Intervista Roger Jon Ellory – English version

foto di R:J. Ellory

R.J. Ellory is the multi-award winning author of Candlemoth, Ghostheart, A Quiet Vendetta, City of Lies, A Quiet Belief In Angels, A Simple Act of Violence, The Anniversary Man, Saints of New York and Bad Signs. His books are available in 24 languages. He is also the guitarist and vocalist for ‘The Whiskey Poets’ ( This biografy is on his facebook’s profile and today he’s my guest on Contorni di noir:

1. Thank you for being my guest. The first thing I want to ask you is: Who is R.J.Ellory, and what is his background? 

R.J.: I was born in Birmingham, England in 1965. My father left before I was born, and I still do not know who he is. I was raised by my mother and maternal grandmother, as my grandfather had drowned in the 1950s. Then my mother died when I was seven. She was a victim of a pneumonia epidemic that claimed more than a dozen lives. So in 1973 I was sent to a residential school for orphaned children, and stayed there until I was sixteen. I left school at sixteen, had no qualifications, and started committing minor criminal acts. At seventeen years of age I was arrested for poaching; I was charged, tried, and sentenced to a jail term which I served without causing too much trouble. After I was released, I pursued interests in art, photography, philosophy, all sorts of things, and then started writing in the latter part of ’87, and worked on numerous things until the middle of ’93. Frustrated with the lack of success I was achieving I stopped writing until the end of 2001. During those first six years I wrote something in the region of three and a half million words, much of it in longhand and on a manual typewriter, and I think that that experience and persistence really gave me a work ethic that has stayed with me to this day. When I started writing again in 2011, I write three novels, the second one of which was ‘Candlemoth’. This was actually published in Italy as ‘Due Piani Sopra L’Inferno’. I have now published a book every year since, and we goin to be releasing the tenth in May 2012.

2. When did you realize you wanted to be a writer? 

R.J.: Very simply, in late 1987 I had a conversation with someone who was reading a book. They spoke about this book with such passion and enthusiasm, that I thought, ‘That’s what I want to do with my life. I want to write stories that make people feel that way’. I started writing my first novel that same evening.

3. You’re of English origin but you love writing stories set in the U.S.A. Do you think it isn’t very interesting to set your novels in your country? 

R.J.: Paul Auster said something very perceptive about this subject. He 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 matter, 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 also 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 many times now, and I honestly feel like I’m going home. 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 they are familiar with. 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. I think the truly great books are the ones that accomplish both, presenting you with a narrative so compelling you can’t read it fast enough, and yet written so well that you cannot read it slowly enough. 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!

4. You are a film lover and as a little boy you used to watch films of the forties and the fifties, such as Hitchcock, James Cagney and so on. Which of those films could you link to your books? You can mention just one of them, if you like. 

R.J.:  Oh, there are so many. I have to mention two films specifically, the first is ‘Strangers on a Train, based on the book by Patricia Highsmith, the screenplay written by Raymond Chandler, and the film directed by Alfred Hitchcock. What more could you ask for? The second one is ‘Double Indemnity’, based on the book by James M. Cain. There are many films that are important to me – films with Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney, James Stewart, Cary Grant, Barbara Stanwyck and the rest of the greats from the Golden Age of Hollywood – and it is impossible to name them all!

5. I’ve read in a previous interview of yours that you had to write 22 novels before having a book set in the U.S.A. published. What was its reason? And, above all, with hindsight, do you think it was somehow useful to your literary maturity? 

R.J.:  Well, I was sending books out to publishers both in the UK and the US, and they were all telling me the same thing. They said that the liked the books very much, but they didn’t see how they could sell an American novel written by a British writer. I just believed that I had to persevere, and I did – though six years and twenty-novels – and then I quit, honestly believing that I just was not good enough to make the grade. I think I knew I would go back to it. I think I always knew that it was what I was meant to do with my life. I think it was important to go through those experiences, not only from the viewpoint that all that writing taught me a great deal about writing, but also because it taught me that I had to write no matter whether I wanted to or not, no matter whether I felt like it. It taught me that I can work every day, that if I run into difficulty with a book, I just have to keep on going, keep on working, and it will come out right.

