Roger Ellory shot to fame when his novel A Quiet Belief In Angels won the Richard and Judy Book Club. The book has since been translated into twenty-five languages. His latest novel Bad Signs is out now. His work defies categorisation. Roger also plays with the band The Whiskey Poets. He met me at The Slaughterhouse where we talked about psychotic killers and Conan Doyle.
What do you think of Richard and Judy and the rise of the E Book?
R&J was a phenomenon. I said, long before I was ever chosen for the program, that R&J and JK Rowling were pretty much exclusively responsible for getting the country reading again. I was in wholehearted support of R&J because they forced people to read outside their comfort zones. I don’t know the exact numbers, but apparently the quantity of reading groups expanded over 30 times in the UK as a result of R&J. I did over 100 library and bookclub events during the eighteen months after my book was selected, and the vast majority of those reading groups based their year’s reading around the two R&J lists. That’s not all they read, but they read those as a foundation. R&J will never be reapeated, the same way that Harry Potter, Twilight, Stieg Larsson etc. will never be repeated. They are phenomena. They cannot be controlled or predicted. They cannot be knowingly and calculatingly started or continued. They just are, and if publishers knew how to predict what would be the ‘the next big thing’, then the game would be over for everyone else. I know Amanda Ross well (MD of Cactus, the R&J production company), and she is a powerhouse, a real dynamo, a great lady, and – first and foremost – a big, big reader. She has done, and continues to do a huge amount for books in the UK, and I will wholeheartedly support anyone or anything that promotes reading.
Now e-books. Well, what can I say? E-books will never take the place of hardcopy books, just as photography never took the place of painting, and recorded music never took the place of live performances. They run alongside one another, they complement one another. There are certain downsides to e-books. You have to switch them off half an hour before the plane lands. You can’t just give them to people the way you give someone a book you’ve read. The batteries go flat when you’re in the middle of reading something. They can’t be left on the sun lounger while you take a dip in your holiday hotel pool. But they are here, and they are here to stay. I have absolutely no problem with them, and I will – more than likely – end up getting one. Again, I will support anything that enables people to read, or enables them to read more.
Do you think psychotic killers are motivated by impulses that inhabit areas that may be described as religious?
Depends on your concept of the word, ‘religious’. ‘Religion’, strictly speaking means, ‘a set of ideas or beliefs’, nothing more. ‘Religion’ does not mean ‘church’ or ‘faith’ or anything else. It is just a set of ideas or beliefs, so yes, in that sense, anyone’s motivations or impulses are, potentially speaking, a religious matter, because those motivations and impulses can be precipitated by something in which they believe. The belief can be rational, irrational, sane, insane, psychotic, neurotic, psychopathic, sociopathic, whatever you like, but it is still a belief. Psychotic killers, it seems, are solving a problem that exists solely within the parameters of their own reality, and that’s a reality they don’t share with anyone else. They believe that they are threatened by a particular type of person, that they will not survive until a particular type of person is removed from the environment, they believe that they have a ‘duty’ or ‘God-given right’ to terminate the lives of certain people, they believe that they are empowered by some higher force to ‘show others that the have wronged, and they need to be punished’. The list is endless, and unique in each case. I would say, in my experience, that these impulses and motivations are very much a matter of belief, and therefore yes, they could be considered ‘religious’ in nature, if we are applying the strict definition of the term.
What do you make of Carlos Castaneda’s idea of alternate realities and how does this relate to your career as a writer and musician?
