Edward Conlon is a detective with the NYPD. A graduate of Harvard, he has published columns in The New Yorker under the byline Marcus Laffey.
Author biography courtesy of Penguin USA.
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A few outtakes from our interview with Conlon:
"In college, I acted once. A Beckett play, Krapp's Last Tape, which was a big bite for a first-time actor -- it's a one-man show, lasting nearly an hour. The setup, in the most reductive TV Guide-type summary, is this: an old man listens to a tape-recorded diary he made in his youth. He talks to himself, sometimes, too. That's about it. I wore a gray wig and had to walk like a geezer. There were also bits of silent-comedy slapstick, some of which involved a banana.
"I found acting excruciating in two opposite senses: you're truly alone out there, speaking your lines and making your faces, and at the same time, you feel the audience so completely you might as well be in one big bed with them. You feel every cough as if it were on your neck, every laugh sounds purred in your ear, and every silence brings on a delirium of neurotic speculation: Didn't they hear me? Do they hate me? Does this wig make me look fat? We did the play in a dormitory basement, with 70 or 80 seats, but if it was in Yankee Stadium, I don't think my sense of the crowd would have been less acute. Opening night went well, a blur of adrenaline and nerves. People clapped at the end, and I didn't soil myself.
"The second show was a nightmare, beginning with me. In any production, you have a lot of people doing things for you -- makeup, costume, props, let alone all the coaching and advice, the fidgeting and fuss -- and what begins as luxury turns quickly into seeming a necessity, and from there it becomes a matter of civil right. I had always thought of myself as a fairly self-reliant person, and maybe I am, but it apparently took all of one day and a round of hearty applause to abandon dignity and character altogether. You call this a banana? I can't work with this! In truth, it was a bit off -- we were all tired, things hadn't been set up, all kinds of people kept dropping by to socialize, and nobody had the balls or brains to chase them away. One notorious campus dolt came and wouldn't leave, spouting pompous opinions and pointless advice, in a British accent that make him all the more despicable. I was later intrigued to learn that he was from Staten Island. Not long before curtain, he brayed that he had to leave to get stoned, and the show went on.
"It wasn't bad, at first. Some bits that got big laughs the first night didn't go over, but there were others that got better response this time around. In general, it felt a little more forced and mechanical, less felt. And then there was a cough, and a lot more coughing, which spreads in a crowd like an epidemic. I had to geezer-walk backstage at one point, and two people left, in a hurry. I heard every footstep and hated them. You bastards! So what if this stinks! You couldn't wait another fifteen minutes? For a moment, it seemed like a real choice: finish the play, or hunt them down. I finished the play, quickly, out of contempt. When people clapped at the end, I thought they were kidding.
"After the audience had left, and I finished cursing them, it was pointed out to me that the sudden illness in the audience was not respiratory but gastro-intestinal. The Staten Islander had thrown up, and whoever was sitting next to him had waited until the backstage bit to haul him off. The rest of the audience had sat around a puddle of puke to watch the end of the play, which was very sporting of them.
I would never again wonder why actors were crazy."
"When I was a kid, my family would go out on my uncle's boat, around the city and up the Hudson. I remember seeing Hart Island, just off the Bronx in the Long Island Sound. Hart Island is New York City's Potter's Field, where unknown and unclaimed people are buried. The bodies are ferried over from City Island, and inmates are ferried over from the city jail at Rikers Island for the burial detail. Somewhere, there must be minutes from a 19th-century city council meeting that read, ‘All right, unless anyone has an even more eerie and mythological way to go with this, we're agreed?' My uncle, a cop in the Harbor Patrol, would visit the island to wander around. The thought of a picnic on the bones of 800,000 lost souls struck him as a fine thing. It didn't strike my father that way, and though I don't recall if my family ever disembarked there on one of our weekend trips, I suspect we did not.
"The place stuck with me, though, and I wrote a long piece about it that was the first story I had in The New Yorker. I didn't know anyone there. I showed up at the place with the manuscript, asked for an editor who was an acquaintance of a friend, threw it at him, and ran. It was a long story, some 60 pages in manuscript, largely because Hart Island is run by the Department of Corrections and it was months before I got there. I wrote about a detective at Missing Persons and a forensic anthropologist at the morgue. I talked to the coffin manufacturer. When I got to the island, I traced back one of the bodies, and found out how he'd ended up there. In any case, it was good work for me as a writer -- this was before I was a cop -- because I learned that, as a tactic, in dealing with the government or anyone else, it's a better thing to just show up.
