Thursday, 14 May 2009

MICHAEL CONNELLY: THE SCARECROW INTERVIEW

Although Michael Connelly is a successful crime novelist, with a string of best-sellers and an appearance as a Richard & Judy finalist, he remains, at heart, a reporter. So when the plight of the newspaper business touched off the idea for his latest novel, he already had the book's main character waiting. The Scarecrow brings back Jack McAvoy, hero of The Poet. His early novels, featuring LAPD detective Hieronymous 'Harry' Bosch, had earned him cult status among crime-fiction fans, garnering great reviews and respectable, but disappointing sales, before The Poet, in which reporter McAvoy faced the eponymous serial killer, broke into the best-seller charts, and launched Connelly as something more than a crime writer, almost a brand-name. The book opens with McAvoy about to lose his job at the Los Angeles Times, as old-school reporters become redundant, replaced by younger, cheaper, J-school grads adept at twittering, blogging, and all the electronics required of mobile journalists, or mojos. Connelly had to do a number of rewrites, as former colleagues read the proofs and updated him on how newspapers had changed since his days on them; he had to call back the galleys for a rewrite when The Rocky Mountain News, which figures in the story, actually went out of business. As he explained to me in publication week, while visiting Britain to promote the book, the printing process was so far along he had to make sure the new lines actually fit the spaces of the old ones, even needing to end each page with the same word. 'But even so, one review, in Los Angeles, jumped on the fact that the Rocky was in the book, even though it was only in the proof. They said 'evidently Mr Connelly doesn't know the paper is dead', and when I wrote them I began with 'evidently'.

I orignally met up with him in February, in Tampa, Florida, to which he's relocated from Los Angeles. I was there to broadcast America's biggest sporting event, the Super Bowl, for the BBC, so it surprised me when Connelly suggested we meet in the press center, where security is tight and credentials are checked. 'Don't worry,' he reassured me, 'I can get a pass.' And he could, because not only is he a local celebrity, but he's also become a cult figure within the world of American football. Veteran TV commentator Dick Stockton has been passing his books on to the ex-coaches and players he works, meaning Connelly now has a bigger fan base within the football world than some star players. They want Stockton to introduce them to his writer friend. But Connelly takes it all in with a modest shrug. As we slip into the anonymity of a corner booth in a nearby sports bar, he talks about the next day's Super Bowl, but with even more enthusiasm about his daughter's school basketball game, that afternoon.

Although he started his career as a reporter in Florida, and is now happily settled in a house with a view across the harbour to the bright lights of Tampa, his work remains anchored to Los Angeles, and he explains that it was the situation at his former paper, the Los Angeles Times, that inspired The Scarecrow.

'Technology is killing newspapers,' he says. 'It fascinates me, because there's a real clash in the newspaper world between the old and the new. Lots of people I worked with were losing their jobs, and the business is in a downward spiral. And I still have friends at the LA Times who have survived the purges, and tell me about the change. So I wanted this book to focus on that conflict between the old and the new, and use the struggles of the business as background. I didn't want a diatribe, I wanted a thriller. So it occurred to me that a killer could take advantage of this same new technology to identify, and stalk, his victims; that it would be easy. Putting the two together, I decided to bring Jack McEvoy back. He's being replaced at the paper by a youngster, just out of journalism school. He wants to show that his skills as a crime reporter, learned the old-fashioned way, on the street, are still relevant. So he wants to go with one big story, and he latches on to one he intends to exploit, and it turns into something different.'

It's also unusual that much of the book is told from the killer's point of view. 'I think it's a creepy sort of story,' he says, 'and it's easier to do creepy from that point of view. I've only done it twice before, but one of those was The Poet. It also works because of the way the killer uses the dark side of internet technology, the cornerstone of everyday life, to stalk his victims and McEvoy.'

McEvoy was the character who propelled Connelly to best-seller status, but there's a surprising amount of cross-over in Connelly's books. Terry McCaleb, the hero of Blood Work (which was made into a movie by Clint Eastwood) later appeared with Harry Bosch, and Rachel Walling, the FBI agent introduced in The Poet, later had an affair with Bosch. The hero of The Lincoln Lawyer, Connelly's Richard and Judy Book Club breakthrough in the UK , turns out to have a closer connection to Bosch than anyone could imagine. So I ask if it's right to say that, although these characters have been the stars of his more successful novels, it still seems Bosch is at the center of Connelly's fictional universe.

'Most definitely my creative world revolves around Harry. Even when I am writing a book like The Scarecrow that he isn't even in, I am thinking about how the book fits into the overall mosaic of my writing, which is essentially a portrait of Bosch. And I am thinking about the next book that he'll be in. ' That Rachel Walling, the FBI agent from The Poet, could be involved with both Bosch and McEvoy may seem, on the surface, a bit of authorial incestuousness, but it also points out another key to Bosch's, and Connelly's, universe. 'My books aren't full of good relationships or happy romances,' he says. 'They're about conflicts, and so are relationships.'

