by Zoë Sharp
This week, I’m delighted to be able to do an interview with a writer I greatly admire. Please give a warm ‘Rati welcome to…JT Ellison!
Yes, I realise that you all know JT, but that doesn’t mean you’re aware of just what an all-round superhero(ine) she is. So, for those of you who are unaware, I’m going to quote from her author biog:
“JT is a graduate of Randolph-Macon Woman’s College and received her master’s degree from George Washington University. She was a presidential appointee and worked in The White House and the Department of Commerce before moving into the private sector. As a financial analyst and marketing director, she worked for several defence and aerospace contractors.
“After moving to Nashville, Ellison began research on a passion: forensics and crime. She has worked with the Metro Nashville Police Department, the FBI, and various other law enforcement organizations to research her books.
“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, “Chimera” in the anthology SURREAL SOUTH 09, edited by Pinckney Benedict and Laura Benedict, and “Killing Carol Ann” in FIRST THRILLS, edited by Lee Child.”
Not only that, but JT was lucky enough to have Lee Child as her mentor for Thriller Year, an organisation that was dedicated to raising awareness for the debut novelists of 2007. How could she possibly fail?
“She is the bestselling author of the critically acclaimed Taylor Jackson series, including ALL THE PRETTY GIRLS, 14, JUDAS KISS and now THE COLD ROOM. Her novels have been published in 14 countries, and she was named “Best Mystery/Thriller Writer 2008” by the Nashville Scene.”
“She lives in Nashville with her poorly trained husband (Randy) and a cat.” Oh, hang on, I may have got that last bit the wrong way round …
This interview all came about because of JT’s latest book, THE COLD ROOM, as you’ll soon see:
Zoë Sharp: Where did the character of Taylor Jackson originally come from? Allison’s blog last Sunday about the characteristics of strong leading women felt quite apt as I was reading about Taylor, a strong, intense and sensual woman, who finds it difficult to resist the physical attraction of another man, even though her emotions are completely wrapped up in her fiancé, FBI profiler Dr John Baldwin.
JT Ellison: “I got the idea for Taylor after reading John Sandford’s PREY series, back in 2003 or so. I was driving down Interstate 40, thinking about Lucas Davenport’s icy smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes, and that scar, and his depression, and realized I wanted to write about a woman in his shoes. A woman in control, who’s strong without being strident, who commands the respect of her peers and her enemies. One who’s worked hard and paid her dues. Taylor literally leapt fully formed into my mind, talking in that low, smoky drawl, and I was hooked. I knew I had to tell her story. Considering her humble beginnings, it’s so fitting that she represents Athena to me. And aren’t all Goddesses irresistible to the men around them???”
ZS: The character of Taylor’s lover, Baldwin, is a strong figure right from the start of the series. Did you always intend to give Taylor a partner – both in her professional and personal life – or did he creep up on you? How do you feel their complementary skills give the pairing a unique edge?
JTE: “No, I didn’t. Initially, she was on her own, still recovering from the betrayal of her last boyfriend, a dirty cop she was forced to kill after he attacked her. The first book I wrote with Taylor, she hadn’t met Baldwin. He came in halfway through the story, and she wasn’t terribly enamored with him. Truth be told, she felt sorry for him. He was in an emotional tailspin, self-medicating with alcohol, and truly on the edge. She was HIS savior, not the other way around.
“Now, they’ve started to depend on one another, and that’s going to cause its own set of frictions.”
ZS: How important do you feel the actual police procedure is? Obviously, Taylor is a Nashville Homicide detective, so it has to play a large role in each book, but how tied do you feel to accuracy when it comes to this aspect of your storytelling?
JTE: It’s very, very important to me. I want to at least know the procedure so I can make an educated decision whether to alter it to fit the story or keep to the truth. I’d say I keep to the truth about 99% of the time. The procedural aspects are what lend credibility to the books. The thriller formula is inherently preposterous. How many times can one cop be singled out, be touched by evil, be forced to kill? Most cops never draw their weapons, Taylor has killed four people. The procedure keeps the books grounded in a bit of reality, enough so that readers can suspend their disbelief at Taylor’s horrific luck in the serial killer department and enjoy the story. At least, that’s my goal.”
ZS: In this book, you use the character of DI James ‘Memphis’ Highsmythe to create an internal conflict for Taylor. How do you go about putting your protag under pressure on a constantly changing basis? Obviously, there’s the pressure of catching the bad guys, but this book also worked on a more personal level for Taylor, not just because she’s been busted back from Lt to Det. Was that a deliberate objective you set out to achieve?
JTE: “Absolutely. On paper, she seems nearly perfect: Intelligent, beautiful, loved, respected. She’s a hero, she must be larger than life and “better” than the average Joe. But I wanted to let people see that’s she’s human. She’s struggling with her emotions, with her independence, with the idea of commitment. She’s been dragged through the mud and publicly humiliated, and she has to keep her head help high and soldier on. That outward strength is so important, because when the reader gets a glimpse of her true self, her vulnerabilities, they can relate. We’ve all put on a brave face before.”
