Welcome to Clubhouse Chat page. Those of you who are not a member won’t be aware that the location of the Clubhouse is shrouded in mystery. The only way to visit it is via membership or an invite to the tearoom. Every few days, I’ll be sharing a conversation with all sorts of writers and authors at different levels of their writing careers. Over tea and cakes, or maybe a glass of something stronger, I shall be chatting with my guest about their work in progress, or latest book release.
Today in the tearoom I’m chatting to the English thriller writer R. J.Ellory. Welcome to the tearoom, Roger, and to a positive New Year. Hopefully 2021 will be much kinder to us all. I do hope I have chosen the right drink for you.
Thank you for your invite, Paula.
You’re very welcome. May I start by asking you, when you first began your writing journey what drew you to your chosen genre?
Well, for me, the thing I am interested in is people. That’s the sum total of my interest. People. The situations they get themselves into. How they deal with them. How they react. The decisions they make as a result. That’s what fascinates me and that’s what I want to write about. The truth about the crime genre is that it can encompass so very much as far as subject matter is concerned. A crime thriller can be historical, it can be political, it can be a straight homicide investigation, it can be a conspiracy. It gives you an enormous canvas, you see. We all know that the way criminal investigations are portrayed on TV is about as far from the reality as you could imagine. I spent some time with a homicide detective in Washington, and she told me that she would sometimes be working four or five or six homicides simultaneously. Aside from the fact that such a schedule prohibits any kind of personal life, it also means that the amount of attention that can actually be devoted to one case is very limited. Homicide investigation is a tough, unforgiving, unrewarding, brutally dark and relentless vocation, and there are very few people capable of doing it. I think that crime fiction reflects that more honestly than any crime series on TV. And the thing that never ceases to amaze me is the indomitability of the human spirit, the things that people are capable of overcoming, and the fact that they can then survive beyond that. For me, writing ‘crime thrillers’ or ‘mysteries’ is not so much about the crime itself, even the investigation, but the way in which such events can be used to highlight and illuminate the way that people deal with things that are not usual. If there is one common thread throughout my books, though they are all very different stories, it is that we are always dealing with an ordinary person thrown into an extraordinary situation. That’s the common theme. That’s the thing that fascinates me. I suppose I am a romantic at heart, and I try very hard to be in touch with the emotional nature of people and things, and what I am always striving to do is have a reader feel what the characters are feeling, to get an idea that they have spent some time with real people, and to bring about the sense that they were aware of what was going on with that character on many levels. That, for me, seems key to making a book memorable. And presenting characters with difficult situations that people ordinarily don’t have to deal with gives you the whole spectrum of human emotions and reactions to write about. So, in truth, I would say that the genre in which I write is more ‘human drama’ than crime. The crime creates a scenario, and how people the deal with that scenario is the focus for me.
Which writing elements do you think are your strongest points, and what would you like to do better?
Perhaps the emotional engagement of the characters. For me, as I have said so many times, a good story is all about emotion. The first thing I decide when I embark upon a new book is ‘What emotions do I want to create in the reader?’ or ‘When someone has finished this book and they think about it some weeks later, what do I want them to remember…what emotion do I want them to feel when they recall reading the book?’ That’s key for me. Those are the books that stay with me, and those are the books I am constantly trying to write. There are a million books that are brilliantly written, but mechanically so. They are very clever, there are great plot twists and a brilliant denouement, but if the reader is asked three weeks after reading the book what they thought of it they might have difficulty remembering it. Why? Because it was all very objective. There was no subjective involvement. The characters weren’t very real, they didn’t experience real situations, or they didn’t react to them the way ordinary people react. It was more of a mental exercise, a puzzle-solving exercise, than a real emotional rollercoaster. In fact, some of the greatest books ever published, the ones that are now rightfully regarded as classics, are those books that have a very simple storyline, but a very rich and powerful emotional pull. It’s the emotion that makes them memorable, and it’s the emotion that makes them special. Character is everything for me, so a book should be filled with the blood of the character, at least figuratively speaking! In writing a book it changes along the way, as all my books do, and they change because the characters become that much more real, and thus they actually begin to inform and influence the direction of the story. I don’t want that to sound pretentious, you know, but I am always working against an emotional barometer. If I don’t feel it, then the reader won’t. Personally, I have a major issue with central characters who are always right, who leap to the wildest conclusions about things, and are then proven right. People are not like that at all. They make mistakes constantly, and investigators and police are the same.
