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Author Talk with Michael Connelly and Chris Hammer
'The Night Fire'
'The Night Fire'
4 November 2019
Internationally bestselling crime writer Michael Connelly brings to life, once again, Harry Bosch and Los Angeles Police Department Detective Renee Ballard in the case of The Night Fire. Together again, the pair take on the murder case that obsessed Bosch’s mentor.
In conversation with journalist and author Chris Hammer, Michael Connelly tells all about his writing process and keeping crime writing alive after so many years.
Author Talk with Michael Connelly 4-11-2019
*Speakers: Cathie Oates (C), Chris Hammer (H), Michael Connelly (M)
*Location: National Library of Australia
C: Good evening, everyone. I can still see a few people walking in up the back so I’ll take a few minutes to welcome you all today. My name is Cathie Oates and I’m actually the Director of Trove here at the National Library of Australia. As we begin I would like to acknowledge and pay my respects to the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people on whose traditional lands we meet tonight and whose culture we celebrate as one of the oldest continuing cultures in the world. I pay my respects to elders past, present and emerging for caring for this land we are now privileged to call our home and on which the National Library of Australia stands. I grew up in a place called Barooga which means our home and I offer this acknowledgment with gratitude and recognition for the care given to our country for tens of thousands of years by first Australians.
I’m so happy to see so many of you here tonight to listen to Michael Connelly and Chris Hammer in conversation. Michael is one of crime fiction’s biggest names. He’s written many, many crime novels and one work of crime nonfiction which is more than one book a year for the last 25 years. After graduating in 1980 with a major in journalism and a minor in creative writing Michael worked at newspapers in Daytona Beach and Fort Lauderdale, Florida. During this time he wrote about police and crime during the height of the murder and violence wave that rolled over South Florida during the so-called cocaine wars. He then landed a job as a crime reporter for The Los Angeles Times.
After three years on the crime beat in LA Connolly began writing his first novel featuring LAPD Detective, Harry Bosch, titled, The Black Echo, which was published in 1992. Fast forward 27 years, many novels, a TV series, movies, a True Crime podcast and many awards and accolades later Michael’s books, an absolute must for fiction lovers. His newest novel featuring Harry Bosch and LAPD Detective, Renee Ballard, The Night Fire, is no exception.
But we are graced tonight with not one but two journalists turned crime writers. Joining Michael this evening is Canberra’s very own Chris Hammer. Chris was a journalist for more than 30 years covering both Australian federal politics and international affairs. He was a roving foreign correspondent for SBS Dateline, was the Chief Political Correspondent for The Bulletin, Current Affairs Correspondent for SBS TV and a senior political journalist for The Age. But Chris has turned his pen to writing crime fiction and is the author of four critically acclaimed and award-winning books including Scrublands, Silver, The Coast and The River. Please join me in welcoming Michael Connolly and Chris Hammer.
H: Michael, welcome.
M: Glad to be here.
H: Since 1992 a book a year, some years more, two books a year and you’re still doing it, a new book out now, The Night Fire. I’m told there’s maybe two coming next year. What’s driving you on? Why not take a break? I would. You’ve written so many books, don’t you deserve a rest? What drives you on?
M: It’s actually a hard question ‘cause a lot of people including my wife say why don’t I take a break? I don’t know, I think I’m the luckiest writer that I’ve ever heard of and you got to cherish the luck you get and I have an opportunity and I’m always inspired to write about these characters and use them to reflect on what’s going on in the world and their city and so forth. It’s a great job if you can get it and so I got it and I want to keep doing it. I’ll eventually take a break, I know, thinking about it in maybe two or three books taking a couple of years off.
H: So you’re thinking two or three books ahead already?
M: Well I’m writing a book now so I obviously know that is and I know what I’m going to write after it, that’s all I know.
H: Is that a new thing where you’re always thinking two or three books ahead or is that just something that’s evolved as your career’s gone on?
M: When I say I know what I’m going to do on the second book, all I know is the character I want to write about, I don’t have a plot or anything like that but every writer has this, and I’d like your take on it as well, there’s something magical about what we do like how come I can be able to do this? I really don’t know. So if you don’t know that and you see this kind of mystical thing in it you have to believe it can go away and so usually my routine is I’ll be writing a book and I’ll suddenly know what I want to write next and so when I finish the book at hand I don’t want to wait three months to get into that ‘cause it might go away so I usually send in a book and start writing the next one the next day. Where I take vacations or short breaks is between drafts but I usually don’t take any break between one book to the next ‘cause there might not be a next one if I go sit on the beach or something.
H: I kind of have confidence that if you took a break that after - how many books is it now? How many novels?
H: So do you write every day?
M: Yeah and I don’t write long hours every day but I’m from that school where a teacher said write every day even if it’s only for 15 minutes with the idea that if you only get 15 minutes to write, at least the story’s churning in your head and you won’t lose it, you won’t lose that thread. I got that in a creative writing class whatever, almost 40 some years ago, 45 years ago probably and I took a lot of creative writing classes, got a second degree in it. I don’t remember anything, I didn’t learn anything other than if you’re going to be a writer write every day even if it’s only for 15 minutes. I had student loans that lasted ‘til I was 30 and that’s all I got. But it was good advice and I’ve followed it religiously my whole life.
H: So is that a matter of self-discipline saying I have to do it or is it rather addictive, it’s something that doesn’t feel quite right unless you do it?
