R. J. Ellory Responds

As I penned my thoughts on Ghostheart, I had a few questions for R. J. Ellory. As I shared this with him via Facebook, he was gracious enough to respond to them. Thanks Sir, for taking your time to respond to my thoughts and queries. To better understand his thought-process and approach, for the benefit of all, I thought I would share it here. It's a bit lengthy, but it's really worth it. So here it goes:

Thnak you dearly, my friend, for such kind words. I have to say that the quote about 'First we write for ourselves...' etc. is actually from Moliere, not me! However, I agree with Moliere completely! As for 'Why America?', here's my answer:

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.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, 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 once heard that non-fiction possesses, as its primary purpose, the conveying of information, whereas fiction possessed 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. I had not been to New Orleans when I wrote it, and I still haven’t. People from New Orleans write to me. They don’t say ‘Hey, you haven’t been to 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 that - as they say - is that!

Related: Book Review: Ghostheart