Roger Jon Ellory speaks to Ali Karim for Shots Ezine
© Ali Karim 2004
I first heard about Roger Jon Ellory last summer when Orion sent me a review copy of his debut novel Candlemoth. There had been a post-it note attached inside with the words ĎI know youíll like thisí. For one reason and another, however, I never got round to reading it. Then, in July, Mike Stotter sent me to the annual ĎBodies in the Bookshopí event held at Heffers in Cambridge. I was greeted immediately by Jon Wood of Orion who asked me if I had read Candlemoth yet. I learned that it had been his scrawly pen on that post-it note inside the cover-flap. Before I could offer an excuse he swiftly introduced me to the smartly dressed Roger Jon Ellory. We chatted briefly and I explained that I hadnít read Candlemoth yet, but would do so shortly. During the course of the evening I approached Roger and we taped a short interview (which appeared in Shots #19 with many others I recorded that night).
Over the weekend, I read Candlemoth in two swift sessions and scribbled a review. I had a few problems with some later sections of the book, but I was on the whole very impressed; especially the vivid realisation of the 1950s Deep South backdrop and the illustration of the changing face of American society. What confused me was how this softly spoken and erudite guy from the Midlands in Britain could paint such an evocative picture in my mind and make it feel so utterly authentic? I was not the only one to be impressed. Several months later Candlemoth became nominated for the 2003 CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger award, which is an exceptional feat for a debut novel.
Now Rogerís second novel Ghostheart has finally been released, I decided to find out about what lies behind the enigmatic Roger Jon Ellory and why his books are so strange and why they are so different.
Ali: Can you tell us about your formative years, and what you think drew you to write fiction?
Roger: Formative years? Well, I was born in 1965. Father had left my mother before I was born, and they werenít married anyway, so I figure I was probably the product of a one-night stand. Stayed with my mother and my grandmother (maternal grandfather was already dead; had drowned in Wales in the 50s), and then when I was seven my mother died of a pneumonic haemorrhage and I got shipped out to a boarding school. Stayed there until I was sixteen, and then a couple of months after I left school my grandmother died of a heart attack and I had to grow up fast! What drew me to write fiction? Loved reading. That was the simplicity of it. I just loved reading. Always had the thought there that it would be great to write something capable of moving someone emotionally, to create that kind of effect, to have someone read something youíd written and be moved by it. That was the thing: to feel like you had something worth saying.
Ali: What were the early novels you read, that either influenced you, or made you take up the pen?
Roger: Read everything by Ian Fleming, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Michael Moorcock. Read stuff like the Bible, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, all manner of things. Not one particular genre, and not limited to fiction. I think I found some sense of anchorage in books, like they were where you could find out what life was all about. I just wanted to know, to be able to understand things, to understand people, and books seemed like the place youíd find out.
Ali: A writer once told me that the most interesting people (writers or characters in novels) are the ones with some personal trauma that splintered their youth. Did you have any trauma or incident that perhaps helped mould you in some way? And if so would you be prepared to share that incident with us?
Roger: Well, apart from the things I mentioned earlier there really wasnít much Iíd call a trauma. Trauma seems such a major word, like something really serious and significant. After my grandmother died, me and my brother were stuck in a house with no electricity, no gas, no water for a good while, and so we resorted to poaching some chickens. We got caught for that and spent three months in a detention centre. That was tough. That was something that I found pretty tough. The first three or four weeks you spent in a white room called a Ďcubeí, maybe eight by eight, just a chair a bed and a little box cupboard to put clothes in. It was the early 80s, and this system was part of the Thatcher Ďshort sharp shockí handling for juvenile delinquents. That was not the easiest thing Iíd ever done, but it was only three months, and I think I brought something valuable away from the experience.
Ali: Have you been an advocate of the crime/mystery/thriller genre?
Roger: Yes, in my own way I have. I donít read anywhere as much as I should, and now I am being sent a lot of books which I really feel I should read. Itís tough to find the time to do everything I feel I should. I still like to read, but I feel that now thereís an avenue for my own writing, now I feel that what I write is actually going somewhere, I get into that very easily and donít stop!
