John Connell spent years working as a cameraman on some of the biggest films and television shows in the country, including Jurassic Park and NYPD Blue. He loved the travel, the excitement, and the art of bringing stories to the screen. He also learned a lot about storytelling from some of the best in the business. Though he loved the work, he longed to move from behind the scenes helping bring to life someone else’s story, to writing his own. So, he left the industry, and began writing full time.
He was not an overnight success.
It took a decade, four defunct novels, and countless rejections before Connell landed a publishing deal. But the hard work and determination paid off. His novel, RUINS OF WAR—a unique, historical thriller set in postwar Germany—is already garnering national acclaim. And Connell, well, he’s considered a debut-to-watch.
The Big Thrill caught up with Connell at his home in Paris, where the author graciously agreed to answer a few questions.
What prompted the idea for a thriller set in postwar Germany? Do you have a personal connection to the period?
I’ve been a WW2 buff since I was a kid. I’ve read tons of books about the strategies, the politics, the rise and fall of Nazi Germany, though it’s the personal accounts of the individual soldiers that are my favorites. I felt I knew a good deal about the years leading up to and during the war, but I had neglected one vital part of that incredible era: its aftermath. My previous notions of relative peace and order were turned upside down while I was researching the backstory of the antagonist in an earlier, now defunct, novel.
The Germans called the time just after the war Die Stunde Null, “The Zero Hour.” Germany had been bombed back to the Middle Ages. Every major city and many towns and villages had sustained up to ninety percent damage. The entire infrastructure—railroads, bridges and industry—had been damaged or destroyed. Up to ten percent of the population had perished. Close to ten million Displaced Persons—the people brought into Germany from every conquered country to work as domestic, agricultural, or industrial slaves—along with the tens of thousands of POW and concentration camp survivors were all suddenly freed and making the difficult trek home or wandering the countryside. Needless to say, I found the history of postwar Germany so fascinating, so dramatic, that I had to write a thriller during this period.
If I could claim any connection to the setting, it’s through my father’s and uncles’ service during the war. Also, I was born in the early wave of the baby-boom years, and WW2 was still a recent event. It was still a part of everyone’s lives, so it was natural for a young kid to become enamored with that period, and I carried that with me into adulthood.
Your protagonist is a former Chicago cop and POW with a haunted past who is now serving as an Army investigator policing the American Zone of Occupation. What inspired the compelling lead of Mason Collins?
Mason was actually the antagonist in that earlier novel. He was an army criminal investigator gone bad in occupied Germany, committing murder for greed across the European continent. However, I found him so compelling that I decided to make him the hero. I preserved his dark side, which is only kept in check by a strict moral code. I also retained many of the elements of his original backstory that had led him to turn from good guy to villain. Being betrayed while a detective for the Chicago police department, and his horrifying time as a POW were two of those elements, and they relentlessly weigh on Mason’s psyche, threatening to push him over the line.
Tell us something about the book that’s not on the jacket copy or promotional material.
Not only does Mason have to grapple with the lack of evidence and witnesses at the crime scenes, he also locks horns with his commanding officer, Colonel Walton. Mason’s less than stellar respect for authority, and Walton’s by-the-book philosophy means they’re at each other’s throat throughout the story. The colonel insists on strict adherence to the Criminal Investigation Division’s mandate: Only investigate major crimes committed by and against military personnel. The murder appears to be German-on-German, so the colonel demands it be relegated to the German police. The problem is that during the war, the German police forces were required to be card-carrying members of the Nazi party, and in the allied armies’ attempts to de-Nazify Germany, the German police forces had been decimated. Plus, Mason suspects many of the worst in the Gestapo and the security police slipped through the cracks and are once again in the ranks of power. This is just one more complication in a whole pile of complications hampering Mason’s determination to hunt down a brutal killer.
Critics have noted that your depiction of post WWII Munich is incredible. What type of research did you do? Did you travel to any of the areas depicted in the novel?
