I wish I had a way for you to see John Connolly talk and answer questions in person. He is an extremely charismatic and charming man, full of energy and stories. He talks like he writes and that makes meeting him all the more interesting. He clearly loves being a writer and connecting with his fans. He’s also refreshingly modest, downplaying his talent, as you’ll see him do in one of his answers, but he’s wrong. John Connolly is one of the best writers working today, I can’t tell you how many time’s his books have made laugh out loud in public, think about an important issue or two in society, and get emotionally affected by the characters he writes about, and all this often happens in a single page.
Let’s start with a philosophical question. In the universe of your work, where does evil come from? What I am trying to ask is in regard to Charlie Parker — the guy has seen a lot of dark side of human nature and he must have some conclusions by now as to how the darkness gets in. Is it nurtured? Is it a virus? Is it something that is always there and just waiting for an opportunity to get out?
Someone at a signing in Taiwan asked me a similar question, and I kind of gave him a similar answer to the one that I’m about to give you: I don’t know. Greater minds than mine have been arguing this question for a very long time, and I don’t think they’ve come up with a perfect answer either. The books, I think, suggest that both that evil isn’t a single definable thing, yet also – perhaps in contradiction, perhaps not – refuse to accept the concept of "small evils". I think there’s a very human evil, which is fundamentally selfish, and which leads to greater harm without, I think, the individual responsible realizing that that is going to be the case. It’s an absence of empathy, which is the single best definition of human evil that I’ve encountered, the unwillingness or inability (which are two separate things) to recognize that others feel pain the way that you do, and that therefore you have a responsibility not to cause pain of any kind, just as you would expect the same treatment from others.
Is there a greater, deeper evil at the heart of the universe, from which our own generally inferior version is drawn, like water from a well? I don’t know. The books suggest that there may be. If one believes in God, then does one accept the existence of the opposite of God? I don’t feel any urge or responsibility to provide answers to those questions. It’s enough to raise them, and to consider them in the context of the books.
The Parker novels seem to be a series of character arcs. Do you have a definite plan and ending for him?
Yes and no. They are moving toward a conclusion of sorts, and I have some notion of what that may be, but I haven’t decided when that will happen, or even the precise form it will take. I do know more than I’m telling, though.
The supernatural in his world definitely seems real, what is in doubt are the things that Parker sees. Why have an un-reliable narrator for a series character?
I love unreliable narrators. Among my favorite novels are Wuthering Heights and The Good Soldier, which both use unreliable narrators (in the case of Wuthering Heights, a series of them) to give them their power and depth. In the end, people are unreliable narrators. We all present a narrative of our lives to the world which has been edited and tinkered with, and which evolves over time. Why expect the narrator of a book to be any different?
On a postmodern level, there is also the fact that hovering over all of this is the author, me. People enter into a pact with the author when they read a novel in which they surrender themselves to what they know is a fiction, setting aside their scepticism and natural tendency toward disbelief in return for whatever rewards the act of reading the novel brings to them. As the author, I am manipulating the material at my disposal toward an end to which the reader isn’t privy. In that sense, the author is the most unreliable narrator of all.
Why do so many of your plots have to do with things from the Bible? The Book of Enoch, for example, goes all the way back to The Traveling Man’s modus operandi in Every Dead Thing.
That wasn’t intended at the start, but has become increasingly interesting to me as the sequence has progressed. The books’ interest in the nature of good and evil has become more pronounced and, as a (bad) Catholic, that conflict has always had a religious or spiritual dimension for me.
You wrote two books in six months, The Book of Lost Things and The Unquiet. Assuming you’re not James Patterson and keep illegal aliens chained in your basement with type-writers, how did you manage this?
Actually, I didn’t. It just seems like I’m hugely prolific, but I’m not. I actually write incredibly slowly. The Book of Lost Things was delivered to my publishers in late October 2005 but wasn’t published until almost a year later as they tried to work out the best way in which to present it. By the time it was published, I had already delivered The Unquiet, which was then released seven or eight months later. I had, in fact, started The Unquiet before I wrote The Book of Lost Things, but I set it aside as it wasn’t the book that I wanted to write at that time. When I returned to it, I threw out most of what I’d done and kept only fragments, and it’s a better book for that.
The Book of Lost Things, straight fantasy, was such a departure for you, not in quality, but in content. Have you grown as a writer as a result and learned new things about yourself and writing?
I don’t really consider The Book of Lost Things to be a fantasy novel, straight or otherwise. It’s never made clear what precisely is happening in the course of the book, or if the world that David, the boy at its heart, enters is real or imagined. It’s less about the fantastic than about the everyday: grief, loss, the process of moving from childhood into adulthood, the power of books and stories to shape both our imaginations and the way in which we look at the world.