Ali: What were your early experiences as a writer like? Have you always written? And what lurks in your third drawer vis-à-vis unpublished works?
Roger: I was just bloody-minded! I started writing on November 4th 1987, and between then and July 17th 1993 I wrote something every day except for three days when I was going through a divorce. I completed twenty-two novels in that time, something in the region of three and a half million words, and at different times I was in discussion with a couple of agents, with one or two publishing companies, but nothing ever really got as far as I would have liked. Since Orion signed me there have been comments made by a couple of people about how they should perhaps have pursued things with a little more tenacity back then. Anyway, by í93 I was kind of worn out chasing this thing, so I stopped. Picked it up again in the latter part of 2001, and thatís when I wrote Candlemoth, the first book that was signed by Orion. The earlier unpublished stuff will probably stay there. It was a different genre, more supernatural in a way, and I write better now anyway. I think the time away from it made me more succinct, gave me a greater clarity about what I wanted to say. I have gone back and read some of my earlier work and it was a little verbose. Hell, it was good practice!
Ali: What are your experiences vis-ŗ-vis the rejection process in publishing?
Roger: Basically six years of very complimentary, very polite ĎThanks but no thanksí! I have two lever arch files with something in the region of three or four hundred straightforward format rejection slips. This is just from companies that didnít even look at stuff. I understand the sheer volume of work that a handful of people have to wade through in a publishing house. People have given me figures on just how many unsolicited scripts come to the major publishing houses each week, and that figure is astounding. My belief was that if I just kept on going I would eventually find the right person in the right company at the right time.
Ali: Can you tell us what day jobs you had/have while pursuing a writing career?
Roger: I have been a busker, a telephone salesperson, a marketing researcher, all sorts of things. Based on my own quite spectacular experiences taking drugs as a teenager, I got into the field of drug counselling. I still do that now, and that takes up a very major part of my time. With voluntary work and some of the groups I am allied to in this field I lose somewhere in the region of seventy or eighty hours a week. Put it this way: the last holiday I had was a week in Wales in May of 1985. Thatís how busy I am.
Ali: How did you get Candlemoth accepted for publication? As I believe it caused a little bit of a buzz at the Frankfurt Book Fair.
Roger: Itís a good story in itself. In the latter part of 2001 I sent a copy of Candlemoth to a company. Somebody read it, liked it, but didnít 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 theyíd 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 couldnít 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. Basically it came down to Jon Wood. Without his persistence it would never have got signed. He liked it enough to fight for it. 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.
Ali: Both Candlemoth and Ghostheart are set in America. Can you tell us your relationship with the US and why you are so interested in American culture?
Roger: 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 thereís so much colour and life inherent in its society. I have visited a number of times, and I honestly feel like Iím going home.
Ali: In Candlemoth we were confronted with an authentic view on issues such as the penal system and race-relations in America, both of which are hot topics. Could you tell us why these issues interested you and secondly how much research was entailed in making the backdrop so convincing?
Roger: The basis of Candlemoth was simple. I wanted to cover that time period: the 50s, 60s and 70s. I wanted to write about the Kennedys, about Vietnam, about Watergate and Nixon. I wanted to build a story that would segue into those topics without struggling to do so. I wanted to have a backdrop of authentic history against which I could place characters who were fighting something, being challenged and tested. I wanted to put ordinary people in extraordinary situations and see how they handled it. It comes down to people, always comes down to people. People is what fascinates me more than anything. Greatest advice I ever heard about writing was to write about what interests you. More than likely youíll find it interests others as well. Well, I always wanted to know more about people, and thatís what I try to do with all my work. Get inside peoplesí heads, look at their reasons, their motives, their dreams and aspirations. Put them in situations where they have to handle difficulties and work things out, but at the same time try and reflect the element of humour that seems to keep us smiling in the face of adversity.
Ali: At its core Candlemoth is really about the choices that confront two friends, Daniel Ford and Nathan Verney, and the consequences that these choices have upon them. What was the initial inspiration that made this story come alive?
