Thursday, April 1, 2010

My Crime Beat Column: Killers, Cops and Crime Reporters: My Q & A With Crime Writer Michael Connelly

Michael Connelly is a best-selling crime novelist whose series of crime thrillers about Harry Bosch, a troubled but dedicated LAPD detective, is very popular with crime and thriller readers.

I spoke to Michael Connelly about his latest novel, Nine Dragons, and his previous novel, The Scarecrow. We also discussed the Internet, crime novels, crime, Clint Eastwood, and the current state of journalism.

Below is my interview with him:

DAVIS: I enjoyed The Scarecrow, which I reviewed here. In The Scarecrow did you set out to have a clash of characters, with one from the declining newspaper industry, and the other from the rising technology industry? Were you looking to do more in this novel than just having an interesting backdrop - or in this case, two?

CONNELLY: Yeah. I was trying to carry over a metaphor. It’s very simplistic to say that the Internet is killing the newspaper, but it is part of what’s happening. So I started with the idea that well, if the Internet is a newspaper killer, then I was going to have a newspaper guy go after an Internet killer. That was kind of what made that leap. But often you just take stuff that comes to you. I have a friend who lives in Milwaukee. He’s like my researcher. He is a private investigator and he used to work for a law firm. He’s always doing a lot of work on the Internet. That’s what a lot of private eyes do these days, and in an offhand conversation, he was talking about how they back-up their data to an off-site location. I started asking questions about what an “off-site” location was. That led me to this world of “server farms” and so forth. It just seemed so very fascinating to me and that’s where that angle came from.

DAVIS: I don’t know what was more frightening about the serial killer - that he murdered people or his ability use the Internet to wreak havoc on one’s life. Serials killers can be boring - in crime fiction, certainly not in reality - but you gave your serial killer character an interesting background in computer technology.

CONNELLY: I think that fiction goes down its own path from reality and, as you say, a serial killer is a very serious and horrible thing in reality, but it’s rare that they have the kind of chops that you see in fiction. It’s a product of having to keep drama as one of the major balls to keep in the air. And so you often see this kind of skill. One of the early origins of this book was an offhand discussion that I had with an FBI agent. We talked about the Internet and how it has all these wonderful things - a great advance for all mankind - but the social networking it offers in the positive way also has a negative side. And that’s that people with aberrant desires and tastes can now go on the Internet, type in a few words, and find someone who has the same tastes. They can find community and acceptance of something that society would not accept. So what the FBI agent was predicting is that you will find more people meeting on the Internet and acting out on their fantasies because they have found someone who shares them. And that is a pretty scary thought. There is no anctidotal or empirical data that proves that’s what happening, or will happen, but I write fiction and it stuck in my head and it was something that came up later in the story.

DAVIS: Do you lament the decline of the newspaper?

CONNELLY: Yes. My job here is to write a thriller - to be entertaining and keep the pages turning - but you always have an opportunity to say something or open up a window on something happening in the world, and what I chose, in this case, was to write about newspapers. I believe that a newspaper is a community tent pole. It holds up a lot of the community. I think you’ll get your information and news reporting and some of your community on the Internet for sure, but it definitely will not replace the newspaper. I just don’t know if a website, a blog, or any of that, will ever be the tent pole that the newspaper is.

DAVIS: It appears to me that the biggest source of news and information on the Internet today are the magazine and newspapers’ online editions. In my view, I think that newspapers are simply going to change from printing paper to posting the publication entirely on the Internet. It will be the same organizations and news and information products, but minus the costly paper and distribution costs.

CONNELLY: I think that they have started that, but have they been able to figure out how to stay financially viable if they are only on the Internet?

DAVIS: No, not yet. Rupert Murdock is planning to charge for access to his newspapers online. I hope this will not be the way to go. I only get the Philadelphia Inquirer in print but I read a dozen or so other newspapers online.

CONNELLY: I read a lot online too and I get a couple of real papers delivered. Yeah, they are shifting to the Internet, but that won’t last if they can’t find a model. A friend of mine at the Washington Post said someone has to invent the iPod for newspapers, something that captures the market and makes money, or they won’t survive, even on the Internet.

DAVIS: It seems that young people are doing all of their reading online. Reading a print newspaper or book seems to be going out of fashion.

CONNELLY: I have a 13-year-old daughter and I don’t know what we did right or wrong, as she loves reading books, but she is glued to the computer several hours a day. That is the future right there.

DAVIS: Having the newspaper versus technology backdrop makes your book more interesting, it seems to me. It also seems to me that crime fiction and thrillers often tackle subject matters more interesting and more serious than one sees in literary fiction. Of course, what is more serious than murder?

CONNELLY: I share that view. Some of it has to do with the contemporary nature of crime novels. I write at least a book a year. You see that more often in crime fiction, especially in a series. If you want to establish a series, you can’t go six years between books - you keep them coming. One of the positive sides of that kind of hard work is you’re able to be almost contemporaneous with what is happening in the world. There is a reality in these books that you don’t get in the literary novels. A case in point is 9/11. There were several references to how 9/11 changed our world in crime fiction within months. Now you’re seeing the literary giants coming out with 9/11-inspired fiction. It’s all good stuff, but its many years after the fact.