6. I’ve read you often come to Italy and I myself saw you in Piacenza during the last Blues Festival. What sensations do our country and the blues give you?

R.J.: Well, Italy is a truly wonderful country, and – like England and France, and other mainland European countries – you really just feel the tremendous history present in everything. I have always been greeted so warmly and enthusiastically, and I am always made to feel very welcome. Piacenza was a great experience for many reasons. I am very passionate about music, and here I got a chance to meet some of my musical heroes, but also to spend time with authors I really admire, people like Joe Lansdale and Tim Willocks. And as far as my feelings about the blues, what can I say? I say that music is my religion, and writing is my philosophy, or maybe it’s the other way around. Music plays such an important part in my life, and I always have music around me. As a child I started listening to the blues, really from when I was seven and eight years old, and blues has always been there in the background of everything for me.

7. During your journey in Italy, you were with very famous writers such as Victor Gischler, Antony Neil Smith, Joe R. Landale, Tim Willocks, Linwood Barclay (I’ve interviewed all of them except Willocks). What characteristics do you think you have in common with them?
R.J.: It’s funny that you mention Joe, because right now I am in Austin, Texas and on my way to Phoneix, Arizona. I am on a little book tour, and last night I was in Houston, and Joe and his wife came to see me, and we went and had dinner together. Tim is also a great friend of mine, and we talk often. I find writers (and also readers) to be the most intelligent, cultured, educated, challenging, interesting people. They always have a viewpoint, and they are happy to disagree and debate everything. They are always listening, always paying attention to what’s going on around them, and it’s great to be a part of that community. They are very special people, and I am proud to call them my friends

8. I know you’re a member of a band: what instrument do you play? Does music play an important role in the draft of your novels? 

R.J.: I am a guitar player and singer in a band called ‘The Whiskey Poets’ (, and though music plays a very important part in my life I do not listen to music while I am actually writing. I have to have silence to write, as there are so many thoughts and ideas going on in my head that external noises just become a distraction. When I am finished writing for the day I then play guitar, usually for two or three hours. That’s when I am home.

9. Let’s speak of your last book: “Un Semplice Atto di Violenza”. How long did it take you to write it?

It took me about twelve weeks to write “A simple act of violence

10. The subject you deal with is definitely “hard”: the involvement of CIA in the days of disorders in Nicaragua. Was it difficult for you to gather the information you needed? But, above all, wasn’t it more difficult to publish a novel which deals with a period the Americans are ashamed of? That’s just my opinion but I think it isn’t easy to acknowledge…… 

Very simply, when I finished Vendetta back in 2004, I decided that at some point I should write a novel about truly organised criminals, and who better than the American Intelligence community? I have a great interest in US politics and culture, and with the actions taken overseas by the Bush administration, the world had its eyes focused on US foreign policy and their involvement in the affairs of others. I was interested in how such a young nation could have created such a broad effect all over the world, and I chose to write a book about one aspect of how the USA had influenced things internationally. The structure of the book – like Vendetta – for me, is a good way of telling more than one story at a time, and this appeals to me greatly. All the way back to childhood, I had an interest in journalism and journalistic investigation. I have been inspired by Woodward and Bernstein, ‘All The President’s Men’, the Watergate investigation as a whole, by ‘Three Days of the Condor’, by ‘The Parallax View’, by Oliver Stone’s ‘Salvador’. I have a great interest in political conspiracy as a whole, and where accurate journalism uncovers true-life vested interest and ulterior motive, I am most fascinated. So, it all came together for me with the idea of a cover-up by the American intelligence community, and when the book was first published in the UK in 2008, I received quite a lot of e-mails from American readers, and they were very positive. They all said the same thing, that they felt they were being shown pieces of their own history that they didn’t even know about. That was a great compliment for me. The research was extensive, but the information is there if you look for it.

11. Tell me something about the main characters Robert Miller and John Robey, thesis and antithesis, but the more you go on reading, the less these dichotomies are evident…. 

