Michael Connelly on the Book He Had To Stop Writing
The bestselling thriller writer of 25 books in 20 years, Michael Connelly doesn't often stop writing. But, last December he came to a halt 100 pages into what would have been his next release. The massacre in Newtown, Conn., had made Connelly's book-in-progress all too tragic: a story about a school shooting.
Fortunately for Michael Koryta, who's been writing thrillers at a pace to outstrip Connelly, his recent book, The Prophet—about a football coach and mentor to teenage boys—was nearly finished when the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State broke. We spoke with the authors, friends and former journalists about how real-life news plays into in their work, and got them to give us a sneak peek into what their next books will be about.
Bookish: Which are your favorite characters that you've created? Is there a character by a different writer that you wish you had created yourself?
Connelly: I think it's pretty apparent who my favorites are because I keep coming back to them. At the top of that list would be Harry Bosch, who's now going on 20 years of literary life. I still like him the best because there's still a lot to say about him. He's an intriguing character to me, and as long as it stays that way for me, it hopefully will stay that way for the readers.
As far as characters in fiction that I really admire—it's pretty strong to say you would wish that you had created another character—but I'll throw out Will Graham, the protagonist in Red Dragon, a book I've read several times. One reason I keep reading it is because I get so into his world and his struggle, so I really admire him and I think that'd be a cool character to have on your résumé.
Bookish: How about for you, Michael Koryta?
Koryta: I would say of characters I've created, the one I've felt the most connected to emotionally was Adam Austin from The Prophet. I think it was the connection to the idea that one decision you make innocently enough can have very serious, drastic consequences for someone else's life. Once I put him in that position, he became pretty fascinating to me.
In terms of characters I wish I had created—just because I haven't dealt with anything like them—I'm really impressed by characters who can endure over time, whether that be a long series run like a Harry Bosch, or a character who endures over generations and continues to please readers: Sherlock Holmes. Who would not want to be able to lay claim to that—to know that 100 years after you're gone, people are still going to be reading your stories essentially because of the power of one character and the connection they feel to that character?
Bookish: Before becoming full-time novelists, you both worked in journalism. How does having been a reporter influence your fiction?
Connelly: It totally influenced what I do now, on many levels. I was a police reporter, so I got into the worlds that I write about, and I think many of the details in my books come from those days. The writing ethic was influenced—when you have to write every day, there's no such thing as writer's block. I've been able to write at least one book a year for 20 years, and I don't think I would've had that kind of drive if I hadn't come out of the journalism business.
Koryta: I would agree with everything Michael just said, certainly with regard to the work ethic and the idea that you can't just walk away from the desk with an unfinished story. The newsroom environment does not allow that, and that's certainly good discipline to learn early for any sort of writer. I would also say the qualities of observation and needing to find the telling detail, seeing that one physical item or trait of a personality—a mannerism that really says something about the place or the character—that, for me, was certainly enhanced by working as a reporter.
Bookish: Looking at recent crimes, is there any news story in particular that you would like to explore in your fiction? Have you ever come across a news story or crime that you thought was too controversial to write about?
Connelly: I usually go the other way. I usually try to find stories that have not made any kind of a media blip, and therefore they're more my own. I also think about the reading process—I don't want a reader to go, "Oh, this was inspired by this…" It can give them a preconceived sense of where the story's going or what it's about. Maybe it has something to do with being a reporter for a long time that I don't look to newspapers and television and so forth for inspiration most of the time.
But, you talk about controversy: I was about 100 pages into [writing] a novel in the fall, which was about a school shooting, and then the massacre in Newtown, Conn., happened and it made me put that book on the shelf. I'll probably come back to it, but I just thought, "It's not what I want to be writing about at the moment." And, it would probably [have] come out right around the one-year anniversary of what happened in Connecticut, and I wouldn't want my book to be seen as exploitative or caught up in that whole media thing that's guaranteed to happen in December . So, I put it aside and started writing another story that I already had, [which] I knew I would write at some point.
