Between The Lines: An Interview With J. T. Ellison
By Brett King
J.T. Ellison fooled me.
I’ve always been impressed with the rich psychological themes in her novels and the complexity of her characters, but it goes beyond that. Her knowledge of psychology is real and insightful. I knew she had been a former White House staffer and a financial analyst, but I was convinced she’d made a serious study of psychology somewhere in her background.
“I loved psychology, and did take a few classes,” she told me. “At the time, I think it was lost on me, but as I’ve grown older, I’ve returned to it.”
No doubt about it. In fact, J.T.’s understanding of human nature is on brilliant display in her latest novel, A DEEPER DARKNESS, scheduled for release on April 17th. It represents an exciting step in J.T.’s writing career, one Publishers Weekly calls, “a scintillating first in a new forensic series.”
Beginning with her debut novel in 2007, J.T. has written seven books in her critically acclaimed Taylor Jackson series and her work has been published in 21 countries. The new series features Dr. Samantha Owens, a forensic pathologist and the Chief Medical Examiner for the state of Tennessee. Like her friend, Nashville homicide lieutenant Taylor Jackson, Sam is a strong female protagonist.
Sam is drawn back into her past when she learns about the death of a former boyfriend, an ex-Ranger named Eddie Donovan.Still reeling from a tragedy that claimed her husband and young children, Sam travels to Washington, DC, to conduct a second autopsy on Eddie.Facing her own obsessive-compulsive tendencies, she is compelled to explore the questionable circumstances surrounding his death, a brutal carjacking at the Navy Shipyard. It’s a classic J.T. Ellison novel, a masterful blend of riveting suspense,painstaking research, and vivid characters. As NEW YORK TIMES bestselling author Jeff Abbot adds, “A DEEPER DARKNESS is not only a compelling thriller but a multilayered meditation on grief and loss.”
See? I’m not the only one who recognizes her talent for psychology.
On Twitter, J.T. tweets for a legion of devoted fans and followers under the memorable handle @thrillerchick. She is also the bimonthly Friday columnist for the Anthony Award–nominated blog, Murderati. I also have to add that the Romance Writers of America recently named her novel, WHERE ALL THE DEAD LIE, as a 2012 RITA Finalist for Romantic Suspense.
A while back, I had the pleasure of chatting with J.T. about the release of an earlier novel, SO CLOSE THE HAND OF DEATH, as well as another time when I interviewed the authors of the anthology, FIRST THRILLS, edited by Lee Child. She’s a lively person to interview, always brimming with candid insights, and I’m pleased to profile her in this month’s Between The Lines feature.
A DEEPER DARKNESS counts as the first installment in your new series featuring Dr. Samantha Owens. How did you decide on a medical examiner as a career for your protagonist?
Long ago, when I was first starting out as a writer, I did a tour of our local morgue in conjunction to interviewing a forensic odontologist. I was struck by the place, and knew I wanted to have a medical examiner in my stories. Samantha became that character in the Taylor Jackson series – she was Taylor’s foil, her conscience, her best friend and moral guide. Creating a series around Sam was a natural extension of her character. But that meant additional research, which can be rather grueling. I’m not naturally drawn to the real dark side, and autopsies are very hard for me. But fascinating at the same time.
A few years ago, an ME told me in a matter-of-fact way, “I cut into dead people to find answers.” What do you think motivates medical examiners to do what they do? While conducting your research, what surprised you about their work?
I’ve been blessed to work with extremely compassionate, intelligent medical examiners and death investigators. They honor the dead by giving answers to their demise, whether it’s violent or not. They’re also female, so there’s an underlying sense of nurturing, which may color my answer. But they’re funny, and full of crazy stories. The work itself – so matter of fact, as you said, so brutal – you have to disassociate and let the body tell the tale, and allow the evidence lead to the answers. It’s takes a special breed, I think, and they can be misunderstood. Sam is so real, so human. She’s much more like the people I know in real life than the occasional odd duck that people perceive M.E.s to be.
