We speak to RJ Ellory, a British crime writer, ahead of his appearance at the annual BCNegra book festival.
You wrote 22 novels and had none published, what made you return to writing after all that rejection?
I was just bloody-minded! I started writing on November 4th 1987, and between then and July 17th 1993 I wrote something every day except for three days when I was going through a divorce. I completed twenty two novels in that time, something in the region of three and a half million words, and at different times I was in discussion with a couple of agents, with one or two publishing companies, but nothing ever really got as far as I would have liked. I wrote first of all in longhand, and then I got a typewriter, and finally ended up with an Amstrad dedicated word processor that took about half an hour to warm up!
I spent those six years sending material out to British publishers, and received about five hundred complimentary, very polite "Thanks but no thanks" letters. I also have two lever arch files with something in the region of three or four hundred straightforward format rejection slips. This is just from companies that didn’t even look at the material I sent them. I understand the sheer volume of work that a handful of people have to wade through in a publishing house. People have given me figures on just how many unsolicited scripts come to the major publishing houses each week, and that figure is astounding. However, after six years of doing this I finally thought ‘enough’s enough’, and I stopped writing. I then studied music, photography, all manner of things, and didn’t go back to writing until the latter part of 2001. The thing that prompted my return to writing was 9/11. I couldn’t stop thinking about the three thousand or more people who went to work that morning and never returned home. It made me think of something my grandmother used to say: "Never lead a ‘What if…’ life." She used to say that finding your vocation in life was the secret of happiness. I thought about when I had been happiest in my life, and it was when I was writing. So I went back to it and came to the conclusion that maybe I just didn’t try hard enough. It was then that I wrote Candlemoth. I sent that to thirty-six publishers, thirty-five of whom sent it back. All except Bloomsbury, and an editor there gave it to a friend who gave it to a friend, and it wound up at Orion with my current editor, and we have now worked together through nine books. I have gone back recently and read some of my earlier work and it was a little verbose. But hell, it was good practice!
And what drew me to write? I loved reading. That was the simplicity of it. I just loved reading. Always had the thought that it would be great to write something capable of moving someone emotionally, to create that kind of effect, to have someone read something you’d written and be moved by it. That was the thing: to feel like you had something worth saying.
You've said previously that you like the description a French journalist gave of your work saying that you wrote "slow-motion thrillers" - why do you like this and how does it fit your work?
Readers will forgive you anything if you engage them, and the way to engage readers is with your characters. I am not the kind of writer who writes breakneck-pace page-turners. I am interested in a kind of multi-layered approach, where every character within a story has their own personal story to tell as well. For me, writing ‘crime thrillers’ or ‘mysteries’ is not so much about the crime itself, even the investigation, but the way in which such events can be used to highlight and illuminate the way that people deal with things that are not usual. If there is one common thread throughout my books, though they are all very different stories, it is that we are always dealing with an ordinary person thrown into an extraordinary situation. That’s the common theme. Hence that term—the 'slow-motion thriller’—really appealed to me, and I felt that was a very accurate expression of what I was trying to do.
Do you think it unfair that in the UK we still separate crime literature from other literary fiction? Is that the same in the other countries where you have enjoyed huge sales, like France for instance?
Oh, I have no great concern about it. There are times that the publishing industry focuses on one style of book—Harry Potter, Twilight, whatever it might be—and then those cycles end and new cycles begin. I think times are changing. I think people's perceptions of literature is changing. I think that a far more profound problem is that we are reading less and less as each generation grows up. That is a far greater concern for me. I speak to teenagers and young adults now, even those ‘studying’ literature at school, and they are not readers. That is the issue we need to be addressing as a culture. We publish over one hundred thousand books a year in England alone. Recently I did a series of lessons at a local high school. I spoke to over one hundred and twenty English Literature students, and only nineteen of them had ever read a whole book in their lives. And as far as France is concerned, well I just have this amazing love affair with France and the French. They read voraciously. They ask questions like nowhere else in the world, and for some reason the books do very well there. I do not know why – perhaps because the books are a little more philosophically-orientated than your regular crime thriller, but I keep going back, and will keep going back as long as they will have me!
How important are book clubs like Richard & Judy to writers and were you pleased to be included in the list for A Quiet Belief in Angels?
Well, long before I was ever selected for the Richard & Judy Book Club, I used to say that between JK Rowling and Richard and Judy the country had been revitalised as far as reading was concerned. For me, simply, it was life-changing. No question about it. I was profoundly fortunate to be chosen, and I owe a huge debt of gratitude to my publishers, and to the crew at R&J for supporting the book so thoroughly. The sales of that book dwarfed anything we had done before, and thus my books were brought to a far wider readership. However, even now, I am still flying in the teeth of people's preconceptions about what I write. I think when you write the kind of book that doesn’t easily fit into a specific and definable category, then you are always going to have a harder battle to fight.
If you hadn't returned to writing, what do you think you would be doing now and did you always know you wanted to be a writer?
I would be a musician, no question. I still play music. I have a band called The Whiskey Poets, and we are soon going to be on the road. This is based on the personal philosophy that if you are not prepared to do something at least once a month that could embarrass your family, then you’re going to lose your sense of humour!
Critics have praised your "cinematic narratives", how much do films inform your work and is there a film or book that you return to most?
Well, I had an odd childhood. I was orphaned at seven and I went off to various residential schools and orphanages for the next nine years. In the holidays I would stay with my maternal grandmother. She lived alone as her husband (my maternal grandfather) had drowned in the Fifties. Anyway, when we were at home we spent most of our time watching films from the Golden Age of Hollywood—James Stewart, Edward G. Robinson, Bogart and Bacall, Barbara Stanwyck, Cagney, Laughton, Hepburn etc. I think a basic love of film grew from there, more dialogue and storyline than action and pace. I also appreciated the fact that the screenwriters of the day were contracted as writers, not as individuals with egos! They researched and wrote what they were told to research and write, and whereas one week they might be scripting a pirate movie for Errol Flynn, the next week might be a gangster flick with Ray Milland. Those writers possessed a tremendous flexibility and versatility, and even now I am of the opinion that a writer should be able to write well in numerous genres and on a wide range of subjects.
How do you feel about the popularity of the Nordic crime genre? Do you feel overlooked and what other crime writers do you read and admire?
I don’t really read crime novels. I read a Henning Mankell novel once. I had a go at the Larsson book, the first one, and got about thirty pages in. I kept being told to give it another go, and I did—twice—but I just couldn’t get into it. I think it’s a phenomenon, just like Harry Potter, just like Twilight, just as cold war novels were in the Sixties and Seventies. Good writing is good writing. The ones that are good we will still be reading in twenty-five years, the ones that are not will be forgotten. I have no criticism of any genre; I have no criticism of any writer’s style or subject matter. As Huxley said, "A bad book is as much a labour of love as a good one". It is impossible for me to find fault with any writer’s work. I am, however, extraordinarily grateful for the opportunity I have been given to be published, and I work as hard as I can to make each book as good as I can, and I hope that with this attitude I will continue to be published for many years to come.
Have you been to Barcelona before - how are you received in Spain?
This will be my first time in Spain, my first time in Barcelona, and my first ever book in Spanish, so I don’t know!
RJ Ellory will be in conversation alongside Craig Russell and David Peace on February 2nd, 4pm at La Capella (C/ de l'Hospital 56)