Wednesday, July 02, 2008


Coleridge was a drug addict. Poe was an alcoholic. Marlowe was killed by a man whom he was treacherously trying to stab. Pope took money to keep a woman's name out of a satire, and then wrote a piece so that she could still be recognized. Chatterton killed himself. Byron was accused of incest. Do you still want to a writer -- and if so, why?

So wrote Bennett Cerf – publisher, man of letters, social commentator and humorist.
Leo Rosten said that the only reason for being a professional writer is that you just couldn’t help it.

A recent survey of the public regarding preferred professions placed ‘professional footballer’ at number one, and second only to that was ‘writer’.

It made me wonder what it was that was so utterly captivating about such an idea. Was it the fact that you were self-employed? The simple case of not actually having to get out of bed if you didn’t feel like it? The utter simplicity of one’s job – that all it required was hammering out a few dozen words on your battered Underwood typewriter, and publishers, screenplay writers and movie producers would elbow one another out of the way to push six figure cheques under your nose? (As if…)

Perhaps all of those things, and - then again – perhaps none.

Telling stories is as old as speech, and no less important.

Telling stories is a tradition, a heritage, a legacy…it is the past making its way toward the future in an effort to show us those things we have failed to learn by our own experience.

Telling stories is a hope that magic can be restored to an age that has almost forgotten.

Paul Auster said that becoming a writer was not a ‘career decision’ like becoming a doctor or a policeman. You don’t choose it so much as get chosen, and once you accepted the fact that you were not fit for anything else, you had to be prepared to walk a long, hard road for the rest of your days, and I concur with his attitude.

Some of us, I imagine, write out of anger; some out of pain; some write out of prejudice or loss, some out of passion, the promise of something better, perhaps the belief that – even now – a book can be capable of changing a life. Some of us write to remember, some to forget; some to change things, some to ensure things stay the same.

Some of us – as my agent and editor will all too easily testify – write because we cannot stop.

I consider myself extraordinarily fortunate to have the job I do. John Lennon said that if you find something that you love you’ll never work another day in your life. I agree unreservedly.

With the upcoming release of my sixth book, ‘A Simple Act of Violence’, behind it the success of the Richard and Judy Book Club nominated ‘A Quiet Belief in Angels’, I find myself in a situation I have always dreamed of: attending a book signing or an author event and having people show up that I don’t actually know!

A few days ago I was at a Young Offenders’ Institution talking to two dozen 15-18 year olds. On Monday night I went to a High School in Derby and talked to pupils, teachers, parents and governors. Last night I was at waterstones in Bristol and receivered a wonderfully warm reception from the staff and their Reading Group. Last week I did three events in Milton Keynes, all of them to promote the National Year of Reading. I am off to Reading, Guildford, Manchester, Harrogate, Cambridge and Port Talbot. I almost spend more time on the train now than I do behind a typewriter, and I ask myself why?

Because being a writer is a pleasure and a wonder. Because having a story to tell obligates you to tell it. Because, as Moliere said, first we write for ourselves, then we write for our friends, and lastly we write for money. I am doing it for reasons one and two, and I don’t know that I ever will arrive at number three.

There was a line uttered by a character in my last book. I stole the line directly from my grandmother when she said, "Doesn’t matter who you are, where you live, what you do, how much money you make…if you can read, well you can experience pretty much everything there is to experience."

And Sol Stein, a famous New York editor, once said that the primary motivation behind non-fiction was to convey information, whereas the primary motivation behind fiction was to evoke an emotion.

That’s what happens when I find a book I love. It becomes personal. It becomes something you’ll never forget. You find yourself wrestling people to the ground, threatening not to let them up until they give their word that they’ll read the book that you’ve just finished. And sometimes they love it the same way. And sometimes they are singularly unimpressed and cannot comprehend what the fuss was all about. But it starts a discussion or a disagreement or a debate, and out of it comes the names of their favourite books, and you make a mental note to find those books, to read them, to begin another adventure in some other place and meet fictional characters that somehow connect with you and make you believe they might, in fact, be real.