Homicide detective Darren Fletcher plays a critical role in A DEEPER DARKNESS. Fletch seems more hard edged and flinty compared with other protagonists I’ve encountered in your novels.
Ah, Darren Fletcher. It is so fun creating new characters. I needed a D.C. cop, and I wanted there to be a distinct contrast between my Nashville detectives and the D.C. ones. My Nashville crew is young and hip and technologically savvy. Fletcher is a much more old school, feet on the street detective, with a rocky past with women, and a habit of indulging in a few too many drinks after his shift. Decidedly un-perfect, decidedly flawed. He’s seen too much and just wants to get out. He approaching most things with a weariness that I think is rather realistic. Most cops I know aren’t terribly gung-ho once they’ve been broken in.
Fletcher makes a powerful connection with Sam in Chapter 16. Are there any challenges or risks when writing a scene where two leading characters meet for the first time?
Absolutely. You never get a second chance to make a first impression. It was important for the story, for the characters, for the reader to see that Samantha is most definitely not Taylor. Sam is small and pretty and haunted and damaged, and Fletcher’s first instinct is to save her. That’s exactly what I wanted, for her to have a man who was attracted to her wounded nature, and her immediate feeling of Oh, no. Here we go. Plus, she gets to have a little fun with him, which helps lighten the mood at just the right moment.
Sam is a workaholic. Same for you as well?
Of course. Her worth is tied to her work, especially having lost everything else. I’m much the same way, though of late I’m trying very, very hard to not work as much. To shut off the Internet on the weekends and read, to turn off the laptop at night and watch TV.To not feel guilty when I’m not writing. I am constantly seeking a better work/life balance. At the very least, I am making strides on my To Be Read pile.
On that note, coffee gets several favorable mentions in your book along with a joke about “constantly guzzling 5-hour ENERGY shots.” Any chance they’re part of the secret behind your prolific output?
Nope. True confession: I have no idea how to brew a pot of coffee.
You’re kidding me.
I have a coffee pot, but I look at it and shrug and move on. I am terribly sensitive to caffeine. I have to be very careful when I drink it, and monitor how much, because two Diet Cokes and I’m bouncing off the walls late into the night. I’m more of a tea drinker. I like the process of heating and brewing and pouring and sipping. Green tea, Earl Grey, cinnamon. Every once in a while I get a wild hair and have a latte, but espresso has less caffeine than coffee, so it doesn’t mess me up as much. But I’m surrounded by caffeine junkies, so I’m well familiar with the effects.
It’s effective how you share nuanced behavioral and personality details to bring a character to life, especially when introducing them. Is that a conscious choice or does it show up in an organic way in your writing?
Honestly, it’s organic. I remember reading a blog by one of my favorite writers, Greg Rucka, where he was detailing the multitudes of characters he’d developed that he needed to write stories for. Each was just a sketch, a paragraph or two, and so well drawn I was already attached to them. I vowed that from that moment forth, I would start a character sketchbook that would allow me to pull characters in my stories fully developed. Uh, yeah.Never happened. That’s not how I work. For me, the story, the circumstance, creates the characters. I rarely know who will populate my stories outside of the main two or three. They just sort of pop up and do their thing. If I like them, or hate them, they get more airtime.
Some of the more vivid moments in A DEEPER DARKNESS arrive when Sam is forced to work with Susan, a rival of sorts because they both shared a relationship with Eddie Donovan. What do you do to promote tension or conflict in scenes like that?
I just imagine what it would be like to be in their shoes, one at a time. First as Sam, the interloper, and then as Susan, whose world has absolutely crumbled in front of her eyes. I had to do a lot of imagining levels of loss in this novel, and know from my own experience how incredibly hostile you can get when your heart is broken. To have loss colored by love, and guilt, and that sense of betrayal we all feel when confronted with our lover’s ex-girlfriend or ex-boyfriend, makes it that much more dynamic. For Sam and Susan, all of that is coupled with the fact that the man they shared is dead so neither can be comforted by him, assured of their place in his heart. It wasn’t easy to write, but I think their dynamic is very effective, and very real.