M: It’s both, I mean I look at writing as a craft and any craft you get better at the more you do it so I’ve always held that, that if I write every day I’m going to get better every day. But then it does affect your life in bad ways, that you’ll be out doing something and you’ll feel guilty, you’ll feel like I should be writing. I would love to be a – avid golfer but every time I golf after six or seven holes I feel like what am I doing? I’m supposed to be writing and it wrecks your game and all that. So then I tried fishing and I was actually writing while waiting for a fish to bite so it can take over your life which is the downside of it.
H: So you might only write for 15 minutes, you write in the morning but the rest of the day it’s still there in your mind, it’s still working away?
M: Yeah, I mean there are periods where you can’t wait to get back to it and I work on a TV show and so forth but the thing that’s sacred to me is I basically try to write. I mean I’m on a book tour now so it’s out the window but in my regular life I write from about 5 in the morning ‘til 10 and if I'm happy with what I got I’ll be happy for that day and I’ll go onto maybe writing scripts for Bosch TV or something like that or something else but I’ll also reach a point in the book where I have this momentum that kind of takes over my life and I get back to it. After dinner I’m back in the room writing and so forth.
H: So if it’s going well you kind of can’t wait to get back to it, almost like you’re reading a story?
M: Almost like what?
H: Almost as if you’re reading a story as opposed to writing it?
M: Yeah. On average it takes me about nine months to write a book and those last three months are your critical mass and it’s all flowing and that’s to me writing Nirvana. You live to get to that point. The bad side is you cut out other stuff in your life and you disappear from your family and things like that so it’s not a perfect world, it has some cost to it but people get used to your routines and your cycles.
H: Have your aspirations as a writer changed over the years from your early years when you were just breaking through to what you’re trying to achieve with your writing now?
M: I don’t know about aspirations but I think what’s changed is a greater call to duty. I’m one of the lucky people that I know I can do this for the rest of my life and I’ve known for a while, almost 20 years I’ve known I could do this. So when you reach that point at least with me it comes with an obligation to not only write good books and treasure the opportunity you have and respect it but also try to take things to a second level or another level and a higher level in terms of what you’re writing about, what you’re reflecting on in the world. I don’t mean like venture into being didactic or anything like that but just tell stories that are reflective of what’s really going on in the world. So I don’t know if that’s an aspiration but it’s something I certainly feel that I have to do in my books.
H: So there is a strong sense I guess of morality in your tales? Is that fair enough to say?
M: Yeah, sure.
H: So Bosch is a righteous sort of hero?
M: Well he’s got some flaws so I don’t think he’s overly righteous, he’s just some guy who has a basic code about being fair. You can go all the way back to do unto others and things like that. I mean I don’t think he’s trying to be judge and jury, he just follows that code that everybody counts or nobody counts and to me that’s not righteous, that’s the way the world should be, actually, and that’s his method.
H: When did that credo of his, everybody counts or nobody counts, when did that first emerge for you as a sort of driving force for Harry Bosch?
M: It definitely wasn’t in the first book and I can’t remember off the top of my head. I think it was about the fourth or fifth book where he actually gave voice to it. But he exhibited it from book one, I think, and I fell under the spell of Raymond Chandler, he wrote an essay called, The Simple Art of Murder that thousands and thousands of writers have read and been influenced by. I certainly was one of them and part of that was that your detective should have a code that he or she lives by or attempts to live by. Not everybody’s perfect and sometimes people stumble in their belief systems and so forth but it was in there and then at some point he just said it, I think it was the fourth book.
H: So I’ve read that you wrote two books before The Black Echo, your first published book, and that they weren’t published, they’re still in a drawer somewhere. Was that what was missing from those books? That sort of character, the protagonist and that sort of morality in them or what was missing from those books?
M: Well I think they had a morality, it was just an inner connection. They were learning experiences, they didn’t deserve to be published but the second one was better than the first so it gave me hope and that I was getting close to something. I had a moment where I realised what I was missing and it was a real detective when I was a reporter and I realised what the job had cost him and was costing him because he worked homicides and it’s a tough job. I realised that that’s what I’m missing, this sense of dedication and cost, that it’s that law of physics, you throw a ball against the wall, and it bounces back.
There’s an equal reaction to everything and that’s what I didn’t have, the cost of going into this darkness as a human being and seeing the dark side of what people do to each other and what that means to the person who has to kind of clean that up or figure it out. There’s a cost there and I didn’t have that in those first two books and I think the third book you see that, you see it in Harry Bosch, that he’s carrying darkness.
H: So Bosch right from the word go was based on some part of detectives that you’d encountered as a journalist?
M: Yeah. He’s the descendent of many, many influences but chief among them are real detectives. Now the detectives in movies, the detectives in books were very important in influencing me but it was spending time as a journalist with people who really did this and had to see terrible things and then go home and say honey, I’m home, that type of thing and be normal and be the baseball coach and all that kind of stuff.
H: What’s your relationship like with LAPD? Because Harry Bosch is an outsider in a sense, he’s always fighting the bureaucracy. There are police that at times you depict as corrupt but more often probably senior police who are self-serving or more interested in arse-covering, that sort of thing. How do you get on with the real life LAPD?