DAVIS: We have always had good crime writers, but we appear to have more truly good crime writers today. In decades past, you might have one or two. We have much more than two today. Certainly, I think you are one of the leaders in the field.

CONNELLY: Thanks for saying that. I think what writers are seeing is an art form there. I loved reading crime fiction when I was growing up. When I read Raymond Chandler it changed my world. It was not only entertainment and stuff I wanted to read about, there was an art to it, certainly an artistic endeavor to it. If you talk to most crime writers - we all talk about this - we all knew we could write some serious stuff within this genre

DAVIS: I recall reading that Raymond Chandler once said something along the line that “people will still be reading the best of our work when so-called serious literature will be one with the telephone books.” I like that.


DAVIS: You mentioned that you have a researcher and even though you’ve worked as a newspaper reporter, did you do any research on the current state of newspapers?

CONNELLY: Well, I was kind of caught with my pants down. I haven’t been a reporter in 14 years. I wrote the first draft of the book using my experience and knowledge. But then I did something smart. I gave my manuscript to people that are currently in the business, two people in particular. I said read this and tell me if it works. They both liked the story as a thriller but they said I was seriously out of date in my view of how a newsroom works. Through researching with them and getting feedback from them, I was able to update the book. It was mostly on a technological level. In my first draft I didn’t have Angela Cook, one of the characters, filing a story from the press conference. It was the old way of hurrying back to get it into the paper. I didn’t have anybody filing for the Internet edition and those types of things. The story was all there. The instincts of a reporter have not changed, Jack McAvoy is still kind of my voice, but I did have to update and make it more of a newspaper story set in 2009 instead of 1994, when I quit being a reporter.

DAVIS: That was a criticism of David Simon on his last season of The Wire. The newspaper he depicted was pre-Internet. And a bunch of reporters picked up on that.

CONNELLY: I guess I didn’t pick up on that. I loved The Wire. It was part of the inspiration for me writing this.

DAVIS:: I’m a fan The Wire as well, but people who worked on daily newspapers said that this was not the way newspapers operate today. Perhaps he was writing from his perspective from a dozen years ago when he was last a newspaper reporter. That was one of the few negative things I read about the series.

CONNELLY: The Scarecrow does have that component in it, and the feedback I’ve gotten from some journalists is that it was there, but I can’t take credit for it. Thankfully my friends that I showed it too were not the type who would just say, oh, you’re wonderful. They did come back and help me.

DAVIS: Were you surprised or shocked by anything you learned, either in the declining world of newspapers or in technology?

CONNELLY: I worked at The LA Times and I read it online so I guess I’m part of the problem. I live in Tampa so I can’t get the paper. I knew the paper had declined since I worked there and but I didn’t realize how much until I started asking some questions. The biggest shocker was the loss in circulation. When I left there the daily circulation was around 1.2 million and I found out when I was researching this book it’s down to 750,000. I didn’t realize the decline was so sharp. As I was getting into this book and writing about people taking buy-outs or forced out and so forth, I became pessimistic about this and started thinking this isn’t a downward spiral for the printed page, it’s a death spiral. As you say, it will resurface in other forms on the Internet so perhaps it’s not a death spiral.

DAVIS: Newspapers claim the Internet is stealing newspaper advertising, but newspapers are also selling advertising on their Internet sites. But I guess not enough.

CONNELLY: The stuff that newspapers used to offer readers are really shrinking.

DAVIS: I love your comment in the novel that the news is on the web overnight, so the newspaper should be called The Daily Afterthought. That was clever.

CONNELLY: That was ripped from my own editor.

DAVIS: You mentioned that Jack McEvoy was your voice. Is the character autobiographical?

CONNELLY: Not the details of his life, growing up in Colorado and having a twin, but what is autobiographical is his view of the business. So when I’m writing this story I’m not pushing my chair back away from the computer and rubbing my chin, wondering what this character would do. I just wrote what I would do. He says what I would say and thinks what I would think. So in that way we’re pretty close. I don’t know if that qualifies as autobiographical.

DAVIS: Do you find it easier to write about McAvoy than a detective like Harry Bosch?

CONNELLY: Yes, definitely, because I do have that process of pushing back and thinking what would Bosch do, what would he say? How would he react? And it takes longer. I wrote this book very quickly, just like The Poet. I didn’t have that middle step. It just came out of me - this is what I would say.

DAVIS: Raymond Chandler is one of my favorite writers and I read that you became interested in crime after reading Raymond Chandler in college.

CONNELLY: I was already interested in crime and I was reading a lot of it before I read Chandler. I had this bias when I was a teenager. I wanted to read contemporary crime stories. This was in the 1970s. I didn’t feel like reading a book set in 40s in LA. I skipped Chandler. Obviously I heard about him and he had been recommended, but I was not interested. Then I saw The Long Goodbye, the Robert Altman movie, which was contemporary. I had not yet read Chandler so I just saw this cool story set in LA and that made me pick up the book. Even though the book was set a couple decades earlier, I realize this book was even better than the movie.

