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A Talk With Michael Connelly

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Photo credit: Mark DeLong

Michael Connelly's books have been translated into 36 languages and have won many awards. His best known crime fiction series features LAPD Detective Harry Bosch. His other hugely popular series features criminal defense attorney Mickey Haller. Michael has been a crime reporter, has written the Jack McEvoy series, stand-alone novels, many short stories, as well as non-fiction.

There's a fascinating story how at age 16 your interest in crime peaked. Tell us about that.
One night, I was driving my beat-up VW home from my job as a dishwasher and was stopped at a traffic signal. I saw a man running with something in his hand. As he passed a hedge, he shoved it into the hedge and kept going. When the light turned green, I made a U-turn, drove over to the hedge and pulled out a shirt wrapped around a gun. I put it back in the hedge. This was before cell phones, of course, so I walked to a gas station and called my father. Very soon, police cars with flashing lights descended on the area. I realized something had happened and flagged down a cop. I told him what I'd found and that I'd seen the guy run down the street and go into a bar. I became a partial witness to what had happened earlier, namely a man had attempted to hijack a car at gunpoint. His gun had gone off and the victim was shot.

The guy looked like a biker: he was big and had an unruly beard. There were a bunch of motorcycles parked in front of the bar. The police entered the place looking for a guy who fit my description. But all the guys in the place were big and had beards. The cops took them all to the police station. I spent most of the night looking at lineups, trying to identify the guy I'd only glimpsed for a few seconds. I was certain he'd gone in that bar and left through the back door. None of the men in the lineups were the one I saw.

The detective questioning me was a rough kind of guy. I could tell he didn't really believe me and thought I was a scared kid who was afraid of fingering somebody. It was frustrating--not being believed. The experience hooked me on the idea of learning more about detectives. From that night on, I found myself reading crime stories in newspapers. I began reading true crime books looking for that rough kind of detective--like the guy who questioned me.

I had been reading some mysteries my mother read, but she preferred the soft-boiled, cozy ones. So I began reading the hard-boiled stuff, which led me to loving the genre, and thinking I'd someday write this kind of stuff. That's how it all began.

Tell us about the influence Raymond Chandler played in your writing life.
At first, my interest in crime fiction was contemporary stuff. I avoided old mysteries, and never read Raymond Chandler's novels. His most recent novel at that time was twenty years old, and there was stuff going back forty years. That wasn't my cup of tea. So, I never read anything by Chandler, even as I was immersing myself in crime fiction.

When I was in college, there were dollar movie nights. I went to see The Long Goodbye, which was based on one of Chandler's books, but was contemporary and set in Los Angeles in 1973. I loved the movie which motivated me to read the book. As I read it, I realized it was set in the 50s, not the 70s. It was a great book. I read all his novels in about two weeks. I got over this dumb idea of only reading contemporary crime fiction. I not only read Raymond Chandler but read all the crime fiction classics. I was hooked. A light bulb went off and I knew what I wanted to do.

You've said that you and Hieronymus (Harry) Bosch share some similarities. What are they?
It depends on which Harry Bosch book you're reading. I've been so lucky to have written about him over a period of twenty years. When I first began with him, I didn't know if it would be published. So to make it interesting and fun, I wrote about a guy completely opposite of me. He's a smoker; I'm not. He's an orphan; I come from a big family. He's never been lucky in romance; I've been married for a long time.

I got lucky and the first book, The Black Echo, got published. I'm the luckiest writer on the planet: it's twenty years later and I'm still writing about this character. He's had to evolve, just like anybody would. In the process of his evolution, I started sharing more of myself with him, so he wasn't that different from me. It turns out he's left-handed, just like I am. He has a daughter who's the same age as mine. It's not only a sharing of these basic things, but Harry's come to a world view that I have. Yet, in some ways he's different from me. He's a reactionary guy. He's undaunted and relentless. He's out there solving murders and carrying a gun. That's quite different from me. But if he stepped back and looked at the larger world picture, I think we would have a very similar take.

In that first Harry Bosch novel, The Black Echo, Harry is haunted by his Vietnam experience. What made you choose claustrophobia as a feature?
My father was a builder. During my high school years, I worked for him. One summer, I was working with a guy who had just come back from Vietnam and had been a tunnel rat. He wouldn't talk about the experience, but it sounded really scary to me. There was no Internet back then, but there were some books about tunnel rats. It seemed to connect to my own life. When I was a kid, I had some claustrophobia about things. I slept on the bottom bunk and felt like I was in a coffin. That always bothered me. There was a rite of passage in my neighborhood where kids had to crawl through a storm drain. I had a fear about when my time would come to do it. So, the idea of a tunnel rat played into my life, long before I became a writer.

I moved to Los Angeles and worked at the LA Times. Just as I arrived, a big news story broke about a heist where the robbers used storm water tunnels beneath the city to get inside a bank. They then dug their own tunnel into the vault. As a police reporter, I was getting inside details from the detectives. It struck me that this could be the plotline of a novel. I could connect it to a detective whose past included tunnels. That became the framework for the plot of the first Harry Bosch novel.

What made you name your most famous character Hieronymus?
You draw from stuff you know, and from the past. Realizing I wanted to be a writer, I took lots of English and art history classes in college. I had a humanities professor who was enamored of Hieronymus Bosch, the 15th century painter. His work was very dark stuff and stuck with me.

