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Interview with Roger Ellory

I was fortunate to meet Roger at an event in Norwich Forum Library. Myself and Anne are pictured with him above

My reviews of the novels of Roger Ellory

Roger Ellory kindly agreed to answer a number of questions in a special electronic interview. Hopefully this will give an insight into a very talented author who connects with his fans in a very genuine and open way.

Roger It is rather unusual for an Englishman to write American novels. How did  this come about and why do you set your books in the USA?

In all honesty, it never felt right to write about anything else.  I remember reading an article by Stephen King where he talked about the importance of writing about those things in which you were interested, and this really makes sense to me.  I think I have done that without really thinking about it.  I have always been fascinated by US politics and culture during the latter half of the twentieth century, and it always seemed to me that there was so much more material in this setting. My first book was a Death Row  thriller, my second dealt with New York gangland underworld characters during the 50s, 60s and 70s.  The third was a 500-page Mafia epic, the fourth a bank heist thriller, the fifth was set in rural Georgia during the war, and the sixth deals with both serial killings in Washington and the CIA’s involvement in the war in Nicaragua.  These are the kind of things I am in interested in, and they just wouldn’t work in Stroud or Chichester or Plymouth, wonderful places though they are!


Did you always feel that someday you would make it and write a bestseller?

I always felt that if I just persisted and persisted and persisted I would get a book published.  The goal was to be published, not to be ‘a bestseller’.  Now I have been published my goals have changed.
 
How much is writing a bestseller ability and how much being in the right place at the right time?

I can only assume that both are factors, but I believe that ability has to be superior by a huge percentage.  I am of the belief that if you do, or can write a good book then as long as you persist in sending that book out, and work to get an agent to represent you, then you will eventually see it in print.
 
When you were receiving rejection letters did you ever feel like giving up?

Yes, of course.  I think everyone who goes through that amount of rejection (twenty two rejected novels over six years; in excess of four hundred rejection letters from more that a hundred publishers) would feel like giving up at some point!  But that was the belief I had: that as long as I carried on I would eventually get there.
 
How did you feel when Candlemoth was accepted for publication?

The only way I have been able to describe it, as I have been asked this question many times before, is that if you can imagine finding the love of your life, and you know that this person is unquestionably the love of your life, and you ask them to marry you every day for fifteen years and they never reply.  And then one day, right out of left field, they say ‘Yes’. That was how it felt. It was the final vindication and acknowledgement after fifteen years of tremendous intention, and finally I arrived.
 
You mention the large number of novels you had rejected. Can you tell me what kind of books they were and will they ever see the light of day?

Primarily they were supernatural thrillers, but I did a couple of straight crime thrillers as well, and a legal thriller. They won’t see the light of day.  At least I don’t see that they will at this stage.  They are good in places, but I also feel that the amount of work necessary to make them publishable would be no less than the amount of work to write a new book, and I am always an awful lot more interested in what I am doing now than what I have done in the past.
 
Many people have commented on the huge amount of research that goes into your books. How do you go about this?

I research as I go, finding out the things I need to know as I’m writing the book.  Often I might leave blanks in the script for dates and names and such things as I don’t want to interrupt the flow of the material  Research can be addictive as there are so many different subjects one can become interested in.  My agent once made a tremendously valid point.  He said ‘Wear your learning
lightly’, meaning that  you should never bury your fictional storyline beneath a tonnage of fact.  You’re not writing a textbook, you’re writing something that has entertainment as its primary purpose. 
 
Do you visit the USA regularly? If not how can you be so authoritative on that country?

Once again, by paying attention to what I read and what I see, and when I do go to the States I make notes, take photos, do my own ‘location’ research if you like.  I have been enough times to absorb the feel of the place, certainly from my own perspective, and my view is that a novel is not a guide book.  You’re not trying to give someone a tour of New York.  You’re simply trying to evoke a feeling, to create an atmosphere, and that can be done without guide maps and landmarks.
 
Would you like to live in America?

In its current state, no.  Not unless something very significant occurs with the entire framework of American politics.
 
Is there such a thing as the Great American Novel? If so who has written it? If not who has come the closest?

