Today’s Roving Eye interview is with acclaimed British crime writer RJ Ellory. His novels have twice been short-listed for the CWA Steel Dagger for Best Thriller (2003’s Candlemoth and 2007’s City of Lies). In 2010 A Simple Act of Violence picked up the top prize of the Theakston's Old Peculiar Crime Novel of the year.
When did you first realise that you wanted to write for a living?
Maybe ‘needed’ is better than ‘wanted’ in this context! I was always creatively minded, right from an early age. My primary interests were in the field of art, photography, music, such things as this. Not until I was twenty-two did I consider the possibility of writing. I remember having a conversation with a friend of mine about a book he was reading, and he was so enthusiastic! I thought ‘It would be great to create that kind of an effect’. That evening – back in November of 1987 – I started writing my first book, and over the next six years I wrote a total of 23 novels. Once I started I couldn’t stop, and now I think it just took me those first twenty-two years of my life to really discover what I wanted to do. Now it seems like such a natural part of me and I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. Paul Auster once said that becoming a writer was not a ‘career decision’ like becoming a doctor or a policeman. You don’t choose it so much as get chosen, and once you accepted the fact that you were not fit for anything else, you had to be prepared to walk a long, hard road for the rest of your days, and I concur with his attitude. I think writing was sort of inevitable for me, it just took a while for me to find out.
What made you chose crime fiction?
Well, for me, the thing I am interested in is people. That’s the sum total of my interest. People. The situations they get themselves into. How they deal with them. How they react. The decisions they make as a result. That’s what fascinates me and that’s what I want to write about. The truth about the crime genre is that it can encompass so very much as far as subject matter is concerned. A crime thriller can be historical, it can be political, it can be a straight homicide investigation, it can be a conspiracy. It gives you an enormous canvas, you see. We all know that the way criminal investigations are portrayed on TV is about as far from the reality as you could imagine. I spent some time with a homicide detective in Washington in January, and she told me that she would sometimes be working four or five or six homicides simultaneously. Aside from the fact that such a schedule prohibits any kind of personal life, it also means that the amount of attention that can actually be devoted to one case is very limited. Homicide investigation is a tough, unforgiving, unrewarding, brutally dark and relentless vocation, and there are very few people capable of doing it. I think that crime fiction reflects that more honestly than any crime series on TV. And the thing that never ceases to amaze me is the indomitability of the human spirit, the things that people are capable of overcoming, and the fact that they can then survive beyond that. For me, writing ‘crime thrillers’ or ‘mysteries’ is not so much about the crime itself, even the investigation, but the way in which such events can be used to highlight and illuminate the way that people deal with things that are not usual. If there is one common thread throughout my books, though they are all very different stories, it is that we are always dealing with an ordinary person thrown into an extraordinary situation. That’s the common theme. That’s the thing that fascinates me. I suppose I am a romantic at heart, and I try very hard to be in touch with the emotional nature of people and things, and what I am always striving to do is have a reader feel what the characters are feeling, to get an idea that they have spent some time with real people, and to bring about the sense that they were aware of what was going on with that character on many levels. That, for me, seems key to making a book memorable. And presenting characters with difficult situations that people ordinarily don’t have to deal with gives you the whole spectrum of human emotions and reactions to write about.
What crime novel would you most like to have written?
Well, even though it is a novel only in the loosest sense of the word (because it is based on true events), that would have to be ‘In Cold Blood’ by Truman Capote.
Who is your favourite author outside of crime fiction and why?
