There is a dichotomy in Irish writing that praise, awards and even sales never seem to fade. We have our literary greats, people like Seamus Heaney, Anne Enright, and Colm Tóibín – and then we have our genre writers, who, despite their success, sort of seem to occupy a second class of respectability.
Ohn Connolly thinks this is deeply unfair. As one of our most prominent mystery writers – his Charlie Parker series has sold out in trucks and won many awards – he sure has a bias, but he argues that the gulf between the “literature,” which helps us make sense of the human condition, and the great holiday readings that genre writers specialize in, are completely wrong.
He wrote a book about it all – Shadow voice, which is due out in October – which sounds fascinating (he also has another amazing novel coming out right now, which we’ll get to shortly).
“I started to wonder why [at a certain stage] there were so few genre writers in Ireland and why were we so dismissive about it, ”he said over lunch in a newly opened town center.
“In the 19th century, many Irish writers wrote genre novels. They were writing romantic fiction. They were pioneers of detective fiction. It almost entirely stopped in the 20th century and there were very good reasons for it.
Douglas Hyde gave a famous speech in which he denounced the ‘penny dreadfuls’ – the word itself – because they were English; they were ‘other’. We were a nascent nation and literature had a role to play in the kind of society that was being formed and everything that was not considered Irish was put aside. And so you find that genre writing is drying up completely. “
Part of the problem, observes Connolly, is that “very often literary fiction is judged best in its category and genre fiction is judged worst. It is not a fair fight.
And yet, in the last few decades, genre writing has been revived and a generation of writers have proven just how wrong the old dichotomy is.
The late and great Maeve Binchy showed just how romantic fiction – perhaps the most rejected genre of all – is what Connolly calls “a place where women can question their place in society.”
He himself has written books that use gender as a medium to explore larger themes such as morality and salvation or the difference between law and justice, while also advancing like the best of Harlan Coben.
His last – The unnamed ones – has as villains two murderous Serbian war criminals who wish to return home to the Balkans but find that their brutal past has made them outcasts. Connolly’s extensive research into the history of the region – he traveled to Serbia, spoke to locals, and absorbed the country’s lack of engagement in the genocide of the 1990s – is quietly incorporated into it. ‘history.
“Detective fiction is very interested in the idea that the past is never the past,” he says of his interest in this period in history.
“We are magpies and we are always on the lookout for brilliant things. I had the opportunity to go to Serbia while researching the book. It was really curious because there isn’t really a history museum in Belgrade; there is a military museum which painstakingly traces the violent military history of the country. He stopped at Tito, then started again in 2005 without any mention of the Balkan War.
“A taxi driver driving me put it very succinctly when he said,“ A lot of bad things happened and we were responsible for most of them. ”It all struck me as a fascinating scenario in which one to put a book on. “
While his brilliant writing and the substantial nature of his work make him difficult to ghettoize in the genre, Connolly is also someone who seems to embody other spurious divides in Irish society. Born in Rialto, Dublin in 1968, he is a working-class boy with a middle-class accent, the son of a Trinity-educated municipal worker and part-time teacher, and living proof that nothing spurs social mobility like the love of literature.
As a child he was’ transported [to] Dolphin’s Barn Library ”and became a voracious reader, but his imaginative side was not nurtured in school. He went to Synge Street CBS, which “was a perfect school if you wanted to be an accountant or an engineer. But if you weren’t a practical child, if you were a dreamer or an artist, there was no opportunity ”.
Growing up, he suffered from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). “It’s a voice in your head that says ‘walk on a crack, break your mother’s back.’ This is the classic expression and it probably comes from OCD: the idea that there are certain routines that will allow you to have control over things over which you might not have control.
“These routines get incredibly oppressive. It doesn’t relieve stress, it exacerbates it. Literally, the only time it relieves it is when you bang your head against a wall. People haven’t seen it. mostly but it was very debilitating. “
His parents took him to see a child psychiatrist about this. “I was the first person in my family to go there. After a few sessions, my mother asked me if I thought I was already healed because it was very expensive. And I said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll be fine,’ and I did.