Roger: Really it began with the idea of the conflict between what one was expected to do, and what one wanted to do. It was a matter of people being faced with choices that werenít really choices. Like a white boy maintaining loyalty with a black boy and vice versa in the face of conflict and disagreement and prejudice. Like the Draft. Like being in prison, being on Death Row in fact, and feeling that there is nothing left one can do to change what has happened. It is that issue, the one of ordinary people in extraordinary situations, and what they do about it.
Ali: In reviews there have been comparisons/contrasts, fairly or unfairly between Candlemoth and Stephen Kingís novella Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption (as well as the film version The Shawshank Redemption) and the Tom Hanks vehicle Forrest Gump. What are your reactions to these comparisons?
Roger: I havenít read the Stephen King novella. There was also a comparison between Candlemoth and The Green Mile, again something I havenít read. I think itís a point of reference. From what I understand of both the Rita Hayworth novella and The Green Mile it is simply the setting - Death Row - that is the same. Anyway, how could being compared to Stephen King be a bad thing? As far as Forrest Gump is concerned, I thought that was a great comparison! It is the time period it covers thatís the point of reference there, not the subject matter or story line. I think people have had a hard time categorizing or labelling Candlemoth, and so have found things that have similar settings or time periods, and that has been the closest they could get to what it was about. Someone called Candlemoth a Ďhuman dramaí, and I think thatís the best description Iíve heard.
Ali: As Candlemoth felt almost like it wrote itself, do you plot extensively or do you let the muse take you where it may?
Roger: I donít plot extensively. Ask me where a story is going to go when Iím three quarters the way through and I couldnít tell you. It doesnít write itself per se, but ideas come to me as I work, and those ideas often serve to change the direction. If you had asked me how Candlemoth was going to end when I was a week into writing it I more than likely would have given you a significantly differently storyline.
Ali: Do you have a set time for writing or do you work when you can?
Roger: I work when I can. I donít have a lot of time. I tend to get back home from working around 10.30 or 11.00 pm, and Iíll write until maybe 12.30 or 1.00 am. Weekends I work until 6.00, and then I spend time with my son until he goes to bed at maybe 9.00 or thereabouts, and then Iíll work for three or four hours. I donít watch a lot of TV. I donít go to the cinema (the last film I saw at the cinema was Schindlerís List!) I wind down and relax by writing. I love to write. Itís what I want to do with my life and it makes me happy.
Ali: As both Candlemoth and Ghostheart are strongly character driven narratives (in terms of technique), do you find that you choose your characters, or do they choose you?
Roger: I like outsiders. I identify with people who are a little left of centre. The central characters in Candlemoth, Ghostheart and the book that will follow Ghostheart are all a little odd in their own way. They are human. They have idiosyncrasies, just like all of us. I want to write characters that a reader can think ĎHell, Iíve had that thoughtí or ĎI was in a situation like that and thatís exactly how I feltí. I donít want to write about private investigators with pet salamanders, or a book that centres on forensic pathology. I like people. I want to write about what I like, and thatís all there is to it really.
Ali: Your second novel Ghostheart is due for release shortly, and Russell James stated that you are a writer to watch. Can you tell us how this book came about? And what is it about?
Roger: The book is about a single thirty-year old girl called Annie OíNeill. She owns and runs a bookshop in Manhattan. Sheís a little lonely, she feels sheís missing out on life, and events conspire to stretch her mentally and emotionally in a number of different ways. There are effectively two stories within the same book, both running alongside each other, and while one deals with her own loves and losses in modern-day New York, the second story deals with a character who is liberated from Auschwitz at the end of WW II and grows up in New York to be a ganglord. To tell you a great deal more would be to tell you the whole plot, and Iím not gonna do that! Itís different from Candlemoth, but I hope as provocative and different in the way it tells a story.
Ali: Ghostheart and Candlemoth share the theme of how the past affects the future and the consequences of deeds done in the past reverberating right up to date. Can you tell us why this theme interests you?