M: It’s weird, it’s baffling because as you say I'm not very kind to the command staff or the bureaucracy but up and down the line they’ve come around to embrace me and I think a lot of it has to do with the police – I mean the TV show. As recently as about a month ago the commander of the Hollywood Division said that the show has created esprit de corps because so many of my officers, people come up to him and go like you work where Harry Bosch works and stuff like that. So it’s created this goodwill and at least in terms of the TV show that’s translated into what’s been able to give great access when we’re filming like on the show if you all watch it here, when there’s a scene in the lab or a scene in the Coroner’s office or the police headquarters, we get to film in the real place as they let us do it and it adds to what I think is the super-accuracy of the show.
H: That must be a real buzz for you thinking that you started writing about a kind of an outsider type of detective and yet now he and you have been embraced by the LAPD.
M: Yeah, I mean about a month ago I got this email invite from the Chief of Police, from an assistant, it wasn’t a personal invite but it was an invite to the ribbon cutting of this big murder book archive they finally opened. There’s 22 different divisions in LAPD and they all have detective heroes and they all have homeless homicide teams and so unsolved murders, all the documents are called murder books, they’re in 22 different jurisdictions and that’s not really the best way to keep these and to keep people looking into them. So they tipped out the cafeteria in the police headquarters and made it this massive like a library like this with the rolling shelves and so forth of all the murder books and there’s 3,000 of them. There’s many more unsolved murders but they made this I think 3,000 unsolved murders since I think 1990 or something.
So I went to the ribbon cutting and the Chief’s shaking my hand and I don’t really know him, he’s new to this, he’s only been there like six months but like he was talking to me like he knew me. So anyway they cut the ribbon on the front steps and then we walk into it and above the door it says everybody counts or nobody counts. So now I knew why I was invited because they didn’t ask me if I could use that, I actually have a trademark.
H: How did you feel walking in and it’s the cold case room and there is your -
M: It’s amazing and all these people were taking pictures of me and asking me to stand in front of it and all that. So I did use it as leverage that if I do a second season of my podcast murder book I’m going to be able to do it from that archive so that will be very cool.
H: That’s fantastic. Now how many homicides are there in Los Angeles every year?
M: It’s very low now. When I was a reporter in the early ‘90s there was about 800. There was murders every day and to the point that as a reporter who covered murders I had to have a sit down with my editor and say these are the murders, do you want me to write them all up? They would actually decide which was an important murder and what wasn’t. That to me was a symbol of the slide of our society into really dark waters when people were robbed and everything, their lives don’t even get a mention in the newspaper. Now it’s down to like 200 a year.
H: So there’s still plenty of real life experience to mine. Where do you get your ideas from, your inspiration for your books? Are they based very much on real events in Los Angeles? I mean some of it’s famously so but are some purely from the imagination or amalgams or what?
M: It’s all of that, it comes from everywhere and it comes from when you least expect it. This book, The Night Fire, opens with basically Harry Bosch goes to a mentor’s funeral and his mentor’s widow says I have something for you back at the house and it turns out it’s a murder book, that when his mentor retired 20 years ago he left with a murder book. He basically stole a murder book of an unsolved case that pretty much meant it never worked because the LAPD – I just went over how discombobulated all their filing was. No-one knew that this case existed and so the story is twofold, is the intrigue of why did my mentor who taught me a lot of stuff about how to be a homicide detective steal this book? B, it’s an unsolved case, it’s about a kid who was killed in a drug deal, who killed this kid? So that’s where we start off. What was your question?
H: Where you come up with the ideas -
M: Oh so I was doing my podcast and I was having breakfast with two homicide detectives and talking to them. You know the podcast, it’s called Murder Books so I have this section, tell me why murder books are so significant to your work and they were talking about it and they talked about how they at one time were sent to one of these 22 divisions to kind of categorise and look for a case they were looking for. They couldn’t find it and they basically said so murder books have disappeared because our filing system is so terrible. We think these murder books got thrown away ‘cause the building got damaged in an earthquake and we think they carelessly just threw murder books away ‘cause plumbing burst and they got soaked and that was a case they threw away. That’s what made me think about okay so a case disappears for 20 years and Harry Bosch gets it so that was the starting point of this current book.
H: It’s a great setup, I must say, because as a reader you're thinking about three or four different possibilities at once. When you have that sort of initial inspiration do you know where you're taking the book? Do you have an ending in mind or you does it evolve?
M: No, I do, things gestate and I think about them but I don’t start writing ‘til I have that light at the end of the tunnel. I kind of know how it will be resolved. I don’t know anything about like the 300 pages in between and so I head off towards that light and I riff and improvise and that’s the fulfilment of writing to me.
H: Would you be disappointed if you ended up with a book that you thought you were going to write? In other words it didn’t change at all in the process.
M: I don’t think I would look at that as a good year of writing, I like how things are unexpected and it’s a risky way of writing. Yeah, I haven’t written a book where I didn’t take a wrong turn, have to back out and throw away a lot of pages. I mean that was one of the things I learned over the years. I think in my early books I wouldn’t want to waste 20 pages ‘cause it took me whatever, two days or a week to write those and I’d furiously try to hold onto them. Now I know when they got to go and it doesn’t matter if you lost days or weeks of work, it’s what has to be done.
