The Whisperers (Hodder & Stoughton, hardcover, £17.99, 13 May 2010) is the ninth in John Connolly’s best-selling Charlie Parker series, which began with Every Dead Thing in 1999. As a Times review said of John Connolly: ‘‘This man is so good it’s terrifying’ and never has this been more true than in The Whisperers. During the war in Iraq a lead box goes missing from the archives deep in the basement of the Iraq museum. It is a box that should never be opened, for locked inside are the whisperers who with the evil they generate affect all those who come in contact with it, let alone open it. A few years later in the US state of Maine, Parker is called in by the father of a military veteran of the war to investigate why his son and other returning soldiers have killed themselves. Once involved in this mission Parker finds himself dragged deeper and deeper into a situation more terrible than he could ever have imagined. The novel is a thriller, but as always with John Connolly it goes far beyond the usual boundaries of the genre and into the realm of the dark spirits of another world. The Collector, who has appeared in previous novels, makes a grim reappearance and looming over him the terrifying Captain. And Charlie Parker is caught between the two worlds.
John Connolly has an excellent website http://www.johnconnollybooks.com on which he patiently answers a great many of the questions that have been put to him over the years. Nevertheless he has kindly agreed to answer a few more …
Q. The X-factor that makes your novels so striking is that the narrative has two levels: the real and – to use your own word – the nightmarish. Charlie Parker has to contend with the dangers of the first and the evil forces of the second. Did you originally plan for this series to have this extra level or has it evolved as you were writing the novels?
A. Well, right from the start there was a certain supernatural element to the books, but it has become more pronounced as the sequence has progressed. I suppose that there were two genres that I loved: mystery fiction, and the supernatural, specifically a certain type of English ghost story epitomised by the work of M.R. James. While there is a conservative rump in the mystery genre that views one genre as the antithesis of the other, mainly out of a blind loyalty to a certain form of rationalism, and a very limited view of the mystery genre’s potential for development, they actually have very similar roots: they both examine the consequences when the ‘other’ intrudes into everyday life, that outside force that does not operate by the same set of suppositions by which we ourselves operate. In one genre, that force is human by nature, and in the other it is not, but the results are the same.
The Whisperers is brilliantly constructed. Firstly, the plot is developed on a jigsaw pattern with several groups of interested parties independently converging on the box; secondly, Charlie Parker provides a link between the two levels, through your use of his first person viewpoint, so that both the outer and the inner man have their role in the plot and draw the disparate strands together. Do you work on the structure of scenes and technical use of different viewpoints before you begin the novel or does this aspect develop during the writing?
No, I’m not much of a planner. Essentially, each novel begins with an idea, and maybe one or two scenes. For The Whisperers, the first scene that I wrote involved a woman waking up in the night, finding her partner missing from their bed, and then watching him as he spoke to something on the other side of a locked cellar door. Originally, that was going to be the opening for the book, but eventually it ended up about a third of the way into it. I tend to be pretty willing to let the novel find its own way, but there is always an internal logic at work, and that’s usually dictated by Parker’s actions. In the main, though, I view the first draft simply as a way of reassuring myself that there’s a book in there somewhere. My books tend to be rewritten rather than written, if you know what I mean. I go over them again and again, working out the kinks, honing them. I’m a compulsive rewriter, and the technical issues that you mention tend to be dealt with while I edit.
As well as thrillers, you have also published other books, including a collection of ghost stories. Did your interest in the supernatural world arise from a love of classic ghost writers or is it something that evolved in your imagination, such as for instance in ‘The Erlking’ where you take a folk story and build so impressively on to it?
Well, like I said, I was a big fan of classic ghost stories from a very young age, but they didn’t exist in isolation for me. I could connect them with other forms of writing in which I was interested, but also with my own imagination. That’s what writers do: they take pre-existing forms, and add a little of themselves to create something new. At least, that’s what they should be doing. Oddly enough, I’m pretty sceptical when it comes to the supernatural. On the other hand, I still believe in God. I’ve come to realise that I’m pretty happy existing in the grey areas.
A major and deeply moving theme of The Whisperers is the Iraq war and more particularly its effects on veterans, both military and civilian. Have you visited Iraq or have you known veterans of military conflicts through your journalistic career?
That was something that resulted from all of the time I’d spent in the US in recent years. I became very interested in the effect of war upon soldiers, and followed the gradually increasing coverage of rising suicides, the jailing of veterans, and the manner in which so many veterans who were physically and/or psychologically damaged were not being treated with the respect and care they deserved. In that sense, the book isn’t really about the Iraq war: it’s about the mythologizing of war, and the dehumanizing effect that it has on those who serve. I came across a really interesting passage in Peter Beaumont’s book The Secret Life of War that encapsulated a lot of what I felt, and had learned. In it, he described the changes to the brain that occur when it is exposed to particular stresses: in this case, combat stress. The brain begins to rewire itself, with the result that, when soldiers return home, they are no longer able to function as regular human beings. Depending upon a whole lot of factors, these changes may be short-term or long-term, but either way the consequences are horrific for families, for society, and for the soldiers themselves.