I can only imagine that there are dozens of Great American novels!  I don’t believe there is such a thing as the one.  You have Harper Lee, Capote, Hemingway, McCullers, Cather, Steinbeck, Styron and the list goes on and on and on and on. You have contemporary writers also such as Mailer, Philip Roth, TC Boyle, Annie Proulx…all of them extraordinary writers, and all of them publishing books that will stand the test of time.  All of them are great, and perhaps we should stop looking for something else and realise that we have it already.
 
Is it possible for an Englishman to truly evoke the feel of America?

I think I am the wrong person to answer that! I think the readers should be asked such a question.
 
How can an English writer so effectively write in the American vernacular?

I am of a generation that was raised on The Streets of San Francisco, Kojak, Hawaii Five-O, Starsky and Hutch.  The TV and movies that we were brought up with were Hollywood.  That was the world we were given as children, and I think I was always intensely interested in such things, and I think I absorbed a great deal of it without even being aware that that was what I was doing.
 
What stirred your love of the USA?

I honestly don’t know, to tell you the truth.  I spent nine years at boarding school after my mother died, and I occupied my time by reading a great deal.  The books I was drawn to were American, primarily Southern, and I always found the use of language so creative and ‘different’. Perhaps it started there, I’m not sure, but I have never lost that passion.
 
Where do your ideas come from? Do you start with the beginning and work forwards or start with the ending and work backwards?

I think every individual working in any creative field either has an ‘ear’ or an ‘eye’ that is different.  We talk about a photographer’s eye, and I believe that choreographers, painters, architects and designers have the same.  It’s the way they look at life. The way they see things and translate them into ideas.  I think authors are the same, but they read things into conversations. They hear phrases and seem to be able to extrapolate ideas from such phrases. To tell you the truth I don’t actually ‘look’ for ideas. I just have ideas come and I look them over, turn them over and around and upside-down, and sometimes the ideas stick with me, and sometimes I discard them. The ones that stick with me wind up as novels.
 
When you start a book do you know how it will end or do you let the characters direct you?

I have no plan for the end of a book, no. I wouldn’t say that I ‘let’ the characters direct the end of a book as such, but the characters definitely become more real and thus can’t help but inform and influence the way a book finishes. Ordinarily I get three quarters of the way through a book and then start to realistically work out how it will end.

How and where do you write? Do you have set times for writing?

I used to write longhand, and then transcribe onto a manual typewriter.  Now I have a computer.  I write at home. I shared the front room with my family, and late at night I would work when no-one was watching TV. Now I have moved house and I have a study, and I can shut myself in there and get on with things.  I tend to write while my son is at school, but these days – with the vast predominance of public events and appearances – I have to write whenever I can!
 
Due to their subject matter there is an aggressive feel to your novels? Is this something that comes from your own character?

No, I don’t believe I am aggressive in nature, but I do believe that they very worst type of book is the one that makes you feel nothing in particular. As Sol Stein once said, the primary purpose of non-fiction is to convey information, whereas the primary purpose of fiction is to evoke an emotion.  I am always working towards the emotional effect that can be created, and if that requires challenging people then so be it.  If someone reads one of my books and then cannot remember the intricacies of the plot or the characters’ names then I don’t mind, but I’d like them to be at least able to remember the way the book made them feel.
 
How difficult is it to maintain your obvious literary merit when writing thrillers/crime orientated novels?

I don’t think there’s a distinction.  I think there’s far too much snobbery about books.  Books are either great stories or they’re not. They’re either well-written or they’re not.  I don’t think there should be such a focus on whether or not it’s genre fiction or literary fiction.  It should be just ‘fiction’, and you either like it or you don’t!
 
Would you agree that your novels should not be pigeon-holed as thrillers, crime novels, Americana?
 
I would agree, yes. But then I would agree with a complete dissolution of all separation between genre and literature.  We should just have sections for different types of stories – romances, thrillers, horror, sci-fi, westerns – and recognize that those people who read and enjoy those types of books understand that – at least for them – it is great fiction, full stop!

What does the future hold for Roger Ellory? What are your ultimate ambitions?

To continue to write. To always be writing. To be still working on a book when I finally give up the ghost!  This is my vocation, and I feel extraordinarily fortunate to be in a position where I can earn a living and have a career doing something that I love. John Lennon said something like ‘Find something you love to do and you’ll never work another day in your life’. I concur. And what does the future hold?  What I hope for is an ever-increasing readership where I have the opportunity to be read
and enjoyed by people who like good stories, and a chance to go out and see them in libraries and bookstores and do whatever I can to push the necessity and importance of books.
 