That is what writing is all about, and that it why I write.

It is perhaps true, as Jean Renard said, that writing is the only profession where no one considers you ridiculous if you earn no money. The red carpet is not rolled out every time you nip to Asda or Waitrose. Your life is not an endless stream of dazzling parties where you rub shoulders with George Clooney, Cate Blanchett and Stephen Soderbergh. The paparazzi do not give handfuls of grubby fivers to your local taxi firm so they can be tipped off when you order a cab. The publishers and producers and film directors camping on your front lawn and thrusting six figure cheques at you every time you leave the house is a myth.

The thing that is not a myth is the magic of storytelling, and the tremendous sense of value that a great book has always had. And will always have.

Helen Exley said, "Books can be dangerous. The best ones should be labelled ‘This could change your life’".

And the inscription over the doorway at the Library of Thebes was just four words:

"Medicine For The Soul"


paul b. -néophyte said...

Hello Roger

I was sitting at my desk pouring vinigrette over my shirt (yes! I was trying to eat a salad with French dressing while skimming through the pages of my favourite daily), when I decided to have a peek at your site (to see if those photos you mentioned have been put online). From there to your blog and the comments you added this morning.
So, not only are you an excellent writer but you are also a very well read author. With a distinctly Francophile penchant. Renard! Molière!
I read with great interest what you had to say about writing, but also about reading (your grand-mother's words are so very true, to me at least). Like all great lovers of books (I think), I would have loved to be a writer. But I agree with you unreservedly, you are a writer, you don't become one (which is in substance, what you you wrote, isn't it?).

I too cherish books, and NEVER, EVER throw one away, sell one and I only ever lend one with great wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth. I could lend you my car, my computer, money (within reason. These are hard times, right?) but I'm very reluctant to lend books. I am afraid they won't be returned. But I'll tell you what I do. I buy a copy of the book and give that instead.
It's all for the good cause. And books are always a good cause, n'est ce pas Roger?

Have an excellent day, Roger.


ps. The magazine is on its way. A bientôt, mon ami l'écrivain.

R J Ellory said...

Good day Sir! I trust the shirt has recovered from the vinigrette. So here's the question...your most treasured books? We should start a little blog campaign between book lovers. What are your most treasured books.
I will begin by saying that I have:
1. 'The Shipping News' by Annie Proulx, First American paperback, signed (1993)
2. Signed Advance Reader's Copy of 'Accordion Crimes' by Annie Proulx.
3. Signed Advance Reader's Copy of 'Closing Time' by Joseph Heller(the sequel to Catch 22).
4. First edition Heinemann copy of 'The Winter of our Discontent' by John Steinbeck
5. First edition UK hardback of 'In Cold Blood' by Truman Capote.
Those are my claims to fame...
And yours?

paul b. -néophyte said...

Now you've caught me unawares. I am at the office and don't have my books to hand so I won't remember details and things. However, amongst my treasures I have :

A signed 1st Edition of "American Tabloid" by James Ellroy

A first edition of "An American Tragedy" by Theodore Dreiser.

Very old edition (2nd edition I think) of "Morning becomes Electra" by Eugene O'Neill.

Some very old hardback editions of "The Possessed", "The Brothers Karamazov" and "Tales from the Underground", also a 1930s edition of "War & Peace".

There are others, nothing of great (monetary) value but priceless to me. But it's books I love. And bookshops. A bookshop is a wonderful place. If you're ever in Paris, there are some wonderful bookshops. You might be interested in seeing "Shakespeare & Company", which is a great, old-style bookshop. Sylvia Beach, who opened the original shop way back at the beginning of the 20th century, was the first to publish. George Whitman, the current owner, was a friend of Henry Miller's, Anaïs Nin and a great horde of other American writers who lived in Paris. You can smell literary history in the air of the place. Joyce's "Ulyssees". (The printers were French and couldn't proof read the edition, hence the many spelling mistakes and incoherences that have been passed down to most modern editions. Everybody thinks they are deliberate and very cryptic and clever when in fact they're just misprints).

