Wednesday, 4 March 2020

On the Road with Roger [R.J.] Ellory

I’ve known Roger since 2003, when he debuted with a CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Nomination for his novel Candlemoth. Those who enjoy literary crime fiction soon gathered at the flame of his talent. He also forgave the miss-spelling his name when I wrote about that weird novel, archived HERE. It is hard for debut novelists to get reviewed, and if memory serves, he got only two initial reviews, one from the late Marcel Berlins in The Times and one from Shots Magazine. 

He is prolific, a complex creative mind and a hard worker providing Shots many essays to help explain his writing, they can be accessed HERE

He battled the usual slings and arrows that fly by when embarking on a career in the creative arts. It would not be until 2008, when his novel A QUIET BELIEF IN ANGELS was one of Richard and Judy’s book-club picks that caused his crime-writing career to go all ‘bullet-face’ with a mass readership.

I wrote about that remarkable novel, and Roger kindly answered a few questions for Jeff Pierce’s THE RAPSHEET and the feature is archived HERE

Like the two protagonists Daniel Ford and Nathan Verney from Roger’s debut CANDLEMOTH, we have shared much time in America, at various Bouchercon events, with Mike Stotter, even wandering the halls of 2009’s The London Bookfair.

Anyway, with the COVID-19 closing this year’s LBF, due to safety grounds, Roger is oblivious to the threat of this Coronavirus, playing gigs with his band The Whiskey Poets around the country.

And there’s his foray into cinema….so with a new novel THREE BULLETS about to hit paperback from his long-time publisher Orion. I tracked him down after reading his new work in hardcover last year –

The latest work from this literary crime writer is most unusual. It is a hybrid, merging conspiracy with an alternative retelling of history. It retains Ellory’s ability to tell a story that provokes thought and is genuinely hypnotic. The most incisive fiction holds a prism to our perceived reality helping us to grapple with all we see and feel, and Ellory’s saga is torn from that stable.  It is also exceedingly weird, an unusual novel that will stay with you like the memories of that motorcade, the Texas Book Depository and the sound of gunfire.

Read the full review HERE

Roger kindly put down his Wuhan face-mask and agreed to a chat about what he’s been up to.

Ali: Yo, Roger you seem to be a man with a lot of stuff going on creatively…..

Roger:  I guess that’s in my nature.  It’s not that I find it hard to relax, but I do find it hard to do nothing!  I really do have to feel, at the end of each day, that the day has been wisely spent.  My mind is full of ideas and possibilities, and I feel like I want to realise them all.  My maternal grandmother used to say to me, ‘What if?’ is the question with which to begin your life, not end it.  That has sort of stuck with me as a guiding principle.

Ali: Thanks to Stephen Knight and his work, most recently Peaky Blinders, it’s become cool to be a Brummie, or a Black Country person, so tell us your thoughts on being a bloke from the Midlands who is love with all things Americana?

Roger:  I have to be completely honest and say that I have never seen an episode of ‘Peaky Blinders’.  That’s not for any reason other than I don’t watch TV series.  Films yes, and plenty of them, but not a TV series.  I have an addictive personality, and I know that if I start into a series then I’ll get nothing done for three weeks!  Coincidentally, I have recently moved out to the Black Country, and it is quite different from Birmingham.  Anyway, I have always been proud of my home city.  It’s a city built on innovation and invention: more miles of Canal than Venice, the heart of the Industrial Revolution, the Jewelery Quarter, the Shadow Factory and the building of the Spitfire.  In truth, the difference that ‘Peaky Blinders’ has made is that I now say I’m from Birmingham and people don’t immediately assume I’m from Alabama.

Ali: So firstly, delighted you are writing away. I loved Three Bullets, which is out shortly in PB, and a departure in terms of your writing……would you care to tell us the genesis of the idea that grew to become Three Bullets?

Roger:  It really came out as a result of my former editor at Orion, Jon Wood.  We discussed all the books I’d written, and it seemed that I had addressed so many American tropes and staples: the Mafia, the CIA, the FBI, the KKK, Watergate, the death penalty, the NYPD, serial killers et al.  He asked me if there was some specific political or cultural event that had occurred in 20th Century US history that I had not written about that I would like to look at.  Even though I had touched on the Kennedy assassination in ‘Candlemoth’, it really hadn’t been covered in any detail.  My reservation was that it has been done so many times – well and not so well – and I felt it was just too cliched as subject.  He asked me to go away and think about it, to see if there wasn’t some other angle from which I could approach it.  It was on the train back to Birmingham that I wondered about what would actually have happened had JFK not been assassinated.  That was the genus of the book, and that gave me an opportunity to look at the other side of the myth, and the simple fact that not only was he not a very good human being on a personal level, but he also brought the US to the brink of war with the USSR and made quite a mess of a few other very significant political situations.

Ali: So, tell us what you think intrigues people regarding the appeal of conspiracies and conspiracy theories?

Roger:  That there is that unknown.  We stick to mysteries.  It’s why we like to read them, to watch them, to go back over them time and again.  It’s that endless fascination generated by the simple fact that we are asking a very straightforward question and we either get no answer, or we get an answer that doesn’t feel right.  It’s like being told you’re a liar when you’re a child, and no matter what you say and do the assumption that you’re not telling the truth continues.  It’s an incomplete conversation.  It’s an undelivered message.  It’s knowing what you should have said in the moment, but you only think of it later.  It’s all those things.  We have attention, and our attention sticks to these things and they come back to haunt us.  The assassination of JFK is an unanswered question that haunts numerous generations, and will continue to do so.