H: So you're more clinical. You say you have this idea and you kind of riff on it, the story evolves yet it seems to me you’re very intent on accuracy. I was reading the acknowledgments in The Night Fire and there’s a line in there, you say here, the steps a law enforcement agency must take to obtain a court-approved wire tap are many. They were shortened for dramatic purposes in this novel. You do put quite a lot of effort in accuracy in the way the police proceed. Is that right?
M: Yeah, it’s the old reporter in me, I like doing it that way, I like being accurate. I’ve never done a note like that, it’s the first time I did but it’s because you can be deadly accurate and be deadly boring and so I have to like pick and choose and it’s almost like a trick to find the one piece of true, accurate thing that will make the reader like almost subconsciously nod their head and say this is how it really is. So if you have that you can drop out a bunch of other stuff that’s boring. In this book a wire tap is very important in how Ballard goes about getting. It is short-shifted in this because in real life it would be really boring to go through all the steps.
H: Some crime books, there’s a bunch of clues and then the protagonist has this sort of epiphany, there’s this big breakthrough moment but often with your books it’s more the police procedural, following up different leads, many of which don’t pan out but then something does. Do you think that’s an accurate depiction and why do you think that’s the case?
M: Well again I’m trying to be accurate. In real cases even if they think they know who it is they got to investigate everything ‘cause if you get to the court the lawyer’ll say why didn’t you check out all this other stuff? So they have to check everything and most of it is dead ends and unrelated stuff so I wanted to have the flavour of that in there. I do think though in my books I have moments that it’s all about Harry’s experience and history and acknowledge where something seemingly small’ll suddenly put it altogether for him and my hope is that when he explains it in his thoughts or to Ballard or whoever and he ticks off all these things, these are all things that are in the book and I hope the reader didn’t realise the significance and so they have a big ah-ha moment. As a reader I love that when I find that in a book and that’s what I try to do in mine.
H: So that’s how the plot is working. How important in your books would you rate the plot versus other aspects of your book such as setting and the characters and other elements, say the morality of the story, whatever? How do you balance all of those or how do you assess all of those?
M: I don’t think about it, I just kind of do it. I do think though it’s part of Harry Bosch being around for so long, I just think he’s more interesting as far as who he is and how he’s trying to get along in life than solving the murder. It’s all important, everything’s important and I don’t like differentiating plot and place and character ‘cause they’re all entwined, they’re all a DNA strand. So they’re all important but in my mind what’s most important is Harry and how he’s getting along.
H: I want to read you a quote from a guy called Simon McDonald. I don’t know if you met him, he’s a bookseller in Sydney but he’s a mad crime fan. Not only has he read all of your books, he’s read them all twice except for the Harry Bosch books that he’s read three or four times each. So he he’s the reviewer of The Night Fire, he’s saying, in the early days the books focused on a single investigation, think of Angel’s Flight when Bosch investigated the murder of a high-profile black lawyer or City of Bones when a chance discovery leads Bosch to discover a shallow grave in the Hollywood hills. More recently Connolly’s novels have handled multiple narrative threads, separate investigations, not always connected, twisting around each other. Think The Wrong Side of Goodbye and Two Kinds of Truth. Is that something you’re conscious of?
M: Yeah, in my mind what I call it is spreading the story out, the storytelling out and most of those books I sort of have alternating narratives, you’re Bosch or you’re Ballard and I think that’s actually a – influence from the television show because I’ve been very much involved in the writing of that show. Up until the point of the show most of the Bosch books are all in his narration, all in his mind and when we got a chance to do a show the show runner, who’s the head writer, basically said we have to break away from Bosch because we film 12 to 16-hour days and whoever plays Harry Bosch, he can’t work all those hours every day, we’ll kill the guy so we have to create -
H: But you can, you can do it in the books.
M: Yeah. So we have to create lives from other characters, Jerry Edgar has to have a full life and kids and all this stuff and so we spread the storytelling out and I love it, I think the show’s great and I think it’s telling the same stories but in a different way and spreading the story to other characters and I’ve kind of adapted or adopted that in my book-telling. But yeah when you write a book you just have your head down and you write the book, you don’t care about stuff like I did Two Kinds of Truth and in that story it’s a page in the book, they take Bosch up into a plane and try to throw him out into a lake and I just wrote that, I thought oh that’s a pretty good action sequence. Then when we tried to adapt it that thing took three days to film and cost like a million dollars and the producer said to me would you be careful with your writing?
H: So the moon landing episode’s been bumped, has it? The other thing I guess that television does it well, it has those multiple strands but it’s very big on foreshadowing. Have you started now to more foreshadow in a certain book elements that may come to life in subsequent books?
M: I haven’t done that. It looks like I do that but I don’t. What I do is go look back at what I’ve written and instead what can I use? What can I bring forward so the reader’ll think wow, he’s got a master plan that goes 10 years or whatever. One of the things on this book was Harry is aged in real time and a lot about this book is about mortality and him looking for someone who can carry on his mission and thinking he finds it in Ballard.
So there is a lot in this book about Harry’s health and things like that and so when I knew I wanted to kind of ponder this in this book I look back at what I did and I remembered oh, I wrote a book about 12 years ago where Harry gets dosed with caesium and had to get checked out every year to see what that does. I said okay well maybe that caesium comes into play in this book and again it’s a kind of metaphor but again it’s the cost of going into darkness, what does it cost you? Here’s something, he solves a case 12 years ago and now he has a leukaemia so that to me was not foreshadowing 12 years ago, that was me looking back and saying what do I have in my trunk that I can dig out?