Ireland at the time was, he recalls, “a dark place to grow up, the first time any of us had money was in the 1990s, which was. still far “. Her father “believed that the most important thing was to find a job that you couldn’t be fired from, that had a pension. It was the bank, the civil service or the company “.
Connolly got a job in the accounting department of Dublin Corporation, but felt it wasted his life. “I realized that was not what I wanted to do with my life.” He cashed in his pension to fund his freshman year in college and went to Trinity College to study English literature. “I didn’t know anyone who had been to college. The first time I set foot there was when I went; I didn’t even know you could walk through it in town.
He became a journalist at Irish time but, he insists modestly, “not very good”.
“Almost every journalist I worked with when I was younger had this aspiration to write. The difficulty is, the longer you stay in journalism, the more your writing power gets used to being used in a certain way, ”he says.
“Most journalists write 500 to 1,000 words a day and when they come to write a novel they have to do it with a vision for something that will ultimately be 100,000 words.
“The longer they stay in journalism, I think the less likely they are to get into writing novels.”
His first book, Every thing dead, it took him five years to write in his spare time. “I kept thinking it was a disaster and that no one would want it. And no one wanted it. Of course, when it was half done, it was rejected by everyone. I had a certain stubbornness. When someone says you can’t do something, you think, “I’ll show you. “
He was not quite 30 in the late 1990s when he was finally sold to publishers for over a million. Over the following decades, he would sell millions to a dedicated global fan base, win many major awards, and see his work adapted by Hollywood.
His influences were those of Ross Macdonald (whom he mentions more than once in our conversation), James Lee Burke and Ed McBain.
Its antihero protagonist, Charlie Parker, a former NYPD cop, has now gone through 19 books and Connolly says the balance needs to be struck between each standing alone as a self-employed person and trusting the reader’s memory.
Novelist Lee Child has said his own longtime protagonist Jack Reacher should have no memory because Child wanted every book to be independent, Connolly says.
“But historical fiction and science fiction have always relied on people with fond memories,” says Connolly. “I wanted to write a sequence of novels, where each one was the pieces of a bigger puzzle, but at the same time I want someone to be able to go to a store and take book 14 and enjoy it, so that’s a balance difficult to find.
When the Charlie Parker series took off, Connolly traveled to South Africa for a book promotion tour, and it was there that he met his partner, South African journalist and author Jennifer Ridyard.
“She interviewed me. At that time, I was dating someone. A few years later she came to Dublin, not me. She brought two children with her. They were quite young at the time.
Connolly was then in his thirties and the children were 6 and 12 years old. He says they turned his life upside down in the best possible way. “It was difficult for them to move from South Africa to Ireland and it was a difficult transition. I was living alone and had become selfish. All of a sudden I had people in my house. and they were in my space.
The kids were “at that age they’re interesting and interested. You could say, let’s go to that movie or that one and they’d be open to it. So it was an incredibly enriching experience for me. I had become a pretty sad creature. My partner tells me that I skipped the moment when they are babies and that I am doing nothing but cry, eat and go to the bathroom. Now they are wonderful adults and they are creating their own lives. “
These days, Connolly has transmuted the slight remnants of his childhood OCD into a fierce work ethic. “It works for me now and I’ve channeled it into something constructive, but I can still be too focused and it’s not always great for the family going to be like, ‘Can we do something else now? “”
Despite his success and work ethic, he says he still doubts himself every time he embarks on a new novel. He wonders every time if he can finish it and says he thinks a day will come when he really can’t finish it. But I have the impression, speaking to him, that he understands the psychology of the case too well to succumb to this fatalism.
“For writers and those who are trying to create things, ideas are not the motto. You will have more ideas than you could ever use in your life.
“The idea in your brain will say ‘this idea doesn’t work anymore; here’s another one for you …’ It’s inherent in the process but every time you give up on a project, a bit of creative confidence is shattered.
“Ray Bradley says professionals are amateurs who finish things and that’s really quite true. You have to make a commitment to keep going, to write the last line.”
The Nameless Ones (H&S, € 15.99) is now available