Thursday, February 24, 2011

Author interview: J.T. Ellison

And they just keep getting better.

You know, it's not just gratifying when great writers agree to do interviews, but when they really take their time to answer the questions, to show us a little about themselves, it's an absolute thrill. This week, I'm ecstatic to have J.T. Ellison on the blog. She's the best-selling author of the Taylor Jackson series that started with the acclaimed ALL THE PRETTY GIRLS and continues with. . . well, you can read about her new one, below.

And do check out her website - so many author sites are old or clunky (or both). Ms. Ellison's contains a wealth of information about her, her books, and writing generally.

And, for heaven's sake, buy her books. They are awesome and so is she.

Did you always want to be a writer growing up, or did you come to it as an adult?

Both. I was a huge reader as a kid, and wrote the requisite horrible poetry about my loves – boys who kissed me, rock formations, clouds, blue sky and cats… Eventually I went to school for a creative writing degree. I was actually a double major in English and Politics. My senior thesis advisor wouldn’t write me a recommendation to the MFA program I wanted, told me I’d never get published. So I quit writing and got involved in the political world, got my Masters at GW in Politics instead of the MFA. I didn’t come back to writing for fifteen years, when I found John Sandford. Reading the Prey series reminded me of what I loved most about writing – storytelling. I decided on the spot that I wanted to be a storyteller, ASAP.

Did you have a lot of support when you began writing, or did you suffer the same raised eyebrow most of us do? In other words, what kept you motivated at the start of your career?

My husband, absolutely. And my parents. They all seemed to believe I had it in me to write, even though I barely believed it myself. My husband let me stay home and write full time instead of getting a job, and that made all the difference. Not just the time factor, but because I had to teach myself HOW to write, and that took almost a year. The storytelling came naturally, but I didn’t have the first idea about how to write a novel. I ended up deconstructing a Sandford book, chapter by chapter, until I finally saw the patterns emerging. Then I tried it for myself.

What is your writing schedule?

I used to be militant about shutting things down and working from 12 - 4 daily. As the pressures of writing, editing and promoting two books a year mount, I find myself snatching time whenever I can get it. I’m always working – whether my fingers are on the keyboard or not. The mental writing is vital to the actual writing for me. I map the story out in my head, then go to it. I’m getting back on the 12 - 4 schedule though. Mornings are usually for business, but I’m turning some of the heavy lifting over to an assistant so I can focus on the creative again.

Do you work in a study, all alone, or do you prefer a cafe where there are people to watch (and bug you!)?

I’m a loner, no doubt. I’m a magpie, easily distracted by shiny objects. I need quiet and solitude to coax my Muse into showing herself. She can be quite shy. That is, when she’s not being a totally slutty wanton beast, begging me to tease her into being. She does that a lot too.

Do you actively look for story ideas (combing newspapers etc.), or do they just come to you?

That’s a good question. I read a lot online. Crimes and stories catch my attention, and I usually glance at them, then pop them into Evernote to be looked at later. I also have an idea box, with newspaper clippings, story ideas, titles… Strangely enough, I find that I rarely look through either of those forums for ideas. I guess the good ones lodge in my head. I bookmarked a story last year that really got under my skin, and now I’m writing it, so I guess my system works, however ragged it may be.

As a full-time writer, do you miss the hustle and bustle of a 'normal' working day, or do you get enough interaction in other ways?

No. Absolutely not. It’s terrible to say that, I know, but I really am happier all by myself. I never did play well with others. And I stopped working in an office environment in 1998, so all I remember was how annoying the constant interruptions would get. Ironically, I tried to go to my husband’s office to work yesterday, and I ended up looking out the window at the skyline, cursing the fact that I didn’t have my wrist pad, wondering who the big hulking dude was in the hall and whether he was going to break into my office, and why no one ever seems to flush toilets anymore. Very, very distracting. At home all I have to battle is my cat’s incessant need to be in my lap. I use Facebook, Twitter, email and the phone to interact with people, and it works great for me.

Have you ever thought about writing in a different genre?

Sure. But it always boils down to crime for me – I think it’s the act that transcends genres.

Am I right in thinking Lee Child blurbed your first novel? How on earth did you manage that?!

Lee is a darling man who was quite keen on helping a group of new writers all published in 2007 called Killer Year. He was assigned as my mentor through ITW’s debut author program, and I was so honored to have him. He was incredibly kind to me, in myriad ways, and taught me so much about publishing. And trust me, that blurb made me cry.

You have a new novel coming out, tell us about it.

