John A. Connell will be appearing at the Poisoned Pen on Wednesday, March 30 at 7 PM. The author of Spoils of Victory will join Philip Kerr as both men discuss their post-World War II crime novels.
I recently had the chance to put Connell in the hot seat, asking him ten questions. His answers were so good that we’re breaking the Q&A into two parts. Today is part 1.
- You took a circuitous route to become a writer. How did you get there?
I wrote short stories starting in my teens, mostly hybrid versions of H. G. Wells’ short stories. The first story anyone read was my history teacher in the 10th grade. I had written a gory account of the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, and after reading it he suggested that I should become a novelist! But at that age I had dreams of being a rock-n-roll star. Music in my teens and twenties, then cinematography, occupied my creative life. Still, that bug to write was always with me, and then, around the age of 40, I expressed my dream of writing to a screenwriter friend, and he said, “Shut up, sit down, and write.” I did, and the writing “disease” immediately took hold. I started with screenplays, which seemed like the natural thing to do since I worked in the film business. But I became frustrated with the confinement of the screenplay form. I wanted to go deeper into my characters and the world that surrounded them. That’s when I tried my hand at novels and never looked back. Four previous, unpublished novels and a million words later, Ruins of War was born.
- Why are you writing about post-World War II Germany?
I’ve been a WW2 buff since I was a kid. I’ve read tons of books about the strategies, the politics, the rise and fall of Nazi Germany, though it’s the personal accounts of the individual soldiers that are my favorites. I felt I knew a good deal about the years leading up to and during the war, but I had neglected one vital part of that turbulent era: its aftermath. My previous notions of relative order were turned upside down while I was researching the backstory of the antagonist in an earlier, now defunct, novel.
The Germans called the time just after the war Die Stunde Null, ‘The Zero Hour.’ Germany had been bombed back to the Middle Ages. Death by famine, disease and murder had replaced the bullets and bombs. Every major city and many towns and villages had sustained up to 90% damage. The entire infrastructure – railroads, bridges and industry – had been damaged or destroyed. Up to 10% of the population had perished. Close to 10 million Displaced Persons—the people brought into Germany from every conquered country to work as domestic, agricultural or industrial slaves—along with the tens of thousands of POW and concentration camp survivors were all suddenly freed and making the difficult trek home or wandering the countryside. Then came the millions of ethnic Germans expelled from Poland and the former Czechoslovakia, streaming into Germany with nothing but what they could carry and in urgent need of already scarce supplies of food and shelter. The conquering armies, the Americans, British, French and Russians, wielded ultimate power over a humbled and desperate population, and a typical soldier could barter for almost anything with a single pack of cigarettes. The black market thrived, and gangs of deserted allied soldiers, former POWs and corrupt DPs (displaced persons) roamed the countryside.
SPOILS OF VICTORY takes place in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, a picturesque town in the Bavarian Alps, with gingerbread houses on Hansel-and-Gretel lanes. But the charming facades belied what Garmisch had become those first two years after the war: the Dodge City of occupied Germany. As the Third Reich collapsed, Garmisch became the stem of the funnel for fleeing wealthy Germans and Nazi war criminals, the final depository of the Nazis’ stolen art masterpieces, gold reserves, penicillin, diamonds, uranium from the failed atomic bomb experiments, all now available for purchase on the black market. With millions of dollars to be made, murder, extortion, bribes and corruption became the norm. Add into this volatile brew, tens of thousands of bored US Army soldiers ripe for temptation, and a typical soldier could barter for almost anything with a single pack of cigarettes. The black market thrived, and gangs of deserted allied soldiers, former POWs and corrupt displaced persons roamed the countryside. Talk about fertile ground for a crime thriller!
- What do you want readers to know about your hero, Mason Collins?
Actually, Mason Collins was a villain in a previous novel (may it rest in peace on my hard drive), but I found him so compelling that I decided to make him my hero in a new novel. Despite Mason’s new status as the protagonist, I wanted him to have the potential to cross over to the dark side, to borrow a well-known phrase, which is only kept in check by a strict moral code.
