Friday 3 September 2010

Dancing With Myself: RJ ELLORY interviews RJ ELLORY

A couple of things.

Today I had interviews in from Kelli Stanley and Emma Donoghue. That counts as one hell of a day.

The weeks ahead look as follows:

Sunday 5th Spetember NICK QUANTRILL

Tuesday 7th September BILL CRIDER

Thursday 9th September PATRICIA ARLENE ABBOTT

Saturday 11th September ERIC BEETNER

Sunday 12th September CHRIS HOLM

Tuesday 14th September CHRIS RHATIGAN

Thursday 16th September GERALD SO

Saturday 18th Spetember STEVE WEDDLE

Sunday 19th September EMMA DONOGHUE

Tuesday 21st September PAUL D BRAZILL

Thursday 23rd September CHRIS DABNOR

Saturday 25th September KELLI STANLEY

Tuesday 28th September MALACHI STONE

Thursday 30th September MICHAEL MORECI

Wednesday 6th October REED FARREL COLEMAN

I'm sure you'll agree, whatever your taste, there's something in there that's going to be to your liking.

If you're one of those who's offered an interview, I'm looking forward to hearing from you whenever that may be.

Should you be involved in writing, editing, blogging in a way that might fit into the mix, please drop me a list in the comments boxes and let me know. I'll get back to you one way or the other.

I'd also like to offer thanks those who've given space to promote these pages - I'll give you your shout over the next weeks. It's certainly appreciated.

And now to today's interview.

(so much for saying nothing and letting the man speak for himself).

I'm one of those who carries round a quiet belief in angels. How about you?

Delighted to present to you for your entertainment/education/satisfaction,


1. Tell us your viewpoint about your work, and why you became a writer.

The best explanation of the difference between non-fiction and fiction, I feel, is that non-fiction's primary purpose is to convey information, whereas the purpose of fiction is to evoke an emotion in the reader. I think great books work on an emotional level. Fear is an emotion, a very powerful emotion. Perhaps people read thrillers and horror novels because it is a way of experiencing emotions that you ordinarily don’t experience in life, but without putting yourself directly in harm’s way. I think, also, that it is an effort to try and better understand the aspects of the human psyche that we don’t have answers for. The more we ourselves understand about human nature, the better we will survive. I know we operate that way, so all reading – of whatever genre or subject – has to also come down to the fact that we are trying to better comprehend life, and thus improve the quality of our existence. I always read as a child. I was orphaned at seven and sent away to various institutionas, and there was always great access to books. When I think of my childhood I think of three things: long-distance running, reading and being hungry! I started with Christie and Conan Doyle, Shakespeare and the classics, and then I found Harper Lee and Truman capote, Steinbeck, Faulkner and Hemingway. Later on, in my early teens, the kind of TV we watched was predominantly American. I grew up watching Starsky and Hutch, Hawaii Five-O, Kojak, all those kinds of things. I loved the atmosphere, the diversity of culture. The politics fascinated me. America is a new country compared to England, and it just seems to me that there’s so much colour and life inherent in its society. I have visited a number of times, and I honestly feel like I’m going home. And I believe that as a non-American there are many things about American culture that I can look at as a spectator. The difficulty with writing about an area that you are very familiar with is that you tend to stop noticing things. You take things for granted. The odd or interesting things about the people and the area cease to be odd and interesting. As an outsider you never lose that viewpoint of seeing things for the first time, and for me that is very important. Also many writers are told to write about the things they are familiar with. I don’t think this is wrong, but I think it is very limiting. I believe you should also write about the things that fascinate you. I think in that way you have a chance to let your passion and enthusiasm for the subject come through in your prose. I also believe that you should challenge yourself with each new book. Take on different and varied subjects. Do not allow yourself to fall into the trap of writing things to a formula. Someone once said to me that there were two types of novels. There were those that you read simply because some mystery was created and you had to find out what happened. The second kind of novel was one where you read the book simply for the language itself, the way the author used words, the atmosphere and description. I think that the truly great books are the ones that accomplish both. A classic, for me, is a book that presents you with narrative so compelling you can’t read it fast enough, and yet written so beautifully you can’t read it slowly enough. I think any author wants to write great novels. I don’t think anyone – in their heart of hearts – writes because it’s a sensible choice of profession, or for financial gain. I certainly don’t! I just love to write, and that love, that passion, has been there since my early twenties. First a reader, then a writer.

