[NB This interview contains very mild spoilers for A Song of Shadows]
How’s the tour going?
It’s really only the second day – you catch me brim-full of enthusiasm. I’m looking at my suitcase already, kind of loathing it. I’m home in a month’s time…
Actually while I was waiting for you I was trying to get a tiny little bit of work done. I like driving myself, and once you’re in the car, you don’t get much done for the rest of the day really so you snatch a bit of time when you can. When I’m in South Africa, I have a couple of days off. I have an aim to bring home about 10,000 words somehow or another this month so that’ll be here and there. You don’t get a good run at things.
When I started, I could only work in my little office, sat in my desk in perfect silence. If I even heard a cricket in the distance, it would disturb me! I now haul my computer with me, and if there’s an hour over a cup of coffee, I’ll get something done, and at least I won’t feel guilty. It’s the guilt that gets me, the sense that I should be doing something. I know I’m kind of working but unless I’m writing, it doesn’t seem like work. It seems like something that’s ancillary to it.
If you know you’re only going to get a chance to write half a chapter or whatever, does that mean you’ve got to outline more than you have in the past?
I’m still very anti-outline. It’s a purely psychological thing: I find it very difficult to do. It’s been one of the bugbears I suppose for poor Jennifer, my other half, when she’s been doing The Chronicles… with me, because I’m so reluctant to do it, and because I’m very open to a book changing, see what it emerges. I know that even if I give her a rough outline, by the time I finish whatever I’m supposed to be doing, it won’t really resemble it… It’ll resemble it to some degree but it will have changed in the construction and in the writing. But I realise that that’s just the way that I write.
The metaphor that I use when I’m talking to people in book stores is being on a country road on a dark night in your car, and only being able to see as far as the headlights go in front of you. As the road goes on, you’re seeing a little bit more of it, but you’re not really seeing the end. It’s not a bad way of writing, I think; I don’t give workshops and things, because I don’t really know anything about writing apart from how I write, but I think people get intimidated by simply the length of a novel. My longest book is 170,000 words which is far too long, but even for something of 120,000 words, when you’re 30,000 words into it, that seems completely unobtainable. The only way you can do it is by splitting it up into very manageable chunks, and say that this is the next 500 words, and that’s the next couple of steps. That even fits into my ethos of not planning, because I can argue that that is conducive to the muse – whereas it’s just me being difficult!
Kind of. Sort of. I haven’t actually started writing the next one. I was tied up with the last of the Chronicle books, and I started writing short stories to clear my head a bit last year – I’d been doing a lot of novels – and I fell into the habit of doing those a little bit. I do know how the book opens; I know the first 20,000 words, so when I sit down to write it, I should know what they are.
You’re touching on the whole question of when you do a series, how do you sustain it? It’s not “how do I keep myself interested?” because I love doing them.
I guess it’s a question of how do you maintain momentum?
Yes, a forward momentum, and that kind of sense that the books continue to develop. It is quite easy to write a series if you don’t really develop it.
I’m a big Robert B. Parker fan, I love the Spenser books, but they never change. You buy them because you know you’re going to get a decent bit of dialogue, and they won’t be very long – you’ll happily pass a plane ride with them. By and large, they’re perfectly entertaining, but there was no sense of that character changing or developing really – that was part of the pleasure of it. That was the same pleasure that we had watching episodes of Columbo or The Rockford Files in the 1970s, the sense of coming to it, knowing everything that was going to happen in advance, and simply being content to spend time with the characters.
I don’t think that we watch television in quite the same way that we used to. I go back to something like Twin Peaks, which is the first piece of genre that I can remember demanding my attention week after week and being really problematical if you missed any. That extended at its most extreme into The Wire, where when you were watching it you didn’t know what was going on, and neither did any of the characters! If you did try to do something quite old-fashioned now, it would be hard to do without a degree of irony, because we have been conditioned to watch television in a different way, and we are submersed in the idea that you follow a series and the whole is larger than the sum of its parts.
No, that’s very much what the books have been building to!
It goes back to the question about the arc: how long can you suggest things without giving people some sort of answer? Otherwise you’re just stringing them along, and that’s not fair.
It’s why, in terms of the series, these two books are probably the most important. Like Black Angel which was the first one to suggest the mythology of the series, these books now say “this is a pivotal moment for what happens”. Pretty much every player who will be important later on is now on the stage. You have met them and now we can move forward. Tonally the books will be different – they’ll probably be written in the third person, which was a very deliberate decision. I would be very surprised if when I sat down to write the next book it would come out in the first person.
Equally, the end of A Song of Shadows is almost first person…
It’s drifting a little bit, but [telling the story in the third person] was important in this book. There’s a distance you get with the third person that you don’t get with the first person. A first person narrator can’t really conceal that much from you, or if they do it’s a bit of a trick…
As in Roger Ackroyd…
Absolutely! There is a degree of contrivance, and when you start pulling at that thread, it simply doesn’t ring true.
Also after what happens in the last book, people are going to come to this book thinking they’re going to meet Parker again. “I like this character, I like spending time with this person, I like getting inside his head, I like the way he views the world, the way he turns a phrase…” and you open the book and that comfort is gone because you’re very deliberately being kept at one remove from him, and nothing really happens in the first four or five chapters… All you see is this figure drifting in the background who, as a reader, is almost unrecognisable, who’s not engaging with you, who is a damaged person. I did want that sense of dislocation within the book.
How do I allow the books to develop? How can I bring the reader with me? How can I make the reader feel that these books are not trying to short-change them in any way? They may occasionally frustrate, and some they may like more than others, but they are part of a deliberate effort to stretch myself as a writer and see the possibilities in a series like this – which has a little bit more in common, at least in terms of the way it’s approaching the arc, with fantasy and science fiction. Those have always been very comfortable with that, whereas mystery fiction has not always been comfortable with it.
There were writers who did it to a degree, but I think there was always a commercial concern in mystery fiction: the idea that if someone went into a bookstore and found book 1 of the series wasn’t available, they’d go and buy something else. Someone like Lee Child is very good at that: he said he wanted readers to be able to pick up Reacher no. 13 if that was the only thing in the airport book store, but if you do that, you can’t really have a memory in the same way that Parker does. You can’t construct that larger story; you’re sacrificing that and adhering more to the classic Robert B. Parker model.
It’s the old Stan Lee comment: “every Marvel comic is somebody’s first”…
If you do something that requires a little bit of foreknowledge, it becomes increasingly difficult to do that. It is nice occasionally to do something like The Wolf in Winter or A Song of Shadows; stepping back from it, and looking objectively, I think they balance reasonably well. I don’t think a new reader would feel that you’re coming in at the tail end of a joke and all you’re getting is the punchline, which is very frustrating. You do want to be able to pull people in but at the same time the experience for the reader who has read 11 books before The Wolf in Winter, the 12 before A Song of Shadows, is very different and should be from the person who’s picking one up for the first time.
There are explanations there for new readers which act as reminders for us long term fans…
I think readers are tolerant of it if you acknowledge it in a way. You’re winking over the shoulder, but it’s like a dinner party where there’s somebody who doesn’t know the other guests, and you’re introducing them so the person doesn’t feel excluded. You’re trying to be a good host.
In part 2 of this interview coming soon, John Connolly talks about The Chronicles of the Invaders and the differences involved with co-writing a novel
A Song of Shadows is now out from Hodder, and is published in the US later this year.
Author photo © Mark Condren