Michael Connelly and Michael Koryta: Crime in the Making
In the first installment of our interview with thriller masters Michael Connelly and Michael Koryta, the authors dropped fresh details about their upcoming books--and Connelly told us about the book that he had to stop writing. Now, Koryta and Connelly talk about the watershed moments of their careers--from working with Matthew McConaughey for the movie "The Lincoln Lawyer" to O.J. Simpson's slow Bronco chase through Los Angeles--why crime fiction was easier to write before the internet and the creepy challenges of supernatural suspense.
Bookish: Michael Connelly, "The Black Box," the title of your most recent book, is a reference to the box of handwritten index cards where detectives used to keep their field notes. That practice and others have fallen by the wayside with the rise of the Internet and technology. Now that you've been publishing crime novels for more than 20 years, are there aspects of what it was like to write and publish books at the start of your career, pre-Internet, that you miss?
Connelly: Back when Harry Bosch first came on the scene in 1992, he didn't have a cell phone. The internet was barely something that was embraced by the public, no email, things like that. And Harry slowly acquired these skills and, probably more importantly, acquired the skill of finding partners who can do what he can't do. As much as he is paranoid and suspicious of technological advancement, at the same time he has a mission in life, and that's to find killers. And he knows these are tools that can help him do that, so he finds ways of using these tools, and mostly it's through his partners and so forth. And in more recent books even his daughter is kind of bringing him forward into the technological era, the current technological era.
In terms of writing, it's kind of hard to put into words, but it was easier to write detective stories back in the early '90s--and probably before--because you could pace your books because there was not the same kind of levels of communication there are now, like Harry Bosch can be reached at any time with a cell phone. [Now] you can go on computers and find information, and so the legwork that is the stuff I really like to write about and that could help me pace out the story is all compressed. Information comes very quickly, and writing a book--hiding clues and making Harry or whoever methodically work a trail--is quite different now.
Bookish: And Michael Koryta, are there aspects of writing books at the start of your career that you miss, or do you generally prefer the way things are now?
Koryta: I don't know that I see a way in which the writing has changed, beyond what Michael's talked about in terms of the ease of information for research. At the end of the day we're storytellers here, and I think that aspect of the craft remains largely unchanged, and we should be focused on the same things that people were struggling with a hundred years ago when they sat down to write a story. I think it's a really great point about the inherent suspense advantages that existed in a world where your character was not always in constant communication.
I went back and did a period piece called "The Cypress House," set in the 1930s, and I thought, God, this is great because my characters are isolated without me having to take extraordinary steps to isolate them. By virtue of living in a rural place along the Florida Gulf Coast in that time period, they were alone, and so much of the suspense comes from isolating your characters in dangerous circumstances, removing those avenues of easy escape and the easy opportunity to call for help. Now, you have to work at how can you truly isolate a character, if that's one of your goals. But when it comes to distractions and the internet, it's the same as any other form of distraction: You just have to have the self-discipline to ignore it.
Bookish: Michael Koryta, you are known for writing supernatural suspense as well as crime. Which is your favorite genre to write in, and do you have an untried genre that you're frightened of attempting?
Koryta: I probably view the supernatural and the crime as more like the same genre than most people. I write suspense novels--I guess that would be the broad term--or mysteries. They all have a similar core, and I think of the supernatural more as an added wrinkle or layer to that--there's always the crime plot, even in supernatural stories. I find those much more difficult to write, but more rewarding, because in addition to meeting all of the challenges of writing a traditional crime novel--building that emotional connection with the character and the audience and developing the plot and developing all the twists and turns you need in a mystery--I also have to introduce something that's an element of unreality, something surreal or weird or supernatural, in a way that holds up with the audience.
In terms of a genre that I wouldn't try, I don't know if there's one that scares me.... I don't read fantasy, really, [or] science fiction, so to go wholeheartedly at one of those genres, I don't think that would ever happen because I just don't have the reader's background in those areas.
Bookish: Michael Connelly, what was it like to see your hero, Mickey Haller, embodied by Matthew McConaughey in the film version of "The Lincoln Lawyer"? Were there scenes they added or changed for the movie that surprised you?
Connelly: It was a great experience. He did a great job, and I think the film is a very accurate adaptation of the book. There were things lost and some things changed. There wasn't anything that surprised me, I guess, because it was a five-year journey from me selling the book to them filming it, and so I was familiar with the direction they were going in and the adaptation, and I was there when they filmed it. I think where I got a feeling of surprise was when I saw smaller parts really done well by actors who weren't that well known. So that was fun. When I was in a dark room watching the film, I'd be smiling at the small parts. Because, you know, Matthew McConaughey's a known actor, several of the other people were known actors, but the ones I'd never heard of or seen before that really stepped up, that was very cool.
Bookish: Is there one of those lesser-known actors in particular who you would pick out as your favorite performance? Or one of your lesser-known characters you were excited to see come to the fore?