I believe there is a great deal of crossover and common territory between writing and music, just as there is a great deal of crossover and common territory between religion and philosophy. I have always been fascinated with the nature of Man and life. Even as a child, looking at this from a more personal perspective, I was never asking myself ‘What am I going to do?’, I was always asking myself ‘Who am I going to be?’ I remember confronting that question at the age of eight and nine, you know? Who shall I be? What identity shall I assume today? What kind of personality shall I assume now? Odd questions to be asking yourself, but that’s where I was at. But then, having said that, I had an odd childhood. My father left before I was born, and I still don’t know who he is. My paternal grandparents, therefore, were never known to me either. My mother died when I was seven, my maternal grandfather had drowned in the 50s, long before I was born, and I was raised by my maternal grandmother. I went off to boarding school when I was seven and stayed there until I was sixteen. The holidays from school were spent back in my home city at my grandmother’s house. I didn’t know anyone in the area, and I was a sort of quiet, intense kid, very much tied up in my own thoughts and ideas. I read a lot, watched a lot of films, specifically films from the Golden Age of Hollywood (Cary Grant, James Stewart, Bogart, Bacall, Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney etc.), and I think I just started looking at the mechanics of life from a very early age. I would say that I am a spiritualist, philosophically and religiously speaking.
I think the idea that our ‘intelligence’ and ‘personality’ has something to do with our brain is utter, utter nonsense. I don’t think Man is an animal. I think Man is a spiritual entity, a ‘soul’ if you like, and that the ‘soul’ is the person, the character, the intelligence, the personality, and the soul is simply using the body as a vehicle with which to communicate with the physical world. I believe implicitly and with great personal certainty in reincarnation. I believe in past lives and future lives. I believe we have been around for a long, long, long time, and we have even more future ahead of us. I think if you view life and Man from a spiritually-orientated perspective, then there’s a great deal that makes sense that hasn’t made sense before. I think there are many more usable and practical answers about Man to be found in religion and philosophy than there are to be found in scrutinising and measuring brain chemicals. However, no-one possesses a monopoly on the truth, and I am open to all ideas from all walks of life. I believe that I have sort of fashioned my own personal philosophy of life from the things I have read, the things I have seen and experienced, as we all do I suppose, and I have answers that I feel work, and answers that do not, and I throw away the unworkable answers and keep the ones that seem to contribute to quality of life for me and the people I care about, and that’s all there is to it.
I read Castaneda as a teenager, and though there are a great many things I agree with, there are also some basics that I do not. I think Castaneda’s interpretation of the spirituality of Man is over-complicated. I do not believe that there is anything other than Mind, Body, Spirit, and I know that Castaneda was taught that there was both tonal and nagual, but I don’t agree. Anyway, best thing to do is read the books and make up your own mind!
As far as writing and music are concerned, I have a deep and abiding love for them both. I have commented on a number of occasions that one of them is my religion and the other is my philosophy, but I don’t know which is which! That’s just a humorous aside anyway, and isn’t meant to explain a great deal. I have always had a passion for music. Music has always played a great part in my life. I have – for a long time – been desirous of creating something musically, but for many years felt so frustrated at the lack of time I had to work at this, that I created nothing. I played guitar for a couple of years in my teens, and then I set it aside and didn’t pick it up for twenty-five years. A couple of years ago my son expressed an interest in learning the guitar, and I said I would show him a few chords. His interest lasted about three weeks, but I was bitten by the bug again and started working at it. I have now been practising as regularly as I can for the past two years, and recently I got a three-piece band together (which may soon become a four-piece as I am not the greatest singer in the world!), and we recorded a CD (just four tracks, so an EP rather than an album), and this was merely to get some of our ideas down in a more permanent state and create some opportunities for gigs and suchlike. Where it will go, and what will happen with it I do not know. All I know is that – foolish or not – I have this urge and desire to continually be creating something, and music has always been an area where I have wanted to create. My first love is blues, but I have a very wide and eclectic taste in music, and if you randomly picked ten tracks off my iPod, you would find The Gun Club, Melody Gardot, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Led Zeppelin, Doug Sahm, Shostakovich, Sinatra, Chet Atkins and Johnny Burnette. Rockabilly, jazz, country, crooners, they are all there. I tend to write most every day, then around two or three o’clock I will practice guitar and write songs, and then in the early evening I will cook for my family and friends, and there is always music playing in the house. It sounds like an ideal life, but it has been a long time coming, and continuing to create, continuing to work, travelling extensively, always being ahead of schedule, dealing with the press and radio interviews, the blog entries, facebook, twitter, the website, the flood of e-mails I receive that never stop, you have to be very organised and you have to compartment your schedule each day to stay on top of it all.
