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Interview: September 8, 2017

J.T. Ellison writes dark psychological thrillers starring Nashville Homicide Lt. Taylor Jackson and medical examiner Dr. Samantha Owens, and pens the Nicholas Drummond series with  fellow bestselling author Catherine Coulter. Her latest stand-alone novel, LIE TO ME, is about the disintegration of a marriage as grief, jealousy, betrayal and murder destroy the facade of the perfect literary couple. In this interview, conducted by’s Joe Hartlaub, Ellison discusses her inspiration for the book, which is more of a domestic thriller than the police procedural to which her fans have become accustomed; talks about how the structure of the novel changed as she was attempting to find the right rhythm for this “rhythm book”; explains what her book journal is and includes a few examples from the journal she used for LIE TO ME; and offers a sneak peek at her numerous upcoming projects. LIE TO ME is a very different book for you. It is more of a domestic thriller than a police procedural --- though it certainly contains some policing aspects --- and you tinker with the classic storyteller form utilized in novels. You indicate in your Author’s Note that the seed of the book was planted in Paris. I’d like to know more. Was there a specific event that set you on the path of this complex yet straightforward story?

J.T. Ellison: There was. In 2014, my husband took me to Paris for my birthday. The trip was a surprise (I have a very awesome husband), and as I’d never been, we had no concrete plans outside of simply exploring the city and spending time in Montparnasse --- I am a Hemingway fan [see below] --- which we did. Later that evening, sitting at a café, drinking champagne and people watching, images and ideas started to pummel me. A murder at Sacré Coeur. A writer, obsessed about it. Blood on hands, the flash of a knife. I pulled out my trusty notebook and started to write. I knew immediately I had something, but I had no idea what. There was a line in what I wrote that evening: You aren’t going to like me very much. That became the opening line of the novel, and it sets the tone. In 2015, I went back to Paris to write more of the book. The setting is vital to the story in so many ways.

BRC: One of the grand attractions for me was that the book --- at least a good part of it --- is set in Franklin, Tennessee, a few miles south of Nashville. It’s important historically, but I also enjoy its uptown setting, where it seems in some ways that time has stood still for a half century. Your description of the city was terrific; I could see it unfolding in front of me, page by page, as the story, with all its twists and turns, progressed. What prompted you to set part of LIE TO ME in Franklin as opposed to some of the tonier parts of Nashville, such as Green Hills or even Brentwood?

JTE: My Taylor Jackson series is set almost exclusively in Davidson County, with murders all over the Nashville metro area, especially some of the upper-class spots like Green Hills and Belle Meade. I’ve always wanted a Williamson County murder, so I could set a book in Franklin. My Zillow app showed me a fantastic Victorian for purchase, and I knew immediately it was the house Ethan and Sutton were going to buy. It worked out perfectly --- I do a lot of writing in Franklin, so it was meant to be. It’s a rich canvas to work from, for sure. I spent a lot of time on Main Street, people watching.

BRC: This is mostly a very serious and dark book, but I have to admit that at a couple of points in the story --- serious points --- I found myself howling as you described Ethan Montclair’s thoughts and observations about Officer Graham as he was being questioned by her about his wife’s disappearance. They were totally inappropriate for the circumstances, though understandable. I probably would have been guilty of doing the same thing, however momentarily. What I loved is that you really seem to “get” the inner workings of men and “went there,” if you will. Did you have a male reader for those sections to make sure you got it right, or were you fairly confident that what you were portraying was accurate?

JTE: I’m fairly confident I have it right. I’ve been married for a very long time, grew up as a tomboy with two awesome older brothers and a father who was always happy to have me along on the “boy” adventures, and have always had male friends. I love men. I love how they approach things. Ethan is a bit of a prick, to be honest, and he was more difficult for me to write because all the men around me are very kind people. Do I write men perfectly? No, of course not. But I think I get it pretty close, considering.

BRC: I don’t want to get anyone --- least of all, you! --- in trouble, but I found the primary characters to be extremely realistic. Did any of them have “real world” models? And, to be more specific, is the “fair is foul, foul is fair” trio of Sutton’s friends --- who Ethan compares unfavorably to Shakespeare’s threesome in MACBETH --- modeled after anyone in particular? We’ll even take some hints!

JTE: I don’t base my characters on real people. They’re almost all amalgamations from my imagination. That said, I’m a big observer of behavior and conversation. Something I overhear in a coffee shop or restaurant can be taken into my mind, tumbled about, and pop out the other side on the page, but for my characters…they’re all me, in some ways, even the ones we don’t care for. LIE TO ME is populated with very real people, I think, people who do terrible things to one another in the name of love. I find it fun to write people who I feel are my very opposite. Maybe I’m channeling something, who knows!

