Features Up Close: J. T. Ellison
Murder, Marriage, and Infertility
By Wendy Tyson
Bestselling author J.T. Ellison understands what makes a great thriller, and in her latest novel, IT’S ONE OF US, her mastery of craft is on full display—only this time she’s tackling murder, marital secrets, and the difficult topic of infertility. “There are so many layers to a marriage, to a friendship, to a life,” Ellison says. “Add in some stakes and you have the perfect recipe for a thriller.”
Olivia and Park Bender were high school sweethearts. Today, Olivia is a designer, and her husband Park is a ghostwriter. Although their life together seems idyllic, what Olivia wants more than anything is a baby, and fertility treatments and IVF haven’t worked. On the heels of yet another disappointment, Olivia gets a visit from the police who deliver shocking news: DNA results show that the prime suspect in a murder investigation is Park’s son. Only the Benders don’t have any children. Park admits to donating sperm to a clinic years ago, but he has no idea how many times the clinic sold his sperm. Park’s confession is just the beginning, and as the murder investigation continues, more and more secrets are exposed.
IT’S ONE OF US is told through multiple points of view, giving readers an intimate and often shocking glimpse into the lives of the characters. Ellison uses this structure purposefully and effectively. “I much prefer multiple points of view because my stories tend to build concentric circles around a single event. In this case, Park’s sperm donation when he was in college. The ripples of that one small action get bigger and bigger the more people we meet.”
All of Ellison’s characters—not just Olivia and Park—are multi-faceted and compelling, with rich backstories that Ellison says made them fascinating to write. “Olivia and Park were childhood sweethearts. When the Benders moved to Nashville, they bought the house across from Olivia. Both boys—twins Park and Perry—were entranced by her, and their little sister Lindsey became Olivia’s best friend. Thick as thieves, the four of them. Until Olivia and Park fell in love in high school, and everything changed.” Now as adults, Lindsey is a lawyer, and Perry left to become a wildlife photographer. “But the question that lingers–why did Perry leave?–is at the core of everyone’s problems.” Ellison admits that it would have been easy to let any one of the characters be the main character. “Olivia, though, is the heart of the story. Her losses mirror my own, and I feel very protective of her.”
In this exclusive interview with The Big Thrill, Ellison talks about the sensitive topic that inspired IT’S ONE OF US and the research that went into the book. She also gives us a behind-the-scenes glimpse into her life as a successful novelist—as well as some sage advice for those just starting out.
I absolutely loved this book. I was hooked from the first paragraph. Can you tell us a little more about what inspired IT’S ONE OF US.
I know infertility is an unusual topic for a thriller, and I’d been looking for a way into this story for years. I was trying to write it from the husband’s point of view, how wild it would be to have been a sperm donor and discover the company has no ethics and has used your sperm multiple times, the kids keep showing up on your doorstep, and one of them is a murderer…but it wouldn’t hold together. I kept putting it aside.
Then Olivia appeared to me, in my mind’s eye, this broken woman walking down a chilly beach alone, and I finally knew I had my path in. It had to be her story. The wife’s tale, not the husband’s. That did it. The ripples from the husband’s past actions helped turn this single-faceted story into a wonderfully rich tapestry of multiple characters that I know the readers will empathize with, and ask themselves—what would *I* do in this situation?
As you noted, IT’S ONE OF US deals with infertility and infertility treatments, difficult and emotionally-laden topics for many people. Why did you choose these topics for the book?
I’ve wanted—needed—to tell this story for a long time. My husband and I suffered from infertility and spent a lot of time and money trying to keep me pregnant. It never worked; I had multiple miscarriages, and eventually, we decided to stop trying. I want to normalize the conversation around infertility and miscarriage. It’s something we hide away in the darkness, a secret shame. I certainly hid my struggles from most everyone because I felt like a failure. My career was taking off, I was writing book after book, and behind the scenes, we were experiencing agonizing loss and keeping it to ourselves. And that is what I want to change—if I can help just one woman on her journey feel she’s not alone, that there is a full, happy, joyous life on the other side no matter what happens, then it’s all been worth it.
The book also addresses DNA science, medical ethics, and the lengths people will go to take advantage of the vulnerable. What special research, if any, did you have to do for IT’S ONE OF US?
In addition to using my own experiences, two particular pieces of media were very influential: the podcast Donor 9362, which deep dives into the relatively unregulated field of sperm donation, and Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker, the story of a family who had twelve children, and six of the boys were diagnosed with schizophrenia. These bookends gave me a lot of ideas about how I wanted to tell this story, emphasizing that regardless of the nature versus nurture debate, it’s our free will—our choice—that ultimately dictates our actions. I spent a lot of time combing Ancestry.com for hidden stories, too, and the Donor Sibling Registry, where donor children can find their siblings. What an incredible gift we have in modern DNA technology!
This is your 25th published novel (congratulations!), and you’ve also written short stories and novellas. What does your writing process look like? Has it changed over time?
Thank you! It’s an incredible milestone and I’m a little blown away that it’s happened. My process has changed a bit, if only because I’m juggling more and more, but the core work—the writing—that’s still a thousand words a day when I’m drafting, and it usually happens between 10-12 and 1-4. I was never a morning writer, but over the past few years I’ve shifted my days so I can get my words done before lunch, which gives me a great buffer if things are busy.
What advice do you have for those just entering the field?
Discipline is really important. You are building not only a book but a career. So find your writing time, and keep it sacred. Make sure you respect it—and train those around you to respect it as well. And finish! It’s so easy to be lured away from your current work in progress by a shiny new idea. Indulge that desire by writing up a short synopsis, then return to what you’ve been laboring over. But most importantly…for heaven’s sake, have fun!
What’s next for you, J.T.?
I have a few more releases coming this year, a Taylor Jackson novel in the spring and two novels in my urban fantasy series under the name Joss Walker, and a few shorts in anthologies. And of course, I’m writing the next standalone, which is currently giving me fits but will work itself out. They always do. And ThrillerFest! I can’t wait to see everyone again.
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