Anyway, I digress, as I always do. I think reality is reality, and we each – to a degree – have our own perception of reality, what we consider reality is, and what we would hope it to be. I think – as human beings – we have a great deal in common. I think we all have basic goals that are the same. I think the destructive elements in any society are in the vast minority, and the vast majority of people are good, decent, hardworking, kind, compassionate, philanthropic individuals who just need to be granted a greater freedom to pursue their own goals and purposes. I think the lies in society – that money is everything, that ‘celebrity’ is important, that people can’t be trusted, that there are dangerous individuals everywhere, that we are bound on some predetermined and unchangeable track towards the end of our life and then that’s it, it’s all over – have been sown by a few individuals with vested interest and ulterior motives, and we have fallen for those lies. It takes a little bit of courage to be a non-conformist, and I am in complete agreement with Emerson on that point! I also agree with Krishnamurti, that a life of comparison is a life of misery. I agree with a lot of great philosophers and thinkers about a great many things, and I believe that you just have to read as widely as you can, talk to people, listen to people, look with your own eyes, keep your own counsel, be brave enough to stand up for what you want and what you believe in, never be afraid to get it wrong, never be worried about making mistakes, always remain humble and willing to learn from anyone, and stop concerning yourself with what others think of you. What you think of yourself is so much more important, and yet worrying about what other people think of you has become the most pointless and popular pastime of the entirety of Western ‘civilisation’.
So, in conclusion, I am a thinker, a reader, an observer, a participant, and I interfere where I am neither needed nor wanted, and I am always asking questions and requiring answers that make sense and can be used I life to make things better. I believe that there is time to cram as many things into life as you can mentally and physically cope with, and you should always be trying to stretch yourself so you can take on more, get involved in more, learn more and accomplish more. I think there is a direct correlation between your own happiness and how much happiness you try to create for others. I was listening to Julie Walters yesterday evening on some TV program, and she quoted Wilde when he said, ‘Ordinary riches can be stolen, real riches cannot. In your soul are infinitely precious things that cannot be taken from you.’ I would agree with that, and I think if people stopped for a moment, looked at themselves, their own lives, their own likes and dislikes, and really asked themselves how they could make more people happy, and what they could do that would bring happiness to themselves, then they would stop worrying about what others thought, and start living a more fulfilling and interesting existence. As my cousin said to me the other day, ‘It takes courage to follow your dreams’. It does, and it should, and here endeth the lesson!
You are well known for your novel A Quiet Belief in Angels. Are there other works of yours you would prefer to be known for?
I have an affection for each novel I have published, but each for different reasons. Asking me which is my favourite novel is like asking a father with nine kids which one he loves the most. There is no favourite. There can’t be. I am very pleased with the success of ‘A Quiet Belief in Angels’, of course, but if it was another book that had been promoted through the Richard & Judy Book Club, then I would have no problem with that at all. I like the prose in ‘Angels’, I like the pace, but – as with all the books that you write – you can always look back and think how you would have done something differently. That’s the thing about working hard and writing continually. There is always room for improvement, and if you look back at something that you previously wrote and cannot see how you could have done it better, then you are not improving. We seem to consider that artistic creative ability is something one is born with, something one is inherently gifted with, but I don’t believe that. Picasso, interviewed in his eighties, was asked why he still spent so much time in his studio, and he made some comment to the effect that ‘When inspiration finds me, and she finds me rarely, I wish her to find me hard at work’. Hemingway said something like, ‘Never let them know that you have to work at this craft; let them think you were born this way.’ I think there is such a thing as natural talent, of course, but I think even those with natural talent have to work and work and work to hone and perfect it. True professionals in any field are generally those who have devoted years and decades to what they do. Your own ability as a writer, a musician, a photographer, a choreographer is ever-changing, ever evolving, and it changes and evolves as you work. Every book I write, I am writing it to be the best book I have ever written. That’s the way I view it. Whether it becomes the best book I have written is beside the point, but that is the attitude with which I approach it. That is what I want it to be. So no, there is no other work I would prefer to be known for. I was pleased with ‘Angels’ as a book, and I am still pleased with it. I will keep on trying to write the perfect book, but I know I never will, and I kind of don’t want to write the ‘perfect book’ as I would then have accomplished my goal as a writer, and I would have to go and get a proper job!
