Saturday, February 23, 2008

A Quiet Belief in Himself

Left to right: Literary agent Euan Thorneycroft, author Roger Jon Ellory, and Shots editor Mike Stotter

One writer I have followed since the publication of his debut novel, Candlemoth, is Roger Jon Ellory. Candlemoth even made January Magazine’s list of gift-book choices for 2003. Getting his first novel into print, though, was a tortuous tale that Ellory recounted in an interview I conducted with him in Cambridge, England, during the summer of 2003:
In the latter part of 2001 I sent a copy of Candlemoth to a company. Somebody read it, liked it, but didn’t feel it was for them. They wrote me a letter saying as much but the letter never arrived. In February of 2002 I called this person and asked if they’d ever read it. They said they had and had sent me a letter. I said the letter never came. They went off and got a copy of it and read it to me over the phone. Coincidentally, a colleague of theirs had just moved to Weidenfeld and Nicholson, an imprint of [British publisher] Orion, and they asked me to send another copy of the script so they could forward it to them and see if they were interested. I sent another copy, the editor at Weidenfeld read it and passed it onto Jon Wood at Orion. Jon then called me three or four times, but couldn’t reach me. Finally, we spoke and he said he was interested in pursuing it and wanted me to make a few changes. I made the changes, and then Jon worked relentlessly until June, when it was finally signed by Orion. That was the beginning of my relationship with Orion, and then in the early part of 2003, before Candlemoth was released, I was signed up to another two-book contract, the first of those books being Ghostheart. Basically, it came down to Jon Wood. Without his persistence it would never have got signed. He liked it enough to fight for it.
All that hard, frustrating work paid off for Ellory, though, when the British Crime Writers’ Association (CWA) nominated Candlemoth for its 2003 Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award--certainly a remarkable achievement for a debut novel (even if it ultimately lost the award to Dan Fesperman’s The Small Boat of Great Sorrows).

Since then, the now 42-year-old Ellory has kept to a highly disciplined, one-book-a-year schedule, turning out Ghostheart (2004), A Quiet Vendetta (2005), City of Lies (2006), and A Quiet Belief in Angels (2007). Yet despite very favorable reviews of his fiction, and his being nominated a second time for the CWA Steel Dagger Award for City of Lies, his books still haven’t made a mark on the bestseller lists. Go figure. Equally puzzling is the fact that he has yet to secure a U.S. publishing deal.

However, he finally got a major break late last year, when A Quiet Belief in Angels was selected by British daytime TV show hosts Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan as one of their 2008 book club reads. Being chosen “a Richard & Judy book” means huge exposure--just ask previously anointed one Simon Kernick (Relentless)--and is the UK equivalent of a work being tapped for Oprah Winfrey’s TV book club. With well over 200,000 copies of his fifth novel now having been sold, and fifth print run of Quiet Belief in the offing, Ellory seems finally to have broken out of that uncomfortable realm known as mid-list purgatory.

Having long thought that he was much better than his book sales indicated, I was delighted to celebrate Roger Ellory’s success during Orion’s recent author party at the Royal Opera House in London’s Convent Garden. In between accepting offers of congratulations and greeting friends, he talked with me about his latest novel, his new faith in the future of his writing, and why he continues to set his stories in America, rather than the UK.

Ali Karim: So, Roger, how do you feel, now that A Quiet Belief in Angels has been picked up by Richard & Judy?

Roger Jon Ellory: It has been unimaginable. Truly! To put it in perspective, the paperback print run for my last novel, City of Lies, was something in the region of 7,500 copies. Yesterday, I received a call to say that another print run of A Quiet Belief in Angels had been authorized, which now brings the total number of copies in circulation to 221,000. I know how tough it can be to break into this fiction-writing business; wasn’t it Hemingway who said that in comparison to writing fiction, horse racing and playing poker were sensible business ventures?