Early in his detective career with the Chicago Police, Mason tries to bust a ring of corrupt cops who murdered his partner. He broke the blue code of silence by going to the district attorney, but the system turned on him, framing him for selling drugs and booting him off the force. That unjust treatment fosters Mason’s distrust and lack of respect for authority. And the experience of being a POW and interned for a short time in Buchenwald has left him bitter and disillusioned with humanity. Yet, despite those deep scars, he manages to maintain his need to right wrongs, even if it means putting himself in harm’s way.
Those two elements relentlessly weigh on Mason’s psyche, threatening to push him over the line, creating a constant clash against his values of right and wrong, his sense of justice. Mason fights the temptation to give in to those impulses, taking on life one step at a time, all the while knowing that one or two steps in the wrong direction could lead him on a very dark path. One thing I would like to explore is having him turn dark at some point in the journey, something that pushes him over the edge, and then see if he can get back again.
Finally, Ruins of War and SPOILS OF VICTORY are kind of the origin story for Mason’s future wanderings. Except for his grandmother, Mason has no family to go back to, nothing to anchor him, little to create a sense of identity except through his own convictions. He becomes like a wandering samurai, masterless, homeless, and always short of cash. In fact, Toshiro Mifune’s character in the films Yojimbo and Sanjuro were inspirations for Mason’s journey—the wandering samurai, irascible and stoic, who gets deep into trouble because of his compassion and sense of justice.
- What are you reading now? What authors influenced you?
Right now, I’m reading The Highway by C. J. Box. And I can’t wait to get my hands on Philip Kerr’s latest, The Other Side of Silence!
For my influences, they start way back to my early reading experiences, anything H. G. Wells, Jules Verne, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories as a teenager. My first foray into crime fiction was Agatha Christie, followed by Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, and Raymond Chandler. I have so many favorite authors, crime fiction and otherwise, and scores of great works have had an influence on my writing. I can say that some of the authors who influenced my approach to Ruin of War and SPOILS OF VICTORY were James Ellroy, Dennis Lehane, Nelson DeMille, Harlan Coben, not to mention Philip Kerr, and, finally, a dash of Graham Greene.
- You’ve worked as a cameraman in film and TV. What shows have influenced your writing?
The projects that have inspired me the most were the TV shows I’ve worked on: Picket Fences and The Practice by David E. Kelley, and the most influential of all, NYPD Blue. David Milch, the creator of NYPD Blue, was a significant inspiration. He was often unsatisfied with what we had just filmed, so he would break the crew and proceed to “re-write” the scene in his head. He would then wander around the empty set, analyzing a character, or dictating new action and lines of dialogue to the script supervisor. I always elected to stay on the set during those times and watch him work, and what he came up with in those spur-of-the-moment sessions always made the scene and dialogue much more powerful.
There was also executive producer of NYPD Blue, Bill Clark. He was a retired NYPD police detective and often talked to the actors about his time on the force, what really happened behind the closed doors in interrogation rooms, or the peculiar symbiotic relationships that could develop between cop and criminal. This concept of the cop/criminal relationship intrigued me so much that I just had to include it whenever I could in my stories. I learned a lot about that world just listening to Mr. Clark’s candid remarks.
Today, the questions were about John A. Connell’s background and his books, Ruins of War, and Spoils of Victory. Wait until tomorrow when we get into some personal questions! You’ll want to read how his wife describes him!
You’ll want to be at the Poisoned Pen on Saturday, March 26 at 2 PM to meet Lyndsay Faye, the author who turns Jane Eyre upside down with her novel, Jane Steele. It’s “A reimagining of Jane Eyre as a gutsy, heroic serial killer.”
See what Jane Steele says about herself.
See what critics say about Jane Steele.
You’ll definitely want to be here Saturday to hear what author Lyndsay Faye says about her character and her book, Jane Steele.
I have worked as a librarian for over thirty-five years, and have written my own blog for over eleven. I was a regular customer of the Poisoned Pen when I lived in Arizona for eight and a half years. Unfortunately, I had to leave my favorite bookstore behind when I moved to Indiana where I work as a library manager. Now, even though I’m out of town, I hope to be able to combine my love of books, authors, and the Poisoned Pen by joining the staff as the new Poisoned Pen blogger.