Carlos Santana believes music can alter your molecular structure. What do you make of his observation?
I THINK HE SMOKE TOO MUCH WEED!
I don’t think music can change your molecular structure at all, unless you fire sufficiently strong a soundwave at someone, and that could blow them to pieces. No, molecules don’t change. I think what he means to say is that the wavelength of aesthetics is very close to that of spiritual energy, and thus – sometimes – music can reverberate along a wavelength that is similar enough to the wavelength of an individual’s spiritual aura, and thus the aura could move and and shift in intensity proportionately. That would produce a physiological reaction, an agitation of the nervous system, an increase or decrease in glandular secretions etc., and I think it would feel like a molecular shift, but it wouldn’t be a change in your molecular structure, no. Additionally, music can evoke emotional responses by triggering past memories, and this would be a psychological reaction that could produce a physiological reaction, e.g. laughter, tears, a change in emotional state. But here we are talking mental, emotion and spiritual responses to aesthetic wavelengths, not physical responses. I think that Carlos needs to get a bit more spiritual, and a little less biological!
You cite Arthur Conan Doyle as an influence. How do you see his legacy?
So, to Conan Doyle. You know, there has been a longstanding contention regarding which novel could be considered to be the first ‘thriller’. Is it ‘The Riddle of the Sands’ by Erskine Childers (1903) or ‘The Thirty Nine Steps’ by John Buchan (first serialised in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1915). Childers has been cited as an influence for Fleming, Le Carre and others. Buchan described his own novel as a ‘shocker’, and then went on to say that a ‘shocker’ was an adventure where the events in the story are unlikely and the reader is only just able to believe that they really happened. Does this definition not desribe the vast majority of crime fiction?
My question is this? Is Conan Doyle not the forerunner of both of these styles of writing?
‘A Study in Scarlet’ arrived in 1887. It gave us a detective – quirky, idiosyncratic, brilliant, forensically-minded, astute and perceptive beyond any previous parameter. It gave us the detective-sidekick relationship, the challenging plot, the stunning denouement, the application of logic to illogical problems. Was Holmes not an inspiration for Christie, Marsh. Allingham, Chesterton, Sayers and then all the way through to Chandler, Hammett, Macdonald, Thomas Harris, Patricia Cornwell and Michael Connelly? Each of them have created an iconic, quirky, identifiable lead detective character, a series character, and they all owe a huge debt to Holmes.
Detective fiction novels in general, whether they be crime thrillers or police procedurals, also owe a huge amount to Conan Doyle. Doyle’s work is superb. I read the complete works of Conan Doyle as a teenager, and have read them again since, and I never cease to be blindsided by Conan Doyle. And Holmes, as a character, is a very dark creation. HIs obsessions, his misogynistic attitude, his drug dependency, his moods, his aggression, his disappearance into some inner world that no-one can fathom or perceive. And Watson was not some bumbling half-wit, as protrayed in the Basil Rathbone adaptations (which, despite all, I loved as a child, and still love), but Watson was a doctor, a trusted confidante and companion, and we cannot forget that Watson was the voice of Holmes, considering that the short stories and novels were ‘Watson’s memoirs’.
So I see his legacy, even now, as valid today as it has ever been. Holmes is a brilliant creation. Conan Doyle’s plotting and ‘reveal’ is second-to-none. These stories have recently been adapted and ‘updated’ once again for British television, and the public love them as much as they ever did. Even Hollywood has thrown itself into the mix with the recent Downey/Law partnership, and I believe there is a sequel on the way.
