Having read practically all of Michael Connelly’s books and being very much inspired by his character, Detective Harry Bosch, when writing my novel No Man’s Land, it was great to return to my roots as a journalist, sit down with him at the Wharf during the 2015 Sydney Writers’ Festival and interview him.
He’s a real master of the craft and I felt very fortunate to be able to ask him all those questions that have been bubbling away in my unconscious for years. And I’m pleased to say he seemed like a very decent bloke.
His books have sold 58 million copies worldwide, have been translated into 39 languages, and have won dozens of awards including the Edgar. Now Bosch is a television series with Connelly working as a writer and producer. It airs in Australia on SBS One from 29 July 2015.
He never showed his first two novels to anyone. His third novel, the Black Echo, was published in 1992 and won the Mystery Writer’s of America Edgar Award. Since then he’s never looked back as a writer. Today all he does is write and promote his books.
The importance of character
One of the real pleasures of Connelly’s novels is that as a reader you feel totally engaged with his main characters Bosch and Micky Haller, a lawyer, in the Lincoln Lawyer series. You see and feel the world through their eyes, understand their motivation and logic and go on a journey with them.
“It is all about character, character, character,” Connelly said. “I’m always looking for something that reveals who Bosch is. I’m always looking to add a little note of character. Whether it be a memory or a line of inner dialogue or a piece of back story.”
For instance, he gave his character the name Hieronymus Bosch (even though everyone calls him Harry), after the Dutch painter of the same name because it gave him the opportunity to add an extra character detail. Bosch’s paintings are of a world gone wrong and remind Connelly of a crime scene.
Character and structure – two sides of the one coin – one exists to reveal the other
I told him how in our classes we often quoted Sean Ryan, the creator of the detective cable television show, The Shield, talking about structure. Ryan said that what drove the show’s story writing process was not the clues, the weapons or the murders but rather the character’s emotional arc.
“That’s right,” Connelly said. “That stuff (the clues, weapons etc) are all part of the mystical art of writing these kinds of stories. At one level none of that stuff matters, but it is needed.”
According to Connelly, it is the scenes in his novels that best reveal the character of Bosch that resonate with both the writer and the reader.
“When I look back at five scenes from the Harry Bosch books I’ve written over twenty years,” he said, “the scenes that stand out are not him arresting anyone or shooting a bad guy, it is Harry dealing with petty politics or trying to work in the bureaucracy.”
He quotes a scene from one his books, which I remember well, where a female bureaucrat won’t give Bosch the information he needs for his case. So, while she is out of the room, Bosch moves her desk. On her return she bangs into it and spills her drink, creating a sense of poetic justice.
“Those character details,” Connelly said, “defines what Harry Bosch is all about.”
The heart of a story
I told Connelly that for this interview I tried to articulate to myself why I kept getting drawn back to his novels.
What I came up with was this. That there is a deeper theme running through all his books, which I believe most people respond to. I summed up my thoughts in the following couple of sentences.
The reality of the human experience is that like Bosch, we are all ultimately alone in a challenging and often hostile world. What gets Bosch through is his commitment to doing the next right thing no matter what his personal circumstances. And at the end of many of the stories, what saves him is his openness to love whether it be that of a woman or his daughter.
“I hadn’t thought of it quite like that,” Connelly said. “But I like what you are saying. His sense of fairness – everyone counts or nobody counts – is the bedrock of that character. Someone being true to themselves in a very chaotic world is certainly appealing.”
I then went on to try and articulate what I believed was one of the reasons that readers such as me connected with such characters at a deep level.
When we read about someone like Bosch acting nobly, it makes us feel good for Bosch, feel good about humanity and ultimately feel good about ourselves. As we can imagine ourselves acting like Bosch if put in a similar situation.
“That line – I’d like to think I’d act the same way – resonates with me,” Connelly said. “I think that’s what many writers aim to do.
“People often ask me – am I like Harry Bosch? I would like to think I would act like Harry when that moment arises when the chips are down and someone has to step up. I am hoping I would do that.”
We all would.
When Connelly started out writing his first novels, he used to work nights as he had a full-time job working as a crime reporter on a newspaper. These days he gets to write whenever he wants. But when he is starting out on a story, he likes to write in a darkened room using the same lamp he wrote with twenty years ago.
He doesn’t keep a word count or a set number of hours. The most important thing for him was to do something that advances his story every day.
“An advance in the story can be anything,” he said, “a paragraph, one line of story or a piece of dialogue. As long as I’ve moved the story along, I’ve had a good day. If I have a couple of hundred good days, I’ll have a book.
“I take a bit of a battering ram approach. I always re-read what I’ve written the day before to get his head into my story and create the momentum of the day. And when I’m writing and if something is not quite right, I’ll move on because I know I’ll come back and fix it. For me it’s all about momentum.”
He does a lot of research and always goes to the location of all scenes in his novels, but doesn’t take notes or photos. And he only uses what is necessary to move the story forward.
When it comes to the actual writing, he said he sits down and often writes a lot of crap, allowing himself to make mistakes along the way, hunting inspiration down with a club.
He very much believes in the power of re-writing and editing. “Re-writing is king,” he said. “Whether you make it or don’t make it is in the re-write.”
Final thoughts on writing
“Never lick your finger and hold it into the wind,” Connelly said. “When it comes to what you want to write. Look inside. What kind of story do you want to write? What kind of characters do you want to write about?
“If you want to be a writer, then write. Don’t think about it, do it. Every writing experience is a learning process. The more you do it, the better you will get.”
He said he intends to keep writing Bosch procedural novels.
“Whatever I want to do as a writer can be done in that framework,” he said. “I hope I’m writing for another 20 years. I have a strong connection with Harry and the way he sees the world. I love having him in my life. It’s what makes it all worthwhile.”
I feel exactly the same way about my main character Russell Carter in No Man’s Land. I am well into the second book in the series and love sharing the journey with Carter as it nourishes my spirit on a daily basis. It is one of the great pleasures of writing fiction.