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Interview: October 2, 2009

October 2, 2009

R.J. Ellory is the author of seven novels --- including CANDLEMOTH, GHOSTHEART and CITY OF LIES --- that have been published in Britain and are now being released in the U.S. by Overlook Press. He recently spoke with's L. Dean Murphy about his fifth book, A QUIET BELIEF IN ANGELS, and explains how events from his own life have informed his works of fiction. He also discusses John Steinbeck's influence on his writing, touches upon the racial inequities amongst his characters, and shares details about upcoming projects due out over the next few years. Being a Southerner born in 1952, it's easy to identify with many of the scenes in A QUIET BELIEF IN ANGELS, as you go into great detail to describe locations, feelings and poverty. What inspired a setting in a time and place that few today could imagine? Why did you write it in the style of John Steinbeck?

R.J. Ellory: 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 nonfiction possesses, as its primary purpose, the conveying of information, whereas fiction possesses the primary purpose of evoking an emotion in the reader. I love writers who 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. 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.

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.

BRC: Your website indicates that your desire to write was borne from a love of reading, as with Joseph in this novel. You had a few mishaps that gave you firsthand experience in prison life. Did your personal experiences influence some of the scenes with Joseph?

RJE: It must have! There is that perennial question: How much of an author’s work is autobiographical? I think we absorb so much from life --- some of it good, some of it bad. We take in events and circumstances, we deal with them (or not), we recover, we carry on, we try our best with everything we do. Sometimes we get it right, other times we get it wrong. That is life, and that is living. As with any field of the arts --- whether it be painting, sculpture, choreography, musical composition --- the creator must draw on personal experience and personal perception in everything he or she creates. I think that what we paint and what we write and what we sing are merely extensions of ourselves, and that extension grows from personal experience. I think there are very few writers who write their own lives into novels, but I think there are a great deal who write their perceptions and conclusions and feelings about their own lives and the lives of others into the characters they create.

BRC: Teachers often inspire students to excel in a given profession. Alexandra Webber observed Joseph's desire to read. Did she think the poverty of fictitious Augusta Falls related to John Steinbeck's writings? Why was it necessary for Joseph to have an affair with his former teacher (at a respectable age, of course)?

RJE: I think Alex saw in Joseph a number of things she related to. I think she saw a passion for literature, a desire to write, a discerning and intelligent child, an individual of like-mind if you wish. I think, for Joseph, that Alex represented everything that was special and real and good about people, and that’s why it was necessary for his crush to become love, and for that love to then become a relationship when they were older. The fundamental theme of the book was that it is possible for someone to be so dedicated to finding the truth of something that they are prepared to overcome any and all obstacles in their efforts to discover that truth. Alex represented the very best of everything, and the worst thing that could have happened to Joseph was to have lost her, and so that’s what had to happen. There was no choice for me, even though I loved her a little bit myself! The gift of a book by Steinbeck was merely because Alex considered that Joseph possessed the capability to be as good as Steinbeck as long as he continued to work and write and read and study. Perhaps she even wished him to become the person she believed she had failed to become. Perhaps she had a secret desire to write, and had not fulfilled that desire, and now she had a chance to inspire someone else to do it.

BRC: Why did you gloss over racial inequities, and why did you choose a German-born man to have an affair with Joseph's mother after her husband had died?

RJE: Because the book wasn’t about racial issues, and was never meant to be. The first book I published in the United Kingdom, entitled CANDLEMOTH, really dealt with race issues in the South a great deal more, and I didn’t want to re-write CANDLEMOTH. A QUIET BELIEF IN ANGELS, for me, is a book that deals primarily with childhood and with a purpose to find the truth, and a lot less about race. Why did Joseph’s mother have to have a relationship with a German? For the very simple reason that her relationship with a German, the backdrop being the outset of the Second World War, gave the people of Augusta Falls a very definite and justifiable reason (at least in their own minds) for alienating her. Once again, Joseph had to lose his mother, and though he didn’t lose her physically, he did lose her mentally and emotionally.

It’s interesting, but these answers --- even as I write them --- are requiring that I analyze the structure and plot of the book a great deal more than I did when I wrote it! I am a very spontaneous writer. I don’t plot books. Gunther Kruger was a German long before I decided that Mary Vaughan would have a relationship with him. I write quickly, some thousands of words a day, and the story evolves and changes as I write. I knew the feeling I wanted to create with the book, and from many emails and letters I appear to have created that effect with the book, but it was not a calculated and analytical thing. It was an organic thing, and it shifted and altered and became something different even as it was being written.

BRC: Without giving away any spoilers, can you explain the motivation that would cause such a sick mind to mutilate murder victims?

RJE: In my mind, the perpetrator of these horrendous crimes was someone afflicted with an impulse to sexually abuse a child. We still don’t fully understand where such impulses come from, but we know that people possess them. Unable to withhold himself from carrying out this impulse, he attacked a young girl and killed her accidentally. I don’t think it was his intention to kill her. Once he had killed her, he was then in a position where he had to “destroy the evidence.” In a deranged and agitated state of mind, “destroying the evidence” was simply a matter of making nothing of the body as best he could. Hiding parts of it, burying parts of it. In 1940 there was no DNA-typing, no accurate fingerprint records system, and perhaps he believed that if a body was found in pieces then it could not be identified. Someone who has perpetrated a crime such as this would not be in a rational state of mind right after perpetrating it. Subsequently, anyone who looked like the victim, anyone who sounded like the victim, anyone who was a reminder of what he had done, would thus have to be destroyed, so the crime repeats itself and repeats itself.