SO CLOSE THE HAND OF DEATH is in stores now – it is the sequel to 14. The Snow White’s Apprentice, now called the Pretender, is back, and making his final move in the chess game he’s been playing with homicide Lieutenant Taylor Jackson. But Taylor doesn’t play games. She is a vengeful angel in this book, out to stop the Pretender at all costs, even if it takes everything from her - her moral code, her sense of justice, even her life.

How much energy do you put into the language aspect of your novels, the “art” so to speak?

A lot. Like everyone, I’m always learning and growing, searching for the best way to phrase something for the most impact. I’m not a reviser in the sense that I belabor a sentence until it’s perfect. Instead, I’ll go back and adjust as necessary during the revision process. I write fast and try not to think about it too much until I hit that second draft. Then all bets are off and I’m working very hard to make sure my meaning is succinct and crystal clear and the language is vivid without being purple and bruised.

Who are your favorite authors and inspirations?

John Sandford, who inspired the Taylor Jackson series, John Connolly, who inspired my ever-evolving writing style, Lee Child, who’s friendship and guidance has been invaluable. The thriller chicks: Tess Gerritsen, Erica Spindler, Alex Kava, Karin Slaughter and Allison Brennan, for showing me how not to compromise my subject matter just because I’m a woman. Diana Gabaldon, for teaching me how to create worlds. J.K. Rowling, for teaching me to follow my heart. Sharon Penman, Karleen Koen, Danielle Steele and Mary Stewart, for helping me move from children’s books to adult books (i.e.: teaching me the differences between love, romance and sex. I guess I better include Judy Blume’s FOREVER in there too, for that very reason.) Ayn Rand’s ANTHEM changed my life, Book VII of Plato’s REPUBLIC got me into graduate school, Sun Tzu’s THE ART OF WAR helped me find my soul mate, and my all-time favorite, LOLITA, by Vladimir Nabokov, showed me it’s possible to have lovable monsters.

What was your favorite thriller/mystery novel of 2010?

Oh, that’s an impossible question. Put it this way, I gobbled up Daniel Silva’s THE REMBRANT AFFAIR and Suzanne Collins HUNGER GAMES trilogy.

If you could offer just one piece of advice to aspiring novelists, what would it be?

Read everything, and try your best to write every day, even if you feel like it’s crap. 750 words of crap can be refined into 500 gossamer, silky threads, and if you do that every day for six months, you’ll have a novel.

Do you outline your novels?

I try desperately not to, because any time I know what’s happening next, I get bored and lose momentum. I do a lot of mental planning, building around particular scenes that occur solely in my head, and that seems to work best. Every time I outline I get very grumpy. At times it’s necessary, but that kind of outline for me is very top line – no more than a single sentence describing the chapter’s message, purpose or climactic event.

Do you recommend any specific "how-to" writing books for mystery/thriller writers?

On Writing - Stephen King
Write Away - Elizabeth George
The Writer's Journey - Christopher Vogler
Screenwriting Tips for Authors - Alexandra Sokoloff
Forest For The Trees - Betsy Lerner
The War of Art – Steven Pressfield
The Creative Habit – Twyla Tharp
Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life – Winifred Gallagher
Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Hamlet's Blackberry - William Powers

What is the value of writing conferences -- do you attend, or have a favorite?

They are invaluable, because you can meet everyone – heroes, agents, editors… there isn’t a better way to get involved in the writing community than sharing a few sweaty, tipsy days with a bunch of fellow writers and readers. Thrillerfest is always a good time. And my favorite small conference is Mayhem in the Midlands, in Omaha, Nebraska. It’s stellar.

You participate in a blog, Muderati: is that for marketing purposes, to connect with other writers, or just 'cos?

I’ve been on Murderati from the beginning. It started as a way to market myself, because I didn’t have a book deal, and was nascently involved with my wonderful agent. We’ve built a lovely community or readers and writers who speak the truth about the industry. I think it’s the most important forum I participate in.

What do you think of the e-book debate - is the trend away from paper books it good for authors, readers, publishers, anyone, everyone?

I want readers to read, and I don’t care what format they choose so long as they’re reading. That said, I never thought ebooks would kill the bookstores. I’m crushed to see the carnage out there right now. It’s horrid. I hope that somehow, someway, we can save our bookstores. That’s paramount right now.

Thanks so much for having me, Mark!


  1. Great interview as always! I haven't yet read Ms. Ellison's work, but she's on my must-read list now.

  2. Excellent interview.

    It never fails to amaze me, though, that people can find the monstrous Humbert Humbert "lovable."
    Fascinating? Yes. Engrossing? Definitely. Lovable? *shudder*

  3. Jennifer: Thanks, as always. :)

    Diane: I'd not thought about her comment, but you're right, lovable is an... interesting way to see him.


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