The Big Thrill
Anne Rice and Michael Connelly spoke to Mary Pat Kelly at the Ninth Annual Thriller Fest a gathering of writers, editors, publishers, literary agents and fans held this summer in New York.
Anne O’Brien Rice, the mega-bestselling (a hundred million books) author who created a genre with her Interview with a Vampire has never been to Ireland but wants to go. Michael Connelly, whose books, whether they feature Los Angeles detective Harry Bosch, newspaper reporter Jack McEvoy, FBI agent Terry McCaleb, or Mickey Haller, the Lincoln lawyer, consistently hit The New York Times bestseller list and have been translated into 39 languages, says he has had some of his most fulfilling experiences as a writer in Ireland. And both trace their storytelling gifts to their Irish heritage.
The two were part of a high quotient of Irish-American writers at the Ninth Annual Thriller Fest, sponsored by the International Thrill Writers organization, and held in New York this past July.
Why this concentration? Is there something particularly Irish about thrillers? Maybe. In his keynote address, Jonathan Karp, head of Simon & Schuster, hailed Irish American Mary Higgins Clark as “The Queen of Suspense.” And certainly the old sagas had plenty of action and mystery. And the Irish seanachai looking at the faces gathered around the fire knew he had to keep the story exciting and moving forward.
“I connect to the tradition of Irish storytelling,” Connelly says. “And I think there is something; I can’t put my finger on it, something genetic there. Maybe just a need to tell stories.”
Anne Rice agrees. “I grew up in a big Irish-American family. I don’t know what it means to hear a family story that isn’t a rip-roaring tale with a beginning, middle and an end and a lot of suspense. That was what was in my blood. I’m from New Orleans and people don’t realize how Irish New Orleans is. My whole family dramatized events in a beautiful and good way just in normal conversation.”
Yet like many Irish Americans, neither Rice nor Connelly have visited the exact place in Ireland where their ancestors began.
“I’m one hundred percent Irish,” Connelly says, “and I’m very proud that I’m Irish American though I don’t know exactly where my ancestors came from. I just know County Cork. I have siblings who have gone back to more specific places, but I love that Ireland’s so welcoming. I’ve had some of my favorite times and biggest turnouts for events in Ireland. One in particular comes to mind. I read in Belfast and was just shocked by this huge crowd of people that came to hear me talk about a detective who is all the way over in Los Angeles. They were willing to try to make sense of his world. For my stories to intrigue and touch people so far away, who are also the people I somehow come from, was amazingly fulfilling. I recognized names from my family. We’ve Scahans, McEvoys, McGraths and Connellys. My grandparents were all born in the U.S., but their parents came from Ireland. So this reception really moved me. There was a ‘Welcome Home, Son’ feeling to it.”
Connelly smiled at the memory and then recalled his first time in Ireland. He was to do a book signing at Eason’s in Dublin.
“Now, no writer wants to go to an event where no one shows up. I didn’t think I was very well known in Ireland. So I said, ‘Can’t I just stop by the store around eleven on a weekday and sign whatever stock they have?’ But Eason’s had spread the word that I was going to be there, and there was a long line of people waiting for me. Then I felt bad and thought I should have scheduled something more formal. But I talked to each person as they came through the line. Even met the writer John Connelly’s mom. A real shocking and obviously wonderful experience.”
It is an experience awaiting Anne O’Brien Rice, though her family history seems lost in a distant past.
“My people were working people and history tended to disappear pretty fast. I remember once asking about my great-grandfather John Curry, what had his parents done for a living? There wasn’t a single living relative who had any idea. I heard stories about various things. But I could never pin it down,” she remembers. “I don’t even know what counties they came from. I heard that some of my people sailed on ‘coffin ships’ and they came down through Canada. Others came directly to New Orleans. But these were all people who came to work at hard labor. So a lot of them died young. There was a high infant mortality rate. Their history just disappeared as if it was written in water.”
Connelly preserved a bit of his family history by giving one character, Jack McEvoy, his mother’s maiden name.
“There are just tons of McEvoy cousins including Jack McEvoys in my family. I also used McCaleb, my wife’s maiden name, and Michael Haller is called Mickey or Mick a lot.”