H: You’ve destroyed our impressions that you’re foreshadowing so brilliantly.
H: There have been a couple of very prominent protagonists that have been retired in recent years. Ann Cleeves has basically written her last Shetland book with Jimmy Perez and Australia’s Michael Robotham has essentially written his last Joe O'loughlin.
H: Yeah, he’s -
M: I didn’t know about that.
H: He’s started a new character and I haven’t read the book yet but I think Joe O’loughlin plays like a little cameo. Are you thinking at all of retiring Harry Bosch?
M: No, I don’t think he himself could retire and I put in so many tortures over 25 years, I’m not going to be so cruel as to kill him, that’s not going to happen. So I think his page count will start decreasing but I think he’ll always be back there as a mentor and I still have in my back pocket his daughter who has made noises about wanting to be something in law enforcement and that could happen. She’s too young now, she has to have experience or else it’s a real hollow narrative if it’s somebody who doesn’t know anything about the world so that’s down the road but I hope that happens and Harry would have to be involved in that.
H: You have at times though killed off characters including some relatively major ones. How does that feel as a writer? Is it simply they’re just a necessary thing to do or is there an emotional connection there?
M: To me it’s a question, I finish a book and I say am I done with this character? Is there anything more to say or explore? If the answer’s not really or I’m hesitant, I can’t go forward with something if I’m hesitant because as I say it takes nine months. If I’m going to spend nine months with a character it’s got to be a character that I want to dig into to the next level. So there’s been a few that I knew that I’d said all I wanted to say about them, one that comes to mind is Terry McCaleb and to me it wasn’t a hard choice, I just said that’s it and then my agent said your first bestseller was with this guy, why are you going to kill him? So -
H: Do you get blowback from fans?
M: Yeah, I got some. Every now and then someone will stand up. Sadly this happened last night. Where was I? In Brisbane and someone goes when are you bringing Terry McCaleb back? Everyone in the audience looked at him and go like have you read this book?
H: Mind you, you do have a fairly large cast of characters to continue mining. I know it gives me pleasure, I'm sure it gives a lot of the readers here pleasure where different characters that you’ve created collide in your stories, when Bosch teams up with Mickey Haller or something like that. Is that something you particularly like doing or is it just -
M: Yeah. No, I mean I like to write like I read. I love these things when I read them in books, it’s almost like a payoff for sticking with an author like oh I remember this guy from that book and I’ve always loved that as a reader and so I do it in my own books.
H: Do you think your writing of female characters has changed over the years?
M: I don’t think so ‘cause I go into female characters the same way I go into any character. The primary thing is to make them good at what they do and it doesn’t matter what the gender is, make them good at what they do and give them experience and knowledge that will get the reader doing that subconscious head nod. Then if it’s a woman, fine, if it’s a man, fine, it doesn’t really matter. I just want them to be interesting in what they do and all these characters have barricades in front of them they have to figure out how to get around or through. So I don’t really dwell on the fact of this is a woman-type thing.
H: Going back to the television series I’ve heard – again to quote Ann Cleeves – I saw her speak recently, that’s why – she said that when she was writing her Shetland books the Jimmy Perez in her books doesn’t look at all like the guy who acts him in the TV series so she just doesn’t see them. But with the Vera Stanhope character, the woman Brenda – I forget her surname now – who acts as Vera has now inhabited that role so much that when Ann writes her Vera books that’s who she sees. Do you have an element of that with Harry Bosch or because of the age difference between the TV character and the book character that doesn’t -
M: Yeah, it’s weird, I have a similar answer. Titus Welliver’s fantastic as Bosch but the Bosch I wrote about in my books is not even a cop, he’s many years older, at least 10, 12 years older and also I’d been writing about Bosch 20 years before there was a TV show so the guy I created in my head has stuck in my head and that’s who I see so I don’t see Titus Welliver. Oddly though when I write Mickey Haller I do see Matthew McConaughey because that movie came out fairly quickly after the book – or it didn’t come out quickly, I knew he was going to be Mickey Haller. I think he did a great job and so for some reason I see him and hear his Texas drawl which doesn’t make sense.
H: He did kind of embody that flash Harry sort of -
M: Yeah, I think he really captured the character and did a great job.
H: So tell us about the television series, I mean you have so much on your plate writing a book a year, maybe sometimes two books a year. Why were you so interested in doing the television?
M: Like most writers I have a huge ego and I think my stories should be read and heard and seen and all that stuff and it’s like why did I do the podcast? I’m just interested in all forms of storytelling and teaching an old dog new tricks so I thought it’d be fun and it has been fun. But movies are a different animal, they basically take your book and pat you on the head and say we’ll take it from here, we don’t really need you involved. TV’s different and they said we want you involved. I didn’t have to fight for a position, they said we’re only going to do this if you’re involved and you're making these choices because we trust you as a storyteller behind Bosch. So it was hard not to say no, not interested, I want to write my books and so I was all in and very much in fulltime involvement in the first few seasons and I’ve slowly been trusting everybody and trusting the machine that it’s become and stepping back.
H: It sounds like you’ve got some benefit from that, that the style of writing in TV is influencing particularly the way your plots work in your books and vice versa, I assume.
