John Connolly: 'Never listen to readers'

John Connolly has taken a break from his popular Charlie Parker series of crime novels and ventured into weird new territory with 'The Book of Lost Things'. Tim Martin meets him in Waterford to discuss his change of direction
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Is John Connolly the nicest bloke in crime fiction? Not for much longer. By the time he publishes The Book of Lost Things, his eighth novel, we'll have to have a new title for him. Nicest Bloke in Crossover Wartime Fairytale Fantasy, perhaps. Or Nicest Bloke in the Adolescent Psycho-fable Subgenre. Still, for this week, and this interview, he's safe.

The Book of Lost Things is going to fox booksellers as much as it surprises devotees of Charlie Parker, the weary American private detective who stars in five of Connolly's previous novels. Set not in contemporary Maine but in England during World War Two, this new book tells the story of David, a troubled, bookish 12-year-old whose father remarries after his mother dies. Racked with grief and obsession, he soon finds himself entering a shadow-world of allusion and illusion, built from stories and staffed by the characters from his bookshelves. This is a place in which the Seven Dwarfs are a gang of fretful Marxists downtrodden by a slatternly Snow White, in which a gay knight rides to save his lover from the clutches of Sleeping Beauty, in which the Loathly Lady tears apart her hapless courtier after he turns her down. And haunting the peripheries of David's mind is the Crooked Man, whose only desire is to be told the name of David's little brother...

"I don't think this is a book for children at all," is almost the first thing Connolly says. We meet in the cavernous atrium of a bookshop in Waterford, southeast Ireland, where he has obligingly driven down from his native Dublin to visit relatives and meet for an interview. Except the relatives aren't there this week, so he's driven hours just to meet me. He dismisses this with a grin and a wave of his hand, instantly vindicating all those people who said over and over again that he was the nicest bloke in crime fiction. His speech is rapid and lilting, his laughter frequent, his concentration absolute. Once he gets hold of a point he starts practically speaking in italics.

"I suppose," he goes on, "I wanted to write a book about childhood for adults. I really don't know how it's going to be taken, but to me it seems like a logical progression from what I did before. I've always been fascinated by grotesque fairy tales. I've always used the structure of stories within stories. I've always been interested in childhood and in connecting the past with the present. But I think you need to build up a certain amount of goodwill before you can do something like this. If you write 20 crime novels and then say, well, now I'm going to write a piece of, you know... romantic whimsy, and I trust you will all race out and buy it, most people are going to say well, hang on a second, you may have suddenly discovered your muse but that's a bit late for me. But there is a point where you can say: look, I'm not always going to do the same thing and yet the things I do will be thematically consistent with what I've done before. I hope."

Parts of the novel are written from his own experience - "I developed OCD for a brief period as a teenager," he says, "and I remember my parents taking me to a psychiatrist, being made to draw pictures and drawing these incredibly intricate things and not being sure why I was being asked these questions" - and he developed it as such a personal project that he refused to take a contract from his publisher to complete it. "I thought if I was going to do that I'd take it for something easier," he says. "Even I didn't know how it was going to turn out. But it's as close to the book I had in my head as I've ever managed to get."

There are, of course, risks in breaking stride with the mystery genre, where many livings depend on giving the public what they want. Connolly agrees: "Mystery readers are very loyal, and they'll look forward to their book every year, even if it's a bad book. They'll go out next year and buy another one in the hope that it'll be a bit better."

A glint of mischief enters his eyes. "And there are certain writers who have made a whole career out of the eternal optimism of the mystery reader. I can think of a couple. I got an email from a woman who works in this bookstore in New York saying 'Well, we've ordered x number of copies but there was this collective groan from our readers when we heard it wasn't going to be a Charlie Parker novel!' Now that's not really what you want to hear." His eyes start out a bit. "Actually it makes you want to beat your head against the table, you know?

"Anyway," he goes on merrily, "the last thing you want to do is to listen to readers. The nice lady who runs my website started a poll so people could nominate their favourite book. And my career looks like a downward ski slope, you know? It's profoundly depressing!" He is laughing hard. "It picks up again last year for The Black Angel, so it looks a bit like a heart patient who's going to expire and then just took a little nudge at the end. You can't listen to your readers, you really can't."

