(Below the interview in English)
A la suite de notre rencontre de hier, je pensais que R.J. Ellory était un Grand Monsieur. Ce soir, je pense que c’est un Très Grand Monsieur !
Il a non seulement accepté immédiatement ma demande d’interview pour mon blog, mais en plus il a pris le temps d’y répondre dès aujourd’hui. Et quelles réponses ! Pas juste des réponses de politesse, mais de vraies réponses détaillées. Cet homme est magnifique.
Je ne peux m’empêcher de vous livrer l’interview dès maintenant, en anglais. Je posterai une traduction (la plus fidèle possible), dès demain soir.
Un immense merci à cet immense auteur.
Pour les bilingues, désolé si mes questions sont posées en mauvais anglais 😉
Can you describe your personality in three words, just three?
That is very difficult! Perhaps the three words would be ‘passionate’, ‘inquisitive’ and ‘workaholic’ (this is an English expression, and it is like ‘alcoholic’, but it means someone that never stops working. I hope you understand that!)
Your next book is released in October in France, can you tell us a few words about the story?
Perhaps the easiest explanation is to give you the text from the English promotional material:
Orphaned by an act of senseless violence that leaves their mother dead, half-brothers Clarence Luckman and Elliott Danziger are raised in state institutions, unaware of the real world. And then their lives are affected by violence once again when they are seized as hostages by a convicted killer en route to his execution
Earl Sheridan, psychopathic murderer, could be their salvation or their downfall.
A road trip ensues – Sheridan and the two brothers on the run from the law through California and Texas, but as the journey continues the two brothers must come to terms with the ever-growing tide of violence that follows in their wake, a tide of violence that forces them to make a choice about their lives, and their relationship to one another.
Will the brothers manage to elude the dark star that has hung over them since their mother’s death, or will they succumb to Earl Sheridan’s terrifying, but exhilarating vision of the world?
Set in the mid 1960s, and again – like A Quiet Belief in Angels (Seul le Silence) – this a human drama, a tale of the darkness within Man, the inherent hope for redemption, and the ultimate consequences of evil.
You’re English, but you write about America, what fascinates you in this country?
I think I grew up with American culture all around me. I grew up watching Starsky and Hutch, Hawaii Five-O, Kojak, all those kinds of things. I loved the atmosphere, the diversity of culture, the fact that every state is entirely different from every other, and there are fifty of them. The politics fascinated me.
America is a new country compared to England, and it just seems to me that there was so much colour and life inherent in its society. I have visited many times now, and I honestly feel like I’m visiting my second 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 they are familiar with. I don’t think this is wrong, but I think it is very limiting. I believe you should also 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. The truly great books are the ones that accomplish both. 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 just love to write, and though the subject matter that I want to write about takes me to the States, it is nevertheless more important to me to write something that can move someone emotionally, perhaps change a view about life, and at the same time to try and write it as beautifully as I can.
I also want to write about subjects – whether they be political conspiracies, serial killings, race relations, political assassinations or FBI and CIA investigations – that could only work in the USA. The kind of novels I want to write just wouldn’t work in small, green, leafy villages where you find Hobbits!
Each of your books take place in a different period of the American history. How do you work the tone and style, that are different from one novel to another?
I think I just try and place myself in the time and place where the book is set. I am very aware of the language, and how each story has its own style and rhythm. You cannot write ‘Les Anonymes’ in the same way as ‘Seul le Silence’ (A quiet belief in angels).
I am very conscious of the emotion I am trying to create in the reader, and I work always towards this goal. That is my compass: What emotion am I trying to create with this story? So, I do not analyze it too much. I write the way that I think, the way that I feel, and I make an effort to involve the reader in the novel.
When you have finished reading the novel I want you to feel that you are leaving behind people that you have come to know and understand, even if you did not like them.
Can you tell us how was born the cop character of “Les Anges de New York” (Saints on New York)?
In the early part of 2008, just a couple of days after Obama had been inaugurated, I had the good fortune to go to Washington with the BBC to make a little television presentation about ‘A Simple Act of Violence’. During that Washington trip I spent some time with people from the FBI, the Washington Post, and even a Virginia homicide detective called June Boyle. For four hours, she spoke of her life, her experiences, her vocation as a detective. Towards the end of our discussion she said something that sent a chill up my spine. ‘I have a work cellphone,’ she told me, ‘and when it rings…well, every time it rings there’s a dead person at the end of it. It could be a domestic incident, it could be a twelve year-old child in a dumpster, it could be a serial killing victim or a hit-and-run. Whoever it is, and whatever the reason for their death, my day starts when their day ends.’
