“Top Crime Writer” Roger Jon Ellory: A Peek Inside His Life

Roger Jon Ellory is a British thriller writer who will knock your socks off. (Trust me—I’ve read two of his works and both times, up and away…) His international bestseller, A Quiet Belief in Angels, is a lyrical, haunting tale about a boy growing up in the midst of a serial killer during the 1950s—a story I doubt I’ll forget. His recent release, A Quiet Vendetta, is the only mafia-centered book I’ve enjoyed—okay, or finished. I wanted to race through it and savor each page at once. Mystery People, USA said it “solidifies him as one of the top crime writers today.”

 

Here’s what others are saying about A Quiet Vendetta:

“The kidnapping of 19-year-old Catherine Ducane, daughter of Louisiana governor Charles Ducane, and the brutal murder of her driver set the stage for this absorbing crime novel from Ellory (A Simple Act of Violence) covering more than 50 years of mob violence and American history.” — Publisher’s Weekly

“This is a sprawling masterpiece covering 50 years of the American Dream gone sour. Real people and events are mixed in with fictional characters in this striking novel that brings to mind the best of James Ellroy.”— The Good Book Guide

“Beautifully written, this is a novel to get lost in and one that is a long ride into the darkness, and if you recall reading Mario Puzo’s The Godfather as a teenager (as I did), then this is a powerful book that will make you relive that memory – masterful, but beware of the brutality, because it comes out of the most literate prose I have read in many years.” — Deadly Pleasures

I’m thrilled and honored to share Roger Ellory with you today.

AM: What inspired you to pursue a writing career?

RE: I was always creatively minded, right from an early age. My primary interests were in the fields 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 over the next six years I wrote a total of 23 novels. Once I started I couldn’t stop. 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.

AM: How is your career different than/similar to what you expected? 

RE: I think the main difference between what I expected and how it actually is, is the sheer quantity of self-generated promotion and travel that’s involved. The year before last I went to forty-nine cities in eleven countries in seven months. During that time I was home for a total of seventeen days, and there isn’t a great deal of writing that can be done while you’re on the road like that. I’ve just returned from ten days in France, and have already done a US tour this year, along with Norway and a couple of other places…

It is great to meet readers, and really gives you a chance to get some feedback, but it isn’t writing. John Lennon once said, “Find something you love and you’ll never work another day.” I love doing this, and I do enjoy the travelling, and I have no complaints. But I never figured that learning another language would be necessary!

AM: What’s your typical writing day like?

RE: I start early in the day. I try and produce three or four thousand words a day, and work on the basis of getting a first draft done in about twelve weeks. Sometimes it takes longer, sometimes shorter. I buy a new notebook, a good quality one, because I know I’m going to be carrying it around for two or three months, and in the notebook I write down ideas as I go. Little bits of dialogue, things like that. Sometimes I have a title, sometimes not. I used to feel very strongly about having a good title before I started, but now—because at least half the books I’ve published have ended up with a different title—I am not so obsessive about it! Also, with the travelling commitments, I have to be more disciplined, so I aim to write three chapters a day. Then I practice guitar for two or three hours and handle all my e-mails and admin stuff—all the things that go along with the public aspect of being a writer.

AM: What value do you see in conferences and other literary events?

RE: I think you can’t avoid it these days. I think you have to do it, regardless of whether or not you want to. The attention of the literary press is overwhelmed with new books all the time, and you cannot hope for reviews. Besides, awards and reviews tend not to sell books, but word-of-mouth does, and the only way to get that kind of thing started is to go out there and meet people. Also, if you turn up someplace for a festival, the press tends to be there. And that’s when your name and the name of your book wins up in the newspapers and magazines.

AM: Why did you write A Quiet Vendetta?

RE: I’ve  always possessed a deep and profound interest in the Mafia—a deep fascination with organised crime, with the way in which a family can become an empire which can control a city or a country for years and years. Additionally, there is the issue of the family itself. The Mafia was all about family, loyalty to family. I am always looking for the emotional connection in a story, and with this one it was easy—the sense of loyalty engendered in people for no other reason than blood.

