Tell us something about your background, your studies, your childhood.
I was born in 1965. My mother was unmarried, and my father left before I was born. I still have no idea who he is. My mother and my maternal grandmother raised me up until I was seven, and then my mother died of pneumonia, and I was sent to a number of different schools and orphanages. I stayed there until I was sixteen, and then I returned to live with my grandmother, but she died of a heart attack a few months later, and so – at sixteen – I was left with my brother, who was seventeen, with no parents, no grandparents, no aunts or uncles or other relatives. We got into some trouble with the Police, and we went to prison for three months, and then a couple of years later we went our separate ways, and didn’t see each other for about fifteen years. I had no idea of what I wanted to do in life. I had no formal qualifications. I did not attend any colleges or universities. I just got on with living life, and when I was twenty-two I had a realisation that what I wanted to do was write. I had never written anything before, and it just came to me that this is what I wanted to do.
What jobs have you held in the past?
I have worked in the freight industry, I have held office jobs, I have taught children, I have worked with charities who help people get off drugs, all sorts of things!
When did you first know that you wanted to be a writer?
I always knew, fundamentally, that I wanted to do something creative, but I had no idea what it would be. I was interested in music, art, photographhy, film, but in November of 1987 I had a conversation with a friend who was reading a book. He talked about this book with such passion and such intensity, and it was as if someone had switched a light on in my mind. ‘That’s what I want to do!’ I thought. ‘I wanted to write books that make people feel like that!’, and so – that evening – I started writing. And what do I think drew me to writing? I loved reading. That was the simplicity of it. I just loved reading. Always had the thought there that it would be great to write something capable of moving someone emotionally, to create that kind of effect, to have someone read something you’d written and be moved by it. That was the thing: to feel like you had something worth saying.
What about when it comes to fiction? Do you read other contemporary writers?
I do not read a great deal of crime, but I try to read as much as I can. I like authors that challenge the rules of writing. I like to read writers who inspire me to work harder. I like to read authors who make me feel uncomfortable, who engage me emotionally, who make me think about life and love and people and reality.
Tell us something about your debut. Your road to publication. Have you received many refuses?
I started writing on November 4th 1987, and between then and July 17th 1993 I wrote something every day except for three days when I was going through a divorce. I completed twenty two novels in that time, something in the region of three and a half million words, and at different times I was in discussion with a couple of agents, with one or two publishing companies, but nothing ever really got as far as I would have liked. I wrote first of all in longhand, and then I got a typewriter, and finally ended up with an Amstrad wordprocessor that took about half an hour to warm up! I spent those six years sending material out to British publishers, and received about five hundred complimentary, very polite ‘Thanks but no thanks’ letters. I also have two lever arch files with something in the region of three or four hundred straightforward format rejection slips. This is just from companies that didn’t even look at the material I sent them. I understand the sheer volume of work that a handful of people have to wade through in a publishing house. People have given me figures on just how many unsolicited scripts come to the major publishing houses each week, and that figure is astounding. My belief was that if I just kept on going I would eventually find the right person in the right company at the right time. I had this datum from Disraeli who said ‘Success is entirely dependent upon constancy of purpose’. However, after six years of doing this I finally thought, ‘Enough’s enough’, and I stopped writing. I then studied music, photography, all manner of things, and didn’t go back to writing until the latter part of 2001. The thing that prompted my return to writing was 9/11. I couldn’t stop thinking about the three thousand or so people who went to work that morning and never returned home. It made me think of something my grandmother used to say: ‘Never lead a ‘What if…’ life.’ She used to say that finding your vocation in life was the secret of happiness. I thought about when I had been happiest in my life, and it was when I was writing. So I went back to it. I thought about the quote from Disraeli again, and came to the conclusion that maybe I just didn’t try hard enough. It was then that I wrote ‘Candlemoth’. I sent that to thirty-six publishers, thirty-five of whom sent it back. All except Bloomsbury, and an editor there gave it to a friend who gave it to a friend, and it wound up at Orion with my current editor, and we have now worked together through nine books. Since Orion signed me there have been a couple of comments made by a couple of publishers I have met about how they should perhaps have pursued things with a little more tenacity back in the early days. The earlier unpublished stuff will probably stay right where it is in the loft. It was a different genre, more supernatural in a way, and I write better now anyway. I think the time away from it between 1993 and 2001 made me more succinct, gave me a greater clarity about what I wanted to say. I have gone back recently and read some of my earlier work and it was a little verbose. But hell, it was good practice!
Why did you decide to write Candlemoth?
