There’s No Writer’s Block in a Newsroom
By Tom LutzApril 5, 2015
MICHAEL CONNELLY is one of the kings of crime fiction. After 14 years as a crime reporter, he started writing novels, and is now the author of dozens of books, including the mega-successful Harry Bosch series, which has finally received a screen life in Bosch, a series on Amazon.com starring Titus Welliver as the eponymous hero. Connelly’s second successful series of novels, starring lawyer Mickey Haller, hit the big screen in the Matthew McConaughey film The Lincoln Lawyer. I talked to him last week via Skype about his writing for newspapers, novels, film, and now, TV.
TOM LUTZ: You’ve worked in so many different mediums now — obviously journalism, but also book, film, and TV. What can you tell me about the major differences in working in those disparate genres?
MICHAEL CONNELLY: The physical process is all about either being by yourself or collaborating. Obviously the book is the most solitary. I’m grounded in writing books; that’s how I started, and the books led to these other opportunities. The biggest difference, the pretty obvious one, is the freedom you have with books to go inside characters’ minds and thoughts. And those things evaporate when you go into another dimension of storytelling like television or film. I find that to be the most difficult transition to make. For example, I’ve been writing books about Harry Bosch for 25 years and now I’m writing scripts about him and can’t say what he’s thinking — it’s a very difficult jump to make.
Speaking of representing somebody’s thoughts … You have done both first-person and third-person narration. The first Bosch novels were all in third person, and then, in Lost Light, you switched to first-person. Since then you’ve kind of been going back and forth — is that fair to say?
With Bosch, it was that one period when he wasn’t a cop anymore. I had him quit twice. He quit in the last book, but he also quit — a mistake I made, basically — about halfway through the series. I thought I’d write about him as a private eye. And since the great private eye novels are largely first-person, I thought that would be a challenge. So I moved from third to first in that main book, Lost Light, and in the process of writing that book I realized I lost a lot when I took the badge away from him — primarily the politics and bureaucracy that I like him to find his way through. It wasn’t as prevalent when he was outside of the institution of the police department. So I figured out a legitimate way of bringing him back into the department and I went back to third-person.
So with Bosch I only did that the one time. I’ve written other books — all the Haller books are first-person. Across all my books I’ve gone back and forth, but not particularly with Bosch.
Let’s go back even further. You worked on the crime beat as a journalist for some 15 years before writing the first book, is that right?
Yes, on three papers. It added up to 14 years.
One thing I find interesting is that the media takes a beating in your books, and now in the TV series. Is that Bosch’s cop attitude toward the media, or is that yours?
The books are definitely viewed through Bosch’s eyes, and I think he has a more jaundiced view of the media than I do. I’m not trying to evade that — I think I am kind of harsh on the media in some of my books — but often there is a redemptive element to it, like on the show. The reporter who in the early episodes is not seen as a very good guy ends up doing something good by the end of the season. I was a member of the media, so it does fascinate me. It fascinates me how it’s changed so rapidly, primarily since I’ve left it. And yeah, it does come under my scrutiny. It is something I write about.
I want to talk about those changes, the digitization of print and what impact that’s had in a couple different ways with you. But quickly, The Poet features a reporter — and it has one of the great first lines, which you probably don’t remember … "Death is my beat. I make my living from it."
I do remember that, because I had to fight for it. I had an editor who urged me to cut that line. It was still early in my career when … you know, leverage shifts — not that book editors are anything like newspaper editors — but I was still under a heavy sway of my editor at that point. So it was a major stance for me to say, “I’ve lived this life, and that was a perfect line for what I did, and I want to keep it.” So I kept it. And it’s funny, Stephen King wrote a book called On Writing, and in that book he mentions the first line of The Poet and how it hooked him from the very first line — and so I’ve always thrown that in my editor’s face. I was right.
And is that the same editor that you work with now?
No, he now runs the whole company. He’s CEO of Hachette.
So it’s even more fun to throw it in his face.
Yeah. We’re really close. I had a long conversation with him just yesterday. So it’s a funny thing between us now. That doesn’t even begin to approach all the right calls he’s made in editing my books. He edited the first 10.
Speaking of editorial control, and autonomy, let’s talk about the problems you face now in TV and film with that — there’s a kind of well-known backstory about getting Bosch onto the screen. Paramount owned the character rights, and there were the seven scripts, one of which you rewrote, and all of which died in development. Why do you think that they never quite could agree on the right approach?
I think it was because of time and space. The scripts were not long enough to delve into character. You only had 110 pages or so. They pretty much had to rely on plot first and characters second. So each one just became a cop movie that didn’t really differentiate itself from something you see on TV — a procedural story. They made the right call. There was one script that everyone loved, but I think it was 150 pages, and that made it economically impossible to go forward with. But that one was the one that delved into character. It was written by a guy who won an Academy Award for screenwriting. His name was Ted Tally. He wrote Silence of the Lambs and several other adaptations. He did by far the best job, and it got into the character of Hieronymus Bosch, but the script was too long, and that’s what sank that particular project.
