29 September 2009 @ 01:00 am
Interview: Harry Connolly  
Harry Connolly's Child of Fire launches today. This dark fantasy is being aimed at the Jim Butcher readership: fast action, magical mayhem in an urban setting being the shared points.

Connolly's story I find is sharper focused and far more gritty, but otherwise the two share strong characterization and a sympathetic protagonist. Ray Lilly is not a powerful mage--he's just a guy, but wooee did he end up in the wrong place at the wrong time doing the wrong thing. Now he's a driver--a red shirt--for a furiously determined woman who has way too much power and way too little interest in the health and welfare of her staff of one.

So Ray's got to save his own skin--and figure out what's going on.

I made the mistake of starting to read this book late at night. It took about two pages before I was sucked in, and before I knew it the time was some horrible hour, the dogs hadn't been walked and the dishes had hardened out in the kitchen, which was all right because it took me an hour or so to fall out of Ray Lilly's skin back into my own, and get my jangling nerves calm enough for slumber.

So when Harry's pub date came along, we had an email-exchange interview.

SMITH: The first thing I noticed (besides the pedal-to-the-metal pacing) was how cinematic this novel is. It would make a terrific movie. Do you have any background in screenwriting?

CONNOLLY: I did, in fact, spend several years studying and writing scripts. The holistic and analytical way scripts are dissected helped me overcome my problems with plot and characterization (I could write a cool sequence, but I couldn't write several cool sequences that would all hang together as a unified story). And because they have to defend their stories from non-writers who think it would be a great idea to, I dunno, give the protagonist a lovable chimp companion, professional screenwriters are very rigorous and process-oriented.

When I first ventured online, looking for writing advice, fiction writers would always say things like: "The best thing you can do is keep the reader's interest," and I'd always think *Well, duh!* but how?

Screenwriters, on the other hand, would talk about “inciting incidents,” would note which page the story hook should fall on, where the major plot twists should be, how much dialog was too much, and so on. Even when they were wrong, they gave me something to work with.

Of course, it's only now that I realize "Be interesting" is the only real rule in writing.

And nowadays there's a lot more process-oriented fiction advice on the web than there used to be. But those screenwriters? I owe them a lot.

Quick digression: the reason I stopped pursuing a movie-making career? I made a movie. That work is so not for me. I’m much happier writing books. And no, that movie won’t ever be released.

SMITH: I got out of the film industry in the late seventies because women couldn’t break through the glass ceiling. That is no longer true, but there are other aspects that are tough, like not being able to protect the integrity of your work, because as soon as your screenplay is bought, it becomes a group project. If someone options one of your books, will you dip your toe back in that world?

CONNOLLY: That’s hard for me to answer. I’m extraordinarily happy writing books right now. (I know, big surprise, huh?) My agent and editor have both been giving me fantastic notes and I’ve learned a lot from them. Plus, I just love books.

But movies and TV are touchstones for our culture. Even if someone hasn’t seen LOST or TRANSFORMERS 2 (someone like me) they almost certainly know something about them. It’s tempting to be part of something that looms so large in the culture, even collaboratively. And I think I’d be good at it.

So I’m not sure what I’d do.

SMITH: A quick perusal of Random House's advance PR makes it fairly plain they are going for Jim Butcher's audience. I suppose it's inevitable that comparisons will be made. What do you see as big differences between what you're doing and what Butcher is doing?

CONNOLLY: Well, I'm part of Jim Butcher's audience myself. I enjoy the hell out of his books, but I think the similarities between his work and mine are mostly superficial. We both have modern settings, spells, violent conflict and a male protagonist, but beyond that the differences are profound.

For instance, Harry Dresden is in a very different situation than Ray Lilly is in. Harry knows and understands the rules of his world. He knows his place in it, and he knows what he can do. He's also very powerful. Very.

