John Connolly was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1968 and has, at various points in his life, worked as a journalist, a barman, a local government official, a waiter and a dogsbody at Harrods department store in London. He studied English in Trinity College, Dublin and journalism at Dublin City University, subsequently spending five years working as a freelance journalist for The Irish Times newspaper, to which he continues to contribute.
His first novel, Every Dead Thing, was published in 1999, and introduced the character of Charlie Parker, a former policeman hunting the killer of his wife and daughter. Dark Hollow followed in 2000. The third Parker novel, The Killing Kind, was published in 2001, with The White Road following in 2002. In 2003, John published his fifth novel - and first stand-alone book - Bad Men. In 2004, Nocturnes, a collection of novellas and short stories, was added to the list, and 2005 marked the publication of the fifth Charlie Parker novel, The Black Angel.
John Connolly is based in Dublin but divides his time between his native city and the United States, where each of his novels has been set.
Author biography courtesy of Atria Books.
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Some fun and fascinating facts gleaned from our interview with Connolly:
"I once worked as a debt collector, although I didn't know it at the time. I was just delivering the letters for a courier company, and only discovered they were final notices when a little man chased me out of his sawmill with an ax."
"I did my graduate thesis on the first closure of Jerusalem to the Palestinians, during the course of which I a) was involved in a car crash on the Gaza Strip, which provided the residents with their entertainment for the day; b) was imprisoned briefly by Egyptian immigration officials, an experience I can heartily advise everyone to avoid; and c) discovered that I was a worse photographer than a writer, as none of my pictures came out."
"While interviewing my idol, James Lee Burke, for The Irish Times, I managed to get lost in the Rattlesnake Wilderness while out walking with Burke. His dogs found me. Eventually."
"I can cook a pretty good Cajun meal. I know a bit about wine, but only South African wine."
"I love going to the movies, but think cell phones have made it a less enjoyable experience than before. In fact, I think cell phones have made life that little bit less bearable, and I can't imagine how awful it will be when people can use them on aeroplanes. In the last couple of books I've written, people have died terrible deaths because of their fascination with cell phones. I always feel a little calmer after I've killed someone in print."
"Rather embarrassingly, the only pseudonym I've used is a woman's name. Earlier this year, one of the editors at Hodder Ireland, the Irish arm of my U.K. publisher, announced that she was putting together a book of stories, entitled Moments, for tsunami relief, with all of the contributions to be written by female writers. She asked if I might be interested in submitting a story under a pseudonym, just to see if anyone would spot the interloper. I agreed to try, although admittedly there was alcohol taken at the time and had she asked me to swim naked down the Amazon with ‘Pirahna Food' written on my back I would probably have agreed to that as well. The story was called ‘The Cycle' and appeared under the pseudonym ‘Laura Froom' in the book, which was the name of the vampire in one of the short stories in my Nocturnes collection. So there: my secret shame has been revealed."
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In the summer of 2005, John Connolly took some time out to talk with us about some of his favorite books, authors, and pastimes:
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
Gosh, it's so hard to pick one. I think writers are the products of so many other writers, and of so many books that they've read. (Never trust a writer who claims to be a complete original, or sui generis. They're either liars, or completely egotistical.) I think it was Oscar Wilde who said that a true writer will read much more than he or she will ever write, and I still get excited about new books, as well as old books that I discover long after I should have read them.
I'm going to have to cheat, I'm afraid, and pick more than one, but I'll try to limit the selections to one per genre. The first mystery novel I ever read was Ed McBain's Let's Hear it for the Deaf Man, and I devoured every 87th Precinct book that I could lay my hands on afterwards. It was on a bookshelf in my grandmother's house in Kerry, and my father had picked it as his vacation reading. My father, who was a very intelligent man, preferred newspapers and didn't really read books, except for that two week period when we were on vacation, so picking a book was a big deal for him. If he picked the wrong book, it could be disastrous. He once opted for I, Claudius by Robert Graves, and was still reading it two summers later, in part because he kept forgetting who everyone was. That was a bit of a mistake for him, so Let's Hear It was probably a wiser choice, as it was fairly slim by comparison. So we took it in turns to read Let's Hear It, and I suddenly realized just how entertaining a mystery novel could be, and how you could become so involved in the lives of characters that you would want to return to them, over and over again. Only mystery and thrillers (and, to some degree, fantasy/science fiction) really seem to use recurring characters so consistently in this way. It's one of the attractions of the genre, for me.
