Wednesday, 29 July 2020

Heading South with John Connolly

This pestilence that has swept the globe, COVID-19 has disrupted so many activities that there seems little it can’t impact upon; including delaying the next instalment in the disturbing adventures of Charlie Parker – that singular creation from Irish literary crime / horror writer John Connolly.

At the risk of cliché, it seems only yesterday that John Connolly’s debut crime novel Every Dead Thing [1999], was awarded best debut Private Eye novel in 2000 by The Private Eye Writers of America [PWA]. This achievement made all the more poignant, that it was the first time a non-America writer received this accolade. Some would argue that the PI Genre was at the heart of the American Golden Age of Crime Fiction, so for an Irishman to be acclaimed by his American peers is remarkable.

And now we come full circle with August 20th 2020 release by Hodder and Stoughton of The Dirty South, the latest Charlie Parker adventure which goes back in time, to those early days of Connolly’s troubled protagonist, before the millennium, and well before the ubiquity of the Virus that is in the air around us -

It is 1997, and someone is slaughtering young women in Burdon County, Arkansas.
But no one in the Dirty South wants to admit it.
In an Arkansas jail cell sits a former NYPD detective, stricken by grief. He is mourning the death of his wife and child, and searching in vain for their killer. Obsessed with avenging his lost family, his life is about to take a shocking turn.
Witness the dawning of a conscience.
Witness the birth of a hunter.
Witness the becoming of Charlie Parker.

Available in the US from Emily Bestler Books / Atria October 20, 2020
Available in Ireland from Hodder & Stoughton August 20, 2020
Available in the UK and elsewhere from Hodder & Stoughton, August 20, 2020

An extract is available HERE

Shots Ezine’s Spanish Correspondent and book reviewer John Parker has been sitting on his hands, having read The Dirty South earlier this year, before COVID-19 delayed the release, and as John Parker had a few [socially distanced] questions for John Connolly, which Shots Ezine are happy to share with our readers -

From the pages of John Parker’s notebook -

John Parker: Hello John, it’s great to speak to you again. Congratulations on the publication of THE DIRTY SOUTH.

John Connolly: And great to talk again.

John Parker: So without further ado, tell us how difficult was it to go back and write about a character who has lived through as much as Charlie Parker? Were you worried about continuity or using language that was not prevalent 20 years ago, for example?

John Connolly: Actually, it was quite pleasant to write without the accumulated history of seventeen books!  As I grow older, the hard part is keeping track of everything that’s already happened, especially in a series which has a larger story arc progressing in the background. 

The hard part was the research, given that The Dirty South is effectively a historical novel.  It’s one thing going to Arkansas to walk the ground, as it were, but another to recreate it as it was decades earlier.  Thankfully, I had some help from longtime residents, but it’s a stressful business.  One turns into a version of Donald Rumsfeld, trying to distinguish between known unknowns and unknown unknowns. 

As for language, I decided to adopt a kind of heightened, stylized speech for all of the Arkansas characters. In a sense, it’s an echo of the approach to language in Every Dead Thing, although it’s more conscious and perhaps less in thrall to literary influences than in that first novel.

When I began writing Every Dead Thing in my twenties, I was very much in the shadow of a particular style of American mystery writing, and it’s taken me two decades even to begin to find my own voice.  Dipping into Every Dead Thing to check matters of consistency or continuity was very difficult for me, because my style has changed so much since then.  I hope it’s improved, although some might differ.

One issue that was problematical was the status of women and people of color during the period in which the book is set.  The setting is a society largely dominated by white males, and to some degree the novel has to reflect that, even as it tries to find a way to examine and interrogate it.  That’s a delicate, fraught exercise.

John Parker: There has been an unfortunate delay in publication due to the pandemic. But, perhaps, this makes the book more relevant than ever. Clearly black lives don’t matter to some people in Cargill. Would you care to comment?