M: Yeah, I think so and also scripting, whether its movies or TV, is so much about dialogue, dialogue has to be so good. It was a good lesson for me to learn that maybe I had not been paying attention to that so much anymore and so I think I was learning stuff from the TV show.
H: ‘Cause that was one of the great strengths of people like Chandler and Hammett, wasn’t it? That their dialogue seemed to capture those kind of patois of the Los Angeles of their time.
H: The Los Angeles though of your time is a real character in your books. You live more in Florida than you do in LA, is that right?
M: Not anymore ‘cause of the show. I still have a foot in both places but I pay taxes in California, put it that way, which means I'm there more than six months and also I have one child, a daughter, and she was going to school in LA and graduated and is staying in LA so that dictates a lot so I’m in LA now.
H: So you describe real locations in LA, as far as I know there’s not imagined ones. How though when you’re describing a restaurant or a bar or a – office block or whatever, how much are you trying to depict it sort of objectively or authentically and how much are you trying to stylise that location? How much are you trying to if you like create an LA of the imagination?
M: I don’t. I think the former, I try to be objective about it. Two reasons I do that, is one, is that Harry Bosch is not real but I think if I put his feet, anchor his feet in a real landscape, as real as I can get it, it helps sell him as a real person, as a real character. Also the digital age, believe it or not a lot of people read these books and check these places out online and so forth and so I don’t want to make stuff up when I don’t have to when the city is a character. I’m not propping that up, this is a really interesting place with really interesting places to go to.
The second part is that you want your character to move forward and backwards at the same time. Harry’s ploughing ahead on a case and what’s going on in his life but you always want his past right there and you can use these places to spawn memories like the Musso & Frank Grill which is 100 years old last month. Harry’ll have a memory of running out on a tab when he had no money when he was a teenager, that kind of thing and it’s a way of building character.
H: We’re almost done so if people are thinking of questions but can I ask you what’s next? Let me ask this, what characters can we expect to see more of?
M: Well I’m almost finished my next book and it’s about Jack McAvoy which is a journalist I haven’t written about in about 10 years and that was inspired by what’s going on in the media business around the world but primarily in my country where there’s a big segment of society who doesn’t trust the media anymore and questions the media. The whole thing about fake news and enemy of the people inspired or spawned in me my old journalism genes of outrage. So I’m writing a story about Jack McAvoy who’s not going to take on the President or anything but shows what a relentless reporter can do and how that's a valuable person to have in society.
H: Your books are not in any way overtly political but I guess there is a kind of a political message in everybody counts or nobody counts and the victims in your books are often not the high-end of LA, they’re the street people, the homeless or the prostitutes or whatever. Is that something that you’re conscious of or is it something that you feel you need to have in your books?
M: I think that it needs to be in there. I don’t know, is there a difference between saying it’s a message and a statement? I don’t think I’m trying to make statements, I’m not trying to be didactic but it’d be nice if the politicians of my country would adopt that idea that everybody counts or nobody counts but they haven’t gotten the message yet. See a guy out there with the t-shirt that has it on there, maybe if we get more of those t-shirts out the message will go out. Yeah, it’s weird because you just have to be subtle about everything. I don’t know, I think my books are quietly political. I’ve called one Two Kinds of Truth and there’s a little dissertation on lying and so forth and that comes out at a time when the President of the United States can’t really say anything about lying and I mean just even subtly you get a lot of kickback, I get a lot of kickback.
H: I can imagine. Anyway I’m looking forward to Jack McAvoy, always one of my favourites and particularly in this environment I think it’d be a jolly good read. Anyway shall we go to questions?
C: Yeah, thank you both. I have to say it’s been fascinating to hear how your writing Nirvana and love of all forms of storytelling leads to our reading, listening and viewing Nirvana. So we do have time for questions from the audience. Please raise your hand and a microphone will be brought to you. Please wait for the microphone to be brought to you before you ask your question. This is for the benefit of those listening later at home and also for people with hearing aids who are using the hearing loop, thank you.
A: Could you tell us why you chose the name Harry Bosch for the detective?
M: Yeah, his real name’s Hieronymus Bosch, he’s named after the painter from about five centuries ago and just by happenstance I studied that painter when I was at university ‘cause I took like a humanities course and the professor was fascinated by these paintings by Bosch and so for about a month we studied them and wrote essays and tried to decipher what they mean. They’re essentially in short form about a world gone wrong so then about 15 years later I’m writing this book about this guy who would become Harry Bosch and I tried a couple of different names.
I mean a name is character, you got to deliver character wherever you can to connect to the reader and so don’t call your detective Joe Smith if you can call him Hieronymus Bosch. I apologise to anybody who’s named Joe Smith so I just had this idea, it was like a metaphor, Harry Bosch investigates murders and a murder scene is the world gone wrong and I just connected it to those paintings to a world gone wrong, about the wages of sin, good and evil, things like that and just kind of connected it.
A: Hi. Could you see Harry Bosch in anywhere other than America? Could you see him in Australia to formulate a story?
H: I mean could I have set him up in Australia long ago or you mean could he come to Australia?
A: Come to Australia.
M: Yeah, I mean you got to be sparing with the fish out of water stories. I think a lot of what people like about Harry Bosch is how he knows the corners of the city and how he knows stuff that people don’t know and so when you do the fish out of water you're presenting something completely different. I did one where he goes to Hong Kong and he doesn’t know anything and he kind of is like a bull in a china shop and you can’t do that all the time so I can probably do one more with him, maybe come to Australia, I don’t know.
