The Big Idea: Harry Connolly

This is one of those “in the family” moments — Harry Connolly is a long-time commenter here at Whatever, who has also been plugging away at the writing thing all the way. It’s paid off today with the publication of his debut fantasy novel Child of Fire, which earned a big fat starred review from Publishers Weekly (“[it] will enthrall readers who like explosive action and magic that comes at a serious cost”). Excellent. It’s fun when people you know do well right out of the gate.

How did Child of Fire get that coveted star? In part because of the way Connelly approaches the subject of magic and those who use it: Both in a decidedly non-romantic way. He’s here to explain it all for you.


I want to talk about negative space.

The most famous use of negative space is probably the Rubin vase but I think the one I want to talk about is a painting called “The Big N” by Al Held. Here it is.

For those of you who don’t want to click on a random link, here’s a brief description: It’s a huge white canvas, nine feet by nine feet, with two tiny black triangles on it. One triangle is on the top edge pointing down, and the other is on the bottom edge pointing up.

Together, those two triangles create, out of all that blank canvas, a really humongous letter N.

I first saw it I was on a school field trip, and my friends and I were just dorky enough to think it a Very Cool Thing. It was one of only two paintings I remember from that trip, but I’ve thought about it often over the years.

See, I construct stories out of negative space.

When I sat down to develop the setting, plot and characters for Child of Fire, my debut novel, I had no clear idea what it was going to be. I knew it would be a contemporary fantasy and I had a very vague idea of the story, but nothing else.

What I had instead were two simple ideas about what I was not going to do. They were my two tiny triangles.

The first triangle (I think of it as the one at the top, but maybe that’s a little weird) was that I wanted a setting without religious magic. In fact, I wanted to push all folklore off the canvas (with one small exception–see below). I didn’t want demons from a Christian Hell or rakshasas or skinwalkers or vampires who cringe away from crosses (seriously, don’t get me started on vampires and crosses). I didn’t want the sorcerers to speak with angels or higher powers, and I saw no reason for them to know all the rules of the afterlife–or if an afterlife even existed. Why should the magical community have certitude where we other people have only faith and skepticism?

Essentially, I wanted a kind of magic that altered the way the universe works, that opened portals into Other Places so unlike our own that humans can’t truly understand what they discover there, and that could call beings to our world that… well, maybe I should save some stuff for the book.

For the second triangle (at the bottom), I decided I wanted to do away with “cool.” No dusters or trench coats. No steel-toed boots. No “leathers.” No centuries-old katanas, Harley-Davidsons, wide-brimmed hats or all the other trappings that so much of modern urban fantasy uses to signify that characters are seriously kickass-cool people.

Ray Lilly, the protagonist in Child of Fire, isn’t a operative in a secret government agency or a bounty hunter who works the fringes of society. He’s a low-level car thief who tried and failed to go straight after a miserable stint in prison. He’s been forcibly conscripted into working for a sorcerer who hates him, and all he knows at the start of the book is that he’s driving her somewhere so she can murder someone.

And he’s wearing a windbreaker, because what if it gets a little chilly out?

Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against books with vampires, leather dusters, or swords sheathed on the sides of high-end motorcycles. I buy and read those books, and when they’re very, very good I hug them to my chest on crowded buses without any embarrassment at all.

But I didn’t want to write one.

Oh, and that single exception? A few secondary characters are werewolves, because werewolves freak me right out and no matter how big your idea, every writer should respect the freak out.

Child of Fire: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s | Indiebound

Read a sample chapter. Visit Harry Connolly’s blog.

43 Comments on “The Big Idea: Harry Connolly”

  1. Funny that Jim Butcher gives a comment on the cover, because Dresden is always wearing that duster. And didn’t the first book on werewolves have a bunch of them that were Harley fans hanging out at a biker bar? I seem to remember a guy running around with a magic sword in one or more of those books too.

    I can think of one reason why the magical community would have some knowledge of the after life, they’re magical. “Ernest, the magical are different from you and me.” “Yes, they have more magic.”

  2. Something about the cover would have made me walk right past it (the Twenty Palaces part would add confusion as well).

    But I really like the description. I like stories where normal people are put in extraordinary circumstances instead of super cool people doing everything. It’s for the same reasons that I find Superman boring – anyone with all those powers is heavily favored to win. A guy in a windbreaker, who knows? It makes the fight worth watching.

  3. I have been waiting for this book for SO LONG. (I’m in a phase. It’s Simon Green’s fault, originally. It’s totally unlike me, and I’m wondering when it’s going to wear off, but I’m in no real hurry…)

  4. John, thank you.

    Tudza, I’m a fan of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files books–I’ve read them all, and I’ll keep reading new ones as they come out–but I wanted to do something different with my own work.

  5. This sounds cool. It’s very true that a lot of magic in all sub-genres has a religious component. Not necssarily bad, but it will be interesting to read another story where this isn’t the case. Also, windbreakers are really cool. Sorry. They just are.

  6. I can’t wait! I ordered it from Amazon today. FYI – Amazon has issues. I typed in the author’s name and got nothing. Well, I got John Connolly books, but no Harry Connolly. Then I typed in the title and there it was. Once I ordered the book I performed another search of the author’s name and had no problem’s. Wierd.

  7. OMG – I read the first chapter on Harry’s blog, and now want to read the whole thing.

    WOW – what a grabber!

  8. NB: no scarcasm in my comment above (the novel style reads interesting by the way) but just wondering..

  9. I love the two triangles! It’s smart to think about what you *don’t* want to be, because inevitably it will help set you apart.