So fifteen years later, while putting together this book, it seemed an appropriate name because this detective would be treading across terrain similar to those paintings. Bosch's paintings are about a world gone wrong and the wages of sin. You can ascribe that to a crime scene. And Harry Bosch would decipher crime scenes, the way fifteen years earlier in class, we looked at paintings and tried to read then--understand what they meant. So, his name, Hieronymus, came from that. I have some Hieronymus Bosch prints hanging in my house and office: The Garden of Earthly Delights, and the darkest one, called Hell.

You've said your "real" job is to write about Bosch. What did you mean by that?
Bosch is my real focus. To keep writing about him, I need to move away from him at times. The Mickey Haller novels really derive from the need to keep Harry Bosch alive. The other books might have varying degrees of success, but my main focus is Harry Bosch. With the movie, The Lincoln Lawyer, the Mickey Haller novels are more successful than the Harry Bosch books, but Mickey was really born out my need to take time off from Harry Bosch.

Mickey Haller is one of the most intriguing characters in contemporary fiction. Is he based on anyone you know?
Writers take from everywhere. He really comes from three points. One is that years ago, I met a guy--a lawyer--at a baseball game. During the game, we talked about our lives. And, he's the one who told me he worked out of the back seat of his car. I thought that was an intriguing set-up and someday I might write about that.

When it came to doing research about a criminal defense lawyer, I went to a couple of lawyer friends. They allowed me to be a fly on the wall in their lives. So, Mickey Haller came from these three lawyers.

Your fictional universe has Mickey Haller and Harry Bosch interacting. You've compared your work to a canvas with the characters floating across it as currents on a painting. Will you elaborate a bit?
I compare them to the Hieronymus Bosch paintings. They're busy with stuff happening in every quadrant of the painting. It's not all related, but yet, it is. In a Bosch painting, you can spend an entire day looking at one corner, and look at another corner of the painting the next day. That infused my thinking about the series. Of course, the same character moves through the books, but I wanted a mosaic of interlocking characters; and, if you look hard enough, you find connections between them all.

Harry Bosch and Mickey Haller are half-brothers, and often represent opposing interests. Does this represent the duality of human beings?
I don't know if I would reach that high in my thinking. I needed to take a break from Harry Bosch and wanted to challenge myself with something different, but within the genre. From page one, Harry Bosch is a good guy trying to solve murders. The reader is on board, riding with him. But, I wanted to write about a character who would have to earn the reader's empathy. I chose to write about a defense lawyer because he's not trying to solve a murder; in fact, he might be defending a murderer. There's a duality within the criminal justice system. It's sanctioned by our laws, and a defense lawyer, like Mickey Haller, is required to do what he does.

Having read the Mickey Haller novels, it's difficult to believe you're not an attorney. Their verisimilitude is astounding. What kind of research or collaboration do you do?
I have more than just professional relationships with the lawyers I've consulted, they're friends. One was a college roommate. I run my ideas by them, write the book, and then they vet it for me. I have no legal experience so I use this team of lawyers.

Unlike many writers, you listen to music while writing. Tell us about that. Harry Bosch likes jazz and your writing reflects this.
Music helps me get in tune with the character. Like Harry, I listen to instrumental jazz without lyrical intrusion because it's difficult for me to put words on a computer screen when there are vocals. There's something improvisational about jazz, and you're improvising as you're writing. It all works together for me in some way. It's a bit magical and hard to put my finger on it.

What has been one of the most surprising things you've learned about writing in creating your novels?
Basically, I write the story I would like. I write for an audience of one. What's surprised me is how storytelling is so important around the world. So, a character trying to solve a murder and find his place in the world in L.A. can connect with someone in Dublin or Paris. As I've had more success, I've had more opportunities to travel. It always surprises and fulfills me when someone stands up at a book signing in France and says they're very worried about Harry Bosch. It just connects to your heart that you created this character with this almost universal appeal. It surprised me when it first happened, and it's stayed a surprise to me.

In the just-released book, Faceoff, you and Dennis Lehane wrote a short story called Red Eye. What was that collaboration like?
It was a long-distance collaboration done with emails. Dennis and I have a twenty year relationship. I love what he does. When we were asked to do this together, I didn't have any hesitation. I have more than a twenty year investment in the creation of this character, and do I dare to want anyone else to write what Harry is thinking or might say? Dennis was the guy to do it with. I'm very familiar with his work and characters, and there's a similarity between Bosch and Dennis's character, Kenzie.

Did you write your own dialogue for Harry?
No. I sent Dennis a plan. Harry would start in Los Angeles and would end up in Boston on a cold case. I figured I'd get Harry to Boston and Dennis would take it from there. So in Boston, Harry is largely Dennis's doing. I think I sent him seven pages and he sent back thirty. Dennis wrote the parts with Harry speaking and thinking. We emailed it back and forth and fine-tuned it.

If you were to have dinner with any five people, either in literature or history, living or dead, who would they be?
An obvious one would be Raymond Chandler. The other one is easy: my father passed away before I was published and had any success, so I'd like to have a meal with him now. I was very close to a cousin who passed away when we were twelve. I'd like to catch up with her. And maybe I'd like to meet the real Hieronymus Bosch. But, he might throw soup at me for taking his name.

Tell us about the new Harry Bosch novel, The Burning Room, due in November 2014.
Harry's over sixty now and he's going to be retired soon. They partner him with a young detective, Lucy Soto, so he might mentor her. The book is primarily about their relationship. I look forward to writing about her again, possibly by herself, without Harry.

Thank you for being such a prolific artist who has provided so much pleasure to millions of people for so many years.

Mark Rubinstein
Author of Mad Dog House, Love Gone Mad and The Foot Soldier