As for it being a departure, well, yes and no. I’ve always been interested in childhood and fairy tales – Dark Hollow, for example, is filled with images from fairy tales, and a number of the stories in Nocturnes were, in effect, dry runs for The Book of Lost Things. Nocturnes is a very important book for me in the context of the question that you’ve asked. I wrote Bad Men which, like a lot of stand alones, wasn’t radically different from what had gone before it, the absence of Parker and the pacing (which was very fast) apart. With Nocturnes, I decided to spend a year or two just writing short stories and novellas, in the hope that I could learn new skills and explore new ways of telling stories. That book fed very directly into both The Book of Lost Things and The Unquiet, as well as accounting for the more supernatural nature of The Black Angel, which was the book that immediately followed it.
In the end, there are stories that just can’t be told in the context of crime and mystery fiction. Mystery fiction accounts for quite a small percentage of the books that I read, and just as I read quite widely I like the idea that I might be able to write quite widely too, although I know that experimentation of that kind comes at a certain commercial price. It was worth paying it for Nocturnes, though, and, to a lesser financial extent, for The Book of Lost Things, which I think is the best book that I’ve written (and, in my darker moments, may even be the best book I’m ever likely to write).
Congratulations on the movie deal of the book. You’ve been reluctant to sell the rights to your Parker novels, so why The Book of Lost Things?
Well, Every Dead Thing was almost written to be unfilmable, and I think the Parker books are quite complex and odd and may not transfer very well to the screen. There’s also almost monologues at times. Nearly everything is filtered through Parker’s consciousness, and that kind of internal life is very hard to transfer to the screen. Never say never, but so far adaptation of the Parker books hasn’t really been an issue as nobody has come forward with a way of suggesting how this might be done. The books are also very personal to me, and, finally, there’s the philosophical issue of selling not just a book, but the rights to characters that you’ve created. I remain a little uneasy about that in the context of the Parker books.
Then again, The Book of Lost Things is HUGELY personal to me, and I’m immensely protective of that too, but John Moore, who is set to direct it, wrote me a long, thoughtful letter about the book, and then we met in Dublin to discuss things, and I felt that he just got what I was trying to do. I retain a certain amount of control over it, in the sense that there is an option on the book, but the rights remain in my hands until we get closer to production, but I trust John. He’s a good guy, and very talented.
But The Book of Lost Things is some way off. Before that appears, we may see The New Daughter, based on one of my short stories; Sanctuary, which is based on Bad Men; and possibly an adaptation of my story The Erlking, all of which are at a more advanced stage than The Book of Lost Things.
Did the success of Pan’s Labyrinth make Hollywood interested?
I don’t know. It never really arose in the discussions that we had. I love that film. It was fascinating to see a director thinking along the same lines as I was, and using the material in ways that were both similar and radically different.
Why set it during World War Two England?
I liked that it was a time of confusion, of uncertainty, yet almost must have been tremendously exciting for children. I suppose I wanted to set a book somewhere other than the US as well, and to write about a different period.
Why set the Parker novels in Maine? Wouldn’t having a series set in Ireland be easier?
Easier, but less interesting for me. At the time that I began writing, there weren’t many Irish crime writers. It wasn’t really our genre, for all sorts of reasons. Equally, I was trying to escape my own literary heritage, which I felt was quite suffocating, and came with certain expectations about style and subject matter. It wasn’t a commercial decision to set a book in the US, but an emotional one, I think.
Rather than import elements of American mystery fiction, which I loved, I thought it would be more interesting to apply a European sensibility to its conventions. I’m never going to write or think quite like an American. It’s impossible, but I hope that’s what makes my books a little different.
This is a personal theory of mine, but it seems to me that the farther people leave the big city like New York City, the weirder things get.
I don’t know about that. New York has plenty of weird people all of its own. Maine isn’t especially strange, although there are interesting undercurrents to it. I think, in the end, there is oddness in everyone and in every place once you begin examining it on that micro level.
Was Twin Peaks an influence for Parker and his world?
No, not at all. I’ve never really considered it in that light. Then again, the manner in which writers are influenced is very subtle. Stuff leaches in without the writer being aware of it, then manifests itself in new ways.
In the Unquiet, you tackle some very big and horrific ideas like child abuse and the betrayal of men and women in positions of power with children, but in contrast, the violence is minimal. Is this the start of a shift in tone in your novels?
I wanted to write a restrained, deliberate novel, and it might also have to do with the subject matter, which deserves to be treated with a certain degree of restraint and moderation. But I also hope that I’m getting a little better at what I do. I think, in the past, I was afraid of losing the reader’s attention, and felt that there always had to be a lot of things happening on the page. Now I have more faith in the reader’s patience, or his or her willingness to allow me space to develop the themes of the novel. Chandler used to say that he couldn’t have two people in a room and keep more than one of them alive for very long. In mystery fiction, it’s easy, when you feel the pace begin to sag, to throw in a bit of action or violence to up the tempo. It’s harder to find other, subtler ways to do it.
Has American crime fiction influenced you more than European? I know you’re a huge Ross McDonald fan.