    This book sounds like a great read! I respect the freak out, too, and am ready for some creepy werewolves and normal dude ass kickery!

  10. For the second triangle (at the bottom), I decided I wanted to do away with “cool.” No dusters or trench coats. No steel-toed boots. No “leathers.” No centuries-old katanas, Harley-Davidsons, wide-brimmed hats or all the other trappings that so much of modern urban fantasy uses to signify that characters are seriously kickass-cool people.

    This made me laugh. It reminds me of the game that some friends and I played at the movies this summer: Nerd Stigmata Bingo (extra points for neckbeard-plus-Venom T-shirt).

  11. I’m probably not the intended audience, like I said on sartorias post, but I really like your ideas and your interview voice, and I won’t hesitate to read a work that isn’t quite as centered in crime fiction (I bounced off Harry Dresden hard).

    For anyone reading these comments, Sherwood Smith did a cool interview with Harry Connolly which she posted on her LJ here:
    Interview: Harry Connolly

    P.S. Support for united Connollys – Billy and Lynne as well.

  12. I was able to read an advanced copy of this novel and for the most part I really liked it. You can tell it’s a first novel and could probably have benefited from a better editor since some points in the story jump around and plot points crop up for no other reason than taking up space. However, I found the premise and protagonist interesting enought to keep me reading. It seems to be getting a lot of comparison’s to Butcher’s Dresden novels, but Child of Fire isn’t quite to that caliber, but there’s definite potential. I’m sure I’ll read the next novel.

  13. Sorry that I haven’t been keeping up with comments; this afternoon my family went on a tour of bookstores in town. I had no idea that Borders and Barnes & Noble have rules against taking pictures in their stores.

    @ Geoffrey Kidd #10: I hadn’t realized Fictionwise was selling the book, thank you! I added a link on my web page.

    @ laurent f #12: I’m not sure I understand your comment. What stereotypes are you talking about? Religious ones?

    @ Estara #19: Thanks for linking to the interview I did with Sherwood. She asked some fantastic questions.

    @ Everyone with kind words for the essay or the book: thanks. It’s a weird, thrilling, terrifying feeling to know people are out there reading my book.

  14. Re: ebook versions – BooksonBoard already has the ebook, too, and if you prefer drmd .epub instead of mobipocket or ereader format, they offer .epub with drm here:

    Child of Fire

    @ Harry #22: You’re welcome ^^, the more great authors of whatever direction the genre is taken in, the better.

  15. Read the big idea, read the sample chapter, liked it enough to give the book a go. don’t have it in stock at the mo but I’m sure it will turn up eventually.

  16. For other folks in Seattle: Harry Connolly will be signing books at the Magnolia Bookstore on Saturday, Oct. 3, at 11:00 am.

  17. @Harry: I meant “what s the big idea that makes your novel outstanding for Scalzi? Is it that it s about magic but without the usual clichés? I love Big Ideas but i cant see what s groundbreaking about your novel (although, again I kinda like the premises of fit and how you write)

    oh and sry for my english , i m french :D

  18. Laurent – as with all literature, there are familiar elements, but the magic is certainly new, and the protagonist and his relationship with the magical world is presented in a very different way than we usually see. Also, as I noted in my review on genreville, the action scenes, while violent, are not fun kung-fu movie style action. In most action novels, you cheer at the hero for beating up bad guys. In this book, the fights are upsetting to everyone. Violence is random and scary, not fun and exciting.

    At least, that’s how I interpreted it.

    Also, I don’t think it’s required that a novel be “ground breaking” to get written up here.

  19. @Harry – thanks for the suggestion! I was not aware of the site, but I’ve added it to favourites for future use. In this instance I’ve already ordered from and I’ll at least give them a couple of weeks to get it in stock before I cancel and look elsewhere. Your book looks like it will be worth the wait.

  20. @ Sylvia #27: Thanks for mentioning that. It hadn’t occurred to me. I promise to have my extrovert face on for the two hours I’ll be at the store.

    @ laurent f #28: Ah, I’m sorry for not understanding the first time.

    In writing the essay, I wanted to point out the value in drawing a line around all the things you *don’t* want to do in a story. It’s putting certain creative choices–mostly very popular creative choices, not cliches–out of bounds, and figuring out where the story can go from there.

    If that doesn’t really seem big enough to break ground with it’s own weight, I won’t argue.

  21. I just read it myself. Bravo! Very fantastic novel, and I think that you’ve got something there – the lack of ‘badassness’ the main character had made him appealing an likable in a unique way. He must have thrown up at pretty much every serious piece of gore in the book ;)

  22. Really liked the book, but I think that Ray should puke a bit less… I mean, it can get a bit repititive. I also hope Ray starts carrying other spells with him as we go forward… the ghost knife is a cool weapon to have, but after a while it can get a bit repititive and dull because of overuse.

    That aside, really enjoyed the book.

  23. Lol, thanks.

    I read the excerpt that was included in Child of Fire for the next book, and I really liked what I read. It seems better than Child of Fire from the little I read.

    Do you have any projections on when this new book is supposed to be published? I’m really looking forward to it.

  24. Crampe, the current publication date for GAME OF CAGES is the end of July, but this far out that could easily change. Sorry I don’t have a better answer.

  25. I just finished this book and CAN’T WAIT until it comes out in August. It’s fast and exciting and doesn’t give it all away with over-explaining the universe it’s in. I’ll definitely be buying the next one from my local indie bookseller!

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