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Novelist John Connolly: ‘Crime fiction is very interested in the idea that the past is never the past’

As his latest novel is published, the author reveals why genre fiction is under-rated and how he channelled childhood obsessive compulsive disorder into a great work ethic 

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Thriller writer, John Connolly. Picture by Mark Condren

Thriller writer, John Connolly. Picture by Mark Condren

Thriller writer, John Connolly. Picture by Mark Condren

There is a dichotomy in Irish writing that acclaim, awards and even sales never seems to dent. We have our literary greats, people like Seamus Heaney, Anne Enright and Colm Tóibín – and then we have our genre writers,who, despite their success, somehow seem to occupy a second class of respectability. 

John Connolly thinks this is deeply unjust. As one of our most prominent crime writers – his Charlie Parker series has sold by the truckload and won numerous awards – he’s biased, of course, but he makes quite a case that the divide between ‘literature’, which helps us make sense of the human condition, and the great holiday reads that genre writers specialise in, is completely false.

He’s written a book about it all – Shadow Voices, due out in October –  which sounds fascinating (he also has another incredible novel which is out right now, which we’ll get to shortly).

“I began to wonder why [at a certain stage] there were so few genre writers in Ireland and why were we so dismissive about it,” he  says over lunch in a newly open city centre.

“In the 19th century, many Irish writers wrote genre fiction. They were writing romantic fiction. They were pioneers in mystery fiction. That stopped almost entirely in the 20th century and there were really good reasons for it.

"Douglas Hyde gave a famous speech in which he railed against ‘penny dreadfuls’ – even the word – because they were English; they were ‘other’. We were a fledgling nation and literature had a part to play in the type of society that was being formed and anything wasn’t considered Irish was sidelined. And so you find that genre writing dries up entirely.”

Part of the problem, Connolly observes, is that “quite often literary fiction is judged by the best of that category and genre fiction is judged by the worst. It’s not a fair fight.”

And yet, in recent decades, genre writing has been revived and a generation of writers have proven how false the old dichotomy really is.

The late, great Maeve Binchy showed how romantic fiction – perhaps the most dismissed genre of all – was what Connolly calls “a place for women to interrogate their place in society”. 

He himself has written books that use genre as a carrier for exploring bigger themes such as morality and salvation or the difference between law and justice, while also rollicking along like the best of Harlan Coben.

His latest – The Nameless Ones – has as its villains two murderous Serbian war criminals who wish to return home to Balkans but find their brutal past has made them pariahs. Connolly’s extensive research of the history of the region – he travelled to Serbia, spoke to locals and absorbed the country’s lack of engagement with the genocide of the 1990s – is unobtrusively woven into the story.

“Crime fiction is very interested in the idea that the past is never the past,” he says of his interest in this period in history.

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“We’re magpies and we’re always looking for shiny things. I had an opportunity to go to Serbia when I was researching the book. It was really curious because there isn’t really a history museum in Belgrade; there is a military museum which painstakingly goes through the violent military history of the country. It stops at Tito, and then begins again in 2005 with no mention of the Balkans war.

"A taxi driver who was driving me around put it most succinctly when he said, ‘A lot of bad things happened and we were responsible for most of them’. It all seemed to me a fascinating scenario in which to set a book.”

If his gleaming writing and the substantial nature of his work make him difficult to ghettoise into genre, Connolly is also someone who seems to embody other spurious divides in Irish society. Born in Rialto, Dublin in 1968, he’s a working-class boy with a middle-class accent, a Trinity-educated son of a council worker and a part-time schoolteacher, and living evidence that nothing spurs social mobility like a love of literature.

As a child, he was “hauled off [to] the library in Dolphin’s Barn” and became a voracious reader but his imaginative side was not nurtured at school. He went to Synge Street CBS, which “was a perfect school if you wanted to be an accountant or an engineer. But if you weren’t a practical child, if you were a daydreamer or artistic, there were no outlets”.

Growing up, he suffered from obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). “It’s a voice in your head that says ‘step on a crack, break your mother’s back’. That’s the classic phrase and it probably comes from OCD: the idea that there are certain routines that will enable you to have control over things that you couldn’t possibly have control over.

"Those routines become incredibly oppressive. It doesn’t relieve stress, it exacerbates it. Literally, the only moment it does relieve it is when you’re banging your head on a wall. People didn’t see it mostly but it was very debilitating.”

