Author Michael Connelly

Best-selling mystery writer tells Tavis why he fictionalizes real world events in his writing.

Described as "one of the best of his kind," Michael Connelly has known since his University of Florida college days that he'd be a mystery writer. His books consistently land on best-seller lists, and he's also written for TV. He previously worked the newspaper crime beat and was on a Pulitzer-nominated team for coverage of an airline crash, honing his fiction skills in his spare time. Connelly's legal thriller, The Lincoln Lawyer, was adapted as a major motion picture, and he brings back Mickey Haller in his new release, The Fifth Witness.



Tavis: Pleased to welcome Michael Connelly back to this program. His nearly two dozen books have sold over 20 million copies in the U.S. alone. One of his recent novels, “The Lincoln Lawyer,” is now in theaters across the country.
Starting today, though, you can pick up his latest book. It’s called “The Fifth Witness.” Michael, as always, good to see you on this set, sir.
Michael Connelly: Thanks for having me back.
Tavis: My honor to have you back. So Matthew McConaughey can still deliver a good closing argument, huh?
Connelly: He does in this film, yeah, he’s very good. He really captured the character in the book.
Tavis: The film that’s out now with McConaughey, what do you make of it? I ask that because I’ve read in the – I know you’ve optioned a number of your movies; we’ve all seen a couple of them, and I’ve read, at least, in the past that you’re not always thrilled with what they do with your stuff, even though you option it. So what do you think of this one?
Connelly: Well, usually, yeah, the script, when it gets to the script that usually kills a project or not. In this case they had a good script so I had high hopes for it, and when McConaughey became involved my hopes increased, because I had seen him in a film where – not necessarily a film where he played a lawyer, which he’s done before, but another film where he played a Hollywood agent, and I saw some of the same similarities. So I was pretty happy, and right now with the film I really could not be happier.
Tavis: The cast on this thing is pretty amazing. It’s Matthew, it’s Marissa Tomei, it’s a great cast here.
Connelly: They come through the film at different times. You’re an hour into the film before you even see someone like Bryan Cranston, so it’s just a great ride and very loyal to the book – kind of the gritty realism of L.A. that I hope was in the book.
Tavis: Just because I’m curious, when you write these books and you option the rights and somebody is brought in to do the screenplay, are there things that you get a chance to say don’t touch this, don’t touch that; if you touch this, if you touch that, it’s going to – do you have any say-so in that at all?
Connelly: Not really. You have all the control in the world when you pick who you’re going to give it to, so I did the due diligence, I spoke with the producers and so forth. The main producer on this movie, Tom Rosenberg, had been a trial attorney. He had lived this life, so that really kind of won me over. He was going to – he promised me he would keep the realism that was in the book, and I think he did that.
Just by coincidence, he hired a screenwriter who was a friend of mine, so there was a good working relationship all the way from the beginning.
Tavis: You’ve optioned about 10 of these, so how does that work? You never know when these things may actually come to life?
Connelly: No. The only one that I knew for sure was Clint Eastwood optioned one of my books I guess about 12 years ago, and he says, “You’re not going to hear from me, but in about five years I’m going to make this,” and almost five years to the day he made the movie.
Tavis: That’s an amazing story. Since we’re name-dropping Clint Eastwood, I hear that because of one of your books you ended up befriending a great artist named Eric Clapton. I love Eric Clapton.
Connelly: Oh, yeah, yeah.
Tavis: So tell me how you and Clapton became friends. This is a great story.
Connelly: It is name-dropping. (Laughter)
Tavis: That was me. That was me doing that, not you.
Connelly: No, no, but music is very important in the books, and even though you can’t hear it, it’s a weird thing – I think if people know the music then they guess something about the character. If they don’t, it might make them intrigued.
So Mickey Haller, who’s in this book, a few books back I mentioned Eric Clapton and the next thing you know I get an email through my website from someone claiming they’re Eric Clapton, saying thanks for mentioning me in your books, and I like your books.