A: He’s welcome.
M: Oh he’s welcome, okay, good.
A: Michael, does your wife read Harry Bosch? What does she think of him and is he going to, at least the television character, spend the rest of his days looking out over the city of Los Angeles a lonely figure?
M: Yeah, my wife is one of my early readers, she usually reads the manuscript before I turn it in to the publisher and it’s interesting, she doesn’t normally read crime fiction, it’s not her thing, she likes nonfiction. So it’s a good take, it’s a take from someone who hasn’t read everything in sight like I have and so it’s always good to get kind of like an outsider’s view, a female’s view and so forth so she’s a very valuable first reader for me.
The thing about Harry Bosch looking out to the city, in the TV show it’s there all the time, it’s very in your face but I think that’s the romantic figure of Harry Bosch, the lone sentinel kind of looking out at the city. I think that’s what keeps him going, I think it’s what keeps me going writing about him and I have no idea when it will end, hopefully we’ll get one more season at least but I think it’ll always be there. I’ve always said that, if Harry ever opens his door and says honey, I’m home then that’s the end of the series ‘cause he’s done searching.
A: Do you get the opportunity to read much other fiction including crime fiction and watch crime TV shows and if so which ones?
M: The sad part of my life is that I write these stories because I love reading them but now that I write them I can be writing when most people read so like in bed and stuff or on planes and so forth so I don’t read as much as I used to and that’s sad. I’m like most people, I have tons of books I can’t wait to read when I take that year off and I’ll catch up. But yeah, it’s very sparingly that I now can read around but when I do read I really like to try to forget or get something far away from what I'm doing so I don’t read a lot of American crime fiction anymore. We have a publisher in common, I just got a copy of Scrublands and that to me is like so different from what I do, I'm looking forward to reading that. I have a 14-hour flight in about seven days, if I can read it then I will.
A: Mr Connolly, thank you for your universe and characters. A slightly frivolous question. It comes back to the point about location in LA. Harry Bosch’s drinking habits, he seems to be a character always with firm intention about why he does what he’s doing, he never seems to get drunk. He might have a couple of beers on a heavy case night or something but martini features sometimes in some of these things so does that stand in for anything about his character?
M: Does it say anything about his character?
M: I guess, I don’t know. He drinks martinis at just one bar in LA and I don’t make this up, it’s known as the place to have a martini and they are pretty good, I’ve had a few there. Yeah, I don't know, I think Harry’s just the guy who wants to keep his wits about him so I just don’t have the desire to write about him getting inebriated. Last season of Bosch I actually wrote a scene where he did get inebriated and I resented that and we filmed it and I was thinking wow, I’ve never seen Harry Bosch like this and it’s like I’ve lived with him for 25 years. Did you want me to say something about his eating habits?
A: No, just drinking.
M: Drinking, okay. ‘Cause his eating is really bad like he never eats at least in my drafts or the drafts I turn in and so I have this editor who will write in the margins of the manuscripts, he hasn’t eaten. He still hasn’t eaten. Then 50 pages later, can’t you get him a hot dog here? So that’s part of the editing process, that I end up giving him some food.
A: First of all congratulations on your new book. I'm just wondering, a lot of us go to work and we go to workplaces and they are our residence and where we go every day. Given that you’re an author and you spend a lot of time I guess at home, how much of that environment inspires you and kind of directs how you do your writing?
M: My office? How much it inspires?
A: Yeah, while you’re home or –
M: Well I do have an office and my wife calls it The Ego Room ‘cause it has shelves on two walls and they’re only copies of my books in different language but I actually don’t write in there too much, I’ve never written at a desk. Once I got out of the newspaper business I kind of treasured not having a desk and things like that so I have a table but I mostly write on a couch in my office with a laptop. It’s a great place to write but it’s not the only place I write. I think having been a journalist where as you know you got to write, there’s no such thing as writer’s block in a newsroom, you have to be able to write no matter what the circumstances or location and I’ve carried that into my book so I can write anywhere. If I'm home I’ll write in my office but I don’t have to be there.
A: Mr Connolly, thank you very much for bringing Harry Bosch to us. My question is about the TV show. I’m one of those silly people who’s not only read every Harry Bosch novel but read most of them three or four times and to me Harry is a Vietnam tunnel rat. How difficult was it for you to change the era of the TV show from him being a tunnel rat to being something totally different?
M: In Hollywood everything comes down to money and to perfectly adapt the Harry Bosch books so that we’re filming in the 1990s when most of these books came out and Harry could be a tunnel rat would cost a fortune and basically we were told we’re not doing that, we’re shooting in contemporary LA. So in contemporary LA Harry would have to be almost 70 years old to have been in Vietnam and that’s not going to work either. So we had to reinvent and it was not really a choice, it was like if you want him to be a tunnel rat find another more recent war or just drop that aspect and never mention it. But I think it’s important and I know the Vietnam War is quite different from Desert Storm and everything else but it’s still a wartime experience that would have a lasting permanent mark on him and I thought it was more important to have that permanent mark than to just not mention that aspect in his character. So it came out of that. Plus all those tattoos that Titus has are real and we had to deal with that so that’s more of a wartime type of thing.
