One of the world’s best thriller writers shares what it’s like to write the 12th book in a popular series.
When it comes to pain and suffering, there are two kinds of people in the world.
“There are people who don’t want to suffer alone,” Irish author John Connolly tells me during a recent phone interview. “They want other people to suffer with them. And then there are people, who when they suffer, don’t want other people to experience what they’re going through.
“At the beginning of (his first novel) Every Dead Thing, Charlie Parker is the first type of person. He’s filled with such rage that he wants to lash out against the world. But by the end of the book he’s become the second type. And I think that’s basically the series that follows. It’s the journey of one man towards compassion.”
Connolly, 46, is a man who knows a thing or two about darkness. He is perhaps best known, after all, for his bestselling Charlie Parker novels that combine crime fiction with subtle shades of the supernatural. You would never guess this, however, speaking to him on the phone. The author is casual and candid, making jokes in his light Irish brogue.
“Never happened to me,” Connolly laughs, when asked if he has had any encounters with the supernatural. “I like to think of myself as a healthy sceptic. I know people who’ve had encounters, though, and I find it interesting to explore the context.”
This Dublin-based author has certainly lived a well-storied life. Before becoming a full-time novelist, Connolly tried his hand at various jobs, including journalist (he still contributes to The Irish Times newspaper), barman, local government official and waiter. His first book, Every Dead Thing, was published in 1999, introducing the world to his most beloved character, intrepid ex-policeman Charlie Parker.
Connolly has since written over a dozen bestselling books, including The Book Of Lost Things, The Conquest and the young adult Samuel Johnson series. He has been nominated for and won many writing awards, and is the first author outside the United States to win the 2000 Shamus Award for Best First Private Eye Novel.
His latest work, The Wolf In Winter, is the 12th Charlie Parker book. Asked how he feels about this, the author says he never expected to reach this stage.
“I think that if you’ve reached the 12th book in a series, you’ve managed to connect,” he says. “You’ve struck a chord with your readers. And as writers, that’s what we’re always trying to do.”
In The Wolf In Winter, Charlie goes to the small town of Prosperous, Maine, to investigate the death of a homeless man and the disappearance of his daughter. Outwardly, the town lives up to its name: but there are dark secrets lurking in this seemingly idyllic place. And most of them are contained in the ruins of an ancient church, transported stone by stone from England centuries earlier by the town’s founders.
In Charlie, the town and its protectors sense a threat graver than any they have faced in their long history. And in the comfortable, sheltered inhabitants of a small Maine town, Charlie will encounter his most vicious opponents yet.
Asked how he was inspired to write the novel, Connolly asks me if there are magpies in Malaysia.
“They are black and white birds, who enjoy stealing shiny things. And writers are like magpies! We too like to look for shiny things,” he says.
The “shiny thing” for this novel, Connolly says, was old church architecture. He had become fascinated by some ancient churches he had encountered in Britain.
“They had incorporated pagan symbols on the walls. They had ‘The Green Man’, an ancient symbol of nature. It was absolutely fascinating. And that was the beginning of it,” Connolly explains.
The author adds that themes of class struggle also feature in the novel, as he had also become fascinated by the fractured nature of American society, and speaking to social workers to ensure the parts pertaining to the novel’s homeless characters are authentic.
His favourite part of The Wolf In Winter to write, however, were the parts about the Familists, a real life ancient religious group.
“They are these people who avoid religious persecution by pretending to be members of another faith. They’re like chameleons, blending into other congregations!” Connolly says.
“And in a weird sense, that’s all of us. We all have our secrets, we never show our true faces to the world. We have our complications, and our private lives. I found it fascinating that a whole group of people would come together to present one face to the world, but privately live a different way.”
The Wolf In Winter ends with a major cliffhanger, with one of its characters going through a harrowing, life-changing experience.
“What happens here is quite pivotal,” Connolly acknowledges. “It will change the nature of the series to come. But as I mentioned earlier, a major theme of the series is redemption. And I think Charlie is a man who will ultimately be redeemed.”
Excited, this fan presses for more details, but the author is tight-lipped. “I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you,” Connolly laughs, and I wisely decide to end the interview.