With me, the most important thing about any novel is the emotion it evokes. As I said, the reason for writing about the subjects I do is simply that such subjects give me the greatest opportunity to write about real people and how they deal with real situations. I think I write ‘human dramas’, and in those dramas I feel I have sufficient canvas to paint the whole spectrum of human emotions, and this is what captures my attention. I think 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. So when I'm writing I try not to get too bogged down in the history and facts. I work towards the evocation of an emotional effect really, whether it be anger, frustration, love, hate, sympathy etc. The books that I remember, all the way back to things I read as a child, are the books that hooked me emotionally; those books where I identified with the central character, perhaps identified with a conflict they were going through, an emotional journey they were making. The first thing I decide when I embark upon a new book is ‘What emotions do I want to create in the reader?’ or ‘When someone has finished this book and they think about it some weeks later, what do I want them to remember…what emotion do I want them to feel when they recall reading the book?’ That’s key for me. Those are the books that stay with me, and those are the books I am constantly trying to write. There are a million books that are brilliantly written, but mechanically so. They are very clever, there are great plot twists, and a brilliant denouement, but if the reader is asked three weeks after reading the book what they thought of it they might have difficulty remembering it. Why? Because it was all very objective. There was no subjective involvement. The characters weren’t very real, they didn’t experience real situations, or they didn’t react to them the way ordinary people react. In fact, some of the greatest books ever published, the ones that are now rightfully regarded as classics, are those books that have a very simple storyline, but a very rich and powerful emotional pull. It’s the emotion that makes them memorable, and it’s the emotion that makes them special. So, generally speaking, the books that stay with me are the ones that generate that emotional impact, but there is another thing to take into consideration here. I love language. I love authors that play with language, that defy the rules of how it’s ‘supposed to be done’, and so I can only answer this question by looking at whose books I possess the greatest number of, or perhaps whose books do I go back and read again and again. It is nigh impossible to name a favourite author inside or outside of any genre, so I am going to ask you to indulge me and allow me a few. I love Chandler, Annie Proulx, Cormac McCarthy, Capote of course, and there are more recent novels by the likes of Don Winslow and Daniel Woodrell that really stand head-and-shoulders above other books for me. It’s a tough question, and you shouldn’t be allowed to ask it!
Who are you reading right now?
I am reading ‘The Cleaner’ by Paul Cleave. Paul is a great friend of mine, and we were just in France together, and I do like his writing very much. I love the darkly humorous nature of it, and I think he is a very talented writer. I am also reading two books by unpublished authors, as I do spend a lot of time trying to help people find agents and publishers, and do what I can to give some advice. Like all of us, I don’t have anywhere near enough time to read as much as I would like, and there are many books that get left behind. I have also found that as I have grown older I become less patient with books. There are so many wonderful books out there that I find myself looking more and more for writers that make me feel like I am a bad writer!
If you weren’t a writer, what else could you see yourself doing?
I would be a professional musician, no doubt about it. Literature is one half of my creative life, music is the other. I am still working at the goal of playing professionally, and I do have a band, but I am at an age where you have to take the breaks you can get!
What was the last great book that you read?
Well, for the third time I read ‘Winter’s Bone’ by Daniel Woodrell, which is a truly stunning book.
One record and one book to a desert island, what would you take?
One record and one book to a desert island, what would you take?
That is another dreadful question. Oh man, that is so mean! One book would have to be ‘In Cold Blood’, and one record? That’s probably a harder question. In my current mood, probably ‘Gris Gris’ by Dr. John.
Being an Englishman, what made you chose the USA as the setting for your novels?
I think I grew up with American culture all around me. 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 fact that every state is entirely different from every other, and there are fifty of them. The politics fascinated me. America is a new country compared to England, and it just seems to me that there was so much colour and life inherent in its society. I have visited many times now, and I honestly feel like I’m visiting my second 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. The truly great books are the ones that accomplish both. 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 just love to write, and though 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!
Sum up your latest novel in less than 20 words.
A cross between ‘Angel Heart’ and ‘Apocalypse Now’. A Deep South 1970s murder investigation by a Vietnam veteran Sheriff.
And, lastly, just for fun..
Have you read or would you ever consider reading 50 Shades of Grey?
I will read anything! I would consider it, of course, and have considered it, just to find out what all the fuss was about. However, I have a mountain of to-be-read books, and ‘Fifty Shades’ isn’t amongst them, and probably never will be. That’s not to say that I have already decided what kind of book it is, but given a choice between James Lee Burke and EL James, I’m going to go with the former!