ZS: Where did the character of Memphis come from? The son of an earl, working for the Metropolitan Police in London? Why a Brit rather than a guy from the LAPD, or Chicago? Or even an Italian, since part of the book is set in Italy, and it feels like you know that setting very well? What made you come up with him, and how tricky was it to get inside the head of someone from another culture?
JTE: “Because I love to challenge myself. Memphis was another one of those characters who practically writes himself. He started as an Interpol agent, until a source of mine from Interpol explained that he wouldn’t have the freedom to chase after a suspect. Since there were crimes being committed in London, he became a New Scotland Yard DI. Which necessitated tons more research, and of course, I had to make him a Viscount, so he would stand out. Speak differently, act differently. He and Taylor are such similar creatures, both products of their environment, both from privileged backgrounds, both eschewing their personal wealth to work in law enforcement.
“Memphis posed so many challenges… (and just a note to our readers, Zoë is the reason Memphis came to life. I can’t count how many emails we exchanged trying to nail him down. Phraseology, background, everything, Zoë influenced in so many ways. So THANK YOU!)
“I could have made him Italian, it certainly would have been easier on me, the language, the history, the setting. But sometimes a character is who he is, and I can’t explain why. That’s the deal with Memphis. And it means I get to do more research in England, which will be cool.”
ZS: I’ll never forget the initial email from JT that read: “I want my Brit character to see my main protag and have a bit of an inconvenient erection. How would he refer to this?” As you can imagine, the conversation went rapidly downhill from there…
But, I digress! The structure of the story has altered from the version I read when we were kicking bits of Britishness backwards and forwards. It originally started with a scene of Taylor at the gun range, and then moved to the character of Gavin Adler. Why did you lose that initial opening?
JTE: It had been dropped in the Australian version, and when we pulled the book and went back through it, my US editor really wanted to drop it as well. I fought long and hard, because I felt that was such a quintessential scene. But it was important for Taylor’s character, and not the actual story. It was a very “hard” opening, and they wanted her a bit softer. It might make its way into one of the future books, because I still love it. But revision is all about killing your darlings to make the story work better, right? And opening with Gavin just set the perfect, creepy, scary tone. In retrospect, I’m very glad we did drop it.”
ZS: You mentioned in your last blog that you were asked by your publisher to alter the direction of the book for Taylor. How do you feel you’ve done this? I know, with a series character, you have to make the decision to keep them static, or take them on a journey through each book, from which they emerge changed in some way. What was your original journey for Taylor, and how do you feel it’s altered in the final version?
JTE: “You know, it’s funny. I resist making Taylor be too girly, mostly because I’m not girly and can’t relate well enough to make her work that way. But she’s so tough, and the consensus was she was almost too tough. Too serious, too committed. Too earnest. The wanted me to “soften” her. But Taylor isn’t a soft woman. She’s intense and focused, and I struggled with the whole concept of “softening” her, because to me, that meant girlifying her up (Um, I don’t know if girlifying is a word, so…) I found a perfect solution. When I did the revision, I played up her sense of humor. Instead of being so angry all the time, she’s rolling with the punches a bit more. It worked very well, and helped me find another layer into her psyche that I didn’t know existed.”
ZS: When I first read your books, I was rather struck by the similarities between Taylor Jackson and Charlie Fox. Both are strong female protagonists, sure, but they both sport scars around their necks from knife attacks, and even both wear a TAG wristwatch. Now, that’s just spooky!
JTE: I LOVE that they have these bizarre bits in common. I remember reading FIRST DROP and saying Wow, Charlie and Taylor are so similar. Of course, Charlie could probably kick Taylor’s ass… The TAG comes from me, I’ve worn the same TAG HEUER watch since I was 21. And the scar – well, that was her vulnerability when I first started out. She’d nearly lost her life, and it colored the way she acted from there on out.
ZS: You said: “We all know how I feel about strong heroines, and the ways we give them flaws and vulnerabilities. I’m always in favor of a strong heroine who’s independent and not driven by a tortured past, who can handle most anything, but has some weaknesses that can be exploited for story. My favorite thing to do is hand my main character something that falls into the gray areas, situations she’s never faced that challenge her code. That’s the fun stuff!” Discuss!
JTE: “The gray areas are where we have fun, I think. Heroes have flaws, and throwing challenges at them is one of my favorite pastimes. Taylor especially is incredibly strong and sees the world in black and white, so giving her something that’s out of her spectrum, like having sex-tapes go live online, or getting demoted, helps me challenge her in the now, instead of focusing on things that happened in her past. We’re all the sum of our parts and experiences, but it’s more rewarding to me as a writer to find the paths that will move her conscience, alter her reality, and make her rethink her code.”
That’s it from me, but what questions do you all have for JT? And if you haven’t already rushed out and bought a copy of THE COLD ROOM, do so!
This week’s Word of the Week is scooning, or to scoon, a completely made-up one, that we’re trying to bring into common useage. A guy we used to know called Scoon was taking a long flight, when he fell asleep in his seat. Gradually, his head lolled until it was resting on the shoulder of the total stranger in the next seat. This guy was very polite and didn’t want to wake him up, until he realised that our friend had been drooling in his sleep and had actually soaked through the guy’s jacket and shirt and was making his shoulder damp. Now, if anyone drools in their sleep, it’s known in our household as scooning. Enjoy…