Back when he was a reporter for the Irish Times in Dublin, John Connolly began working on a novel — a mystery. Now, it's a well-known fact that about two-thirds of working journalists are sweating over novels at any given time, most of which are mysteries, but Connolly actually finished his. And published it.
He set the book in the United States, and he audaciously gave his protagonist not just an American name, but a very famous American name: Charlie "Bird" Parker. And as unlikely as it all might seem, it worked. The book, "Every Dead Thing," was nominated for a Bram Stoker award, named an L.A. Times book of the year, and went on to win the Shamus Award for Best First Private Eye Novel.
So Connolly kept going. He left his job, and he began to write fiction full time. And he kept winning awards: The Edgar, the Agatha, the Anthony, the Macavity.
In the 12th Charlie Parker novel, "The Wolf in Winter," a homeless man is killed and his daughter disappears, and Parker is on the case. Connolly will be at Once Upon a Crime in Minneapolis on Friday, in conversation with Irish crime writer Paul Charles.
Here, he talks about why he set his books in Maine, what he learned from journalism, and how he finds what he's going to read next.
Q: You're Irish, you live in Dublin, why did you choose to set the Charlie Parker books in Maine?
A: I worked there when I was younger, and fell in love with the place a little. Also, it was a way to escape the expectations that come with being an Irish writer, which was to be engaged with the nature of Irishness. When I began writing, I could think of few things I wanted to engage with less than the nature of Irishness. That hasn't changed.
Q: You're a former newspaper reporter who has also worked as a dogsbody. Why did you leave journalism? And what the heck is a dogsbody?
A: I think I ended up in journalism because it was a way to be paid to write, but my heart was always with fiction — and news outlets tend to frown on fiction. Most of them, anyway. And a dogsbody is the British equivalent of a gofer — you know, go for this, go for that. I worked in Harrods in London, taking care of their outgoing mail at a time when certain Irish people viewed the postal system as a useful way of trying to blow people up. I'm not sure that Harrods had fully thought this through when they hired me.
Q: Your books are fairly dark, even your books for middle-school children and young adults. What draws you to the black heart of man?
A: Oh, I don't think they're that dark, really. There's always hope in them, and the belief that if people take positive action then the world can be made better. For the YA books, I try to be funny as well as a bit scary, but I think YA fiction is a really useful way for children to begin to negotiate the darkness of the adult world.
Q: On your blog you list the books you read each month. A lot of thrillers and crime and then suddenly, "Ethan Frome." Or Machiavelli's "The Prince." What are you looking for when you pick up a book?
A: I read less and less mystery fiction as time goes on. I think it's a little like a magician watching magic tricks: You have a pretty good idea how it's going to be done. My tastes have grown much wider — and more eccentric — as the years have gone by. I keep finding older books that I should have read, and new books that I think I should read. A good cover helps, as does a well-written dust jacket. I keep an eye on reviews, and I love browsing in bookstores. No algorithm will ever replace that as the best way of finding new books to read.
Q: Describe your writing room.
A: It's the converted attic of my house, which is quite long and narrow, with sloping ceilings against which I keep hitting my head. If I expire due to skull trauma, it'll be because of that. I face a bare brick wall when I write, which may be a kind of metaphor. I am occasionally kept company by some, or all, of our three dogs, who quite like tracking the sunlight that comes through the windows.
Q: What is your writing strategy — do you have rituals that you maintain?
A: Very few, beyond setting myself a target each day and sticking to it. I think there's sometimes a misconception among aspiring writers that you have to be in the mood to write before you start. I'm rarely in the mood to write, but I learned from journalism that even though you're not in the mood to work, if you sit down at the computer and persevere, you'll get work done.
Q: Do you have a favorite book from childhood?
A: Enid Blyton was the first novelist I ever read unassisted. I read one of her Secret Seven books, and had to tackle the longer words phonetically, so for years I thought the work "cupboard" (the British term for "closet") was pronounced "cup-board" and not "cubbord." My mother must have thought she was living with Little Lord Fauntleroy.
Q: What books do you reread?
A: I've only reread a handful of books: "Wuthering Heights," by Emily Brontë, "The Good Soldier," by Ford Madox Ford, and "The Last of the Mohicans," by James Fenimore Cooper are the ones that spring to mind, although there must be others. I'm one of those readers who is very conscious of all of the books that he has yet to read, and all of the gaps in his reading knowledge. It's why I find myself going back and reading older books: I still haven't read all of Dickens, so I'm working my way through those year by year.
Q: What's on your desk?
A: I'm kind of messy. Right now, I can see chocolate dog treats, a small vintage stuffed dog toy, business cards that I should really throw away, newspaper articles that I've cut out for research but will never use, a pile of CDs for my radio show, a model Tardis from "Doctor Who," and a metal skull with a removable jaw.
Q: What are you reading now?
A: "The Poisoned Crown," by Maurice Druon, which is the third in a seven-novel sequence called "The Accursed Kings," about the French monarchy in the 13th and 14th centuries, and I'm nearing the end of a nonfiction book called "The Eighties," by Dylan Jones, which examines the politics and culture of the decade by using the acts who performed at Live Aid as a starting point. I'm an '80s child: My radio show is called ABC to XTC, which says it all.
Q: What's been the best place so far to do a reading?
A: Anywhere with a crowd is good, but I reserve a particular fondness for stores that allow me to have a glass of wine. That's more common in Europe than in the U.S., where mall stores in particular tend to be funny about these things.
Q: You'll be in Minneapolis in conversation with Paul Charles. Anything you want to say about him?
A: He's a very lovely, compassionate writer. He also got me tickets to see Kate Bush in London, so I won't hear a word said against him for the rest of his life.
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