An Interview with Roger. J. Ellory
Post by: Stephanie Roundsmith
In April 2010, whilst attending a writing event in York, I had the pleasure of meeting one of the greatest crime fiction writers in the current market: Roger J. Ellory. His talk was inspirational and certainly an eye opener into the world of one of the most hardworking authors I’ve ever met. Roger is determined, focused and one heck of a good writer and is always willing to help fellow writers even though his work load is one of the most demanding I’ve seen. I thought it would be interesting to find out a little bit more about Roger and also get his views on a few current issues facing the book industry. Roger kindly agreed to a short interview and has answered all my questions thoroughly, but if you wish to know a little more about Roger and his books then please visit his website: http://www.rjellory.com/.
You had some difficult events to overcome in your younger years. Do you think those events have made you the writer you are today or indeed influenced what you write?
First and foremost, I think all difficulties are relative. People tell me I had a difficult start in life, but I never saw it that way. I suppose that you just deal with whatever circumstances are there ahead of you, and that is what your life is. However, here is the 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. I feel there is an inescapable and indivisible link between who you are and what you do. I have always felt that.
Many of your first novels were rejected by publishers in the UK and also the USA. At any point did you ever feel the need to give up? Did those rejections help or hinder your work and your goals?
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 all those years when I was writing without publication, and without any seeming hope of publication, 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. However, 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 that my drive and intention will ever change. Writing for years without publication is no different than acting or singing or any other creative venture where persistence has to be maintained. It’s that old saw, isn’t it? The harder you work, the luckier you get. This is a philosophy I ascribe to completely. I wanted to write so much. I couldn’t think of doing anything else once I’d started, and yes, I do have the most impressive mountain of rejection letters. Now it seems like that was my learning curve. That was my training period, and though the books I wrote back then will more than likely never see the light of day I still consider that they were tremendously valuable in assisting me to become the writer I wanted to be. During those years I did numerous things, numerous jobs, but all of them seemed to be merely a means to pay the bills. There was never a ‘career path’ that I pursued. I just wanted to write!
After a difficult start to your writing career you are now the proud owner of many prestigious awards and have become one of the most successful crime writers in the current market. It must be a wonderful feeling to be recognised for your hard work and effort. How does it make you feel when you win an award? Has it ever affected your writing or what you write about?
Well, funnily enough, the first award for which I was nominated was the Ian Fleming Steel Dagger for Best Thriller for ‘Candlemoth’. In the briefing sheet issued by the Crime Writers’ Association, the book was listed as ‘Candlemouth’ and they called me ‘Ellroy’, not ‘Ellory’. I was pleased, of course, but I figured that if they couldn’t get the book title or my name correctly, then perhaps the award wasn’t all that important! Awards are always great – both nominations and winning. Better to win, of course, but just to be shortlisted is a great acknowledgement. However, neither good reviews nor awards assist very much in making people aware of your books. In this current climate, more than ever, it is harder and harder to survive as a writer. Many factors have contributed to this, but the single most important factor has to be that we are not teaching our kids to read. We are raising generations of non-readers, and now we are suffering for it. In excess of fifty percent of the adult population of the UK is functionally semi-literate. A very significant percentage of adults are incapable of reading a story to their own kids. I wrote a four-page letter to the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove. In it I laid out some ideas and thoughts on the subject, but he has chosen not to reply. Perhaps he himself has some difficulty with reading! Anyway, be that as it may, the fact remains that I am fighting on, persevering, working as hard as I can to visit as many libraries, schools, colleges and universities as possible. I feel a tremendous sense of duty to do all I can to promote literacy and reading. The fruits of observation and education, the lessons of history, the value of culture is lost to those who cannot read. Anyway, I have gone off the point, as usual! Awards! Yes, awards are good, but readers are far more important, and awards do not do very much at all to bring you to the attention of readers. And no, wanting to win an award or winning an award has never influenced what I want to write about. I don’t see how it could!
You recently released a trilogy of short stories as e-books called ‘Three Days in Chicagoland’. The individual books are called ‘The Sister’, ‘The Cop’ and ‘The Killer’ and are all very different from your previous works. What made you write this trilogy? Can you see yourself doing something similar in the future?
I was simply asked to do it by my editor. It started out as a sort of promotional idea – write some short stories, release them as e-books, and include the first six chapters of the new book with the last short story as a teaser for readers. He was doing it with different authors, and asked if I could do the same. I am not a short story writer, per se. Short stories are a very different discipline from novels. Anyway, the idea appealed to me, but the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to do something a little different and special. I decided to link three stories together, and tell the same story from three different viewpoints, each in first person. I felt that it worked very well, and already there is an ongoing discussion for its adaptation to film. We shall see what happens.
The publishing and book industry has changed recently with more focus on self-publishing, e-books and the loss of many libraries and independent bookshops. Do you think that the publishing industry will continue to follow technology and force books to become redundant, or will books still continue to hold their own and merely compliment the world of e-publishing?
I don’t think books will ever become redundant. The physicality of books is important. E-readers are great, I’m sure, but you do not give them to friends or charity shops, you do not leave them on your lounger while you take a dip in the pool on holiday, and if you travel as much as I do you understand how frustrating it is for readers to be told that they must turn their e-readers off forty minutes or so before landing. I think e-readers will take the place of books the same way that photography will take the place of painting, or recorded music will take the place of live concerts and gigs. They won’t. They will just run side-by-side. I don’t own an e-reader, and I don’t believe I ever will. I just enjoy the physical quality of books too much.
For the new and inexperienced writer out there would you have any hints or tips that you feel would help to develop their writing career? Have you ever had advice that’s been given to you that you feel has helped you as a writer?
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 don’t know if readers generally give a book so long before they decide whether or not they will continue reading it or give up on it. I know with films that you are supposed to have decided whether or not you’re going to like the film within three minutes or something, and I don’t know whether books are the same. Personally, I am sometimes captivated more by the language used than the story itself. I read books that have very little in the way of compelling plot, but the language with which they are written is so beautiful and inspiring that I read them just as compulsively, often forcing myself to slow down so I don’t run out of book too quickly! 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. But then perhaps it depends on the type of book you want to write. I’m interested in writing books that people can be emotionally and mentally involved with and challenged by. I’m not interested in writing two hundred and fifty page potboilers with a dead body at the start and a perpetrator at the end. Not that there’s anything wrong with that kind of book! Quite the contrary. It’s just that I don’t want to create that kind of thing personally. Beyond that, you have to persevere and 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! Once again, the one quote that kept me going was from Disraeli: ‘Success is entirely dependent upon constancy of purpose.’