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Interview: February 27, 2014

Before becoming a bestselling author, J.T. Ellison was a White House staffer, so she’s been able to work extensively with the Metro Nashville Police, the FBI, and various other law enforcement organizations to research her novels. Which, of course, comes in handy when writing about forensic pathologist Dr. Samantha Owens. In WHEN SHADOWS FALL, the third and latest installment of Ellison's series, Sam receives a disturbing letter from Timothy Savage, a dead man imploring her to solve his murder. The investigation takes her into the shadows of a 20-year-old mystery that must be solved to determine what really happened to Savage.

In this interview with’s Ray Palen, Ellison goes into detail about her protagonist’s complicated internal life as Sam recovers from the loss of her family, and how that tragedy affects her decisions in WHEN SHADOWS FALL. She also talks about her own fascination with cults and cult leaders, as well as how much fun it was to write a story with an “unreliable victim.” WHEN SHADOWS FALL is the third installment of your series starring Dr. Samantha “Sam” Owens. Why was it important for you to have this character make the transition from medical examiner to Georgetown academic? Is this an example of the old adage “those who can't do, teach,” or is this simply a new page in her personal history?

J.T. Ellison: A new page, certainly. Samantha is running from her past, running from her passion --- being a medical examiner --- into a place she thinks will be safe and where she will not have to be involved in law enforcement anymore. She’s wrong, of course. She realizes rather quickly she’s probably made a huge mistake, but she’s honor-bound to see it through. It’s a good place for her, though, since the idea of working in forensic pathology is too much for her anymore. This gives her a chance to shape the future. It’s a very symbolic choice for her, a woman who’s lost her children, reaching out to influence other people’s kids.

BRC: How did the tragic loss Sam suffered in the first book in the series, A DEEPER DARKNESS, shape who she is in WHEN SHADOWS FALL? How does this influence her decision-making process and judgment?

JTE: The loss of her family creates a completely new woman, one who doesn’t have the best judgment, one who makes mistakes. She was on such a safe, comfortable path before the floods, and suddenly she’s been pushed out into a different world, one she’s not at all prepared to handle. She manages, albeit with difficulty, to move on, and she’s now ready for the challenges placed in front of her. She’s ready to love again, to entertain the thought of working in law enforcement with the FBI, to let the ghosts of her past fade a bit and start living her life with hope instead of despair.

BRC: Has Sam’s personal loss damaged her beyond the ability to truly settle down and have a normal relationship? Do you see in the prospect of her considering adopting a child a sense of personal closure for her?

JTE: You know, people react to grief in so many different ways. Sam is an incredibly strong woman, one who spent her entire adult life looking into the abyss of the vagaries of crime. Empirically, she’s always known what a crapshoot life is --- she simply never expected to be the one on the other side of the table. Whether she knows it or not, it’s this experience that helps her cope when she is forced into this position.

I personally don’t believe there’s anything like closure when you lose so much. I think new chapters can begin, and you can change and grow, but there’s only turning the page on grief, there’s no way to eradicate it. In many ways, Sam’s grief mirrors my own losses. My husband and I battled infertility for years, and I was amazed at how people would say, “Oh, I’m sorry, but you can just adopt.” As if that would make it all better. The loss of a child of any age is horrid; the idea that another can mitigate that loss…well, I don’t see her going there. I really don’t. She doesn’t need a child to feel complete, and I can’t see her ever putting herself in a place to experience the loss of a child again. But who knows? Life is funny, and people change.

BRC: The start of each new day in this novel is ushered in with a famous literary quote coupled with a quote from Curtis Lott. When we discover Lott to actually be a fictional character from the story, the quotes become quite prophetic. What made you decide to include them? Did you write these as you were writing the book, or did you come back to write them later? 

