The newspaper reporter-turned-mystery writer explains his upcoming documentary and his return to the Harry Bosch novel series with The Black Box.
Crime writer Michael Connelly
Tavis: Pleased to welcome Michael Connelly back to this program. As I mentioned at the top, this year marks his 20th anniversary as a best-selling author and 20 years of his famous fictional detective, Harry Bosch. The latest novel in the Bosch series is called “The Black Box” which is set in South L.A. during the riots of 1992.
More on that in a moment, but first he’s also out next year with a new documentary called “Sound of Redemption: The Frank Morgan Project.” Here now just a slight preview of “Sound of Redemption.”
Tavis: We’ll get to “The Black Box,” but tell me about that Black man, Frank Morgan.
Michael Connelly: Well, as they say there, Frank has a wonderful story. I got to know him a little bit before he passed away a few years back and he overcame a lot to make beautiful music. He was pretty well-known within the jazz world, but I don’t think enough people know his story and that was the impetus to try to put together a film about him.
Tavis: Give me just a snippet of his life and the story line that draws a guy like you to want to produce a documentary film.
Connelly: Well, he was the heir apparent to Charlie “Bird” Parker. His first record came out in 1955 and he went down a bad path, got into drugs and then the crime to support drug habits and ended up spending about 28 years in prison and, between that first album and the second one, 30 years went by. And when he came back, he didn’t blame anybody. He came out a gentle soul with a message that don’t take the path I took.
You know, he used music to survive the pressures and so forth, but don’t go down that path. You know, he worked the clubs and all that stuff, but he always stopped and told his story whenever he got a chance, and he did this with me a few times. He would talk to kids about it and, you know, that’s a story we’ve heard before. But, man, this guy lived a tough life and he overcame it and left behind great stuff.
Tavis: After 28 years in prison, though, he comes out; he still has the capacity to blow?
Connelly: Yeah, because he spent a lot of time in San Quentin where they have the San Quentin Jazz All Stars, an ongoing band. It’s still up there now, where guys get together and play every Saturday night and there was some really remarkable jazz artists in there with him at different times. So he really kept it tight.
Tavis: He’s referenced in your work, of course. How did the two of you come together, though?
Connelly: Well, he is referenced in my work. I write about Harry Bosch who’s overcome his own obstacles to do what he has to do and he loves jazz. I would pick artists that have the same kind of journey in a way. So his favorite guy is Frank and I guess that got into him. He found out about it.
We had some mutual friends that put us together and then, from there, he had this idea of going to music colleges and bringing his message as well as have a master class in saxophone. So we did that. We just started doing that and he got sick and passed away. So in a way, this film will hopefully do what his idea was in going to these schools.
Tavis: This for theatrical release?
Connelly: We’re not sure yet. We want to see what we got. But, obviously, that would be the best thing. But it will get out there, you know, in DVD and Video on Demand and so forth so people who are interested will be able to see it.
Tavis: I’ll look forward to that. I’ll look forward to it. Let me jump to the book now, “The Black Box.” When I saw the title of the book, I thought, as you might imagine, oh, an airplane crash [laugh].
Connelly: Right, right.
Tavis: I’m not laughing about airplane crashes. I’m thinking an airplane crash that Harry Bosch is going to investigate, but that’s not what the black box is.
Connelly: Well, it’s a metaphoric stretch of that. I mean, Harry Bosch believes that, as you say, the black box is the thing that holds all the information, all the flight aeronautics and so forth, so if there is a crash, they can figure out what happened.
Harry Bosch thinks there’s a black box, that metaphorically there’s something at every crime scene that will tell him what happened and can lead him to the evildoer, if you will, and that’s his job to look for the black box.
Tavis: So I always do this when you come on and today is no different. I will let you set the backdrop for what this story is ’cause I don’t want to tell too much and give the story away.