I am a dedicated and committed fan of both Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes, and I think we will forever be referencing Holmes as one of the most important, significant and utterly fascinating detective characters to ever have been created.
Do you think creativity is connected to childhood experiences and that narrating is an effort by the adult mind to impose order on them?
In a word, no. I don’t honestly believe that childhood experiences have as much of an effect on the person as we are told. If you consider that a human being is not a body, but a spiritual entity, then the vast majority of what is going on with that person is already there at birth. Birth is just a genetic process, as is death, and the personality and character of an individual is there before the birth of the current body, and is still there after the death of that body. Your parents are your genetic originators, and are responsible for the well-being and care of your body in infancy. And, of course, there are truly dreadful childhood experiences that can very significantly influence a person, or at least focus an individual’s attention and energies in a particular direction, but most people do not have to endure truly dreadful childhoods! Nevertheless, even in the case of those who are raised in a violent, abusive, dangerous environment as a child, they are still – at least to some degree – predisposed to responding to that environment in a particular fashion, and themselves becoming violent, abusive and dangerous. How do we know this? Simply because there are many, many more people who also endure horrendous treatment in childhood, and they do not becomes psychopaths, sociopaths or sex-killers. I know this goes against the grain for a lot of people, this idea that we – ourselves – are very much responsible for the condition we are in, but I have a mind to be contentious and nonconformist much of the time. That is my nature, and you neither have to agree or disagree with me, but simply accept that I have an opinion. The spirit is the personality, the character, the identity, and the motivations, purposes, interests and intentions of that person are innate to that person, not his or her body. The body is merely the vehicle that we employ to communicate with the physical world around us for a few decades. Then we move on, obtain another body, and begin a new cycle. We have been around for a long, long, long time, and will be around for a long time into the future.
It walks us right into the ‘nature versus nurture ‘ debate, and though this is relevant, it is very short-sighted. In essence, it comes down to semantics. What is ‘nature’? It is used to mean the genetic and cellular predisposition of the individual, but Man is not a genetic or cellular entity. His or her body is genetic and cellular, but the individual themselves is a spirit. This is where Western religions have gone wrong. You are told you ‘have a soul’. No, you don’t. You are one! So when we look at the ‘nature’ of a person, we have to look at ‘spiritual nature’, not physical nature. The state and condition of the spirit – which is the person themselves, the personality, the character, the identity – is reflected in what the person does, how they behave, who they actually are. When the body dies, so does the brain. The spirit does not die. The spirit goes on, as does the mind. The brain is no more responsible for your thinking, feeling, remembering, deciding and rationalising, than the heart – as a physical muscle – is responsible for who you love! The brain is a car battery. It generates electrical impulses which pass through the nervous system, and enable the body to move. It governs hormonal and glandular secretions, so – on a purely physiological level – we are readied for ‘fight or flight’. But the brain does our thinking? The brain ‘feels’? No, absolutely not. Utterly, utterly ludicrous.
The ‘brain theorists’ will talk about adrenalin and serotonin and neurons and synapses, and how you can alter a person’s personality with drugs and whatnot, but when a person is given psycho-active drugs all that is happening is that the brain – nothing more than a relay switchboard between the mind and the body – is being disabled or inhibited in some fashion. Therefore, you can actually limit the ability of the individual to carry out a predetermined intent to harm or destroy, but all you have done is put chemical handcuffs on the person, you have not actually addressed the origin of why he or she wanted to harm or destroy.
The idea that the brain has anything to do with thought is a very new idea, perhaps a couple of hundred years old, if that. The idea that Man is a spirit is in the tradition of ten thousand years of philosophy and religion.
If ‘nature and nurture’ were the answer, as we understand them now, why are two identical twins entirely different in personality? How can two people – genetically identical, right down to the colour of their hair, their height, even the weight of their internal organs, both raised in exactly the same way, the same emotional, physical, educational, familial and social environments, then be two completely different personalities? One works for ‘Doctors without Borders’, and one is a drug addict. One is a judge, one is a sex offender. How does that work?