JTE: I wrote them after the fact. The juxtaposition of the words of the real thinkers of our time with Curtis’s clearly fanatical preaching of her own religious movement struck me as a wonderful device for putting her words, her narcissistic paradigms, into the readers’ heads. She is such a magnetic, persuasive and peculiar woman, so good at putting her thoughts into the words her followers believe without question. When I realized she wasn’t going to be onstage as much as I’d thought, it seemed the perfect way to give her more of a voice and allow the reader some insight into her character.

BRC: The title of the story comes from one of the Curtis Lott quotes. Why was it important to have that character be the author of the quote for which the novel was named?

JTE: Oddly enough, I had the title long before I had Curtis. This entire book is about people stepping forward from the shadows --- Samantha; Curtis; Adrian; Curtis’s acolyte, Kaylie; even Timothy Savage. But Curtis is the architect of this entire world that lives in the shadows, so it was appropriate for her words to mimic the title. Like many leaders of new religious movements, there’s an end-times story that drives them, a tacit promise of Armageddon. She assures her people that they will meet her in heaven when at last the shadows fall, and they believe her. It becomes the linchpin of her teachings.

BRC: Lott is the head of a cult --- the Eden Cult --- and is the self-proclaimed Mother of Eden. Cults have been portrayed often in popular culture, most recently in the television series “The Following and “Cult.” What is it about cult mentality that attracted you to make this a central theme of WHEN SHADOWS FALL?

JTE: I’m fascinated by the magnetism of cult leaders, how they can trample whatever internal voice and humanity their followers have. Charles Manson, Jim Jones, David Koresh --- they’re serial killers in a sense, people who manipulate and hide behind their crimes, justifying them to themselves and their followers as the word of God. It’s a perverse thought process, a hyper-narcissistic state, and somehow they can get into the minds of seemingly normal people and convince them to do terrible things. Many new religious movements are completely benign; it’s the ones that manage to wreck havoc I find interesting. I took all of these characteristics, gave them to a woman and, voilà, instant combustion.

BRC: Several of your characters have names that can be perceived as gender neutral. Any particular meaning to that choice?

JTE: I think it comes from growing up with two brothers, in an aerospace family, and everyone we knew was referred to by their last names. I’ve always loved boys’ names for girls --- they convey such strength to me. And I like to break the rules of convention. 

BRC: The central young girl who has escaped from the cult, Kaylie Rousch, is a damaged and unpredictable character. Was there any real-life model for her?

JTE: Kaylie is a product of my own very overactive imagination. I loved the idea of a cold-case murder being reopened because a body was found with 20-year-old DNA on it. I went into the story with that idea as a backdrop, and one day, early on in the writing, I started playing around and ended up with the prologue in first person. Kaylie simply leaped off the page from there. I knew she had to have gone through terrible, awful things, but here she was, alive, 20 years later, and not only alive, still fighting. She’s one of my favorite characters ever. I love unreliable narrators, and she is about as unreliable as it gets. And it goes against all conventions to have a victim be unreliable. We’re supposed to feel bad for them, not wonder what their motives are.

BRC: What was the significance of depicting Celtic pagan symbolism?

JTE: Ah, the triskele. I knew from the beginning I was going to have a feminine-ruled cult, in a classic Maid, Mother, Crone scenario. The rule of three is seen throughout history --- birth, love, death; father, son, Holy Ghost; enchantment, power, wisdom; Curtis, Adrian, Kaylie. Toss in the synarchist rule of Eden, and I needed something representative, a symbol I could use. The triskele, its three-legged curves, was the perfect motif. Add in the idea of all the cult members being marked with the triskele tattoo in a terribly pagan ceremony, sharing the blood of each member through the ink --- well, there you go. What could be better?

BRC: What's next for you and Dr. Samantha Owens?

JTE: The next book is called WHAT LIES BEHIND, and it’s going to be a bit more concrete than WHEN SHADOWS FALL. A young medical student at Georgetown is murdered, and Sam is called in by the FBI to help work the case. It’s the perfect murder, too: a locked room, no motive, no suspects, no rhyme or reason behind it. Which is something I’ve always wanted to do. I hope I’m up for the challenge.