(Editor’s note: This is the concluding segment of Ali Karim’s report on last week’s London Book Fair. Part I can be found here.)
R.J. Ellory promotes his next novel at the London Book Fair
After a rather hectic introduction to the 2009 London Book Fair, it was nice to sit down for a while and interview rising-star British novelist Roger Jon “R.J.” Ellory. We traveled together to last fall’s Bouchercon convention in Baltimore, but I have seen less of him since our adventures in America. So, over cups of coffee in the Orion Suite at LBF, we did a bit of catching up. I asked Ellory about a number of book deals that have kept him busy (and put an end to his more lean period), a possible filming of his most recent novel, the challenges of balancing his writing with promotional efforts, and his forthcoming book, a serial-killer yarn called The Anniversary Man.
Ali Karim: A lot has happened since last fall’s Bouchercon in Baltimore. Do you have any update on the American release of your 2007 novel, A Quiet Belief in Angels?
Roger Jon Ellory: Yes, a great deal has been happening, and not just to do with A Quiet Belief in Angels. The U.S. release of AQBIA is slated for September this year, and a tremendous amount of work has been done by the publisher, Overlook, to make sure that it receives as much promotion and publicity as possible. Obviously, stateside, it is an entirely different world, and what might be considered a significant success here is a drop in the ocean in America. My publisher, Peter Mayer, has spent a great deal of time and energy getting proof copies into the hands of established authors, and already we have received very positive comments from James Patterson, Clive Cussler, and Michael Connelly. We expect a good deal more reviews and responses, and I know that Overlook will use them to create word-of-mouth buzz about the book. It is a very exciting prospect for me--an English author launching into an American market with a book set in America--and I am eagerly anticipating the reaction it will get.
AK: How do you get on with Peter Mayer and Overlook Press?
RJE: Peter Mayer is an institution. He was head of Penguin for many, many years and has the most extraordinary wealth of experience. Overlook is a small firm, and I wanted to be published by Overlook for that specific reason. My UK publisher, Orion, possesses a philosophy that is very much geared towards the creation of an author’s career, not just the success of one book, and Overlook has precisely the same ethos. I feel profoundly fortunate to have been contracted by Peter, and I believe we have a long and successful career to look forward to together. My American editor, Aaron Schlecter, and my publicist, Jack Lamplough, are great people, and I am amazed at what they have already managed to create.
AK: And what about your backlist? Is Overlook planning to bring your remarkable older books to U.S. readers as well?
RJE: Yes, they are. I think the plan is to publish A Quiet Belief in Angels in September, A Simple Act of Violence in 2010, The Anniversary Man in 2011, and then go back to Candlemoth, Ghostheart, A Quiet Vendetta, and City of Lies for forthcoming years. I say that, but who knows? I am currently working on the UK release for 2011, having completed the novel for 2010, so Overlook may decide to do those first.
AK: We hear that you were in Washington, D.C., in January, around the time of Barack Obama’s inauguration as the 44th president of the United States. Tell us about your visit.
RJE: A year or so ago I did a small piece for BBC Midlands called “Write Around the Midlands.” Oddly enough, Lee Child, who I met with you last year at Bouchercon, has just done the same interview for the same series. The producer and I got along great, and she said she would try and get a slot to fill in the BBC current-affairs program Inside Out. Well, the opportunity arose, and myself, my UK editor, Jon Wood, and three guys from the BBC went out to Washington for a week. We went a few days after Obama’s inauguration, and I interviewed Walter Pincus, a veteran reporter from The Washington Post, a man who won a Pulitzer for his coverage of 9/11; also Brad Garrett, ex-FBI, and a man referred to as “Dr. Death,” as there is no murder case in D.C. in the last 20 years that he doesn’t know about; also June Boyle, ex-Virginia PD Homicide, a remarkable detective who secured the arrest and confession of Lee Boyd Malvo, the younger of the two Washington snipers in the Beltway sniper case a few years ago. Finally, I interviewed a remarkable young woman in the D.C. projects who had spent 10 years on crack and heroin, and also Patrick Anderson, fiction reviewer for the Post. We did six hours of interviews--a truly amazing experience, and some of the footage was aired in the program Inside Out back at the start of March. The Washington trip with the BBC ranks alongside the Georgia trip we made with Channel 4 as one of the most memorable and important experiences of my life.
AK: We also hear that you have become popular in Europe.
RJE: A Quiet Belief in Angels has been contracted for translation into 19 languages. Many of those languages are European and Eastern European. Only a few of them have been released, most notably the French version (entitled Seul le Silence). The book was already a great success, and then I learned that it had been shortlisted for a major literary award called Prix Roman Noir Du Nouvel Observateur. Believe it or not, I was shortlisted alongside Dennis Lehane, Don Winslow, James Lee Burke, and Carl Hiaasen, and I won the award! I had to go to France at the end of March and receive the award, and I did my speech in French! I also went to the Quais du Polar Festival in Lyon and did an event with Lawrence Block and Jason Starr, both of whom I had previously met at Bouchercon Baltimore. Crime fiction as a genre is remarkably popular in France, and I am very, very pleased to be involved in it. I have a great French publisher, again a very small and very committed company, and they have done wonders. The book has also just been released in Holland, also Brazil, and I am awaiting releases in the other 15 or so countries over the next six to nine months.