Ray is the proverbial mushroom. Basically, he's been press-ganged into working for a secret society, no one expects him to survive through the weekend, and no one wants to explain a thing to him. He has to figure everything out on his own. He's also not particularly powerful--he has a couple of protection spells his boss put on him (also without explanation) and a single spell that he created on his own.

But that's it. While Harry Dresden could take on Spider-Man and win, Ray is just a regular guy with a couple of tricks. He has to be sneaky and ruthless. That's why I think of Butcher's novels as big summer tent pole adventure stories--the big-budget Hollywood kind--while I'm trying to create what are essentially tense crime novels with some magic thrown in.

Also, most of the characters in The Dresden Files are supernatural in some way: They're wizards, vampires, werewolves, fae, demons, and so on, right down to the guys with the magic swords. In the Twenty Palaces books, almost everyone is a regular citizen. While a small few of the major players in each story will have some magic, most of the characters are waiters, cardiologists, accountants, motel managers, whatever--all trying as best they can to survive whatever monstrous and inexplicable calamity I'm throwing at them.

Finally, this last thing might not seem like a big difference to a lot of people, but it is to me: The Dresden Files, like a lot of urban fantasy, has an explicitly religious setting. In fact, it's an all-inclusive setting: Every religious and cultural tradition seems to be real in Harry Dresden's world. Me, I wanted an agnostic universe. In the Twenty Palaces books, there are no angels or demons, and no one knows what happens to us after we die. People have their faith, of course, and their doubts, too, but magic doesn't give them access to the secrets of the universe. Well, not those secrets, at least.

SMITH: Actually, according to my spouse (who teaches social ethics and modern religious movements at a local university), many people turn to fiction, specifically fantasy, to scratch the sense-of-wonder itch that can also be termed the religious impulse. He thinks this upswelling of genre popularity correlates with the secularization of society—put simply, people who (perhaps unconsciously) have the religious impulse (and not everyone does) have gotten out of the habit of going to church or temple to find their angels, but that doesn’t mean they have any less interest in angels than their medieval ancestors. They’re finding them in fiction. As you say, Butcher did come down on the side of the angels in Dead Beat; your audience might divide off from Butcher for readers who prefer the unknown to remain unknown.

CONNOLLY: Your spouse makes an interesting proposition, but I have my questions about it: Can made-up stories of an afterlife, to take one example, support an honest belief in it? It’s an interesting idea and dovetails with recent studies about the effect of lies in the media: even after a lie has been thoroughly disproved, a person who’s heard the lie tends to retain their negative opinion of person being lied about.

Which makes me wonder whether I, an avowed atheist with no religious impulse that I can discern, am providing cultural support to belief systems I don’t subscribe to.

Good thing I have the Food Network to distract me from such uncomfortable thoughts.

As for your last sentence, some of the early reviews did seem unhappy that the magic and the Twenty Palace Society were not described more explicitly. Who knows? Maybe I’ll start a new movement called “lack-of-exposition-punk”.

SMITH: Some of my religious friends are quite specific about separating fiction from faith, and some of my most hard-line atheistic friends explore through endless discussion the supernatural aspects of genre paradigms. In other words, I don’t think there is an easy answer, but you’re probably safe from the accusation of covert acts of theism via your stories. :)

There's been a lot of online talk of late about how many male authors don't do female characters, for whatever reasons. But Child of Fire has a tough, complex woman central to the story, and is filled with a variety of females as well as men, and they all have plenty of agency. Was this a conscious decision on your part, or do you just fill the character slots in the story with whoever walks on stage?

CONNOLLY: Conscious decision. It's all too easy for a middle-aged white man like me to default to "Male, White" for the influential roles. That's the lazy choice, and I'm nothing if not lazy.

But those lazy choices make for crappy narratives; the stories all begin to flatten out and sound the same. By asking myself, early in the process, "What if this character were a woman?" or "What if this character were over sixty?" or "Does this character *have* to be another white guy?" I can make stories that have more depth and seem more like the world we all live in.

That said, I still have a lot to learn. Hopefully, each book will improve on the ones before it (and won’t contain egregious errors).