If Man is a body, then what is the explanation for déjà vu, ESP, past-life memory, child prodigy phenomena, ghosts, instant dislikes of people you meet, love at first sight, criminal impulses, natural gifts and abilities etc.?
To say that Man’s intelligence, wit, humour, skills, humanity, compassion, talent, memory, ability to reason, creativity and all else that he is, comes down to about six or eight pounds of hamburger inside his skull, is just insulting and ludicrous!
I know that the ‘Man from mud’ theorists and psychiatrists would have us believe this, for then we can be drugged, shocked, ‘counselled’ and ‘analysed’, and we pay up at a rate of £150.00 an hour to feel worse than we did before, in the main, but there is no contemporary, known workable science of the mind. Man does not understand Man. Never has. Of course, there are truths. Man has figured out some things, but there is no monopoly on the truth. Truth is everywhere you look, and it is more a matter of looking, reading, asking questions until you receive answers that make sense and help to clarify things for you personally, and then you can build your own personal philosophy about life, a philosophy that explains things for you in such a way as to improve and maintain your quality of life. The answers are there in the Bible, in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, in the works of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Guatama Siddartha and Guatama Sakyamuni, Krishnamurti, in the Qur’an, the Bhagavadgītā. The truth is no more in the ‘Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders’, than it is in ‘Mein Kampf’. Austro-Germanic psychiatric principles gave us IG Farben and the holocaust. It gave us ethnic cleansing and ‘genetically impure’ races. It gave us electro-convulsive techniques, devised by an Italian psychiatrist who observed the way in which pigs were being stunned by electric shock before they were slaughtered and believed that this might be a very profitable way to ‘treat’ human beings. It has proved very profitable, but it has never made anyone feel better. As Hemingway said, having been given over twenty administrations of ECT which destroyed his will to live and contributed to his suicide, ‘Brilliant cure, but we lost the patient…’.
So no, very simply, Man is not a brain. He is not a body. He is a spiritual entity. He has been around for a long time, and will be around for a long, long time to come. The vast, vast, vast majority of his personality and character arrives with him in birth. Your current birth is just one of many, many births that you have undergone. And the few years that you have spent being influenced by this lifetime’s childhood, in all honesty is not very significant at all in influencing your personality. Your personality was already there, and was formed over many, many experiences through countless numbers of lifetimes.
How significant do you think exile is in a writer’s life?
I have a very good friend by the name of David Peace. He said he could never have written the Red Riding books had he stayed in the north of England, and only when he moved to Japan with his wife did he have enough distance to be able to look back and recreate the world of his childhood and teenage years. I remember readng a quote once, I believe from a Russian author, and it went along the lines of ‘Visit a city for a day, you’ll write a novel, stay a month, you’ll write a chapter, stay a year, you’ll write a page.’ You get the idea. Exile, as a write, can meany so many things. For me, I write in silence and solitude. It’s the only way I can work. That is exile, at least to some small degree. And I visit the US now quite frequently, but I am still exiled from the location of my books. It is a question I am always asked at library events and festivals, and now – in light of this question – it seems an appropriate place to take it up. Why America? Why does someone, born and raised in the Midlands, choose to write books set in the US?
I don’t think there’s any one single, simple answer (is there ever, for anything?), but to give you some kind of an idea of how this all came about, I sort of have to go the long way about explaining it. I may repeat myself a couple of times as I answer this, so please forgive me, but here we are walking into an area of not only why America, but why do I write at all. Paul Auster said something very interesting one time. He said that 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. I also believe that you don’t so much choose your genre or subject mater, it kind of chooses you. I think the very worst kind of book you could write is the book that you think others will enjoy. I think the best kind of book to write is the one you believe you yourself would enjoy reading. I think the genre you write in has to relate to your own interests and passions. Writing a book can take a while, and if you’re not interested in what you’re writing about, then that’s going to make the job so much harder, perhaps even impossible.
