How I Write: Michael Connelly
He blacks out his office and drinks gallons of tea—how the creator, Michael Connelly, of Harry Bosch and Mickey Haller writes a book a year.
I understand that you’re a big Raymond Chandler fan. Which book is your favorite and why?
It’s The Little Sister. What has inspired me for going on 40 years is chapter 13. In that chapter Philip Marlowe, frustrated by the events of the day and the case he’s on, takes a ride around Los Angeles. He ruminates a bit on what is going on in his case, but the chapter has little to do with plot, and everything to do with the interplay of character and place. The book was published in 1949, and his descriptions of LA are still accurate. He’s able to cut away to the basic things about LA. At the time I read it, I’d never been in Los Angeles, but I instinctively knew that he had grabbed the character of place and connected it to the character of his protagonist. Wonderful. Years later I did make it to LA, and I started writing novels, and I would religiously re-read chapter 13, and I still do, to this day, before I start writing a novel about LA. I have to read chapter 13.
Tell me about creating recurring characters, like Mickey Haller and Harry Bosch. At what point does the character feel like one you’d like to return to, and how much do you “know” about your characters before first introducing them?
When I wrote Harry Bosch, it was my first novel. I’d come to the idea of writing crime novels, because I thought I’d like to do a series. I was hoping that a publisher would realize that the character could go some distance. But I came in knowing a) nothing about writing, and b) nothing about publishing. About 7, 8 years ago I was writing a book about a lawyer in LA who would work out of the backseat of his Lincoln Towncar. It was inspired by a real lawyer in LA who worked this way. I went into that booking thinking it was a one-off. I usually write about cops or reporters—people who society expects to go investigating things, to dig out evil and expose it, eliminate it, etc. So this was a year’s holiday writing about someone on the other side of the coin. But somewhere in that process I realized, through the character’s voice, since it’s in first-person narration, I liked what he was saying. His sardonic take on the legal system. It occurred to me, as I was finishing a first draft, that I was not finished with this character. In subsequent drafts I changed his name so the character could be connected to a Bosch story, and I started adding things to link it into my ongoing Bosch series that was going pretty well. So it was almost like a TV show, where they make a spin-off from a successful series into a new show. This was a little different, because you’ve not seen Mickey Haller in any of the Bosch books yet, but I connected him to the Bosch world. That was my way of planning things so I could come back to him and explore the character further.
Did your approach differ in any way, when you wrote your first legal thriller (The Lincoln Lawyer) after focusing on police procedurals?
Yeah, it definitely was, cuz I’m not a lawyer. And the big successful writers of legal fiction, for the most part, are lawyers. I’ve been interested in legal stories since I read To Kill a Mockingbird when I was 12. E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime has a great trial in it. For a long time I wanted to do this, but I didn’t think I had the credentials. But when I met this guy who worked out of the backseat of his Lincoln, and when he explained to me why it was the best way for him to operate as a lawyer in Los Angeles—it was just an idea I could not deny. So I went through a long process of gathering string, meeting with lawyers. So the Lincoln Lawyer books take much more time to research. Not that I’ve ever been a homicide detective, but the law can be complicated. It’s subjective, not objective. It needs me to spend more time researching until I feel that the books feel of authority and have some realism to them.
There are a lot of Michael Connelly novels. For a reader new to your work, which of your novels would you recommend they begin with, and why?
I firmly believe that you get better at whatever you do in life, the more you do it. I feel that I’m a better writer now than I was when the first Harry Bosch novel came out, so I’m not going to send anyone back to the beginning. I think a good book where you get a good sense of who this character is, his relentlessness. Echo Park. It’s a more current book, and I think it would be a good introduction to all of my work. But if you’re into legal thrillers, the novel called The Lincoln Lawyer, introduces this new character. But my latest, Gods of Guilt, is the first time that I feel it’s really a character-driven story, as opposed to a trial-driven or plot-driven story. So I think this is the best of my Lincoln Lawyer books.
Do you have a person favorite among your books?
