Written by John Parker

John Connolly is a name that all SHOTS readers are surely familiar with. He is the author of 15 novels and one novella about “the scourge of evil, the last hope of the lost”, Charlie Parker. In fact, we spoke recently to him about Parker here and here and reviewed his last narratives here, here and here.

But Connolly has more than one string to his bow and over the years he has written a stand-alone novel Bad Men, various short stories, the Samuel Johnson novels for middle-grade readers and The Chronicles of the Invaders with his partner, Jennifer Ridyard and much more and all to critical acclaim. He even has his own radio show, ABC to XTC.  Surely he has no time for more work you may think? Well, you would be wrong.

Connolly has surprised us all with his latest novel “he”, the title of which he exclusively revealed to Shots in an interview last March. John claimed it would be “different from anything that’s gone before it.” And he was right. It’s a wonderful book about Stan Laurel and you can read the review here.

Meanwhile, we asked John a few questions about the book and his interest in the great Stan Laurel and his inseparable partner Oliver “Babe” Hardy.

SHOTS Reviewer John Parker recently interviewed John Connolly to reveal the background to his latest work, a stark departure to the world of Charlie Parker.

John Parker : Congratulations on the publication of this rather different book. I loved it. How did you come to write it?

John Connolly : Laurel & Hardy were very much a part of my viewing when I was growing up, and the more I read about them, the more fascinating they became to me.  Then, in 1999, I was staying in the home of a bookseller who had met Stan Laurel at the end of Laurel’s life, when he was living in Santa Monica.  I suppose I had always considered L&H as black-and-white figures, marooned in some comedic past, but Laurel lived to see Kennedy assassinated, and the arrival of The Beatles.  I started wondering how he had spent those years with Oliver Hardy, whom he outlived by some considerable time.  I supposed that he probably spent much of it remembering, and that planted the seed. 

JP : What was it like researching for the novel?  There is a lot of material available! Was it difficult? For example, I have read that the exact year of filming of The Lucky Dog could have been anytime between 1917 and 1921, depending on who you read.

JC It was difficult, but not unpleasant!  It’s not a straightforward biographical novel, so part of the process involved deciding which elements of his life required focus, and which ones could be set aside.  The book could really have been much longer, because my choices were pretty personal, and another writer might have gone in a different direction entirely.  For example, I never even mention that Marcel Marceau came to visit Laurel in Santa Monica, and there’s at least a chapter in that meeting alone, and maybe even a stage play.  But I also made a decision early on to follow the lives of those with whom L&H worked, even briefly, as part of the research, just in case something interesting might emerge, or in the hope of finding correspondences, or ironies.  That was time-consuming, but often produced results. For example, by spending time researching Lou Costello’s life I found a point of connection between Costello, Laurel and Chaplin that would not otherwise have emerged. 

JP : Regarding the terrible beating of Ted Healy, the book mentions that he was attacked by two people while other sources say three (including a well-known film producer in England). How easy or difficult was it for you to decide on which version of the facts to use?

JC : I went with what might have been known, or suspected, at the time. I know that Cubby Broccoli, the producer of the Bond films, was said to have been present for Ted Healy’s fatal beating, but it’s hard to know if Laurel would have been aware of that.  And so much of that period is the stuff of rumour and conjecture, such as the death of Thelma Todd, which is also covered in the book.  In general, I was more interested in Laurel’s responses to events.  I tried to remain true to him.

JP : We are lucky to have a great wealth of Laurel and Hardy film material available on-line. Did you watch much of their back catalogue? Do you have a favourite?

JC : I did.  I’ve watched nearly all of the films again.  By the end, I appreciated their artistry in a way that I probably hadn’t before, since I was more aware of the effort that went into their creation, particularly the short features.  I love Busy Bodies, which is one of the films we’re showing at events.  And Their First Mistake is very curious.  I think it conceals a certain truth about their relationship.

