Nashville Examiner Interview by Paige Crutcher - January 21, 2011
A great thriller is equal parts suspense and mystery. JT Ellison’s stories go one step further, adding a tether of romance and using the keys to swirl imagery to life. Her Taylor Jackson series, with the sixth novel preparing for release, has traveled through varying realms of evolution. Consistently spellbinding, there is no pause or upset, no hint of the series growing stagnant or stale. Each novel stands on its own and draws in readers with the artful flick of the turning page.
Ellison is able to expand and reinvent Taylor while comfortably courting the edge– repeatedly bringing her audience a variety of psychological and well-trained killers, and effortlessly walking them through the chambers of a true villain’s mind.
Authentic and haunting, Ellison brings to life stories that scare the things that go bump in the night, while hooking readers for more. She shares her passion for storytelling, how important originality is in the voice of a story and who inspires her.
PC: As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
JTE: The first female firefighter in Denver. Someone else beat me to it. I was crushed. Crushed. When that dream was taken away, I learned to never, ever plan for the future. I made my first five-year plan last year.
PC: Writing is serious, occasionally exhausting, business. Did you know what you were getting into when you set out to become an author?
JTE: No. Though I’ve written my whole life, I never thought of writing for actual publication. But things changed when I finished my first novel. I showed it to a couple of people who suggested I try to get an agent and an editor. I got very lucky, very quickly. My second full-length novel was the one that sold. They asked for three books, and suddenly, I had a series on my hands. I never in a million years dreamed it would go as far as it has. Which makes each book ten times harder than the previous. It’s geometric, like an earthquake. Writing for readers is very different than writing for yourself. And maintaining a series over numerous books, plus doing it at a two book a year pace, is a challenge. But I wouldn’t trade it for the world. It may be hard, but everything that’s worth having in this life is hard. If it weren’t, we wouldn’t want it so much, right?
PC: Your Taylor Jackson series is a delicious nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat ride. Is it any different for the creator – do you ever scare yourself, or is writing an easy, laid back process?
JTE: You are too kind. I totally scare myself. All the time. But I figure if it scares me, it will scare the reader. I’m very, very careful to make sure there isn’t anything gratuitous in my work. But when I look at what people are capable of, how they hurt one another, I can’t help myself. I want to find out why. I want to dig into their minds. And doing that leads me to some very frightening places. The irony is, I hate to be scared. Hate it. I won’t watch scary movies or read scary books. The last horror novel I read was Peter Straub’s GHOST STORY, and that was when I was 10. I knew then and there I could never read another book like that again.
PC: Who inspired Taylor? Is she a little JT, or mostly imaginary?
JTE: Taylor was definitely a figment of my imagination. She embodies my own hero complex. She’s everything I would be if I was full of valor. Courage and honor, that’s my girl. Well, I have the honor part, but the valor? Not so much. She and I share biographical details, simply because that was easier, but we part ways when it comes to the hero stuff. I see her as Athena, the warrior goddess of Nashville. She’s a female Lucas Davenport, half cop, half rock star.
PC: How much research goes into your novels? Do you write about what you know, or are you constantly learning?
JTE: I’m constantly learning. Research is incredibly fun for me. I can lose myself in the most incredible minutiae; spend hours, weeks on learning; read ten books on the subject, but when it comes to the actual writing, only one line will pertain to the story. I have to be careful not to info dump, but to weave the knowledge into the narrative so it’s seamless to the reader, educating them without being preachy or pedantic. I also mine emotions pretty easily–I can read people better now that I’m older, see what’s in their make up. My imagination goes to town with those little nuggets, and characters are born. It happens a lot at the grocery store–especially in the meat aisle. For some bizarre reason, I can’t buy chicken breasts without coming away with the bones of a new character.
PC: As a reader, what elements draw you into a story? (What are your must haves?)
JTE: Originality, voice, story, character. Brilliant openings that grab me by the throat, meaty characters I care about instantly, great writing and superb vocabulary. I’m getting picky and crotchety in my old age; finding great books gets harder. It’s one of the drawbacks to being a writer—we tend to autopsy books rather than read them. I want a story that makes me gnash my teeth that I didn’t think of it. I want to be swept away. I want to forget I’m reading a book, forget the language and sentence structure, and live it. If I’m reading and saying to myself, “Oh, I’d have phrased that differently,” I know I’m in trouble.
PC: You don’t write fluff mystery (not that I don’t love my beachy fluff). But your works are hard hitting novels that have a variety of messages sewn throughout. How do you choose what topics to tackle in each novel?
JTE: I like to think that the books are character studies, and the plot is driven by the characters’ reactions to their situations. I don’t think I’ve ever set out to tackle anything other than an examination of how cruel we can be to one another. I’m fascinated by it, and it drives every story. The MO of a killer certainly sets the tone, but at heart, I’m just trying to understand why we do bad things to each other. The stories grow from there.
PC: Do you think you will continue to expand the Taylor Jackson series, or strike out into a new genre, or new character arc?
JTE: God willing and the creeks don’t rise, all of the above.
PC: Will you share some of the authors and books that inspired you?
JTE: John Sandford, who inspired the Taylor Jackson series, John Connolly, who inspired my ever-evolving writing style, Lee Child, who’s friendship and guidance has been invaluable. The thriller chicks: Catherine Coulter, Tess Gerritsen, Erica Spindler, Alex Kava, Karin Slaughter and Allison Brennan, for showing me how not to compromise my subject matter just because I’m a woman. Diana Gabaldon, for teaching me how to create worlds. J.K. Rowling, for teaching me to follow my heart. Sharon Penman, Karleen Koen, Danielle Steele and Mary Stewart, for helping me move from children’s books to adult books (ie: teaching me the differences between love, romance and sex. I guess I better include Judy Blume’s FOREVER in there too, for that very reason.) Ayn Rand’s ANTHEM changed my life, Book VII of Plato’s REPUBLIC got me into graduate school, and my all-time favorite, LOLITA, by Vladimir Nabokov, showed me it’s possible to have lovable monsters.
PC: What are you reading now?
JTE: Allison Brennan’s LOVE ME TO DEATH and Lisa Unger’s BEAUTIFUL LIES.
PC: How important is the writing community for authors? As a Bestseller, has the need for the community dimmed, or is it still just as vital?
JTE: That’s a hard question. I certainly haven’t seen my needs for the community diminish, though I’ve had to reallocate my time to accommodate my schedule. Some authors get into this writing world and withdraw, and I have my moments that I want to do that. I’m completely socially awkward, and that carries right on over to the Internet. I posit that the community has changed a bit as well–it was very tightly knit when I started out, and now sprawls over multiple networks, websites, organizations and blogs, with new ones cropping up every day. I think authors need to pick and choose what works for them, where they feel they have the greatest impact and where they receive the greatest support, and focus on those areas. You can’t be an insider at every cocktail party.
PC: What advice would you share for aspiring writers?
JTE: I have a big section on my website that drills down into the specifics, along with a slew of writing books to read (check my FAQs) but the best advice I can give is read. Read everything, and write every day, so you create good habits. Discipline is the key to being a solid working writer. And leave yourself open to possibility. Sometimes, in this brave new Internet world, I think we forget to stop and look at our physical world for inspiration, instead relying on the electronic nipple to feed us the muse. And boy, am I the first one to put up my hand and exclaim guilty. It’s part of my goals for the year, to shut off the computer and get outside my own self-created microcosm.