Interview in English of R.J. Ellory (VO)

Roger, could you please tell us about your childhood in England ?

I had a strange childhood.  My father, still unknown to me, left before I was born, and then my mother died when I was seven.  My maternal grandfather had already drowned in the 50s, and so I never knew him.  My maternal grandmother raised me, and she sent me to a series of different schools and orphanages when I was seven, and I stayed away from home until I was sixteen.  The common denominator of all the places I stayed as a child was that I had access to books.  I read voraciously – starting with Enid Blyton, and then working through Agatha Christie, Conan Doyle, and on towards Chandler, Hammett, Faulkner, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Capote.  I was not a very sociable child – quite shy and withdrawn – and I think I immersed myself in reading as a way to combat the feeling of loneliness.  I always knew, fundamentally, that I wanted to do something creative, but I had no idea what it would be.  I was interested in music, art, photography, film, but in November of 1987 I had a conversation with a friend who was reading a book.  He talked about this book with such passion and such intensity, and it was as if someone had switched a light on in my mind.  ‘That’s what I want to do!’ I thought.  ‘I want to write books that make people feel like that!’, and so – that evening – I started writing.  That was the simplicity of it.

How are detective novels considered in England ?

Well, as is the case with the rest of the world, detective novels are the most widely-read type on novel in England, but I still believe that the English, just like the rest of world, don’t really consider detective novels as ‘proper literature’.  I appreciate that in all genres there are books that are not very challenging or profound in a literary way, but there are also many great books in all genres that do have something important to say.  A friend of mine said to me that crime writers were ‘the smokers of the literary world’, as in they are looked at with a degree of distaste and unpleasantness, and I understand what he means!  I know that there is a better situation in France, and that the ‘polar’ and ‘noir’ books are considered with more importance than they used to be, but still we have a long way to go before crime books are considered to be ‘literature’.  Personally, I am not so worried about this.  I am not looking for some kind of literary validation or acceptance.  I just want people to enjoy the books !

Could you tell us about your passion for music, especially rock ? I know you have a band, could you tell us more about it ?

Well, this is a new project for me, but at the same time a long-overdue project.  I have always been interested in music.  As a child I played the trumpet for about eight years, and then I stopped when I was a teenager.  My background comes from an interest in blues and jazz, much more than ‘rock’ really.  As a child I was listening to Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf, and I really appreciated that kind of thing.  This passion has stayed with me all of my life.  Last year I worked very hard.  I toured a lot, and I also finished two books, one for publication in the UK this year, and one for 2012.  I also started working on the book for 2013, and after about 40,000 words I realized that this book did not have to be finished for more than a year.  So I decided to speak to some people I knew, people who were professional musicians, and they became very interested in working with me on a music project.  I have now formed a band called ‘The Whiskey Poets’, and I started working on guitar, practising daily for several hours, and also writing songs.  I had always wanted to play the guitar but never felt I had the time.  So we are now regularly rehearsing, and we are going to be recording just four tracks on a CD, probably in June, and then this will be available through a website.  We will also make a video perhaps, and put one of the tracks on youtube.  We intend to start playing live gigs in and around our home city, but we shall see what happens.  However, like anything, it has to be approached with a professional viewpoint, and with an attitude that it is important.  I can become very intense about such things, and I tend to get very obsessive.  I am not a perfectionist as I know that perfection is never attainable, but I always work to make things as good as I can.  It is not important whether people like what I create, but I never want to be considered mediocre or unprofessional.

Your first book published in France was ‘A Quiet Belief in Angels’ ; could you tell us about the main character Joseph Vaughan ?

Well, for me, ‘A Quiet Belief in Angels’ is an emotional book, no question about it.  Essentially it is not a crime thriller as such, but more a human drama where the crimes that occur are secondary to the effect that they create on the people that are indirectly associated with the crimes.  Once again, it was that sense of life that I wanted to convey.  The feeling that here was someone who dedicated the entirety of their life to finding the truth of something, and was prepared to do whatever was necessary to see that the truth was divulged.  It is, for want of a better description, a biography of Joseph Vaughan, our central character, and the story of how much of his life was taken away from him, but he agreed to have his life taken in order to ensure that justice was carried out.  I wanted to write a book about the invincibility of the human spirit, the fact that Joseph knew that the truth was out there, and he was prepared to do everything he could, and also make all personal sacrifices needed, to find that truth.

Is there a project to turn this book into a movie ? Do you have more information ?

Well, I was contacted by Olivier Dahan, and he asked me to write the screenplay for this book.  I did so, and I sent the script to him, and though I was very happy with this script, and though I believed that it would make an excellent film, I also think that he has lost interest in this idea now.  I think the script is now available for someone else to pick up.  We shall see what happens.