AK: And what’s this about a French film project?
RJE: Well, I received an e-mail some weeks ago from a French film director called Olivier Dahan. He was the man who wrote and directed the Oscar-winning film La Vie En Rose. He had read the French translation of A Quiet Belief in Angels, and he wrote to me and asked whether I would be interested in writing a screenplay for him. I went to Paris to meet with him, and we got along great. We had a very definite agreement on how a film could be made of the book. I left Paris with the feeling that it might come off. A few weeks later I got word that the production company, Legende Films, was ready to go ahead, and last week I signed the contracts to write the screenplay for the film. That is what I am working on at the moment.
AK: A Simple Act of Violence (2008) has been garnering great reviews, and is just out in paperback in the UK. Like much of your work, that novel delves rather cynically into the dark side of the security services. What’s the source of your fascination with the shadows behind U.S. politics?
RJE: Well, A Simple Act of Violence really came out of my experiences with A Quiet Vendetta . The Mafia was an easy target, so to speak, but once I completed it I started to think about the legitimate and state-sanctioned organizations that were involved in the same kind of activities as the Mafia. Obviously, my attention turned to the CIA, and there were so many different things I could write about regarding internal corruption, assassination squads, military coups, and Christ knows what else, that it just became a matter of deciding which war, which assassination, which area of corruption I was going to use as a backdrop for the book. I used the war in Nicaragua for a number of reasons--because it was a war, because there was so much sanctioned assassination, because you had this vast cocaine-smuggling machine going on in the background that was being used to fund this illegal war, and finally because I had a great love for the Oliver Stone film Salvador, and I felt that the film really did get across the idea that the USA military intelligence machine had waded in there without thinking, and the result was quite disastrous for everyone concerned. I wanted to write a contemporary conspiracy thriller, but in the background I wanted this huge canvas of a war. It’s interesting, but I have received a lot of e-mails from U.S. readers asking about my research, my viewpoint, how the book came about, with the common theme that here was something that was going on around them--the whole Oliver North/John Poindexter scandal--and yet they didn’t really have even a small part of the truth of what was taking place in Central America.
AK: Balancing the harder edges and disturbing aspects of your narrative, though, there is a gentle humor and a humanity. What’s your take on the usefulness of humor in crime and thriller fiction?
RJE: I think the books that really work are the ones where your protagonist manages to be human. Humor is most definitely a human characteristic, and this black edge of humor that defines so many P.I.s--people like Harry Bosch, Kenzie and Gennaro, Pike and Cole, Strange and Quinn, Rebus, Jack Reacher, Marlowe, all the classic detectives--is the thing that endears them to us. It makes them more like us, and that gives us a feeling of real-ness and equality. I have always said that the books that really connect are the ones that don’t only entertain, they evoke an emotion, and humor is one of the ways in which authors make their characters real people, and thus make you feel for them. I think the great authors do it without thinking and without planning. Their characters are so real in their own minds that they just come out that way.
AK: Some of the imagery in your work remains burnt in my mind due to the disturbing nature of your imagination. So tell us, Roger, why is your mind so dark at the edges?
RJE: Again, it comes back to evoking an emotion. I think the very worst kind of criticism you could level at a book is the “ho-hum, heard it all before” response. I would much rather have someone hate a book I had written than feel nothing at all. The thing that’s important to me is not that someone remembers the title, the names of the characters, the intricacies of the plot twists, but that they just simply remember how the book made them feel. Criminals and murderers can and do carry out some dreadful atrocities, and if I’m going to write about them I feel I possess a responsibility to make them as realistic as possible.
AK: What have you been up to at the London Book Fair? And is this the first year you’ve attended this event?
RJE: It’s not my first year, no. I went two years ago and met some of the publishers who were going to be working on the translations of Quiet Belief. Now, two years later, I am back here meeting the same publishers, and they are just beginning to release those books. I met the German, Dutch, Portuguese, and Brazilian publishers (and Brazil has produced the most remarkable cover!), and I also had meetings with the organizer of the Dubai [International Arts and] Literary Festival, and spoke to people about the possibility of going to Finland and Norway. It was a very busy three days, and extraordinarily worthwhile. The thing that I think it’s easy to forget is that no matter the country, your book is as important to them as it is to you, and they work so very, very hard to make it a success.
AK: Do you have any advice for writers trying desperately to break free of the “mid-list” purgatory?
RJE: Yes, get out there and do events. Libraries, bookstores, signings, readings, festivals. Speak to the reader development managers in the different [UK] county councils and make yourself available for library talks. Don’t expect to be paid, but do it anyway. Last year I did over a hundred public events, and I know for a fact that the people I met and the communication lines I established have paid off big-time. I cannot stress this enough. Reaching the public, speaking to your existing readers and potential readers is vital, vital, vital.