2. Tell us about the novels you have published.

Although the subject matter that I want to write about takes me to the States, it is nevertheless more important to me to write something that can move someone emotionally, perhaps change a view about life, and at the same time to try and write it as beautifully as I can. I also want to write about subjects – whether they be political conspiracies, serial killings, race relations, political assassinations or FBI and CIA investigations – that could only work in the USA. The kind of novels I want to write just wouldn’t work in small, green, leafy villages where you find Hobbits! So that is where my selection of genre and subject matter comes from, and right from the first book – Candlemoth – I have tried to create real and believable characters and storylines that have this American cultural and political background. Candlemoth is the story of two boys, one black, one white, who grow up together from the early 50’s in North Carolina. It tracks through that time period – up through the death of JFK and Martin Luther King, through Nixon and Watergate, all the significant political and social events of that time. The story is told in flashback from the perspective of the main protagonist, the white boy now in his thirties, who is on Death Row for the murder of his black friend. The events are recounted to a Catholic priest sent to reconcile the man to his execution, and it deals with the events that brought him there and how he was consigned to such a fate. Ghostheart, my second novel, is told from the perspective of the central female character, a young woman, who – by the discoveries she makes in the pages of a book – learns the history of New York gangland and underworld figures in the 50s and 60s, and ultimately how this history relates to herself and her own life. The third book, A Quiet Vendetta, is a five hundred-page epic that deals with seventy years of accurate Mafia history throughout New York, LA, Chicago, Miami, Havana, and numerous other cities, and is told through the eyes of a young man who becomes a hitman for organised crime. City of Lies, the fourth release, is a fast-paced thriller that deals with the lives and crimes of a group of elderly gangsters in Manhattan, and how they use their influence to seduce a younger man into a criminal lifestyle. It concludes with four violent high-powered armed robberies in four different banks in New York City on Christmas Eve. The fifth, A Quiet Belief In Angels, is the biography of a young boy growing up in Georgia in the 1930 and 40s, and how his entire life is affected by the killing of a number of young girls in his hometown. A Simple Act of Violence, the sixth book, is essentially two stories – a series of contemporary killings in Washington DC and how these killings are linked to the undercover actions of the CIA in Nicaragua in the 1980s. Lastly, The Anniversary Man, just released, is the story of a serial killing survivor who works with the Police to uncover the identity of someone perpetrating killings in New York who is copying famous serial killings of the past and carrying them out on the anniversary of their original occurrence. The next book is called ‘Saints of New York’ and will be out at the end of September.

3. What did it take for you to get your break as an author?

I was just bloody-minded! I started writing on November 4th 1987, and between then and July 17th 1993 I wrote something every day except for three days when I was going through a divorce. I completed twenty two novels in that time, something in the region of three and a half million words, and at different times I was in discussion with a couple of agents, with one or two publishing companies, but nothing ever really got as far as I would have liked. I wrote first of all in longhand, and then I got a typewriter, and finally ended up with an Amstrad dedicated wordprocessor that took about half an hour to warm up!
I spent those six years sending material out to British publishers, and received about five hundred complimentary, very polite ‘Thanks but no thanks’ letters. I also have two lever arch files with something in the region of three or four hundred straightforward format rejection slips. This is just from companies that didn’t even look at the material I sent them. I understand the sheer volume of work that a handful of people have to wade through in a publishing house. People have given me figures on just how many unsolicited scripts come to the major publishing houses each week, and that figure is astounding. My belief was that if I just kept on going I would eventually find the right person in the right company at the right time. I had this datum from Disraeli who said, ‘Success is entirely dependent upon constancy of purpose’. However, after six years of doing this I finally thought ‘Enough’s enough’, and I stopped writing. I then studied music, photography, all manner of things, and didn’t go back to writing until the latter part of 2001. It was then that I wrote ‘Candlemoth’. I sent that to thirty-six publishers, thirty-five of whom sent it back. All except Bloomsbury, and an editor there gave it to a friend who gave it to a friend, and it wound up at Orion with my current editor, and we have now worked together through eight books. Since Orion signed me there have been a couple of comments made by a couple of publishers I have met about how they should perhaps have pursued things with a little more tenacity back in the early days. The earlier unpublished stuff will probably stay right where it is in the loft. It was a different genre, more supernatural in a way, and I write better now anyway. I think the time away from it between 1993 and 2001 made me more succinct, gave me a greater clarity about what I wanted to say. I have gone back recently and read some of my earlier work and it was a little verbose. But hell, it was good practice!

4. Can you tell us a bit about how you approach a new book, the thought process, involved, the way in which you actually start?

