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A Most Cool Author, Interview With RJ Ellory

by Julie-Ann Corrigan

I met RJ Ellory one lovely spring weekend at the York Festival of Writing. While some of the salaried guest writers/agents appeared to find it a chore, one glance at RJ (as my friend and I immediately christened him), told me he was there because he wanted to be.

A few e-mails and months later I finally got to interview him – not because I’m a literary critic or journalist – I’m not. I asked simply because I found him inspirational and interesting; a man with something to say (and being a women, this was a surprising discovery).

I decided to tackle the issues of writing to begin with. My cunning plan was to warm him up for the more personal stuff. But I didn’t need to worry. RJ is not self-important and personal questions weren’t a problem.

I began with a question that for an aspiring writer like me was at the top of my list. Did what you read as a much younger person, influence your current writing? His answer was a very resounding ‘Yes.’ The emotion Ellory evokes in his writing is extremely important to him and it is this emotion which essentially drives all of his plots, including his more conventional thrillers. In his own words, the emotional response is primary; the crime plot is secondary. This is what defines his writing.

Conan-Doyle, Agatha Christie, Stephen King and Peter Straub influenced him in his early reading. He was definitely not averse to a sword and sorcery story and although his own writing took a different course, the influences of emotive writing are very apparent in his work.

Ellory admits to probably not reading enough in recent years – but we’ll forgive him – a four-hundred page novel every twelve months not to mention the book tours, work in local libraries, replying religiously to e-mails from fans (and aspiring writers…!), some charity work and of course a family – does exonerate him.

Ellory really does answer your e-mail within hours, he admits to having an ‘awful lot of traffic,’ and spends up to twenty hours a week on his correspondence. ‘If someone – and we all have time limitations – takes the time to e-mail me, it is only polite and proper that I reply,’ he explains in all sincerity.

Ellory also admits that if he reads while writing, inadvertently some of the style of the novelist he’s reading can sometimes pop up in his work. This is a comment that I’ve heard other writers make.

Ellory is prolific and doesn’t appear to rest. He quotes Picasso, after being asked why he still worked in his eighties, ‘Because when inspiration finds me, I want her to find me hard at work.’ Ellory is fond of a Disraeli quote too; ‘Success is entirely dependent upon constancy of purpose.’

I ask him about ‘genre’ writing. He tells me

I’m never compelled to write what “fits.”

This may explain why initially, he found it hard to get published. Ellory began writing at twenty-two (1987). During this time he wrote numerous novels and he reports, (laughing) over four hundred rejection letters. I asked him how he could ‘just stop’ as he loved it so much

I did other creative things that filled the gap, photography, music, I play the guitar.

Asked what compelled him to begin again

9/11. It made me realise that I had to do what I really wanted to do. No messing, life is too short.

He quotes his grandmother, ‘Don’t lead a “what if” life. Do what you wish to do.’ So that’s exactly what he is doing.

We talk about his novel A Quiet Belief in Angels, the one which catapulted him onto the bestseller lists, was short listed for and won a host of awards. It is the first of his books I read. A beautiful tale of a boy Joseph, whose life is dominated by a series of killings in his home county.

It is set in the American south (America is where all of Ellory’s novels are set) and is written in a style, which sets Ellory well apart from other crime writers and I believe, shows there is much to anticipate in his future work. The scenes involving Joseph’s anguished mother, and Alex Webber, Joseph’s wife are sometimes poetical in their imagery and demonstrate that there is more than a little of Ellory’s own emotions in this gorgeously written novel.

Ellory admits that A Quiet Belief in Angels is he hopes, more ‘literary’ in its execution. However he has not sacrificed substance for the sake of style; he has managed both. Ellory admits to a love of many literary writers, such as Norman Mailer, Phillip Roth and Cormac McCarthy.

Ellory himself places his novels into three distinct categories: the slow southern drama, the conventional thriller and the big conspiracy epics. But they are all crime thrillers. I ask him, does he think he will ever write outside this genre. Perhaps an outright literary novel? ‘Probably not,’ he says, ‘But who knows?’ My feeling with Ellory is that we don’t know because he probably doesn’t. My guess is: he will. In the not too distant future.

About how he actually begins a novel. For Ellory as both a reader and a writer, the ideal novel has to possess a compelling narrative, and although his genre is ‘crime thriller,’ it is the psychology of the characters that are most important to him. He agrees that the plot is secondary to the characters. The ‘crime thriller’ allows him the space to do this.

This is well illustrated in his last novel, Saints of New York, where the main protagonist – Frank Parrish drives the narrative as opposed to the plot moving the story forward. It is this technique which makes this novel so compelling; the dual narrative of Parrish on the hunt for the killer, juxtaposed against his regular meetings with Marie, the Police department psychologist.The cleverness of Ellory’s style allows Frank’s meetings with Marie to also work as a tool to tell the reader John Parrish’s back story (Frank’s father). Clever because it is timesaving and rescues the reader from too much ‘telling’ back-story.

When beginning a novel, Ellory asks himself the question; ‘What do I want to write?’ He then goes on to map out a rough idea of the story. The decision of location and time period then lend the story much of the plot, ‘Gives me the material,’ he says. He then decides (most importantly) what emotion or emotions he wishes to evoke. ‘Emotions that will hopefully, make the reader remember the emotional substance of the book – and so remember the book.’

