Interview with R. J. Ellory

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(c) Cecilia Lavopa

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Roger Jon Ellory is an English thriller writer. He has a long and interesting biography, you can read it here:
I met him during his tour in Italy for the presentation of the last books Carnival of Shadows and The Devil and The river, Il circo delle ombre e Il diavolo e il fiume by 21 Editore in Italy.
So, this is my interview:

1. A hearty welcome to you, Roger, and thank you for your willingness. Let’s start with a question to let your readers know you. What would you like them to know about you?

R.: I don’t think I have ever been asked that question before!  Well, what can I say?  I guess I am fortunate to be in a situation where most of my time is taken up with things that I love.  I write novels, I work on short stories, on graphic novels, on screenplays.  And then there are the music projects I am involved in, both the band (‘The Whiskey Poets’), and the work I am now doing to compose music for film and television.  Creating this has taken a huge amount of time and work, and none of it has been because of luck!  I am also very fortunate to have a tremendously supportive relationship with my wife and she has been there for nearly thirty years, working alongside me, encouraging and challenging me.  I still love writing as much as I ever did, and I think I will always be writing in some form or another.  I am a workaholic.  I never stop.  I am always doing something.  I don’t take much time to relax and I don’t take holidays.

2. What was the beginning of your career? Was it difficult for you to have your books published? Did you have to give anything up? What did you enrich your mind of?
R.: I think anyone who is driven by a passion, especially in the field of the arts, has to make some sacrifices.  Yes, it was very difficult at the start.  The real sacrifice was a social life, time with friends and family.  I was working two jobs and also writing for many years, so I never did anything but work!  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.  I wrote first of all in longhand, and then I got a typewriter, and finally ended up with an Amstrad dedicated wordprocessor that took about half an hour to warm up!  I spent those six years sending material out to British publishers, and received about five hundred complimentary, very polite ‘Thanks but no thanks’ letters.  I also 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 didn’t even look at the material I sent them.  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.
I had this datum from Disraeli who said ‘Success is entirely dependent upon constancy of purpose’.  However, after six years of doing this I finally thought ‘Enough’s enough’, and I stopped writing.  I then studied music, photography, all manner of things, and didn’t go back to writing until the latter part of 2001.
It was then that I wrote ‘Candlemoth’.  I sent that to thirty-six publishers, thirty-five of whom sent it back.  All except Bloomsbury, and an editor there gave it to a friend who gave it to a friend, and it wound up at Orion with my current editor, and we have now worked together through eight books.  Since Orion signed me there have been a couple of comments made by a couple of publishers I have met about how they should perhaps have pursued things with a little more tenacity back in the early days.  The earlier unpublished stuff will probably stay right where it is in the loft.  It was a different genre, more supernatural in a way, and I write better now anyway.  I think the time away from it between 1993 and 2001 made me more succinct, gave me a greater clarity about what I wanted to say.  I have gone back recently and read some of my earlier work and it was a little verbose.  But hell, it was good practice!

3. What urges a writer to tell people his stories?
R.: I was always creatively minded, right from an early age.  My primary interests were in the field of art, photography, music, such things as this.  Not until I was twenty-two did I consider the possibility of writing.  I remember having a conversation with a friend of mine about a book he was reading, and he was so enthusiastic!  I thought ‘It would be great to create that kind of an effect’.
That evening – back in November of 1987 – I started writing my first book, and once I started I couldn’t stop, and now I think it just took me those first twenty-two years of my life to really discover what I wanted to do.  Now it seems like such a natural part of me and I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.  And why do we want to tell stories?  I think telling stories is as old as speech, and no less important.  Telling stories is a tradition, a heritage, a legacy…it is the past making its way toward the future in an effort to show us those things we have failed to learn by our own experience.  Telling stories is a hope that magic can be restored to an age that has almost forgotten.  I guess we all feel that we have something to say, that what we have to say might be of interest to people, and telling stories is the best way to deliver that message.

4. Your novel “Il Circo delle Ombre” was published. Its publication was followed by another book “Il Diavolo e il fiume”,21 Editore. After a long silence… how long was it? What was the origin of its idea?
R.: Okay, so as far as the first question is concerned, I am very, very happy to have my books in Italian again, and I really do hope we achieve a degree of success that will enable us to keep on publishing the books in Italian.  The publishing industry is a business.  There is no question about this.  Even though we are dealing with an artistic creation – the same as theatre, music, film etc. – we still have to accept that it is a business.  There are many reasons that the publishing industry worldwide is struggling, and I know that publishers are doing all they can to keep it going, but if it becomes unrealistic to continue a particular imprint or genre then I do understand that such an imprint or genre has to be sacrificed.  I am now very pleased to have found Editore 21, and I hope we have a long and successful partnership together.

5. In which way did you change during the years? Or better did you change in any way or did you succeed in maintaining your own narrative genre?
R.: I think I have learned a lot over the past years of writing.  When you work with editors and agents, with publishers, and when you listen to journalists and readers, you start to see your own work from an objective point of view.  I don’t think my areas of interest have changed, but I have perhaps appreciated how to tell a story in a more efficient and effective way.  Also, writing is like many other things – the more you do it, the more you understand the mechanics of it, how to use language, how to create tension etc.  Language and grammar and syntax are your tools, like a hammer and nails, and you start to use them more competently.  I think I also say more with fewer words these days.

