An exclusive Authorlink interview with John Connolly
Author of The Black Angel (Atria, June 2005)
By Doris Booth
Irish author John Connolly, who has several works on the New York Times bestseller list, returns this summer with his sixth thriller, The Black Angel. In Connolly's latest work, ingenious detective Charlie Parker tries to help a mother find her missing daughter, who, as it turns out, is a prostitute, murdered on the seamy side of New York City.
The girl's mother, desperate for redemption and revenge, seeks Charlie's help. The murder trial soon leads Charlie to a church of bones in Eastern Europe and a slaughter at a French monastery in 1944. The prostitute's demise is linked to the myth of an object considered by evil men to be beyond pricelessThe Black Angel.
In the book, Charlie still agonizes over the loss of his first wife and daughter in an auto accident, but he must also protect his new wife and baby from the dangers of his chosen profession.
Connolly's first novel, Every Dead Thing, was published in 1999, and introduced the character of Charlie Parker, a former policeman hunting the killer of his wife and daughter. The Black Angel is Connolly's fifth Charlie Parker novel and his sixth published book.
We caught Connolly on a recent U.S. tour for his new book and asked him to talk about his writing life.
"It took me a long time
to break into the American market.
It was a stroke of luck."
AUTHORLINK: We are particularly impressed with how you, as an Irishman, write to an Amercian audience in all of your Charlie Parker novels. How did you develop such a clearly American voice?
CONNOLLY: I write what I read. I have read many American novelists, including such authors as James Lee Burke, Jeffrey Deaver, Fergus Fleming, John le Carre and James Patterson.
It took me a long time to break into the American market. It was a stroke of luck. In the beginning, there was a lot of trial and error. I have spent a good deal of time in the United States. Americans speak differently. Their rhythms of speech are different from Ireland. I am always conscious of the way Americans speak. I have learned from my mistakes.
AUTHORLINK: Early in your career, did you believe you would be published as a novelist, especially in the American market?
CONNOLLY: No. I never expected to be published, though I thought I probably should be. I was surprised to see the first book in print. When it was published, I began thinking of other novels. Each would follow on the next. The reader's experience of Charlie will grow from earlier books to later ones, because all the books were written with Charlie's character in mind from the very beginning.
AUTHORLINK: What is your biggest challenge as a writer?
CONNOLLY: I try to make each book a little better than the last, to improve every time. I write the best book I can, but I am never finished. I can look at a book a year later and think of all the things I could have done differently. It's not that I hate the book, but I am a harsh judge of my own work.
AUTHORLINK: How does it feel to have so much success at writing?
CONNOLLY: Well, it's nice to be paid for a job I like doing. I find writing hard. It's not as hard as laying tar on the roads or coal mining, it's a different kind of hard. There are still days when I don't want to write, when I feel that I have nothing to say or no inspiration, and I have to force myself to sit down at a computer.
I feel that success is relative. I am always surprised to see my books in the store. It feels unreal. But I always worry that my books will be received well. I'm constantly looking over my shoulder. And I am consciously trying to write as well as possible, which isn't always compatible with selling enormous numbers of books.
"There's an awful lot of me
in Parker. I use him as way
of looking at the world."
AUTHORLINK: How did you develop the concept for The Black Angel ?
CONNOLLY: A few years back I read a photo essay in a Sunday magazine about an ostuary filled with bone sculptures. The photos were extraordinary! I like using history in my books, and felt there was something there. I began trying to integrate the the French monastery into my book. A place like this becomes a symbol for things that happen in the story.
AUTHORLINK: How did the character of Charlie Parker first evolve in your novels?
CONNOLLY: The man responsible for the death of Parker's wife and daughter appears in a single paragraph of an earlier book and I realized that there was a pattern to Charlie's life.
AUTHORLINK: Does Charlie Parker's life parallel your own?
CONNOLLY: There's an awful lot of me in Parker. I use him as way of looking at the world. Parker shares my sense of humor and pessimism. The more I write, the more Charlie becomes like me. You find the germ of something in yourself and expand it into a performance. We all have flaws we are ashamed of, things we wouldn't share with those closest to us. I am conscious of a little bit of all of them in myself. Writing a novel is a little like dreaming, where you become everybody in your dream. If you don't write these multiple aspects of yourself, there is no truth in what you do. I write weird crime novels. My characters must tell emotional truths about the way they deal with life and love, or readers will toss the book away.