Here's a link to that shop's website. Have a look.

R J Ellory said...

Yes, I agree completely. Bibliophiles unite!
In the beginning of Ghostheart (in which the central character is a young woman who owns a second-hand bookshop in Manhattan) I do my best to describe the sort of bookshop that appeals to me. And now - taking into account the fact that I am supposed to be working also - I am going to go and look at the website you have given me the link for!
And as far as your collectibles are concerned...a signed first edtion of 'American Tabloid'????
Enough said!

paul b. -néophyte said...

Excusez moi. While reading back through these I noticed a glitch. What you saw was :

...Sylvia Beach, who opened the original shop way back at the beginning of the 20th century, was the first to publish. George Whitman, the current owner, was a friend of Henry Miller's, Anaïs Nin and a great horde of other American writers who lived in Paris. You can smell literary history in the air of the place. Joyce's "Ulyssees"....

What you should have read is :

Sylvia Beach, who opened the original shop way back at the beginning of the 20th century, was the first to publish Joyce's "Ulysses"(the printers were French and couldn't proof read the edition,....

Given that I was commenting on printer errors and so on in the first edition of Ulysses, it's almost poetic that one slipped in here.

R J Ellory said...

I read that and thought that you had perhaps also enjoyed a good bottle and a half of Chateau Les Ormes-Sorbet with your salad. We are permitted typos, especially when balancing lamb's lettuce and rocket on a fork, meanwhile spilling vinigrette on one's shirt, at the same time trying to remember what your bookcase at home looks like...
Appropriate irony is an artform, expecially in France wouldn't you say?

paul b. -néophyte said...


It takes irony to appreciate the joke which is on oneself.

On a more technical note (and here I'm indulging my fascination with writers), are you a morning writer or do you require the stillness of nighttime to get the creative juices flowing? Are you known to jump out of bed at 3am and rush blurry-eyed to your aging-typewriter (or brand spanking new Dell laptop?) in a mad rush to write down the dialogue you have been playing with in your head? Or are you like Hemingway (at least I think it was him) who woke at 5am each morning, worked until noon and then got drunk? Huh, I don't mean to imply you get drunk every day at noon, my question was rather about the getting up at dawn when the house is quiet and so on...
Do you write everyday? Have you ever ditched (for want of a better word) whole chapters of work because you were unhappy with the results?
It is very interesting to the hardened-reader like me to know the routines of those writers he appreciates. Most of us realise that the tired cliché of the author, half-starved and ill with consumption, crushed by squalid poverty with only a few Kopecks to his name, writing feverishly away in his bare and cold little room is terribly outdated and, well...unlikely. As is, I dare say, the over-flowing ashtray and near-empty bottle of Jack Daniel's (on the subject of alcoholic beverages, I would certainly be obliged to side with my manager who insists that I am more than well-paid if I could allow myself a bottle of Les Ormes-Sorbet with my lunch each day!!).

So, unless of course I'm being indiscreet, what is your routine?

R J Ellory said...