6. Michael Travis is the main character of “Il Circo delle Ombre”. Tell us something about him. In some aspects he has reminded me what you wrote about your childhood. A little boy shut himself up, a prison or the State Welfare, former military structure.
R.: Michael Travis was a man with a great many certainties in his life.  He coped with the trauma and problems of his early life by investing in a belief.  He chose a path in his life where he would have to make very few independent decisions.  That was what he wanted.  That was what he needed.  So from that perspective he and I could not be more different as I have always chosen the less-travelled path.  I have always chosen to rely on things that were uncertain, to take risks.  The entire purpose of the book was to create this character with all these certainties, and then to take all of his certainties away.  That’s what I wanted to do – to make everything around him fall apart so he would feel like he was in a psychological earthquake.  Everything that should be solid and dependable was fragile and transparent.

7. The circus Diablo is the place in which the whole story takes place, a corpse with the broken neck found under the platform of the roundabout. People living on the fringe of society that refuse being labelled, frightened on one hand whereas on the other hand there is always someone who wants to take advantage of them. Do you want to tell us something about them?
R.: Yes, of course.  These characters are not what they appear to be.  They appear to be dangerous, subversive, a threat, exactly the sort of people you wouldn’t want to be involved with.  These are the bad guys, of course, and then you get to know them and you find out that they are the good guys.  That’s the other main point of the book – nothing is what it appears to be.  I think the message here is that we all live with our fixed ideas and preconceptions about people, about life, about ourselves.  I am telling a story that demonstrates how what we know to be true is very rarely true.  There is much more to life, to people and to ourselves.   We are all much more able than we have been led to believe.  I think we have been made to think that we cannot trust our knowledge, our intuition, and I have found that when people trust those things they are often right.

8. Michael Travis becomes a member of FBI because of his thirst and need of knowledge. He was afraid of his own shadows. What shadows is R.J. Ellory afraid of?
R.: Failure.  Not making a difference.  Getting to the end of my life and feeling that I have wasted time.  I think we reach the end of our lives and think of all the things we regret.  We don’t regret what we did, but what we didn’t do.  I think that says everything about me.  Everything I want to do…well, I have to find a way to do it.

9. In a previous interview on my blog, you spoke about your intention of reducing the differences between the good and the bad character, in order to insinuate the doubt that both of them may be right or wrong. Did you choose this technique in this novel too? Is there always a dim light also in the darkest place?
R.: Yes, I chose this.  Everyone is good and bad, everyone is right and wrong, everyone is truthful and a liar.  I don’t believe in the good guys in the white hats and the bad guys in the black hats.  Life is not like that, and so I didn’t want to write a book like that.  I think there is good and bad in everyone, and there is good and bad in every situation in life.

10. There is a sentence in which you write illusions may be as much convincing as any reality. But where Michael Travis’s illusion end and where does the reality begin?
R.: Michael’s reality is simply what he believes.  Whatever he believes, that is real for him.  When he changes his beliefs, then he changes his reality, and thus his priorities, his importances, ultimately his loyalties.

11. In the novel “A simply act of violence” there is a cross-section of society of a country that had to avow a lot of mistakes made by the Presidents in office, men among the most powerful ones in the world, who in the name of wrong ideals allowed to kill, torture hundreds, thousands people and what’s more covering every trace up. Also in this novel there are a lot of historical references and actions of the past to forget. What is the boundary between thriller and information?
R.: I undertake a huge amount of research, but I always work to integrate the fact into the story so it feels balanced.  I find the research fascinating.  I love to read.  I love to ask questions and find out everything I can about somebody or something.  That is just my nature.  John Lennon said that you should find something to do that you love, and then you will never work another day in your life.  I love researching and I love writing, so it never feels like hard labour to me.  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.  I think the only danger for me with research is that sometimes I find the subjects so fascinating that I don’t get very much writing done!  As for the boundaries, there are very few it seems!  Fact is stranger than fiction.  I am routinely amazed by what I discover as I work on a book.  The coincidences and extraordinary circumstances that seem to define the human race are often too amazing to believe but they are true!

12. “The past has gone by, the present is here, the future is unknown”. What are Ellory’s past, present and future like? Choose an adjective to describe each of them.
Past: Challenging
Present: Hectic
Future: Exciting

13. In my previous interview I became interested in your British origins and, to oppose, your choice of writing stories set in the U.S.A. You answered me you loved those atmospheres and the diversity of culture. I think there is also a criticism to the exploitation of the power and of the country’s highest offices. I want you to convince me I’m wrong.
R.: You know the truth as much as me!  America is a strange place.  It is great to visit, great to experience, but it is not somewhere I would want to live.  I think the fundamental problem with American – as a culture – is that it believes itself free, liberal and democratic, that it offers the opportunity to anyone to secure a place and create their own ‘American ream’.  This is an illusion.  There are very many fundamental and basic human rights that we take for granted in Europe that do not exist in America.  It is not a free country.  It is also an aggressor and a warmonger.  America sees something it wants (land, oil, minerals etc.) and they will create a reason to invade and take it.  It is not the people, it is the government, the institution, the men in power (who are not the same as the government, of course).
These are dangerous and anti-social people, and they have created a delusion about America that people want to believe.  I think America represents all the best and all the worst of humanity, and I am sorry…I cannot make you feel any better about them!