Monday , February 26 2024
How real-life crime stories feed a fiction writer's muse.

Interview With Michael Connelly, Author of Crime Beat

This interview with Michael Connelly was a personal thrill as he is both one of my favorite writers and someone who successfully made the transition from news reporter to crime writer.  I have written previously about how much I enjoyed hearing him speak at a journalism seminar, in a workshop room jam-packed with other reporters hoping to make that jump from writing nonfiction to fiction. Most of his books are amazing reads, especially my favorite, The Poet.

While Connelly is finishing up his next novel, Echo Park, he agreed to an email interview.  The subject of the interview was his book, Crime Beat, an appropriate selection since both he and I have written about crime in Southern California. But my musings pale in comparison to his stories of serial killers, drug addicts, robbers, and others.

This is a non-fiction book and Connelly said he was frustrated that some places, especially Internet sites, promoted it as fiction.  But the collection of non-fiction does offer a unique way of looking at his fiction work, as he explains.

You mention in the book that you used crime stories you covered for characters and plots in your novels.  Do you still read crime stories in the newspapers and get ideas from them that you use?

I scan through two or three papers a day, in hand and online. I usually don't do this for story ideas. But I pick up law enforcement trends, techniques and the little things that go into the novels. For the most part, the actual plots come out of my own reporting. I am not a journalist anymore but I act like one and spend a lot of time with cops asking a lot of questions. Usually, a story comes from that.

In your book's introduction you seem to suggest you are a stronger writer about cops and crime because you worked as a crime reporter. Does that mean you think crime writers who have not covered crime – as a reporter, police officer, lawyer, etc – have a harder job being accurate? Can you tell from reading them who has that back ground and who does not?

I think they have a harder time being accurate but more importantly I think they have more difficulty in making the world of their books feel real. I think the trick is to make your reader believe the story is real, that it is happening. And all I know is that my background as a journalist talking to real cops, watching real cops, being in police stations and jails, has all added up to me having an advantage when it comes to verisimilitude in my fiction. I don't claim that it is the only way to go, but I think it has certainly helped.

Who are some of your favorite crime and mystery writers?

The big three for me were Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, and Joseph Wambaugh. Wambaugh is still writing, of course, and his next book, which I've had the privilege to already read, continues his inspiration for me. Other contemporary writers who do it for me are George D. Pelecanos, Dennis Lehane, James Lee Burke, Peter Robinson, and Vicki Hendricks, to name just a few.

Do you ever miss journalism?

The only thing I miss is the camaraderie of the news room. I don't miss the actual reporting and writing and deadlines because all of that is still a part of my life. The deadlines are obviously far different but I still act very much like a journalist when I research my books — notebook in the pocket, etc. So I get my journalism fix that way.  

How has working as a journalist affected your writing style, positively and negatively? For example, I write more concisely after writing for newspapers with space restrictions.

I think that journalism helped me hone my writing style and taught me that less can be more. I have always tried to boil it down to what is essential. This creates a velocity in writing and reading. I don't think I would practice this in fiction if I hadn't practiced it in journalism.

In your Amazon essay you wrote: "Obvious or not, I can trace a connection to a novel with every one of the stories in Crime Beat."  The main criticism I've heard of this book – and one I share – is that you didn't write comments about each article, or at least each chapter.  Was it a conscious choice not to "trace" the connections?  Do you have any regrets about not doing that?

I don't really have any regrets about it. My feeling was that if I wrote about the echo from news story to novel that it might come off as being pompous. There is an element of vanity to the whole project, and I didn't want to accentuate that with notes that could be read as "look how good I am at taking this stuff and spinning it into fiction." So we presented the stories and my thinking so that a reader familiar with my work as a novelist could identify the echoes.

Do you think readers can learn more about the origins of some of your characters and plots by reading this book? 

Yes, that was the purpose of it. In some cases it is obvious — a few of these stories contain entire plot elements from the novels. In others it is much more subtle, particularly in the elements of character. I think when you read about some of these detectives you should be able to see Harry Bosch in there.

The parts in your books where you talk about Harry's daughter are very tender. Do you think having children affects positively or negatively the way a police officer and a private investigator do their job?

My guess is that it has a significant impact. In Harry's case it brings a vulnerability to him that he didn't have before. He believes that he is on some sort of mission in life and he consciously built himself to be bulletproof — to be a man that nobody can get to. But when he found out he was a father he knew in that very moment that he was vulnerable, that he could be gotten to. That has to inform his work as an investigator. 

Have you been surprised by the popularity of this book? I understand the initial printing was smaller than usual for your books.

Yes. It was initially published as sort of an academic book in a very small printing. I thought it might be something good for the shelves of libraries. But then Little, Brown and Company took it and really teed it up and got it out there into a lot of places.

About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been working in mental health for the last ten years. He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.

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