Recently I had the opportunity to interview JT Ellison, the best-selling author of the Taylor Jackson series and Nashville Scene’s “Best Mystery/Thriller Writer of 2008” about her new novel The Immortals. JT is also a columnist at the Anthony Award nominated blog Murderati and a member of several professional writing organizations, including International Thriller Writers, Mystery Writers of America and Romance Writers of America. You can follow JT on Twitter under the name @Thrillerchick, visit JT at her Facebook community or get more information at www.jtellison.com.
Prior to your writing career, you’ve worked as a White House staffer and as a financial director and marketing analyst for several defense and aerospace contractors. What made you make the jump into the world of mysteries and thrillers?
A move, an inability to find a job, and a stray cat. We moved to Tennessee in late 1998, and there weren’t a lot of jobs in my field. To get out of the house, I went to work for the vet that saved my 5-week-old adopted pound cat from being put down. On the third day I picked up a Golden retriever and ruptured a disc in my back, had to have surgery, and while recovering, discovered the books of John Sandford. I was three books into the Prey series when I realized I wanted to try it for myself. I’ve always been interested in crime and forensics, so it was a natural extension of my interests at the time.
You’ve worked with the Metro Nashville Police Department, the FBI, and various other law enforcement organizations to research your books. Are there any pointers you can offer to writers as to how to approach law enforcement for assistance?
Don’t be afraid to ask for help. My experience has been universal – they want you, the author, to get it right. Call them up and tell them what you’re about, what your project is, that you want to get the research correct. For major organizations, try the public information office first – many organizations have civilian classes, like the FBI’s Citizen’s Academy. I would suggest making sure when you are quite clear that this is fiction – I had an incident once where I called to find out about video security footage around a popular lake here in Nashville, told the woman I was “dropping a body in her lake'” and she got very quiet, then said, “Really?” in such a horrified tone that I nearly bit through my lip to keep from laughing. Be clear, that’s my advice.
The Immortals is your latest release in the very successful Taylor Jackson series. Can you tell us a little bit about this book?
I love this book. I know you’re not supposed to pick favorites amongst your own works, but when I started writing this one, I’d just come off a really grueling serial killer novel, one that kept me up at night with terrible nightmares. In The Immortals, Taylor Jackson is faced with a totally new kind of adversary, a world she’s not at all familiar with in Nashville, the subculture of witchcraft and mysticism. On Hallowe’en night, Samhain, eight teenagers are murdered, all with pentacles carved into their flesh. It’s staged to look like Satanists, but these crimes are much more complex than they first appear. Taylor is aided by a Wiccan high priestess, Ariadne, who helps her understand the pagan and Wiccan lifestyle, and the truth behind the murders.
The Immortals has some paranormal elements as it deals with witchcraft and mysticism. Is this due to the popularity of paranormals in the publishing industry?
Actually, no, not at all. I wrote the proposal for this one back in 2007, and I didn’t set out for it to delve into the supernatural. I think the occult and the paranormal has always been of interest to creative people, and that’s where the story took me. The research I did for this book was so much fun. I’ve always been a seeker, though I was raised Episcopal and went to church for ages, I’ve always been rather open to all kinds of theologies. A friend called me spiritually liberal the other day – that’s fitting. Coming offThe Cold Room, and the incredibly difficult to stomach research I needed to do to make that book come to life, I felt an affinity for gentleness and naturalism of Wicca and paganism, which led to deeper research than I might have normally done, especially on Wicca and Buddhism. I have a couple of friends who are Wiccans too, so they were a huge help pointing me in the right direction. What I loved was the fact that the entire time I was researching and writing the book, I didn’t have a single nightmare. Mysticism doesn’t scare me nearly as much as the horrors we inflict on one another.
You do a substantial amount of research for your novels and that must require a great deal of organization. Are there are any tricks you do to keep all that information readily available?
Lots and lots of notebooks, and a pretty simple file system on my Mac. Each book has its own file, and inside there are additional files for every aspect – synopsis, research, manuscripts, PR & Media… I’m using Clairefontaine notebooks now, and love them. I also use Scrivener to write the first draft, and that’s a great way to keep lots of research handy – plus I use Evernote for day-to-day info that strikes my fancy. Maybe it’s not such a simple system after all…
Are you a plotter who lays out everything in detail as you write or a pantser who lets the story unfold on its own?
The more books I write the more I know about them before I start the process. That said, I don’t like to outline, but I’ve found that in Scrivener, I can offload all those scenes that float through my head into a single place, write the scene, and then move them into the proper order. My method seems to change with every book – but I don’t like a lot of planning. I am much happier being organic, letting the story unfold, but since my time is constrained, I have to have some idea of what’s going to happen.
In addition to writing full length novels, you also write a number of short stories. Do you find it difficult to make the transition from short to long? Do you have any suggestions for writers who would like to try their hand at shorter works?
I love shorts – they’re a way to stretch my wings into genres or points of view I don’t normally write in. I compared it once to what Johnny Depp does with his films – it’s the very best way I know to take a chance with your writing. If it fails, you’ve not lost a lot of time. If it succeeds, you have another facet to your writing repertoire. I spent years claiming I couldn’t write anything shorter than 100,000 words, then tried and found that I could. I adore flash fiction, telling a whole story in less than 1,000 words. It’s a challenge, and a lot of fun. I say go for it!
The Taylor Jackson series is set in Nashville. How has that influenced the plot lines and characters in your stories?
Nashville is a character in the stories. Its glorious history, the dichotomies, the crime, the crazy weather – everything that makes up this town, makes it great, makes it bad, goes into the books. It’s an added bonus for people who live here, but for everyone else, it is, I hope, a change of pace from the usual crime fiction milieus.
What are you working on now and what will readers have to look forward to in the future?
The next Taylor book is So Close the Hand of Death, which releases March 1, 2011. I’m working on the 7th installment, Where All the Dead Lie (9/2011), and a couple of other projects. I’m just as curious about the new possibilities in the digital market as everyone else, so I’m planning to release an ebook of my short stories for Halloween, called Sweet Little Lies. I figure they’re just sitting around on my computer collecting dust, so I’ve put them all together in a single collection. I’m excited about the possibilities there: it will include a couple of never before seen pieces as well as several that have been anthologized over the years. Why not, right?