SMITH: One of the first things I noticed about your writing, back when you published “The Whoremaster of Pald” in BLACK GATE #2 was the excellence of your characterization. Can you name some of your influences?

CONNOLLY: Off the top of my head—and talking just about characters for a moment—I’m going to mention Ross Macdonald and John Le Carre`. The best spy and mystery novels are studies in odd motivations, ambiguous loyalties and all the weird quirks that make us people. And I love it.

SMITH: Do you have a story arc planned, or is this possibly an open-ended series? (How much are we going to find out about Twenty Palaces?)

CONNOLLY: I'm planning to write this as an open-ended series, but each book will affect the books that follow. I also have game-changing story events in mind for the future, but nothing definite.

And there will be more insight into the Twenty Palace Society in upcoming books. My editor insists. :) Personally, I want them to take their secrecy very, very seriously, so Ray is not going to see an organizational flowchart, nor is he going to get a tour of their headquarters. Not right away, at least.

But he is going to lay his hands on more parts of the elephant as the story goes along and the peers in the society take notice of him. It's unavoidable that he would earn more responsibilities, and learn more about what's really going on because of it.

SMITH: It’s all designed, then? You’ve got the backdrop well painted, or are you making it up as you go along?

CONNOLLY: There’s a framework in place, with enough blank spaces to let me improvise as the story requires. I like to plan ahead just enough to know where I’m going, and let the details come out in the writing.

SMITH: Why fantasy?

CONNOLLY: Because I'm a backwards-looking reactionary who wants to live under a despotic monarchy, clearly.

SMITH: You forgot that our knuckles drag on the ground. Who are you currently reading and enjoying, when you get time to read?

CONNOLLY: Funny you should ask. My current book is The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Speed Reading, because it took me weeks to finish The Spirit Gate by Kate Elliot. Elliot wrote a wonderful book, but I’m embarrassed by how long it took me.

I’d happily recommend The Patriot Witch, by CC Finlay, which is a historical fantasy set during the American Revolution. And I’m also still working my way through your “Inda” books and loving them.

Before that, I’d finished The Galton Case and The Chill, two novels by Ross Macdonald. Amazing, both of them.

Most of those are epic fantasy and mystery novels, obviously, so I’ve put a couple urban fantasies on top of my to-read pile--I’m not as well read in the field as I’d like. I have the first Carrie Vaughn "Kitty" novel and the first Charlaine Harris “Sooky” novel ready, along with the next Charles Stross’s latest Laundry novel and the first book by Ilona Andrews.

Hopefully, I’ll teach myself to read faster, and I won’t always be years behind everyone else.

SMITH: And finally, what can you tell us about the next book in the series?

CONNOLLY: It’s called Game of Cages and will be coming out in the spring or summer of next year. The plot centers on the auction of a supernatural predator—and the wealthy sorcerers and wannabes who descend on a secluded part of Washington state to place their bids. Of course the auction goes wrong

It’s the darkest of these first three books; Ray really goes through the ringer in it as he discovers just how dirty the work of the Twenty Palace Society can be. Child of Fire is almost sedate in comparison.

SMITH: (Making mental note) ‘Do not start reading this book late at night.’ Thanks, Harry!
( 27 comments — Leave a comment )
asakiyumeasakiyume on September 29th, 2009 03:32 am (UTC)
Wonderful interview! Loved it when you guys got to talking about--how did you put it? "Covert acts of theism" :D That was brilliant.