Koryta: I didn't realize that you'd been writing about that topic, Michael, but that was going to be my answer, as well. I think that's the one issue that I can see in the news right now that I wouldn't want to touch from a fictional perspective. That's not to say that there aren't important things that can be achieved by writing about those issues of high controversy. I think it's more of a personal thing—you feel like there's something more to that issue than just the sheer weight of what the public attention has brought to the topic. When I was completing The Prophet, I was writing the last pages of a book about a football coach who is an advocate, a mentor and a sort of father figure to these teenage boys. Then the Jerry Sandusky and Penn State story broke, and I remember remarking to my wife at the time that I was very glad I was in the home stretch of that book, because I think it would've been tough to separate the emotion of what was being revealed about those coaches and my feelings about the coach I was writing about. So, it definitely can have an impact.
I've never really found inspiration for story ideas in the news, but I'd say it certainly affects our lives in so many ways. I would say that certainly the stories of the day appear in the work—I just have never gone so far as to say, well, this particular event could influence a plot of an entire book.
Bookish: Michael Connelly, in The Black Box, Detective Harry Bosch returns to a 20-year-old murder that took place during the L.A. riots. What did having Bosch return to 1992 allow you to do and talk about in the book?
Connelly: Well, it did a lot of things, including a bit of an exorcism of my own demons. I knew when I was starting to write that book that it would be my 25th book published in my 20th year, and something about those anniversaries meant something to me. So, I decided to make it a 20-year story, and when you go back to 1992 and look for a place to start, you put on the brakes at the end of April because that's when the riots happened. I was a reporter back then and I covered the riots—had some experiences that still stick with me—and so I wanted to write about that and then carry the story through the 20 years of Harry Bosch's literary life to the present.
Bookish: What experiences in particular were ones that stuck with you?
Connelly: In a period of three days I think I saw L.A. at its best and at its worst. The riots have come up in small ways often in my books; this is perhaps the biggest way. On a personal level, I was part of about 50 reporters who had a verdict plan. When the verdicts were read in the Rodney King case, we were fanned out across the city and I was assigned to the spot where Rodney King had been beaten by the police. So, there was going to be a big demonstration there that was either going to be positive or negative depending on the verdict. It went very negative, and I got caught in the middle of it—basically, some people saved me from probably being hurt, if not worse. [They were] total strangers, good Samaritans—it all happened so fast I never even got a chance to say "thank you." So that 10-minute experience has informed a lot of my life since then. The book, The Black Box, is dedicated to those people [who helped me].
Bookish: Michael Koryta, what can you tell us about your next book?
Koryta: It involves the world of forest fires and wild-land firefighting. It seems like every summer, lately, there's another state that starts burning early and burns throughout the season. We've seen some really catastrophic wildfires from California to, this year, Colorado burning most of the year. I'd go up to Montana and do some climbing and hiking trips out there and they had their burn bans on. So, I've become very aware of that world and I was very interested. It takes a lot of manpower to go out in the wilderness and fight these things, and I was curious about where these people are coming from. It turns out a lot of the firefighters they have on the ground there are seasonal employees. It's part-time, sort of a summer gig, and it reminded me of something like Deadliest Catch. They also have prison inmate crews that they bring out to help when they have the manpower need.
So [my book] involves that, and it's very inspired by a nonfiction book Norman Maclean wrote that was published after his death, called Young Men and Fire, which was about 13 smokejumpers who were killed in the Mann Gulch fire in Montana in 1949. It's a beautifully written book, and it does a really great job of looking at the collision of man and nature. It's a book I keep returning to time and time again. I didn't really see how it matched up with genre and my body of work, but it's definitely got its imprints all over this one.
Bookish: Michael Connelly, what can you tell us about your next book?
Connelly: Well I haven't shared this with anyone because, like I said, I put the book I was working on on a shelf and started another book just January 1, so I'm only three weeks into it. It's a Lincoln Lawyer book, a Mickey Haller book, and it's a story I've carried around for a long time. There've been four books with Haller in it, but the first one, called The Lincoln Lawyer, had a character who was a prostitute—one of his clients, who played a key part in that book. I've always wanted to follow up that story of her being murdered, so that's what it's about, and basically, Mickey is hired to defend someone who is charged with killing someone that he liked, a client that he liked, who he had some kind of connection with. So he's dealing with that conflict of interest. It's called The Gods of Guilt.
Check out the next installment of the Bookish interview with Michael Connelly and Michael Koryta, in which they reveal defining moments of their careers, and the nature of crime writing.
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.