His parents took him to see a child psychiatrist about it. “I was the first person in my family to go to one. After a few sessions my mother asked me if I thought I was cured yet because it was very expensive. And I said, ‘Don’t worry I’ll grow out of it’, and I did.”

Ireland of the time was, he recalls, “a grim place to grow up, the first time any of us had any money was the 1990s, which was still a way off”. His father “believed that the most important thing was to find a job that you couldn’t be fired from, that had a pension. That was the bank, the civil service or the corporation".

Connolly got a job in the accountancy department of Dublin Corporation but felt that he was wasting his life. “I figured out that wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life.” He cashed in his pension to fund first year in college and went to Trinity College to study English literature. “I didn’t know anyone who’d been to university. The first time I set foot in it was when I went there; I didn’t even know you could cut through it walking through town.”

He became a journalist with the Irish Times but, he modestly insists, “not a very good one”.

“Almost every journalist I was working with when I was younger had that aspiration to write. The difficulty is the longer you stay in journalism, your writing muscle becomes used to being used in a certain way,” he says.

"Most journalists are writing 500 to 1,000 words a day and when they come to write a novel they have to do that while holding a vision of something that is in the end going to be 100,000 words.

"The longer they stay in journalism, I think the less likely they are to break into novel writing.”

His first book, Every Dead Thing, took him five years to write in his spare time. “I kept thinking it was a disaster and nobody will want it. And nobody did want it. Certainly when it was half done, it was rejected by everyone. I had a certain pigheadedness. When someone says you can’t do something, you think ‘I’ll show you.’”

He wasn’t quite 30 in the late 1990s when it finally sold to publishers in a million-plus deal. Over the following decades he would sell millions to a devoted global fanbase, win a slew of major awards and see his work adapted by Hollywood.

His influences were the likes of Ross Macdonald (whom he mentions more than once during our chat), James Lee Burke and Ed McBain.

His anti-hero protagonist, Charlie Parker, a former NYPD cop, has now moved through 19 books and Connolly says the balance has to be struck between each standing on its own as a self-contained work and trusting the reader’s memory.

The novelist Lee Child has said his own long-running protagonist Jack Reacher shouldn’t have a memory as Child wanted each book to stand alone, says Connolly.

"But historical fiction and science fiction has always relied on people having good memories,” Connolly explains. "I wanted to write a sequence of novels, where each one was pieces of a larger puzzle but at the same time I want someone to be able to go into a shop and pick up book 14 and enjoy it, so it’s a difficult balance to strike.”

When the Charlie Parker series took off, Connolly went to South Africa on a book promotional tour, and it was there that he met his partner, the South African journalist and author, Jennifer Ridyard.

“She interviewed me. At that point I was going out with someone. A couple of years later she came to Dublin, and I wasn’t. She brought two kids with her. They were quite young at the time.”

Connolly was in his early thirties at that point and the children were six and 12 years old. He says they upended his life in the best sense possible. “It was difficult for them, moving from South Africa to Ireland and it was a difficult transition. I was living by myself and I had become selfish. All of a sudden, I had people in my house and they were in my space.”

The kids were “at that age they’re interesting and interested. You could say let’s go to this movie or that one and they’d be open to it. So it was an incredibly enriching experience for me. I had become quite a sad creature. My partner tells me I skipped the bit where they’re babies and don’t do anything except cry, eat and go to the toilet. Now they are wonderful adults and making their own lives.”

These days Connolly has transmuted the mild remnants of his OCD from childhood into a ferocious work ethic. “It works for me now and I’ve channelled it into something constructive but I can still be overly focused and it’s not always great for the family who’ll say, ‘Can we do something else now?’”

Despite his success and work ethic, he says he still doubts himself every time he embarks on a new novel. He wonders each time if he can finish it and says he thinks the day will come when he really can’t finish it. But I feel, speaking to him, he understands the psychology of the whole thing too well to succumb to that fatalism.

“For writers and those who are trying to create things, ideas aren’t the currency. You will have more ideas than you could ever use in your life.

"The idea in your brain will say ‘that idea isn’t working any more; here is another one for you...’ It’s inherent in the process but every time you abandon a project, a little bit of creative confidence is chipped away.

"Ray Bradley says professionals are amateurs who finish things and that’s really quite true. You have to commit to keeping going, to writing the last line.”

The Nameless Ones (H&S, €15.99) is out now


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