Clearly another writer (and set of books) to add to my Everest of a reading list.
Sherwood Smithsartorias on September 29th, 2009 03:55 am (UTC)
Estaraestara on September 29th, 2009 04:34 am (UTC)
I'm not at all into crime fiction and I didn't like the first Harry Dresden novel, so I'm most likely not the audience for this, but I thought the interview was very illuminating and interesting and I'll keep my eyes open for anything of this author which might be more to my taste.
Sherwood Smithsartorias on September 29th, 2009 10:20 am (UTC)
Thanks for reading!
april: dunsconapril_art on September 29th, 2009 06:03 am (UTC)
Great interview. The book sounds fascinating. I'll definitely been getting it.
Sherwood Smithsartorias on September 29th, 2009 10:21 am (UTC)
A large duck: Child of Fireburger_eater on September 29th, 2009 06:03 am (UTC)
Thank you very much for the interview. I enjoyed the heck out of it.
Sherwood Smithsartorias on September 29th, 2009 10:21 am (UTC)
It was fun!

(Now, on the road in an hour and a half)
Estaraestara on September 29th, 2009 11:41 am (UTC)
Have fun, don't get con crud!
A large duckburger_eater on September 29th, 2009 02:47 pm (UTC)
Safe travel.
Kari Sperringla_marquise_de_ on September 29th, 2009 09:22 am (UTC)
That does look interesting: thank you.
Sherwood Smithsartorias on September 29th, 2009 10:22 am (UTC)
Helen: Bedtime readingheleninwales on September 29th, 2009 10:17 am (UTC)
Interesting interview. Thanks!

A lot of my friends are fans of the Dresden Files books, but I already have a huge To Read pile and I wasn't quite tempted enough to splurge on more books, but Harry Connolly's new book sounds much more like my thing.
Sherwood Smithsartorias on September 29th, 2009 10:22 am (UTC)
I hope you enjoy it!
faerie_writer on September 29th, 2009 01:18 pm (UTC)
What an interesting review!
Sherwood Smithsartorias on September 30th, 2009 02:14 am (UTC)
Jon Xarnjonxarn on September 29th, 2009 02:21 pm (UTC)
Nice interview! I put Child of Fire in my cart as soon as I was done reading.
Sherwood Smithsartorias on September 30th, 2009 02:15 am (UTC)
Yay! I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
leaflemmingleaflemming on September 29th, 2009 07:39 pm (UTC)
Great exchange. Thanks for posting it. I've just been having my own email discussion of the religious impulse, fantasy writing, and the film industry - with Elizabeth Knox, whose The Vintner's Luck has just been made into a godawful movie. I recommend the book... and also the film, but only if you want to an example of how lack of faith in fantasy themes (and also, alas, closet homophobia) can pervert an adaptation.
Sherwood Smithsartorias on September 30th, 2009 02:15 am (UTC)
The book sounds interesting...the movie? Ugh.
leaflemmingleaflemming on September 30th, 2009 04:49 am (UTC)
The book is a lovely thing, really quite off the charts for unexpected beauty & involving story. Watching it dissolve into on-screen narrative & thematic porridge had me grinding my teeth with rage. Truely, don't be put off the book.
pjthompsonpjthompson on September 29th, 2009 07:53 pm (UTC)
I'm looking forward to this one.
capnflynn: we has the map!capnflynn on September 29th, 2009 11:10 pm (UTC)
Thanks for posting this; my husband and I are both fans of the Dresden books, and this sounds like great fun! I really enjoyed the interview too; finding out how writers approach their books is endlessly fascinating to me. :D
Sherwood Smithsartorias on September 30th, 2009 02:16 am (UTC)
Yay! Thanks!
Loopyarunthol on September 30th, 2009 04:48 am (UTC)
Now I know what I'm going to read next!! Thank you for doing and posting this interview. :)
Sherwood Smithsartorias on September 30th, 2009 01:23 pm (UTC)
Ceeparagraphs on October 18th, 2009 01:25 pm (UTC)
Maybe, hopefully (but not likely) my B&N will have his book you talk about here--I want it--and The Patriot Witch historical fantasy he mentions. I get so frustrated with my local bookstore as they NEVER have what I want. Growl.

I am looking forward to this as frankly, all those things in the Harry Dresden novels are almost too much at times. LOL! I like sparse and gritty, so my fingers are itching to snag this. :)

( 27 comments — Leave a comment )