What would I like to do better? That’s a tough one! If I knew that, then I would always be working to do it better and would probably be better at it! I also have to take into consideration the fact that what I think I do well and what someone else thinks I do well could be very different things. I like to explore characters. I like to really get under their skin. I have had editors who have said that this kind of thing needs to be trimmed back in order to increase the pace of the story. I think it’s too subjective a question to really answer with any great clarity, to be honest!
Tell us a little about latest writing project. Is it a new idea, or one you have been mulling over for some time?
During the past nine months, I have completed the book that is being released in February 2021 (‘Proof of Life’), also the book for 2022 (untitled as yet, but set in the very north-east of Canada). I have also written two feature films and a six-part TV adaptation of one of my books (‘The Man Who Ate The World’). While I have been under ‘house arrest’ I have taken advantage of the time available and really focused on getting as much done as possible. I have also written all the material for a new album with my band, and we are currently working out how to get that recorded. I am fortunate enough to be in a situation when my income as a writer allows me to be a writer. These days, that is more and more rare. It is a tremendously fickle and unreliable way to live your life, but that is what I have chosen to do, and I will continue to live that way as long as I can. My brother keeps asking me what I’m going to do when I grow up, but I don’t believe I ever will. So, to answer the question, there have been numerous ‘latest writing projects’, but aside from the final editorial work needed on the book for 2022 they are all completed. I will now embark on the book for 2023.
How many unfinished projects do you have on your computer?
In truth, none. I finish what I start. I dedicate myself to getting it finished as rapidly as I can so I can move on to new projects. I factually don’t have the time to spend a long time writing a book, if you know what I mean!
Do you write a synopsis first, write the first chapter, or do you let the characters lead you?
I do not write an outline or a synopsis. I just simply have a rough idea of the kind of story I would like to write. I have a definite idea of the time period and location as these are vital to the tone of the novel. And the last thing, and the thing I have the clearest idea of, is how I want the reader to feel. I change my mind as I work. I make new decisions about characters, about the ending, about all sorts of things. I just keep trying to write the best novel I can. I think the worst kind of novel you could write is the one that you think other people will enjoy, and the best novel you could write is the one that you believe you yourself would enjoy. 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. As I said, 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 non-fiction possesses, as its primary purpose, the conveying of information, whereas fiction possessed the primary purpose of evoking an emotion in the reader. I love writers that make me feel something – an emotion, whatever it might be – but I want to feel something as I read the book. Once again, there are millions of great books out there, all of them written very well, but they are mechanical in their plotting and style. That is not meant as a criticism, because that degree of clever plotting takes a great intellect, and is probably something I just could not do well. However, 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. Those are the kind of books I am trying to write, and those are the books I read.
What is your work schedule like when you’re writing?
I am disciplined. 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 ten or 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 will write down ideas I have 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! And as far as little idiosyncratic routines and superstitions are concerned, I don’t know that I actually have any that relate to starting a book.
Do you set yourself a daily word count?
Yes, as above. I aim for a minimum of two and a half thousand words a day. I have written as much as eleven thousand words in a day, but that’s rare. For me, it’s more about really feeling as though I have accomplished a substantial amount of work in any given day, but also having created work of good quality. I want to feel as though it has been a day well spent, but also that I have progressed the novel enough to know where I am taking the narrative when I sit down to work tomorrow.
How many hours a day do you write?
On average, I would say about five or six. It really depends on the day, what else I need to do, and what is being demanded from me by the various people with whom I am engaged in different and varied projects. One thing I will say is that I am very organised. I know what needs to be done, and I am not work-shy!
What was your hardest scene to write?
I am constantly challenging myself to write scenes that I find difficult. Because I don’t have a synopsis, I can often choose the direction in which to take the story and the characters, and I routinely choose the direction that I feel will be the most difficult to write. I feel that I have a duty to constantly expect more of myself, and that I must force myself to be bolder and courageous in my subject and plot choices. I feel that any creative faculty is a muscle, and that you need to exercise it continually. I don’t ever want to feel as though I am taking the easy option, or that I am writing to a predetermined pattern or formula. Hence, the latest two books are set in entirely different locations, and are both very different from anything I have done before.
How long, on average, does it take you to write a book ?
I work on the basis of getting the first draft done in ten or twelve weeks, and then a couple more weeks to fix the things that need fixing and fulfilling any editorial requirements. Because I write without a synopsis, I never know the end of the book until I have written it, so part of the process is to go back through the script and fix anything that now doesn’t make sense, considering that the end is now established.
Thank you for taking time out from your busy schedule, Roger, to join me in the tearoom.
If you would like to find out more about R.J. Ellory’s writing and books, please check out the links below.
If you want to find out more about Clubhouse Members’ Books, don’t forget to check out the Clubhouse Bookshops too.