Interview with bestselling author, Robert Ellis
Robert Ellis is a fascinating writer. His new mystery, Murder Season was selected as one of the Best Fiction Books of 2011 by The Miami Examiner. The Lost Witness and City of Fire also star his tough/soft coffee drinker, LA Homicide detective, Lena Gamble. Once you pick up one of his books, you simply cannot put it down. The Lost Witness and City of Fire are now available in paperback. Although Ellis has his own distinctive style, his writing invokes some of Michael Connelly's flair. Many readers and members of The Miami Book Lovers Club have requested to know more about Ellis and what makes him tick. Although he’s a very busy man, he graciously accepted to be interviewed.
"I was born in Philadelphia. My father was a journalism major and editor in chief of the Temple University Press. He played piano and loved jazz and classical music. My mom had similar interests, but liked to make sculptures and gourmet meals. My brother and I were her guinea pigs. Happily so, I might add," says Ellis when asked about his background.
He continues, "I played guitar in numerous rock bands, and while in school, landed an unbelievably great job managing the kitchen at a nightclub called The Main Point, in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Meeting blues and jazz greats like Muddy Waters and Chick Corea, hanging out and talking during the day before shows, sitting through practice sessions, the whole thing was just awesome."
"The first slap at my personal innocence came when I was still a young boy. One day a man was collecting pine cones with his dog. He had found a small grove of pine trees on a road about a mile from our house. As he made his way beneath the trees his dog picked up a scent in the ground and started digging. It turned out to be a young woman’s body buried in a shallow grave. Unfortunately for me, this was a road I traveled everyday either in the car with my parents or by bicycle to see my best friend. Even now as I think it over, my imagination takes off and I can see the horrific image of a woman’s hair strewn through the soil."
See? Fascinating. Read on for more into the mind of Ellis.
RS: When did you realize you wanted to be a writer?
RE: My journey is a little different than most writers because “wanting to be a writer” was more of an evolutionary process than a decision. I’ve written since childhood. I co-edited our school newspaper, I used to skip school and sit through murder trials and write what I saw as short stories. But I was also very interested in images. In college I majored in philosophy and filmmaking. After I got creamed by a tractor-trailer on I-70 outside Pittsburgh, things changed and I became a lot more focused. During my recovery, I studied screenwriting with Walter Tevis, author of The Hustler, The Color of Money, and The Man Who Fell to Earth. A short while later I wrote a screenplay that a lot of people were interested in. I was signed as a writer-director my the William-Morris Agency and moved to Los Angeles. And then something wonderful happened. In the early nineties Los Angeles was the reading capital of the world. It seemed like there was a bookstore on almost every corner. And on weekends, my favorite authors seemed to be doing book signings all over town. James Ellroy (before L.A. Confidential was made into a film), Michael Connelly, Robert Crais, T. Jefferson Parker. The itch to write a crime novel became overwhelming. It wasn’t something I wanted to do. Instead, it had become something I needed to do. I’d already experienced a lot of life. I finally thought I had been through enough to have something to say.
RS: Do you need to be in a special place to write your books? Do you agree with Stephen King that writers do their best writing in a place of their own?
RE: When I used to write screenplays, I had this thing for doing it when traveling. It sounds like I’m talking about sex, but I’m not! I used to love writing on jets and long distance trains. But when it comes to writing novels I agree with Stephen King. The truth is that, at least for me, writing fiction is a lot like baseball. It’s all about finding the zone, establishing a daily routine, and finding your internal rhythm. But also, it’s about not looking back at what you did or didn’t do yesterday. It’s about today and tomorrow.
RS: Is there one technique in writing you would recommend to new writers?
RE: I’ve met a lot of writers who claim that they don’t bother outlining a story before they write it. That because their work is supposedly “character driven,” outlining would somehow “get in the way.” I was once on panel at a mystery conference in which an author actually claimed that he or she was 80,000 words in on a new novel and didn’t know who committed the murder. I would never waist my time reading a book by that author.
Your story is a handshake between character and plot. Your plot is nothing more than the actions and the decisions your characters make when confronted by, in a great book, overwhelming opposition and overwhelming characters. The bottom line is that you can’t have great characters without a great plot. And you can’t have a great plot without great characters. This is law. This is fact. This is E=MC2.
You as the author need to know the end of your story before you can write the beginning. Particularly in crime fiction where you’re layering a story and actually telling three stories at the same time.
The best writers outline. I’ve heard that some of James Ellroy’s outlines are more than 300 pages long.
RS: What is one issue you are passionate about?
RE: Life is not just. This is something anyone with any wisdom knows in their gut. Although my novels are often called police procedurals, the truth is that they’re anything but. I write thrillers. Thrillers are personal stories. They require a protagonist who is a complete innocent, or someone who lacks experience and is new on the job. The key here is that all of my protagonists are vulnerable in some way. All of them are being forced to learn on the run and under great pressure.