Again, A QUIET BELIEF IN ANGELS was not meant to have a shocking and revelatory denouement. It wasn’t meant to be a “whodunnit” as such. It was meant to be a biography of a child, and a book about the way a child dealt with a trauma in his life, and how the wish to find the truth of what caused that trauma then governed his journey into adulthood.

BRC: It appears that the controlling factor in Joseph's life was promises made but not kept. What is the most profound promise you made but did not keep? What advice do you have for those who have trouble building a bridge and getting over a broken promise?

RJE: The most profound promise I made but did not keep? Well, I never knew my father, not his name or anything about him, and then I lost my mother when I was seven. My paternal grandparents were also completely unknown to me, and my maternal grandfather drowned a few years before I was born. The person who raised me was my maternal grandmother, and she was a very capable and tough lady. She was in the Womens’ Royal Air Force in the Second World War, she lost her husband, her only daughter, and then she had this awkward, slightly crazy seven-year-old to raise. I was not easy to deal with. I was a troublesome kid. I had issues, to say the least! As I grew a little older I started to appreciate the sacrifices she had made in order to look after me. I promised myself that I would behave better, do better, try harder, be more patient and less difficult with her, that I would take the time to listen to her and hear about her life, to be empathetic, compassionate and understanding. I never did that. I never did become easier to look after, and then she died when I was 16 and I never really knew anything about her. After her death I learned some things about who she was, the things that she had done during the war, and I realized what an amazing person she was. I think --- even now --- that that was a sad and unnecessary omission on my part.

And what advice do I have? The advice I have for everything now: that good relationships, good experiences, a good life…all these things come out of honesty, open-mindedness, tolerance, and most importantly of all, communication. Communication is the building block of all things. Those who communicate survive.  Those who don’t communicate, well they don’t survive anywhere near so well. The only things I think that we regret when we near the end of our lives are the things we didn’t say, the things we didn’t do, the people we didn’t share things with, the people we ignored or rebuffed or didn’t take the time to appreciate or understand. It’s communication. It may sound simple and uncomplicated, but I believe that people aren’t as complicated as we have been led to believe, and that communication has the power to solve pretty much anything.

BRC: Joseph says that, given the chance, he would retrace each step of his life and do things differently. With this novel, did you make significant changes to the plot, characters or setting as you were writing the story? And speaking of the writing process, what is your daily writing routine?

RJE: No, I didn’t make any significant changes to the plot. I wrote it, and then went back and tidied it up, and that’s the way it was! My writing routine is based on a working day from about eight until two or three in the afternoon. I try to get anywhere between 3,000 and 5,000 words written a day, but as a lot of my work is fact-based and covers aspects of history and culture that need to be researched, that working day includes the research. I don’t research before I start writing. I research as I go. As it averages out, and this is something I have observed by experience, the books take a couple of hours for every published thousand words. If a book is 120,000 words long, well it took about 200 hours of work. That’s a rough idea. Working something like 30 hours a week, a first draft could take six weeks, eight weeks, something in that region. I travel a lot now, and I do a lot of work in schools and libraries and other areas, and thus the amount of time I have to actually write has lessened, but that gives you some kind of an idea of the routine and rate of production.

BRC: You wrote 22 novels from 1987 to 1993, many in longhand. Your manuscripts were rejected largely because your novels were set in America, and British publishers expressed no interest in them as a result. CANDLEMOTH was published in 2003. What inspired a desire to continue to write after 16 years of rejection?

RJE: Paul Auster once said that becoming a writer was not a “career decision” like becoming a doctor or a policeman. You didn’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, and I concur with his attitude. I think I knew from a relatively early age that this wasn’t a job, but a vocation. It was something I had to do. There was no choice in it. I think for those 16 years I just believed that I hadn’t found the right editor or the right publishing company, and it was simply a matter of persisting. I remember a quote from Disraeli where he said “Success is entirely dependent upon constancy of purpose,” and I believed that this was the right attitude to have. That it was just simply a matter of working harder, of putting more into it, of persisting, and it would all come out right in the end. Though even now, I still have utterly unattainable standards, and I always want it to be bigger and better and to have more books published and have more people reading them! I think that this attitude is a reflection of my nature and personality, and I don’t think drive and intention will ever change.

BRC: You've indicated that you now feel your purpose as a writer has been fulfilled. Why do you say that?

RJE: Well, I think I said that now people I didn’t know were turning up to see me at book events, my purpose as a writer was beginning to be fulfilled. I don’t think my purpose as a writer has been fulfilled yet. I think I have barely scratched the surface. I have a lot of books to write, and there’s a hell of a lot of people who have yet to read them!

BRC: What are you working on now, and when might readers expect to see it?

RJE: Well, we have just released the seventh title in the United Kingdom, called THE ANNIVERSARY MAN. Next year I am releasing a book called THE SAINTS OF NEW YORK, and I am currently halfway through writing a book that will be released in the UK in 2011, and that book is called BAD SIGNS. I think the intention in the USA is to start releasing some of the backlist, perhaps one every nine months, so over the next few years we will be releasing simultaneously in the UK and the USA. That is what I would like to see. I think the next book to be released in the US is called A SIMPLE ACT OF VIOLENCE, and this is a Washington-based serial killer novel that also deals with the war in Nicaragua and the founding of the CIA.

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