As for research, I have a friend in the US, Tom Hyland. He’s thanked at the back of the book. Tom served in Vietnam, and he became my touchstone for the experience of what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder. The other stuff – details of the layout of the Iraq Museum, details of military conduct and practice – can be gleaned from books and articles, albeit a great many of them, but at some point you need the human touch. At some point, you have to talk to those who have intimate knowledge of the subjects about which you’re trying to write. For that, I think I fall back on my training in journalism.
For a long while ghost stories were commercially unpopular. Why do you think that they are now cautiously resurrecting themselves in such interestingly different guises as yours?
I think horror fell out of favour, particularly in the UK, because so much of what was being written was kind of nasty stuff. That’s a purely personal view, admittedly, and I might be considered something of an old fogey when it comes to supernatural writing, as I prefer the older nineteenth and early twentieth century writers, and regard M.R. James as a suitable full stop. But that fascination with the supernatural has always been there, particularly among younger readers. I mean, that was when I first became curious about it, in part because I found it thrilling, but also because, as a child, you’re interested in fear, in what frightens you and its potential limits. Supernatural fiction becomes a way of making abstract fears concrete, and thereby exploring the concept of fear itself.
Now, though, it seems like vampires have returned to favour. They’re a bit like chicken, really: they’re a good carrier for other things. In the case of, say, the Twilight books, they become a means of exploring sexuality and, indeed, sexual abstinence, to which they’ve always been ideally suited. It’s just another variation on what I was suggesting: supernatural fiction, because it deals with what frightens us, and why, has the ability to take on all kinds of interesting issues and concerns because it is, basically, metaphorical by nature.
In your short story ‘The Inkpot Monkey’ there’s a lighter side to your writing, which naturally doesn’t emerge in The Whisperers, save in Charlie Parker’s style of thought. Is this an aspect of your writing you’d like to give more rein to, perhaps in continuing to write for younger readers, as in The Gates.
I think that a streak of dark humour runs through all of my books, but you’re right: in the Parker books it’s essentially Parker and, to an extent, Angel and Louis who provide a kind of deadpan commentary on occasion. There was a little of that in The Book of Lost Things as well, although only in the chapters involving the seven dwarfs, and I wanted to explore that side of my writing a little more, which is why I wrote The Gates. That book allowed my imagination to run riot, but it met a degree of resistance from some children’s buyers, who I think have become suspicious of adult writers moving into the realm of children’s fiction. I didn’t see any conflict, though: my books have always been fascinated by childhood, so it just seemed like a natural progression to me to write a book that my stepchildren could read.
As for ‘The Inkpot Monkey’, that is blackly funny, but it was also a way of exploring the nature of the writing process, and the deal that writers strike with their imagination and their subconscious in order to produce their work. I’m very fond of that little story!
Did you always hanker to write thrillers, or did you set out by wanting to write ghost stories?
No, I think my attraction was always to the figure of the detective, and the idea of exploration, of digging, of uncovering old secrets. Gradually, though, those secrets began to take on an arcane tinge. Now, I just call what I do mysteries, but I probably do so with an awareness of the older meaning of that term.
The forces of evil in The Whisperers, represented by Herod, the Collector and the Captain, are memorable to say the least. Did they spring ready-formed into your imagination as characters, or did you create them little by little? One of the most interesting aspects of Herod, for example, is that he (like Hitler) has good points (relatively!) which have the effect of making the character all the more chillingly believable.
The villains really are strange products of my subconscious. It’s often not until I actually reach the point in the book where they make their first appearance that they assume a concrete form. Prior to that, they tend to nebulous. In each case, though, they bring with them human characteristics. They may be monstrous, or grotesque, but they are that way because of their warped humanity. Herod is a being in torment. He is suffering in unimaginable ways, and he has been promised both an end to that suffering, and a means of visiting it on others. It’s the latter that makes him evil: again and again, my books come back to the question of empathy, and the belief that its absence constitutes evil. Herod is evil because he believes others should suffer as he suffers. His is a cancer of the soul.
Do you ever scare yourself while you’re writing, or do you manage to remain on the edge of the action in your mind? Do you always know where a situation is going to lead you?
No, I don’t frighten myself. I’m sometimes a little surprised by what I’ve written when I go back over it, but I think most writers have a couple of moments like that in every book, that sense of ‘Where did that come from?’ I’m rarely fully aware of how a chapter, or an idea, is going to develop, but I don’t want that to sound like I think I’m channelling God or anything. By now, I’ve learned that the book is in my head somewhere, and the hard work is sitting down at my desk and typing so that those vague ideas can assume a concrete form.
