The Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival could have had no better opening event than John Connolly being interviewed by festival programming chair Mark Billingham.
Described by Billingham as “one of the greatest novelists in crime or any other genre”, Connolly, looking rock ’n’ roll in a leather jacket and jeans, was open, funny and warm, with a natural chemistry with his fellow author.
Though Connolly is now well known for his Charlie Parker series of gothic crime novels, the author admitted he was and remains an insecure writer. He began as a journalist on the Irish Times; over a period of five years there he wrote his first novel, Every Dead Thing, but he says “I didn’t expect to get published.” Every publisher and agent bar his current ones turned the novel down, yet it sold for a record advance for a debut Irish author. When a story ran in the Independent about his success, the literary editor at the Irish Times reportedly had to sit down hurriedly, muttering: “But he wasn’t even a good journalist!”
Despite now being a bestselling author, Connolly is “still convinced all of this will fall apart”. He still has the urge to abandon each book after 20,000 words or so, and admits that he has a need to win people over with his writing. “Writers are like vampires,” he told Billingham, “we have these sucking egos that need to be fed.”
Connolly discovered crime fiction through borrowing Black Cherry Blues by James Lee Burke from the library – a writer who he said was the best around. “I’ve never read a crime writer who is so interested in language and landscape,” said Connolly, also citing “the greatest Californian crime novelist” Ross Macdonald as his other main inspiration.
When he started writing, there was, he said, no tradition of Irish crime fiction. In the context of the Troubles – and a relationship with the British police that was full of friction – it seemed unimaginable to write fiction that depicted the kind of events going on for real every day. “I felt hugely stifled in Ireland,” said Connolly. “It was just buried in recession.”
However, arriving in England, Connolly found the crime writing community to be just as conservative and resistant to any form of experimentation. “A lot of people didn’t want the thing moving on,” said Connolly. “Mystery fiction didn’t have to be preserved in aspic between the death of Holmes and the birth of Poirot.”
Connolly brought to the genre a love of broader influences – the ghost stories of M.R. James and oral storytelling that goes with that (which inspired Nocturnes, his short stories recently written for BBC radio); gothic horror; supernatural fantasy and fairytales. As a child he had parallels to the troubled hero David in his magical (non-crime) novel The Book of Lost Things: “I was a solitary kid, who liked books and his own company.” Catholicism had imbued him with a sense of moral rootedness and the power of repentance; the death of his grandfather in the family home gave him a sense of mortality – so much so he was taken to see a psychiatrist as a child, who concluded he was “a bit of a worrier”.
Charlie Parker also has the best and worst aspects of his creator, Connolly said in answer to an audience member’s question. “His sense of humour is mine. And the worst aspect? I’m not quite a glass-is-half-empty person, but I sometimes get that way.”
With his books, however, Connolly definitely did not stand still. When a few Charlie Parker books had taken off, Connolly realised he had a series on his hands and began to play around with form and style, something that he says is vital for the author but not necessarily popular with readers or publishers.
“We have this two-book cushion,” he said of the writer’s chances after producing a failure in terms of sales – “The thing that is good for you as a writer is bad for you commercially.” This process of experimenting, said Connolly, teaches him new tricks he can carry on to the next book.
And he has two new books on the horizon. The first is new Charlie Parker thriller The Wrath of Angels – which Billingham revealed sees the return of a past villain. The second, fascinatingly, is a fat compendium of book-recommendation essays by crime writers around the world called Books to Die For, edited with Declan Burke. “I thought we should ask crime writers to pick a single book they would force on to a reader,” Connolly explained, saying that they didn’t set a word limit, hence some essays reaches into thousands of words, including Billingham’s “brilliant” one on The Maltese Falcon.
“It was a chance for writers to be passionate about books,” he concluded. Much like this event, in fact.
Books to Die For edited by John Connolly and Declan Burke and The Wrath of the Angels by John Connolly are both out on 30 August, published by Hodder