John Connolly: The problem never seems to go away, does it?  In that sense, the book is still depressingly relevant.  One only had to witness the evidence of voter suppression during the recent Kentucky primary – and Donald Trump’s astonishing acknowledgement of the necessity of voter suppression if the Republican Party is to have any hope of remaining in power – to recognize the shadow that the subject of race continues to cast over American democracy.

But the book is as much about poverty as it is about racial inequality, and the compromises that a poor community has to make in order to have any prospect of improving its situation. The history of industrial development in the South over the last fifty or sixty years is quite fascinating, in that what revolutionized the South, New Deal liberalism and hefty tax breaks apart, was the invention of air-conditioning.  Before that, high-tech industries couldn’t really consider Southern states for investment because of the semi-tropical weather – not only the difficulty of keeping workers indoors in terrible heat, but the impossibility of manufacturing technologically demanding products in a humid environment.  
After all, you can’t just leave a window open.

But A/C changed all that, and suddenly big companies – including aerospace and defense contractors – have access to a low-cost, union-free labor force in states with a fairly lax approach to environmental standards.  The result is towns literally selling themselves to corporations for the promise of jobs, better schools, and an improved standard of living.  That’s the opportunity the town of Cargill is trying to secure in the book, and it’s only the chief of police who really understands the likely implications of this.

John Parker: Did you actually go down south to research the book? If so, how was the experience?

John Connolly: I did, because research is both a necessity and, thankfully, a pleasure for me.  I can’t write about a place I haven’t explored.  Arkansas was a part of the United States that was wholly unfamiliar to me, so I was able to start with a blank slate.  I received only the most generous of help throughout, particularly from a wonderful man named J.R. Howard, who is now retired but had worked right across Arkansas law enforcement during his career; and a young couple named the Webbs, who were fans of my books and reached out via Twitter when I posted about being in the state.  In the end, I think J.R. suggested only one correction to the text, which related to a model of gun.  Otherwise, he very kindly said that he felt he’d worked with a lot of the lawmen in the book, and the ones he hadn’t worked with, he knew. Most of that, though, was down to my listening quietly to him as he talked, and taking copious notes of everything he said.  As I grow older, I’ve learned how and when to keep my mouth shut, except to ask questions.

John Parker: When we met last summer in Avilés, Spain, you were in the middle of a book promotion tour. You said you hoped to be able to spend a little more time at home afterwards. Your wish came true. So, how did you cope with the lockdown?

John Connolly: I was okay with lockdown, the general stress of it apart.  My sons are both in their twenties and can largely take care of themselves, so I didn’t have the kind of distractions that come with younger kids.  It was, rather selfishly, nice not to have to find ways to say “no” to things.  I travelled too much last year, and it’s more tiring than it used to be.  Also, travelling so much means that I struggle to get as much writing done as I would like.  Lockdown presented an opportunity to work without interruption, and perhaps get a little bit ahead for the first time in twenty years. Routine suits me, I think.  I secretly struggle with disruption.

John Parker: Your legion of fans was lucky enough to be treated to more Parker in the online novella, The Sisters Strange. Was that a story you already had in the back of your mind or was it inspired by your wish to do something good for people under lockdown? Would you ever do it again? 

John Connolly: I decided on the spur of the moment that I should try to produce something as a distraction for readers, and to make up for the postponement of publication of my books in a number of countries.  It wasn’t something I had in a bottom drawer. I simply came up with a title, and then wrote to that title as an experiment, albeit one conducted in public.  It was an odd experience, but not a million miles away from how I write anyway: I usually only know the opening of a book, and then discover the story and the characters by writing very slowly every day.  Only at the end of the (very painful) first draft do I go back and begin revising.  The process for The Sisters Strange was similar, except that it was all done in full view of readers, I had to live with every decision I made, and there was no possibility of going back and rerouting if I went in a seemingly unpromising direction.