McBain was followed closely in my affections by Ross MacDonald, who taught me the importance of empathy in mystery fiction, and James Lee Burke, who is still, I think, the best prose stylist in the genre, and creates wonderful villains. Those three writers set me on the path to becoming a mystery writer myself.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
Picking ten books is almost as hard as picking one, and I feel very conscious of the ones I've left out of this list. Ask me tomorrow, and I might include Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy here, or Ross Macdonald's The Chill, or even the Calvin and Hobbes books of Bill Watterson. Still, for what it's worth, and with some reservations:
I love the English ghost story writer M. R. James, who, long after his death, still has no serious rivals in the field, and whose Ghost Stories of an Antiquary is one of the few books that really deserves the description "spine-chilling."
The poet e. e. cummings changed the way I looked a poetry, and opened my eyes to the kind of imagery that could be added to a writer's arsenal. I still treasure his Collected Poems, in particular, the poem that begins, "somewhere i have never traveled." His six nonlectures are also fascinating, as is the choice of poems that ends each one. For a poet who has been criticized a lot in the years since his death, and whose reputation has taken something of a battering, there is a great deal of humility in these lectures, and humility in a writer is a rare enough virture to be accorded considerable respect.
I am dumbstruck in admiration for Cormac McCarthy, and his Blood Meridien in particular. His prose style knocked me sideways, and confirmed my belief that, in the right hands, any genre (and the western genre was regarded by many as being pretty inferior to literary fiction, rightly or wrongly) can become the stuff of great literature.
Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights is one of only a handful of books that I've read more than once. It's a very modern novel, in its way, and its early pages, with the ghostly Cathy scraping at the window, remain etched in my memory.
Another novel that I've returned to again and again is Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier, which colored my view of the many ways in which one can write about relationships. In fact, it probably colored my view of relationships as well, and my first serious love affair revolved around the exchange of a copy of this book. The woman in question, who was older than I, loved it too. Didn't stop her breaking my heart, though.
Speaking of heartbreak, I read Richard Ford's The Sportswriter in the aftermath of that breakup, and its final pages resonated with me because of that. It was one of those instances where the subject of a novel dovetails precisely with the very moment in one's life when that subject becomes most relevant. Here are the words that made me add The Sportswriter to my list of essential books: "As I've said, life has one certain closure. It is possible to love someone, and no one else, and still not live with that one person, or even see her."
Bleak House by Charles Dickens is, for me, simply the greatest novel ever written. It's hugely daunting until you pick it up and start reading it, whereupon the very first page, with its description of the London fog, picks you up like a cork on a wave and carries you easily all the way through its considerably length and deposits you, exhausted but grateful, at the other end, a changed person.
The Great Shark Hunt by Hunter S. Thompson confirmed me in my desire to become a journalist. It's a collection of his writings, assembled from his best work and published before he became something of a parody of himself. His influence on journalism hasn't been entirely positive, though, as a great many later journalists all fancied being a version of Hunter S. Thompson and, as some of his later writing proved, even Thompson wasn't very good at that.
Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak was the first Russian novel that I ever read, and I felt very proud of myself for finishing it. In fact, I was so proud I read it again a few years later, and still loved it. I hadn't encountered epic storytelling like that before. It paved the way for reading Tolstoy's War and Peace some years later, and I loved that almost as much, apart from the very tedious lecture that ends the book. Frankly, I skipped that part.
I find it hard to separate my final choices, so I will plead indulgence and mention both:
Donald Barthelme's Forty Stories, and the entire Jeeves & Wooster output of P. G. Wodehouse (because, really, how can you have a favorite among such riches?) Barthelme's short stories are unlike any others that I've ever read -- funny, perplexing, touching, challenging. And Wodehouse? Well, no matter how bad I feel, Jeeves and Wooster can still raise my spirits, and that is a gift that few writers bring.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
I'm a huge Laurel & Hardy fan, so their short films have a treasured place on my shelves. Their work is the stuff of genius, and no words can do them justice. I also love the first four or five Marx Brothers films, mainly for the wordplay, and the early films of Steve Martin. As you can see, I'm something of a comedy buff.