"I received 70 or 80 agency
rejections. Drip by drip,
it became clear that
I wasn't a genius."
AUTHORLINK: When did you begin writing?
CONNOLLY: L ike a lot of writers, I have always written. I began writing when I was very young, and kept at it into my teens and my adulthood.
I studied at Trinity College in Dublin. After receiving a master's in journalism in 1993, I went straight to work as a journalist for the Irish Times. I soon learned that the difference between a journalist and a novelist was that the novelist gets paid well. So, I began working on what would become Every Dead Thing, my first book.
I hadn't written anything other than journalism for many years, and hadn't written a short story since my school essays when I was in my teens. Every Dead Thing took a long time to writeabout 2 1/2 yearsmainly because I was working as a journalist at the same time. The first person to see the finished book was my agent. I didn't know any writers and had no contacts in publishing. I had to start from scratch.
AUTHORLINK: Do you have another job or do you write full time?
CONNOLLY: I am a full-time writer. And I am forever on bended knee in gratitude. I am very fortunate in that way.
AUTHORLINK: What are your writing habits?
CONNOLLY: I begin writing at 9 a.m. and work until noon. Occasionally I work in the afternoon. Overall I spend about four hours a day writing, two hours eating, and the rest of the day thinking about what I am writing. I am always thinking. The stories in my head never really go away. The Black Angel took four years of writing and retouching.
I don't plan anything on paper, but I have a rough idea of the plot and I'm prepared to watch it change as I go along.
I very much believe that writing is a craft: at its best, it should be infused with passion and wit and inspiration, but its basic building blocks are words, and it is practice, trial, and error, that teaches you how to use them properly.
AUTHORLINK: How did you find your first agent, and did you endure many rejections?
CONNOLLY: A fellow journalist at The Times had gotten a large advance for a book, and I thought, "Hey, if he can be a genius, so can I." After writing half of my first book, I bought a writers' and artists' year book and began querying agents.
I received 70 or 80 agency rejections. Drip by drip, it became clear that I wasn't a genius. One agent, Darley Anderson, really liked the manuscript and took me on as a client, with no guarantee she could sell it.
The only publisher who didn't reject the book was Hodder. However, the first time it went to Hodder, I received the standard rejection letter. An editor had written in ink across the bottom that he hated the book. A month later, Darly submitted to that same publisher and they made a bid for the book. The right agent will find the right editor. Today I am published by Hodder in the UK, and Atria/Simon & Schuster in the US And I am very loyal to them both.
"Since most writers start out writing
in moments snatched from work,
families, etc., it's best to begin
with small steps."
AUTHORLINK: Do you have any advice for writers struggling to break into publishing?
CONNOLLY: Since most writers start out writing in moments snatched from work, families, etc., it's best to begin with small steps. Set yourself an easily attainable target and get used to meeting that target every day. The longer you go without writing, the harder and harder it becomes to get back to it. Start with 100 words a day, move up to 150 or 200 the next week. Pretty soon, you'll find yourself doing more than that, which is great. By all means do more, but at the very least meet the minimum goal that you've set.
The key is perseverance. You need to develop a hard neck. Every writer gets rejected. Keep rewriting. If you simply hand over the first or second draft to an agent or editor, publication is not going to happen. Rewriting is the most underrated activity of being a writer. If you are good and you have something to say, somebody will publish it. You can't judge the market. You have to write something you would want to read, something that has a lot of you in it.
There are no magic answers. If you are writing, then write something that you would like to read yourself. Don't try to second-guess the market. It sounds corny, but the best books are labors of love. They are books that were written because the writer felt that they were worth writing, that they were worth bringing into existence for reasons that had nothing to do with money or acclaim. In the end, they had to be written. Mind you, there are some books that not only didn't have to be written, but maybe shouldn't have been written. Try not to write one of those.
AUTHORLINK: What is the best thing about being a writer?
CONNOLLY: It's lovely to see your book in print, but if nobody is reading and enjoying it, publication makes no difference. The nicest thing for me is when somebody says, "I really love what you do. I look forward to your next book."
About John Connolly
John Connolly was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1968 and has, at various points in his life, worked as a journalist, a barman, a local government official, a waiter and a dogsbody at Harrods department store in London. He studied English in Trinity College, Dublin and journalism at Dublin City University, subsequently spending five years working as a freelance journalist for The Irish Times newspaper, to which he continues to contribute.
He divides his time between his native Dublin, Ireland, and traveling the United States. He is single, but has a steady girlfriend.