The thrill of writing against the clock
IT IS hard to believe when you talk to the author John Connolly that his chosen genre is mystery thrillers with a supernatural subtext. The Irishman has such a keen sense of humour that you’d expect him to be firing off comedies for a living. Only a few minutes into our conversation, he had me wiping away tears of laughter.
Perhaps the sporadic humour he injects into his books is just as well, otherwise they could make for pretty bleak reading. His series has as its protagonist Charlie Parker, a private detective haunted by the death of his wife and daughter. The Wrath of Angels (Hodder & Stoughton) is the 11th novel featuring the tortured detective, who in this instalment is told of the discovery of an aircraft wreck deep in the Maine woods in the US. The only thing found on board is a list of the names of men and women who have struck a deal with the devil. From the opening scene of a dying old man’s confession of a past sin, to a sinister path of discovery towards a hidden catalogue of doomed souls, Connolly weaves a complex tale that is murderous, tangential and has more twists than a bar-counter pretzel.
The Irishman is such a frequent visitor to SA — in part because his girlfriend Jenny is a former East Rand resident — that I remark he should be given honorary citizenship. "I certainly have put a lot of money into the Benoni economy!" he says.
The reason for his visit is threefold: to promote two new books; attend Joburg’s Bloody Book Week festival (in August), and celebrate his stepson’s 21st birthday in Hout Bay.
The second book is Books To Die For and is a collection of essays edited with fellow Irish novelist Declan Burke, in which 120 of the world’s best crime writers extol their favourite crime writers — and for which they were paid the grand fee of a bottle of whiskey.
"We were surprised at how many writers, let alone readers, didn’t know much about the genre, had never read Patricia Highsmith or Margaret Millar — people who were formative for me. We thought we’d ask the best crime writers we could find to pick the one book that they love, that they’re absolutely passionate about. It was amazing how many people got the idea from the beginning. Michael Connelly wrote on Raymond Chandler, while Jeffery Deaver gave us 3,500 words on John D MacDonald’s The Executioners — it’s nearly as long as the book!"
Three local authors penned articles — Margie Orford, Deon Meyer and Mike Nicol — and, in turn, three South African writers were written about — James McClure, JM Coetzee and Peter Temple.
Connolly says South African writers are producing fine work. "There are similarities between Irish and South African crime writing. They’re both a kind of postcolonial crime writing and authors are probably appreciated a little bit more outside their own country than within it."
The writer divides his time between Dublin and Portland in Maine, which he uses as his base when he needs "to break the back of a book", adding that "the Americans appreciate the fact that at least you’re putting some taxes in — and you get to complain, which is great".
Research features strongly in Connolly’s working day.
For The Wrath of Angels, he spent time with a Maine tour-guide friend, asking questions about the visitors who flock to the area’s coast.
"I’m a city guy — I like the streets and coffee shops — so I look a bit ridiculous when I wander into the wild wearing my velvet jacket and asking if my suede shoes are going to get muddy."
He says it is the journalist in him that still finds people fascinating, and the reality of getting older that spurs him to put pen to paper.
"I used to do 1,000 words a day five days a week; now I work seven days a week and write 2,000 words a day. As you get older you want to write more, you want to produce more books, because you feel the reaper’s breath a little bit. I don’t want to leave these stories unwritten or unfinished."
To this end, he has three books on the go, deciding to put the next Parker novel on hold for a while as he tackles a novella about a First World War veteran; the third in his Samuel Johnson series for young adults; and a science fiction novel with a teenage girl at its heart.
For the latter, he asked Jenny to inject a feminine touch — "I have no business knowing about teenage girls now, and as a teenage boy I still didn’t know anything about them. Because Jenny has written a novel herself, I asked her to fill in the gaps. I’ve never collaborated before, I’m too much of a control freak, but thank God she’s very tolerant."
But while these projects will sate his constant desire to create narratives outside of his genre, they may not appeal to his loyal readership or his publishers.
"What is good for you commercially as a writer is not necessarily what’s good for you creatively. What is good for you as a genre writer is to produce more or less a version of the same book year after year and not fiddle around with it too much.
"On the other hand, when you go off and do other things, you learn something new, but then you irritate that mainstream base of readers who don’t want to see you meddling about with other stuff.
"You take a hit on your sales and your books also end up spread all over the bookstore and everybody gets annoyed."
He says we all compromise on some level: "I’ve reached the point where I’m prepared to accept that I’m never going to be a Pattersonesque bestseller — that’s not on the cards for me — but everything I do is a labour of love and allows me to advance as a writer. It’s important if you’re serious about being creative to take risks."
Having brought up the subject of bookshops, it is clear that the art of publishing is as important to Connolly as the art of getting the written word down on paper, something that could become a rarity in the burgeoning digital age of the e-book.
While he says the trend is inevitable — "I’m no Luddite, I will make money from e-books" — what he does want is the choice to be able to buy a hard copy. He cites the growing trend of wannabe writers who, having been rejected by publishers, opt to put their books on the web anyway. These offerings lack the deft hand of an editor and invariably contain misspellings and bad grammar.
"The currency for readers is not money, it’s time. If you’re going to read a book, it’s got to be good, because we don't have time to read bad books."
He says that no matter how cheaply these books sell, they create a false economy because the true cost is when bookshops start closing their doors.
"These people have no interest in seeing bookstores remain in business, because these stores don’t sell their books. They have no interest in the printed word, because their books aren’t going to be in print. And a society with fewer book stores is a poorer society."
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