Though she began her career working as a staffer in the White House, J.T. Ellison now lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and writes full time. Her novels—All the Pretty Girls, 14, and Judas Kiss—have earned her a reputation as a popular and prolific mystery novelist. “Fusing gritty cop drama with dark psychological thriller, Ellison distinguishes herself with exceptional character development, consistently breakneck pacing and a sense of authenticity,” the Chicago Tribune says.
Ellison’s fourth mystery novel The Cold Room once again features Nashville homicide detective Taylor Jackson. This time around, Jackson’s investigation takes her into the twisted horrors of necrophilia and then through a macabre chase involving reenactments of famous paintings both here and in Europe. Ellison talks with Chapter 16 about Nashville, her writing, and the delights of research, which in her case includes some quality time with Nashville’s boys in blue.
Chapter 16: How did you develop your detective, Taylor Jackson? Did she just come to you or is she based on individuals you have known?
Ellison: I got the idea for Taylor after reading John Sandford’s Prey series. 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. She’s a wonderful character to write—difficult, sometimes, but a lot of fun. I’ve never based any of my characters on real people, with the exception of some actual Nashvillians who know in advance they’ll be appearing in the books, media folk and the like. There’s usually one character name per book that’s from a real person, one that was auctioned off for charity. That said, we’re shaped by our experiences with people, so ultimately, my characters are an amalgamation of my life to date.
Chapter 16: How much research do you do for each of your crime novels?
Ellison: Oh my, I do a lot of research. I love it, too—research is one of the best, most exciting aspects of this job. It all started when I decided I wanted to write a cop and realized my expertise was fully informed by Law & Order , and I didn’t know the first thing about how cops really operate. So I called down to my local homicide office, chatted up the kind detective who answered the phone, and finagled a ride-along invitation.
My first overnight patrol was quite an experience. The captain assigned me to an officer, and he immediately balked, said he wasn’t going to take a woman out on shift. Another officer put up his hand and said, “I’ll take her.” We left right after that and got a call immediately. We jumped into the patrol car and took off, lights and sirens screaming, into the heart of the projects in Nashville. I asked him what kind of call it was, and he said “Stabbing.” I said, “What do I do?” He said, “Stay on me.”
By that time we’re on Lischey, in a really bad part of Nashville, and he’s already out of the car and running. I took off after him. We beat the first responders to the victim, who’d been stabbed by a man he was buying drugs from. It was bad, blood everywhere, his family crying … you can imagine how shocking it was. We caught the suspect, retrieved the murder weapon, then took him to the Criminal Justice Center in the backseat of the patrol car—a killer, literally breathing down my neck—and took him to booking. The man he stabbed died. When I got home, at six the next morning, I saw I had his blood on my boot.
Chapter 16: How long does it take you to write a novel?
Ellison: About six months. The first month is usually research, then four months to get a workable draft, and another month to edit. But since I write two books a year, I’m always editing a book, writing a book, and promoting a book. I’ve learned how to switch back and forth with minimal distraction.
Chapter 16: How do you define your niche in the mystery genre? Who is the audience you’re thinking about when you write?
Ellison: I call my genre psychological crime thrillers. They aren’t light or fluffy, and though there is a love story, they’re definitely not romance. I want my readers to enjoy themselves—and think, if they really want to. My goal is to present an alternate reality, even if it’s just for a few hours, where heroes reign supreme, the bad guys get caught, and our fair city gets a chance to be in the spotlight.
Chapter 16: How much prep work do you do before you actually begin to write?
Ellison: I’m not an outliner, at all. I usually begin with a scene that’s very visual—something I can see playing out in my head. Then I write the book around that scene. I used to think those scenes were my openings, but I’ve found that they’re usually in the middle or the leading up to the climax. I have a pretty good idea of where the series is going, and I’m usually thinking approximately two books ahead of the one I’m writing. It’s the joy and bane of the series, having to pull threads through the entire body of work as well as the individual books.