AK: I understand that your next book, The Anniversary Man, is a rather dark serial-killer opus. Can you tell us a bit more about what we are likely to expect? And when is that book due for release?
RJE: Current date for release [in the UK] is September 3, 2009. I wanted to write a novel about the serial killer to end all serial killers. I created a killer who replicates some of the most famous serial killings in U.S. history, and carries them out on the anniversary of their original occurrences. I feature everyone from Arthur Shawcross to John Wayne Gacy to the Sunset Slayers to Zodiac to the Amityville Horror killer. The story deals with a somewhat autistic serial-killing survivor, a man who knows more about serial killers than most people in the FBI, and his work with a New York homicide detective in their efforts to secure the identification and arrest of this “Anniversary Man.”
AK: Many of your novels feature psychopaths and the occasional serial killer. Where does this interest of yours come from?
RJE: I think it comes from a really deep desire to understand the human psyche. I think all of us are intrigued by what it is that prompts an individual to do terrible things--from Hitler and Idi Amin to Ted Bundy. Why do people do these things? Why are they different? I think writing about it goes some way towards appreciating a viewpoint, trying to make sense of it, trying to shed some light on this terrible darkness.
AK: And that’s the reason why serial killers appeal to so many other readers these days?
RJE: I think it comes back to the emotional impact. People like to be thrilled, excited, horrified, intrigued, mystified. I think that serial killing is perhaps the most not-understood of all criminal actions. It isn’t like theft. You can see why someone would steal: they want something they haven’t got. It isn’t like killing someone out of rage, jealousy, passion, hatred, revenge, or anything else. Serial killers kill people because ... well, why do they kill people? Not just one or two, but three or 12 or 50. What is it that motivates that level of destructive need? It is said that you can never rationalize irrationality, but everyone considers themselves rational. What is that rationale for John Wayne Gacy or the Zodiac? What problem are they solving? What reality do they exist in that makes this kind of behavior necessary? That’s what fascinates me, and I think that’s what fascinates a lot of other people who read crime fiction.
AK: It seems you’ve joined the International Thriller Writers association. Does this mean you’re planning to attend ThrillerFest 2009 in New York this summer?
RJE: Yes, I am. I feel it is very important now to get over to the U.S. as much as I can. I plan to do ThrillerFest, and I will also be at Bouchercon in Indianapolis [in October].
AK: I know we had a great time at Bouchercon in Baltimore. But can you give us any particular personal highlights?
RJE: It’s the people, you know? It’s meeting people like Harlan Coben and Lawrence Block, Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos. It’s meeting the people that you respect and admire, the people that have worked so damned hard and earned every ounce of the following that they’ve got. It was an amazing experience, and then when you add in the visit we made to Edgar Allan Poe’s grave, and the clam chowder we shared with [Deadly Pleasures editor] George Easter, and the great beer, and Jeff and Jodi Pierce, and how remarkably generous and supportive Lee Child was when I talked to him about finding a U.S. publisher ... all these things and more. You know better than anyone, ’cause you were with me all the way!
AK: How do you manage to turn in a manuscript annually, while balancing the associated activity imposed on your work, such as book promotion, tours, e-mails, blogs, et al.?
RJE: I have always worked hard. Not working doesn’t suit me. I work before I leave for events. I work when I get home. I work at weekends. I set myself a daily target for how much I write, and I do my utmost to meet it. I think some authors just love the writing process itself, and some [others] are relieved when they’ve managed to get some work done. I am the former, most definitely. I just love the action of writing, and I lose myself in it.
AK: How do your agent, Euan Thorneycroft, and your publisher, Jon Wood, view your success? After all, they had faith in your work during the lean years when things were considerably harder.
RJE: Well, Jon said to me in our very first meeting, “We don’t buy books, we buy authors.” I have been fortunate to be supported by a great agent and a great editor, and all the success that is occurring now simply vindicates and validates all the tremendously hard work we have all put into it. Sometimes they have told me to slow down, and then they stop dead in their tracks, and they say, “No, go on and do what you’ve been doing,” as they know that the events and the traveling and long hours and the libraries and bookstores have all started to pay off. I feel very fortunate to have them both, and I think of them as family.
AK: What does today’s worsening economic situation mean to publishing and to the world of fiction-writing?
RJE: Well, that’s a question. I think we will see a slowdown in the number of books published, and perhaps publishers will become more discerning about what they publish. In the last recession, people did in fact read more, but in the last recession we didn’t have all the audio-visual distractions we have now. It will be interesting to see what occurs, but I am confident that we can ride through this relatively quickly. Again, as I have said so many times before (and as [Benjamin] Disraeli said), “Success is dependent upon constancy of purpose.” So I don’t think as-yet-unpublished authors should lose heart. Work hard, write hard, send those books out. Books are still going to be published in their hundreds, and crime fiction is fantastically healthy as a genre.