Would I do it again?  Ha, probably not!  Apart from being quite stressful, and leaving my flaws exposed, it was also a pretty expensive exercise.  We ended up publishing the daily extracts in six languages, which meant that I was paying five translators as well as my son, Cameron, who took care of layout and publication. I was happy to put work the translators’ way, though, and they and Cam did a wonderful job under very difficult conditions.

John Parker: Can you tell us what is coming up next? What lies in the future for Parker?  

John Connolly: Well, the next novel is pretty much done, and I’m just polishing it for delivery.  It’s an Angel & Louis book, with a cameo or two from Parker, and picks up on an incident mentioned in A Book of Bones.  As with every novel I write, it’s a reaction to the one that preceded it.  The Dirty South is almost entirely set in one small Arkansas county, but the next book – The Nameless Ones – ranges across four continents.  After that, a revised and probably extended version of The Sisters Strange will appear in some form, either as one of two Parker novellas or as a separate publication. 

John Parker: I was mightily impressed by your talk at Celsius 232 last summer which you gave in Spanish. Are you still working on your Spanish or are you learning other languages?

John Connolly: I’m still practising my Spanish each day, although comprehension and vocabulary remain a problem.  I’m improving, I think, but I suspect my Spanish still causes native speakers to wince a bit.

I have some French, but I wanted to focus on Spanish because I probably do more promotion for my Spanish editions than for any others, English-language apart.  I was embarrassed by my inability to communicate with Spanish readers directly, or to conduct interviews and presentations in the language.  I’m always embarrassed by that when I go to a new country, but it’s just not possible to be fluent in every language, so I made the decision to concentrate on Spanish. I’d dabbled in conversational Spanish a few years ago, but I decided to try to get to the point where I could do an entire session in the language, however halting it might be.  Spanish readers have been very forgiving of my mangling of their native tongue, although I think they appreciate the effort. 

But doing a public interview or presentation in Spanish is nerve-racking, and quite exhausting, because I keep running into words or terms for which I don’t necessarily have the vocabulary, or not yet.  I’ll get there, though – I hope.  At the very least, they say that learning a language can help stave off dementia.

John Parker: Last question - I heard a rumour that you were going to come back to Celsius 232 this summer? Alas, it could not be! Will you be back in the future?

John Connolly: I’d love to return to that festival at some future date, and on a practical level I do need reasons to continue working on, and improving, my Spanish.  Everyone at Celcius in Avilés (and Gijón, which I attended during the same visit) was hugely kind and generous, and it’s a lovely town.  Also, I really appreciate the fact that so many Spanish festivals are free to attend, thanks to an enlightened view of the relationship between taxation and culture.  And the food and wine are great.  I’m not sure I’d go every year, though.  I think that might rather lead people to get a bit tired of me…

John Parker: Thank you for your time John, as ever

John Connolly: My pleasure, thank you for your questions and see you soon, stay well.

Additional Resources

A guide to the Charlie Parker series can be accessed HERE

John Parker’s review of THE DIRTY SOUTH is online HERE

John Parker’s conversation with John Connolly from last year’s Celsius Festival Click HERE

BBC audio ghost stories by John Connolly –

And a trailer for the Kevin Costner movie THE NEW DAUGHTER from 2009, based on the story by John Connolly and the directorial debut of Spanish screenwriter Luis Berdejo

And previous reviews and interview features with John Connolly from Shots can be accessed HERE

Shots Ezine would like to pass our thanks to Hodder and Stoughton and John Connolly for their help in arranging this interview and also to our Spanish Bureau’s John Parker.

John Parker is a Graduate-qualified English/Spanish Teacher, owner and director of CHAT ENGLISH, an English Language Centre in Avilés on the north coast of Spain. John is a voracious reader, and has loved horror fiction for many, many years. He is also an avid beekeeper.

Editor’s Note: One of the most engaging reading experiences from John Connolly’s body of work for me is “He” an extraordinary piece of literature and here’s why: CLICK HERE

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