Yeah, for this I have a completely different answer. My favorite is The Last Coyote. I’m not saying that’s the best book I’ve written, I hope I haven’t written my best book yet, but that one was the first book I wrote as a full-time author, with my full-time focus. I have a nostalgic feeling about it. I think the story-telling was much improved by the fact that I didn’t have to keep putting it down to go and work on a newspaper every day. The full-time focus paid dividends in that book. But when I was 19, in college, I said that I want to be a crime novelist some day. And here was the book where that became what I was doing. Not a part-time job, not something I was doing at night. I had made it to my goal. It was a great year—I have so many memories, working at home, in an office I set up, being undisturbed in my focus. Sorry my answers are all so long!
No worries, you keep on rolling.
The aside to that was that it was the year of the O.J. Simpson trial, which I would’ve been covering for the Los Angeles Times. It became such a media frenzy, and changed media a lot, and I think I would’ve been caught up in that. I was happy that I was not part of that thing on TV in my house while I was writing a novel.
That leads me to my next question. Describe your morning routine on a day you’d be writing.
It definitely changes depending on where I am in a book, because for me writing is all about finding momentum and keeping it. When your word count is 0, it’s much harder than when your word count is 60,000. I get up to write while it’s still dark, 5 or 5:30. I start by editing and rewriting everything I did the day before, and that gives some momentum for the day. I get to new territory when the sun is coming up. I take a break to take my daughter to school—actually she just started driving, so I take a break to have breakfast with her. Then I get back to it. If it’s early in a book, I’ll only write til lunch, because it can be hard for me to get that momentum going. If it’s late in a book and really flowing, I’ll just keep writing and writing, until I’m either too tired or have been called to dinner.
Is there anything distinctive or unusual about your workspace?
I have an office where I have blackout shades, where I created an environment where you don’t know what time of day it is. You don’t know if it’s light or dark. I just try to put everything else out of focus and look only at the screen of my laptop. I don’t write at a desk, I sit on a couch.
What is a distinctive habit or affectation related to the writing process?
On the food front, I’m addicted to ice tea. I like it straight. I have different brands, but what’s notable is that I drink so much of it, and I’m so particular about it, that I brought a restaurant-quality brewer. I have it here in my office. And once or twice a week, I will brew three gallon batches of iced tea, and put it in refrigeration. I use that all day. I always have an ice tea with me—I have an ice tea right now, within a foot of me.
Any idea how many pints per day you go through?
I would say I drink at least a gallon of ice tea a day.
I mix it up between caffeinated and decaf, so I can sleep, but…
Describe your routine when conceiving of a book and its plot, before the writing begins. Do you like to map out your books ahead of time, or just let it flow?
I don’t map out anything. I put nothing on paper but the books themselves. I don’t outline, I only carry in my head. At any given time I’ll have one or two other ideas percolating. When I told you that it takes more time for me to research a Lincoln Lawyer book, it doesn’t mean I’m not writing. I’m always writing one project while I’m researching the next one. It’s hard to describe how projects move into each other, or on the same planes. It usually takes me eleven months to write a book, and the last 3 or 4 months are probably where all I’m doing is writing that book. But a good chunk in the early stages where I’m either gathering string for the next book, or running it through my head, but I don’t put anything on paper. I’ll just know how my books are going to begin and end, and the stuff in between is ripe for improvisation.
What has to happen on page one to make for a successful book that urges you to read on?
I think there has to be an empathic strike between the reader and the protagonist. There has to be something said or known that connects the reader to this person you’re going to ride through the story with.
What is guaranteed to make you laugh?
Texts from my daughter.
Do you have any superstitions?
I have one with time. I used to tape over the top corner of my computer screen so I couldn’t see what time it was. I like the idea that I’m just with the words, and not knowing what’s going on with the world, when it’s lunch or dinner.
If you could bring back to life one deceased person, who would it be and why?
It would definitely be my father. He was a frustrated artist, he wanted to be a painter and was in a very prestigious school, moving towards that, when he had his first child. He had to put that dream aside and make a living and support his family. So when I came to him and said I wanted to follow this instinct and become a writer, he was amazingly supportive and involved in the strategy to get to that point. But he passed away a year before my first novel was published, so he didn’t see what his effort brought about. I’d like him to see that.
What would you like carved onto your tombstone?
You know, of all the times that you get asked questions, it seems like you hear the same ones over and over. I don’t think I’ve ever been asked that! Huh. I’d grab Harry Bosch’s code: “Everybody counts or nobody counts.” A good message for the planet.