Roger: Because thatís really how life is. We make all our judgements based on past experience. Prejudice is simply Ďpre-judgementí. People choose based on previous choices. Everything is founded on precedent and preconceptions. Life cultivates patterns and people all too easily fall into those patterns without seeing them for what they are. Some of the most successful people that have ever lived have been the ones who challenged the preconceptions and patterns and done something a little different. People I meet are constantly telling me they would like to lead an extraordinary life, but so few are prepared to do something extraordinary to accomplish that. I believe in the extraordinary, in the different. I believe that everyone is capable of doing something special, and that life should be lived to accomplish that very thing.
Ali: Can you tell us when Ghostheart, is being released in hardcover, and when we are likely to see Candlemoth in paperback?
Roger: Ghostheart is released in hardback on February 19th, 2004. Candlemoth is released in paperback in August 2004.
Ali: In todayís highly competitive world of publishing, what are your thoughts on how a new(-ish) author can establish himself/herself on our crowded bookshelves?
Roger: Persist. Grit your teeth, clench your fists and persist. Write what interests you. Write what you feel you should write. Donít try and fit a genre unless that genre is what really interests you. Then persist some more. And when you really feel you canít persist any longer, realize that now youíre familiar with what itís like to persist you can start to persist all the harder.
Ali: Some people amongst our intelligentsia do not consider genre fiction to be literary enough when compared to general fiction. Would you care to comment?
Roger: Genre fiction is fiction. Literary fiction is fiction. Science fiction is fiction. So are cowboy novels and Mills & Boon. Why does anyone write? To impress someone? To prove how learned and well-read they are? I donít think so. Writers write because they have it in them, because they feel they have something to say, because theyíre crazy enough to believe that someone else just might be interested in what they have to say. Writers write so readers can read. Does it really matter who reads what or why? Someone once said that there are two kinds of books. Firstly thereís the book that you just have to read because you have to know what happens. It tears at you. Youíve got to find out. You canít put the thing down. Then thereís the kind of book thatís just a beautiful piece of writing. Itís magical in the way itís written. Thereís just something about it that makes you want to read it because the language is addictive, because there is something that makes you feel something on every page. The greatest books are those that are both at the same time. Is that a genre? Hell, maybe we should all work towards that.
Ali: You are published by Orion who have a very large crime/mystery fiction bias. Do you have any issue vis-à-vis genre classifications? And where do you see your work fitting? And referring to my previous question; do you see yourself as a genre novelist?
Roger: I see myself as a human dramatist. I donít think I really fit into a genre as such. Is it crime? Is it a thriller? Is it a literary work? Who cares! Only question is whether or not itís a good story! Maybe weíll have to create a new genre!
Ali: What books impressed you in 2003? And why?
Roger: Like I said before, I donít read anywhere enough. What did I read in 2003? The Feast of Love by Charles Baxter. Being There by Jerzy Kosinski. The Pilotís Wife by Anita Shreve. Provinces of Night by William Gay. The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides. Leviathan by Paul Auster. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. I read a lot of poetry by people like Walt Whitman and William Carlos Williams too. I read books that get me with their language. I was impressed by all of them in different ways.
Ali: What do you see as future trends in the crime/mystery/thriller genre? Do you see the genre becoming darker?
Roger: I see it perhaps becoming more slanted towards challenging the reader, perhaps slipping away from the straightforward mystery Ďwhodunnití kind of thing, and more towards Ďwhy-dunnití or Ďhow-dunnití. I think thereís a limit to the number of black and white police procedurals you can read. I think we should go in the direction of language and character and real-life type things that we can identify with.
Ali: What is your take in the way violence is portrayed within the genre?
Roger: Iím a little clueless on that one. Violence is inherent in many parts of life. Itís never justified, but it is inherent. If itís there and there for a real reason, if itís necessary because it portrays some aspect of life thatís part of the fabric of events, then fine. If itís there just for the sake of itÖwell, enough said.
Ali: What are you working on currently? And are we going to be crossing the Atlantic again?
Roger: The book that follows Ghostheart is done, and yes itís US based. Beyond that I am working on a novel that spans most of the mid-west of the US, also some of the southern states like Florida and Louisiana. The main thread of the story also deals with Cuba, so itís quite diverse and varied in the subjects and cultures it covers.
Ali: Thank you for your time, and good luck with Ghostheart.
Roger: Youíre more than welcome, and thank you!
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