Connelly: Sure. Well, as you said, I was aware of the anniversaries, 20 years of Harry Bosch and I have 25 novels. So I wanted this one to somehow encapsulate the 20 years. So you go back to 1992, you’re looking for a starting point. You pretty much stop at the end of April because this city had that momentous thing happen with the riots that followed the Rodney King case verdict.
So I built a story out of that, one of the many unsolved murders from the riots Harry Bosch worked on back then. Because of the events that were occurring there, he was unable to find the black box. He was unable to solve that case and, 20 years later, 2012, he goes back and hopefully brings justice to the case.
Tavis: You were writing for the L.A. Times at the time of the riots, so you wrote about the riots for the L.A. Times.
Tavis: What do you make, looking back on that moment – let me step aside from the book now and come into Michael Connelly’s real life. What do you make looking back on that moment?
Connelly: Well, it was probably the most surrealistic moment, but also maybe the most important moment for me as a reporter. I was a reporter for a few more years after that and then I was off to writing books. But in the 14 years, I mean, I love this city. To see what happened to it, to be surprised by what happened to it, it was a good lesson learned and not understanding the pressures that were underneath the surface of this town and it, you know, makes you think about it.
It’s a question in the book. 20 years later, how far have we come? Could it happen again if the right circumstances are there? You know, it’s something I think about. It’s come up in my books in little pieces until now it’s kind of a big piece. So, in a way, this is me writing about something that’s close to me.
Tavis: How much longer were you at the Times after the riots before you took off to write books fulltime?
Connelly: Just two more years.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah. Was there something that happened in that two years? There had to be something, of course, but what happened, more accurately, in that two-year period that made you know the time was ripe to jump?
Connelly: Well, you know what it was is I took a leave of absence. It was only a three-month leave of absence to continue my writing and, during that time of fulltime focus on my books, I saw a very big improvement and I realized, you know, I can’t really have a foot in both camps if I want to do one or the other very well. You know, I saw this opening that I could hopefully have a career as a novelist, so I left one behind for the other.
Tavis: When you say you saw improvement, I guess nobody critiques your stuff the way you do.
Tavis: What did you see that…
Connelly: I think I saw a more cohesive effort. You know, I was writing by day. I was a reporter by day and coming home and doing it part-time and it was difficult to maintain a smooth focus through a book. And I think the book that I was writing at that time also shifted more through the basis of being plot-oriented to character-oriented.
Any writer would rather dig into character than, you know, dig into fancy plots and so forth. It’s really about character and I saw that focus and I had to keep it.
Tavis: How did Harry Bosch become your guy? I think of all the things that could have been created in your head. How did he become your guy?
Connelly: I think it’s because he has this bottom line or basic idea about fairness that connects to me, it connects to readers. You know, he has this code, everybody counts or nobody counts. It sounds pretty simple, but it’s an idealistic view of the world that’s very hard to, I think, keep going.
So his efforts to always kind of follow that code, I think, have made him – he’s certainly endearing to me because of that and hopefully that’s what translates to the readers.
Tavis: What’s your approach? Everybody does it differently, but what’s your approach when you’re addressing subject matter where race is at the epicenter like it was in these riots, of course?
Connelly: Well, I think you never want to be didactic. You don’t want to answer questions. I think you want to put stuff out there. This book has a lot of situations where politics intrudes into investigation and then you have Harry who’s just Mister Relentless saying what’s politics have to do with justice? So you subtly build a story that touches on these things, but doesn’t make any grand statements.
I trust the readers to be smart enough to see what’s going on, to have internal discussion about it. Is this right? Is this the way we want to go? Is this reflective of our society now?
Tavis: Are there Harry Bosches out there? Put another way, is he a has-been or is a never-were? Were there never guys like him? He’s a just a figment of your imagination or are there people out there like him today?
Connelly: I think the answer is yes to both. Harry Bosch is a conglomerate of, I think, good aspects of detectives I’ve met over the years as a reporter and just as a novelist. A lot of doors have opened up to me, so I see aspects of him in real people, you know, people who take the case in. It’s not a nine-to-five job. It’s a mission.
