Thursday, 30 August 2012

Books To Die For - A snappy interview with John Connolly and Declan Burke

With the publication of Books To Die For John Connolly and Declan Burke have jointly edited one of the most widely anticipated books this year.  Despite their busy schedule, I managed to persuade the two of them to answer a few questions for Shots on Books To Die For  and the task they took on.

How did you come to the list / narrow down the list of authors you wanted to approach for a contribution?

DB: “Picking the list of contributors was pretty straightforward, in theory at least.  We just wanted the best living crime writers, so we set out to get in touch with them all.  I have to say that I was astonished by the response - I know that crime writers have a reputation (and well deserved) for being pretty helpful to one another, but the reaction to our proposal was amazing.  I guess that is in part, because every writer is at heart a reader, or is a reader first, and if you’re really serious about your books there’s no more enjoyable question than, ‘What’s your favourite book?’  That’s a question that could conceivably take hours to answer.”
JC: Most authors did seem to get it straight off, and those that didn't never came around to the idea, to be honest.  We had a bit of back-and-forth with a couple, but I think we both rather sensed that any hesitancy was likely to translate into a 'no'.  I guess my view was that we shouldn't ask anyone whose work we didn't respect.  Once we established that as a benchmark, it became fairly easy to create a wish list.  

Would you have been able to guess the books chosen by the individual authors?

DB: “That’s an interesting question.  I suppose the knee-jerk answer, before we began, would have been a cautious ‘Yes’.  I mean, I had a pretty good idea, having interviewed him last year and spent about half the interview in a very enjoyable digression chatting about Raymond Chandler, that Michael Connelly would pick a Chandler novel.  That said, I was very surprised that he picked the one he did - if I’d been writing about Chandler, I’d have picked two other titles before I picked Michael’s choice.  But that was one of the real joys of the process for me, the fact that the contributors’ choices were so personal to them, and the way they talked about the impact a particular book had on them on an emotional level, say, or the way it spoke to them at a particular age, or a period in their life.  Linwood Barclay’s piece on Ross Macdonald is a good example of that, I think.  The contributors aren’t just talking about books that they believe to be technically brilliant, or a master-class in style / language, etc.  They’re talking about books they love.  And when it comes to something like picking your favourite book, I’ll take passion over perfection every time.”

JC: I was surprised by some of the choices, but not that many.  Rita Mae Brown's decision to write on A TALE OF TWO CITIES by Charles Dickens raised an eyebrow, I must admit.  I think she makes a valiant effort to justify it, but she's one of the authors - Julia Wallis Martin on Poe is another - who used the choice of book or writer as a springboard to dive into other issues and concerns.  Most of the choices were, if not anticipated, then not unexpected.  I knew, for example, that Paul Johnston regarded Philip Kerr's A PHILOSOPHICAL INVESTIGATION very highly because we'd discussed it - and disagreed about it - over the years.  Similarly, I knew that when I asked Chris Mooney, he'd pick either Stephen King, Thomas Harris or Dennis Lehane, and I felt that, given their shared Boston background, he'd do the best job on Lehane's MYSTIC RIVER.  I called that one right, as that's one of my favourite essays in the book.  In that sense, I suppose we sometimes had contributors in mind for particular titles or writers, but we didn't pressure anyone to pick a particular author or book.  That said, it took a long time to find someone to write on Dorothy L. Sayers, for some reason.  I guess she was one of those writers who was greatly admired, but perhaps didn't inspire passion in everyone.  Lauren Henderson in her Rebecca Chance guise did a lovely essay on Sayers in the end, though.

Were there any surprises or disappointments?

DB: “Well, I was very pleasantly surprised at how readily and enthusiastically the contributors responded to the idea.  That was the first thing.  In terms of their choices, certainly, there are plenty of surprises in there, for me at least.  One was how popular an author Josephine Tey remains - at one point it seemed as if every second writer was offering to write about a Josephine Tey novel.  Another very nice surprise was the way some entirely unexpected patterns started to emerge as the pieces of the jigsaw began to fit into place.  It became possible to chart the evolution of the crime / mystery novel as it responded to various social and cultural changes over the last 150 years or so, which was an unexpected bonus and very gratifying.  I was also nicely surprised by some names popping up that I’d never heard of before, Kem Nunn and his ‘surf noir’ being a very good example, and a writer that I’ll be checking out once the dust settles on this project.