DAVIS: After reading Chandler, did you become a crime reporter with the idea of later writing crime fiction?

CONNELLY: Yes. After I went through that whole Chandler thing, I went into journalism because I wanted a press pass that would get me in the police stations to learn about crime.

DAVIS: Besides Chandler, what other writers influenced you?

CONNELLY: The biggest was Joseph Wambaugh and Ross MacDonald. Those three were very important to me. I was also reading a lot of true crime.

DAVIS: Did crime films or TV crime shows influence you as well?

CONNELLY: Definitely. Bullitt with Steve McQueen was a big one. My mother didn’t like crime movies, but my dad loved them so he was always taking me to R-rated movies when I was 12. So I saw everything into the 1970s. Kojak and Mannix were also influential. I loved them all.

DAVIS: Clint Eastwood made a good film from your book Blood Work. How was your experience in working with him?

CONNELLY: I tried to suggest that he not change some stuff, but he had his reasons. He sent me the script and I had objections. He didn’t even have to respond, but he sat down and had long conversations with me. He tried to tell me his reasons, which were cinematic as opposed to the printed word story.

DAVIS: I’ve heard that Clint Eastwood is a true gentleman and a total professional.

CONNELLY: He is a very good guy and he was very good to me.

DAVIS: Why do you think crime stories are so compelling and so popular with readers?

CONNELLY: There are all kinds of reasons. The stakes are high. People are making very serious choices and deep down we all want to know how we would react when the chips are down and we have to make choices with pretty high consequences. I think that is one of the basic things that attracts us to crime stories. There is also a subconscious thing that it is a complicated world and often things are tied up with order being restored in crime novels. There is a comfort in that and what you touched on earlier, these books are very contemporary and they reflect what’s going on in the world. Personally, as a reader, that’s what draws me to them.

DAVIS: Is Harry Bosch based on a detective or detectives you knew as a reporter?

CONNELLY: Yes, in part. I was influenced by many different detectives and I took from them all. He is also influenced by some of those characters we talked about in shows and movies and fictional detectives from books. So he comes from all over, especially in the beginning. In more recent years, I matched him kind of closely to one specific detective in the LAPD. He does what Harry does, like the early retirement thing that Harry did. Since Harry came back to the police department in The Closers he has been kind of following the career path and even some of the same cases as this detective.

DAVIS: Harry Bosch is a troubled character, isn’t he? I suppose that is one of the things that makes him interesting.

CONNELLY: When you write a book you are a slave to drama and one of the ways to create drama is to have your character have obstacles in front of him. A guy who is troubled, who has difficulty with women and supervisors and getting along - feeling he is an outsider looking in - all these things are ways of bringing drama to the forefront and keeping your reader plugged in.

DAVIS: When you were a reporter did you have good relations with the cops?

CONNELLY: With some of them, yeah. With some of them, no. Especially when I worked in LA where the police department is very media-savvy because one of the main centers of media entertainment. Nearly every cop on the beat understands that something said to a reporter can blow up in his face. When I worked in smaller communities away from LA, like Fort Lauderdale, Florida, I could just walk into the homicide bureau and sit down and just chat and have complete access. That never happened in Los Angeles. They don’t let you near people until they can trust you. It was a much harder job in LA. You make some inroads and you get sources and some sources become friends. Some places you never get through. As an institution, the LAPD and The LA Times hate each other.

DAVIS: Do the cops like Harry Bosch?

CONNELLY: Yes, they like him. I have much better access to police now than when I was a reporter. I get more genuine stories and feelings about the job from them.

DAVIS: Do you feel in some ways you’re still a reporter? Your copy is just different.

CONNELLY: That’s kind of funny to say, but that’s the way I believe.

DAVIS: Do you miss daily journalism or some aspect of daily journalism?

CONNELLY: I miss the camaraderie of the newsroom but as far as writing daily journalism, I kind of feel like I do it. I try to get my books as accurate as possible and I do research like a reporter.

DAVIS: I reviewed your latest novel, Nine Dragons, for The Philadelphia Inquirer, but I’d like to hear you describe the novel.

CONNELLY: It’s a Bosch novel and it been brewing for a while. It is a story about Harry’s daughter, who has been referenced obliquely in the books up to now, and that relationship between father and daughter comes out front. There is a mystery aspect to it and a homicide and Harry is trying to find out who is responsible, but the main focus is his relationship with his daughter.

DAVIS: Can you explain the title?

CONNELLY: Harry goes to Hong Kong in the book and Kowloon, which means Nine Dragons, is part of Hong Kong.

DAVIS: I visited Hong Kong when I was in the Navy years ago. I loved the place. Did you go there?

CONNELLY: Yes, when I researched the book. Very interesting place.

DAVIS: Thanks for the interview and I look forward to reading your next book.

Below is a link to my Philadelphia Inquirer review of Connelly's novel Nine Dragons:

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