Connelly: Well there was an actor named Shea Whigham, who plays the snitch, and there's this one scene where he's testifying, and he was just excellent. And it was the key point of the story, where it pivots in kind of an "aha" direction, and it reflects on the character of McConaughey that we know he's got a plan; something's going on here. And the guy was just great as this weasely lying snitch. I've tracked him since then, and he's seen as an up-and-coming good actor because he's in Martin Scorsese movies and "Silver Linings Playbook," so he's getting a lot of work, which is great.
Bookish: Is there an actor you would have chosen to play the role of Mickey Haller if it couldn't have been Matthew McConaughey?
Connelly: No. It's funny, before he was cast I saw him in the role because of a comedy he made called "Tropic Thunder." He played this small part as a Hollywood agent, and something about the way that he handled that part--I was in the theater watching that movie with my wife, and I said, "He'd be a good Mickey Haller," and then about two or three years later he was. I didn't suggest him to anybody, but when I got the phone call and said they'd signed McConaughey to play this part I totally got it.
Bookish: Michael Koryta, recently producer Nick Wechsler acquired "The Prophet." Who would be your dream cast for the film?
Koryta: With "The Prophet," it's in an early enough stage that they're still working on the script. I guess the one person who comes to mind is Kyle Chandler for Kent Austin--he played a football coach for so long on "Friday Night Lights" that I think it's a natural grab.
Bookish: For each of you: What's one question that you wanted to ask the other, but you haven't yet?
Connelly: I was going to ask about the science fiction, but he's already answered that one. So, Michael, don't take this as a suggestion; it is a question. But you started so young--all your books under your belt, and you're still not even as old as I was when I published my first book. So do you ever worry or take steps to guard against burnout? And the reason I ask that is that I started way after you, but I've published 25 books in 20 years and burnout is something that is of high concern to me.
Koryta: That's a great question, and it is something that I worry about, probably more privately than publicly, because I think you can look at any writer's work, and you see threads of repetition. And even writers that I love, as they get more and more prolific and as they get more and more books under their belt, you say, "Ah, well I remember when you did basically this same sort of thing, this same sort of character 15 years ago." And I don't fault the writer, because I think--and you can say this with filmmakers too, with actors--there are a few themes and central concerns that really drive your art and drive your work, and so you're going to return to those things pretty frequently. And if you got a really early start, which I did, then there certainly is the risk of becoming too repetitive.
You know, Chandler talking about his career--I think he was only nine books in at the time of this quote where he talked about beginning to feel as if his work had been imitated so often that he was imitating the imitators, and he'd become a parody of himself. And that's a really sad place to reach, and I think that's one of the reasons I do take that central idea of a suspense novel and push it into other areas, adding the supernatural and taking the settings into wildly different places to try and keep the writing as fresh as possible.
Bookish: And do you have a question for Michael Connelly?
Koryta: Yeah. You talked a little bit about the Bosch and timeframe and the 20 years with the riots. So I guess from a personal-professional sort of intersection, I'm curious, after writing these 20 years and 20 books with Bosch, is there a day that stands out as being, from an emotional perspective, a high water mark professionally, whether it was first book contract, first contract that allowed you to become a full-time writer, watching "The Lincoln Lawyer" for the first time--is there any day that you remember thinking, "It's not gonna get much better than this"?
Connelly: Yeah, there are probably a lot of them, and you just touched on a bunch of them. But I guess I would actually pick--this is going to be weird. I would pick the day that O.J. Simpson went on his slow chase in the white Bronco through Los Angeles, because that was shortly after I quit my job as a journalist to be a full-time writer. When you leave journalism, there's always [the question] "should you leave?"--it's such an interesting job, and there are withdrawals. I remember there was also an earthquake in Los Angeles shortly after I quit, and I didn't have to jump up and run out and be on the story. I was like everybody else in town; I just had to wait till the lights came back on.
With this O.J. Simpson thing though, at the end of that chase, when he gave up at his house and the police walked him out and he was arrested, there was a giant crowd of journalists there, and I saw the guy who took my place in the middle of the crowd. And I was in my home where I was working as a full-time novelist, and I was thinking, "I could either be there or I could be here doing what I'm doing now," and I did not miss the journalism. I was glad I wasn't in that giant crowd. And it was the first moment I realized this is what I am, I'm a novelist, who was a journalist for a while till I could get into this world. So it was a really big moment for me in what was probably the biggest year for me, because it was when I wrote my first book uninterrupted by writing for a newspaper or other focuses. It was just full-time focus, and it paid off, I think, and everything kind of reinforced that I was on the right road and I had made the right choices.
Michael Connelly is one of the most prolific and bestselling writers of suspense at work today. He lives with his family in Florida.
Michael Koryta is the author of six previous novels, including "Envy the Night," which won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for best mystery/thriller, and the Lincoln Perry series, which has earned nominations for the Edgar, Shamus and Quill awards and won the Great Lakes Book Award. A former private investigator and newspaper reporter, Koryta lives in Bloomington, Ind., and St. Petersburg, Fla.