Connolly's career has been anything but a downward slope. His first novel, Every Dead Thing, was a near-instant bestseller on its release in 1999, a precedent followed by each subsequent Parker novel. The exception is Nocturnes, a collection of supernatural stories in the M R James tradition that Connolly considers "some of the best stuff I've ever written - and the book that fewest people will read".

But he refuses charmingly to give even the slightest toot on his own trumpet. "Like most first-time writers I never thought that I was going to be published," he says. "It still takes me by surprise to see myself in print, or to see myself still in print." He started out as a journalist - "I didn't write fiction, it was probably my father's realism that said that most people are not going to make a living by writing books" - but discovered over five years that he wasn't cut out for it. "I got frustrated," he says. "I sat down and wrote what became the prologue of Every Dead Thing - I spent about six months writing that prologue and thinking, I'll just go over it one more time, dot all my Is, cross my Ts, and then four-and-a-half years later I had a book. I never thought that anybody would want it. I was just so relieved when somebody did because I really couldn't take being a journalist any more."

Connolly seems now to know almost everyone in the business and outside. On James Lee Burke: "I interviewed Burke. My God, he's the real deal. Some of these guys, they're just what you get in the books. Most crime writers look like they'd mind your bike for you while you went in and got a pie. But Burke - no. And Jeff Deaver - he looks like a criminal. He looks like one of his own villains. And he plays off on it, you know, he knows it." On Warren Zevon: "He was a rabid crime fiction fan, you know that? Devoted. A huge Ross MacDonald fan." He draws parallels between Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian and Tommy Lee Jones's latest film, discusses the sonic merits of At the Drive-In over And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead, quotes John Donne. There's even Dan Brown: "I have friends who live in the same town as him in New Hampshire. He has bodyguards when he goes to the barber shop."

Does Connolly have any overenthusiastic fans? "No. No. Not really. Well. One or two people tried to ask me out on the internet. And someone wanted to know where all my second-hand books were sold so she could buy them."

What?

"All my used books. From my, just, you know, when I get rid of them, having read them. Where they go." He boggles his eyes madly, acquires a slack-jawed grin. "It's quite mild, by comparison. I seem to have normal readers. I'm really fortunate."

Connolly is currently hard at work finishing the new Parker novel, which, like all the rest, he is writing from the hip. "I don't plan at all," he cheerfully admits. "I work it out as I go along. I usually know the first chapter and I may know one or two of the central characters, and I may have an idea for what kicks it off, but after that it's just plugging away." And the subject? "It's called The Unquiet," he says, "and it's a very slow, painstaking story about... " He throws himself about awkwardly. "It's about... when I say what it's about even I kind of wince a little bit because..." There is a very long pause, then all at once he says: "Well, I guess it's about child abuse. And yet I've read so many nasty, exploitative books about child abuse, which are kind of wallowing in it, so I wanted to write something without a single explicit scene in it, or any reference to what is done. And there isn't. There's very little violence and it's a miniature compared to what went before. I think maybe a book or two along the line there'll be one that returns to The Black Angel, that maybe picks up on those themes, but I wanted to write something that was much more intimate. We'll see."

After the interview, we slope off for lunch, where I thank Connolly again for making the long drive down to Waterford. No, no, he says, he was glad to give his new car a run down the country. Then he stops, as though he's said something wrong. What kind of car is it, I ask? He mutters something indistinct and looks away. Pressed, he meets my eye again.

"It's not a boast," he says.

No, no. Of course not.

"I bought a second-hand Mondeo, but I had some money left over, so I got this..."

It's a vintage Mustang, he finally admits, through contortions. A powder-blue one. He seems to feel that this is a near-criminal indulgence in the life of a high-earning novelist. Well - how did the drive down go, I ask? And then the nicest guy in crime fiction, or whatever he is now, grins from ear to ear.

"It went like a dream," he says.

'The Book of Lost Things' is published by Hodder on 7 September at £12.99. To buy a copy for £11.99 (free p&p), call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897

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