One question I ask myself for a long time, Roger, why did all your books take place in the USA whereas you are English ?

Being English I am often been asked ‘Why America?’ ‘Why do all your books take place in the United States?’  I think this has something to do with the vast ‘inflow’ of American-orientated film and TV that assaulted my generation as children.  Everything was Kojak, Hawaii Five-O, Starsky & Hutch, and though I was exposed to these things in my formative years I also feel a degree of necessity to place my work in the U.S.  The subject matter (the death penalty, the Mafia, serial killings etc) are – on the whole – subjects which pertain only to this country, and therefore – simply because of my own fascination with these areas – I have ‘painted myself into a corner’ as far as setting is concerned! Someone once said to me that there were two types of novels.  There were those that you read simply because some mystery was created and you had to find out what happened.  The second kind of novel was one where you read the book simply for the language itself, the way the author used words, the atmosphere and description.  The truly great books are the ones that accomplish both.  I think that we – as authors – are all trying to write this third kind of book – a book that presents you with a narrative so compelling you cannot read it fast enough, and yet is written so beautifully you cannot read it slowly enough.  I think any author wants to write great novels.  I don’t think anyone – in their heart of hearts – writes because it’s a sensible choice of profession, or for financial gain.  I certainly don’t!  I just love to write, and whereas the subject matter that I want to write about takes me to the States, it is nevertheless more important to me to write something that can move someone emotionally, perhaps change a view about life, and at the same time to try and write it as well as I can.  Additionally, as a non-American, I believe that there are many things about American culture that I can look at as a spectator.  The difficulty with writing about an area that you are very familiar with is that you tend to stop noticing things.  You take things for granted.  The odd or interesting things about the people and the area cease to be odd and interesting.  As an outsider you never lose that viewpoint of seeing things for the first time, and for me that is very important.  Also many writers are told to write about the things they are familiar with.  I don’t think this is wrong, but I think it is very limiting.  I believe you should also write about the things that fascinate you.  I think in that way you have a chance to let your passion and enthusiasm for the subject come through in your prose.  I also believe that you should challenge yourself with each new book.  Take on different and varied subjects.  Do not allow yourself to fall into the trap of writing things to a formula.

Can you tell us about Sonatine, how did you meet your French publisher ?

Well, my UK publisher , (Orion (part of Hachette Livre), was looking for a French publisher, and my foreign rights manager met with Sonatine, and though they were quite a new and young company, she was struck with their passion, their enthusiasm, their belief in the book.  As in America, I was always more interested in working with smaller companies that were passionate about the book,. More so than how much money they could make, and so when my rights manager told me about Sonatine I was very enthusiastic to work with them.  I then went to Paris and we had a meeting, and we became friends immediately.  They are now very close to me, very important people, and I consider them my French family.  I think we will be working together for a very, very long time, and I think we will publish a lot of books together in France.

How did you do the research for your book ‘A Quiet Vendetta’ ? Can you tell us about the terrible character Ernesto Perez who is also likeable !

Well, there was certainly a great deal more factual research for this book than any other book I have written, and it was an education in itself.  The balance has to be found between fact and fiction in a novel like this.  For me, the best advice I ever heard about was ‘Wear your learning lightly’.  If you wear your learning too heavily a work of fiction can become a work of non-fiction, and that’s not what we want!  Non-fiction is all about giving the reader information.  Fiction is all about evoking an emotional reaction.  I came away after some weeks of reading all about the Mafia, their organization, their people, the history, the things they did to control cities and populations, and I was amazed at the extent of their pervasiveness.  The truth of the matter is that a great deal of people involved with the Mafia were not wealthy or untouched by the law.  They were soldiers and button men.  There was no glamour, no huge personal wealth, no protection from their enemies.  I think the thing I came away with was an understanding that the real control of the Mafia was through fear, through threat and aggression, and that many people were led to believe that this was the way in which you could most successfully live your life.  It gave me a better understanding of people, and yet at the same time made me realize how utterly vulnerable and easily-influenced people can be.  But the idea for ‘Vendetta’ came with the concept of the central character, Perez.  I wanted to write a book about the worst human being I could imagine, and yet seduce the reader with this character, so at the end of the book you felt a certain empathy perhaps, a certain understanding of who he was, and why he lived his life this way.
The Mafia, supposedly, is all about family loyalty, and importance of family, the strength of family and blood ties, so I made Perez a Cuban, an outsider, someone who belonged, but would never really fully belong.

What do represent for you all the prizes you won for your books ?

It is a great honour to be recognized for your work, and I am very proud of the awards I have won.  So far, I have won seven, and four of them have been for books in the French language.  I have a very great respect fro French literature and art, and I feel very privileged to have been accepted by the French for my books.  I have always considered that the French see everything twice.  They look, they see what is there, and then they look again and see what is really there.  They look at life, at politics, at religion, at philosophy, at literature, at art, but they look at it with a different perspective than other nationalities.  They ask more questions than anywhere else in the world, and the questions they ask are always a little deeper.

