More Than Just A Belief... Roger Jon Ellory talks with Ali Karim




One writer I have followed since his 2003 debut ‘Candlemoth is Roger Jon Ellory. It even made one of January Magazine’s gift book picks of 2003. Getting ‘Candlemoth into print was a tortuous tale that Roger recounted in an interview I recorded at Heffers’ bookstore in Cambridge that summer –


In the latter part of 2001 I sent a copy of Candlemoth to a company. Somebody read it, liked it, but didn’t feel it was for them. They wrote me a letter saying as much but the letter never arrived. In February of 2002 I called this person and asked if they’d ever read it. They said they had and had sent me a letter. I said the letter never came. They went off and got a copy of it and read it to me over the phone. Coincidentally a colleague of theirs had just moved to Weidenfeld and Nicholson, an imprint of Orion, and they asked me to send another copy of the script so they could forward it to them and see if they were interested. I sent another copy, the editor at Weidenfeld read it and passed it onto Jon Wood at Orion. Jon then called me three or four times but couldn’t reach me. Finally we spoke and he said he was interested in pursuing it and wanted me to make a few changes. I made the changes, and then Jon worked relentlessly until June when it was finally signed by Orion. That was the beginning of my relationship with Orion, and then in the early part of 2003, before Candlemoth was released, I was signed up to another two-book contract, the first of those books being Ghostheart. At Frankfurt it was bought for Germany, Italy and Holland, and I think it comes out in April, May and October in those countries. It has also been released in Canada, Australia and New Zealand.


I was pleased when ‘Candlemoth’ was nominated for the Ian Fleming CWA Steel Dagger Award which for a debut was remarkable even if Dan Fesperman won the accolade for his novel ‘Small Boat of Great Sorrows’.


In 2005 I decided to organize a table for the CWA Daggers and invited a number of colleagues and friends including Roger and his agent Euan Thorneycroft. Euan had just left Curtis Brown and settled in with A.M. Heath; which was a coincidence as in the 1980’s Curtis Brown were my former agents. I find like the song by the late great Harry Chapin, life often runs a full circle. Both Euan and I were convinced Roger would break through from the mid-list, as was his editor Jon Wood of Orion who has managed to get many writers into the bestselling ranks, such as Harlan Coben who broke through in the UK with Tell No One and has remained a fixture of the book charts with each release.


Since then Roger Ellory has regularly published each year in a highly disciplined manner with Ghostheart [2004], A Quiet Vendetta [2005], City of Lies [2006]. Despite his work being nominated again for the CWA Steel Dagger Award for City of Lies, wonderful reviews, critical acclaim; I have always struggled to comprehend why his work hadn’t made a mark on the Bestseller lists. More puzzling was the fact [considering that his work is set in America] that he hasn’t got a major US publishing deal? I have enjoyed his work throughout his career, so when we had a drink at the CWA Dagger Awards last summer, he told me of his struggles which he described as the harsh realities of authorship. He was very hopeful for his fifth novel A Quiet Belief In Angels [2007] and as we sipped champagne, he shook my hand and thanked me for all the support I had given his work over the last five years [knowing how busy I am]. I was worried for Roger as many publishers were cutting back on their ‘mid-list’ authors as the market was getting tougher, but I have always had a firm belief in Roger’s literary credentials – and boy can he write. I shook his hand that night and told him that I knew he would break through, and he gripped my hand hard in a rather emotional moment.


My confidence paid off, when a proof copy of A Quiet Belief In Angels arrived at my doorstep. It was again a wonderfully evocative story. I had one problem with it - I noticed my name in the acknowledgments page, with Roger’s thank you for all my support over the last five years. I guess, despite me loving the book; that “thank you” note precluded me from reviewing it purely from an ethical standpoint [due to my own value system]. So I asked Mike Stotter to get L J Hurst to examine it for Shots, which he did, and enjoyed it as much as I did.


Richard and Judy winners R J Ellory and S Kernick Then the big break came with  A Quiet Belief in Angel ’ being selected by Richard and Judy for their 2007 book club. Like Simon Kernick the year before; being selected as a Richard and Judy Book means huge exposure, and is the UK equivalent of being an Oprah Book Club selection. So a few months on, and well over 200,000 copies of his fifth novel being sold, and a fifth print run being started, Roger has finally broken through the ranks of the ‘mid-list’.