One of your characters jokes about “waiting for the zombie apocalypse.” I assume you’ve made contingency plans?
I have. I mean really, while putting treadmills at your windows and doors might work for a while, if the generator runs out of gas, you’re sort of screwed. In all honestly, I’m fascinated by the idea of “preppers”, and the scenarios presented in the dark dystopian books we’ve all been reading lately. As such, most of my research made its way into the next Samantha Owens novel, EDGE OF BLACK, which comes out around Thanksgiving, and explores this very topic. A real EOTWAWKI (End of the World As We Know It) scenario, not zombies.
Dr. Samantha Owens and Lieutenant Taylor Jackson are very different characters. Would you say Sam is the anti-Taylor?
Not the anti-Taylor, per se, but her conscience. The white angel sitting on her shoulder, competing with the red devil on the other side. Sam is Taylor’s compassion, empathy, humanity. Not that Taylor lacks those things, but Sam is just more… womanly about it. She is (was) a mother, and mothers have an indefinable quality that makes them natural caretakers. Sam has always been the one who hauls Taylor back from the precipice, while being very careful not to allow herself to get too near the edge. She is a scientist, so she sees things rationally, whereas Taylor is prone to acting on her emotions. So when the abyss comes for Sam, she is wholly unprepared, because she’s always been so very careful not to put herself in harm’s way.
A real-life incident involving the death of a distant relative inspired the underlying story of A DEEPER DARKNESS. Can you tell us a little about him?
My third cousin and former high school English teacher, Dave Sharrett, sent his son to Iraq. PFC David H. Sharrett, II was killed in a friendly fire incident, tragically shot by his Lieutenant, who left him behind in a field to bleed to death instead of bringing him back to base. The tragedy of the case was compounded by the Army cover up, and it still hasn’t been resolved. I dedicated the book to “Bean”, as we all knew David, and I’m still heartbroken over the situation, for all involved. And the only way I know how to deal with heartbreak is to write about it.
For more information about PFC. David H. Sharrett II and his case, please see this.
You also have an original short that will appear in the May 2012 anthology, LOVE IS MURDER. I know you’ve been kicking around the idea behind THE NUMBER OF MAN for several years. It involves an in-depth profile of a stalker who happens to fall in love?
“Happens” is such a frightening term when it comes to stalkers. But yes, he’s in love, capital L love, and doesn’t realize the terror that causes. I wrote an early version of the story back in 2006, and it just wasn’t working. I tried everything, shifted POVs to first to third and back, changed the setting, rewrote the opening multiple times. Finally I realized I wasn’t skilled enough as a writer to pull it off and shelved it. Lo and behold, last year the opportunity arose to write a story in the romantic suspense genre for Love is Murder. What’s more romantic than unrequited love? I went back to the story, tore it apart and rewrote it, and this time, it worked.
From a profiling standpoint, stalkers have a different psychological makeup from murderers. What was the biggest challenge in writing about a stalker?
Stalkers are unpredictable, and of course, there’s very little you can do to protect yourself from them until they actually do something to you. They’re insidious, like fog, there but untouchable, creeping around, getting into your life. They want you – as opposed to wanting you dead – so there is layer after layer of terror. Not many murderers make contact prior to their final act to profess their love. There’s a huge creepy factor to stalking, I think that’s why it comes up in my stories from time to time.
I was sad to learn about the passing of your beloved pet, Jade (aka Thrillercat). More than your furry muse, she was the one who put you on the path to becoming a writer?
She was. We found her at the pound, five weeks old, sick and about to be put down. I insisted they fix her, and ended up working for the vet who saved her life. On my third day at work, I ruptured a disc in my back and had to have surgery, which resulted in a year of downtime. I found John Sandford at the library, and three books in to the Prey series decided this was what I wanted to do. So without Jade, I’d very likely never found my way to the page. It is terribly quiet here now. I didn’t realize how much I talked to her, how many lines I read aloud, how many times I’d get up from my work to scratch her ears or play with her. Brings tears to my eyes. I miss her dreadfully.