I really decided to write the kind of book that I believed I would like to read, as opposed to the kind of book that I felt others would enjoy. The basis of Candlemoth was simple. I wanted to cover that time period: the 50s, 60s and 70s. I wanted to write about the Kennedys, about Vietnam, about Watergate and Nixon. I wanted to build a story that would segue into those topics without struggling to do so. I wanted to have a backdrop of authentic history against which I could place characters that were fighting something, being challenged and tested. I wanted to put ordinary people in extraordinary situations and see how they handled it. It comes down to people, always comes down to people. People are what fascinates me more than anything. Greatest advice I ever heard about writing was to write about what interests you. More than likely you’ll find it interests others as well. Well, I always wanted to know more about people, and that’s what I try to do with all my work. Get inside peoples’ heads, look at their reasons, their motives, their dreams and aspirations. Put them in situations where they have to handle difficulties and work things out, but at the same time try and reflect the element of humour that seems to keep us smiling in the face of adversity. Really it began with the idea of the conflict between what one was expected to do, and what one wanted to do. It was a matter of people being faced with choices that weren’t really choices. Like a white boy maintaining loyalty with a black boy and vice versa in the face of conflict and disagreement and prejudice. Like the Draft. Like being in prison, being on Death Row in fact, and feeling that there is nothing left one can do to change what has happened. It is that issue, the one of ordinary people in extraordinary situations, and what they do about it.
How long did the process of writing the Candlemoth take?
I wrote Candlemoth in about three months, as far as I can remember. I tend to write about forty or fifty thousand words a month, and thus a one hundred and fifty thousand word novel will take me about three months. That is my working rate, and always has been.
Have other works inspired you in the writing of this novel?
Well, other works must have inspired me, but I don’t know what they are! I think Candlemoth was the culmination of a great deal of experience and a great deal of reading, watching films, documentaries. It really was a distillation of many thoughts and ideas, all of which I was interested in.
A Quiet Vendetta is a sort of Mafia story. Could you tell us something about the plot of this book without revealing the finale?
Well, as with many things, I had always possessed a deep and profound interest in the Mafia. A very deep fascination with organized crime, with the way in which a family can become an empire which can control a city or a country for years and years. Additionally, there is the issue of the family itself. The Mafia were all about family. The loyalty was with the family. That was the most important thing of all. For me I am always looking for the emotional connection in a story, and with this one it was easy – the sense of loyalty engendered in people for no other reason than blood. Also, I wanted to write a novel about the worst kind of human being I could think of, and yet write him in such a way as that when the reader comes to the end of the book they have almost forgiven him, they perhaps have some understanding of why he was how he was, why he did the things he did, and they perhaps even wish him to evade the law. That was the idea behind the book, and from what people have told me I seem to have accomplished that. People read the book and they actually end up liking him! That character, the central character of A Quiet Vendetta, is Ernesto Perez, a Cuban, and we follow him throughout his life, through his involvements with Italian-American organised crime families, all the way from the 1930s to present day. I tried to weave a fictional thread through a factual background, hence we deal with the heads of the Five Families, with the deaths of the Kennedys, of Marilyn Monroe, the Cuban revolution, the murder of Jimmy Hoffa, all these things. I wanted to write it in such a way as it could all be possibly true. When all is said and done, it has to be a good story. It has to interest and engage and challenge, and I think it is a powerful story and that people who read it get swept away with it. Vendetta holds a special place for me. It was written very quickly, in about eight weeks, and I worked at it for many hours every day. I wanted to write it quickly. I knew it was going to be a big novel, and I knew that if I took months and months to write it then it would perhaps read very slowly. This was my concern. I wanted to get the work done rapidly so as to keep some of the energy and immediacy that comes from working that fast. I researched the factual and historical aspects of the book as I went. I ‘lived’ in that world for all that time. I spent all my waking hours thinking about the story, about the characters, about what would happen. I do not work out books before I start them. I do not do outlines or a synopsis. I just start with the first scene and a basic idea of what I want the book to be about, and then I think about it and plot it as I go. It is often the case that I do not know how the book will end until I am thirty or forty pages away from completing it. A Quiet Vendetta is a big, powerful, evocative, challenging novel about the Mafia. I felt it was something I had to do. Though I have not read Puzo’s ‘Godfather’ I have seen the films, also ‘Goodfellas’, ‘Once Upon a Time in America’, other such movies, and I wanted to create something that was as epic and as cinematic as these things. I do not know that I will ever write another Mafia-based book. I feel like I accomplished what I wanted with ‘Vendetta’ and I am very proud of it as a novel.
Now talk about your novel A Quiet Belief in Angels. What inspired you to write it? What was the starting point in the writing process?