I started with reading a pile of books, articles and treatises on the American occupation of Germany, then as much as I could find on Munich specifically. I also studied historical photographs, maps, army unit histories from archives and websites. After that, I visited Munich several times, getting a sense of the place, the sights and smells. You can do a lot with Google maps and YouTube videos, but there’s nothing like being there. By some estimates, seventy percent of Munich was damaged or destroyed, but unlike most other major German cities, it was rebuilt following the original street plan, so I could get a good idea of the layout of the city. Obviously much has changed in seventy years, but many of the buildings that housed the MP/CID headquarters, military government offices, and army barracks are still there. The Bavarian archives in Munich was also a big help in my efforts to be as accurate as possible, down to what areas were damaged and those that were spared.
Your villain is up there with the worst of them. What inspired this killer? And how hard was it to dive into his gruesome crimes?
The inspiration for the killer came to me while learning about Munich’s postwar destruction and deprivation. I then imagined a psychotic killer loose amid the ruins and chaos—a Jeffrey Dahmer or Ted Bundy if you will—with thousands of places to lurk and a half million easy prey.
I read many books about serial killers, their psychological profiles, their methods of abduction and killing. And while there are certain traits that many have in common, not surprisingly, each is unique in many ways. I incorporated some of those common traits, while making my killer’s methods, his madness, unique. Many experts believe that without some traumatic event, a catalyst that sets off their killing spree, most potential serial killers could go through their entire lives without that impulse ever coming to the surface. For my killer, he suffered a trauma so severe that his violence arose with a vengeance.
Have you heard from any WWII veterans about the book?
None that I’m aware of. As the book will be released on May 5th, only reviewers who’ve received ARCs have weighed in so far. I have received a few reviews from people whose relatives lived through those times in Germany, and they found the details vivid and believable. That was nice to learn.
You’ve been garnering attention as a debut author to watch. Tell us a little about your journey to publication. Any trials and tribulations along the way?
It took me ten years of committed, full-time writing, four other defunct novels, a million words, and countless rejections before completing RUINS OF WAR and landing a publishing deal. Those previous novels garnered praise for my writing, but ultimately rejected for one reason or another. However, I learned from some of the more thoughtful agents’ comments, saw the problems with those works, then incorporated what I learned into each one that followed.
One thing I realized early on is that I needed a trained eye to review my manuscripts, so I turned to independent editors. That was a rocky road at first, and finding the right one took a while. It was with book number four—may it rest in peace—that I found a fantastic editor. He praised my writing, but ripped that book apart. However, he did it in such a clear and astute way, and without crushing my ego, that I knew I’d found “the one.” He encouraged me to keep at it, so after a time of mourning for book four, I brushed myself off and started on what became RUINS OF WAR. I sent the manuscript off to him and nervously waited. Fortunately his evaluation came back with lots of praise…along with pages of editorial notes.
You were selected as one of the inaugural authors to appear with none other than Lee Child for ITW’s “Next Steps” radio show. How’s it feel to be chosen for this coveted spot?
Thrilled, excited, honored, and nervous as hell. I’ve enjoyed and admired Mr. Child’s work for years, and I have a great respect for his untiring support of new writers. As for my thoughts about my performance on the show, I think of the advice I once received from a movie director just before filming a difficult shot: “Don’t screw it up!”
Speaking of your movie experience, you were a cameraman for some hit films and television shows. Do you miss it at all? Did you learn anything from the movies and television that helped your writing?
I’ve always enjoyed working in film. It can be grueling work with long hours, but it has taken me to locations all over the world, and to places restricted to most people. There’s the excitement, and a real sense of accomplishment when you see your work on the big screen. But my true abiding passion is writing. No endeavor satisfies me more.
I’ve had the privilege to work with some great directors, screenwriters, and cinematographers, and my writing is, in part, a product of what I learned from those artists. My position as a motion picture camera operator gave me the opportunity to be up close and personal with many of the inside workings on the set. Everything I observed has in some fashion found its way into how I approach my writing. I’m not going to claim to have reached that level of artistry, but I keep them in mind, like added tools in the writing toolbox. From directors I learned about finding the essence of the characters, and the importance of the pacing and staging of a scene. Because of my background, I’m a visual guy, and I try to apply that in writing descriptions. As a camera operator, you learn that what is left out of a frame is just as important as what is included.