I do this because my novels are less about the actual murder, and more about the thrill of discovering what happened and why, and surviving the experience. What I’m trying to say is that I need a reason to write a crime novel. A theme that counts for something. The motivation behind writing Murder Season came when I was reading about a prosecutor who cheated during a murder trial and won a conviction. I was incensed by his behavior and couldn’t believe that the judge found it acceptable. What if the man they put away was innocent? Twenty-five percent of the time, they are innocent. So my goal is to put you, the reader, in this innocent man’s shoes and let you experience the story firsthand. Hope you’re a fast runner!
RS: When and where did you create Lena Gamble?
RE: This one’s easy! My second novel The Dead Room was an original paperback that became an underground hit. In the largest independent bookstore on the East Coast it’s still one of the bestselling works of crime fiction on record. I believe they sold somewhere around 950 copies at this single store. The Dead Room features Teddy Mack, a young civil attorney who is forced by his boss to represent a horrific serial killer. When I finished writing the novel I thought that if Teddy was ever going to meet a woman, she would need to have experienced an ordeal just as difficult and frightening.
LAPD detective Lena Gamble was only supposed to appear in City of Fire. But when my editor showed the manuscript around, publishers in Germany and the United Kingdom got into the discussion and things really got exciting. The end result was that all three wanted The Lost Witness, and now my best so far, Murder Season . Of course, the short answer is that while writing City of Fire, I fell for Lena Gamble and couldn’t let go.
RS: Your descriptions on the LAPD are very realistic. I read in your acknowledgments of City of Fire and Murder Season, how LAPD detectives Rick Jackson, David P. Lambkin, and Mitzi Roberts helped with your research. What percentage would you say goes into the research for the Lena Gamble books? How important do you consider accuracy in your books, on a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being the lowest and 10 the highest?
RE: I love doing research. I spend as much or more time researching a novel as I do writing it. Although I could probably work faster if I had someone assisting me with some it, I think you can feel a certain authenticity in all of my novels, so putting in the time is worth it.
At the same time, these are novels, not manuals. I’ve always believed that it’s an author’s responsibility to know as much as he or she can about the details of the investigation their protagonist is working on in a novel. But if there’s ever a conflict between reality and what the story needs, fudge the reality and let the story fly. Do it in a knowing way. Always take the side of your characters and your story. It’s a work of fiction.
RS: Where would you be now if you weren't an author?
RE: In a café somewhere reading Murder Season by Robert Ellis and drinking a cup of piping hot coffee!
RS: Who would be your first choice to play Lena Gamble from today's actresses?
RE: It’s my hope that Lena Gamble is a role that many different actresses could make their own. For me, what separates Lena Gamble from most other investigators is that she’s painted in grays, not black and white. If you think back to The Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade was painted in gray. Both characters are morally complex. Their idea of the difference between right and wrong comes from their past experiences and gut instinct, not the rules found in a book, or what society deems acceptable.
RS: What about the voice of Lena Gamble? How difficult is it to write a female character as a male author?
RE: One of the most profound realizations I’ve had as an author was when I tried to write the first chapter that included Lena. What I realized was that Teddy Mack, the protagonist in The Dead Room, could reveal his fears and emotions without ever appearing weak. With Lena Gamble in City of Fire, The Lost Witness, and now Murder Season, discovering that fine line would only come with much practice. What I didn’t want to do is what you’re seeing on network television these days. There are exceptions, of course, but for the most part women detectives are either written as men or written as cartoons. I needed Lena Gamble to come off real. She had to be someone who wasn’t always right, who owned up to her mistakes and learned from them. She needed to be a woman with all of the physical limitations and advantages that come with being a real woman. She needed to smart, willing to learn and understand. She needed to be ultra human, and really hope that’s how she’s perceived by readers.
RS: Erle Stanley Gardner said he didn't do much reading because he spent so much time writing. Are you the same way? If not, what are titles of the last three books you read?
RE: Gardner makes a great point. I’ve heard other writers say the same thing, then add that they’re afraid they might forget that they read something and use it as if it’s their own by mistake.
I like to read between novels or while I’m researching a new story. If I’m working on something, I’ll pick a book that has nothing to do with crime fiction. Recently, I read Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken. The whole experience was mesmerizing.
RS: What are your projects within the next two years?
RE: If you look at the themes of my novels, each one tries to move in a new direction. In Murder Season one of the key themes deals with the idea of someone ignoring the facts of a murder investigation and covering their tracks in order to save their reputation. I love this storyline because it’s almost the theme of modern times: Post-Nixon- America. Cover-up the facts and point your finger at the other guy. If you lie long enough and hard enough, people will believe you... All of which makes for a very frightening world, and something I would like to continue to explore. My next novel will be set in Los Angeles, and with any luck, take the themes introduced in Murder Season to an entirely different place.