I hope to have guest posts from authors, interviews with some of the authors appearing at the Pen, and pictures from the events. Hopefully, I will be able to bring pictures back from New Orleans and Bouchercon, as well as other book conferences. Check back often to see the latest blog posts and news.
Thanks for reading! – Lesa Holstine
Joanne packed the house with her latest Hannah Swensen Mystery, Wedding Cake Murder. The festive evening included a faux wedding or two, a bit of the bubbly and of course a gorgeous wedding cake. We have a few copies of the book still available (sorry no cake). Stop on by and pick up a copy while they last!
An Interview with Trudy Nan Boyce
When did you decide to become a writer? As a result of some tragedies in my life I joined a creative writing group at a local fine arts center here in Atlanta. I didn’t have any intentions about writing except as an outlet for grief. The first exercise we were given was to describe following someone. I immediately connected with what some writers call a “widowed image,” of a night I was on patrol and a woman jumped out in front of my squad car, ran up to the window and ask me to help her find her man whom she had “cut.” I received a lot of encouragement about the piece and that woman’s fictional counterpart, as well as her fictional family, become central characters in what would eventually become a novel. So I guess I never really “decided” to become a writer. I just wrote.
Which authors do you most admire? In no particular order: Flannery O’Conner, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Marilynne Robinson, Kate Atkinson, Richard Price, Steinbeck, Dickens. Wait! The list will go on forever so I’ll just stop with the above.
What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishment? I am very proud of my son and his family. They are living their lives according to a high moral and ethical standard and are really fine people. But I don’t credit myself with that but I hope I made a contribution to their ability to think ethically. While I was on the police department I helped to establish some programs in the department that I was very proud of. We began a team of officers called the H.O.P.E. Team. They were a team of officers responsible for establishing relationships and acting as liaison to members of Atlanta’s homeless community, attempting to bring people into services, facilitating their coming out of homelessness. Additionally, we developed a training program for law enforcement that was designed to teach officers skills to interact with people who have a mentally illness and are in crisis, teaching de-escalation skills.
Describe the perfect day. Waking up at home in bed with my funny, smart, generous husband, we sometimes can get our big ol’ dog, Quinton, to come up between us and have a snooze for a few minutes. We get up and have our coffee and breakfast. Then I would write for two or three hours and the work would be flowing. And on a perfect day my son, my beautiful daughter-in law and my grandkids, Gabriel and Sadira would come and we’d eat lunch and go for a hike. Or if we were at the ocean we’d go to the beach and swim. Then Rick, my husband, and I would have a whiskey and I’d smoke one or two cigarettes. I love whiskey and cigarettes and on a perfect day they would be non-toxic and good for your health. Then Rick would prepare dinner as he usually does, being the cook in the family, and he and I would eat, listen to music and we talk. If we were traveling we might take a brief evening walk with Quinton, and if we’re at home we’d read or watch a documentary about music or a movie in which older people are the heroes.
Who are your heroes? Obviously Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. has had a huge impact on the lives of Americans as well as the rest of the world and I cry whenever I go to the King Center and Museum and see the wagon that carried his body through the streets of Atlanta and the small suitcase he carried to Memphis. Marilynne Robinson for her fiction that bravely and intelligently tackles religious themes. And the men and women in law enforcement everywhere. And my father.
If you hadn’t gone into law enforcement, what career would you have chosen? Ethnomusicologist, like Zora Neale Hurston or Alan and John Lomax. Or a writer of non-fiction, writing about American music like Gary Giddins, Elijah Wald, Peter Guralnick, or Robert Palmer.
What advice would you give an aspiring author? To show up almost everyday and to write before one’s internal censor takes over; write and then come back and edit.
What words do you live by? Be kind.
What makes you laugh? The unexpected, when something seems out of whack, some incongruity but then resolves in an unexpected way, delightful surprise, which can be found in the profane as well.
Describe yourself in five words. Intense, curious, persevering, communicative, focused.