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MB Q&A: Michael Connelly

Author Michael Connelly, who started out penning the hard-hitting newspaper articles compiled in his new book Crime Beat, shares how he jumped from journalist to novelist.

By Nicole Haddad - June 19, 2006

Come see Sebastian Junger and others talk about their transition from writing articles to books in mediabistro's June 28 panel discussion, "From Journo to Big Book."

mediabistro: What were your criteria for choosing which of your stories went into Crime Beat?

Michael Connelly: I was looking for stories that had what I was calling an echo—a connection that would go from that story to something I've written in my fiction, and whether it's the plot in some of these stories, some have obvious plot connections. But, there are also some more subtle things, like a character theme. But, I was looking for stories that connected to the [novels] because I thought the audience, largely, would be people who are familiar with my fiction work.

mb: Considering you started on the crime beat while in Fort Lauderdale, during the height of South Florida's "cocaine wars," how much of your experience reporting on that shows up in your fiction?

Connelly: Well, I think my days on the crime beat obviously influenced me. [Otherwise], we wouldn't be having this conversation, I'm sure. I wouldn't have been able to write the book I did, if I hadn't been on the crime beat. But the kinds of crime, how they affected this, I'm not really sure how to place that.

I was drawn, as any police reporter would be, to the more intriguing cases. I mean, with the Fort Lauderdale stuff, there are a couple stories in Crime Beat where I'm with the homicide squad. That story was very influential—I spent a week with them back in, I believe, '87 or '86 (I don't have the date in front of me). That one week has influenced all 16 novels I've written. You know, with a full immersion into that world, it was very influential.

mb: Are any of the articles you wrote during that time in Crime Beat? If so, why did choose those stories, in particular?

Connelly: Yes, the first one, called "The Call." I wanted that to be first because I think, if someone has read my [novels], they'll immediately see the connection between the character I write about most often, Harry Bosch, and a couple of the detectives in that story.

Also, the stories on Christopher Wilder (in Crime Beat chapter "Killer on the Run") were back then. The serial killer started in South Florida, then went out to L.A., then went back to the northeast.

mb: Which incident from the book that you reported on took you most by surprise, and why?

Connelly: Probably one from the story called "The Stalker." It took me by surprise because I was asked to cover the trial of this man named Jonathon Lundh, who was charged with murder. What's surprising about it is that he started calling me pretty regularly from the jail. He had convinced the judge of his skills and he was allowed to defend himself. In his charge of murder, he was his own lawyer, and even though he was not a lawyer he was allowed to defend himself. And as such, he got greater access to things in jail, including the phone, so he was pretty free to call.

So he called me quite a bit, and there was kind of an obvious manipulation going on. Then, he ended up subpoenaing me to be a witness. It was a kind of surprising twist in covering that case, because I was never really sure what he hoped to get out of putting me on the stand—nothing more than probably embarrassing me or something. I knew nothing about the case other than what I had reported on. And he was trying to use me to get to the police, to get me to tell what the police had told me about him that never got into the newspaper story. So, it involved the whole legal morass of the Los Angeles Times attorneys saying I didn't have to testify, and so on and so forth. And that was something I didn't see coming.

mb: So did you actually end up testifying?

Connelly: No, ultimately I didn't have to testify. Actually, you know, I did testify, but I didn't say anything. Basically, the Los Angeles Times gave me a rehearsal-answer thing, I can't remember exactly what it was. It was something along the lines of, "I choose not to have to answer that," under whatever reporting protective laws there were at the time.

mb: How did you navigate the emotions called up by the cases you cover—for example, in the Kanan murder? How did you keep the feelings elicited by the crimes from coloring your reporting of those incidents? Did writing crime fiction help provide an outlet for that?

Connelly: Well, the more you [covered crime], the thicker the shield was around you. Like cops, the crime beat reporter can seek outlets that help maintain mental health or numb the difficult feelings. In my case, I had my fiction. I would come home from a day of telling it like it is to spend a couple hours in an alternate universe, where I got to make it up and tie up all the loose ends. It was very therapeutic. But, as I said, I still could become cynical.

You asked specifically about the Kanan case. Well, I can't remember any particularly difficult feeling overtaking me from that case. To me, it was a big story and I was all about advancing it ahead of the competition. I remember when I got ahold of a search warrant that named a suspect, I was elated because I knew the competition didn't have it. I didn't really slow down to think about who that suspect was and how sordid the story was turning out to be.

mb: You say that one of the cases you recall most from your life as a reporter involves a "woman who killed her kids, the family dog, and then turned the gun on herself." You also say your biggest regret is not going back to that house to find out why she did it—what stopped you?

Connelly: Probably because at the time I didn't care. I didn't care enough to go back. I was caught up in the routine of the job, the momentum of moving on to the next story, and the next day. I was sort of a crime reporter du jour. If you do that long enough, you kind of wrap yourself in a cold cynicism. You become inured to the content of what you are writing about, you lose sight of the human element.