The Lincoln Lawyer was less of a problem. Is Mickey Haller somehow an easier character to develop in that amount of time than Hieronymus Bosch?
That’s a good question, because I think the character does come out in the film. I don’t know the right answer to that, but I guess it’s yes. Because I think that it’s a very strong character story in the film. He’s a lawyer, so he’s loquacious. He talks, and when he talks, he reveals his character. Harry Bosch is internalized and doesn’t like talking. He doesn’t like revealing. The Lincoln Lawyer series, from the first book, were first-person stories, and Bosch’s were not.
That’s very interesting, and that probably explains it. I was wondering whether … Mickey fits a certain kind of iconic archetype of the guy who you wouldn’t really like in real life, but we love to watch him on screen, that kind of Jack Nicholson-ish character, where Bosch refuses to be likeable, but not in quite as colorful a way.
I think that’s a difference between the characters. Mickey does want to be liked. Whether he is or not I don’t know. But Harry Bosch doesn’t really care whether he’s liked or not.
Things have changed a lot since you wrote your first novel in 1992, and I’ve noticed that you are very active on social media. Everybody has to be now. Authors have to be. You tweet. There’s a Facebook page. You answer questions on the website. You’re very active in that way. You’ve obviously been learning that over the last few years. Do you have any thoughts on this new landscape?
I think it is a necessary function, and in many ways it replaces what happened, at least for me a lot, in bookstores in the 1990s. There were many more gatherings in bookstores, and that was the method of spreading the word about your work. Now most of those bookstores are gone. So that book community or discussion can be moved online. You end up with things like Goodreads and Facebook and so forth. It’s all very valuable and vastly easier to do, because you don’t have to travel to do it — it doesn’t take time away from writing — so of course I’ve moved in that direction. A lot of that is publisher sponsored or urged; publishers all think you have to have that online presence. Yes, I think it’s important.
You say it doesn’t take time from writing … You write like a 19th-century author, over a book a year. It’s an incredible output. Is that time evaporating as you work on these film and movie projects? You seem to be pushing the books out just as fast.
No, this is the year that I will feel it. Last year I got my book done, and then I went into work on this television show Level 9. I got to writing my next book later, so if I want to keep the normal cycle and come out the fall of the year, I have to really maintain a pretty good focus. I don’t think it’s going to be a problem. I think the years in newspapers gave me a work ethic where I get stuff done. No one is really pushing me. I don’t have a publisher saying “We have to have a book, we have to have a book.” I basically say I’ll have a book by this time every year, and I’ve been able to do that very comfortably — just a little less comfortably now because I’m devoting so much time to the start-up of the television show.
My wife is a journalist. I know a lot of journalists. They tend to be deadline animals. Is the deadline part of what keeps you on the straight and narrow?
I think so, but it’s so different. Especially when you’re a police reporter and you’re writing usually multiple stories a day under deadline. I essentially have only one deadline a year — so it’s quite different. It’s more the work ethic of being able to write every day and not have things like writer’s block part of your world. Your wife will tell you: you can’t go to an editor on a newspaper staff and say you have writer’s block today. It doesn’t work. That’s the way it’s been for me writing fiction. I religiously write every day when I start a draft. I take my time off between drafts. That’s worked for me. Writing is a very superstitious thing. So if it works, you repeat it. That’s what I’ve been repeating for 25 years.
You’ve said that after reading a Raymond Chandler novel, you decided to become a writer. I want to ask you about Chandler and a couple other writers and influences. Do you still see a continued influence of Chandler on your work?
Yeah I do. His work inspired me, and I’d never even been to Los Angeles. I grew up in Florida. I read his books in the space of about two weeks. They crowded everything else out. He wrote about a place I’d never been, but with such clarity that I found it to be inspirational. And then I ended up in that town and writing about that town; I don’t think that was a coincidence. He continues to influence me and many, many writers. I find it very worthwhile to go back and reread passages of his books to continue the inspiration. I’ll read chapter 13 of The Little Sister multiple times a year. I think it’s some of the best stuff ever written about Los Angeles and it holds up. If I could ever touch something like that in one chapter or one paragraph, that would be pretty amazing. It’s inspirational and it’s like a goal hanging out there.
It’s like vitamins.
Yes. Keeps you going.
I think there’s also a distant relative of Harry Bosch in Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op. Am I making that up?
I’ve read all that stuff as well. For some reason, Hammett wasn’t somebody I went back to over and over again. Ross MacDonald is. Joseph Wambaugh is. I grew up in the world of John D. MacDonald. I worked in places that were in his novels, so it was very cool reading his novels. They also didn’t have the same kind of resonance that I would go back to, but they were all influential just the same. Bosch is a distant cousin of all those characters.