Also, I wanted to write a novel about the worst kind of human being I could think of, and yet write him in such a way as that when the reader comes to the end of the book they have almost forgiven him, they perhaps have some understanding of why he was how he was, why he did the things he did and perhaps even wish him to evade the law. That was the idea behind the book, and from what people have told me I seem to have accomplished that.

Vendetta holds a special place for me. It was written very quickly, in about eight weeks, and I worked at it for many hours every day. I wanted to write it quickly. I knew it was going to be a big novel, and I knew that if I took months and months to write it then it would perhaps read very slowly. I wanted to get the work done rapidly so as to keep some of the energy and immediacy that comes from working that fast.

AM: A Quiet Vendetta is based on real events. What was your research process like?

RE: I researched the factual and historical aspects of the book as I went. I ‘lived’ in that world for all that time. I spent all my waking hours thinking about the story, about the characters, about what would happen. I do not work out books before I start them. I do not do outlines or a synopsis. I just start with the first scene and a basic idea of what I want the book to be about, and then I think about it and plot it as I go. It is often the case that I do not know how the book will end until I am thirty or forty pages away from completing it.

Research-wise, I wound up with many hundreds of pages of notes, books, biographies, documentation from court cases, dozens and dozens of photographs. They all played a part in trying to recreate that world within which these characters lived.

AM: You’re a talented musician—which seems to be a common thread among my favorite authors. What role does music play in your writing? Is there a correlation between the two?

RE: I have always been passionate about music, and just as I found a great empathy in American literature, I found a great empathy in jazz and blues and country music. Someone once told me that music was the way in which one person translated their emotions into sounds, and then gave those sounds to someone else who translated them back into emotion for themselves. I agree with this.

I think good literature works on an emotional level, and I definitely feel that good music works on an emotional level. As far as long improvisations are concerned, I am not so much this kind of musician.  I like to conceive of a song that I write as delivering an emotional message, and when the message is delivered the song is done. The response from music is so much more immediate than from literature, so a novel—taking months to write, and the another year before it is in print—is a much slower process than writing a song in two hours and then going down to a bar and playing it for people that same evening. There is a great pleasure in both activities. I say that music is my religion and writing is my philosophy, or maybe it’s the other way around!

AM: If you could speak to your younger self, before your career took off, what would you say?

RE: Not a great deal different from the things the younger me said to the younger me! Stick with it, persist, persevere, don’t ever quit, don’t change what you’re writing because you think something else will be more commercially successful. Maybe I would tell myself to be a little less anxious about the future, but then I think that the anxiety I felt about failure gave me a lot of drive, and without that drive I would not have persisted.

AM: What are your top tips for up-and-coming authors?

RE: I believe the worst kind of book you can write is the book that you believe other people will enjoy. I believe the best kind of book you can write is the one that you yourself would like to read. I don’t think they should look for a barnstorming opening. I don’t think they should look for anything as a kind of ‘magic paragraph’ or opening line.  Write the book that interests you. Your own enthusiasm for the subject will come through. That enthusiasm will then be contagious.

I think that a lot of truly extraordinary and very successful books don’t work as ideas on paper, but because of the way in which they have been written or constructed, they have worked, and worked wonderfully. Books that tell you how to write a bestseller in thirty days…well, I don’t know what to say. I think great stories come from people and their experiences in life, not from formulas.

Beyond that, you have to persevere, persist and never give up.  Keep sending that book out. Get an agent. Get someone working with you who is as enthusiastic as you are about your work. And then just keep going! One quote that kept me going was from Disraeli: “Success is entirely dependent upon constancy of purpose.”

AM: What do you hope readers reap from your work?

RE: Well with me, a book always begins with the emotion I want to evoke in the reader. I think the books that we love the most, the books that define our lives, the books that we always recommend to people, are those that have touched us emotionally. If I am trying to do anything with my writing, I am attempting to connect with people on an emotional level. For me, the most important thing is that once somebody has finished reading my books they might not necessarily remember the name of the book, even the plot details, but they will remember how it made them feel.