R.J.: I have always been far more interested in the psychology of human beings than anything else. Emotions, attitudes, viewpoints, where people come from, the consequences of their actions. This is deeply interesting to me. Also human emotions. I think crime fiction is capable of making a very powerful and direct social comment, and also – because you are placing someone in a difficult or unusual situation – you are also able to portray the whole range of human emotions. My ideas come from life, from talking to people, from meeting people, from listening to their thoughts and attitudes about things. I think the idea of the ‘guilty’ character looking back over their life and considering their actions, and the consequences of their actions, is a natural human thing that we all do, and I feel it is a great way to tell a story from the emotional and mental point of view. I really wanted to create two characters in this book, one who was the ‘good guy’, the other who was the ‘bad guy’. However, I wanted to make the difference between them less and less as the book continued, so by the time you reach the end of the book, you see that they are both right, and they are also both wrong. It was the same with ‘Vendetta’. With ‘Vendetta’ I wanted to create a character (Ernesto Perez) who was the worst human being I could think of, and yet make the reader feel some empathy and compassion for him by the end of the book. No-one is all good, and no-one is all bad. There is light in the darkest of places, and even saints have darkness inside them. That is just life, and when a novel presents me with characters who are always right, then I am disappointed.

12. I’ve read you drew inspiration from Cary Grant’s character in “Caccia al Ladro” for John Robey’s name. Did you want to pay tribute to the cinema of those years? 

R.J.: Yes, for sure. I feel that the cinema of the Golden Age of Hollywood had a huge influence on me in my childhood, and I wanted to just make a little acknowledgement of that.

13. Let me quote a passage of the book, which is the opening sentence of my review: “The Silent Half”. All of us have a Silent Half where our sins, infringements, crimes and iniquities, the failing of reason, faith, honesty, our vices and misdeeds are hidden. And every time we fall into disgrace”. Are we really like that? Do you think the silent half may prevail over the other one? 

R.J.: Yes, of course. I think this is a very accurate and perceptive viewpoint about people. And yes, the silent half could always prevail, just as the evil within a man can take over the goodness and he can demonstrate evil actions. I do not believe that anyone is completely bad. I think even the most evil of people have a conscience and an awareness of good inside them, but often it is so deeply buried that it cannot censor the person’s actions. We all have destructive and evil thoughts. The vast majority of us are able to withhold ourselves from carrying out those thoughts.

14. I remember a film shot some years ago, called “Nato il 4 Luglio” starring Tom Cruise, in which a boy wanted to defend his country and to die for it. Do you think the patriotic spirit the Americans have is really strong? And what about the English? 

R.J.: Yes, I do. I am aware of it every day I am in the US. There are US flags everywhere you go, like a statement that ‘We are here. We are Americans, and we are proud of it.’ England is different. English people, I believe, are very patriotic, but they only show it when there is an obvious source of threat or a challenge to their patriotism. It is said, as a joke, that the only things that get English people patriotic are football and war! And also the Queen, I think. I think most English people are very proud of the monarchy in England. But here, in the US, it is displayed a great deal more obviously. The other thing to take into consideration is that the US always seems to be at war somewhere. It seems like they are always looking to get involved in whatever fights might be going on around the world! We in England are maybe as bad, but I don’t think it’s publicized as much.

15. What would you tell an up-and-coming writer if you should give him a good piece of advice?

R.J.: I would say that the very worst book you could write is the book that you think people will enjoy reading. I think the very best book you could write is the one that you yourself would enjoy. I would also advise an aspiring writer to write about those things that fascinate him or her, not necessarily things that they know well. And research is important. Research is easy. There is always someone who knows what you need to know, always a way to find out things, and experts in all areas are usually very willing and happy to answer your questions. Lastly, and I think this is dependent upon the kind of book you want to write, always think about the emotion you are trying to create in the reader. If you write a chapter where your central character is supposed to be grieving, then if you don’t feel that yourself, at least to some degree, there is probably something missing. If you write about someone being terrified, then maybe while you’re reading back over it, you should get that sense of anxiety. That’s what I always aim for, and that’s what I keep trying to improve in my own writing.

Thanks a lot for your answers, R.J. and good luck for you next books!