Well, with me, a book always begins with the emotion I want to evoke in the reader. I have a very simple view of books. As I said before, I believe that non-fiction, as its primary purpose, is there to convey information. Fiction, however, is not there solely to entertain, but to evoke an emotion. I think the books that we love the most, the books that define our lives, the books that we always recommend to people, are those that have touched us emotionally. If I am trying to do anything with my writing, I am attempting to connect with people on an emotional level. For me, the most important thing is that once somebody has finished reading my books they might not necessarily remember the name of the book, even the plot details, but they will remember how it made them feel. That’s the most important thing for me. How does a book make you feel, and does that memory stay with you? So that’s my first consideration: the emotional effect I am trying to create. The second thing is the location. Location is vital for me as the location informs and influences the language, the dialect, the characters – everything. I choose to start a book in Louisiana or New York or Washington simply because that ‘canvas’ is the best for to paint the particular picture I want to paint. So I start with the emotion, and once that is resolved, I choose the location. Then I start looking into the geographical, social and cultural characteristics of the location. From this I determine some interesting facts and idiosyncrasies that I feel would be interesting to write about. Then I’ll work out the primary character, their name, occupation, things like that. I’ll start with the first line, something that I think is intriguing or has a certain attention-grabbing quality, and from there I just launch it whatever comes to mind and see where the thing takes me. Often, even half way through a book, I won’t necessarily know where or how it’s going to end. I don’t plan or structure something chapter by chapter. There’s more spontaneity in it for me than that. I don’t write a synopsis or an outline. Sometimes I’ll have to go away from it for a couple of hours and ask myself how I will handle a particular element which doesn’t seem to be working, and this may mean going back and changing something earlier, but in the main the thing runs like a train, and only when it’s complete will I go back through and make sure all earlier material ties in with the later events.

5. Are there any superstitions you follow to get yourself in the right frame of mind?

I buy a new notebook, a good quality one, because I know I’m going to be carrying it around for two or three months, and in the notebook I will write down ideas I have as I go. Little bits of dialogue, things like that. Sometimes I have a title, sometimes not. I used to feel very strongly about having a good title before I started, but now – because at least half the books I’ve published have ended up with a different title - I am not so obsessive about it! And as far as little idiosyncratic routines and superstitions are concerned, I don’t know that I actually have any that relate to finishing a book. I do have a routine when I finish a book. I make a really good Manhattan, and then I take my family out to dinner!

6. Are you a planner who outlines everything, or do you just get going?

No, I’m the second type of writer. I have a vague idea of the kind of story I want to tell, a good idea of the emotion I want to create, and a definite decision about when and where it’s going to take place. The immediacy and spontaneity of not planning a complete novel appeals to me. I get involved with the characters, and sometimes I just change my mind about where I want them to go, or how I want them to handle certain things. As the story evolves so do they, and the decisions they then have to make can thus influence the plot and vice versa. I don’t write methodically-planned police procedurals. I believe I write human dramas where the crime is actually a secondary issue. The books are more about the effect of such things on people, and that’s what has always interested me. I think if I sat and planned a book – chapter by chapter, section by section – then by the time I had finished the plan I wouldn’t want to write the book anymore as there would be no flexibility and unpredictability about the process. It’s the writing itself that enthuses me, and that element of uncertainty with which I approach a book makes it all the more interesting and challenging.

7. Unpublished writers are forever being told the importance of the barnstorming opening. How do you go about this?

I don’t think they should look for a barnstorming opening. I don’t think they should look for anything as a kind of ‘magic paragraph’ or opening line. I think the very best advice I could give to a writer as far as what to write is concerned is simply to write the kind of novel they themselves would like to read, and secondly to write about those things that fascinate them. The very worst kind of book is the one that has been written by someone who believes that the subject about which they are writing will interest others, or because they think the book will ‘sell’ if it is about a specific topic or issue. Write the book that interests you. Your own enthusiasm for the subject will come through. That enthusiasm will then be contagious. I don’t know if readers generally give a book so long before they decide whether or not they will continue reading it or give up on it. I know with films that you are supposed to have decided whether or not you’re going to like the film within three minutes or something, and I don’t know whether books are the same. Personally, I am sometimes captivated more by the language used than the story itself. I read books that have very little in the way of compelling plot, but the language with which they are written is so beautiful and inspiring that I read them just as compulsively, often forcing myself to slow down so I don’t run out of book too quickly! I don’t believe there is a formula for a good book. I think that a lot of truly extraordinary and very successful books don’t work as ideas on paper, but because of the way in which they have been written or constructed, they have worked, and worked wonderfully. Books that tell you how to write a bestseller in thirty days…well, I don’t know what to say. I think great stories come from people and their experiences in life, not from formulas. But then perhaps it depends on the type of book you want to write. I’m interested in writing books that people can be emotionally and mentally involved with and challenged by. I’m not interested in writing two hundred and fifty page potboilers with a dead body at the start and a perpetrator at the end. Not that there’s anything wrong with that kind of book! Quite the contrary. It’s just that I don’t want to create that kind of thing personally.