Ali: But at the core Three Bullets is a love story, and one of loss and redemption, would you agree?

Roger:  Yes, absolutely.  It’s real people in a ‘real’ situation.  I want to write characters that could be real.  I want to write characters and stories that you think about even when you’re not reading the book.  I want to engage readers on an emotional level as well as a cerebral level.  I think the way to do that – and the way to create legitimate tension – is to tell a story that makes a human connection, and incorporating actual emotions that we have all experienced is the way to do that.  Certainly, for me it is.

Ali: I hear despite the tough times in publishing, Orion have renewed your contract, so we have more novels to look forward to; care tell us a little what we might expect?

Roger:  Yes, I have a new contract for two books.  The first will appear in early 2021 and is quite a departure.  I wanted to write about the current affairs that populated my childhood, so I embarked upon a trans-European novel that deals with Baader-Meinhof, Black September, the Red Army Faction, MI5, MI6, Mossad and the Deuxieme Bureau.  This also came out of a passion I have for Fleming, Greene, le Carre etc.  The new book, currently titled ‘Proof of Life’, starts in Amsterdam, and winds its way through London, Istanbul, the Netherlands, Berlin and Paris, and deals with a photojournalist sent on a mission to determine whether another journalist – believed to have been murdered in Jordan – is actually alive and living under an assumed name. 

Ali: You have a large body of work, and it’s a tough question but from your backlist tell us your favourite three novels, and why they are your favourites?

Roger:  That is a tough question, but I would say ‘A Quiet Vendetta’ for the sheer scope and breadth of the story; ‘A Quiet Belief in Angels’, simply because of the style with which it is written, and the fact that it wound up in so many languages and connected with so many people; finally I guess it would have to be ‘A Dark and Broken Heart’, for the intensity, the pace of the narrative, and the fact that it’s more than likely going to wind up as the first filmed adaptation.  However, this is a dreadful question!  There are fifteen books out there.  Asking me which is my favourite as like asking a father which of his children he loves the most!

Ali: And then there’s the music, so tell us a little about The Whiskey Poets?

Roger: The Whiskey Poets (the name being an homage to Dylan Thomas after an eventful trip to New York) was formed three or four years ago with the last touring bass player of ELO, Martin Smith.  Together we have written and recorded three albums, the second of which was six songs and six instrumentals for use in film and TV for Universal Records.  I guess it’s a sort of alt. country/blues style, and based on our influences and passions.  We have been playing as much as we can, both here and in France, and it has been another opportunity to really express some of the things I want to express. 

I guess a song is like a chapter, and an album is like a novel.  There’s a theme, and it kind of carries through all the material.  All the songs are ours, all the lyrics are mine, and there’s even four tracks on the last album (‘Native Strangers’) that carry the same title as four of my books.  Again, it’s an emotional thing, just like writing.  It’s a means by which an emotion can be translated into sound, and then that sound can be interpreted by the listener into their own understanding of that emotion.  Five people read the same book, yet they’re all reading a different book.  It’s the same with hearing a piece of music.

Ali: As if novel writing, song writing and gigging around the country was not enough to keep you busy, tell us how you got into screen-writing?

Roger: I met an actor/director called Michael Keogh.  Coincidentally, he had a part in ‘Peaky Blinders’.  He’s Manchester-based, and runs an acting school across the country.  Anyway, we met and we hit it off, and I put some ideas together for both short films and feature films.  The first of those short films – ‘The Road to Gehenna’ – has been made with Michael as director, and we are now branching out with different production companies to realise the others.  I had been involved with screenwriting before, however.  I was commissioned by Olivier Dahan (‘La Vie en Rose’, ‘Grace’, ‘My Own Love Song’) to write the screenplay for ‘A Quiet Belief in Angels’.  I did that, but – as is so often the case – the project didn’t get off the ground for numerous and varied reasons.  That may come back to life shortly with another director, but I am focusing on the work I am doing with Michael right now.  We have another short and two features films in pre-production, and I am very optimistic about the direction this is going. 

Ali: I hear you’re about to hit the festival circuit, so how has the response been?

Roger:  Well, the first private screening was a great success, and we shall see what happens when it starts going out to Berlin, Eindhoven, Savannah etc.  I will keep you posted on its progress, for sure!

Ali: I was looking for a cameo…..

Roger:  After the last incident when we were with Michael Connelly at the Bosch set in LA, my insurance agent said it would be unwise to engage in any professional activity with you.  Nothing personal, of course.  Just Health and Safety issues.

Ali: And is there more of the auteur we have yet to see?

Roger:  Of course!  Lots of things going on, and I am forever busy!

Ali: Thank you for you time, as you are busy bee.

Roger: My pleasure, my mind is a hive of activity……

For more information about Roger Jon Ellory click HERE for Roger’s writing, click HERE for his musical work and click HERE for his film interests.

Shots Magazine would like to thank Roger Ellory and Orion Publishing for help in organising this short chat.

And we’d recommend grabbing the paperback of THREE BULLETS, and here’s why

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