Up Close: J. T. Ellison

Luxury, Lessons, and Lies

By K. L. Romo

Daughters of the rich and powerful attend The Goode School, an elite boarding school nestled within the hills of Marchburg, Virginia. The girls come from entitlement and wealth, except for one. And it’s her they have to worry about.

In GOOD GIRLS LIE, author J. T. Ellison takes readers down the hallowed halls of The Goode School and shows us that even the privileged aren’t safe from expert liars. Not everything is as it seems.

Ford Westhaven has been the dean of The Goode School for the last 10 years, since her mother left after a scandal that almost tore the school apart. Ford desperately wants to be a novelist but can’t bring herself to leave the Westhaven legacy. Women in her family have run the school for over 200 years, and she will not be the one to break the lineage. At least not yet.

Ford personally vets the students, hand-picking them for their “privilege, brains, and other qualities.” The school is an “all-female powerhouse.” And there’s one thing above all else the students must adhere to: the honor code. There’s no lying or cheating allowed. Period.

New student Ash Carlisle is an enigma to her classmates. Just arrived from England, she keeps her personal information to herself. Ash recently lost her wealthy parents to suicide and needs a fresh start. To protect the girl’s privacy, Ford agrees she shouldn’t use her real name—Ashlyn Carr. No, it’s not an honor code violation, just bending the truth to protect a vulnerable girl.

Ellison signs copies of GOOD GIRLS LIE at the annual Bask-It-Style media day in Toronto in September 2019. Photo credit: Kennedy Pollard/Ryan Emberley Photography. 

But something niggles at Ford. Ash almost doesn’t seem like the same girl she interviewed via Skype months ago. Her gift of concert-worthy piano playing seems to have vanished, replaced by a talent for computer programming. Her hacking is almost professional quality.

The head girl, senior Becca Curtis, takes a liking to sophomore Ash, and with it comes the jealousy of other sophomores who happily attempt to sabotage her entry into the preeminent secret society on campus, Ivy Bound. Then, as if punctuating their envy, Ash’s roommate falls from the bell tower, creating terror through the school and starting a murder investigation. The murder of a second girl threatens to reveal not only Ash’s secrets, but Ford’s.

Ellison at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival with MIRA senior marketing manager Randy Chan.

The novel is written from the viewpoint of an unreliable narrator, but we don’t realize just how unreliable until it plunges us into a shocking discovery three-quarters of the way through the story.

Ellison takes readers on a twisty-turny journey through the halls of a school that is the perfect backdrop for ghost stories, cruelty between teenage girls, and secrets and lies. The Goode School is a fictional recreation of Ellison’s alma-mater—the Randolph-Macon Woman’s College (RMWC) in Lynchburg, Virginia. She’s woven true legends and experiences from the College into her story.

“I had a crazy line pop into my head: There are truths, and there are lies, and then there’s everything in between, which is where you and I will meet. I had no idea who was saying this, only recorded it and moved on,” Ellison says. “But I couldn’t shake the words, and then I had a very specific vision of a private school, the huge, closed gates, and a body hanging from them. I realized the truths and lies were about this dead girl, and the gates were the fictional entrance to my alma mater. I’d always wanted to write a story set at RMWC—the setting is perfect for a haunting thriller. I combined the two and off I went.”

The story told in GOOD GIRLS LIE includes somewhat of a theme of suicide, and Ellison included the Suicide Hotline number in her Author’s Note.

Ellison at ThrillerFest 2019 in New York City.

“I can only speak to my own familial experiences with this pervasive disease, but by writing about it, which I do rather regularly, I want to de-stigmatize it,” she says. “Mental illness does not differ from any other—it has an organic cause, it can be treated, if not cured, with proper medication and counseling, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Especially in our current cultural environment, it’s important to be inclusive and open so we can fight together.”

Besides thrilling entertainment, Ellison nestles a message for readers within the suspenseful story—“Don’t ever allow anyone to force you into something you don’t want to do.”

Not only is Ellison a successful thriller writer, but she’s also the co-host of the literary show A Word on Words.

“I love being a part of this show! For 40 years, John Seigenthaler had a Sunday morning literary talk show on Nashville Public Television that featured almost every author of note throughout those years. When he passed, NPT didn’t want to let the show go, so our original producer, Linda Wei, reimagined it for the modern media environment, as a ‘show between the shows’, also known as an interstitial, and hired me and Mary Laura Philpott (author of I Miss You When I Blink) to co-host,” she says.

“This format has a huge advantage—we can be put anywhere in the programming schedule and are also online (www.AWordOnWords.org). To help continue Nashville’s great literary tradition, to be a part of the show John built, has been one of the biggest honors of my life.”

Ellison’s publisher, MIRA, surprises her with a GOOD GIRLS LIE cake before a galley signing for bloggers in September 2019.

Ellison also writes short stories and created her own publishing company—Two Tales Press.

“Two Tales came about to both publish my short stories and to publish a couple of novels that weren’t finding traditional traction. Happily, those novels were eventually picked up and published. But I love getting the work of other voices out into the world, so I edited a couple of anthologies, soliciting stories from friends. It’s been a wonderful experience.”

Ellison shares advice for fellow writers on both the craft and business of writing, including this nugget of wisdom:  “Respect your work. There’s a lot of hierarchical nonsense that goes on in publishing, that some genres are better than others, that some stories have more value than others. Never talk down about your chosen vein. Celebrate your passion for it. Oh, and respect your time, too. Touching your manuscript every day is vital to furthering your story.”

Besides loving wine, yoga, golf, and kittens, Ellison has an interesting hobby.

“I’m one of those weird people who will drive around, find a house I like, park, and imagine the lives of the people inside. My husband and I often spend Sundays tooling around the neighborhoods in Nashville, looking for ‘architectural ideas.’”

 

K. L. Romo
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