JC: Like Declan, Tey was the big surprise for me.  She seems to be as iconic as Chandler is for a couple of generations of female writers, but I had never read her.  I took THE DAUGHTER OF TIME with me to South Africa, and then ended up giving it away before I'd finished it.  It wasn't because I wasn't enjoying it, but I was telling an audience about Tey, and I mentioned that particular book, and a man came up to me afterwards and said that he didn't read fiction at all, but he was intrigued by the sound of THE DAUGHTER OF TIME.  By coincidence, he was in a wheelchair, having contracted some terrible virus while working in Africa, and had spent months immobile, staring at the ceiling of a hospital room.  As THE DAUGHTER OF TIME begins with Alan Grant hospitalized and staring at the ceiling of his room, it seemed like one of those moments when a particular book was meant to be with a particular reader, so I gave my copy to him.  I hope he enjoys it.  I have to buy another copy now just to find out what happens at the end.

DB: “In terms of disappointments, well, I guess we knew before we began that the book couldn’t accommodate every single book we’d have liked to have seen in it.  It simply wouldn’t be possible.  But then, the book isn’t supposed to be a kind of sterile list of every crime / mystery novel you could possibly imagine, and nor is supposed to be a list of my favourite books, or John’s.  It was always intended as a labour of love, and not just on our part, but also on the part of the contributors.  And as I said before, love is an imperfect thing at the best of times, and it has its fair share of flaws and disappointments.  Ultimately, though, any small disappointments were far outweighed by the quality of the contributions, and the way in which the contributors engaged with their subjects.  I’ll be honest with you, I felt pretty humbled by the time we got through with this book.”

JC: In a way, it would have been easier if we could have put a gun to contributors' heads and said, "You must write about..."  David Goodis and Horace McCoy are two omissions that rankle with me, but nobody picked them.  Someone agreed to do Eco's THE NAME OF THE ROSE, and then never responded to emails afterwards.  I wish someone had written on Joe Wambaugh too.  By and large, though, there are very few grating absences among the subjects, and those significant authors who were unable to contribute, or who just didn't want to, were covered in essays about them by other people.  For example, Jim Burke declined very gracefully, but I knew that someone would write about him, and if they didn't then I would.  Similarly for P.D. James and Ruth Rendell.  If I had to confess to one particular disappointment, it would be that I'd have liked it if more writers from outside the Anglo-American tradition had been willing to participate.  At one point, I was engaged in negotiations with writers from South Korea and Japan, and trying to hunt down someone in India, but all those efforts came to naught.  We also had great difficulty in getting a French writer to contribute.  I'm not sure why, but every author we contacted seemed to decline.  It may be that it was easier to convince Anglo-American authors, or Irish authors, because we knew a lot of them personally, and therefore there was a degree of trust there from the start.  When it comes to authors from outside that tradition, though, the only place to meet them is in passing at book festivals abroad, and often there are language barriers, or you simply never get to spend any significant time with them.  Then again, the book would have swollen to an unmanageable length.  It's big enough as it is.

DB: If I can indulge my personal wish list for a few moments, I’d have loved to have seen William Goldman’s MARATHON MAN in there.  A seminal thriller, I think.  And I love Alistair MacLean’s WHEN EIGHT BELLS TOLL.  I’m also a big fan of Barry Gifford’s Sailor and Lula story-cycle.  I think Horace McCoy’s KISS TOMORROW GOODBYE is an omission, and I’d loved to have seen Edward Anderson’s THIEVES LIKE US in there.  The Jim Thompson book, if I’d been writing about him, would have been THE KILLER INSIDE ME … and so on, for pages and pages.  THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADREBUILD MY GALLOWS HIGH

Would you work on a similar project again?