Harry Cruz was one of your teachers when you were an undergraduate, right?
Yeah, at the University of Florida.
Was he an important influence as well?
He was the first writer — published novelist — that I’d ever seen in person. He was a larger than life character. He played that part. He held court. There was a bar in Gainesville, where the school was, where you could find him, and he had a barber’s chair that was kind of like a throne that he would sit in. Yeah, I liked his books, read every one of his books. I loved them, they are inspirational, but what was more inspiration was — this was what a writer was like. This is how they live. This is how they command attention in a room. That was striking to me at 18 and 19 years old, more so than his prose. I can still remember the first time I saw him. I was waiting outside the classroom for him on the first day of class, and I saw him walking up. He limped because he had polio when he was a kid. He had no sleeves on his shirt; they were cut off. He was making a statement as he went into that classroom, to take charge of it. I have that vision still in my head, the first time I ever saw him. To me, his inspiration is quite different than Chandler’s, where with Chandler all I really have are the words.
Who else do you read these days?
I like to jump around. I read less and less; as my life becomes more complicated with my own writing projects, there’s less time to read. The last few books I read were The Whites by Richard Price and Ghettoside, the nonfiction book by Jill Leovy. Those are books that obviously are helpful to me as a writer. I choose books that hopefully I’ll get an inspiration from, see what other people are doing in the world I’d write.
Price has such great dialogue, right?
Yes. He’s the best.
And Ghettoside is full of the facts on the ground since you left your beat, which I assume his helpful, too.
What’s inspiring about that book is the nobility of the detective who matches right up with what I try to say of Harry Bosch. That everybody’s gotta count; everybody counts or nobody counts. That’s his code, if you will. And this is a nonfiction book about someone who has that in his heart. So yeah, there’s all kinds of stuff about what’s going in Los Angeles now that is news, about the violence on the ground, as a reporter. That’s all great, but that’s really window dressing on that character story to me. And that’s what I found inspirational about that book.
Let’s finally get to the series then. You’ve updated Bosch’s story a little bit for it. He’s not a Vietnam vet; he’s a Gulf War vet. Backtrack just a second: it occurred to me that you’re too young to have gone to Vietnam, but when you decided to write Bosch you made him older than you are.
I wanted to be accurate to the LAPD detectives I was encountering as a reporter. Most of them, probably 80 percent, were military veterans, and half of them were combat veterans in Vietnam. I wanted that aspect. I also wanted to use something from when I was growing up. In high school I worked on a construction crew where a guy on the crew had been a tunnel rat. And he was full of mystery to me because he didn’t want to talk about his experiences. So I did research and found a book about tunnel rats, and the thin trappings of what I learned about being a tunnel rat scared the crap out of me. That was something that was already ingrained in my imagination, and then years later I’m a reporter in Los Angeles and all these guys are Vietnam vets. It kind of came together. I would make him older than me and have that experience. It was a defining experience for a generation ahead of me, but I remember being in a classroom, in high school, where someone’s brother would be killed in Vietnam and we’d have a moment of silence while I was in the room with him. Those kinds of things had an influence on me. But I was too young. I was in the last draft, technically, but my number was so high I knew wasn’t going to be taken.
I was number 326.
That’s funny. I was number 315, something like that.
I could’ve gotten into the last year, if I had been unlucky, but I was glad not to … Does Titus Welliver look like the Bosch that you had in your head?
No. I never gave a lot of descriptions in my books, but I have a very full image. I write the way I read; I like to build visuals in my head. I don’t read a book and say this guy reminds me of Harrison Ford. I build characters out of whole cloth when I read, so I write the same way. The thing that stands out to me in descriptions I do have of Bosch are his eyes; they’re so dark and intense that, in one description, you can’t even see the line between his eye and his pupil. That’s not Titus. He has very pale eyes. But it doesn’t really matter what color his eyes are. It’s what’s behind the eyes. And that’s what Titus has big time, the ability to project the inner workings of what’s going on with him. That’s why he was, to me, the perfect choice to play Harry.
It’s funny what you say about the descriptions. I had a sense of Bosch in my head, in the tradition of Charles Willeford’s guys — a little dumpier than Titus Welliver. So I went back and started looking for descriptions of him in the books to see if I was just completely wrong about that, and I was. You do describe him as tall and lean and incredibly fit. I don’t know where I got that sense that he was a little downtrodden looking. Except that psychically he is.
