RJ Ellory has earned a great following in his native England writing about the US. In some ways, his books contradict normal crime fiction. They tend to be more sweeping and episodic and, while he takes you through some rather dark and noirish territory, he doesn’t carry the cynicism many crime writers in this country do. At the same time, he captures the American as well as the human experience as well as many of our American writers.
His most recent book to come to the states is A Quiet Vendetta, where the “interrogation” of a mob enforcer, Mr. Perez, in order to find the kidnapped daughter of the Louisiana governor is interwoven with the story of Perez’s life, a story that follows the history of the mafia from the 1950s to the present. It strikes a brilliant balance between sweeping and emotional, and tight and intense. Picture the first two Godfather films with the structure of The Usual Suspects.
I recently had the opportunity to ask Mr. Ellory some questions about A Quiet Vendetta and his process
MysteryPeople: A Quiet Vendett a is a sweeping look at the history of the American Mafia in the last half of the 20th century, yet the story relies on two flawed men in a room. Which came first, the era you wanted to explore or the characters?
RJ ELLORY: Well, the emotion always come first, and that may sound like a strange answer! I don’t write a synopsis or an outline for any of my novels, but I do start with a vague idea of the kind of story I want to write, and also a very clear idea of the kind of emotional response I want to evoke in a reader. In the case of A Quiet Vendetta, the intention was to write about the worst kind of human being I could think of, and yet have the reader be sufficiently seduced by this character to even come to like them by the end of the book. I wanted to write a vast Mafia epic, something that spanned several decades and many cities, and have each city be as much a character as the individuals who drove the story forward. I wanted it be many stories within one story, and I wanted to write one chapter in third person, another in first, and alternate them back and forth. I also wanted to blur the lines between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.
MP: How did the character of Perez, a Cuban enforcer for the Italian mob, come about?
RJ: Well, very simply, I wanted to create a character who – no matter how deeply he became involved with the Mafia – would always remain an outsider, simply because he was Cuban. I also wanted to begin Perez’s story during the era of Mafia domination of the Cuban casino business. Therefore it made sense to have Perez be picked up by the Mafia in Havana coincident with Castro overthrowing Batista.
MP: What draws you to using US history as a canvas for many of your books?
RJ: I always read as a child. I was orphaned at seven and sent away to various institutions, and there was always great access to books. When I think of my childhood I think of three things: long-distance running, reading and being hungry! I started with Christie and Conan Doyle, Shakespeare and the classics, and then I found Harper Lee and Truman Capote, Steinbeck, Faulkner and Hemingway. I found a tremendous difference between English and US literature, and the rhythm and style of US prose appealed to me so much more. There was a grace and atmosphere and slow-motion style to it that really resonated.
Later on, in my early teens, the kind of TV we watched was predominantly American. I grew up with Starsky and Hutch, Hawaii Five-O, Kojak, all those kinds of things. Additionally, I became – and still am – a huge fan of the Golden Age of Hollywood, and count amongst my favourite actors such people as Stanwyck, Hepburn, Edward G. Robinson, Bogart, Bacall, Cagney, Cary Grant and James Stewart. I also loved the atmosphere, the diversity of culture presented by the US. The politics fascinated me. America is a new country compared to England, and it just seems to me that there’s so much colour and life inherent in its society.
I have visited a great number of times now, and I honestly feel like I’m going home. And I believe that as a non-American there are many things about American culture that I can look at as a spectator. The difficulty with writing about an area that you are very familiar with is that you tend to stop noticing things. You take things for granted. The odd or interesting things about the people and the area cease to be odd and interesting. As an outsider you never lose that viewpoint of seeing things for the first time, and for me that is very important. Also many writers are told to write about the things with which they are familiar. I don’t think this is wrong, but I think it is very limiting. I believe you should write about the things that fascinate you. I think in that way you have a chance to let your passion and enthusiasm for the subject come through in your prose.
