Mystery writer Michael Connelly, known for his series of books with police detective Harry Bosch as well as his handful of books with defense attorney Mickey Haller, came out with his new book, The Reversal, yesterday.
That book brings Haller to work for the prosecution to retry a man who was let out of prison after twenty-four years after DNA evidence proves it wasn’t his semen on a little girl who he was accused of molesting and killing. Haller hires Bosch to help him find new evidence after two and a half decades since the crime. A Los Angeles Times book review says it may be Connelly's best novel yet out of twenty-two.
Connelly’s publication day reading was at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena, an event I only learned about two hours before it started. I arrived an hour early to be sure to get a chair, and about fifty people were already there when I arrived. At 7 p.m., when Connelly stepped up, the place had over 150 people, most of them standing, which is a lot for a bookstore.
Inspired by Janet Fitch’s blog about Jonathan Franzen’s recent reading and interview in Los Angeles, I took notes. Connelly didn’t read anything from his book. He simply started taking questions right away from what was clearly an eager fan base. The first question was probably from a writer: “Do you outline your books?”
“No,” he said. “And I don’t use note cards, bulletin boards, or giant sheets of paper. I know how a new novel opens. I have the inciting incident in mind, and I know my ending. Then I dive in and write. I love the improvisational aspect of writing—it’s the best part. I like to see what happens.”
It’s not always easy, though. He goes down wrong roads and has to throw things out. “At first the writing is slow, and I make excuses to do other things, but then I build up so that I end up writing all day and into the night.”
From the next few questions also on his process, it became clear he likes challenging himself by putting his characters under emotional pressure to see what happens. In The Reversal, thanks to what happened in his previous novel 9 Dragons, Harry Bosch is now the sole parent to his 13-year-old daughter who has never lived with him. Bosch, a wiry, angst-ridden fifty-year-old detective, has to be a father to a teenager. Haller, too, who has always hated prosecutors, now has to prosecute.
“The first draft I do of a book is plot-centric,” he said. “and then I focus on character as I rewrite, layering in more and more.”
I asked him that because he doesn’t use outlines and because he gives himself challenges, does he always come up with a workable novel or does he have to abandon some? He says yes, he’s had times where things didn’t work. Usually that means just putting it aside for a few years and trying it again from a new angle later. Blood Work was one such book. When he finished the story, it was about a scientist who had to have a heart transplant, and when he learns the young woman whose heart he received may have been murdered, he investigates.
“It didn’t work,” said Connelly. “I really wanted to write about a scientist, but it just didn’t work, so I put it aside for a few years. Then I had the idea of making the main character, Terry McCaleb, an FBI agent who had to retire because of his heart condition. I had all the plot there, but the story changed in a big way, a good way, when I made him FBI. I still wanted to write about a scientist, though, which I did a few years later in Chasing the Dime.”
Someone asked him how does he keep track of all the plot points, biographical details, and more if he doesn’t outline? He said for him writing everyday is important. If it’s a family day, he’ll write at least an hour. If he’s rewriting, he can work eight to twelve hours a day, day after day. By having such momentum, he’s able to keep details in his head.
All of that vanishes, by the way, when he finishes a book and starts another. As example, he said he finished the next book after The Reversal only the previous day. He loved writing it, working twelve-hour days. And he knows what his next book is. “Even though I finished a book yesterday, FedExing a copy to my editor, I’m wishing a could start my new book today.” Because that last book is still in his head, though, he’s already forgetting things from The Reversal, which is what he’s on tour for.
He also said the woman who runs his website, www.michaelconnelly.com, keeps track of a lot of the biographical detail that shows up in books. He can also call a private detective he knows in Milwaukee who knows his books inside and out, and he can ask him, for instance, in which book is Bosch’s father first mentioned?
A woman near me asked if he has a notebook with Harry Bosch’s biographical information in it to refer to. “I have a big ego,” he said, “but I never had one big enough to expect I might be writing about the same character twenty-one years after I introduced him in my first book, The Black Echo.” He wrote that in 1989, it was sold in 1990, and published in 1992. He’d written two books before that, which were his training novels, and he didn’t sell them. It took him until his third book to have his craft honed enough.
As a young man, he loved crime stories and knew he wanted to write them. His father gave him the idea to work as a reporter on a crime beat, where he’d learn the skills to research, to write quickly, and to learn first-hand the subject matter he’d use in his novels. He worked for ten years as a crime reporter, first in Florida then in Los Angeles. He stuck to his plan, and it’s worked. The skills he learned as a reporter he still uses.
Before he starts a novel, he does a lot of research, talking with police, prosecutors, reporters and more. In fact, a number of his stories have sprung from casual conversations with such professionals. “When someone talks about an experience with fervor—they’re not thinking about it being a story, they just talk about it—those kind of things stick with me and often inspire me.”
The Reversal had a different kind of inspiration, though. It was stirred up by last year’s overturned conviction of Bruce Lisker who had been given life in prison for killing his mother in 1983 when he was seventeen years old. A federal judge in August 2009 said that Lisker, who had spent twenty-four years in prison, was convicted on false evidence and had to be retried or set free. He was set free. Connelly wondered what would have happened if he’d been retried after such a long time? Where would the witnesses be? Connelly then created a different case with a more devious person and made Haller prosecute.
The goal is all his work is to write more than just a good plot. “The heart of any great book is character. That’s what I aim for.”
This all makes me eager to not only finish my comic novel, Love at Absolute Zero, but to get back to rewriting the crime book—inspired by Connelly—whose first draft I finished earlier this year. It puzzled my agent, but I hope to impress him yet.
Causes Christopher Meeks Supports
Associated Writing Programs