I love that Jade had her own kitty sitter when you were out traveling. Someone who would read books to her?
She did. Apparently, she was quite partial to Pride and Prejudice. She’d curl up at Alicia’s feet and listen attentively. She was also partial to AC/DC. She’d sit on the floor in front of the woofer and groove out. She was a cool cat.
Sounds like. What was your favorite childhood book?
HERE BE DRAGONS, by Sharon Kay Penman. Anything Arthurian – I had a thing for Mordred. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle. Forever, by Judy Blume. My least favorite was The Thornbirds. I had very long hair and my mother used to tell me if I didn’t let her brush it I’d get lice like Maggie’s daughter. I balked and made her cut it all off. A wonderful source of drama for a child, truly. Oh, and Dr. Spock’s childcare book. I’d sneak it out when my parents weren’t around. I learned EVERYTHING from Dr. Spock. My parents always did treat me as an individual, they did for my brothers too. We all turned out just fine, despite the fact I was psychoanalyzing us all.
More evidence that you’re a damned good psychologist. As in your other novels, your passion for music comes through in A DEEPER DARKNESS. I’ve asked you a similar question before, but what song best captures Sam Owen’s personality and/or her journey?
Funny thing about writing this book. I needed to get into the right frame of mind to allow myself to experience Samantha Owens loss on a visceral level. One can imagine how horrid it must be to lose one’s family, but to really feel it, you need an anthem. I latched on to Johnny Cash’s version of Hurt, by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, right away, and lived inside that song for the three months it took me to pound out the draft of this book.
Strangely enough, I’d only ever heard the Cash version. In a spooky coincidence, when I went to D.C. to do research, I was sitting at a stoplight at the steps to Georgetown University, which figures prominently in the story. The radio was on, and I suddenly heard the strains of music I’d become so familiar with, but they were different somehow, wrong. It was the original version of the song, the one I’d never heard. Coming to me as I sat, taking mental notes on the feel of the Georgetown campus. A sign, for sure.
Just curious, do you have a guilty pleasure when it comes to music?
I love just about everything, so it depends on my mood. But I’m definitely a 80s junkie, and some of the hair metal bands. Duran Duran was my all-time favorite in junior high, then I moved into The Clash and the like. Alternative rock is still my fave.
Thanks for having me, Brett, and ITW!
Thank you, J. T.! All best wishes for the success of A DEEPER DARKNESS. It’s a terrific read.On behalf of thriller fans, let me say, rest in peace Thrillercat.
J.T. Ellison is the international award-winning author of seven critically acclaimed novels, multiple short stories and has been published in over twenty countries.
Her short stories have been widely published, including her award winning story “Prodigal Me” in the anthology Killer Year: Stories to Die For, edited by Lee Child, “Gray Lady, Lady Gray” in the anthology Surreal South ’11, edited by Pinckney Benedict and Laura Benedict, “Killing Carol Ann” in First Thrills, edited by Lee Child, and “The Number of Man” in the forthcoming anthology Thriller 3, edited by Sandra Brown. Her novel The Cold Room won the Thriller award for Best Paperback Original of 2010 from the International Thriller Writers (ITW).
Ellison is a member of several professional writing organizations, including International Thriller Writers, Mystery Writers of America and Romance Writers of America. She has an active following on Twitter under the name @Thrillerchick, and a robust Facebook community. To learn more about J.T. Ellison, please visit her website.
Brett King is an award-winning professor in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of Colorado Boulder. His debut novel, THE RADIX, appeared in 2010 and was released in trade paperback in October 2011. NEW YORK TIMES bestselling author Jeffery Deaver calls it, “A topnotch thriller! Part DA VINCI CODE, part 24, THE RADIX is roller-coaster storytelling at its best.” The second book in his series, THE FALSE DOOR, will be released in June 2012. King is currently writing his third novel.
To learn more about Brett, please visit his website and his author page on Facebook.
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