I'm trying to shy away from the usual suspects, the films you see in most top ten lists, and instead I'm opting for films that, though maybe not the greatest ever made, are ones that I can watch with pleasure, or some other strong, positive emotion, again and again:
Walter Hill's Southern Comfort; Atom Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter (which, thanks to sensitive direction, wonderful music by Mychael Danna, and great central performances from Ian Holm and Sarah Polley, is actually better than the Russell Banks novel on which it is based); Lost in Translation; North By Northwest.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I'm an obsessive music purchaser, and I put together a CD of music to go with The Black Angel, containing songs that had featured in the books, or that influenced them in some way. I'm a big alternative country fan, but that's become a little bit of a limiting description for artists as distinct from each other as, say, Lambchop and The Jayhawks, in the same way that mystery or crime fiction now encompasses all kinds of writing that an earlier generation might not have admitted to the fold at all. I don't listen to music when I write, though. I just can't. I need silence.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. I just think they're the best books published in the last ten years for children, Harry Potter included. Pullman recognizes the small adult that resides in children, and speaks to that adult. There is no sentimentality. (Rowling, by contrast, speaks to the child in adults, and is far less challenging as a result, I think.) Pullman's trilogy is so alive with ideas and possibilities that a book group could discuss it for a month and still only scrape the surface of what lies beneath.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
I like giving signed books, particularly by writers that are important to the person receiving the gift. I tend to keep an eye out for them when I travel, and pick them up along the way. By the time Christmas comes along, my shopping is pretty much done.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I tend to write in the mornings, finishing up at lunchtime, and then I may write again in the evenings. When I'm doing the first draft of a book I write slowly, so I set myself very easily attainable goals for each day: maybe 1000 words, although I'll usually exceed that. My desk is littered with bits of paper, pens, notebooks, computer disks, letters that I should have answered ages ago, reminders to myself to do things, a diary that I keep forgetting to use.... It really is a bit of a shambles at present, but I plan to clean it up by the end of the week. Honest.
What are you working on now?
I'm rewriting a draft of a book called The Book of Lost Things, which is not a crime novel and is quite a departure for me. It goes back to my fascination with folk tales and the childhood imagination. I don't know if my publishers will even want it, but it was what I wanted, or needed, to write, and I've always written my books for that reason. I've just been fortunate that enough people have gone along with what I've written to enable me to keep publishing.
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?
Gosh, it was a long night for me. My first book took five years to write, and halfway through it I decided to test the waters by sending out the early chapters, as I was broke and finding it hard to fund the research. I was rejected by every publisher bar none, and every agent bar none. I stuck with the agent, Darley Anderson, and when the book was finished it ended up with the only publisher that had actually responded positively to it, which was Hodder in the U.K. I got rejection letter that had messages scrawled in pen at the bottom, telling me how much the editor hated the book. It was really soul destroying. Frankly, I'm not sure how I persevered. I think that if Darley had not come back to me, I'd just have given up and assumed that they were right and I was wrong.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be?
Oh, that's hard. By the time I get to read them, they've usually already been discovered, or are on their way towards discovery. I tend to talk up writers that I like, in the hope that those who haven't read them yet might pick them up.
I liked Sean Doolittle's first book, Dirt; Chris Mooney's third book, Remembering Sarah; Robert Littell's The Company, and Littell has been around for a very long time. In the end, I suppose that any writer that you come to for the first time is a "new" writer for you, and the discovery is unique for each reader.
There's an Irish writer, Shane Dunphy, who is about to publish his first book. He has worked a lot with troubled children, and it's based on his experiences. I hope to read it in the coming weeks but, from what I know about it already, I think it could be something very special.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Persevere. The temptation is to give up on a book before it's finished. I have doubts about every book that I write, and they usually start to rear their head somewhere between 20,000 and 40,000 words into the book. I'd bet a decent sum of money that most abandoned books are put aside at about the same point.
Don't necessarily write about what you know, but know what you're writing about. If you want to write about 18th century France, then fine, do that, but go to the trouble of doing your research. If you take the lazy way out, then people will spot your mistakes, and there is nothing worse for a reader than to have the delicate bubble of fiction burst by finding an inaccuracy in the text.
Be disciplined. Write a little every day, if you can. Even 100 words a day quickly starts to build.
Don't sit around waiting for the muse to strike you. She won't. Writing is hard, and often the words need to be forced out. Just because you don't feel like doing it doesn't mean that you shouldn't.
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