What are your feelings when you go into a book shop and see a display of your own work?

The first few times it was very exciting.  Nowadays you think things like ‘I want it to be a bigger pile.  I want it to be nearer the door.’  I mean that half-heartedly, but once you have been published your attention turns away from thoughts of your own accomplishment to the necessity to do whatever has to be done to get people to read the books.
 
Have you ever bought one of your own books?

Yes, it is now a tradition. On the day of publication I go in and buy a copy of my own book (without telling anyone in the store that I wrote it, of course). That would just be painfully egotistical and shallow!
 
Would you recommend Ellory novels to other people?

Good God no, they’re dreadful pulp! No, of course I would recommend them, if only one or two, just to see whether a slightly different take on crime fiction is something that would appeal. I think you should give every type of book a go.
 
How would you describe your writing style?

Literary, contemporary, and yet also accessible. A lot of people e-mail me and tell me that they’re not really ‘crime thrillers’ but more like human dramas where the crime is not the focus, but rather the effect the crime has on the people involved.  I like that idea – the human drama. Perhaps there’s a new genre category in the making.
 
You make numerous personal appearances, how important are your readers to you and do you feel you have a special relationship/bond with them?

Vitally, vitally, vitally important. Nothing more important. To go out and see people, to speak to people about books in general, to make new friends, to share the love of other authors and the books they have written is so much a part of the quality of life enjoyed by readers (of which I am one, of course) that to not have that opportunity would be a huge loss.  And yes, I believe there is a very special relationship.  It is simply that you have written something, you have attempted to engage some
analytically and emotionally, and they then come back to you and say ‘Yes, I got it.  That worked for me’.  That is an irreplaceable thing, and so much a part of being an author.

Do negative comments about your work upset you?

I don’t think they upset me as such. Not now, because negative comments are always such a minority.  Generally speaking I have not suffered a great deal of negativity from reviewers and critics.
 
Are you now writing full time?

No, I am still working as much as I can in charitable fields and I am obviously doing a lot of touring (I am at home for all of three days in October!).  I have become aware of the fact that I need to backtrack a little and spend some more time behind the desk, but I will get that organised as soon as November comes around. 
 
What is your advice to would be authors?

I have a website blog called ‘The Ellory Journal ‘. You can access it through the homepage (wwww.rjellory.com).  In the archives section under August 2006 is an article I wrote called ‘How Do You Get Published?’  It’s quite long and quite specific, and to save reprinting it here I recommend that you read it. That gives my take on what an aspiring author should do once they have
completed a story that they feel they would like to publish.
 
If you could identify with any character from your novels who would it be?

Honestly, I think there’s a little bit of me (in fact I know there is!) in every male lead character in my books, and perhaps even a little of me in Annie O’Neill (Ghostheart).

Who has inspired and/or influenced you?

Steinbeck, Hemingway, Tim O’Brien, Capote, Harper Lee, Stephen King, Annie Proulx, TC Boyle, William Styron, Hubbard, Moorcock, Chandler, James Ellroy…and that is an unfair question, because there’s so many great authors out there!

Who are your favourite authors?

Impossible to answer, but I have to include Truman Capote, Annie Proulx and John Steinbeck.
 
Other than literature what are your interests?

Music, photography, cooking, reading, movies, travel, meeting new people.
 
Do you have a favourite novel of yours?  If so which one?

I don't have a favourite book of my own.  It's really not possible to say one is better than another, at least for me.  All of  them were the most important one while I was doing them, and when I was done they ceased to be the most important because then I  was working on something new!
 
Do you have a favourite all time novel?  If so what is it?

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
 
Your novels often have a panoramic sweep?  Did you set out to write epic vistas?

Yes.  The idea of a tiny, tiny story set in a tiny, tiny world doesn’t appeal to me.
 
How much do you draw on your own experiences when writing?

I think we must do, all of us.  Perhaps not specifically from the events we are involved in directly, but certainly from our own emotional reaction to the world around us.  I don’t think such a thing is avoidable.
 
Do you think your work will ever be published in the USA?

Yes, I do. I am going to Baltimore for a week on Wednesday to attend the Bouchercon Crime Festival.  I have already had a couple of tentative advances from US publishers, and I am going there to see what interest I can drum up.  I think I just have to be patient…exactly as I was when I first started to try and get published in the UK!