I was delighted to celebrate Roger’s success at Orion’s Author party at the Royal Opera House in Convent Garden. Roger took me to one side and gave be a bear-hug of an embrace when I smiled and said “told you so.”  Mike Stotter appeared and Roger thanked Mike for featuring his work and support as one of the Ian Fleming Steel Dagger judges as City of Lies had got on the shortlist for 2006/2007.  So while we quaffed flute after flute of champagne, I switched my tape recorder on and recorded a short interview with Roger.


Ali : So Roger how do you feel with A Quiet Belief In Angels getting on the Richard and Judy booklist?


Roger : It has been unimaginable. Truly!  To put it in perspective, the paperback print run for my last novel (City of Lies) was something in the region of 7500 copies.  Yesterday I received a call to say that another print run of A Quiet Belief In Angels had been authorised, which now brings the total number of copies in circulation to 221,000.  I know how tough it can be to break into this fiction writing business (wasn't it Hemingway who said that in comparison to writing fiction, horse racing and playing poker were sensible business ventures?) 


For me it was always about the writing. In the summer of last year I secured another publishing contract, but it was not without a couple of weeks of nervousness about whether or not I was selling sufficient books to actually warrant being granted another contract.  The worst thing for me would have been to have known what it was like to be writing for publication, and then because of low sales be in a situation where I then could not get published.  Luckily Orion Publishing are very definitely of the viewpoint that they believe in and support what I am doing, and then later on, when we got the Richard and Judy selection, it kind of vindicated and justified all the tremendous support and encouragement they have given me over the last five years. The Richard and Judy selection has at least given me confidence in the fact that I can see a career ahead of me.  So, in simple terms, being selected has made it possible for me to continue doing what I love.


Ali : So for those who haven't caught up, tell us a little about the book?


Roger : The book starts in 1939 with a central character called Joseph Vaughan at twelve years old.  He grows up in a small rural farming community in Georgia, USA, called Augusta Falls, and is witness to the devastating effect of a series of child murders that occur within the surrounding area over the subsequent decade, so much so that he and his friends band together in an effort to do something to stop the killings from taking place.  The book spans fifty years of his life, and throughout the entirety of these five decades he is determined to identify and bring to justice the perpetrator of these crimes.  I wrote the novel for a simple reason: To once again put an ordinary individual in an extraordinary situation, and at the same time highlight the sheer indomitability of the human spirit.  It has always amazed me the degree to which a human being can rebound from loss or tragedy.  The central character of A Quiet Belief In Angels loses everything, and yet survives.  I wanted to tell his story - a story about childhood, about the way children deal with things that they should never have to deal with, how their means and methods of coping are so very different from adults.  I also wanted to remind myself of the sheer magic of the written word, and how such classics as To Kill A Mockingbird enchanted me as a child, and somehow helped me deal with whatever happened personally.


Ali : What does the Richard and Judy booklist mean in practical terms to you as a writer?


Roger : Interesting question, because huge booksales do not necessarily always follow through with continued success, but I feel confident that with the quality of my previous books, and the books I have now completed, I am assured at least a far greater degree of future.  It opens up the very real possibility that I will now continue to be published for many years to come.  That is all I have ever wanted, and to that degree it has given me a tremendous amount of certainty and security that previously was not there.


Ali  : Which of your backlist do you consider your favourite and why?


Roger : That's really an impossible question to answer!  I love all of them for very different reasons - Candlemoth because it was the first, and it was a story that was very close to my heart; Ghostheart, simply because it was a challenge to write an entire novel from a female perspective; A Quiet Vendetta, because it was big and brave and it demanded the most amazing amount of research, and City of Lies, because it was faster-paced, scripted more like a movie than a book.  And then we have A Quiet Belief In Angels, which - for me - was possibly the most emotionally-demanding book I have written, but still manages to evoke an effect on me despite the fact that it has been completed for so long.  My answer to that question 'What is your favourite book?' is always 'The one I'm doing now...'


Ali : Are you finding the Richard and Judy listing generating interest in your backlist?


Roger : Yes, it certainly seems that more people are picking up on the earlier books.  The first three (published under Roger Jon Ellory as opposed to RJ Ellory) have been repackaged and are being released on March 6th.  I am hoping very much that people who have read Quiet Belief will now go and take a look at the first four.


Ali : So tell us about being on the show?