And I wonder if it's odd to him that it's the success of his non-Bosch books which has boosted his long-running series. He thinks about it, then says, 'there has been a history of the so-called stand alone thrillers increasing my sales. This hasn't happened every time but when it does it is to great effect because usually the Harry Bosch novel that follows meets that new sales watermark or passes it. The books where this happened were The Poet, Blood Work and The Lincoln Lawyer. Each recorded a sizable jump in sales over the previous book and the Bosch book that followed jumped as well. The two where this did not happen were Void Moon and Chasing the Dime. There's no way to know why this is and it may just come down to what each book offers. But I think one of the things that happens is that it is easier to interest a new reader in a new character and stand alone novel then it is to entice them into jumping into a Harry Bosch novel that is 10 or 12 books down the line in the series. So they read the book with no prior attachments. If they like it, they try the Bosch. It's an inexact science for sure, but that's the best I can come up with.'

I point out to him that, since his first book appeared in 1993, he has published 20 novels, and The Scarecrow will be his 21st. 'I get asked about that a lot,' he says. 'Mostly by people who equate speed with lack of quality. I point out to them that I was a reporter, and used to writing quickly, on deadline. And I find the books I write fastest tend to be my better ones, because I know where I'm going. The Scarecrow came very quickly, because I was writing about something I know, journalism, and that speeds up the process'. In fact, he's already laid the ground work for the next Bosch novel, Nine Dragons, in which Harry will travel to Hong Kong, where his ex-wife and daughter are living. 'It will be set about two-thirds in Los Angeles, and one-third in Hong Kong'. It is due out in October. But sometimes, as noted above, speed is a matter of necessity. 'Newspapers are dropping like flies,' he explains. 'I wanted to get the book out before too much happened. The LA Times filed for bankrupcy while I was doing the last ten days of writing, so I wanted the book out while that news was fresh.'

Some of the best moments of the Bosch books came when Harry was feuding with authority, whether his police superiors, the FBI or the Bureau of Homeland Security, and likewise, some of the best moments of The Scarecrow lie in the internal conflicts and politics of the newspaper. 'There was the sense, when I joined the Times in 1988, that you were made for life,' he says. 'It was called “The Velvet Coffin”. As a journalist, I'd reached the pinnacle. But I was out of touch with the business; I had to rewrite a lot because a lot had changed, but again, the relationships, with indifferent bosses and ambitious colleagues, don't change.' I mention the fifth series the The Wire, a programme Connelly introduced me to years ago, and the way it's also centered in a newsroom in trouble. 'Oh, the influence is direct. I was inspired by the last series of The Wire, which was set inside the Baltimore Sun newsroom, where David Simon (creator of the television series) had worked. He wrote it from what he knew, but like me, he hadn't worked in a newsroom in years, and he was behind on all the blogging and the twittering that's required now. But the dynamic of the newsroom, like the police station, creates its own conflicts. And the sense that, for profit, newspapers have abrogated their responsibility.'

Blood Work was filmed by Clint Eastwood, and since then Connelly has flirted with film and TV; he was approached by his friend George Pelecanos to work on The Wire, but had to turn the invitation down. He did write a script for a movie revival of the TV show The Equalizer, but he laughs and says 'my script would have cost $150 million to make'. He also, years ago, wrote a screenplay for his novel Void Moon. 'I sold the film rights on the condition I could write the screenplay. I'd never seen a script that had captured Harry, but I was naïve. I just didn't realise then how hard it is.' Now there's a film of The Lincoln Lawyer in the works. 'It's somewhere north of hell in development,' Connelly says. The producer who owns the rights, Billy Gerber, I first met when he was working with Clint on Blood Work. He bought the rights to do as an independent, and now, since he worked with Clint again on Gran Torino, he's back in play. Tim Van Patten, who directed episodes of The Sopranos and The Wire would do it as his first film, but it's not an A list $100 million picture. Like I said, there's no one I see as Bosch, but they showed me a list of actors to play Mickey Haller and one was Matthew McConaghey. At the last minute I saw Tropic Thunder and thought he could do it.' But he shrugs. 'If it happens, it happens'. In the meantime, he has his daughter's basketball game to get to, a Super Bowl to watch, and another Harry Bosch novel to finish. Presumably in that order.

1 comment:

sara williams said...

As a journalist turned novelist myself, I was totally fascinated by The Scarecrow. So many anguished colleagues I'd left behind in the newsroom were suffering these exact agonies. I was also impressed that the journalist's nose for news served Michael so well.


When I caught up with M.C. at Seattle Mystery, he said he was ready for a vacation in Hawaii, and so I obliged him by giving him a copy of my latest, One Big Itch