I went to visit a friend of mine in Austria, and I too a copy of ‘In Cold Blood’ to read on the flight. I thought it was a superb book. I read it a second time, and then became very, very interested in Capote, how the book came about, who he was, etc. I read his published works, some articles about him, and I came to the conclusion that here was a writer who gave his life for a book. 'In Cold Blood' made him very rich, very respected, the most famous author in America for many, many years, but ultimately it killed him. Afterwards he never really published another word, and certainly never completed another novel, and he drank himself to death. So there was the thing: A book could save someone's life, but it could also kill them. The other aspect of it was the fact that Capote left Monroeville, Alabama as a child and went to New York. The 'In Cold Blood' research (which he undertook with his childhood friend and neighbour, Harper Lee, author of 'To Kill A Mockingbird' and a childhood friend of Capote's) took him from New York back to smalltown, mid-west America, namely Holcomb, Kansas. So there was the other interesting idea: the juxtaposition of two worlds - smalltown mid-west America and bigtown New York. Those were the basic threads of inspiration that started me thinking about writing the book. And I wanted to write something that would (hopefully!) make people feel the way I had felt when I read such things as To Kill a Mockingbird, In Cold Blood, The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter etc etc. A Southern drama. A sweaty, sticky, intense, almost claustrophobic drama that dealt with the seeming indomitability of the human spirit against all odds. I didn't want to write a book where a Police investigation resulted in the apprehension of a killer, the three pages of psychological revelation about why the killer did what he did, the jealousy, the mother complex, the desperate attempts to kill someone who represented some other significant figure in the killer's earlier life etc etc. I didn't want the story to be about the killer, but the effect that the killer's actions had - not on those he killed - but on the people whose lives he touched indirectly...and that - as they say - was that!
What was the most laborious part during the writing?
Oh, I don’t think there was any laborious part. I enjoy writing very much. I enjoy the actual day-to-day process of creating characters and stories. I enjoy the research. This is what I do. John Lennon said, ‘Find something you love and you’ll never work another day’, and I feel like that about writing. It does not feel like ‘work’. It is just as exciting and interesting for me now as it was ten years ago, twenty years ago.
Could you tell us a little about your protagonist?
Joseph Vaughan, the central character of A Quiet Belief In Angels, is a child with more wisdom and empathy than you expect from a twelve year-old. We begin the book with the death of his father, and Joseph, before he is even a teenager, has to face the responsibility of being a contributory member of his family, and also of caring for his mother. He lives in a small town in the south of America. It is the late 1930s, America has seen the Depression, and will soon be involved in WW II. It is against this backdrop that a series of murders takes place, the murders of young girls who are friends of Joseph’s, his schoolmates. Joseph feels a tremendous sense of responsibility to prevent these murders happening, and so – amidst tension and bigotry and racism – he does what he can to defend the town in which he lives against the terrible effects of these murders. The effects and consequences of these killings follow Joseph like a ghost through his entire life, and we live that life with him, all the way into adulthood. I wanted to create a character who was flaeed, troubled, distressed, but at the same time possessed a tremendous sense of personal integrity, an integrity that would help him overcome all the obstacles that he faced in trying to discover the truth about these killings. A Quiet belief in Angels is not a book about a serial killer as such, but more a book about the effects that such events have on people, on a town, a community, a society.
A Simple Act of Violence will be soon published in Italy? Could you tell us something about the plot?
A Simple Act of Violence, the sixth book, is essentially two stories – a series of contemporary killings in Washington DC and how these killings are linked to the undercover actions of the CIA in Nicaragua in the 1980s. The book deals with everything from the founding of the CIA, how people are indoctrinated and recruited into the CIA, the actions the CIA have taken over the years in forwarding American foreign policy, and some of the corruption that has surrounded these actions. At the same time we follow in the footsteps of a dedicated but troubled Washington Homicide Detective, Robert Miller, as he tries to make sense of a series of killings that seem to possess no coherent motive, and victims that possess no verifiable identity. The stories – both of the CIA, and the current Washington murders – finally become the same story.
Do you write short stories or only novels?
I have written three or four short stories for magazines, but I am a novelist, forst and foremost.
I'd like to talk about the day-to-day process of being a writer. Would you describe a typical working day for you?