Roger : Well, it was a remarkable experience, the whole epic experience of going to Georgia. It has to rank alongside the most significant experiences of my life. But it was also unsettling in more ways than one.


Located in the southern part of Georgia, with real towns such as Folkston and Kingsland around it, Augusta Falls was a fictional town created as the backdrop for A Quiet Belief In Angels.  Despite having visited the United States only briefly, and never having set foot in Georgia itself, I found myself walking in the footsteps of my protagonist and central character, Joseph Vaughan.  As a result of Quiet Belief being selected for the Richard and Judy Book Club 2008, I was given this once-in-a lifetime opportunity to see and experience a world I perhaps would otherwise never have done.  I actually wrote a travelogue about it, and took a lot of photographs.


Ali : You have recently been at many events promoting your work so can you tell us a little about these events at bookstores and libraries?


Roger : Basically, I am in my element at such events, however large or small.  The reality of writing is that it tends to be a very individual and insular activity, and once a book is complete you might receive an e-mail to say that so-and-so copies have been printed, or such-and-such a book is now being translated into a foreign language, but it is only at readings, signings, library talks and suchlike that you actually get to connect with people who have really read the book!  And it is a great experience to meet people who actually give a damn about a book, so much so that they disagree, argue, express their very individual viewpoints to one another about which they like and which they don't.  It is very rejuvenating to get some honest feedback!



L - R Euan Thorneycroft, R J Ellory and Mike Stotter

Ali : What is it about American culture and landscape that draw you to set your tales across the Atlantic?


Roger : Being English I have often been asked 'Why America?' 'Why do all your books take place in the United States?'  I think this has something to do with the vast 'inflow' of American-orientated film and TV that assaulted my generation as children.  Everything was Kojak, Hawaii Five-O, Starsky & Hutch, and though I was exposed to these things in my formative years I also feel a degree of necessity to place my work in the U.S.  The subject matter (the death penalty, the Mafia, serial killings etc) are - on the whole - subjects which pertain only to this country, and therefore - simply because of my own fascination with these areas - I have 'painted myself into a corner' as far as setting is concerned! 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 certainly don't!  I just love to write, and whereas 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.


Ali : And how do American readers find your work?


Roger : Honest answer?  They don't!  I do not have a US publishing contract, and on the whole I am not distributed.  I have recently answered about three dozen e-mails from American readers asking where they can get my books from.  I actually have them send me their address and I stick one in the post to save them the hassle!


Ali : You revamped your website recently so what made you add a blog considering how busy you are?


Roger : Because there were quite a lot of things that I wanted to say that didn't have a place in a book!  I started it because I would receive letters from my publisher, also e-mails through the site, asking me what I thought about this, that or the other.  I started the blog in answer to those requests for other info, and I try to do at least one article a month.  It feels important now to have that other avenue where I can be in touch with people about all manner of things, not just what I'm doing as an author.


Ali : And what are you working on currently?


Roger : I have completed two more books, one for August 2008, one for August 2009.  I have started working on Number 8 for publication in the autumn of 2010.  I like to be ahead of things as best I can! The book for this year is a Washington-based thriller that focuses on the long-term effects of the war in Nicaragua, and how certain people who profited greatly from the drugs that came out of Nicaragua have managed to maintain secrecy regarding their criminal actions. It is - in effect - a companion work to 'A Quiet Vendetta', similar in length, and deals with corruption with the US intelligence community and the lengths people will go to maintain their vested interests.  The one for 2009 has the working title The Anniversary Man, though I doubt very much it will keep that title.  It is a fast-paced serial killer novel, and deals with the investigation of a series of brutal murders carried out by an individual who is replicating some of the most famous serial killings in history, and committing those killings on the anniversary of their original occurrence.  I am very pleased and excited with them both, but more than that I am constantly working on expanding the different themes in my books, taking on subjects and styles of story that I think are challenging. I think that's why I would never write a series about the same character.  I enjoy diversity of plot, diversity of style and place, and I feel that it's healthy for me to continually exercise and challenge my own limitations as a writer.


So for all those of you writing away, hard work, focus and keeping the faith with some good fortune sometimes works; it did for Roger, so just keep writing and keep the faith. It took Roger five hard years to break out of the mid-List.


Click Here to for an audio extract, a .pdf and more information on the work of R J Ellory as he is now known and Here for Roger’s Blog



An edited version of this article and interview first appeared at The Rap Sheet






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