I think I was weaned out of infancy on American culture. 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 was so much colour and life inherent in its society. I have visited a good number of times now, and I honestly feel like I’m going home in a strange kind of way, a bit like ‘deja vu’, if you know what I mean. 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 with which they are familiar. 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!
With me, the most important thing about any novel is the emotion it evokes. 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. There is nothing in life more interesting than people, and one of the most interesting aspects of people is their ability to overcome difficulty and survive. 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 believe that non-fiction possesses, as its primary purpose, the conveying of information, whereas fiction possesses the primary purpose of evoking an emotion in the reader. I love writers that make me feel something – an emotion, whatever it might be – but I want to feel something as I read the book. There are millions of great books out there, all of them written very well, but they are mechanical in their plotting and style. Three weeks after reading them you might not recall anything about them. That is not meant as a criticism, because that degree of clever plotting takes a great intellect, and is probably something I just could not do well. However, the books that really get me are the ones I remember months later. I might not recall the names of the characters or the intricacies of the plot, but I remember how it made me feel. For me, that’s all important. The emotional connection. So back to the setting and literary style. ‘A Quiet Belief In Angels’, for example, has been described as ‘Steinbeck-esque’. The setting and the literary style were certainly not meant to be evocative of Steinbeck. I have to be completely honest and tell you that prior to writing ‘A Quiet Belief In Angels’ I had read only ‘Cannery Row’. I have cited Steinbeck as an inspiration, also Hemingway, Carson McCullers, Harper Lee, Willa Cather, but it is only now that I am beginning to read more of their work. As with all my novels the style in which I write is based on the subject matter. Other novels – ‘A Quiet Vendetta’, ‘City of Lies’, ‘The Anniversary Man’ – are actually written in a far more economical and punchy style. The style came with the setting, the style came with the voice, and there was never any intention to write like another author.
I have done, and still do, a tremendous amount of research. It was always very, very important to me to ensure that everything mentioned in the book was genuine and correct as far as the time and place were concerned. It can be quite a task. There is an old adage as far as writing is concerned – ‘Wear your learning lightly’ – meaning that you cannot bury your fictional work beneath a ton of facts. I had to be careful of that too; to make sure that the history and the cultural aspects necessary to give a sincere reflection of the time and place weren’t so overwhelming that the story beneath was lost. Some facts were hard to find, others somewhat easier, but still the responsibility lies with the author to make his or her work as sincere and genuine as possible. You can read about places – about cities and towns and areas. You can study guide books, maps, photos on the internet, but any description of a place is the author’s ‘take’ on that place. Readers are not necessarily looking for anything that will agree with their perspective on a location; they are looking for something that evokes an atmosphere. The first sentence of ‘A Quiet Vendetta’ is eighty-seven words long and has no full stop at the end. It’s about New Orleans. People from New Orleans write to me. They don’t say ‘Hey, you aren’t from New Orleans…you can’t write this!’ They say, ‘That’s what New Orleans feels like to me as well!’ It’s about evoking an atmosphere, not agreeing with everyone else’s viewpoint of a place. Does that make sense?
Anyway, more than anything else is people. Readers will forgive you anything if you engage them, and the way to engage readers is with your characters.
The thing that fascinates me is people. Doesn’t matter who they are or what they do, the important thing is people. 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, in conclusion, although now I have digressed enormously, I beleiev that there is a sense of exile in the way I work, albeit very mild compared to being exiled from your own country or placed under house arrest as some authors have been (wasn’t it Nabokov who said that the best way to get a book written was to be under house arrest?), but I do operate in a very indiviudual and insular way, and I like to work that way.
Do you think isolation kills?
No doubt about it, and in both a physical and spiritual context. Isolate a man or woman from human contact, and you have – essentially – removed the very reason for being alive. There are those that need to be incarcerated, not only to prevent them from harming others, but also – to a degree – to prevent them from harming themselves, but such persons are in the significant minority. When we look at criminals, we find that only a very tiny percentage are truly dangerous. But imprisonment, as has been proven by recidivism statistics, does not work as a remedy for antisocial conduct, and neither does the death penalty. As has been said, what makes killing people prove that killing people is wrong?