Charlie Parker is a fascinating character, partly because, to me at least, he is somewhat of an enigma. Professional sleuth is one side of his role as the novel’s protagonist, but he is also the link to the darker supernatural forces unleashed in ever increasing fury, which he faces not only on behalf of the main plot but through the tragedy of his wife and daughter’s murders. Quite a lot for one man’s shoulders, but he comes across to the reader very vividly – perhaps because, as you said yourself of this novel, ‘there is no single character in the book who is entirely certain of what is happening, and that includes Parker himself.’ Do you know yourself where the novel is going, or are you sharing the journey with him?
My experience of writing a novel is, at times, a little like the reader’s experience of first reading it. It develops in strange and sometimes unexpected directions. But when it comes to Parker, there is so much of him in me, and me in him, that when I start writing the books I fit quite naturally into his thought processes, and I readily inhabit his consciousness. I was once accused of something called ‘pinball plotting’, a phrase I kind of understand but don’t necessarily agree applies to what I do. Parker, it seems to me, always approaches a problem the same way. He even functions a bit like a journalist. He is told something. He examines it for gaps in the truth, and finds the potential weaknesses. He then goes looking for explanations for those weaknesses, and he does so by confronting individuals. He is always questioning, and he is prepared to accept that any answers he gets will always be partial. But his quest in each book is part of a larger search, one that is ultimately tied up with his own hopes for peace and redemption.
After your first novel Every Dead Thing all your novels have been Sunday Times bestsellers. Do you find the consequent pressure to produce the next affects your writing or plotting, or can you cocoon yourself away from it during the creative stages?
I made a decision very early on in my career that each book would be a reaction to the last, and I would try not to repeat myself, or fall into a set pattern. That has meant writing non-mysteries, or a book of short stories, or a children’s book, or writing a book like The Reapers, which throws away all of the supernatural elements and the first person narration while still fitting recognizably into the Parker series. Often, the experiments are done out of contract, although so far my publishers have not turned any of them down.
The downside of working in this way is that, ultimately, I know my sales have probably suffered a little, because just as a certain type of reader is getting a handle on you, you go and do something else, and the secret of success in genre fiction is to write the same thing every year with only a slight twist. Readers are more loyal to characters than to writers, for the most part. They have a low tolerance for experimentation.
Had I done a Parker book every year for the past dozen years, I’d probably be in a different position from the one I occupy – and don’t get me wrong, my sales are good, and I’m not complaining about them – but I’d be miserable, and the books would have suffered as a consequence. So now, I think, my publishers and my agent and I have reached an accommodation of sorts: I follow my heart, I write what I want to write, and if it’s not a Parker novel every year, then so be it. I have enough loyal readers to sustain me through these excursions into other areas of writing, and I’m very fortunate in having publishers who are immensely supportive of what I do, and have never tried to steer me in a particular direction. I’m lucky, and I know it.
Your 2006 novel, The Book of Lost Things, not in the Charlie Parker series, is about the power that folklore and fairy stories can have, and Celtic folklore is particularly evocative. Is Charlie Parker’s involvement with the forces of evil in The Whisperers taking this one stage further?
Perhaps all of the books reflect back on one another, and there are elements that are common to them all. After all, each is the product of the same mind, and that mind has certain subjects that fascinate it: myths, childhood, evil, love, loyalty, redemption. Actually, though, I don’t think Celtic folklore plays any part in what I do, at least not directly. My exposure to it as part of my culture probably makes me more alive to the possibilities of mythology in general, but influences on The Book of Lost Things are primarily European.
You’re a native Dubliner, and Dublin is home to a great many writers past and present, but all the Charlie Parker novels are set in Maine, where you spend a lot of your time. What drew you to that state in particular? And could you envisage setting a thriller in Dublin or is that too close to home to work for you?
I worked in Maine for a time in 1991, and just fell in love with it. It was similar to Ireland, in certain ways, while being sufficiently different from home to still seem like a strange, slightly foreign place. I like the dramatic changes of season, the landscape, the history, and I’ve been able to draw on all of those things to create resonances in my work between the physical world and the internal world of the novels and their characters.
As for setting a thriller in Dublin, I think I’d just write a bad Irish book, because my heart wouldn’t be in it. I admire the Irish writers who are producing such excellent crime fiction, but they’re much better at it than I would be. I’ve found a way of writing that suits me, and I haven’t exhausted its possibilities yet.
You write on your website that all authors are constantly looking for the one person in the room who isn’t clapping because that’s the person who has figured out what frauds they are. Well, in your case it won’t be me! No way. Thank you for agreeing to answer these questions – and for writing The Whisperers.
The Whisperers (Hodder & Stoughton, hardcover, £17.99, 13 May 2010)