I read very little British crime fiction when I was younger, and there wasn’t much European crime fiction in translation. I still read very little British crime fiction, or British fiction in general. It’s one of my blind spots. I’ve always been more interested in American fiction, whether crime or not. And, yes, I think Macdonald is the greatest novelist among the originators of the genre, Chandler included. Of the living crime authors, James Lee Burke was another huge influence on me. He’s just a superb writer.
What about the fantasy and horror genres?
I read Stephen King and, given the Maine setting, there must be some of him in there somewhere. My biggest influence in that area, though, was the British writer M.R. James, who I still think is the greatest writer of short supernatural fiction that the genre has produced. I suppose I see corrollaries between mystery fiction and supernatural fiction: they’re both about fear, about the intrusion of the chaotic and the illogical into our tenuous normality. I often think they tap into the same places in our brains.
Has your publisher ever been weary or express concern over the way you meld genres?
No, not really. I think there have been times when someone might have felt that my books might have sold more if they were more straightforward, or didn’t experiment with genres the way that they do, but that was probably earlier on. I’m very fortunate, really, in that I have tremendously supportive publishers and editors on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as in those countries that have bought my books to translate, and rather than try to change what I do they’ve tried to find ways to use its differences as strengths. I wouldn’t change Hodder or Atria now. They give me an incredible amount of freedom.
All the places you write about are real in the Parker novels and even very small towns like Jackman, Maine plays a huge role. How did you find this place?
I was simply looking for somewhere quite remote, so it was a matter of getting in my car and driving until it was ‘next stop, Canada’. Jackman had the feel of a frontier town, I suppose, and was quite interesting. The local historian lived in a trailer at the bottom of ‘a big hole in the ground’, as she put it. I went to find her and she did indeed live in a trailer at the bottom of a big hole in the ground. Lovely woman. Very funny and informative.
What’s next for you?
A book called The Reapers, which is more of an Angel and Louis novel, told in the third person with Parker as a secondary character for a change. It’s a chance to change style again, to write something that is a little lighter in tone. It’s not as tormented as the Parker books, and there are no supernatural elements.
Like the places, there is a character in the Unquiet that is based on a very real person. Tell me about him.
He was a guy called Dave ‘the Guesser’ Glovsky, who used to guess things about people on Old Orchard Beach: their age, the car they drove, what they did for a living. He was a sideshow guy, a carnie. I saw some of his possessions as part of an exhibition in Portland and thought, wow, he’s interesting. When it came to the writing of The Unquiet, I put him in as himself. It would have been unfair to his memory to steal his qualities and give them to a fictional character. I imagine that he’d have liked being in a book.
Your Parker novels, in places, are very funny. How important is humor in books with such dark content to you?
It’s a matter of contrasting light and shade. There are some very fine writers of mystery fiction out there whose work is a little humorless, and in that sense it’s not entirely true to the human experience. Even in the bleakest of circumstances, it’s in our nature to try to make light of it. Those of us who can’t do that tend to get broken by life. Parker is a man who is trying not to break.
What was the last great book you read?
It would probably be one of the classics: Bleak House, perhaps, or War & Peace. I know that sounds a bit naff, but very few modern novels compare, or can truly be called great. I thought Cormac McCarthy’s The Road was stunning, and I’ve loved Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, but I think it takes a while for greatness and classic status to be conferred. I suspect the latter two will achieve it, though.
As a writer hoping to be taken seriously, what are your thoughts on genre in literature?
I’m not sure that I understand the question. I don’t think I’m hoping to be taken seriously. I do what I do, that’s all. I take what I do seriously, because otherwise there’s no point in doing it, but I’m not sure that I consider myself to be creating great literature. I do what I do as well as I can, and I put my heart into it. The great majority of us are not writing for the ages. We will be forgotten, quite possibly before we even die. The trick is still to write like you’re writing for the ages.
As for genre and literature, the distinction is muddy. Genre is a relatively recent concept, and most literary fiction incorporates some genre elements too – a romance, for example, or a crime. The difference is that in genre fiction that element is the primary one, whereas in literary fiction it’s frequently a secondary, if crucial, one. I’m not a genre snob, and I’m interesting in blending elements of disparate, if related, genres together to create new forms. In fact, the worst snobs I’ve encountered have been in the mystery area. There’s a conservative element that wants to see the genre frozen in aspic somewhere between the birth of the Marlowe novels and the death of Agatha Christie. Those people hate the use of the supernatural in particular, and I suppose they raise my hackles because, as a good liberal, I dislike people telling me that something isn’t permissible, at least in writing. It’s nonsense.
In the end, most genre fiction isn’t very good. Most literary fiction isn’t very good. It’s not bad, but there are sound reasons why it doesn’t enter the canon. I think, perhaps, that bad genre fiction isn’t very ambitious, while even average literary fiction is, even if its reach exceeds its grasp. In the end, it doesn’t matter much to me either way, frankly. It doesn’t affect what I do, or how I approach it.