A: Hi Michael. Thank you for coming to Australia and welcome to Australia. Did you have much to do with the casting of Titus Welliver?
M: Yeah, I did, I had all the leverage in the world when it came to Amazon saying let’s make a TV show because I was doing really well as a book-writer and so it was not a financial thing, it was more like do I want to try to do this and not mess it up? Call me egotistical but I thought the best way to not mess it up was to be fully involved and have a say in all these type of things so we went down that road. Again I'm a book-writer, I’m not in TV and we hired people, people I knew in the business of TV but I knew them because they had come to book signings and were aware of Harry Bosch and read the book so I really surrounded myself with people who were already believers in Bosch. But I'm sorry for this long answer but we had a month to cast Harry Bosch and it was obviously the most important decision we had to make and we all had a pact that if we don’t find the right guy we’re going to push the project back ’cause we’re going to get the right guy or we’re not going to do this. That wasn’t just me saying that, that was everybody involved so that was very, very cool.
But anyway on the first day of the casting it was like about seven producers and writers and these two casting directors and they gave us five pages of actors’ names and they were from pie in the sky, I think Brad Pitt was on there - he’s not going to do this and to people I had never heard of but it was like name after name after name. I had gone into that room with one name in mind, that was Titus Welliver because I had seen him only about a month earlier where he was a guest star on a TV show and he was an ex-soldier with PTSD and he just showed it so well without talking about it, you could just tell this guy was afflicted. I loved what he could project so I went in there thinking Titus Welliver and I read this list and he’s not even on there so I was thinking I’m the guy who has no experience in this world, do I mention Titus Welliver or they might go like oh god, he’s an arsehole, we’re not going to work with him.
So I hedge my bet a little bit by saying what do we think of Titus Welliver? They go oh we love him but he’s making a movie in China so he’s not going to be here this month that we have the cast. So I guess I looked really disappointed so they worked on his agent and said well he has kids, doesn’t he? Doesn’t he have to come home and see his kids? So that’s actually what happened, he came home for a weekend and we sent him a scene that he would act in front of us when we were casting. He came in on a Saturday, he was totally jetlagged but he kind of transformed but you could tell he was tired and all this stuff. Probably the way I look since I just flew 14 hours to get here but he was just perfect and we thanked him and he left and I knew he was Harry Bosch but I didn’t say anything and somebody goes like I think that was Harry Bosch and then someone else goes yeah, that was Harry Bosch. Then someone goes go get him, he’s in the parking lot so somebody ran out and got him and brought him back in and he got the job so I think he’s great.
A: Michael, great to have you back here. You mentioned earlier about killing off characters. Obviously Maddie’s mum would have been a difficult one. Have you found her, since in the television show she’s a lot more in it than in the books, that her character’s going to become a lot more bigger than in the novels and Harry’s going to be protective of her as she grows up and develops into her own person as a young woman and will Harry ever accept a man to take his place as her partner in the future?
M: Well that last one, I hope so because that would mean we’d have about 12 seasons. You’re talking about his daughter, right? Yeah so she is used sparingly in the books but I think that relationship is the core of the book, that’s what the books have been about for about 10 years, it’s Harry and his daughter and when you go to a TV show I guess it just feels like she’s more in it but to me she’s so much a big part of the books. So yeah, that’s going to continue and we’ve increased her screen time from season to season because as an actress she’s gotten better. When we first hired her she was like 15 and had very little experience but now she’s really coming to her own as an actor so we’re not stupid, we see that and so we’ve increased her part in the show. You’re right, well beyond what’s in the books because in the books she’s not interning at the DA’s office and things like that. We’re just about to wrap the sixth season and she has a pretty big and interesting part.
A: Hello. I was just wondering, in the Harry Bosh books he obviously is about building up cases to take evil out of the world whereas Mickey Haller is about knocking down cases. Did you find that Mickey Haller came from starting early Harry Bosch books and running into issues that you talked about where it didn’t quite go where you wanted it to go or did you see ways that it’d be really interesting to take it in a different direction?
M: You’re kind of giving me too much credit as a thinker. I met a guy at a sporting event, a baseball game and didn’t know him beforehand, he was sitting next to me so was random but during the course of the game we talked and he told me he was a lawyer and I said where’s your office, he said I work out of my car. So it was like the lightbulb went off, that could be an interesting setup for a story. Then my college roommate is a criminal defence lawyer and so the guy who worked out of his car, I didn’t know before that night and I stayed in touch with him but I basically took that idea and attached it to my roommate who’s been my close friend my whole life and he’s really the inspiration. So it was really as a writer having access to what I think could be a good story so I wasn’t thinking in terms of a greater idea but I think it’s interesting that everyone in my country believes in the constitution and the justice system and the constitution says if you're accused of a crime you’re entitled to the best defence you can get.
We all believe in that but when it gets down to the street level and into a courtroom everyone hates the defence lawyer ‘cause they think he's trying to get a guilty guy off and he is but that’s what the constitution of my country says should happen. So it’s a weird dichotomy between being idealistic and the reality of what that means and that’s always interested me way back when I was a reporter and then when you throw in that they’re half-brothers and you have that, I felt like there was a lot of grist for a good drama there and so that’s where it came from.
C: Well thank you so much. Unfortunately we’ve just run out of time for more questions but I hope you’ve enjoyed tonight’s discussions and will join us upstairs in the foyer -
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