Some of the greatest books ever published, the ones that rightfully regarded as classics, are books that have a very simple storyline, but a very rich and powerful emotional pull. It’s the emotion that makes them memorable and special. I think that’s the key with great books, as far as I am concerned—to always be emotionally engaging. That is what I am always working towards, and what I think makes my books a little different.

AM: What’s next in the pipeline for you?

RE: I have a new book out in the UK in May called A Dark and Broken Heart and I have just completed a book called The Devil and The River which will be published here in June of 2013. Today, I am about to begin the novel for 2014, as yet untitled, but once this interview is complete I will be starting that new work.

Music-wise, with The Whiskey Poets, we have just posted a little video that someone shot at one of our gigs on YouTube, we are selling the EP we recorded, and we are working towards getting a tour together. That’s exciting for me, and I am looking forward to being on a musical road as well as the book tour road! I have some upcoming books events, and I will be in Toulouse, France and Knowlton, Canada and also at Bouchercon in Ohio. I am also going to Florida to do some workshops for the Florida Writers’ Association which will be great.

For more information, check out Roger’s website and follow him on Twitter.

****
He’s terrific, right? I know he’d love to hear your thoughts, so please, share away. Also, the first person to email me (august at augustmclaughlin dot com) will receive a free copy of A Quiet Vendetta. All I ask is that you post a review in return. Thanks, gang!
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25 Comments

  1. Aspiring writers should not be discouraged when they read that Roger writes 3,000-4,000 words a day. That is seriously PRO-lific. I wrote the first draft one of my Sword & Sorcery novels (70,000 words) in twenty days–but that was when I was young and stupid and could sit at the typewriter for eighteen straight hours. Even a thousand words a day will give you a first draft of a novel in three months or less.

    Reply
  2. Excellent interview. I have a new author and I definitely want to read his books.

    Reply
  3. What a great interview August! Great questions with very interesting answers. I am amazed at Mr. Ellory’s level of production with all the demands on his time. His answers were very insightful. I can’t wait to check out A Quiet Vendetta!

    Reply
  4. “…don’t change what you’re writing because you think something else will be more commercially successful.”

    We hear this all the time, but when we’re at that stage where everyone is telling us that the writing is great but they’re not sure they can sell this particular book (because of genre, or content, or whatever the reason), it can be difficult to remember. Thanks for sharing a great and inspiring interview!

    Reply
    • Marc Schuster

       /  March 29, 2012

      I was about to quote the same passage! Definitely good advice.

      Reply
    • What a post! Your interview with Roger Jon Ellory is full of memorable, helpful, and insightful advice and information. The passage Marcy quoted, much like “I believe the worst kind of book you can write is the book that you believe other people will enjoy. I believe the best kind of book you can write is the one that you yourself would like to read,” rang out loud and clear. Thank you for the reminder, and for a great interview.

      Reply
  5. Wonderful interview! You nailed it again. I loved reading about Mr. Ellory’s thoughts on the process. I mirror Marcy when she mentions change and how hard it is to remember when it comes to your own. I often find myself editing where the story wants to go because I think it won’t be socially acceptable and mothers everywhere will get upset with me. But it will also make my characters real, raw and believable. I know I need to follow my gut and trust it more. Thank you.

    Reply
    • So true, Debra. I think it’s particularly tough to follow our instincts and write to our own drum when we’re in the early stages of our careers. But step by step, we can get there.

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  6. I loved the interview. It was interesting to read that he doesn’t do an outline or even know the ending until he is almost there. I work the same way and was feeling a bit lazy for not doing the whole outline and ending etc. Glad to hear that it works that way for another author as well.

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    • Thanks, Marla! I find R.J.’s “pantser” style encouraging, too. (I wrote the outline for my first novel after I finished the first draft. ;))

      Reply
  7. Great interview . . . I’ll have to give his books a try! Really good crime fiction is hard to come by these days.

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  8. Excellent interview … August and Roger … I always find it fascinating how a successful writer works. Totally agree with write what you want to read, it’s the only way to go.

    The discipline of 3,000 – 4,000 word a day in full creative mode is key to finding our voice I believe so I get what Roger’s saying.