To Harry Bosch, this is a mission and there are people out there who hold it as a mission. But Harry also bends rules and all those things and that’s the exaggeration because I think guys like that, they’ll act out or they’ll break the rules, but they’re not going to get very many chances to keep doing it.
I’m lucky. Harry Bosch has been around for 18 books now and I don’t know if a real Harry Bosch could have lasted through that many years and that many stories.
Tavis: Speaking of mission, Michael, what has been your mission with Harry Bosch and has that mission changed over the 20 years you’ve been writing about him?
Connelly: Well, I’ve been given an amazing opportunity. I just can’t believe it as a writer that I can keep writing about this guy. He ages in real time against a city that’s evolving in real time. So the longer it goes on, the more I feel it’s sacred and something I have to really preserve and do my best with because it’s almost like a duty now because these books, as Harry gets older and so forth, they really reflect what’s happening in our society.
So I want to get that right. I want to raise the right questions, hold up the mirror in the right angles and so forth. So it really has gone from being, boy, I hope I get a book published to I have to make sure I take care of this opportunity I’ve been given.
Tavis: So what does Harry Bosch or the books about Harry or where Harry’s at the epicenter of the text, what’s that say to us about the way this city of Los Angeles is or has evolved?
Connelly: Well, I think the fact that this has lasted 20 years shows that this place is constantly in momentum. You know, I can really take the experience of writing and reading and attribute it to what’s going on in our city here. It’s constantly changing, it’s different.
What is interesting 15 years ago is gone now and that’s because Harry Bosch moves on and we see all these aspects. I think he remains interesting and the city remains interesting to me and I would say most of the people who live here.
Tavis: 20 years ago, L.A. was a microcosm of the world in terms of its ethnic and cultural makeup. It is more so even now in the city. I was just out at LAUSD the other day. There are 100 different languages spoken in our school system, 100 different languages spoken in LAUSD.
So to the rhetorical question you raised earlier, let me ask it as an actual. Could this riot thing happen again in this city and, if so, what might be the rationale for that? Would it be a police beating again of an ethnic individual? What might bring that on?
Connelly: Well, I think we’ve gone through 20 years of reforms and 20 years of trying to better communication between police and all our societies and reforming the police, and I think that’s gone a long way towards answering that question of could that happen again.
Obviously, I think the police department is held in better stead than it was 20 years ago, but I think what is lost is the verdicts that set this off were already matched, the kindling was already there. A lot of it had to do with economics and the lack of opportunities. So that concerns me a little bit ’cause we’ve been going through a difficult time in our economy and, hopefully, it’s channeling up again.
So that holds me back from saying, oh, this would never happen again. The other thing that holds me back from saying it is that I don’t think it was expected to happen 20 years ago and people were caught flatfooted. The police department, the media, everybody, I think, was surprised. So if it happened and surprised us then, you know, we have to be very careful that we don’t let it happen again.
Tavis: Big city politics do matter in this country and they make national news every day. It could be New York, it could be Chicago, it could be L.A. Has the political scene changed in this city dramatically in 20 years?
Connelly: I think so. I mean, I like to write about politics within the police department. I think that’s certainly changed. I mean, on one hand, the department has always had an idea or knowledge that their image is out there. But I think there was a time, especially back 20 years ago, where they didn’t really care about what that image is and now they do.
So that idea of politics, what we’re presenting to the world, not just Los Angeles, is certainly something that’s in this book and other books I’ve written. But as far as the big picture, you know, of politics, I hesitate to act like I’m any kind of expert on it. But, you know, politics are politics.
Tavis: Let me get personal with you for a second if I can. I’ve mentioned a couple of times already that this is your 20th anniversary. We’re in just a matter of weeks about to start our 10th anniversary of this show.
Connelly: Wow, congratulations.
Tavis: Thank you, and congrats to you as well. You’ve been on this program a number of times over that 10-year period. What do you make of the fact that you have been able to sustain not just your work, but this character for two decades now?
