R.J. Ellory is a persistent guy. It took the 44-year-old British-born author 16 years and 22 rejected manuscripts before he could get one of his novels, 2003’s Candlemoth, published.
Six years and several successful books later, Ellory has made his mark as one the most distinctive writers of the crime thriller genre (or any other, for that matter). His latest novel, the affecting, impressively crafted A Quiet Belief in Angels, was just published in the U.S.
Ellory took time out of his busy book-tour schedule to answer a few questions for CityBeat in advance of his appearance at the Books by the Banks festival on Saturday.
CityBeat: You have a gift for crafting unique, unpredictable narratives. Do you map out a story’s plot beforehand, or is it more of an instinctual thing?
R.J. Ellory: Very definitely an instinctual thing. Realistically, I do have a rough idea of the kind of novel I want to write before I start but I don't put an outline together, nor a synopsis. There are two things I establish in my own mind before I begin a book. The first is the emotional effect I am trying to create. The second is the location and time period of the story. The location is as important a character to me as the people in the book. Location and time period dictate language, dialect, politics, culture, so many things, especially when you are writing a book set in the States. There is such a diverse and rich contradiction and contrast of cultures here that a book set in New York and a book set in Georgia are going to be completely different stories with completely different atmospheres and feelings.
CB: As a born and bred Brit, why are you so interested in writing stories set in the United States?
RE: I think writers are often told, “Write what you know.” Though I don't think this is a bad piece of advice, I do think it's somewhat limiting. I think you should concentrate on writing what you’re interested in. The things that interest me just wouldn't work in a British setting. If you want to write complex political conspiracies, serial killer novels set in post-Depression Georgia, books about the CIA, the FBI, the assassination of the Kennedys and such things, well they just wouldn't work in those small green villages in England where you find hobbits! That's the thing for me. I'm writing about what fascinates me.
As Paul Auster said when he stated that there was no choice in becoming an author — that you were essentially “chosen” — so it has been for me in what I write about. There has been no real choice in the subjects and locations I write about. It just felt right, and it just was the thing I wanted to do.
CB: What’s up with your interest in serial killers?
RE: Well, that's a direct question! I have always been fascinated by the psychology and motivation of crime.
Whereas many crimes can be classified as “crimes of passion” — jealousy, revenge, anger, the heat of the moment — or “crimes of considered necessity” — the perpetrator robs a bank or holds up a store or breaks into someone's house in the misguided belief that this is the only way they can make enough money to support themselves, etcetera — serial killing is neither one of those, and is something no-one understands.
Psychiatry and psychology have never given definitive answers, and possibly never will. They certainly have never provided an explanation that then led to a preventative remedy or a cure for such behavior, and thus we are left in mystery. What is it that makes a human being just want to kill other human beings? It's certainly the case in the U.K., and I'm sure the case here in the U.S., that the vast majority of murder victims are murdered by someone they know. Well, a serial killer is killing strangers. The victims look a certain way. They do a certain thing. They say certain words or have something about them that prompts a response in this killer. And that response is an act of the most terrifying brutality against this stranger. Why? That's an interesting question, and certainly a question that has come up in several of the books I have published.
CB: You once said that the most important thing about any novel is the emotion it evokes. That said, how do you keep the right balance? How do you keep the story from becoming too melodramatic or emotionally indulgent?
RE: For me the important thing is to make it as real as possible, and it can only be real from your own experience and perspective. I don't analyze too much while I'm writing. I write quickly, I write sometimes in a “stream-of-consciousness” kind of thing, and then later I'll go back and read it and it will just flow and it will feel right and I'll change nothing. Other times I'll read it back and feel that it's too simple or too complex or too dramatic or not dramatic enough. It's an intuitive and spontaneous thing for me. I'm not “trying” to get it right. I just write, and if it feels right I leave it, and if it doesn't I'll change it until it does.
CB: It was interesting to find out that you wrote nearly two-dozen novels before Candlemoth was published in 2003. What kept you from giving up?
RE: The simple belief that this was what I wanted to do more than anything. John Lennon once said that you should find something you love and then you'd never work another day in your life. Through all that writing I was also working full-time, and coming home to write never felt like another job. It felt like my escape valve, my release. Frustrating, of course, to write 22 novels and to be told by the British publishing industry that they felt insufficiently confident about publishing a British author writing American novels, and then to be told by the U.S. publishing industry that they also liked the work but felt the same as the Brits.
But what can I say? Disraeli was once quoted as saying that success was entirely dependent upon constancy of purpose. I just figured that I needed to keep going, and I did, and now the past doesn't matter. It was a good experience. Twenty-two novels in six years teaches you that you can write no matter how you feel, that you can write regardless of whether or not you're “in the mood,” and it teaches you a good work ethic!
CB: Writing is a largely solitary endeavor. Now that your work is more widely published and you’re attending readings and book festivals, I’m curious what it’s like to interact with people who are familiar with and often quite passionate about your novels.
RE: Well, I love people. I think that's something you can pick up in my writing. I have always been a social person. I love meeting new people. I love having people to my house for dinner — for conversation, to share anecdotes, music, good food and such.
Yes, writing is very individual and insular, and when you've spent five or six hours in a room by yourself working on something then the best thing you can do is get out there and talk to people. I love to meet readers, and — just as in Atlanta last night — I do these events and I always come away with a list of six authors that I haven't heard of that I have to read! Book lovers are like that. They get together and they talk books, and they share books, and they recommend things that are amazing surprises.
So now, after all these years of work, the fact that I am getting out there and just sharing the books I write with new people every day is hugely rewarding. You write books so people can read them, you don't write for money or awards or recognition or notoriety or anything else. Those are crazy reasons to write. You write for people who love a good story. For people who love imaginative and lyrical prose. You write so people can have books to share with others that then start friendships and relationships and book clubs and Lord knows what else!
Storytelling is as old as speech and no less important. Storytelling is a legacy for the future. It can be just pure entertainment or it can be important social commentary, and sometimes it has the power to be both. I think it's a vitally important part of our culture and heritage, and to be reminded of that every day is just great.
Book lovers are the best kind of people in the world, that's the truth, and to have the opportunity to meet them and share these things is what life is about. People who don't have time for people … well, they don't have time for life, and for book readers the books they love make up so much of what defines them that it becomes inseparable. You can tell what a person's like from their book collection, that's for sure.
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