray from this form. 

Are you also drawn to the genre by a dislike of self-exposure?

That may be true. I’ve been fortunate enough to have been able to write about the same detective, Harry Bosch, in ten novels now. He started out as someone who was not like me at all. Now I’m finding that I’m bringing things from my own life into his character. This seems to me to be the best way to keep him alive and to maintain my passion for writing about him. 

All but one of the Harry Bosch novels are written in the third-person. What attracts you to that technique? 

I think it’s the ability to hold information back from my readers. They’re definitely privy to a lot of Bosch’s thoughts and his view of the world but he does some things that keep readers confused and out of the picture. They’re left wondering what’s he planning, what these different moves are going to add up to. That helps to involve them in the story. If I was writing in the first-person, I’d be cheating if I held things back. In first-person narratives, you’ve got to let the readers know what your guy knows. 

When you launched the Harry Bosch series of novels, did you make a conscious effort to prevent yourself from becoming too immersed in the intricacies of police procedure? 

I wanted to write stories that made people say, ‘Wow, that’s how it must really be.’ But what I was aiming for was only the veneer of accuracy. I didn’t want it to be completely accurate because I knew that would be boring. It’s important to get the procedure right, but you have to be aware of the drama of the piece, the character, the momentum of the story. I don’t let all the details get in the way of that, so I compress a lot of information and take shortcuts that in real-life would never pass muster. 

Has your interest in Harry Bosch been reinvigorated by your move into the private eye genre? 

I’ve reached this point where it’s all about passion — how do I keep my passion for this character I know very well and I’ve written about several times? You know, it takes me about a year to write a book, so I have to figure out how I can be totally plugged into this project all that time. The solution to that question is constant change — change in him, and in me. Over the last few years I’ve changed my life pretty dramatically. I’ve moved three-thousand miles away from Los Angeles. I’ve done a lot of things that make writing new to me. And I’ve done a lot of dramatic things that point Harry in new directions. I’ve moved him into the private eye realm. I’ve moved him into first-person narration, I’ve made him a father. 

My latest book, The Narrows (which is a sequel to an earlier novel called The Poet) ends with him pointed in another new direction, so that gave me the juice to begin the next one, where he’s back in the police department. It’s a different department from the one he left three years earlier, so in my mind the material’s fresh. You know, the real department has changed in that time as well. There’s a new police chief and a new Federal Consent Decree in Los Angeles which allows the Federal Government to keep their thumb on the department because of all the corruption that’s occurred in the past. Putting Harry in that new environment has been refreshing for me. 

I believe that whatever happens in the writing process happens in the reading process, so I hope the reader will share my excitement. In both The Poet and its sequel, you juxtapose the detective’s first-person point of view with the killer’s third-person perspective. 

What made you decide against using two first-person narrators?

The chapters from the killer’s point of view are short and sporadic. It comes out of my interests as a writer. I think it’s valid to examine why people kill, but that’s not what interests me. I’m more interested in the detective and how the detective keeps himself whole when he goes into the abyss every day. While I knew that I needed to have a sense of the killer’s viewpoint in these stories, I was also aware that it had to be very concise.

Do you structure the narrative of your novels carefully beforehand?

I don’t outline anything on paper. I do a lot of thinking before I start writing. But I really just start off with the story when I know ‘A’ and ‘Z’. I know what the crime is at the beginning and I know how it’s going to end up. It’s the stuff in between that I don’t know. I wouldn’t want to start each day by looking away from my screen at a piece of paper that tells me what I’m going to do that day. It’s kind of exciting and fulfilling, though I guess it’s a dangerous way to write because you make a lot of mistakes and go down cul-de-sacs. I remember one book where I had to start again after about three-hundred pages. It wasn’t a complete waste, because there were many aspects of those pages that I used again. I notice that characters and events that occur in your books are often cross-referenced. 

Are these just in-jokes or part of some grand scheme?