Writing a book is a sort of ongoing organic process. I buy a notebook, a good quality one, because I know I’m going to be carrying it around for two or three months, and in the notebook I will write down ideas I have as I go. Little bits of dialogue, things like that. Sometimes I have a title, sometimes not. I used to feel very strongly about having a good title before I started, but now – because at least half the books I’ve published have ended up with a different title - I am not so obsessive about it! Also, there seems to be two types of writer – those that plot and those that don’t. I’m the second type of writer. I have a vague idea of the kind of story I want to tell, a good idea of the emotion I want to create, and a definite decision about when and where it’s going to take place. The immediacy and spontaneity of not planning a complete novel appeals to me. I get involved with the characters, and sometimes I just change my mind about where I want them to go, or how I want them to handle certain things. As the story evolves so do they, and the decisions they then have to make can thus influence the plot and vice versa. I don’t write methodically-planned police procedurals. I believe I write human dramas where the crime is actually a secondary issue. The books are more about the effect of such things on people, and that’s what has always interested me. I think if I sat and planned a book – chapter by chapter, section by section – then by the time I had finished the plan I wouldn’t want to write the book anymore as there would be no flexibility and unpredictability about the process. It’s the writing itself that enthuses me, and that element of uncertainty with which I approach a book makes it all the more interesting and challenging. And as for the actual day’s work? Well, I try to write three or four thousand words a day, and on that basis I get about fifteen or twenty thousand words done a week. That is the routine for me. I am working each day, seeing where the book is going, finding out what I want to do with it, making decisions, changing my mind etc. When I am done with the first draft I go back to the start, and now that I know how the book will end, well I just fix everything that now doesn’t make sense.
Do you feel that any critics have influenced your work?
Well, criticism is par for the course, but I don’t think it has influenced what I do or how I write. It’s something that you have to accept will always be there. It bothers me greatly when I read reviews on amazon, and someone says, ‘This is rubbish. I have a six year-old who could write better than this’. Sometimes the comments are wholly vicious and unpleasant. The frustrating thing for me is that I meet a lot of people who have read and enjoyed the books, and yet they don’t put reviews on the net. Amazon – fortunately or unfortunately – is one of the very, very few public forums where people can post reviews that will be read by people. In my experience, the number of people who post reviews versus the number of people who have read the books in infinitesimal. I really wish people would post reviews! Regardless, the bottom line is that you are not going to please everyone, and if you spend all your time worrying about what people think then you’ll never do anything for fear of criticism. You learn to accept it, to try not to be bothered too much by it, but sometimes the things you read are so hostile that you wonder what purpose the person is trying to accomplish by saying such things. However, more often than not, people have been very kind and very complimentary about the work, and the newspaper and magazine critics and reviewers have been especially good.
Do you enjoy touring for literary promotion? Tell to our Italian readers something of amusing about these meetings.
I do enjoy touring. It is the one way in which you can actually meet people who have read the books and get some direct feedback and response. I toured a great deal last year, over forty cities in eleven countries, and in the second half of this year I will be touring again. Something amusing? Well, just meeting readers can be funny and challenging and very interesting. Everyone is different, everyone has a different meaning for the book, and sometimes you are asked questions and you definitely feel as though the reader believes that your own life is like the lives of the characters you have created! You are expected to remember everything you have ever written, and you are expected to be able to answer every question you are asked, and sometimes that is impossible!
Will you come in Italy to introduce your novels?
Well, in December of 2010 I was in Courmayeur for the Noir Festival, and I will be in Piacenza in June this year, and then in Mantova as well.
Any movie projects from your books?
Well, I received an e-mail last year from a French film director called Olivier Dahan. He was the man who wrote and directed the Oscar-winning film ‘La Vie En Rose’. He had finished reading the French translation of A Quiet Belief In Angels, and he wrote to me and asked whether I would be interested in writing a screenplay for him. I went to Paris to meet with him, and we got along great. We had a very definite agreement on how a film could be made of the book. I left Paris with the feeling that it might come off. A few weeks later I got word that the production company ‘Legende Films’ was ready to go ahead, and then I signed the contracts to write the screenplay for the film. I have now completed that first draft, but I am uncertain whether the project will now go ahead. The basic difference between a book and a film is that so much of a book is about what people think and feel, whereas a great deal of a film is about what they say and do. It was a challenge to adapt such an introspective and internal book into a film, but I really believe I did a good job. It was a very good experience for me, and it taught me a great deal about succinct writing. It taught me a lot about saying more with less words. The film industry is its own thing. Nothing can happen for two years, and then everything happens in two weeks. We shall see if anything ever comes of it.
What are you reading at the moment?
I am just finishing ‘Dispatches’ by Michael Herr. This is a great book, and I started reading it as I am writing a book with a central character who served in Vietnam, so this is part research. After I have finished ‘Dispatches’ I will read ‘Twilight’ by William Gay.
What is your relationship like with your readers? How can readers get in touch with you?
Well, people can find me on facebook or through my website (www.rjellory.com). I receive a lot of e-mails – about fifty a day – and I answer every single one of them personally.
Finally, the inevitable question. Are you currently working on a new novel? Any other projects?
Well, I have a new book out in the UK in October called ‘Bad Signs’, and then another book is completed for 2012. I am currently working on the book for 2013, and because this does not have to be delivered to my publisher for more than a year I have embarked upon a long outstanding project to form a band and record a CD. I am the singer and guitar player for ‘The Whiskey Poets’, a three-piece blues/rock trio, and we hope to be recording in the studio in the next couple of months.