What are your habits when you write ? (in the evening ? in the morning ? sitting at your desk ?)

Well, with me, a book always begins with the emotion I want to evoke in the reader.  I have a very simple view of books.  As I have said, I believe that non-fiction, as its primary purpose, is there to convey information.  Fiction, however, is not there solely to entertain, but to evoke an emotion.  I think the books that we love the most, the books that define our lives, the books that we always recommend to people, are those that have touched us emotionally.  If I am trying to do anything with my writing, I am attempting to connect with people on an emotional level.  For me, the most important thing is that once somebody has finished reading my books they might not necessarily remember the name of the book, even the plot details, but they will remember how it made them feel.  That’s the most important thing for me.  How does a book make you feel, and does that memory stay with you?  So that’s my first consideration: the emotional effect I am trying to create.  The second thing is the location.  Location is vital for me as the location informs and influences the language, the dialect, the characters – everything.  I choose to start a book in Louisiana or New York or Washington simply because that ‘canvas’ is the best for to paint the particular picture I want to paint.  I start with those things.  I have a very vague and uncertain idea about the storyline itself.  I do not write a plan, an outline, or a synopsis.  I do not work out where the book will go or how it will end.  I just start with an idea of the emotional effect I want to create.  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 then I start working.  Every day, several hours, quite intensively.  I sort of live with the book as I wrote it, working out where I am going, different scenes, changing my mind, making it fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. And then I get to the end, and now I know what happens at the end I have to go back to the beginning and go through it again to ensure that it all makes sense.  It is a very spontaneous and organic way of working, very unpredictable, but it is good for me.  I do not believe there is a ‘right’ way to write a book.  I think that you just work the way you feel is good for you, and that’s all there is to it.

In your last book published in France ‘A Simple Act of Violence’, did the USA put you in a ‘black list’ for having disclose the secret services structures ?!

I don’t know!  I hope so.  I would like to think that the book would cause as much trouble as possible, and upset as many people as possible I the intelligence community.  But, in all honesty, I don’t think that the CIA are really that interested in what I have to say !

Can you tell us about your next book which will be come out next 2012 in France ? That’s for your fans who can’t wait to read it !

I think that the next book to be released by Sonatine will be ‘Saints of New York’.  ‘Saints’ is a book about obsession.  It is a book about the lengths that one woman will go to and the things that he will sacrifice in order to find out what has happened to a teenage girl who has been found murdered.  I wanted to create a very definite feeling: a sense of bleak desperation, a feeling of darkness, a sense of constant and imminent foreboding.  I remembered films from the seventies – ‘Klute’, ‘Serpico’, ‘The French Connection’, and then more recent releases such as ‘8mm’ and ‘Seven’, and it was that kind of depth, that kind of disillusioned and defeated realism that I wanted to convey.  Of course, I didn’t wish to depress the reader, but merely to take a step away from conventional plots, to leave behind central characters who seem to always get it right, to make guesses and giant leaps of assumption, and always be vindicated in their hunches.  The world is flawed.  The people who inhabit the world are also flawed – both criminals and cops.  They make mistakes, they screw things up, they get it wrong.  It does not always work out well for the protagonist; the antagonist does not always receive the justice and punishment that he perhaps deserves.  This is what I wanted the book to be about – the simple truth, the simple reality, the frustration of real police work.

Can you tell us about your hobby : photography ?

I have always been interested in photography.  When I was younger I considered pursuing a career in photojournalism.  Now I take pictures for pleasure, and especially when I am travelling I take photos and put them on my website and on facebook.  It is not a passion for me like writing or music, but it is something I enjoy to do.  I go through a cycle with photography – sometimes I am very interested, sometimes I am not !

Is there any international subject which makes you angry ?

The complete failure of most governments in the world to take responsibility for the adequate and proper education of each new generation.  The influence of false and impractical ‘psychology’ in the education system that has resulted in each new generation becoming less and less literate and less and less able to learn.  This will be the downfall of our culture.

Is there any young/new author whose first book you really liked ?

Well, two authors who are new to me, though they may not be young or new are Daniel Woodrell and William Gay.  Wonderful, wonderful writers.

The last question of the ‘Concierge Masqué’ but not the least!  If you have to say a word to your French fans who can’t wait to read your next book, what would it be ?!

Patience!  It is frustrating for me too, and I wish the books could come to you much faster, but Sonatine is working hard, and they are doing an excellent job, and they are ensuring that we have the best translators and the best production system to make the books as good as they can be.  All of my books will be published in France, and I look forward to each new release with great enthusiasm.