So very cautiously I pursued that, saying if you’re the real Eric Clapton, I want to tell you I first started listening to your music back in 1969 in a garage where we could play it loud, and you mean a lot to me. That led to finally meeting him once at the Hollywood Bowl.
But until I actually was allowed to go back into the green room and meet him, I thought this could be a big prank, this could be anything. (Laughter) But then I finally met him and we’ve met a few times since then, and he’s been very supportive of the book. He’s mentioned in this book.
Tavis: He shows up again in “The Fifth Witness.”
Connelly: Yeah, yeah, and you can even listen to some of his music, download some of his music from my website, so we’re kind of doing a cross purposes thing there.
Tavis: Do you recall, when you mentioned Clapton, what you were trying to get us to understand about the character in reference to his music?
Connelly: Well, Mickey Haller had issues with addiction and so he was having a conversation with one of his clients, who also had issues with addiction, about where they had gone from rehab. One client mentioned Crossroads, which is the place in Antigua that Eric Clapton has started. It was that reference there, kind of a shared experience.
Tavis: Since you mention Mickey Haller, Mickey Haller is, of course, in this book, “The Fifth Witness.” The last time you were here a few years ago it was for, as I recall, “The Closers,” and that’s Harry Bosch.
Connelly: Right, right.
Tavis: Okay, so this is – Mickey’s his half-brother.
Connelly: Yeah, yeah.
Tavis: So without giving it away, the storyline in “The Fifth Witness” is?
Connelly: Well, it kind of comes from what’s going on in the world today. We’ve had an economic downturn, and people like Mickey Haller, who are paid criminal defense, private criminal defense, are not getting a lot of work. What happens when we have an economic downturn like this is the public defender’s office gets overcrowded because people don’t have money for private attorneys.
So Mickey’s scrambling around, trying to make a living, and goes into foreclosure defense, which is the growth industry, unfortunately, in the legal profession. So it’s really about Mickey starting over and going into helping people try to hang on to their homes or trying to negotiate with banks and so forth, and out of that a criminal case does bloom.
One of his clients, a woman who’s having her home foreclosed on, is accused of killing a banker who’s behind the foreclosure.
Tavis: This is not the first time, obviously, you’ve done this. What is it about what’s happening in the real world that you want to grab a hold to and then fictionalize?
Connelly: Well, I’m trying to keep myself interested as an artist, and I think that should always have a higher game. These are mysteries, these are puzzles, entertainments, and of course, that’s the big priority. But if I can bring another thing into it, a mirror, and look at a little bit of what’s going on in society, that’s what I want to do.
This one, I kind of fell into because I used some real attorneys as research on these books, and one of them had to go this route. He said, “I lost pretty much all my work, all my business in the criminal defense field was going away, so I went into foreclosure defense.”
So I kind of traveled with him into this world in researching it, and found it pretty fascinating because it’s one of these cases where everybody’s either at fault, greed is everywhere in this kind of situation, and then there’s also people that are legitimately victimized in this.
Tavis: I think you just started to answer it and I want to just go a little further, though – of all the things that are happening in a contemporary sense around us or to us, you chose the mortgage crisis. I think you just started laying out some of the reasons why, but tell me more about why that intrigues you, what’s happening to people vis-à-vis this mortgage crisis.
Connelly: Well, I just think it’s going to have a wave that’s going to affect our country for years to come. Yet it’s somewhat of a dry subject, so I was thinking in terms of if I could find a way of explaining it from all sides. I don’t want to be didactic, I don’t want to make a judgment, I just want to say this is what’s happening in our world, do you know that?
From that, if I can build what I do, a crime story, a mystery story, then that’s what I want to do. I don’t want to make any judgment and say, like, all the bankers are crooked or anything like that. That’s not really where my place is.
Tavis: But when the character is accused of killing the banker, aren’t you making a statement then?