Ellory doesn’t plot to a large degree and doesn’t write a synopsis. He chooses the most challenging ending, which is, he hopes the most emotive.

I know I’ve achieved what I want to achieve, if I read something I’ve written and it still evokes a targeted emotional response in myself.

Do you do a lot of research? I ask.

I generally research as I work, otherwise I’d never finish the novel. Research can be a double-edged sword, too little and your novel isn’t authentic, too much and the whole thing becomes too time-consuming.

He is a determined, work-obsessed author and has already finished the novel for 2012, (working title A Dark and Broken Heart).

Bad Signs, his latest work is due for release the beginning of October 2011. In this novel Ellory returns to the haunting ground covered in the award winning A Quiet Belief in Angels. Set in 1960’s California and Texas, it examines the darkness within all of us, the inherent hope for salvation and the ultimate consequences of evil. Violence in the novel is plentiful.

Ellory’s prolificacy is the consequence of not only his (admitted) obsession with literature but also his inherent discipline. He begins writing around seven thirty in the morning and writes until noon; a sandwich later he begins again and stops working when his son comes home from school. He’s happy if he writes 3,000 words a day (which is quite productive), but has been known to produce 11,000 words (extremely prolific)! He informed me


that he had a rest after that particular marathon; a whole day, nonetheless! I ask him if he gets tired after such writing,

No, I’m happy that I’ve achieved something, I go and play my guitar and make dinner.

Perfect. Ellory seems content with his lot.

He is happily married (for the last twenty years). He told me, ‘My wife spent time telling me, “you are someone” before my publishing success, and now spends her time telling me, “you are no one”.

‘We all need a ‘someone’ to ground us and for Ellory it is his fourteen-year-old son, whose favourite expression at the moment is, ‘most cool’. I smiled when I read the phrase in Ellory’s Saints of New York. Inspiration does indeed come from everywhere.

How would you describe your own character? I ask.

Intense, driven, passionate – but I easily recognise when I’m wrong.

What do you find the most irritating characteristic in people that you come into contact with?

People who are self important – I hate that – people who aren’t interested in other people, people who think it is imperative to be “interesting” rather than “interested” in other people…people who lack humility.

This theme follows through when we discuss the blight of ‘the celebrity obsessed culture,’ which we now appear to live in. Ellory dislikes the way in which we celebrate celebrity for it own sake, rather than giving accolade to people that are really achieving something in this, our, messed up world. As regards his favourite type of person, there is no hesitation –

People who have passion, I admire passion in a person.

Ellory was born in 1965; his mother was single (father unknown to Ellory), it was his maternal grandmother (who incidentally was the secretary to Bomber Harris in WW2) who brought him up. He reports his grandmother as being ‘Victorian, conservative, old fashioned.’ She insisted his mother give him up for fostering. Ellory tells me the story of how his grandmother’s stepsister had a ‘premonition’ that all was not well with the young Ellory in the foster home and sent her nephew to go and see him. The nephew effectively stole Ellory back.

They found me in the foster home, no one was there, I was eighteen months old, alone and hungry.

The nephew took him to his grandmother’s house; the stepsister persuaded the grandmother to allow him to stay with his mum. He stayed until his mum died after contracting pneumonia. He was seven. Ellory has a younger brother but they were separated when his grandmother sent Ellory off to boarding school. Only recently have the two become close again.

Ellory also has a half-brother, ‘Somewhere’ – he’s never met him.

Of course this begs the question; how did all this affect you? Ellory skims over this traumatic and sad part of his life, saying,

Yes, it was sad, I was probably affected, I was a nervous sort of kid, you know, insecure, had eczema – but it was normal for me.

But Ellory points out, ‘There’s is a lot of sadness and trauma in the world,’ and ‘It could have been worse.’ I ask him if he liked his grandmother. ‘I didn’t really know her. By the time I left boarding school, she had died.’

Sometimes, the less you say, the more you reveal.

I suspect his early life has had a profound effect on Ellory but he’s not the sort of guy to ruminate about it too much. He has a family of his own now. However, the pathos which is evident in some of his characters, particularly the children who grow into adulthood, (Joseph in A Quiet Belief in Angels, and John Costello in Anniversary Man), may indeed resonate to some extent with his own past.

So where does RJ see himself in five years time? He laughs hard,

Well, another six books published…hopefully two films made…and to be a viable author, sales wise.

Ellory admits to really wanting to ‘break’ the U.S market. His novels are extremely successful in France but as yet, have failed to make a massive impact on the Americans. He also tells me that he has sold the option film rights of A Quiet Belief in Angelsto French film director, Olivier Dahan. Ellory wrote the screenplay…and is waiting. It’s the only time in the interview when I hear exasperation in his voice – the film industry is notoriously slow, uncommunicative and sometimes (I got the feeling), a bit rude. But Ellory is stoical, and shrugs it off. ‘Haven’t even been paid yet…’

The interview comes to an end and my friend’s intuition at the festival had been spot on. Ellory is a lovely, altruistic, genuine and slightly ‘off-the-wall’ character – with heaps of talent. Charismatic rather than enigmatic; complicated but with his feet firmly fixed on the ground.

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Julie-Ann has been writing for four years.  The best of Café Lit 2011, which includes two of her stories is available from Amazon

 Julie-Ann is on Twitter @aspirinnovelist

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