Interview by Mike Stewart for ITW’s The Big Thrill

The headshot didn't kill Taylor Jackson. But it will haunt.

Normally I like to introduce my interviewees before mentioning what the book is about, but frankly I couldn’t resist putting up the first lines of the cover copy. It’s the best example of a hook that I have ever seen.!

In her showdown with the murderous Pretender, a bullet taken at close range severed the connection between Taylor’s thoughts and speech. Effectively mute, there’s no telling if her voice will ever come back. Trapped in silence, she is surrounded by ghosts—of the past, of friendships and trusts lost—of the specter of a lost faith in herself and her motives that night.

When Memphis Highsmythe offers Taylor his home in the Scottish highlands to recuperate, her fiancé John Baldwin can’t refuse her excitement, no matter his distrust of the man. At first, Memphis’s drafty and singularly romantic castle seems the perfect place for healing. But shortly the house itself surrounds her like a menacing presence. As Taylor’s sense of isolation and vulnerability grows, so, too, does her grip on reality.

PTSD. Pills. Ghosts. Grudges.

Someone or something is coming after Taylor. But is she being haunted by the dead...or hunted by the living?

Holy crap. That’s awesome. Move over Hitchcock for this gothic psychological thriller. And evidently the book lives up to the cover copy.

NYT bestselling author, Carla Neggers says, "Where All The Dead Lie is riveting! J.T. Ellison is in top form with this stunning novel of psychological suspense. Where All The Dead Lie is atmospheric, emotional, eerie and impossible to put down."

"This is one of those novels that grips you from the very first page. Excellent and intriguing with full blown characters that come alive,” explains NYT bestselling author Heather Graham. “It's a novel not to be missed."

Thanks for joining me today, J.T!

To start, the description reads like a standalone book and not the seventh in your Taylor Jackson series. Does it standalone, and can you tell us how this book is different from the other books in your series?

This book really is a standalone. It’s an entirely different style of writing for me, and with the sixth book of the series, SO CLOSE THE HAND OF DEATH, wrapping up a series-long “issue,” Taylor finally has to come to grips with all the craziness that’s happened to her over the past sixteen months. And as often happens when you must face things you’ve been putting off dealing with, they grow out of proportion. Add to that the fact that she’s been grievously wounded, and can’t talk, there’s no body count – yes, this one’s a bit different.

Okay, so no Nashville, no serial killer case—a real departure. Do you see this as a risky book? What drove you to write it?

Risky. I like that. Yes. Absolutely. Taking risks is the fun of being a writer, and if I don’t give myself some sort of challenge… in this one, Taylor is mute. And let me tell you, it’s not easy to write a thriller with a mute hero. Everyone thought I was nuts, but it actually works. But it was by far the most difficult book for me to write, simply because I had my doubts as to whether I could pull it off. Add to all of that a change in locale, tenor and character shifts, and yeah, it was a bit of a risk.

Where All the Dead Lie has the feel of a psychological thriller and I always wonder if an author is moved to write such a novel from a deep dark well of their own emotion. What scares you and did this novel exercise any of your fears?

There’s a lot in this world that scares me. I’m not a fan of spiders, and truly loath clowns. But the kind of fear I think you’re talking about comes from inside me, not outside. My imagination is overfull with horrid images, mostly from the research that I’ve done. I try hard to stay neutrally distanced, but I’ve found I’m not very good at that. Things I’ve seen, things I’ve read, watched, experienced, all of that – it breeds. Which means for my own sanity, I’ve had to step away from the serial killer genre. I hope that this new direction in my new work will appeal to a broader audience.

Publishers Weekly praised you for maintaining the tension in Where All The Dead Lie saying, The growing suspense will keep readers glued.” Is it more or less difficult to maintain the tension in a psychological thriller rather than a novel where the threat is more overt such as a serial killer? How do you do it?

Much more difficult, for me at least. The formula for a serial killer book is by its very nature incredibly intense. Lives are at stake, there’s a ticking clock. When in doubt, if things are slowing down, you can bring in a man with a gun. A psychological thriller is creepy, and slow burning, a marathon, not a sprint. You have a chance to go deeper into the characters and their motivations. Setting becomes even more important, as does the language you use. It must be more emotive rather than explosive. For me, I worked hard on the creep factor, added in a character who can’t speak, and put her in a castle deep in the Scottish highlands, alone. You know you’re going to have things that are unexplained, and that ratchets up the tension.

You’re not known for planning your novels, so how did this one emerge? Did the trip to Scotland happen before or after Taylor took you there?

On September 14, 2009, I heard a song on the radio by Tori Amos called “Welcome to England.”  I listened to the words and saw Taylor stepping off a plane at Heathrow, into Memphis’s arms. I went home and downloaded it, wrote myself a note: “Welcome to London” Memphis Book. That was it. The page was turned and the idea went … not all the way away, but out of sight. I revisited the idea several months ago as I was finishing SO CLOSE, knowing I’d have to do a bunch of research to make it work. That research involved going to England and Scotland if I had any hope of the book playing out the way I envisioned. Plus, the book is a Gothic, so it needed all the correct elements to come fully alive, elements that can’t be readily found in my leather chair in my living room in Nashville. I went to the UK for research twice – last July and late last November, to get the feel right – since the book takes place over the Christmas holidays. The research trips were vital – the book wouldn’t have worked at all without them.

