An Irishman in Portland
Certain place names evoke feelings and images even for people who have never been there. It's always spring in Paris, and couples are sitting in cafés, falling in love. It's always grim winter in Moscow, while in San Francisco, it's always Gay Pride Day. And here in Maine, it's always a dark and stormy night, and a Great Evil is haunting the woods. If the word Maine carries creepy associations, we have writers to blame. Stephen King is the prime culprit to spring to mind. Another is the Irish — yes, Irish — writer John Connolly, the author of six highly successful and very spooky mysteries set in Maine, the latest of which, The Black Angel, even comes with a CD "soundtrack.His Scarborough-based detective, Charlie Parker, has a penchant for finding evil wherever he turns, and, since he's living in Maine, that means he finds it right here. Down East was interested in why an Irish writer would choose to set his novels in our own backyard, so, during a recent e-mail interview, we asked.
Down East: What is it about Maine that drew you to it as a setting for your books?
John Connolly: It has a history, and a sense of that history, and there is a streak of individuality to its people that is quite Celtic, perhaps. I also really love Portland as a city. I sometimes don't think that people who live there realize how lucky they are. Like any city it has its flaws, but it has retained a lot of its character, and it has survived fires, recession, and Lord knows what else, and come out at the other end looking pretty good.
I also like the fact that Maine has quite distinct changes of season, and I use nature and its cycles a lot in the books, particularly in Dark Hollow. I've also been able to draw on the state's history. I'm not very good at making stuff up, in some ways (which is a bad confession for a fiction writer to make, as it kind of implies that you may not fully have the hang of the whole thing), or perhaps I just enjoy using real events as a backdrop for my fiction. For example, The Killing Kind, my third book, drew on the state's religious history. A lot of very odd people seem to have gravitated to Maine over the centuries in the hope of setting up churches and religious organizations in their name: George Adams, Frank Sandford, etc. Then, after The Killing Kind was published, there was that incident in New Sweden when the congregation of a Lutheran church had their after-service drinks spiked with poison. It was awful, but I felt kind of vindicated by it. It was a case of "See, I told you it was true!"
In addition, while I read quite a lot of mystery fiction, there really wasn't much of it that used Maine in the same way that, say, James Lee Burke or James Sallis used Louisiana as a backdrop. It was comparatively virgin territory as far as mystery fiction was concerned, and it was only later, as the writing of the novels progressed, that the supernatural elements began to play a larger part. I think it's to do with the state's long history, as I really do believe that it creates resonances between the past and the present that a writer can exploit. There are also the woods that dominate the state, and there is something very basic and elemental about our reaction to deep forests. There is that sense of potential threat, hard-wired into us from our earliest past, that wariness of darkness and isolation, of getting lost and becoming prey for animals. All of those elements feed into my books.
You refer not only to specific locations in your books, but also to specific shops and restaurants. Things open and close around here quite quickly. How do you keep abreast of things from such a distance?
I return to Maine a lot, probably two or three times each year, and I tend to check my facts shortly before the book goes to press. Nevertheless, you're right: places can close quite quickly. I remember that shortly before I was due to publish Bad Men the movie theater over at the Maine Mall closed, and it actually played a small, if crucial, role in that book. At the last minute I had to alter stuff, so there is always the risk that by the time a novel appears, circumstances will have changed. But I need to know the world in which the books are set in order to communicate a sense of it to the reader. Also, I want the reader to make the leaps of faith and imagination that are required if they're to go along with the things that happen in the books, and the best way to do that is to create a real, recognizable world, so that when the strangeness and violence intrudes into it it seems both more shocking, and more believable.
Yes, but a Mainer would need a lot of credible detail to believe your death toll in Dark Hollow. I think there were more murders in that novel in — what? a few weeks? — than the state has had in about ten years.
Dark Hollow is an odd book. I think some of my best writing is contained in it, but you're right: rather a lot of people die. I think I was going through a "more is more" phase. But I was really aiming for that kind of Grimm fairy-tale sense of threat and atmosphere, and in that sense I think (I hope) the book works. Maine is certainly a lot more peaceful than the state portrayed in the books, but the violence in the books often tends to be imported from outside the state, while sometimes finding a resonance in past bloodshed in Maine itself. I like creating those kind of ripples between the past and the present.
Is it difficult for you to write in a foreign setting? Do you ever wake up nights worrying about whether you've got it right?
It's desperately difficult, and I worry about it all the time. Every time an email arrives through my Web site from someone in Maine, or a hand is raised at a reading in Portland and a voice says "I have a question about . . . " my heart sinks a little. I try really, really hard to get everything right, and it's immensely frustrating when, every time, some small detail escapes me. Still, people have been immensely tolerant. I think that maybe they recognize the effort that's gone into it, and the trouble that's been taken. That's all most people want: they want you to try your best and, if they have any self-knowledge, they'll forgive you your faults as a result. Even if you've lived in a place your whole life, you'll still make the odd mistake. I just have to try that little bit harder, and be that little bit more careful.
Your books seem to blend genres — they are detective novels but also have an element of the horror genre to them. As you're writing, do you have to balance these two elements? And do you see your work as breaking ground within these genres?
The first genre fiction I ever read was supernatural fiction, specifically the great late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century ghost story writers. I loved M.R. James in particular. When it came time to begin writing my own books, it didn't seem very strange to introduce elements of those fictions into them. I was also influenced by the Brothers Grimm. In the introduction to one of their collections, they suggested that every society and every age produced their own versions of the same tales, and I thought that I could see in the darker types of mystery fiction some vestiges of those earlier tales. It seemed worthwhile to try and tease some of those correspondences out through the books.
I also like the fact that Americans term crime fiction "mystery" fiction. It seems to me to offer more scope for experimentation. The odd thing about mystery fiction is that it isn't very mysterious at all: what seems really complex at the beginning of a mystery novel is usually explained in very simple terms by the end. Yet "mystery" has a very specific meaning: originally, a mystery meant a truth that could not be understood by human reasoning but through divine revelation. At its heart, arguably, it has a tolerance for the supernatural, and I really wanted to suggest some of that old sense of "mystery." The supernatural elements, though, are very ambiguous, at least in the Parker novels. Is he really haunted, or is he just so unhinged by grief that he believes himself to be?
Having said that, there are problems with pushing it too far: readers have certain expectations of mystery fiction, and there are certain conventions in the genre that can be limiting. Literary fiction, for example, doesn't have to provide answers or solutions. Mystery fiction, perhaps, has to provide at least partial ones.
You're a very prolific writer, publishing a novel a year since 2000. Do you have time to do anything else?
I don't do as much journalism as I used to, which I regret. It's partly a matter of time, I think. I love doing author interviews, as I'm curious about how others write, and I like to promote the work of writers I admire. I also love travel, although so much of it is linked to the books that I'm not sure where the pleasure part ends and the business part begins. While it's tiring, it's rewarding in terms of meeting people, talking about books (not just mine) and getting the feedback and support that helps me to knuckle down and write the next one. I'm very fortunate to be doing what I'm doing, so I try to complain as little as possible. And I really do love coming back to Maine although, like I said, I do live in fear of some wizened old Mainer raising his hand at the end of one of my talks and saying, "On page two hundred and thirty-three you claim that the building at the end of Commercial Street was built in. . . ."