"Not long after, I received a letter from a woman in Paris. She said that she had grown up in the Bronx, not far from where I lived, and that her father died when she was a young child, five or six years of age. No one in her family would ever speak of it, and now no one who knew what had happened was still alive. She had children of her own who approached adulthood, and she wanted to know what had happened. I believe that birth and death certificates are public information, and at the same time, you can't just go shopping for these documents. You'd think I'd know more now, after a decade as a cop, but I still don't. I did know that if I put on a suit and asked for them, with a brusque but cordial tone, my chances of obtaining them were better. At the Bureau of Vital Statistics, as I believe it is called, they provided me with the death certificate, from which I learned that the woman's father had committed suicide on New Year's Eve. Though that bare fact is bleak enough, by comparing the minimal information on the document with that of the woman's letter, I saw that he had hung himself, at home, probably a few yards away from where she slept. As a story, it opened up for me, as a kind of dark wonder, but I had genuine doubts about what to tell the woman. Suicide can be contagious, and it runs in families, and I imagined the old news escaping from the envelope like a virus when she opened it. Still, she had a right to know, and I wrote her to say what happened. I didn't expect a thank you. I didn't get one. I wonder about her sometimes.
"When I'm not working as a cop or writing, I'm immensely lazy. I barely move."
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During the winter of 2005, Edward Conlon took some time out to talk with us about some of his favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
Eugene O'Neill was my high school literary hero. Plays like Long Day's Journey shattered me, and immersion into his life and work left me amazed by how he came to write. I'm still in awe of how he could take a rough and often wretched past and remake it: as a nostalgic comedy in Ah, Wilderness; a brutal, naturalistic work like Journey; and, in the most stunning leap, to reimagine his parents' marriage as "mixed" in All God's Chillun Got Wings. There was something terrible and wonderful in all of these transformations; you could make any kind of story from an experience.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?The Heart of the Matter
The Great Gatsby
The Big Sleep
Halfway down this list, I was giving the authors' names, until I got to Tolstoy, when it seemed inane. Worse, I saw Homer coming up; you can't add "by Homer" without looking like a jackass. What if I gave the Bible, a true classic that was written -- don't you know -- by God? Such is the anxiety of influence, or of admitting it; the trick of reckoning what shaped you without claiming credit by association.
I can say that Graham Greene and Walker Percy both spoke to me deeply, that I felt a kinship of viewpoint, as well a an admiration of style. I wrote my college thesis on Beckett, on his trilogy of novels, Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnameable, as a kind of reverse commedia, a nihilistic one, and the purity of vision, beauty of line, and heartbreaking humor of it are extraordinary. I wrote another paper on Anna Karenina, which may have been more important for me as a writer, in that I broke it down into the basic architecture and engineering; I understood how you built something on this scale.
There is no writer of greater fluency than Nabokov, and though other books later seemed to me precious but useless objects, like Fabergé eggs -- he wouldn't object to the comparison, I think -- that kind of writing interests me less. Fitzgerald and Waugh have in some sense the same appeal, as the makers of whole worlds. Nothing is quite as perfect as Gatsby, no vehicle could make better use of both Fitzgerald's gifts and his limitations. Brideshead is not Waugh's best book; it gets a little creaky and forced at the end, but it reaches further. I can read the earlier comedies over and over.
Chandler and Flann O'Brien have never been lumped together before, I'm sure, but they make literature of the two idioms with which I'm most familiar -- the urban American and the Irish -- and they are somehow entertainments that are more than that, transcendent fun.
The Illiad is the daily news to me, rewritten in my mind. I have been a New York City cop for ten years, and it has been both battle and circus, foolish and heroic.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
John Ford was my father's favorite, and I came to conflate them to a degree: patriotic Irish-Americans with a passion for history. My father was a Marine in WWII and an FBI agent, and he shared Ford's view of the rugged nobility of the American enterprise, the epic scale and the brightness of promise. When I was younger, I thought they both reflected a less cynical age, but now, especially in towering works like The Searchers, madness and evil are confronted with great courage and clarity.
The counterpart to this sensibility is the work of Billy Wilder, with his agility and gimlet wit, in the comedies and noirs. It's the city cousin's take on things -- fierce, fast, and funny.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
Tom Waits, Johnny Cash, Rolling Stones. When I'm writing well, a long record can play and I won't hear a note.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
Classics that I missed in school or haven't gotten around to since: Proust, Jane Austen, Henry James, Dostoevsky.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
I used to write for The New Yorker, and one Christmas, I was able to get a bunch of copies of Family by Ian Frazier andUp in the Old Hotel, a collection of Joseph Mitchell, signed by the authors. Both are favorite writers, favorite books. I also tracked down Tom Wolfe -- hey, I'm a cop -- and arrived on his doorstep, unannounced, with a stack of Bonfire of the Vanities for autographs. Those were the best presents I ever gave.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
A couple of times a year, I escape to the woods to a friend's house for a week or two. It's very isolated, and though it's a cliché, it's immensely productive.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
I always wanted to write, but I didn't have anything to say. After college, I wrote a novel that remains in a desk drawer somewhere. Writing was fiction, as far as I understood it. By accident -- a dare, in fact -- I wound up riding the subways with a cop friend, and wrote about it in a long piece that combined history and immediate reportage, in a structure and style that was lifted from Ian Frazier. Shoplifted, really. But it led to more and more city stories, more often than not about cops and crime, which helped me to decide to become a cop. After that, I had to fight the stories off -- it's an embarrassment of riches.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be -- and why?
Marek Waldorf. I know him.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Write every day. Also, from my father: Never eat the shrimp salad on Monday. They hold it over from the weekend.
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