As for the rest – well, I let it happen.  

Nashville has played a large role in the other novels in the series. Can you explain how you make setting a character in Where All the Dead Lie?

Nashville is an easy town to allow to come alive on the page – its dichotomies are fascinating to me. But I love to visit other places in my stories, and I’ve always wanted to set a story in Scotland. I travelled to Scotland when I was 18, and it completely captivated me. So setting a romantic castle in the Highlands there was wish fulfillment. That’s where Memphis comes in. James “Memphis” Highsmythe, the Viscount Dulsie. He is of Scottish descent, as am I (I’m a Wallace on my mother’s side.) and his estate is the perfect place to set a story. I’ve also always been a huge fan of Rebecca. I love the vision of Manderley in the opening pages, and wanted to see if I could capture that mysticism for Memphis’s ancestral home. You know the moment Taylor sees the house that she’s in for something – something good, or bad, or evil. It’s a powerful moment.

Manderley is of course fictional and du Maurier drew from her experience in Menabilly when writing Rebecca. You’re known for your meticulous research, from where did you draw your material to develop Dulsie Castle in Where All the Dead Lie?

To start, Dulsie Castle is a physical combination of Blair Castle in Perthshire, seat of the Duke and Earls of Atholl, and Dunrobin Castle, seat of clan Sutherland. The Highlands in particular are of great interest to me—my husband and I both have relatives who fought for Bonnie Prince Charlie, and died on Culloden moor. That is the seam in the center of this book – the oral history of Scotland, the ghost stories, fairies, grey ladies, and the like. So I did a lot of research on Scottish castle hauntings. I subscribed to the Scotsman and the Edinburgh Evening News, read the Daily Mail online, subscribed to a bunch of police blogs in the UK, and immersed myself in the workings of the Metropolitan Police at New Scotland Yard. As it happened, the case of Peter Tobin exploded while I was there, so I got to see first hand the kind of police work that goes into a serial killer case in the UK. And of course I had to do a great deal of research on hysterical dysphonia, how people react when shot in the head, PTSD, etcetera. Fun stuff!

I understand that Rebecca wasn’t your only influence. The Brothers Grimm also informed this novel, but in what way? Does it parallel Hansel and Gretel, Rapunzel, or perhaps the more romantic Frog Prince?

Actually, this story in particular began as a variation of The Snow Queen, the story of two young children torn asunder. Gerda and Kay. One who loses the other. 

“Oh, how I have been detained!” said the little maiden, “I wanted to seek for little Kay. Do you know where he is?” she asked the roses; “do you think he is dead?”  And the roses answered, “No, he is not dead. We have been in the ground where all the dead lie; but Kay is not there.”

So the title came from there, and the story – well, I’ll leave it to you to see the parallels. I don’t want to give too much away.

Before I let you go I have to ask which novelist inspires you the most?

We moved to Tennessee in late 1998, and there weren’t a lot of jobs in my field. To get out of the house, I went to work for the vet that saved my five-week-old adopted pound cat from being put down. On the third day, I picked up a golden retriever and ruptured a disc in my back, had to have surgery, and while recovering, discovered the books of John Sandford. I was three books into the Prey series when I realized I wanted to try it for myself. I’ve always been interested in crime and forensics, so it was a natural extension of my interests at the time.

Wow, I thought the Save the Cat scene was a screenwriter’s trick. Given he inspired you, what did it mean to you to win the International Thriller Writers award for Best Paperback Original alongside John Sandford?

That was a moment that can never be replicated. I wish I’d had more of a voice so I could have acknowledged John publicly, but I was able to tell him afterward how incredibly honoured I was. It made a special night spectacular.

Can we expect more of this style of novel from J.T. Ellison? What’s next for you?

What’s next is actually a non-Taylor book. After eight in a row with Taylor, I wanted to try something different. WHERE ALL THE DEAD LIE gave me some needed confidence that I can write outside of the genre I started in, so I’m continuing that path with a new series, a spin off featuring Dr. Sam Owens, Taylor’s best friend and the Nashville medical examiner. She’s experienced an unbelievable tragedy and trying to put herself back together, with Washington, D.C. as the backdrop. The first is called A DEEPER DARKNESS and will be released May 2012. It’s a suburban thriller, and another bit of a departure for me.

Thanks, J.T! It’s a pleasure to interview a fellow lover of some of my favourite things, Pippi Longstocking, Disney World and guns.

Thank you, Mike!


Michael F. Stewart is the author of several graphic novels published by Oxford University Press Canada. 24 Bones is his debut supernatural thriller, and The Sand Dragon is his first horror novel. His next novel, Hurakan, will be released in Fall 2010. Michael lives and writes in Ottawa, Canada.