An Exclusive Authorlink Interview With John Connolly
Author of Dark Hollow
By Doris Booth
One in a series of special Authorlink interviews with today's well-known authors. Watch for new interviews every month!
John Connolly candidly talks to aspiring Authorlink writers about his career as a popular author.
John Connolly is the author of Dark Hollow. Private detective Charlie Parker finds himself hunting a mythical killer through the forests of Maine in winter, decades after his own grandfather tried to find and capture the same killer. (Simon & Schuster, July 2001).
". . . I will always look back on that grade school teacher, Mrs Foley, who encouraged me to write stories by bribing me"
AUTHORLINK: When did you begin your writing career, and what prompted you to do so? Is there a special story behind your decision to become an author?
JOHN CONNOLLY: I had always written, ever since I was a young boy. My first teacher used to pay me five Irish pence to write Tarzan stories – usually only a couple of pages long, but five pence was five pence. It just seemed like the natural thing to do: once I had learned how to read, writing seemed the next logical step. Unfortunately, those five pence pieces were about all I earned for the next twenty years. Eventually, I became a journalist, writing for The Irish Times in Dublin, since there were very few other ways that someone who liked writing could get paid to do it. I'd never written short stories after my five-year-old self's efforts to rewrite Tarzan, and the first real fiction I attempted was Every Dead Thing, my first novel. It took me five years to write.
AUTHORLINK: Who was the greatest influence on your decision to write, and in what ways did they encourage you?
JOHN CONNOLLY: I think I will always look back on that grade school teacher, Mrs Foley, who encouraged me to write stories by bribing me. After her, it was really other writers. Ross Macdonald's work was a big influence on me, as was James Lee Burke.
". . . he's [Connolly’s agent] acted as a friend and adviser, as well as first point of contact with the publisher."
AUTHORLINK: How important has your agent been in guiding your career?
JOHN CONNOLLY: Hugely important, although not in the ways people might think. My novel was half-finished when I sent it out to publishers (I was broke and hoped to get a small advance to enable me to finish it) but almost all rejected it. It was my agent, Darley Anderson, who came on board shortly after, who encouraged me to finish it: not necessarily because he could guarantee its sale (I'd kind of screwed up things by sending it out once and having it rejected) but because he liked it, was curious about what was going to happen in it and, most of all, because he thought that if I was serious about it, then I should finish it because I wanted to finish it, because it mattered to me. And it did. Since then he's acted as a friend and adviser, as well as first point of contact with the publisher. He is also the only person who gets to read the manuscript before it's submitted to my editor, because I trust him to be objective.
AUTHORLINK: Who are your favorite authors? What you like about them?
JOHN CONNOLLY: Ross Macdonald, because of his concern with empathy and compassion in the crime novel; James Lee Burke because of the quality of his prose – he's a potent argument against those who would claim that genre fiction is less well-written than so-called literary fiction; Dennis Lehane, because he's close to my own age and a superb novelist who is raising the bar with each book; Cormac McCarthy, for Blood Meridian and the quality of the writing in All The Pretty Horses and The Crossing.
". . . if you have the one per cent talent/ ninety-nine per cent discipline required, you probably will get published…"
AUTHORLINK: Do you have any advice or insights for newcomers trying to break into publishing?
JOHN CONNOLLY: It's hard! I was rejected so many times, but I kept on working on Every Dead Thing because I really wanted to finish it. It was important to me, and I didn't want to become one of the many people who leave half-finished manuscripts gathering dust in drawers. In the end, I had faith in the book, and tried to make it as good as possible. I also wrote something that I would want to read: I wasn't looking at the market, or what other people were doing, although writers I had liked were certainly an influence upon me. Ultimately, you have to persevere and, if you have the one per cent talent/ ninety-nine per cent discipline required, you probably will get published in some form.
"…I probably have a much closer relationship with my British publishers…"
AUTHORLINK: Do you perceive New York publishing to be a closed society or an open one?