I read that you’re also a musician who once played in rock and jazz bands. Do you still play? And do you see any connections between your writer and musician creative sides?
Sadly, I haven’t played the keyboards in years. I played in bands in my teens and twenties, though my real desire was to compose music. But at that young age, if whatever I composed didn’t come out as instantly brilliant, I abandoned it—which was pretty much all the time. I finally realized that while I had lots of potential, I lacked the passion and patience required to pursue it. One of the takeaways I gleaned from that experience is that writing, like music, requires that same passion and patience. Good writing doesn’t just happen overnight, it takes lots and lots of work, sweat, and tears.
The connections to music and writing, for me, are, like two sides of the same coin. They both arise from an innate and overriding desire to create. I feel fortunate that the passion for writing came to me a little later in life, when I had the wisdom to know that anything worth pursuing requires hard work.
You had the good fortune to marry a French woman—one who landed a job back in France and you now live in Paris. I don’t have to ask how great that is, but has it created any issues with promoting your novel in the U.S.? And any pressure to live up to Hemingway and the other famous-writer expats?
The Internet has been a huge help in regards to promotion: the blog tours, social media, and email correspondence have helped me in the early stages of the promotional campaign, while living on the other side of the pond. Still, there’s nothing like being there for the actual launch, so I will be in the States at least the next three months for events, stock signings, and definitely ThrillerFest!
As far as the pressure of living up to other great expat writers, the pressure is not really any different than living in the States. I’d feel the same pressure to live up to the countless great non-expat writers. Many people have said when they learn I live and write in Paris, “Oh, Paris must really inspire you.” Well, yes, the beauty and history of this great city is inspiring, but great writers have lived and written everywhere, so there’s no magic in the air here. I will say the crappy weather nine months out of the year inspires me to stay inside and get my work done. And nothing puts me in a better mood to write about murder and mayhem than a gloomy day!
And, how about some dos and don’ts tips for us Ugly Americans visiting Paris.
Actually, compared to many other foreign tourists, Americans get pretty high marks from the French. And many French have a fascination with the U.S., and find Americans charming. Having said that, here are a few tips:
DO try to speak just a few words of French. The French have gotten much better about speaking English since I’ve been here, but trying a little French can go a long way.
DON’T just say “excuse me” when asking for help. When you ask someone on the street for directions, or a store clerk where you can find the toothpaste, greet them first, then “excuse me,” then your question. It’s just the way it works here. “Excuse me” alone might get you a scowl in return. I’ve learned that one the hard way…
DO ask for the check when you’re finished eating at a restaurant. French diners linger after finishing their meal, so it’s very bad form to bring the check before it’s requested. Though, if you don’t ask, you could wait all night!
DON’T try breaking the translation barrier by shouting English to a hapless French person.
DO try to smile. American charm can tame most grumpy Parisians.
The next Mason Collins thriller, SPOILS OF VICTORY, will be release in February 2016. What’s in store for Mason?
I’m glad you asked! Here’s the jacket cover synopsis:
When the Third Reich collapsed, the small town Garmisch-Partenkirchen became the home of fleeing war criminals, making it the final depository for the Nazis’ stolen riches. There are fortunes to be made on the black market. Murder, extortion, and corruption have become the norm.
It’s a perfect storm for a criminal investigator like Mason Collins, especially when his friend, John Winstone, arrives in town, claiming that a group of powerful men are taking over the lucrative trade. But before he can fully explain, Winstone—and his girlfriend— are brutally murdered.
Determined to uncover the truth, Mason plunges into a shadowy labyrinth of co-conspirators including former SS and Gestapo officers, U.S. Army OSS officers, and liberated Polish POWs.
As both witnesses and evidence begin disappearing, it becomes obvious that someone on high is pulling strings to stifle the investigation—and that Mason must feel his way in the darkness if he is going to find out who in town has the most to gain—and the most to lose…
John A. Connell has worked as a cameraman on films such as Jurassic Park and Thelma & Louise and on TV shows including The Practice and NYPD Blue. He now lives with his wife in Paris, France, where he is at work on his second Mason Collins novel.
To learn more about John, please visit his website.
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