'He wasn't even a good journalist'

Colin Murphy talks to John Connolly about struggling at the Irish Times, his early psychiatric problems and being the 'nicest guy' in crime fiction


When news broke of John Connolly's million-dollar first-book deal in 1999, a senior colleague in the Irish Times was heard to say: "My God, but he wasn't even a good journalist."

Connolly had laboured in the Irish Times education supplement for five years, trekking out to university campuses to report on college politics.

At the peak of his journalistic career, another senior colleague said to him: "If you hang on in there, you'll make a good hack."

"Journalism was a way of being paid to write," he says. "I don't think I'd the hunger for news journalism."

He applied for a number of jobs on the news desk, and the position of education correspondent, without success. He was unhappy.

On 29 December 1996, John Connolly was doing a shift on the news desk. Towards the end of the shift, he was dispatched to the scene of a crime. A Sri Lankan woman, Belinda Pereira, had been murdered in a flat on Liffey Street. He wrote the first story on it for the Irish Times. He recalls "that rush of adrenalin... the feeling of being on the cutting edge".

"It was nasty and sleazy in a way, doing all the things that give journalists a bad name, hanging around the place, asking people coming in if they knew anything about it.

"A couple of days after her death, it emerged that she had come over from London to work as a call girl in Dublin over Christmas and the New Year, and the attitude towards her death seemed to change. The tabloids began referring to her as a 'Sri Lankan hooker', even when her parents were coming over to identify and collect her body. It was as if she had brought what had happened to her on herself because of the nature of her business, and that public sympathy altered, became less intense, as a result."

Connolly flirted with the idea of moving into crime reporting. He's glad now he didn't. Belinda Pereira's killers were never caught – the murder was attributed anecdotally to "two pimps from Monaghan". But when he returned to the story in his second novel, Dark Hollow, (though set in Maine, USA, not in Dublin), justice was done.John Connolly

"Crime fiction gives you those answers that you don't always get in real life. At the end, a degree of justice is meted out.

"There is an optimism to it", he says. "You don't read it to wallow in death. All crime writers are secretly moralists."

The editor at Macmillan publishers who rejected his first novel, Every Dead Thing, might not agree. She went to the trouble of adding a note in biro at the end of her rejection letter, saying: "The subject matter is too unpleasant. It's etched in my memory."

The prologue to Every Dead Thing is the most graphic thing he's written. In it, he describes vividly the murder of the narrator's wife and daughter through the clinical language of police reports.

He says now he "wouldn't make [it] as graphic as it was".

"That was a young man's book... Now, I recognise that you don't have to do that any more."

It is a strange genre, he admits – even for the reader: "You're reading books, for entertainment, in which people suffer. As a reader, it's an odd thing to do.

"As a writer you'll overstep that mark inevitably. You're trying to tread as close to that line as possible.

Do people ever complain? "People will complain about swearing. You can eviscerate as many people as you want but don't have them swearing."

His next novel, The Unquiet, deals with child abuse, telling the story of a doctor who disappears after it is alleged that he has abused children in his care. It is his "least explicit book, in every detail".

"Adults don't need to have the details of abuse or rape presented to them." They "can do the math", he says, they can work it out themselves.

Despite the darkness in his books, he has recently acquired the sobriquet "the nicest man in crime fiction" – he doesn't know how.

"'Nice' is one of those awful words. It's not like I come into an interview hauling some cripple who I've just picked up for the day to show a good time."

He is earnest, keen to discuss his work, intensely talkative, rapid-fire sentences. Hands jabbing and waving about, rubbing his face. There is a touch of mania about him, or nerves. He drinks his coffee decaf. Not a trace of celebrity, of arrogance, of presumption. He wears a worn black t-shirt and a beaten-up black leather jacket. A cross around his neck. (A Byzantine pilgrim's cross, he says. Twelve hundred years old, though not expensive.)

As a teenager, he had psychiatric difficulties. The opening to his new novel, The Book of Lost Things, describes a boy who "would always get out of bed by putting his left foot on the floor first, then his right..."

"He always counted up to 20 when he was brushing his teeth, and he always stopped when the count was completed. He always touched the taps in the bathroom and the handles of the doors a certain number of times: odd numbers were bad but even numbers were fine, with two, four and eight being particularly favourable, although he didn't care for six because six was twice three and three was the second part of 13, and 13 was very bad indeed."

He was that boy: he suffered, as a young teenager, from what he now recognises as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and depression. He was "intensely locked into patterns", repetitive, mannered routines "that would take up literally hours of the day".

"I was just impossible to talk to, lost in these very black moods."

His parents brought him to a psychiatrist. It didn't help. He didn't know what was wrong, but sensed that this was "an extraordinarily shameful thing to have". Eventually, he says, he grew up – he managed to shake it off.

His father was a clerical officer in Dublin Corporation, his mother a teacher and housewife. Home was Rialto, school was at Synge Street. After school, he found work in his father's workplace, as a clerk in the Corporation. He did three years, then cashed in his pension to pay to go to college. He could have taken a career break, but he quit. "I wanted to burn my bridges. I was afraid that if I did that [took a career break], I'd go back." His father was "a very cautious man", who objected to his son throwing away a pensionable job, one which could have secured him a mortgage. He died of cancer before Connolly's first novel was published. After an English degree at Trinity, he did a postgraduate degree in journalism and started writing features and book reviews for the Press. Then a small lucky break got him into the Irish Times as an education reporter. It was "a good grounding" he says, teaching him skills he subsequently poured into his novels, which are researched "obsessively".

"I'm very bad at making stuff up, which is a really lousy confession for a novelist to have to make."

Locations in his novels are all real places. "If a character walks down a street, I've walked down that street." He travels with a camera and tape recorder, conducting interviews, taking extensive notes.

We meet on the day the Booker Prize is to be announced. Connolly appears to disavow the reverence afforded to the Booker and to so-called "literary fiction". He'd love to be nominated, but doesn't see it happening.

"I'm a genre author," he says, matter-of-factly.

"There's this weird fallacy about writing, [that values] a book by the length of time it takes to write.

"Most of us aren't going to be remembered after we die. Most of us aren't going to be remembered while we're alive. There are more important things."

He writes books to be read, quickly – one a year. He cites John Banville's The Sea, the 2005 winner: "A difficult book to read, a difficult book to like, but an easy book to admire".

His fiction has made him wealthy, though he doesn't talk in figures, and he doesn't display it. He is, he says, "very unexceptional".

"I didn't have a grand plan. I never dreamed that I was going to be eight, nine novels down the line."

"I find it constantly surprising that I've managed to get away with it."

Every book attracts some bad reviews, he says. He used to read them, and would be "depressed for a week". Now he tries to ignore them – his trick is to read the last paragraph first and to stop if they stick the knife in. But the temptation to read them remains:

"You're always looking for the person who isn't clapping, because maybe they've figured out what a fraud you are."

Research by Helene Hofman