For me it was always about the writing. In the summer of last year, I secured another publishing contract, but it was not without a couple of weeks of nervousness about whether or not I was selling sufficient books to actually warrant being granted another contract. The worst thing for me would have been to have known what it was like to be writing for publication, and then because of low sales, be in a situation where I then could not get published. Luckily, Orion Publishing are very definitely of the viewpoint that they believe in and support what I am doing. And then later on, when we got the Richard & Judy selection, it kind of vindicated and justified all the tremendous support and encouragement they have given me over the last five years. The Richard & Judy selection has at least given me confidence in the fact that I can see a career ahead of me. So, in simple terms, being selected has made it possible for me to continue doing what I love.

AK: For those readers who haven’t enjoyed it yet, tell us a little about Quiet Belief.

RJE: The book starts in 1939 with a central character called Joseph Vaughan at 12 years old. He grows up in a small rural farming community in Georgia, USA, called Augusta Falls, and is witness to the devastating effect of a series of child murders that occur within the surrounding area over the subsequent decade--so much so that he and his friends band together in an effort to do something to stop the killings from taking place. The book spans 50 years of his life, and throughout the entirety of these five decades, he is determined to identify and bring to justice the perpetrator of these crimes. I wrote the novel for a simple reason: to once again put an ordinary individual in an extraordinary situation, and at the same time highlight the sheer indomitability of the human spirit. It has always amazed me the degree to which a human being can rebound from loss or tragedy. The central character of A Quiet Belief in Angels loses everything, and yet survives. I wanted to tell his story--a story about childhood, about the way children deal with things that they should never have to deal with, how their means and methods of coping are so very different from adults’. I also wanted to remind myself of the sheer magic of the written word, and how such classics as To Kill a Mockingbird enchanted me as a child, and somehow helped me deal with whatever happened personally.

AK: What does the Richard & Judy pick mean to you in practical terms, as a writer?

RJE: Interesting question, because huge book sales do not necessarily always follow through with continued success. But I feel confident that with the quality of my previous books, and the books I have now completed, I am assured at least a far greater degree of future. It opens up the very real possibility that I will now continue to be published for many years to come. That is all I have ever wanted, and to that degree it has given me a tremendous amount of certainty and security that previously was not there.

AK: Which of your books do you consider your favorite, and why?

RJE: That’s really an impossible question to answer! I love all of them for very different reasons: Candlemoth, because it was the first, and it was a story that was very close to my heart; Ghostheart, simply because it was a challenge to write an entire novel from a female perspective; A Quiet Vendetta, because it was big and brave and it demanded the most amazing amount of research; and City of Lies, because it was faster-paced, scripted more like a movie than a book. And then we have A Quiet Belief in Angels, which--for me--was possibly the most emotionally demanding book I have written, but still manages to evoke an effect on me, despite the fact that it has been completed for so long. My answer to that question, “What is your favorite book?” is always “The one I’m doing now ...”

AK: Do you find that the Richard & Judy listing is generating interest in your backlist, as well as your latest novel?

RJE: Yes, it certainly seems that more people are picking up on the earlier books. The first three (published under the byline “Roger Jon Ellory,” as opposed to “R.J. Ellory”) have been repackaged and are being released on March 6th. I am hoping very much that people who have read Quiet Belief will now go and take a look at the first four.

AK: Tell us about your being on the Richard & Judy show.

RJE: Well, it was a remarkable experience, the whole epic experience of going to [the state of] Georgia. It has to rank alongside the most significant experiences of my life. But it was also unsettling in more ways than one.

Located in the southern part of Georgia, with real towns such as Folkston and Kingsland around it, Augusta Falls was a fictional town created as the backdrop for A Quiet Belief in Angels. Despite having visited the United States only briefly, and never having set foot in Georgia itself, I found myself walking in the footsteps of my protagonist and central character, Joseph Vaughan. As a result of Quiet Belief being selected for the Richard & Judy Book Club 2008, I was given this once-in-a lifetime opportunity to see and experience a world I perhaps would otherwise never have done. I actually wrote a travelogue about it, and took a lot of photographs.

