From Reporter to Author and the High-Stakes Appeal of Crime Fiction: An Interview with Michael Connelly

by Alverne Ball

New York Times best-selling author Michael Connelly has been called the “Dostoyevsky of crime literature,” by Publisher’s weekly.

Michael Connelly is known for his endearing, but strong series Detective Hieronymus (Harry) Bosch. His works include 22 Harry Bosch novels and 13 non-series novels along with an assortment of short stories and other media such as his new podcast, The Murderbook. The Bosch novels have been adapted into a TV series self titled, Bosch, which is now running on season 5 on Amazon Prime.

Many of Connelly’s readers know him as a suspense-thriller writer who churns out deep complex characters grounded in a real world of light and darkness; and where the heroes are not always heroes, but normal people rising above the madness of society to embrace their destiny.

But what readers might not know is that before Connelly became a renowned author of suspense; he was a Crime beat writer in Florida and a Crime reporter for the Los Angeles Times writing about the true-life crimes that his fiction has now come to imitate.

Michael Connelly was gracious enough to spare me some of his time in between his travels and writing.

AB:    How did you become a crime beat reporter?

MC:    It was a bit by design. I wanted to write crime novels some day so I thought if I was a crime beat reporter I would learn how to write as well as have an entry into the world I wanted to write about.

AB:    What made you decide to switch from Crime Beat Reporter to full-time fiction writer?

MC:    It was part of that plan. For many years I did both–I just wasn’t published as a fiction writer. But after about six years of writing fiction at night I finally had a manuscript that I thought was worthy and I sent it off to agents. I got it published.

AB:    Coming from a journalistic background, how does it differ from your fiction writing?

MC:    I think they are more alike than different. I use a lot of reporting skills in researching and looking for the details and subjects I want to write about. I employ the same kind of work ethic, writing each day as if on a daily deadline. Of course, when it comes down to what I am writing it is certainly different. I have more freedom as a fiction writer. I go where I want to go and am not bound by the rules of accuracy, etc.

AB:    What impact has writing about real crime had on your fiction work?

MC:    It has had a tremendous impact. I write fiction but it is hopefully grounded in a sense of verisimilitude. I couldn’t get that if I hadn’t spent 12 years watching real detectives, talking to real killers and writing about real victims and crimes.

AB:    What writers have influenced your work and why?

MC:    The big three for me are Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald and Joseph Wambaugh.  All three wrote/write crime novels with an additional dimension of social     reflection. It puts their work on a higher level than most and that is inspiring.

AB:    What about the genre of suspense-thriller intrigued you enough to want to write about it?

MC:    The stakes. These are stories where the stakes are always high. Life and death situations for the protagonists and many others. I think it taps into a basic question everybody has in regard to how they would react when the stakes were high.

 AB:    As a suspense-thriller writer what are your views on the genre?

MC:    I think it is in a golden era because so many fine writers have been attracted to it. The level of literary work and social reflection going on is probably at an all time high. I am really proud to be working in this genre because I think this is the writing that is currently explaining the world to us.

AB:    What are your thoughts on your writing transcending the genre of suspense-thriller and now being considered literature?

MC:    I really don’t think about it as far as how it is considered by the critical community. I think most writers in this genre know they are speaking to the readers and the readers have known the value of these stories for a long time. If the literary/critical community is catching on then that is great, but not something I worry about or think about. I try to keep my head down and write to the audience I have been writing to since day one: me.

AB:    Publisher’s Weekly has called you the “Dostoyevsky of crime literature.”  What’s your opinion on this compliment?

MC:    It’s way over the top, but I’ll take it!

AB:    What’s your process as a writer?

MC:    I don’t work off of an outline. I grind it over in my head until I have a sense of a beginning and an end and then I go from there. Once I start a book I write     everyday until I get to the end. I take a little break     and then rewrite it front to back. 

AB:    You’ve written novels in first and third person.  How do you know which point of view to take when writing?

MC:    It’s purely instinct. My first thought is always to go third person but if I want the story to be sort of a confessional, a story where the protagonist is sort of whispering the story to     the reader, then I go with first person.

AB:     How do you think “place” informs you as a writer?

MC:    I write about Los Angeles most of the time and that is a place that is so strong that it is really character. The place is used to delineate the character of the protagonist. So it is extremely important and I spend a lot of time choosing the locations I use in the     books for this reason.

AB:    Your characters and the world in which they inhabit are well rounded and full of life.  How do you get that on the page?

MC:    You look for the telling details that open up a window into a character’s world. The kind of details that show how that character connects to their job, family, life. Not to be confused with description, telling details run deeper.

AB:    It is said, that the short story does not get enough credit.  Seeing as how you’ve written a few of these, what’s your opinion on this subject?

MC:    Having written a few, I have a lot of respect for those who master the form. To me it’s sort of like trying to put ten pounds of potato chips into a five pound bag. You don’t have the room you have with a novel so you must find ways of concisely delivering the same goods. And then if you are lucky enough to     accomplish this, your work is largely overlooked. The novel is king and the short story, I think, is viewed as sort of a junior effort and it really isn’t. It is an art form.

AB:    Looking back on your career from this point in your life, is there anything you would have done differently as a young writer?

MC:    I would have started earlier. I think it is true that you have to experience some life before you can write with any sort of significant depth, but you can practice and master the process and ethic of writing. I think if I had realized this, I would be three or four years ahead of myself right now. This is more     important and regretful to me now as I get old.

AB:    Is there anything about being a crime beat reporter that you miss?

MC:    I traded the comradery of the newsroom for the isolation of my writing room. I miss the comradery of being with others.  Everything else about the job I still practice.

AB:    What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

MC:    Don’t wait. If it’s what you want to do then start practicing now. Your life experiences will catch up with you and then it will start to happen.

AB:    What do you hope to accomplish as a writer? 

MC:    To me a perfect world would be to earn a good living exploring the world and myself through the art of writing. To me it is an amazing and gratifying life to have. I couldn’t ask for anything else.

Alverne Ball has a M.F.A in Fiction writing from Columbia College Chicago.  He has completed studies in Columbia College’s prestigious Semester in Los Angeles program, an intensive course focused on the adaptation of material to the screen.He has taught graphic novel writing at Noble charter High School in Chicago. He has written comic and graphic novel material for such companies as Di Bona Ventura ProductionsParamount picturesMcgraw-HillLions forge comics, New Paradigm entertainmentCampfire graphic novels, and 133art.com. His writing has been published in the literary magazine Annalemma, in Columbia College newspaper The Chronicle, online at Brokenfrontier.com, online for the Museum of contemporary Photography in Chicago, online for Comicbookresources.com, and an online graphic story for the literary magazine, Hypertextmag.com.  His short stories of suspense have appeared in the Sin anthology by Avendia Press, Criminal Class Review as well as the online magazine, the heated forest.com. Mr. Ball is the recipient of the 2014 and 2015 Glyph rising star award for his writing on 133art’s OneNation and OneNation: Old Druids. In 2009 Mr. Ball became the recipient of the first ever Luminarts graphic novel writing award.  He has also received Three Weisman Scholarships from Columbia College Chicago for his other graphic works.