DB: “Never.  Not a chance.  You have NO IDEA how difficult John Connolly is to work with.  The man’s a complete diva … “No, I’d definitely work on a similar project at some point in the future, once I’ve forgotten how much time and effort this one took.  I wouldn’t mind so much, but John did pretty much everything except design the cover.  And I’m not entirely sure he didn’t do that too …” 

JC: I think Declan is being far too modest.  He was the voice of reason on this.  Margie Orford said to me that it was just as well that Declan was the main channel of communication with a lot of the contributors, as she didn't think I'd be as diplomatic as he was.  She was probably right.  I don't think anyone will do anything quite this ambitious within the genre again, or at least not for some time.  We've covered a huge spread of the major authors, as both subjects and contributors.  I suppose that there is scope for a volume that includes far more authors who don't write in English, but I'm not sure I'll be the one to tackle it.  I found doing this absolutely exhausting, and massively time-consuming.  I don't think I realised at the start just how difficult it would be, from sourcing contributors, to obtaining copy (deadlines were, by and large, merrily ignored by many of those involved!) and, ultimately, fact-checking all of those essays.  It's hard enough checking your own work.  It's massively, massively difficult checking other people's.  Every detail in every essay had to be checked, and we did it over and over, yet with every new proofread some previously unseen error came to light.  It almost broke me.

Any editorial disagreements?

DB: “I can’t remember any disagreements.  It wasn’t really that kind of book, because the vast majority of the contributors were self-selecting, in that we pretty much went out and tried to get the best crime and mystery writers working today.  And once that was achieved, it was up to the authors themselves to pick their own favourites.  A piece of cake, really …”

JC: I think that I was more inclined to be the bad guy when it came to editing.  For the most part - there were maybe only two exceptions, if that - any requests for rewrites were fairly minor, and the contributors understood immediately what was required.  That's the good thing about dealing with professionals: they're used to being edited, and they understand that no editor ever made a book, story, or essay worse.  

Any authors you would have loved to have included but could not for various reasons?

DB: “Well, as I said above, there were a couple of disappointments.  In terms of contributing authors, yes, there were a few people I’d have liked to have seen involved, but the timing wasn’t good for everyone.  That was always going to be the case and we knew that from the start.  You know how it is, there were some people we asked who were in the throes of putting their latest books to bed, for example, and couldn’t risk writing in a completely different style in case it might affect their own writing.  And that’s perfectly understandable, I think.  “To be honest, though, I never really looked at the list of contributors in that way.  It was always about who was involved, and how enthusiastic they were, and the way in which some of the biggest names in publishing responded to an idea that started out maybe a little whimsical but very quickly became a very serious prospect, and all because of the way people answered the call.  I don’t want to come over all Pollyanna about it, but to be honest, for such a supposedly hardboiled crew, the crime writing community is made up of an incredibly generous bunch of people.”

JC: I wish P.D. James had said yes.  We went through a certain amount of back-and-forth with her before she politely declined, but she's a perceptive critic, even if I don't necessarily agree with everything she has to say about the genre.  On a personal level, I'd love to have had an essay from James Lee Burke, but he's always declined to become involved in anthologies like this, and I can see why he wouldn't want to start writing for them at this stage in his life.  On the other hand, for every author who couldn't contribute there was one wonderful contribution from someone who I might have hoped would become involved, but regarded as a long shot.  Joseph Wambaugh was one of those.  I've been an admirer of Wambaugh ever since I read THE CHOIRBOYS as a teenager, but I'd never met him, or even corresponded with him.  He said yes immediately, and delivered a wonderful essay on meeting Truman Capote, which is an adornment to the anthology.  It all balanced out in the end...

John Connolly is the author (and is best known) for the highly acclaimed and award winning Charlie Parker series.  He has also written a number of standalone novels.  His latest Charlie Parker novel Wrath of Angels has recently been published.  More information on John and his work can be found on his website.

Declan Burke runs the highly regarding blog Crime Always Pays with “news, reviews and interviews about (mostly) Irish crime writing”.  His book Absolute Zero Cool won the Goldsboro Last Laugh Award at Crimefest 2012.  His latest book is The Slaughters Hound, which is a sequel to Eight Ball Boogie.

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