From a creative standpoint, isolation is immensely destructive over any extended period of time. Perhaps for a short while, a writer or painter working in a studio, intense, industrious, yes, but over any significant period, no. How often have I been asked, ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ The answer is always the same. From life, and that’s it. The newspaper article, the conversation over dinner, the eavesdropped dialogue on a train or bus, the recommended book that you never otherwise would have read. That’s life. Life is people. Life is just people, and little else. The collisions of humanity, the interactions, the confusions, the disorder, the anecdotes, the heartbreaks, the losses, the successes, the observations, the mistakes, the moments of awkwardness and embarrassment that happen all the time just as a result of being alive. That’s where inspiration comes from.
I remember reading an interview with a musician I admire enormously, Kelly Joe Phelps. He was on tour with another musician. The second musician was approaching the stage, turned to Kelly Joe Phelps, and said, ‘We’ll do ‘Wanda and Duane’, a song that was part of the set. Kelly Joe heard ‘wandering away’, and there was the title and inspiration for a wonderful song he subsequently wrote.
Some years ago, perched at the end of the kitchen table, asking my son to turn the television down so I could work, I would hear snippets of dialogue from the TV and get thoughts for dialogue in my book.
So no, isolation is not a good operating state for anyone. Seems to me that the degree to which people are actually alive is proportional to the degree that they are in communication with life, and life is people, it is the business of living, and it is my raison d’etre. To be isolated from life would be – for me – an emotional, mental and spiritual death sentence.
What are you working on at the moment?
Well, just in the past couple of weeks I have completed the copy-edit of the book for 2012, entitled’ A Dark and Broken Heart’. Again, a contemporary New York setting, and the blurb is as follows:
It should have been so easy for Vincent Madigan. Take four hundred thousand dollars away from some thieves, and who could they go to for help? No-one at all. For Madigan is charming, effective, and knows how to look after himself. The only problem is that he’s up to his neck in debts to Sandia – the drug kingpin of Harlem, known as the ‘Watermelon Man’ on account of the terrible act of vengeance he inflicted against someone who betrayed him. This one heist will free Madigan from Sandia’s control, and will finally give him the chance he needs to get his life back on track. But when Madigan is forced to kill his co-conspirators, he finds that not only is the stolen money marked, but an innocent child has been wounded in the crossfire. Now both Sandia and the collected might of the NYPD are looking for him. And beyond even this, the one person assigned to identify and hunt down Madigan is the very last person in the world he could have expected. Employing every deception and ruse he can think of, Madigan is engaged in a battle of wits that will test him to the very limit of his ability. Can he evade justice for what he has done, or will his own conscience become the very thing that unravels every one of his meticulous plans? Will this final lie be his salvation, or his undoing?
And I have also been working on the book for 2013, entitled ‘The Devil and The River’, set in Mississippi in 1974, about a returning Vietnam veteran who takes the job of Sheriff in Whytesburg, and has to investigate a very strange murder that had remained unknown and undiscovered for two decades.
I have two other projects on the go, one purely literary that will be announced soon, and a second that’s related to a potential television drama, but as yet is unconfirmed.
Lastly, I formed a band, and we recorded a few tracks on a CD which people have started buying through the website (www.whiskeypoets.com), and we hope to be in rehearsals soon for some live gigging.
That’s it really, aside from the routine and mundane aspects of day-to-day life such as Christmas shopping! Things are busy, and I know I have a good deal of touring next year so I am trying to get ahead of myself as far as possible.
Thank you Roger for a great and perceptive interview.
R.J. Ellory links:
R.J. Ellory Books page with UK buy links
RJ Ellory TV
Facebook fan page
R.J. Ellory novels on Amazon US:
Bad Signs (2011)
Saints of New York (2010)
The Anniversary Man (2009)
A Simple Act of Violence (2008)
A Quiet Belief in Angels (2007)
City of Lies (2006)
A Quiet Vendetta (2005)