Connelly: [Laugh] I don’t know what to make of it. To me, there’s something mystical about it. You know, it’s really about – see, once a year, I have a blank screen and I need 100,000 words and it says zero words there and I got to figure out which character is going to sustain me. Time after time, Harry Bosch is the no-brainer answer.
Now why that is, I don’t know. I think it’s because of the way he looks at the city. It sounds like a contradiction, but he’s cynical but hopeful about the future of this place, about himself. I share stuff with him. We both have teenage daughters who are the same age. That keeps me plugged in with him because I’m sharing my experiences with him.
It’s just about changing from book to book. The character can never be static from book to book. People might think you just come up with a new plot and stick this guy in. Well, he has to be as new as the plot every time I write about him.
Tavis: We know and we can read how Harry has changed over the years, but how has Harry changed you over the years?
Connelly: I think Harry has gone from a guy who had a very black and white view of almost anything, the world justice, his views on guilt and so forth, and he’s kind of – the edges have been sanded down over 20 years because of some tough experiences, personal experiences as well as cases. So I think he sees the world as more in terms of gray, and I think I’ve made that journey with him.
Tavis: Every detective eventually retires. How or when will you know whether it’s time to retire Harry?
Connelly: Well, I hate to say it, but it’s coming up soon. I made that decision 20 years ago, if I can write a few of these books, I would have him age in real time so I could put him against the evolution of a city in real time, never realizing or never thinking or even being presumptuous to think he’d be around 20 years.
But he’s made it 20 years and he’s aged 20 years and, right now, he actually has a birthday in that book. He’s 62, so you live by the sword, die by the sword. The realism I’ve tried to put into this series dictates that he’s got like, you know, two years left and then something will pivot and we’ll do something else with him.
Tavis: Does that scare you as a writer or does that excite you as a writer?
Connelly: It does both. I love filling in his history, but I’ve been busy with the forward progression of his life. When he turns in his gun and his badge, that gives me a lot of freedom to go back and fill in the blanks and that’s exciting.
But at the same time, it’s like an old coat that you like to wear. It’s very comfortable doing what I’ve been doing with him, so it’s a little bit scary. But, you know, you should face challenges all the time or else it’s not worth it.
Tavis: Is there another – we know what you can do in this genre. You’ve done it well, 45 million books sold over these 20 years. Is there another genre that even remotely interests you as much as this?
Connelly: I don’t know about genre. You know, Frank Morgan, part of going into this film and meeting a lot of the people who knew him, it’s very esoteric. I don’t know how the conception of this will be, but I would like to write what would be called a jazz story. Not have a crime in it, have music in it. There’s some kind of connection between writing and music.
I don’t outline my books, so I’m an improviser. Frank Morgan, I’ve seen him improvise. You know, you take the framework of a song that we recognize, but he goes off with it. There’s connections there and I think I would like to explore that in a novel.
Tavis: Have you been a jazz head for a while?
Connelly: Well, 20 years, I guess you could say, a little bit longer. I decided Harry Bosch should have a musical identity. I wanted it to be jazz. It wasn’t my music. I was kind of blues and rock and roll. I was a reporter, though, so I knew what to find for him and knew to get the people who would advise me on what Harry would listen to.
So you can’t do it all as research and not let the music get in. So it’s grown on me and I’m probably – not probably – I know I’m listening to more jazz than anything else right now.
Tavis: And what has the exposure to that music done for you?
Connelly: Well, I think it’s been inspirational. I mean, it’s also just on a practical level something I can listen to while I write because, without the lyrics, there’s no intrusion. It’s just this wonderful music. Like Harry Bosch, I connect to more than the music. I’m real particular about people I listen to. I like their own stories, I like to know the story behind the music and somehow that makes it more meaningful to me.
Tavis: You mentioned a moment you can listen to it while you write. What is your – I don’t know that I’ve ever asked you this. What’s your writing process? You go in a room, lock yourself down, put on some jazz? How’s that work for you?