Up at seven, make breakfast and lunch for my son, pack him off to school. Start work around 8.45 am, work until noon, and then continue after lunch from approx. 1.00 until 3.00. Then my son is home and I can't get anything done! I still work about 30 hours a week at a regular job (have to pay the bills somehow!), and so some days I do not write simply because time does not permit it. I do a good number of library and bookstore events, and now festivals are coming up more and more frequently. I work more like Hemingway (minus the cabin in Cuba, the kudu skin to stand on, the butcher's paper and pencils with which to write, the boat, the fishing, the marlin, the hot midday sun, the impressive beard etc.), in that I set myself a daily quota (between 2 and 3 thousand words), and generally meet it. I work to get at least 40,000 words written a month, sometimes I make 50,000. I do not generally delete large chunks of my work. I write the book beginning to end, and then I edit and rewrite as I go through it for a second time. Then it goes to my editor, and he does two 'edits'. The first one is a broad-brushtroke type thing, like 'I think you could wind up the tension in the last five chapters somewhat...' or 'I think that section there gives too much away about the end, so cut it back a touch'. The second 'edit' is when he goes through it with a fine-tooth comb and says 'Page 36, line 4, could you say that a different way?' or 'When she comes back to the apartment, I really feel that you need to be more specific about what she suspects...'.
Does that make sense?
And as far as smoking and drinking is concerned. I quit smoking two years ago after smoking for twenty five years. I enjoy good wine, though I can't afford it, and I do like bourbon - Labrot & Graham, Maker's Mark, other rare and unusual whiskeys from the south. I don't drink a lot. I'm a relatively quiet drunk all things considered. The bravest I ever get when I'm drunk is for fighting, dancing and karaoke.
I did write 22 novels longhand in six years between '87 and '93. I was penniless, could barely afford the rent, was earning less than ten grand a year but managed to run up a bill of 12 grand just for photocopying and postage alone (back then you couldn't e-mail scripts to editors because e-mail didn't exist!), so I think I have paid my dues as far as being a starved, consumption-ridden, paper-thin and bedraggled author (with rickets). These days things are a little better than that!

paul b. -néophyte said...

Thanks for the detailed answer. You send like a busy man. I was surprised to learn you still have a "day job". Not quite John Grisham status yet?

I think that "A quiet belief in angels" would make a great film. It's very cinematographic. The same could be said of "Ghostheart", come to think of it.

I have started "A quiet vendetta" and am looking forward to getting into the guts of the book. Have you been to New Orleans? In the acknowledgements you mentioned a Sgt Steve Miller. Without revealing any writer secrets, what is the story behind that?

If my questions bother or bore you don't hesitate to ignore them. If someone asked me about my job, that's probably what I would do, so by all means...

paul b. -néophyte said...

Another typo (must really get into habit of re-reading and/or forgoing the glass of wine before writing) :

'You send like a busy man' is meaningless (in this context at least, I can imagine other situations...). I meant, and I'm sure you have already mentally corrected, 'You sound like a busy man'.

R J Ellory said...

Once I have typed my reply I also send like a busy man, so no confusion there. No, I am not yet at the stage of giving up the day job as such, but one day, hopefully, I might be able to make writing, travelling, speaking, book-signing, lecturing, seminaring etc my day job.
The story behind Sgt. Steve Miller was that I wrote a book between Ghostheart and A Quiet Vendetta that was set in Key West and Florida. It will never be published now, but one element of the book had to do with body parts that were found in the stomach of a shark. I needed some help on understanding what would happen with those body parts as evidence, so I called Metro-Dade Crime Lab in Miami and ended up talking to Steve Miller (who, at the time, was a technical consultant for CSI, coincidentally), and he was so helpful and so giving of his time and experience that I felt he had to be acknowledged, even if it was for the wrong book! Some of the things he told me were very useful in understanding police and forensic procedure for numerous bits of subsequent books, so his acknowledgement was appropriate.
And films? Who knows, eh? We shall see. Nothing concrete in the viewfinder yet.
And no, I have not been to New Orleans, but then Ray Bradbury never went to Mars...

paul b. -néophyte said...

Just how many books have you actually written?!? You speak in your reply of another book that won't now be published. Is that very frustrating? I would think that having spent so much time working on one, it would be quite depressing and frustrating not to publish it.

For someone who has never been to the Big Easy (to quote our American friends), you certainly give a feel for the streets of the place. Do you study maps to famialiarise yourself with the geography of your stories? It all sounds very convincing. And yes, so too did Bradbury. But I bet it's easier to describe Mars (especially when he wrote) because no one has ever been there and you can more or less let your imagination run free. If, however, your stories are set in NYC, Georgia or New Orleans, well, some of your readers might know these cities very well.