It’s been interesting over the years — and it comes into play now, going visual with him on the TV show. I’m basically a road animal. I’ve written 28 books and I’ve done 28 book tours. I’ve been out there a lot, and I get a lot of feedback. It’s all over the place how people see Harry Bosch: anywhere from Harrison Ford to Terry Savalas to James Gandolfini. There’s a lot of people who get an image of him being heavy. In my mind that’s always kind of strange. This is a guy who fit into tiny tunnels in Vietnam. Of course your body’s going to change after you’re 20 years old, but I’ve always thought of him in my mind as kind of lean, much like the way Titus is.
One of the things that you’ve said about doing Bosch is that — and you mentioned it earlier in relation to the problems getting Bosch on screen in the feature films — the series has scope. People have been talking about this since everyone got excited about the The Wire and The Sopranos — these TV shows are novelistic. You have the time to develop character. You have the time to do what you want to do. Is this a form that you want to keep working in?
Yeah, I think so for sure. It worked to my benefit to have that long period of time when I did not have the rights to Harry Bosch. When I did finally get the rights back, I had a lot of material, and that made the decision pretty easy. Do you want to take 17 or 18 books and go for a two-hour movie, a two-hour explanation of this character, or do you want to go for 50 or 60 hours, or even more? We’re not talking about somebody who really exists, but I have a reverence for this character and I wanted to do what was best to realize this character in this other form of storytelling. It wasn’t really a choice: I was going to go for long-form TV. I got lucky, because in the early 1990s, when I sold this initially to Paramount, there wasn’t really long-form TV like we have today. All that really changed with Twin Peaks and The Sopranos, and then it got really wide with many different types of serialized storytelling.
The serial form is so interesting. It’s part of the literary tradition since Dickens and I’ve always been in awe of Dickens’s ability to publish the first part of the story long before he’s finished a draft of the whole. I assume that your first drafts are in pretty good shape. Writing as prolifically as you do, you can’t be reorganizing the books after you’ve got a draft, at least not in major ways. Is that fair to say?
I don’t outline my books, so maybe the first draft is really a super outline. But they’re pretty much intact. Then I’ll do a second draft and I start sharing it with my editor and a couple people I trust in terms of not pulling punches and telling me exactly what it needs. Then I’ll do a third draft, and that’s pretty much it.
I always thought it was so ballsy of Dickens, boxing himself in that way.
I think it is ballsy, but he also didn’t work on a computer. A computer makes it so much easier to rewrite. If I was working with a pen or on a typewriter, I think I’d want stuff set in stone, too, just because it’s so hard to rewrite in that form.
A more or less philosophical question: in The Poet, Jack McEvoy mentions the limit. That is, that there’s a number of dead bodies that a homicide detective can look at, and nobody knows their limit until they hit it, which is an interesting idea. Do you think that you have a limit? That is, can you keep writing about homicide? Can you keep piling up the bodies?
I think as a writer you can, because you’re so removed from it. The truth is, I’ve written lots of murder stories, both as a journalist and as a fiction writer, but I’ve seen very few real crime scenes. I’ve seen probably less than 20 real murder scenes. My experience is nothing like a real homicide detective, and I don’t even know if that theory is true — the one Jack espouses in that book. I was once covering a court trial of a murder at the Van Nuys courthouse, and the detective who worked the case — it was a very brutal sex assault murder — he started crying when he was testifying, and that made me think that guy had seen too many bad crimes. But I know a very good friend who put in almost 30 years in LAPD homicide, retired last year, and loved it the whole time. He’s very well-adjusted. So for him there must not have been a limit. It’s a very individual thing how people process this difficult job.
There are some characters in James Ellroy’s books that seem to be damaged by their constant exposure to the most brutal aspects of human behavior. And I get a little sense that Bosch is hurt slightly each time he has to deal with the effects of violence.
Yes. Talking about my friend, it’s not like he’s not damaged by it, but it’s about how you deal with that darkness. I say this often, that’s what these books are about: the idea that, if your job takes you into human darkness, some of that darkness is going to get inside of you, and it’s a very personal, individual thing what happens with that darkness. Some people can process it, some people can’t. I know a homicide detective who teaches little league baseball. That’s a saving grace for him. People find ways, whether through family, through sports, or whatever. And some people don’t. Some people, the darkness overcomes them. That’s the danger of the job, much more dangerous than the possibility of getting hit by a bullet. It’s more this internal corrosion or corruption by the constant exposure to the worst of humanity.
And what about you, do you write poetry about your cats in your spare time as a prophylactic or anything like that?
No, I don’t do poetry. Like I said, I’m removed from it. I have it on an intellectual basis. I’m not actually going into these crime scenes. For example, most crime scenes smell awful and you don’t have that in a book or a movie or a TV show. Many of the detectives I know and talk about say that’s the most difficult thing to deal with. That’s a dimension I don’t even touch on. I’m so far removed from the reality of what I write about, I don’t really feel the need to talk to a shrink or shoot 50 foul shots every day or whatever. I think of other ways of delineating this character and that dilemma about the darkness.
… without the smell of death.
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