Frankly, back then I didn't care why she had killed her family and herself. All I knew was that it wasn't going to be a big story, so I moved on. My regrets are formed in hindsight. It's not something I regretted in the moment. I probably didn't think too much about it.

mb: Do you still rely on the contacts you made while covering crime for newspapers when writing novels?

Connelly: I do use a lot of contacts within the LAPD and other law-enforcement agencies, but I'm pretty sure there's not a single person who I work with now that I used as a source when I was a reporter. One story that's kind of funny is that an LAPD detective, who helps me quite a bit now, never returned my calls when I was a reporter. This sort of underlines the difference between journalism and writing fiction.

When I was calling on him as the reporter, he perceived me as a possible threat because I might question how he was handling the case, or I might report facts he wanted to keep out of public knowledge. But, when I call on him now as a novelist, he's happy to help me because I write fiction, and there is no threat to him.

"When I was working the beat, I often had to lobby and fight for space for my stories. I really wonder if that would be the case now."

mb: While crimes don't seem to change much over time, technology certainly does. Describe your reporting methods behind the stories in Crime Beat, prior to cell phones and the Internet.

Connelly: I had an editor who used to call out to me as I left the newsroom, "Got quarters?" Well, I doubt there is a reporter in the country now who relies on pay phones for calling in to rewrite. They carry cell phones, not quarters for pay phones. So advances in technology have changed reporting as well as policing. I think more shoe leather was involved back then, more face-to-face relationships.

mb: How did cutting your teeth as a journalist using those methods affect your writing? Also, how does current technology play into your work now?

Connelly: I think because of my years as a reporter, I am blessed with the ability to write almost anywhere: planes, trains, cars, airports, hotels, etc. So to do that, I always have a computer with me. I have Internet access, I have my BlackBerry, I have any piece of technology that makes [writing] easier to do.

Conversely, in the writing itself, I use technology as window dressing. It usually is not an important part of the story. Most of the time, I write about a detective who doesn't trust the advances of technology, who's not sure [technology is] improving the world, and has a difficult time when put into a position where he must confront or use technology.

mb: What are some trends you've noticed in crime reporting and writing over the past 25 years? Do you think newspapers' treatment of crime stories varies from how they were handled when you were reporting? How?

Connelly: I think media access to law enforcement has increased tremendously through things like Court TV and the proliferation of live trials and car chases, and the Internet, too. I think this has educated the public, but also whetted the appetite for the reading and viewing public. This, in turn, has pushed the crime beat to the forefront in a lot of media venues. When I was working the beat, I often had to lobby and fight for space for my stories. I really wonder if that would be the case now. I kind of doubt it.

mb: "If you want to know the facts, read a newspaper, but if you want to know the truth, read a novel." You've said you agree with this sentiment: How do your novels get to truth behind the facts in a different way than your newspaper crime stories?

Connelly: With fiction you can tell "true" stories by creating characters and situations that explore an issue or an incident or whatever you want to its full extent. It's a perfect setup for this exploration, because there are no boundaries. You can move the pieces anywhere on the board to truly make your case.

In a piece of journalism, there are always boundaries. You are bound by the known facts and what people are willing to tell you. Just because someone told you how something happened, it doesn't mean that is how it truly happened. It is only their version. You can't go inside that person's head to get the truth. In a novel you can.

mb: Your police detective friend describes what you do as "faction," or "the blending or bending of fact into fiction." How does that play into your own work, both in reported crime stories and crime novels?

Connelly: When it comes to journalism it plays no part—you don't blend fact and fiction. When it comes to my novels, I try to cast the stuff I make up against a backdrop of reality. I want as many truthful details as possible, because it makes the fiction more realistic. I want the line between what is real and what is made up to be unnoticeable.

mb: Having been a journalist covering the crime beat gives you an advantage as a fiction crime writer. Got any advice for writers who don't share your background, but want to tackle crime fiction?

Connelly: You mean when they go to write crime novels? I think these books live and die with the characters you create. And they have to be real, credible characters... [Maybe] you don't have the kind of [experience] I had, where I actually dealt with dozens and dozens of detectives almost on a daily basis. Then, you've got to get that somewhere else. I don't think you can watch TV or read other books, or watch movies and write about detectives and the crime beat as you will, credibly.

You've got to do your research. If you don't spend years as a newspaper reporter, that's not required, that's fine. But I think you should go and visit the police station, and try to spend time with some of the people who are doing the work that you want to write about.


Want to hear from other journalists who've made the move to writing books? Come to mediabistro's June 28 panel discussion, From Journo to Big Book: How Five Journalists Became Authors, featuring The Perfect Storm author Sebastian Junger, Vanity Fair's David Margolick, and more.

Nicole Haddad is an aspiring freelancer with a Master's degree in publishing. This is her first piece for mediabistro.

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