JP : Did you view the archive footage of them that is available? (I saw the episode of This Is Your Life which was very difficult to watch, mainly because of the insufferable host, Ralph Edwards). If so, did it help you in reimagining Stan and Ollie?

JC : I didn’t watch This Is Your Life.  I was aware that L&H hadn’t cared much for the experience.  I was also less interested in the public face that Laurel presented, and more concerned with what might have been concealed behind it.  I think he hid a lot of pain.  But at the same time, this isn’t one of those tragic comedian/crying clown books.  There was tragedy in his life, as there will be in all lives, but he wasn’t tragic.  He was just more complex than many people realise.

JP : There are many fascinating characters in the book. I was particularly taken by the lawyer Ben Shipman and Jimmy Finlayson. Can you tell us a bit more about them?

JC : Well, Ben Shipman was L&H’s lawyer, and sometime agent.  It was he who had to disentangle their legal, professional and marital affairs, and he was particularly close to Stan Laurel.  He loved both of them, though, and regarded them as the finest men he’d ever met, for all their flaws.  Much of the humour in the book comes from Shipman, who had his work cut out trying to keep them solvent and away from courtrooms.  I think he was sued by Laurel’s widow, in part because she couldn’t figure out why her husband’s estate was so small.  Laurel left about $50,000, if I remember correctly, or about $250,000 in today’s money.  It wasn’t much for a career that dated back to the birth of Hollywood.  But then, he did get divorced four times, which probably didn’t help.

JP : Charlie Chaplin does not come out of this book in a favourable light. While I realise that the book is fiction, how close do you think you came to the real Chaplin?

JC : Chaplin was a great artist, but a difficult human being.  He certainly had an unhealthy interest in young girls, and was lucky not to end up in jail for statutory rape.  My feeling is that Chaplin and a lot of rage and pain inside him, going back to a very difficult childhood with a disturbed mother.  His attitude toward women was pretty rotten. 

JP : The book contains many amazing anecdotes about various famous stars of the day: Lou Costello and his porn collection, the sad tale about Jerome Horowitz of the Three Stooges, the tragedy of Thelma Todd, the aforementioned Ted Healy. How hard was it for you to decide what to include and what to leave out? 

JC : Every life is interesting, if examined closely enough.  When it comes to the Golden Age of Hollywood - that potential increases exponentially.   I tried to be very disciplined about what was included, and my benchmark was the degree to which any detail was relevant to Laurel’s life.  That made it a little easier.  I tried to keep the focus on him, and Babe Hardy, throughout.

JP : I found that your prose was very lyrical, very poetic. Was this intentional from the beginning or did the novel just evolve as you wrote it?

JC : I very consciously wanted to push myself, and experimenting with the prose was one element of that.  The prose form of the book concretised once I made the decision not to name Laurel.  That decision came about for a number of reasons: he lived as Arthur Jefferson for longer than he lived as Stan Laurel, and I didn’t want to keep switching back and forth between the names; it’s a novel about identity, and how what we pretend can often determine what we must become; and, ultimately, he left Arthur Jefferson behind (publicly, at least), and Stan Laurel was a kind of construct that eventually became real.  The truth of him, as the book suggests, lies somewhere between those two poles.

JP : What’s next for John Connolly? More Charlie Parker, I hear. Something about a woman in the woods?

JC : Yes, it’s a Parker novel entitled The Woman in the Woods.  I’ll be working on it while doing promotion for he, but it’s mostly fine-tuning, which is the part I like.  The first draft is the killer.

JP : Thank you for your time, John.

JC : Thanks for the interest, and the very kind review.  Much appreciated!

SHOTS Magazine would like to thank Kerry Hood and Rosie Stephen of Hodder and Stoughton for arranging this feature and of course John Connolly and John Parker for their time.

SHOTS' review can be accessed Here & discounted copies available from the SHOTS Bookstore Here

John Connolly

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