J.J. Connolly Interviewed: "Viva La Madness Is Better Than Layer Cake"

Jason Statham has been announced as playing the lead role in the follow-up to Layer Cake. In this interview from the archives, the author tells us about the inspiration behind the characters and why women love his sex scenes more than men...
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Why did it take you so long, ten years, to follow up Layer Cake?

I got distracted, I guess. It’s easily done. I was writing screenplays and messing around in movies – that whole world is very seductive and can be very well paid. I traveled and hung out – did all the things a shitkicker with money does. But then one day I realised that the clock was ticking – ten years had slipped by without me noticing and what I really wanted to do was get down and write another book. I also wanted to get it right. It was hard to follow up a book that had been as successful as Layer Cake, both in terms of sales and critical response. People loved that book. I get asked if it’s hard to follow up Layer Cake but I think I’d rather be following up a decisive victory than a dismal defeat… some movie where the cast ended up in East Enders.

Layer Cake did Daniel Craig a lot of good. He’s gone on to mega-stardom.

It’s funny but when Layer Cake, the book, first came out people suggested, joked, that the character was a criminal James Bond. It was good casting Daniel. I’d like to claim it was my idea but it wasn’t. I think Layer Cake was the tipping point for him – he was known and respected in that business but after Layer Cake came out, people, the Bond people, saw what he could do. He makes a good Bond – Daniel looks like he could have a proper brawl, you know, kick someone in the head. It had started to get a bit camp. He made it credible again.

If there was a film of Viva la Madness would Daniel Craig do it?

Absolutely no idea but he’s a very busy man these days. I’d love him to do it and that’s not my decision to make. He delivered last time… so why not.

Will there be a film?

It’s very early stages. If writing a book, making a film, and getting it out to three or four hundred multiplex cinemas in the UK was a football season, we’d have only played two games so far – they’d be thirty-six to go, and a hard slog through winter. In some respects writing the book is the easy part. You have to be patient. I’d love it to happen. Some writers bitch about having their work adapted but my experience was a good one. It was a laugh going to work and I never thought I’d say that. My hunch is that, yes, there will be a movie at some point.

The sex scenes are always fun to write. It’s funny, or maybe it ain’t, but women always like those scenes more that men – the more graphic the better. Bring it on, I get told... repeatedly.

You’re halfway home as Viva la Madness is very cinematic. Was that deliberate?

Definitely. Everybody’s been saying that – and I take that as a compliment. When I read I make myself a film in my head. It’s the writer’s job to make that process as easy as possible – so readers are almost eavesdropping these people, seeing the locations, smelling the coffee if you like. Viva la Madness flows like a film. And has snap edits like a film. There’s a lot of “cut to” involved. Lots of flashback and different aspects of the same story told from different points of view. It has captions and timelines. Writers nowadays have borrowed these techniques from film.

What was that story about Hollywood people being more impressed with you writing for Ricky Gervais than Robert De Niro?

Bobby, please. I did a small rewrite for some scenes in a movie, Stardust, for De Niro and Ricky Gervais, and then I went over to Hollywood to do the rounds. Studio guys were asking me what I’d been up to. I mentioned that I done the thingy with De Niro, thinking they’d be at least slightly impressed but they just shrugged, yeah, whatever, real blasé. Then I added the scenes were with a chap called Ricky Gervais and they went bonkers, like star-struck kids. ‘You worked with Gervais? Oh my god!’ He wasn’t that big over there at the time but they’d all been watching The Office on imported DVD – started quoting line after line, I love that bit, love this bit, what about that bit, you know, went silly. If you think it through The Office has even more appeal in the US because it’s about all that corporate structure business, office politics, hierarchies. They were calling Gervais the new John Cleese, a genius, calling their mates in, the other studio executives, to meet me, to shake my hand, ‘cause I’d written some stuff for Ricky Gervais.

Did you meet Ricky Gervais? What did you think of him?

No! I never met the man but I didn’t tell them that!

The characters in Viva la Madness, and Layer Cake, seem very real. Are they?

Only in my head, James, only in my head. They’re composites of people I have known over the years. Or I see an incident or someone tells me a story and I work it up into something I can use – till the characters talk back or I start to think they would, or wouldn’t, do or say that. That’s when you know your characters are real. These people do exist but they’re operating at the extreme ends of human nature, getting by and getting rich through force of personality or threat of violence. Some of the maddest geezers I’ve ever met have also been some of the funniest.

I’m always getting guys coming up to me and telling me that a character from Layer Cake is really based on their mate, or brother, or uncle or someone… and then asking me how I know him, for real. I ask them how their pal or Uncle what’s-his-face feels about being portrayed as a psychopathic lunatic and they always tell me ‘He fucking loves it! He’s fucking made up! Fucking buzzing!’

People refer to them as gangsters but strangely I always see them as human beings first and criminals second. Without sounding like some sociology student, maybe they didn’t have the choices or opportunities other people have.

It’s funny but as a writer you can invent your ideal girlfriend, dream her up. Say no more...

Who’s your favourite character?

I love them all dearly. I wouldn’t want it to get around that I have favourites. Strangely I identify with some more than others. It’s funny but as a writer you can invent your ideal girlfriend, dream her up. Say no more. It’s one of the perks. I’d like to meet Jesus’ cousin Jenna Zambrano.

What’s your favourite scene in Viva la Madness?

There’s a sequence where Jesus Zambrano goes to sort out Sammy Laniado and you get to see how fucked-up, wrongly-wired, the geezer, Jesus, really is. I wouldn’t say I enjoyed writing it but things started to come together for me at that point – it really takes flight, gets lyrical, should have a sparse Sly and Robbie soundtrack, stripped-out drum and bass. It’s scary and funny at the same time. It’s a very dark book but there’s always humour over on that there dark side. The sex scenes are always fun to write. It’s funny, or maybe it ain’t, but women always like those scenes more that men – the more graphic the better. Bring it on, I get told... repeatedly.

I really enjoyed reading Viva La Madness, it has a great energy to it.

I personally think it’s better than Layer Cake. The writing is more controlled, more practiced. I’m very happy with it and people who’ve read it, whose option I value, have genuinely loved it, and really got what I tried to do. It’s always a risk to revisit something that works well already and try and capture it again but I thought the world, main character, his voice, the whole scene was too good not to. I also wanted to get into global crime, big-time drug smuggling, money laundering and financial frauds - not literally of course – but to explore all that skullduggery. I wanted be more expansive, to drive faster, up the ante. Viva is deeper in a good way… All those underlying psychological themes and shit, man!

What are you reading at the moment?

That Gordon Burn book about Fred and Rosemary West, Happy like Murderers. They say it did his head in – finished him off. It’s heavy but brilliant. I’m gonna need counseling... a lot of fucking counseling.

Good luck with Viva la Madness. What are you doing now, the rest of the day?

Same as I do every day, James, trying to stay out of mischief.

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