BRC: There is a significant mystery at the heart of LIE TO ME, but it also digs very deeply into relationships, not only between husband and wife but between and among other relatives, friends and lovers. It is also noteworthy in demonstrating how the actions of the past can ripple forward to the present and cause problems that could never have been reasonably expected. There are so many different ways that the novel could have gone. Did it change in structure along the way? If so, what brought you to the path you chose? Did you feel your characters guiding you, or was your hand on the wheel at all times?

JTE: The structure did change, several times. I use Scrivener, so it was easy to move chapters around until I found the right rhythm. This is a rhythm book. It’s broken into three parts, so we get to know all the characters intimately. But for the mystery, we must stay with one person for an extended period of time so the impact works. It was very challenging for me to get it right. I think we’re all cognizant of how a certain recent book used structure to absolutely nail a story, and I am always looking for ways to create my own unique way to twist the world. Once I’d committed to the idea of a nonlinear story and chose my POV characters, it took off on its own, and the characters ran the show. Especially the narrator. The narrator is always in control. I let that happen, and it was great fun. Breaking the fourth wall is a blast, and not something I generally do.

BRC: On a related note, I got the sense that you probably outlined LIE TO ME before you actually sat down to write it, given the complexity of the idea and the easy-to-follow manner in which you expressed it. Did you indeed outline the book, and is that something you typically do?

JTE: Not in the way you think. I’d written about a third of the book with one idea in mind before the structural issues began to make themselves known. I realized quickly I was going to have to alter the normal flow, and I ended up taking a new path entirely when the narrator came into being. It was trying, honestly, moving things back and forth and back and forth, but when I finally hit on the way the story needed to be told, it all fell into place perfectly. I actually had to put the whole thing into a spreadsheet to make sure the paths were appropriate. The chapter heads are a dead giveaway for that, aren’t they?

I’m much more of a planner now than I used to be, and with these twisty domestic noirs, you have to pay attention to where things are headed. That said, I didn’t know exactly where the story was going to end up. It surprised me several times. That’s the joy of writing --- and reading --- to me, those unexpected moments that take your breath away.

BRC: Your Author’s Note and Acknowledgments are in some ways every bit as enjoyable as the novel itself. In your Author’s Note, you mention your “book journal.” Many of our readers may not be familiar with that term. Could you describe what generally goes into your book journal, how you have it organized and how you started putting it together?

JTE: My beloved book journal! In every Scrivener file, I have a separate space where I record what’s happening with the book. Word count, ideas, the impetus for certain moments, snippets of poetry for epigraphs, songs that need to go into the soundtracks… You name it, it gets dumped there. This book took a few years to create, so there’s nothing better than seeing my personal history, what I’m feeling and thinking while I’m writing. Also, I use it for notes and ideas, to brainstorm. It’s a very useful tool. And when I finish, I always write a genesis blog so I have this all fresh in my head a year later when the book comes out.

Here are a few very truncated examples from LIE TO ME’s Book Journal. There were so many details and notes in this one! And you can see the massive passage of time. I had to interrupt the writing of this book twice to write other books.

Novel in a novel

Paris. May 2014
I was completely inspired and began writing by hand in a Moleskine, whilst sitting in the cafés of Montparnasse drinking champagne. Ha ha. This is the kind of cliché I want to be.

January 16, 2015
Prologue came to me!!

March 30, 2015
Started today. Title is THE PARIS NOVEL

July 21, 2016
At the beach, doing a writing vacation. Started the trip at 56692. Lots of work to be done. I’m having trouble just letting things flow, letting them do their thing. Fear = resistance. I have to let it go.

August 30, 2016
Getting close. Let’s see what I can do today.

7:51 pm

Draft One 96980

September 11, 2016
Draft 3 done and ready to submit
101673 words.
Another miracle in the mud. : )

The other thing the book journal does for me is remind me that I lose faith in every book. There’s always a point in the writing when I think it’s crap and I’m never going to finish, and I whine to my book journal about it. It is very helpful to be able to go back in time and see this happen over and over. I have a distinct process, and when I feel all is lost, I can look to my past books to see how I broke free of that thought process.

BRC: Also in the Author’s Note, you say that Ernest Hemingway provided some inspiration for you during the formative stages of LIE TO ME. Which other authors have inspired you or influenced you and your work? Do you have any go-to authors --- of any genre --- you reflexively turn to for inspiration or encouragement?

JTE: As I said earlier, I love Hemingway, and I’ve been in a “Hemingway phase” for 30 years or so. I also adore Diana Gabaldon, Deborah Harkness, Daniel Silva, Sarah J. Maas and J.K. Rowling. Their books are my comfort reads. I’ve read the Outlander series nine times. (I know. I need help.)

If I need to go really dark, I reread John Connolly’s EVERY DEAD THING. If I need current inspiration, it’s Karin Slaughter, who continues to amaze. I’ve never worried about reading in my genre --- of course I read in my genre. But sometimes I need an impeccably built fantasy world to give me my own structure, or a cool sci-fi, or a lovely historical, or a book on productivity. I read widely, and as much as I can. If I’m not reading, the words aren’t flowing. The two are inextricably linked for me.

