Joseph Connolly: The master of contriving a cunning escape
- Credit: Nigel Sutton
The first Joseph Connolly novel I read, when I was 14, was his classic dark comedy This Is It and I have counted him amongst my literary influences ever since.
Fitting then, that the novel we are now meeting to discuss all these years later, Boys and Girls (his 12th), marks his return to those earlier darkly comic escapades.
As we start our interview, Connolly is charmingly keen for reassurance about revisiting this element of his work. “Does it work?” he asks. “Is it funny?” I reassure him it does and it is – I have been cackling to myself on the tube as I remember the highlights. Starting out from the comic proposition of a woman deciding she wants another husband – not instead of, as well as, her existing one – the novel carries on to deliver classic comic reversals, humorous point of view shifts, some excellent observational humour, and wonderful coined phrases (the best of which are probably too risqué to quote here).
Given Connolly’s previous, moodier novels, in the middle years, why did he decide to treat this as a comedy? My current novel is about a writer who believes he has to research everything in order to write about it. That could have been a comedy, but the character is a crime writer, so it’s a thriller. Was he not tempted to go darker? “Boys and Girls could have been a tragedy,” agrees Connolly. “The husband could have been so outraged and insulted that it led to, say, murder, but I wanted to go back to the novels I used to write, to do a real contemporary comedy.” Does he laugh out loud when he writes comedy? “I’d be worried if I didn’t,” he says. “Humour is organic – it just bubbles up as I write.” Even in the novels that have not been labelled as comedies, such as Love is Strange or England’s Lane, there have been laughs. “There is always humour in a good novel,” Connolly proclaims, with a conviction that suggests a sound personal manifesto.
But this is Connolly, so we get something meatier than just pure comedy. As he says “You can’t be laughing forever – you must turn the page and find tragicomedy. I want the reader to be entertained. I don’t just want them to think, ‘This is funny.’’’ In Boys and Girls, the tragicomic edge comes from the personal escapes that all his characters are trying to make. “I do like the idea of characters having a secret life, whether they sense it or not,” Connolly acknowledges. The most deliciously whimsical escape is the secret beach that husband number one constructs in a spare room. The more substantive escapes start later when characters finally learn what it means to be themselves. “Certain people are constrained by lies, fronts and pretences of their own creation – and they aren’t able to break free,” observes Connolly.
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Connolly’s focus in Boys and Girls is on these pretences, or games, at which men and women play. He enjoys the odd game with his readers, too. At points in the novel, characters appear to make morally repugnant – not to mention illegal – choices but then, just when we are about to abandon hope in them, Connolly executes a deft shift, then another, and the reader can breathe a sigh of relief that they are allowed to like the characters again. Connolly grins delightedly when I tell him how much I fell for – and enjoyed – this trickery. “I’m so pleased you said that. I like to push things just far enough for the reader to worry about what the characters are doing.” It’s important to Connolly, though, that the reader is left with a warmth for the characters at the end of the book. “When the reader is just about to start worrying I bring them back.”
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It’s remarks like this that highlight what a skilled craftsman he is. The real Connolly-ism, of course, that he has honed over the years, is the art of the controlled digression – those amazing sentences he twirls from characters’ heads, with multiple parentheses or a point of view shift halfway through, or entire chapters that diverge from their starting point only to come full circle, never detracting from the structure of the novel. I tell him that if he’d been on a creative writing course, he might have been told to cut that out, thus losing the whole joy of his style. Believe me, I’ve been there. There are wise words from the master craftsman: “You have to know the rules utterly – in order to break them gloriously.”
And there is so much that is glorious about Connolly’s writing. In particular, fans of his Ham&High restaurant column will delight in the numerous dinner set-pieces. “Dining is a good way to bring people together,” he says. The challenge is greater for him than it would be for a film director, though. In a novel, you can’t just rely on background people in shot to create the mood. “You have to keep the hubbub going. You have to create the whole scene – everything.” Connolly, of course, more than meets the challenge.
Connolly must be pretty driven, he’s already working on a 13th (which, sadly but probably wisely, will not bear the hilarious spoof title one of his characters comes up with in Boys and Girls – Mr Darcy’s Chocolate Manolos) “I love to create,” Connolly explains. “I must keep creating.” He offers some final advice for writers like me, on the second rung of the ladder, gazing up. “It’s harder than ever to succeed. But every book could be the one that changes everything. That’s exciting.” There’s a shine in his eyes that shows he means it.
n Boys and Girls by Joseph Connolly is published by Quercus priced £18.99. Three Steps Behind You by Amy Bird is published by Carina UK priced £3.99.