I also believe that you should challenge yourself with each new book. Take on different and varied subjects. Do not allow yourself to fall into the trap of writing things to a formula. Someone once said to me that there were two types of novels. There were those that you read simply because some mystery was created and you had to find out what happened. The second kind of novel was one where you read the book simply for the language itself, the way the author used words, the atmosphere and description. I think that the truly great books are the ones that accomplish both. A classic, for me, is a book that presents you with narrative so compelling you can’t read it fast enough, and yet written so beautifully you can’t read it slowly enough. I think any author wants to write great novels. I don’t think anyone – in their heart of hearts – writes because it’s a sensible choice of profession, or for financial gain. I certainly don’t! I just love to write, and that love, that passion, has been there since my early twenties. First a reader, then a writer. And the range of subjects and issues and cultural differences inherent in the US draws me to it completely.
MP: Many times you use the concept of a story within a story. While at first look it seems limiting, how is it freeing for you?
RJ: Well, the last thing I would ever wish to do is write a series of novels about the same characters. That seems to me to be the most claustrophobic and limiting thing of all. I can write a historical saga, a romance, a political conspiracy, a serial killer story, anything I like, and all within the framework of a crime novel. To write a story within a story just gives me endless scope to write about whatever interests me, and I have often found that if you write about those things that fascinate you, you tend to find that others are fascinated. I think your enthusiasm for the subject matter comes through in your prose. I consider that the very worst novel you could write is the one that you believe others will enjoy, whereas the best novel you could write is the one that you yourself believe you would enjoy reading.
MP: What sets you apart from many of today’s current crime fiction writers is that you offer a deep, believable sense of hope about life and humanity, no matter how dark the tale. As somebody who survived a pretty rough early life, is this something you feel necessary to convey?
RJ: Well, I don’t really consider that I had a rough early life, to be honest. Is it worse to be orphaned and raised without parents, or to be raised in a loving close-knit family environment, only to then witness the aggressive, bitter and violent divorce of your mom and dad when you’re in your teens? I think the former is easier than the latter. As Joni Mitchell said, ‘You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone’, and if you never had anything to start with, well you can’t miss it! The simple truth is that people fascinate me. The human condition fascinates me. The mind and life as a whole fascinate me. People are crazy and funny and flawed and brilliant and scary and intense and sad and apathetic and lost and focused, and everything else. No-one is perfect. No-one gets it right all the time. I have a pet hate for those crime novels where the lead investigator jumps to wild conclusions and is proven right all the time. Life is not like that. People are not like that. If they’re surviving, then they’re getting things right slightly more than fifty percent of the time. I think I have a deep and believable sense of hope about life and humanity, and I think how I write is just a reflection of my own philosophy. That’s what makes each book unique to each writer. I think that’s what makes a part of each book written somehow autobiographical, not in the story that’s written, but in the philosophy of the characters.
MP: You’ve hit several American regions during different periods. Is there a time and region you’d like to tackle that you haven’t yet?
RJ: I am doing it now! The Deep South (Mississippi), the era (the end of the Nixon administration), and a character who is a Vietnam war veteran. That gives me three areas to write about that I have not written about in detail before, and I am enjoying it thoroughly. This is for a book called The Devil and The River, due for release in the UK in 2013.
MP: You have the sense of sweep and of emotion of a literary or historical fiction writer. What keeps on bringing you back to crime fiction?
RJ: Very simply, my love and fascination for people. The thing with crime, as a genre, is that you can incorporate any sub-genre – history, politics, culture, music, homicide, blackmail, conspiracy, forensics, serial killing, the CIA, FBI, kidnapping, bank robbery, anything at all! – within that story, and it is still a crime novel. Additionally, and more importantly, confronting a regular person with the extraordinary nature of an act of violence or crime gives me opportunity to write across the entire range of human reactions and emotions, and that’s the thing that excites me the most.
As somebody who has hung out with Roger, I can attest we’ve only scratched the surface with him. So join us January 27th at 7pm for his signing and discussion of A Quiet Vendetta over a couple of beers (or wine if you prefer), and other refreshments.