Chapter 16: You now live in Nashville. How did you come to relocate here?
Ellison: It was a man. Isn’t it always? My husband is a Nashville native, and we met in graduate school in Washington, D.C. He always wanted to come back here, so when the opportunity arose, we jumped on it. I was a little leery, but man, this city. It just grows on you until you can’t imagine being anywhere else. I love the dichotomies—the Old South money, the beauty of the language, the rolling hills, the amazing culture, and, of course, I find the crime fascinating. We have the same problems as a massive city like New York or L.A. It’s my inspiration, after all.
Chapter 16: The Cold Room is the fourth Taylor Jackson novel; are there more in the pipeline?
Ellison: Yes! The Immortals will release in October 2010, and The Pretender, which is the sequel to the second book in the series, 14, will be out in March 2011. And there are a few other stories I’d like to tell—stories that aren’t Taylor-centric.
Chapter 16: How do you develop these twisted plots? Do you give yourself nightmares? What place in your own psyche do you tap to create these demonic villains?
Ellison: I do give myself nightmares. I’ve dreamed plots before. The Cold Room was the most difficult book I’ve ever written, for myriad reasons. The subject matter was disturbing, the book was revised several times as the characters dictated the story, and the research took ages. People ask me why I didn’t go in a different direction, and as much as I would have loved to do that, this story was the one that needed to be told. But it’s all worth it, in the end, when the story comes together and the nightmares end. To be honest, nothing I can come up with holds a candle to the tragedies so many people face in real life. There’s real evil in the world. This is my way of combating it, of giving justice and redemption, one little story at a time.
Chapter 16: After a career in government and the private sector, how did you change directions and start writing novels?
Ellison: When we moved to Nashville, my experience lay in presidential politics and aerospace marketing, neither of which I was going to find here. I had no luck on the job front, and I finally got so stir-crazy that I went to work for our vet’s office. On the third day, I blew out my back and ended up needing surgery. It was during my recovery that I came across the Sandford books, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Chapter 16: Were you quickly successful or was there a period of suffering while you shopped your work and threw wadded-up rejections at the wall?
Ellison: I wrote in a quiet vacuum for a long time before I started the whole agent search. After I finished my first novel, I sent queries to agents, and quickly found that it was too short for commercial fiction. So I rewrote the book, made it much more robust, and started researching new agents. In the meantime, I also was trying to learn all the facets of the publishing industry. I joined a site called Publishers Marketplace, which is our most valuable business tool, and I put up a website on the site saying I was looking for an agent. In the meantime, I’d narrowed down my list of agents to one who I was sure would be perfect for me. I was writing him a query letter when I received an email from him, asking to read the book. He’d seen my site on PM, and thought it sounded interesting. Talk about sheer serendipity. He signed me the following week, and we sent the book out. It got a few rejections, and he decided it would be best for me to write another. I did, and that one, All the Pretty Girls, sold almost immediately.
Chapter 16: How do you handle the promotion an author now must do to be a sales success? How do you balance the two talents: promotion and writing?
Ellison: That’s the problem we’re all facing. I’m not great at talking about myself and promoting myself. But it’s a reality in this day and age, and I want to do right by the novels. So I blog and Twitter, and Facebook, and send out newsletters and hold contests. I try to focus my efforts on adding value to the conversation, giving advice and sharing my experiences with new writers. But it takes a tremendous amount of time, so much so that I’m dedicating one day a week to the business side of things. That frees me up to work on creative endeavors the other five days a week. I try to take one day a week off from everything so I can recharge.
Chapter 16: Do you have time to read these days? What kind of books do you read for pleasure?
Ellison: I read as much as I can. I love all genres, all styles. I love spy thrillers most of all, and crime fiction, literary fiction, popular fiction, some young adult … pretty much anything I can get my hands on. I always find time to read. It’s like drinking water to me. I have to have it to live.