As Viva La Madness, the splendid new novel by the author of Layer cake appears, Crime Time grills JJ Connolly…
Q. What were you trying to achieve with your novel Layer Cake?
A. I was trying to write something I would have liked to read myself. I saw a lot of fiction portraying London criminals as thugs and not very bright. I had seen, and met, many guys who were involved in criminality who were far from stupid and to whom violence was very much a last resort. Their reasons for being in the crime business were not to enhance any make-believe reputation but to make a great deal of money: they were genuinely able to rise far and rapidly so. Prohibition – making drugs illegal – had paved the way.
So I think the motivation for writing Layer Cake was seeing crime being written about quite badly because a lot of observers were quite naïve about professional criminals. Things needed updating: jump-starting as one reviewer put it. I think on some level I saw a gap in the market and a whole world that needed to be explored.
When the narrator suggests that ‘everyone likes to walk through a door marked private’ that’s the key – no pun intended – to the whole book. The narrator took you into his confidence, because you, you’re smart.
I also picked up on the phenomenon that a lot of kids want to be drug dealers; there was kudos to be had. It’s a shortcut to riches and maybe self-esteem, but as the narrator says in Viva La Madness, ‘crime pays, but there’s a price to be paid.’ It’s a fantasy to a lot of people. The reality of selling drugs is that it’s a brutal, hard way to make money, even if you don’t get caught. You have, as demonstrated in Layer Cake, more to fear from other criminals than you do from the police.
I wanted to write something that stretched the characters, especially the main guy, the anonymous dealer. We – or I – start off explaining this really cool set-up, explain his exit strategy, and then watch it disintegrate. Essentially that’s the baseline for all good fiction, whether it’s crime or historical drama: everything’s sweet and dandy … but not for long.
Q. Did you see yourself as part of a British crime novel tradition, or have you tried to do something different?
A. If I wasn’t doing something different I’d just go and open a bar. And probably make more money. I write for the same reasons as those chaps who swim up the Amazon against the current, to turn myself inside out: to challenge and push myself.
What was different about Layer Cake? I think Layer Cake was a criminal procedural rather than a police procedural; it invited you in. It was written from the criminal’s POV. The police are very thin on the ground in both Layer Cake and Viva La Madness. I always want my writing to be both timeless and date-stamped: contradictory I know, but what I mean is that I want it to really tell the reader something about the times they live in – or we, when we’re gone, lived in – and also to be based upon the same human traits and frailties that have always plagued us. I never want to be ghettoised as a crime writer, in bookstores I’d like to be in both the crime section and out on free-flow in the general population.
Q. Who are the writers who inspired you?
A. My favourite books are Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, and Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut. I have revisited these books since I was a kid, especially Slaughterhouse. I can get through it on a plane journey. To me it’s like listening to an old Bowie album. Some writers might teach us to think out of the box but Vonnegut would suggest that there is no box: what box? It’s about learning to remove any constraints and so allowing our style and imagination to take us where we need to go, to push the boundaries.
Q. Do you try to avoid moral judgements on your characters?
A. Most definitely. It’s not my job; it’s the job of the reader. I lay out the facts and let people decide the questions of morality for themselves. You have to remember that without the market for drugs, narcotics, dopes of all varieties, there would be no drug dealers and because it’s illegal and over-subscribed there’s going to be casualties. Likewise without a market there would be no tabloids or supermarket gossip papers.
As a writer what you’ve got at your disposal is human nature and a hopefully sharp pencil. It’s your job to go into the murky, dark places, whether it’s in the psyche or the city. I actually think the narrator of Layer Cake and Viva La Madness is quite a moral guy in a strange way: he dislikes bullies and violence. I think he very often has to push down a compassionate streak. Sometimes more successfully than others.
Q. Did you feel that the film of Layer Cake – which was remarkably successful – did justice to the novel?
A. As soon as you sell – remember that word – your property to film producers it’s their property not yours. I hear writers bitching about film-makers ruining their work but they ran to the bank to cash the cheque. My experience was a good one. I was curious as to how they would adapt it. And they asked me to write the screenplay, whereas a lot of writers of the original material get told to jog. It’s one of the few films that did do justice to the novel but it’s a totally different entity. Coming from a culture that suggests that nothing is ‘as good as the book’ you’ve got your work cut out. Matthew Vaughn, the producer and director, knew that if you try and diligently replicate the novel you’re on a loser. You have to create a whole, new, autonomous piece of work. In an hour and forty minutes … The book is a deeper, more concentrated world. Layer Cake the novel would be about thirty hours of screen-time so you can’t afford to be too precious. Scenes you love have to go.
The casting was brilliant. The actors really did the screenplay justice. The dilemmas that the central, Daniel Craig character was confronted with really came across on the screen. I was extremely happy with it. It took Layer Cake from being a cult novel to being a title that everybody knows. It didn’t do me any harm either. It opened doors marked ‘private’.
Q. What can you tell me about your new book, Viva La Madness?
A. Viva La Madness is a sequel to Layer Cake. The narrator has been lying low in the Caribbean, then he gets a call from his old buddy, Mister Mortimer. He’s older and maybe wiser, been made disillusioned, but I think he’d call disillusionment a gift, a good thing not a bad thing. It’s Goodfellas meets Macbeth. It’s gangster gothic. As if international crime organisations had existed at the time of Edgar Allan Poe. It’s much darker than Layer Cake, and Layer Cake was pretty dark. It’s also more expansive – Layer Cake goes global – full of mad South Americans, twitchy North West Londoners, international drugs smugglers and ladies who do a nice sideline in body disposal. You’d not want to meet them personally but feel happy eavesdropping on their world. It’s different but the same, if that makes any sense. It’s all the fun of the fair.
Q. In what way does it differ from its predecessor? Did you feel some pressure following up the success of Layer Cake?
A. As I say, it gets a whole lot darker. Then darker still. Did I feel pressure? Nobody creates pressure, only ourselves. It’s a relative term. I lead a charmed life. Nobody’s going to come looking for me if I miss a deadline. But pressure is not such a bad thing. A little pressure gets our creative juices flowing, gets us setting the bar higher. When all’s said and done, I’d rather be following up a successful novel than an unsuccessful one.
Q. What’s next, or are you still focused on Viva La Madness?
A. Just putting a few final tweaks into the manuscript of Viva and beginning the PR. I’ve had my head down writing Viva La Madness for what seems like the longest time, so now I’m back on the screenwriting circuit. I’ve got meetings and proposals from a few directors and producers, loads of interesting projects in the offing. Life is good … And at some point I’ll be talking to Matthew Vaughn about Viva La Madness the movie. Maybe Matt can put in a call to Daniel Craig and we can get going all over again.
Viva La Madness is published by Duckworth