BRC: In the Acknowledgments, you mention several people, including an A-list of authors who kept you motivated (among other things). How do you stay on track, and keep moving forward, when you feel like you have nothing more to say in a certain work and it’s not finished?

JTE: By surrounding myself with A-list authors I have to try and live up to!

I’ve been so incredibly blessed to find my people in the writing world. I have such deep respect for our craft, for our gifts, and for how many different ways there are to climb the mountain. I surround myself with people who love to talk about the writing life and inspiration and great books and television and movies. And who get their work done. That’s vital. We drive each other.

Internally, I have a lot of goals. 1,000 words a day, period. I have a spreadsheet I use. (You can get it here: I love seeing the word counts pile up. It makes me feel like I’m actively exercising this gift I’ve been given.

But there are days when the words don’t pile up. So I have more rules. Touch the manuscript every day, no matter what. If I can’t write, I edit. Or I’ll write a blog, or a short story. Or do business.

I love this life, I love to work hard. I love to create. I want to create more. If given my druthers, I’d spend all day every day inside my stories. But the nature of the beast is we have to spend time on other things. Book writing is a business. There’s marketing, PR and touring. Social media is something I’ve always struggled with. With the help of my brilliant assistant, I’ve finally settled into a groove that makes me happy, allows me to interact with my awesome readers and still stay plugged into my creativity. I will always fight to maintain the right balance, to keep my writing time precious. With as many books as I have going right now, and my new job as host of the literary television series “A Word on Words,” etc., I have to be very miserly with the time I spend away from storytelling.

BRC: I believe it is beyond dispute that all great authors are also avid readers. What have you read in the last six months that you would recommend to our readers?

JTE: Anything by Sarah J. Maas, hands down. She’s incredible, and I’m madly in love with her characters and style. I call her “Game of Thrones for girls.” Daniel Silva’s duology THE BLACK WIDOW and HOUSE OF SPIES --- Gabriel Allon is one of my most favorite characters, and Silva is at the top of his game. I loved Noah Hawley’s BEFORE THE FALL, and Kendare Blake’s THREE DARK CROWNS was incredible. Matthew Quick’s THE REASON YOU’RE ALIVE made me cry, twice, and Jeff Abbott’s BLAME is a fantastic domestic thriller. I could go on and on and on --- there have been some really great books this year.

BRC: As you look back on your success as an author, is there anything you wish you had done differently when you were starting out? And is there something in particular you did that you feel helped launch your career?

JTE: Oh, Lord, how much time do you have? My list of mistakes is long and varied. I’m stubborn, too, so I’ve screwed up plenty of opportunities. But here’s the deal. I am a firm believer in the adage “everything happens for a reason.” I’ve taken some chances that didn’t pay off, and some that have. I’ve done my level best to keep my head down and do my work, to elevate my craft. I like to help other writers; I’ve mentored a few amazing people. I try to give back what I’ve been given. I am a firm believer in reaching down the ladder.

Obviously, co-writing with Catherine Coulter has raised my profile, as well as being a very fulfilling experience. Being nimble with the work, meeting deadlines and trying new stories has helped tremendously, too. Working with Nashville Public Television on “A Word on Words” is an absolute blast. And exploring the world of indie presses with my own, Two Tales, has been very enlightening.

All in all, I think you get out what you put in. That’s how I approach things, at least.

BRC: LIE TO ME reads like a stand-alone work, yet I was left wondering at the conclusion if we would see more of Holly Graham, the Franklin police officer assigned to investigate Sutton Montclair’s disappearance, or even Amelie Badeau. I am quite well aware of how busy you are, but do you have any plans to bring back these characters, either for a guest appearance in another book or even in their own series?

JTE: All of my Nashville-based work has ties. NO ONE KNOWS sees an appearance by a now sergeant who was a uniformed officer in the Taylor Jackson books. Taylor appears in the Samantha Owens novels, and in another stand-alone I’ve written. I love those Easter eggs. So don’t be shocked if Holly resurfaces sometime. I might have a plan or two for her.

BRC: I get the impression that you are normally juggling several different projects in various stages of development. Can you tell us anything about what are you currently working on?

JTE: I do juggle quite a bit. I have a draft of a new stand-alone finished and ready to edit, and I’m currently working on the new Brit in the FBI, #5, THE BLOOD CABAL, with Catherine Coulter. I’m also releasing my very first curated anthology from Two Tales Press in late September. It’s called DEAD ENDS: Tales from the Gothic South and has 13 amazing stories by 13 amazing authors. And of course, I am gearing up for the release of LIE TO ME, and the tour, which starts this weekend in Georgia. EEP!

Life is good. I’m having a lot of fun right now.