AK: You have recently been out and about, promoting your work. Can you tell us a little about those events at bookstores and libraries?

RJE: Basically, I am in my element at such events, however large or small. The reality of writing is that it tends to be a very individual and insular activity, and once a book is complete you might receive an e-mail to say that so-and-so copies have been printed, or such-and-such a book is now being translated into a foreign language, but it is only at readings, signings, library talks and suchlike that you actually get to connect with people who have really read the book. And it is a great experience to meet people who actually give a damn about a book, so much so that they disagree, argue, express their very individual viewpoints to one another about which they like and which they don’t. It is very rejuvenating to get some honest feedback!

AK: What is it about American culture and landscape that provokes you to set your tales on the other side of the Atlantic?

RJE: Being English, I have 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 [when we were] 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 [the United States], 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 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 beautifully as I can.

AK: And how do American readers react to your work?

RJE: Honest answer? They don’t! I do not have a U.S. publishing contract, and on the whole I am not distributed [there]. I have recently answered about three dozen e-mails from American readers, asking where they can get my books from. I actually have them send me their address and I stick one in the post to save them the hassle.

AK: You revamped your Web site recently, adding a blog called The Ellory Journal. Considering how busy you are already, why go to that extra effort?

RJE: Because there were quite a lot of things that I wanted to say that didn’t have a place in a book. I started it because I would receive letters from my publisher, also e-mails through the site, asking me what I thought about this, that, or the other. I started the blog in answer to those requests for other info, and I try to do at least one article a month. It feels important now to have that other avenue, where I can be in touch with people about all manner of things, not just what I’m doing as an author.

AK: And what are you working on currently?

RJE: I have completed two more books, one for August 2008, one for August 2009. I have started working on No. 8, for publication in the autumn of 2010. I like to be ahead of things as best I can! The book for this year is a Washington [D.C.]-based thriller that focuses on the long-term effects of the war in Nicaragua, and how certain people who profited greatly from the drugs that came out of Nicaragua have managed to maintain secrecy regarding their criminal actions. It is, in effect, a companion work to A Quiet Vendetta, similar in length, and deals with corruption within the U.S. intelligence community and the lengths people will go to to maintain their vested interests. The one for 2009 has the working title The Anniversary Man, though I doubt very much it will keep that title. It is a fast-paced serial-killer novel, and deals with the investigation of a series of brutal murders carried out by an individual who is replicating some of the most famous serial killings in history, and committing those killings on the anniversary of their original occurrence. I am very pleased and excited with them both, but more than that I am constantly working on expanding the different themes in my books, taking on subjects and styles of story that I think are challenging. I think that’s why I would never write a series about the same character. I enjoy diversity of plot, diversity of style and place, and I feel that it’s healthy for me to continually exercise and challenge my own limitations as a writer.

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Click here to find text and audio extracts from A Quiet Belief in Angels, as well as more information about author Ellory.


Kerrie said...

I've noticed that Amazon UK is listing the book as the current number 1 seller in its Crime, Thrillers & Mystery List.
Are Richard & Judy the equivalent of being on an Oprah Winfrey list?

Anonymous said...

Kerrie -- That's exactly right. They do for the UK what Oprah does for the U.S.

I love that picture at the top... Just seeing Mike Stotter makes me giggle. Hearing him speak is only a bonus.

Anonymous said...

Hey Dave,
Behave yourself or I'll give you another burst of Dick Van Dyke!

How some confuse me for a Bostonian is beyond me.

Is all seriousness, you've got to read Roger's works, he is a fantastic writer and I'm sure his exposure on Richard and Judy will bring him tons more readers.

ps and don't believe Ali when he tells everyone I got that suit from George Melly. You can tell the sharp guys were wearing pin stripes that night!