Tuesday, May 6, 2008

An Interview with Bestselling Novelist Michael Connelly

By Jennifer Minar-Jaynes

Bestselling author of several mystery/thriller novels, including Blood Work, City of Bones, and The Narrows, Michael Connelly has enthralled millions of readers for over a decade.

Originally a journalist for several Florida markets, Connelly was one of three reporters short-listed for the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 1986 after covering a major airline crash. Soon thereafter, he packed up and moved to L.A. to work as a crime reporter for the Los Angeles Times. After three years of working the crime beat for the Times, Connelly began writing his first L.A.-based crime novel, The Black Echo, which won the Edgar Award for best first novel, and introduced the world to his internationally-adored protagonist, LAPD detective Harry Bosch.

In this interview, Connelly discusses his approach to writing, his latest Harry Bosch novel--The Closers (which hit bookstores in May 2005)--how being an outsider as a teen affected his writing, and why he waited thirty years to begin writing fiction.

You didn’t start writing fiction until you were thirty years old. Instead, you worked as a journalist covering police beats and the courts—and used this experience as research, knowing that one day you would be ready to write fiction. How did you decide it was finally time?

It was sort of a natural progression. I just sort of instinctively knew it was time to try it. It was still another four years before I sent anything out into the world and another two before anything was published, but I just hit this point—maybe it was turning 30—where I told myself if I didn’t try soon I never would. I also think that by that point I had accumulated enough images and experiences as a person and as [a] cop reporter that I was thinking I had the ingredients and it was time to try to make a cake. Lastly, the summer I turned 30 was the same summer I spent a lot of time with a homicide squad. I had full access on three separate investigations. I knew I would never get a better look at that world than that, so the only thing left to do was write about it in fiction.

You’ve stated that the single best piece of writing advice you’ve ever gotten was to write every day—and that this advice came to you from writer Harry Crews during a lecture at the University of Florida. You said that this is advice that you still live by. However, do you ever have days when you sit down to write and the story won’t come to you? Or days when you just don’t feel like writing? If so, how often, and how do you deal with these times?

I’ve been doing this for a long time now and it is hard to write every day. In the beginning I did—365 days a year. Now what I try to do, and most times accomplish, is to write every day once I begin a draft. So I have periods where I am not writing. These are usually between drafts and between books. The greater message he [Crews] was sending was, I think, that you need to always be thinking about your story. The best way to do that is to write every day. I believe that I am always thinking about my story, but I don’t need to write every single day of my life to keep it churning in my mind.

You said that during your years of being a journalist, you knew detectives who couldn’t put the job away when they went home. As a novelist today, can you say that you, in fact, can? Or do your stories oftentimes awaken inside your mind when you’re busy doing other things?

I really don’t want them to go away. I think the key thing to writing is to keep it churning in your mind. This to me is more important than actually sitting down at the computer. It’s the interior activity. So when I do get away from my writing I start to get uncomfortable. I don’t like going on vacations without taking my work with me.

I read in a past interview that you were a bit of an outsider as a kid. Do you feel that the emotions you experienced as a result of being an outsider helped cultivate your interest in becoming a writer?

As a teenager I went to four schools in four years and that sort of gave me outsider status. I think it made me more of an observer than someone who is in the middle of things. This is a good attribute to have as a writer. At the time I didn’t know that. I didn’t think that I should become a writer. That decision came later and it is only after many years [that I] can look back and see how my writing skills may have been honed back then without me realizing it.

Please describe your writing environment.

I like changing things so my writing environment changes from year to year, book to book. At the moment I write in a windowless room without a desk. I sit on a couch and write on a laptop. Last year, I had a room with a nice water view and a desk that weighed a ton. I had two big Apple screens on my desk and could spread four pages across them. Usually when I start a new project I shake things up in some way. Sometimes it's just changing computers but sometimes it is completely changing the environment. For me change is good. The only constant is change.

In the essay, “Characterization,” that you wrote for Writing Mysteries: A Handbook by the Mystery Writers of America (Writer’s Digest Books, 2002), you said that a good plot is empty unless filled with the blood of character. Why, in your opinion, is strong characterization such a critical part of a good story?

I think it probably comes out of my instincts and interests as a reader. As a reader I like to delve deep down into people and see how they react in different situations. I have found that I am the same way as a writer. I am more interested in interior rather than exterior circumstances. I think it plugs the reader into the world a lot better than plot aspects do. Of course, this is not to say plot is not important. You run the risk of slighting one thing when you talk at length about another. Plot and character are both two big plates that you have to keep spinning through a book. It’s not much of an act if only one plate is spinning.

Did you experience much rejection from agents and publishers before your first book, The Black Echo (Little Brown & Co., 1992) was published? Please describe your experience.

Technically, I didn’t get a lot of rejection. While I sent out a blanket letter to more than a dozen agents, I ended up getting the first agent on my list. It just took him a while to respond and in the meantime I was rejected by a half dozen or so agents who were further down my list. My agent then sold my book to the third publisher he gave it to. This sounds like it was all very quick and easy. Only at the end. As I said before, it was at least 6 years from the point I decided to try to write a novel to the point that my agent called and said he had sold The Black Echo.

Do you have a favorite quote?

I like what Kurt Vonnegut Jr. said about the best advice he could give a writer. He said something along the lines of; “Make sure that on every page everybody wants something, even if it is only a glass of water.” I think what he was saying is that it’s all about character and character is delineated by wants and needs and how they are filled or lived with unfulfilled.

Besides writing every day, what other advice would you like to give aspiring novelists?

I think you have to experience the world to write about it. That’s not to say you must write what you know—I don’t believe in rules like that. I am just talking about experiencing the world. Living in order to write about living. Your mind should be a blender. Everything you do, see and experience gets thrown in. Throw in what you learn and what you hear. Throw in what you read in good books and see in movie theaters. Throw in what you see on your travels. Throw in the good and bad things in the world. When the time is right you flick on the blender, mix everything together and hopefully pour out a smoothie that is all yours.

Read more about Michael Connelly and his work at http://www.michaelconnelly.com/ .

Jennifer Minar-Jaynes is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and the editor-in-chief of http://www.writersbreak.com/ . Subscribe to her monthly ezine by sending an email to subscribe@writersbreak.com. Minar-Jaynes can also be contacted at jminar@writersbreak.com.

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