8. It has been said that the ‘crime' in your books is a secondary issue to the human drama unfolding around it. Would you agree with this?

Yes, I think it is. I always strive to write as ‘real’ a book as I can, and that is entirely dependent upon ‘realistic’ characters. I feel that if the characters you create are believable - characters you can somehow identify with, even if only on an emotional level - then you can far more easily ‘suspend the reader’s disbelief’ with the plotline that you create. Even those novelists who are successful with a series are actually successful because the character they create is someone who readers empathise with, and those readers continue to read that series because of their ‘friendship’ with the main protagonist who drives the series. I begin with that desire to create an emotional and mental effect in the reader, and then I think about the kind of character who is going to carry that emotion. That then defines their nature, their personality, their relationships, even their job, and from there I go forward into building the story around them. As the character evolves then the decisions they make as a result of their personality and experiences actually influence and alter the direction the story takes. Sometimes I have made a decision about how a plotline might go, and then when I get to that point I realize that that would not work as the character I have created just wouldn’t operate that way! Therefore the plotline can change as a result of my better understanding of the person I am writing about.

9. What's the greatest influence on your writing?

Live life. Speak to everyone you meet. Try to find out what makes people think the way they do. Go headlong into everything and give it all you’ve got. Be as interested in everyone as you possibly can, and never make the mistake of believing that life will be fun by being interesting yourself. Life is people, that’s all there is to it. Everything good that ever happened, everything bad as well, well those things happened because of people. If you don’t make people important then you’ll miss about ninety-five percent of what living is all about. Live every day as if it’s your last perhaps. Living isn’t a rehearsal. Live with the view that you’re here to give it everything you’ve got, and don’t worry about what other people might think or say. Perhaps the most popular and pointless pastime of the entirety of Western civilization is worrying about what other people might think, even when they’re people you’re never likely to see again. Make family and friends important because they are the ones who give you every defining moment of your existence.

10. What book would you recommend to a friend and why?

It has to be IN COLD BLOOD by Truman Capote. What can I say about this book? I have read this four times. I’ll read it again. Genius. Absolute genius. I feel very strongly about this book. This was almost a case of ‘one man had one book as his life’s purpose’, and then once the book was written he never published another word, and he drank himself to death. For many years – simply as a result of this book – Capote was considered one of the most eminent and important twentieth century American writers. I don’t think anything could ever take that away from him. And then there is the Harper Lee twist. Search out the Norman Mailer essay about the relationship between Lee and Capote (childhood friends – she the author of ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, the only book she ever wrote, Pulitzer Prize-winner, Oscar-winning film adaptation; Capote the author of ‘In Cold Blood’, a serialised book that sold more copies of The New Yorker than anything in history, generated four films, two of them adaptations of the book, two of them bio-pics of this period of his life), and see what you make of it. An astonishing book – as William Shawn said ‘I think this book will change the way people read…it may even change the way people write…’ Superb, breathtaking, magnificent.

“Set in New York City, The Anniversary Man is the ultimate killer thriller, chronicling the case of a deranged but highly intelligent murderer who kills on the anniversary dates of famous serial murders from the past. Each subsequent slaying eerily copycats another infamous death--all faithfully replicating precise details of previous homicides. From electrifying start to shocking conclusion, this thriller affirms the genius that is R.J. Ellory. Britain's phenom author has achieved the status of world-class writer.”
Dean Murphy, International Thriller Writers


Thanks for the ride.


  1. Echoing Nigel's awestruck Wow. Best equivocation of how and why we are what we are. And Harper Lee and Capote ain't bad examples to hold out for study either. I usually include in that discussion Roy Blount Jr. the best flavor man around. And Thanks for the interview. It's a keeper.

  2. A wondeful post. Love the Harper Lee/ Capote connection.
    I haven't read any RJ but A Quite Belief In Angels is due to be started in the next week or so. Now I'm REALLY loking forward to it.

  3. Such focus. Loved this interview and the coming attractions look top of the pops.

  4. there are so many things in this interview that we can all learn from - there's depth and humility and advice. top tip for me is the live life, worry less section. i'm going to try to put those top of my list.