There’s definitely an in-joke angle to it, but I also think that when I started out I wanted all my stories to be interconnected, to be happening in chronological order. If you take that approach, it’s quite natural that there’ll be interconnections. These are fun to write and I know it adds a layer of fulfilment to the reading process, especially for people who have been riding along with me from the beginning. In Angel’s Flight, I made a reference to Clint Eastwood’s movie of my novel, Blood Work. Because that reference was made, the movie has become part of my fictional world, so I felt I had to mention it in The Narrows or I would be breaking the logic of what I’ve been doing. But I’m definitely not the only guy who’s done this sort of thing. George P. Pelecanos, whose books I really admire, have a lot of interconnections. 

Was it a strange experience seeing the film adaptation of your book?

It wasn’t a total shock because I’d seen the screenplay and I’d gone to the set when they were filming it. So months go by after the filming and then I’m invited to go see it. Together with the screenwriter, I watched it in this huge theatre at the Warner Brothers’ studio. We were the only ones in the whole room. 

That must’ve been really awkward. 

Yeah, it was awkward. It wasn’t that I didn’t like the movie. I accepted that they were going to make changes and that my philosophy was that if you take their money, you no longer have any control over the material. I tried to dissuade them from some of the changes, but Clint Eastwood had a philosophy that differed from mine, so he stuck by the alterations. That doesn’t take away from the overall experience which was very positive. I think a lot of my fans or the fans of that book are more disappointed by it than me. 

I drew several things from the experience. For a start, I enjoyed meeting Clint Eastwood and discussing story-telling with him. When he first became interested in buying the rights to the book, I hadn’t yet finished it. He gave me some ideas for improving the manuscript during the final write-through, so I can’t just look at the end-product and say, ‘They ruined my book.’ I don’t think they did. Anyhow, I’m grateful to them because, even though the movie wasn’t commercially successful, it helped the book to become an American bestseller. 

 Has cinema exerted a great influence on your writing? 

Not consciously. I love movies. I grew up watching them, so I know they must’ve influenced me. For example, the movie Bullitt, starring Steve McQueen, very heavily influenced the creation of Harry Bosch. But I don’t think that movies influence me in the sense that I’m constructing scenes like a screenplay or writing in the hope my books will be turned into movies. The Narrows is, in any event, unsaleable to Hollywood because it has so many characters that are already optioned or owned by competing studios.

Most keen readers have a particular book they foist on friends. Do you have one? 

 I have a couple of books that meant a lot to me and opened my eyes to the possibilities of crime fiction. Some of them are classics like Chandler’s The Little Sister. As a mystery, the plot doesn’t really add up, but as a take on the city it’s fantastic. When people ask me why I like writing about Los Angeles, I foist upon them The Little Sister and tell them to read chapter twelve, which is marvellous. It holds up over fifty years later. 

Are you keen on collecting as well as reading books? 

I’m not an obsessive collector, but I enjoy collecting books by people who have influenced me, so I have firsts by Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Joseph Wambaugh, and Charles Willeford. I also collect crime fiction set in L.A. My debut book won an Edgar Award for Best First Novel from the Mystery Writers of America, who have been giving that out since 1947. I’m keen to get firsts of all fifty-seven of those novels in as good a condition as possible. I’m three short of completing the set. 

What’s your most treasured item in the collection? 

I grew up in South Florida, so I really love Charles Willeford’s stuff. My favourite of his books is called New Hope For The Dead, which was originally titled A Necklance of Hickeys. I was able to buy from his Estate an early manuscript of it. You can see how much he revised the book between that draft and the published version. 

The other treasured item is Ross MacDonald’s first novel, plus the publishing contract he signed for it. 

Chandler was a bit snide about Ross MacDonald in Chandler Speaking, wasn’t he?

That was kind of refreshing about Chandler. He said what he thought. Still, I think that MacDonald is very much Chandler’s literary heir. Unlike Chandler, though, he kept writing about the same themes. One of those concerns the ways in which the past informs the present. I guess it’s a theme that runs through my work as well.

Reproduced by kind permission of Warners Group Publications.

Using Format