Connelly: I’m making a statement of where frustrations and so forth are heading towards. I’ve had some experience in my own life where I’ve been in a house where they hammer up the foreclosure notice on the front porch, and so I’ve had personal experience with it and so it’s something that I’ve been paying attention to as this has happened in our country.
Tavis: Tell me more about when you get this idea, the kind of research that you specifically put into making this as real as you possibly can, even though it’s a fictional version.
Connelly: I call it anecdotal research. I spend a lot of time with the attorneys that are doing this thing, and maybe it’s because I had a background as a newspaper reporter, but I kind of just sit back and listen and I wait for the stories that I think I can do something with, just little anecdotal stories.
They all have multiple, multiple cases and they’ll talk about one – like I found out this one, the notary, I looked at the notary seal and realized the date was phony. It could not have been the date that was on there, so I knew that this entire foreclosure was a fraud and I was able to help that person stay in their house, and I had all the leverage and the bank had to renegotiate with me. Little victories like that I’ve kind of sprinkled through the book.
Tavis: To your point now, your having been a crime reporter, for the “L.A. Times,” no less, I assume has immeasurably helped you in telling the kinds of stories you tell.
Connelly: Oh, yeah. You and I wouldn’t be sitting here, I’m telling you that. I had to do that. I was a reporter for about 14 years, and I look at it as 14 years of research for these books because it kind of put me into these worlds, never mind how it taught me how to write, gave me the craft and the work ethic of writing every day, but it really is an entre into the worlds that I write about and seeing the real people do it.
If I bring anything to my books, hopefully it’s a realism. I’m not a lawyer, so I spend time with lawyers. I’m not a cop, so I spend time with cops. But I try to make these stories as bulletproof as possible in terms of the reality of them.
Tavis: Tell me more about the connection or disconnection, as it were, between having been a reporter where your job is to tell what is real and how that training aids and abets you in telling stuff that you make up.
Connelly: Right. Well, I think there’s that adage about if you want to know the facts, read the newspaper; if you want to know the truth, read a novel. (Laughter) A novel gives you so much freedom to go into people’s minds, what they’re thinking and so forth.
Take this book, for example. The woman is accused of killing the banker who signed the – she never even met him, but he signed all the papers on her foreclosure. If that was a real story, that’s what you’d get, just those kind of facts, that he was taking away her house.
But in this book we can get into how she viewed it, the frustration she had, the background of the banker’s life and what he was doing. It’s just a bigger picture, and sure, this is fiction, but I think it also brings a strong reality, almost a personal-level story, of this gigantic, big issue that is like a big cloud over this whole country.
Tavis: I want to close our conversation by coming back to some of your work but not the written work, not even the work that we see on the big screen, like the Matthew McConaughey film now, but about your own cameos.
Connelly: Oh.
Tavis: So for those who are fans of the TV show “Castle,” you pop up every now and again on the TV show. How’d that happen, and are you having fun doing it?
Connelly: Oh, I’m definitely having fun doing it. It just kind of came from Stephen Cannell, one of the writers, who is kind of like the godfather of that show. He worked on so many shows and creating so many shows. Many of the younger people that worked with him years ago are involved in this show and so they kind of brought him in, and they came up with this idea of a poker game.
Castle is a writer on the show, and a poker game, they bring in real writers. I’m on one next week, and it’s just a lot of fun. You play yourself but they give you the lines, and sometimes there’s stuff that I don’t know if I’d really actually say to somebody, (laughter) but it’s cool when you’re just acting.
Tavis: Well, you come from behind the pages now on the screen yourself.
Connelly: Right.
Tavis: So you can catch Michael Connelly or his work just about everywhere these days. You can catch him in the movie theater with “The Lincoln Lawyer” project out now, again, starring Matthew McConaughey, you can catch him on “Castle” next week, as you just heard, playing himself, or you can read his new text. It’s called “The Fifth Witness.” Michael Connelly, good to have you on the program. Thanks for coming by.
Connelly: (Unintelligible)
Tavis: My pleasure.
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Last modified: August 4, 2011 at 12:40 pm