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Interview with John Connor 2007

Image: John ConnorBy Chris High

John Connor, author of the acclaimed Karen Sharpe novels, has recently published the fourth instalment, Falling (Orion), with Karen being once again the lead character. As a male author, it is quite an unusual trend to have a female main protagonist and John explained his reasons behind his decision. ‘I’ve always been attracted to strong female characters and felt that Karen is strong enough to carry the weight of a storyline through to its conclusion. I can’t really recall how it happened and I’m not aware of any real conscious decision to make it that way but what I was aware of was that most of my favourite characters were women, such as Becky Sharpe from Vanity Fair, and having Karen as my main character seemed to stem from that.’

Karen Sharpe is an undercover police operative who has had to endure some horrific treatment throughout the series and this, in turn, has led to her being emotionally damaged as a result. ‘Her background wasn’t worked out at the beginning but she is actually based on a real undercover operative, whose rumoured story of falling in love with the man she was meant to be targeting I came across when working as a prosecutor in London. The BBC were interested in the series at one stage and we worked a lot of her characterisation out together so she is very rounded now and Falling, for me, is the best one as far as her characteristics are concerned. It was also the hardest to write and took a lot of rewrites in comparison to the others. Karen is bit more stark in the forerunners but I hope you can empathise with her more in this one, whereas beforehand she’s kept her emotions buried a lot more. Karen is only really happy when she’s being somebody else and I think that aspect comes through a lot more in Falling. The effort of being somebody else leaves her as something of an empty vessel emotionally, I think.’

Falling is a very dark story, set in and around a series of race riots. A situation John was involved in as a lawyer working in Bradford, which gave him all of the research material he needed to encapsulate the necessary atmosphere. ‘I was working in Bradford during the 2001 riots and was the lawyer who coordinated the cases for the prosecution and in Falling, I’ve followed the procedures of the West Yorkshire police. There were only around seventeen arrests on the actual night of the riot because nobody wanted a flood of people being prosecuted. It wasn’t until later when we viewed the video footage that the bulk of the ringleaders – some 250 people – were arrested and charged, backed up with the evidence that had been gathered in a manner that Pete Baines employs in the book. The riots were a tragedy for Bradford and its people and I had to brief the Home Office for months afterwards, so the research for the book, as far as that aspect went, was already done.’

Image: Front cover of 'Falling' by John ConnorFalling is also a novel of contrasts. Where Karen’s relationship with her daughter, Mairead, is somewhat strained, her lover’s relationship with his daughter is a lot closer and something the author is not, in hindsight, altogether comfortable with. ‘I think there’s something beneath Ronnie and Laura’s relationship that goes a little beyond paternal. Ronnie is my little homage to Bob Peck’s character, Ronnie Craven from the classic drama, Edge Of Darkness. Craven talks to his dead daughter throughout that show and is such a strong character with such strong emotional ties that I wanted to use that with Ronnie, here. Karen’s relationship is something else again. Karen doesn’t really know Mairead and although she wants to be a good mum, she doesn’t have the emotional wherewithal to be so. There’s also the fact that there wasn’t really any bond built up between them, as Karen and Mairead were separated for the first eight years, which is another thing Karen feels guilty about. So when Mairead gets close to Pete – Karen’s long-suffering partner – Karen gets jealous. It’s almost as though she wants what she can’t have and when she does get it, she finds she doesn’t want it.’

A successful criminal lawyer, John has always hankered to be an author. ‘In my head I’ve been a writer since I was ten, though I sometimes think I might have been better undergoing therapy than writing books. There isn’t really any one character that has me in them, I don’t think. Of course, there are little bits of me in each one, but there isn’t one all defining characteristic of mine in any of them, as they all have their own line of logic to follow. I hope Karen comes across in every sense as something of an anti-hero. I don’t want her to be likeable, but I want what she does to get the job done to be likeable. The people she champions are those who have been overpowered by authority or who have been abused in some way, so I hope there’s enough to feel empathy for what she does and why she does it, without there being too much sympathy for the way she does it. I find it very interesting to write somebody who isn’t warm and cosy as a person.’

Today’s market is a very tough place in which to break through and become established and John has his own thoughts as to why. ‘The publishers I work with are very keen to build with their writers and as long as you earn out your advances, which I always have, they stick with you. I’ve done well in translation and have gone out to eight countries with the series, which is great, but I think the biggest obstacles to aspiring authors is that they don’t pay enough attention to plot and pay too much attention to the actual writing. Editors, in my experience, are much more concerned these days with having a good story and a lot of new authors are more concerned with making something beautiful or making sure that the words look nice on the page. Editors don’t want that, specifically. They want a story, a plot, strong characters and a structure. Providing you can write a decent paragraph, there’s no point in pouring your heart into every word because it will go through around five editorial processes anyway.’

John has another piece of advice for aspiring authors. ‘Don’t give up the day job. There are very few authors who can survive solely from writing. I think the average yearly income from being an author is around £12,000 and most have other jobs.’
And so the work rolls on. ‘I’m currently reaching the end of book five, which is called Outcast, and then I start on number six. The TV project has been put on the back-burner for now, but hopefully that will come around again soon, too.’

Read Chris High's review of 'Falling' by John Connor

Parts of this interview have, or will, appear in other publications and in other formats.

If you would like to comment on this interview with John Connor, please feel free to contact me - GUESTBOOK

“Writing gets me away for a while' from this world and into one where I, alone, can make or
break the rules as I see fit.” - Chris High 2003.
© 2007 all rights reserved