I have a confession to make. This is not easy. But here goes. I have read "The Da Vinci Code". Yes, I know, I can hear the snickers. In my defense, I can only say I ordered it on quite a while before everybody started going Dan Brown-crazy and so had no idea of what it was about or the style of writing. Why do I mention this? Well, part of the story takes place in Paris and it was blatantly obvious that Brown had never set foot in the place or if he did, he never left the Crowne Plaza Hotel at the Porte de Maillot. The geography of Paris as described by Brown is preposterous, whole cathedrals were shifted, the Eiffel Tower relocated on the other side of the Seine and so on. As a Parisian of 28 years, I was less than impressed. But then the rest of the book also demands what the French call "suspending belief".

So much for my anti-Dan Brown tirade (you are a much better writer).

Hey, why not write a story that takes place in Paris?

R J Ellory said...

Last Christmas I wrote a book called 'The Patron Saint of Thieves'. It was an art-heist thriller set between London, Paris, Marseilles, Prague, New York and Michigan. Great fun. I loved writing it, and my agent thought it was splendid. It followed the efforts of one Danny McCarthy as he attempted to wrest the title of Patron Saint of Thieves from a possibly legendary thief who managed to steal an astronomical clock from the bedroom of Napoleon, a clock that had been commissioned for his marriage to the princess of Poland. It was based entirely on correct historical dates, names, places etc, except that the clock was fictional. Anyway, McCarthy had attempted to steal the clock at an earlier time, had been turned in to the police by another thief who had taken the clock to Europe. McCarthy spent four years in prison for this attempted robbery at the New Metropolitan Museum, and during his time inside he vowed to steal the clock back. When he is released he travels across Europe in an attempt to get this clock back etc etc. Anyway, to cut a long story short, I sent it to my agent who really liked it, but said 'You'll never publish it as it's too different from the earlier material'. It's the nature of the beast in this business! Anyway, to answer your question, the first book that was published (Candlemoth) was the twenty-third I wrote. I have writeen fourteen books in the last seven years, and I am going to publish eight of them. The ones that I wrote in between those that have been published might see the light of day at some point, who knows?
On the point about writing about locations that you have not been to, I study a great deal of maps, pictures, I watch documentaries, films set in the area. I read about them and really try and absorb the feeling and quality of the place, you know? The areas I write about all have something in common in that they have struck me as areas that have a particular and specicic ambience or atmosphere that I can relate to. It's the first thing I do when I start thinking about a new book - decide where to set it, and then start researching and learning about the area. After I wrote AQBIA I went to Georgia, and was very significantly unsettled by the staggering similarity to how I had imagined it to be, and how I had written it. The most intense feeling of deja vu, if you like, for somewhere that I had never been!

paul b. -néophyte said...

Maybe later, you might be able to publish books that stray from the crime genre under a pseudonym. A sort of Samuel Clemens, so to speak. Though possibly, in your case, Richard Bachman might be more appropriate. King is such a prolific writer that he used the Bachman tag to disguise the extent of his published work.
But fourteen books in seven years? And a day job? And a child to look after? And the book-signing tours et al? I said in an earlier message that you sounded like a busy man. You'll have to mark that one up as an unknowing euphemism.
By the way, I like the name "John Verlaine". Is there a Baudelaire in there somewhere? And the short, sharp prose I've been reading in "Vendetta". Great voice. Félictations !!

R J Ellory said...

No Baudelaire, but you might enjoy the more Louisiana names that crop up - Antoine Feraud, for example. Anyway, I really hope you like it!

R J Ellory said...

'The more Louisiana names...' I've caught your disease! I meant 'The other Louisiana names...'

paul b. -néophyte said...

Not being a writer, I politely said nothing. Far be it from me etc etc...

Now if you had written "more louisianan" and were comparing the ethnic insularism of the first name "Antoine" vs "John", well then yes, it might well have been "more louisianan. But that's not what you were saying so....

Hey, even the great make mistakes. Or rather, as James Joyce said : "A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery". So call it a joycean moment.

At letsa Im' nto the onli one who doe'snt re-reda myself neough!

R J Ellory said...