The writing of Britishbest-selling author of eight humorous novels has been described as“Laugh-out-loud-funny” and “irresistible and extremely funny – likea weird mix of Charles Dickens and Kingsley Amis.” His novel, SummerThings, became a bestseller in France and UG has just turned it intoa feature film with a “huge budget” and a “dream cast” that includesCharlotte Rampling, and Charlotte Gainsbourg (daughter of Serge),directed by Michel Blanc. This is the first film made from one ofConnolly’s books. James Leavey interviewed Joseph Connolly about ayear ago.
JL Where did you start smoking"
JC: At school. I went to boarding school and there was this rule there that if youwere a prefect you could smoke a pipe in the evenings. Nothingelse, no cigarettes, no cigars. So I thought, ‘OK’ and became thehead of the library, which qualified as prefect status. I got myfirst pipe, which was an Orlic, I remember, and I liked it quite alot. Then my uncle bought me a Dunhill and that really got mehooked on the pipes. My first cigar was also at school. A friendof mine had a terribly rich father who had a Bentley, and in thefront console there was a humidor. And as we were driving along hesaid, ‘Oh, have a cigar” and I thought ‘Bloody hell!’ And I fullyexpected – having read all the cliches – that when you light a cigaryou go green and you feel sick. But I thought it was wonderful.
JL: How oldwhere you"
JC: 17. Then inthe school holidays I thought, ‘Great! Cigars!’ Didn’t know athing about them, of course. And the only things I could affordwere Tom Thumbs and Picator and things, and they didn’t taste likethis one I’d had in the car, at all. So I stuck to pipes – this is avery long answer! – and when I was a bookseller I smoked a pipe allthe time, mainly because it staved off the boredom. I’ve still gota marvellous collection of Dunhills. And one day, after about 15-18years, my daughter said to me ‘Er, oh I haven’t seen you smoking apipe, lately’. And it occurred to me that I hadn’t picked up a pipefor three weeks. And so I sort of found that I’d stopped, for noobvious reason. The only cigarettes I’ve ever had – I went through aposey phase, when I left school - were Black Russian. But that’sit.
JL:Many second-hand bookshops allow smokers to browse their shelves,but none of the new bookshops do. Why’s that"
JC: The wholepoint about smoking and second-hand bookshops (Connolly once ownedthe famous Flask Bookshop in Hampstead, north London) – I ownedmine, ran it, swept the floor, did everything – I thought they wenttogether, particularly pipes, actually. I had ashtrays all over theplace, never had an accident, never had a burnt book or anythinglike that. The new bookshops are all shiny and brightly lit, andmaybe it doesn’t go so well.
JL:You’ve written the standard work on collecting books, Modern FirstEditions. Are writers who smoke more collectible than writers whodon’t"
JC: Yes. Theones that smoked and drank constantly – that was their sort offuel. The pipe-smoking authors had the best author pictures, thatmoody black and white picture. And of course they all had beards togo with the pipe, that’s a common combination. Although,interestingly, when I started writing fiction, by then I had longgiven up pipe-smoking. So all my author pictures are naked barberhair, if you see what I mean.
JL: When did you actually start writing novels"
JC: Veryrecently. One of the first questions I got asked for the first novelwas ‘Why has this taken so long"’ which is a very good question. Ipublished my first non-fiction book in 1979 – the first novel was1995, and S.O.S. Transylvania is number seven. So I’ve done quite alot, in the meantime. I think it was because when I had the shop –which was completely a one-man show, I could never afford to employanyone. I was also doing non-fiction in the evening, andjournalism, which was too much. When I finally gave up the shop Ithought, ‘All right. No more excuses. Do what you’ve always wantedto do.’ And that’s when I did my first novel.
JL: What do you smoke now"
JC: I smokeonly the occasional Havana cigar – I think Cohiba are overrated. Ireally do, you know. I don’t understand them. I’ve still got someMontecristo that I bought from a club owner, who was closing down,about two years ago – I bought about a hundred No.1`s, and they’restill lovely. When I used to do a lot of travel, when I was ajournalist proper, I used to buy cigars in Heathrow, on the way out,because they were very very good then; hopeless now. The other bestplace I always found for cigars is Geneva airport – it has amarvellous walk-in humidor and the prices were unbelievable. Whatyou’d pay £250 for in London, was about £70. Absolutely marvellous.
JL: Do you smoke when you’re writing"
JC: I don’tsmoke when I’m writing, and I wouldn’t dare drink when I’m writing. Afterwards is different. If I’m writing a novel in the summer, thebest thing at the end of the day – I write with a pen so I’mphysically exhausted at the end of a working day – is to get intothe garden, big glass of red wine and a cigar, and just watch thesmoke go up to the sky. Absolutely brilliant.
JL: Of all thebookshops in all the world that you’ve ever visited, which bookshopwould you prefer to smoke in"
JC: Shakespearebookshop in Paris. But it’s so tiny and cramped that I think youreally could set the whole place alight. The books in it areabsolutely redolent with the absinthe drinkers and the whole romanceof the cigars, and all that.
JL: This is Paris, where they officially banned smoking in therestaurants years ago, a ban which the French smokers havecheerfully ignored…
JC: I know. Itdoesn’t work at all.
JL: They’re nowtalking about banning smoking in London. You live in London, ifthey banned smoking here tomorrow, what would you do"
JC: In thestreets, do you mean"
JL:All public places, including restaurants and pubs.
JC: That wouldbe a terrible, terrible shame. The place I like to smoke cigarswhen I’m not at home is probably the Groucho Club. And if theybanned smoking, I think they’d close down. So I would cling on tothem, and also they’ve got a pretty good selection of Havanas,normally. So I would hope they would be the one exception.
JL:Charlotte Rampling is starring in the first film made from one ofyour novels (Summer Things). Does her character smoke"
JC: TheElizabeth character doesn’t smoke but Rampling looks very sexy, withher cigar. The funny thing about Charlotte Rampling is, apart fromThe Night Porter, you’re a bit pushed to name any films she was in. But everyone who had heard of this news (about her starring in thefilm of Connolly’s novel) – and young men too, of about 30 – say‘Charlotte Rampling! I would…!! Gosh, she’s so amazing!!!”. She isso known, everyone thinks she’s the sexiest thing on Earth, and yetshe’s lived in France for 25 years and hasn’t made that many films. I’m looking forward to visiting the set in September and if shesmokes I will tell you. I think everyone else will be smokingthrough their ears, just from looking at her.