    The musical part of Roger’s life is interesting too. I’m musical – violin and choreography. Also my father is a hugely successful trumpet player, but writing is the food that feeds my soul. Sometimes I wish I’d found it sooner, but then there wouldn’t be the true life experiences to mine for my stories.

    Reply
    • I’m fascinated by the inner-workings of writers’ lives, too. We can learn so much from others’ success and challenges. And though there are many paths to success, however we define it, discipline seems essential. Glad you found writing!

      Reply
  9. Kourtney Heintz

     /  March 29, 2012

    Terrific interview. Lots of great questions August! Roger, I enjoyed hearing your thoughts on attending conferences and how aspiring authors need to keep at it. 3-4K is an impressive word count requirement and I love the idea of getting a draft down in 3 months. 🙂

    Reply
  10. This is such a great interview! I loved reading about your insights on what it is like to be a famous author. It was interesting to see how you lay out your schedule when writing a book and I love the new notebook idea.

    Reply
  11. Karen McFarland

     /  March 29, 2012

    Thank you August and Roger! Great interview!

    Wow, what a schedule! But then look where you’re traveling! Very cool places and people! But then to squeeze all that writing in besides is amazing.

    I truly believe that you need to write what you love. Otherwise it shows through the writing. Great point!

    This was a very encouraging post! 🙂

    Reply
  12. Great interview. I particularly liked this line: “For me, the most important thing is that once somebody has finished reading my books they might not necessarily remember the name of the book, even the plot details, but they will remember how it made them feel.” I absolutely agree! Thanks for sharing with us Roger and August

    Reply
  13. A great pleasure to have the opportunity to answer some questions. August and I have been friends for a couple of years, having first met at the US crime fiction convention, Bouchercon. I think it was in San Francisco when we first collided, and we have collided a couple of times since. I think – in all honesty – that the real thing that I wanted to say was that there are many, many, many titles being published each year, and with the advent of digital opportunities that number will only increase. Aspiring and soon-to-be-published authors are constantly being told how difficult it is, and how competitive this industry is, but the fact of the matter is that books are still being published in their hundreds of thousands each year, and there is no reason in the world that your book cannot be among them.

    As Richard Bach said, “Professional writers are amateurs who didn’t quit.” It is correct that you write at your own pace, and no-one has the ‘right formula.’ The way in which you work is as unique as the work that you create. Mike’s comment made me smile when he said, “Aspiring writers should not be discouraged when they read that Roger writes 3,000-4,000 words a day. That is seriously PRO-lific. I wrote the first draft one of my Sword & Sorcery novels (70,000 words) in twenty days–but that was when I was young and stupid and could sit at the typewriter for eighteen straight hours.” Essentially what he is saying is that I am still young and stupid! I do not sit at the typewriter for eighteen straight hours, and I think Mike’s ability to do that is nothing less than commendable!

    So, thank you to August and to you all for your comments, and I hope that the above Q&A has been helpful in encouraging you to persist, persevere, and then persist some more. As they say, hard work is the work you do after you’ve gotten tired from all the hard work you’ve already done!

    Reply
  14. What a wonderful interview, and I’ve got a new author to read. Very excited about that. Like others, I really loved this line: “…don’t change what you’re writing because you think something else will be more commercially successful.”

    That’s kind of what my best friend kept telling me about the book I recently contracted – write the book you want to read. I love hearing a bestselling author echo that sentiment.

    Thanks so much to both of you for sharing your time and process with us.

    Reply
  15. BoJo Photo

     /  March 31, 2012

    Great interview August! I will definitely have to check his books out.

    Anyone with writing talent blows me away. I worked with a man that was president of two huge engineering companies and he said the key was his writing ability.

    When you pick up a book can you tell if you will like it by reading the first paragraph? Usually I can. I will read the first paragraph in two or three chapters and know if a writer can hold my attention.

    Reply
  16. Thanks for the peek, August!
    Wait, that didn’t sound right…..

    Reply
  17. Another great interview August! Very inspiring.

    Reply

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