JOHN CONNOLLY: I'm in an odd situation, as I'm removed from it because I'm based in Ireland. To anyone trying to get published, the world of publishing is going to seem very forbidding and inaccessible. Once you're involved, it should be a little different. To be honest, I probably have a much closer relationship with my British publishers than with my American publishers. I think that may be a question of attitude. My British publishers, Hodder & Stoughton, seem to place a lot of importance on personal contact, staying in touch, socializing where possible, so my relationship with them is very informal and friendly. Maybe I'm just fortunate with that particular publisher. US publishing is conducted slightly more at one remove, I think, and with a certain degree of formality. But, like I said, that may simply be my impression since I'm somewhat distant from it all.
"Publishing is . . . a question of balancing profits and art."
AUTHORLINK: What are publishers looking for today?
JOHN CONNOLLY: Publishing is, to some degree, a question of balancing profits and art. I think most editors and publishers dream of "Holy Grail" authors, who combine critical acclaim with commercial success. It's probably what most writers would like to achieve as well. In reality, that combination is quite rare. So publishers want writers who sell, writers who sell more again, and writers who sell in stratospheric amounts. But those big, commercial writers also enable publishers to bankroll authors who may not sell in such numbers but who deserve to be published and whose presence on a list will bring kudos to their publisher.
Publishing is a business, and there are targets to be met and profits to be made. There's no point in being too romantic about it, and it can be a cut-throat business, as authors who've been dropped will attest. Yet a great many very fine books are published each year, in addition to some not-so-good books. Those quality books don't just sneak in under the wire: they've been read and, in many cases, loved by their editors and a lot of other people in the firm, and a decision has been taken to publish them. If you look around, there's a lot to be hopeful and cheerful about when it comes to publishing.
"If you can't write correctly, then you can't communicate what you want to say . . . "
AUTHORLINK: Why do you think so many writers get rejected, and so few become published? What elements of good writing would you guess are missing from an aspiring writer's work?
JOHN CONNOLLY: Good writing, for a start. It's surprising how many writers don't trouble themselves with proper spelling, punctuation or grammar, as if these elements were somehow unimportant. That's like a carpenter saying he has a pretty good idea how to build a table, but he doesn't really know how to use a hammer, nails or even wood properly. If you can't write correctly, then you can't communicate what you want to say, and the days when editors or readers will slog through a manuscript correcting spelling are largely gone. Yes, we all make mistakes (and even finished books seem to have them) but the important thing is to minimize their occurrence.
I think it was Henry Rollins who once said that you're only 25 per cent as interesting as you think you are. A lot of writers use their own lives as a basis for their work, which is natural and good. Yet not all of them have the ability to draw something universal from their experiences, and communicate it to others in a way that allows them to share in it and understand it from their own perspective. A book should be about something, and maybe something more than just yourself and how the world doesn't really understand you. The world doesn't understand you? Get in line… But then a lot of fine books have been rejected by publishers, some to be published by more perceptive houses, some never to be published at all.
It's not enough to have written a good book. I think, in this day and age, you then have to find the right agent, the right editor, the right publisher, and the right time to publish. Those are factors that may be beyond the writer's control. There are no hard and fast rules. I've been very lucky, and I recognize that.
AUTHORLINK: How did you learn your craft? Through reading? Conferences? A university? Mentoring? A combination of these, or other means?
JOHN CONNOLLY: I learned my craft, if that's the right word, by working at it since I was five years old. I've always written, and I've always read, and that's how writers learn. In fact, I've read far more than I have written, or will ever write. Oscar Wilde once said that he could tell a real writer because a real writer would be an avid reader, consuming more than he or she would ever produce. It surprises me when I meet people who tell me that they write, or want to write, yet don't read. The two, I think, go hand in hand.
AUTHORLINK: If you could choose any career in the world today, knowing what you know now, what would it be?
JOHN CONNOLLY: I would still do what I am doing. It's a great gift in life to be able to work at something that you love, and get paid for it.
AUTHORLINK: What's the funniest thing that ever happened to you on the way to getting published?
JOHN CONNOLLY: It wasn't terribly funny at the time, but when I sent out my unfinished manuscript I got one rejection slip from a major British publisher on which the editor had scribbled a note saying: "Subject matter too unpleasant and writing style stilted". She had hated it so much that it wasn't enough to send out a standard rejection slip: she had to add a little more rejection to it herself. One year later, that same publisher bid £100,000 for the book. I don't know what that says about publishing, apart from the fact that it's a strange business. . .
This is one in a series of special Authorlink interviews with today's well-known authors. Watch for new interviews every month!