Another Irish-American influence for Connelly was Mickey Spillane. Connelly’s family moved from Philadelphia to Fort Lauderdale, Florida when he was twelve. He discovered that the boys left the baseball field during the hottest part of the afternoon to go to the air conditioned library. The more traditional books did not interest him, but there was a rack of Mickey Spillane crime novels that caught his attention.
“I was mesmerized,” he remembers.
Both Connelly, who attended St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale, and Rice received their early education in Catholic schools. She has helped restore her alma mater St. Alphonsus School and Church as a kind of thank you.
“I think being a Catholic is a really a deep cultural thing,” she says. “I was born Catholic from a long line of Catholics and I grew up in an intensely Catholic city, in an intensely Catholic neighborhood. We were always talking about Rome and wanting to go to Italy. And people we knew went on pilgrimages. To this day people from New Orleans go to Medjugorje to see the place where the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared. And of course when I was little, the mass was still in Latin. I loved having the Latin-English missal, following the mass in Latin and learning the Latin of the main body of the mass. That was a wonderful thing.
“The saints that we talked about in school, whose lives we read – were Europeans and because of that, I always felt connected to Europe. Later when I became a writer, I responded to those writers in America who had been influenced by European voices. Writers like Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne, say, as opposed to Mark Twain. I responded to that kind of influence.
Anne Rice’s books Christ The Lord: Out Of Egypt and Christ The Lord: The Road to Cana directly expressed her interest in religion. Though she says she also imbibed a certain anti-clerical spirit in New Orleans too. “I’m fascinated by Celtic spirituality,” she says. “Another reason why, though I’ve never been to Ireland, I would love to go.”
She pauses. “I owe a debt to the cosmos that I was born Irish Catholic in New Orleans. It’s contributed so much to whoever I am, whatever I’ve done and whatever I’ve written,” she concludes.
For Connelly going to Ireland had many dimensions. “Beyond whether I’m Irish or not, when I go to Ireland it underlines for me the power and importance of storytelling and how we need it. On the one hand I write entertainment. I write puzzles and mysteries. Nothing too highfalutin. But then if you go to a place thousands of miles across an ocean and you have a room full of people who express concern for your characters or what’s going to happen to Harry Bosch next, it really bangs home the strength and need of storytelling forces as a society and as a world society. And so that’s been part of the most fulfilling stuff that has happened to me. And a lot of it comes from my trips to Ireland.”
Perhaps the last word on the Irish-American/Thriller Fest connection comes from Thomas Patrick Doherty, founder and publisher of Tom Doherty Associates, now part of Macmillan, who publishes books with the Tor/Forge imprints, and Robert Gleason, his senior editor and author.
Under his Forge imprint, Doherty publishes Irish-themed books by Andrew Greeley, Morgan Llewelyn, Patrick Taylor and this writer. He chose the Forge name to echo the Irish blacksmith, pounding away, opening a “door in the dark” to quote Seamus Heaney. His Tor books have been publishing science fiction for a generation. “These stories are meant to stir the imagination,” Doherty says.
Robert Gleason, whose own books End of Days and Nuclear Terrorist certainly force readers to think about the unthinkable has seen firsthand the effects science fiction can have on the imagination.
“We have astronauts and NASA scientists that arrive in our office as if they were pilgrims coming to a sacred site. They tell us a book published by Tor first led them to imagine themselves in space.”
Tom Doherty describes how NASA approached him and asked if they could pair a NASA scientist with a Tor writer to produce science fiction that might inspire young people today to make the impossible, possible.
“We recently released our first NASA-inspired work of fiction, Pillar to the Sky by William Forstchen,” Doherty says. “Two NASA scientists, a married couple, figure out a way to build an elevator to space. The science is there. With such an elevator, we could hook up solar panels that could provide limitless energy to our planet. Possibly end global warming. Maybe some young person will read this book and end up leading the team that launches the space elevator.”
I left Thriller Fest convinced that Irish-American storytellers not only thrill and entertain but they might just be able to save the planet. Too highfalutin? Maybe not. Never underestimate the power of the Irish imagination.