Connelly: Kind of like that. I have a room I call the cave because I like…
Tavis: [Laugh] Every guy calls his room the cave. Every guy’s got a man cave.
Connelly: No, this is really like a cave. I can hit a button and the shades come down and it becomes pitch black. What I like to do is write by one lamp. I started 20 years ago, I wrote in a walk-in closet and I had a lamp in there. You know, I got lucky. My first book got published. So I’m trying to recreate that same experience.
I’m very lucky. I got more fortune that I deserve, but I still go back to trying to create a dark atmosphere with one light. It’s actually the same lamp I’ve had for 20 years over my right shoulder.
Tavis: Different bulb, though [laugh].
Connelly: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Tavis: I assume – I hear you in the telling of the story, I assume that those surroundings, that lamp, does something for you, being in that space.
Connelly: Oh, yeah, especially the darkness. Everything outside is gone, you know. Whatever the pressures or whatever, they all go away and it’s all about you. I write on a laptop. It’s you and that screen and it’s a solitary mission, but it’s great work if you can get it, and I’m lucky enough to have it at the moment. It totally just cranks down the focus on what I’m doing.
Tavis: 20 years ago, you weren’t typing on a laptop, though. How’s technology changed your…
Connelly: I was on a really bulky, you know, computer, but it was a computer still.
Tavis: So you’ve never written longhand?
Connelly: No, no. Right out of school on my first job with a newspaper was the year computers flooded newspaper, so I’ve never had that experience of writing professionally on anything other than a computer.
Tavis: We talked about the Frank Morgan project as a documentary. Obviously, your stuff has been made into film. The last time you were here, I think you were here talking about “The Lincoln Lawyer” with Matthew McConaughey. You were pleased with that?
Connelly: Yeah, very pleased. They did a great job.
Tavis: Is there more of that in the offing, you think?
Connelly: Well, it took a long time, but I finally got the rights of Harry Bosch back. He was tied up for more than 10 years, so during those 10 years, I wrote a lot of books, so there’s a lot of material. I think the best way to serve that character would be through television, so I’ve got some partnerships going and we’re developing a television show.
Tavis: It’d be a series?
Connelly: Yeah, yeah. And everything in Hollywood is a big if, but if it’s gonna happen, it’s gonna happen pretty soon.
Tavis: So what do you imagine – I kind of hit on this earlier, but as I close our conversation down here, what do you imagine will happen to Harry Bosch a couple years from now or you have no idea?
Connelly: I don’t think too far ahead normally, but I’m kind of forced into it. He’s got a 16-year-old daughter in there who has an understanding of her father’s mission. You can tell she wants to continue that mission. She’s pretty young now, so I’m thinking more in terms of five, six, seven years down the road the series might shift to the daughter.
Tavis: Wow, cool. Does it seem like 20 years for you?
Connelly: No [laugh]. Does it seem like 10 for you?
Tavis: Yes [laugh].
Connelly: 10 long ones?
Tavis: 10 long ones [laugh]. No, it’s been a great ride. I’m like you. I haven’t quite hit 20 yet, but I’ve never done anything in my life longer than, you know, a few years here or there because I get bored pretty easily. For that matter, ask the people at PBS, I don’t even sign contracts that are longer than a year long.
Not everybody has that luxury, but I’ve been that way from the very beginning. Of course, there are a lot of deals I didn’t get because I wouldn’t sign a multi-year deal, but I just don’t like being tied down in multi-year deals.
So I do a one-year deal. At the end of that year, I decide whether or not I feel like coming back for another year. I just didn’t know it’d be 10 years, but I’m loving it and so are you. The new book from Michael Connelly, perennial New York Times best-seller, is called “The Black Box,” the latest in the Harry Bosch series. Michael, good to have you on.
Connelly: Thanks for having me.
Tavis: Congratulations. That’s our show for tonight. You can download our app in the iTunes App Store. We’ll see you back here next time on PBS. Until then, goodnight from L.A., thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.
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