I thought about that for a long time. I considered the kind of effect such a job would have on your life. Could you keep a marriage together? Could you raise kids? Could you go out and enjoy a ballgame, a barbecue, a weekend in the country with that kind of shadow hanging over you all the time? Perhaps, perhaps not.
After I returned from Washington I started to think about forgotten victims. I looked at the fact that something in the region of eight hundred and fifty-thousand Missing Persons Reports are filed each year in the USA alone. I considered the fact that ninety-three percent of abduction victims are dead within three hours…dead before anyone even knows they’re missing. I thought about the ones that were never found, the bodies never located, the parents never knowing what really happened to their son or daughter. I imagined what that would do to your life. Would you ever be able to let go, to get over it, to carry on? I didn’t believe so.
That was where my central character, Frank Parrish, came from for ‘Saints of New York’. That simple meeting in Virginia was where ‘Saints of New York’ was born – as an idea, a vague fleeting image, a feeling of the kind of story I would like to write that dealt with the obsession of one policeman to learn the truth of what had really happened to a young victim. Why? Because if he didn’t, no-one else would. The victim – a teenage girl – was a nobody, someone who had fallen through the net, someone about whom no-one really cared. Until Parrish decided to care. Until he decided to learn the truth of her fate, no matter what it took.
And so I started writing, and – as with all books – it became consuming, something I thought about all the time, something I worked at furiously. ‘Driven’, my wife calls me, and perhaps I am. It became an important story to tell, not out of any high-minded and pretentious view that I had ‘something important to say’. Quite the opposite. I was humbled by it in a strange kind of way. Writing about someone like Parrish made me all-too-aware of the fact that there are thousands of people who spend their lives in the service of others, who sacrifice personal security, stability, family, vacations – all the things we take for granted – in an effort to help others less fortunate. ‘Forgotten victims’ was the phrase that came to mind time and again, but as I wrote the book I started to consider the ‘forgotten saviours’ even more. These were the real ‘Saints of New York’, the real saints of any city, any neighbourhood, where such work is undertaken by self-effacing and anonymous people, people often criticized and harassed, people viewed as corrupt or self-serving, when – in reality – they were quite the opposite.
‘Saints of New York’ is not an easy read. I didn’t want it to be. I wanted it to be brutal and harsh. I wanted it to be as real as possible, to tell that story, to share that viewpoint of humanity. And I hope that is what I have achieved.
You are an amazing storyteller. Your stories are dark, but it is the emotion that seems to be the most important when you write a story, right?
Thank you for such kind words! That is very good of you, and I am so pleased that you enjoy the stories.
You are exactly right when you talk about emotion. The best explanation of the difference between non-fiction and fiction, I feel, is that non-fiction’s primary purpose is to convey information, whereas the purpose of fiction is to evoke an emotion in the reader.
So when I’m writing I try not to get too bogged down in the history and facts. I work towards the evocation of an emotional effect really, whether it be anger, frustration, love, hate, sympathy etc.
The books that I remember, all the way back to things I read as a child, are the books that hooked me emotionally; those books where I identified with the central character, perhaps identified with a conflict they were going through, an emotional journey they were making. The first thing I decide when I embark upon a new book is ‘What emotions do I want to create in the reader?’ or ‘When someone has finished this book and they think about it some weeks later, what do I want them to remember…what emotion do I want them to feel when they recall reading the book?’ That’s key for me.
Those are the books that stay with me, and those are the books I am constantly trying to write. There are a million books that are brilliantly written, but mechanically so. They are very clever, there are great plot twists, and a brilliant denouement, but if the reader is asked three weeks after reading the book what they thought of it they might have difficulty remembering it. Why? Because it was all very objective. There was no subjective involvement. The characters weren’t very real, they didn’t experience real situations, or they didn’t react to them the way ordinary people react. In fact, some of the greatest books ever published, the ones that are now rightfully regarded as classics, are those books that have a very simple storyline, but a very rich and powerful emotional pull. It’s the emotion that makes them memorable, and it’s the emotion that makes them special.
Do you have a well-established method when you embark on a new novel?
I am disciplined. I start early in the day. I try and produce three or four thousand words a day, and work on the basis of getting a first draft done in about twelve weeks.
Sometimes it takes longer, sometimes shorter. I do not really have a definite plan for the book, but I have an idea of the kind of story I want to tell. It is a very fluid thing, and the book can change a lot as I wrote it.
I buy a new 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! And as far as little idiosyncratic routines and superstitions are concerned, I don’t know that I actually have any that relate to starting a book. I do have a routine when I finish a book. I make a really good Manhattan cocktail, and then I take my family out to dinner!
As you said in your interview in Mulhouse, sales of your books allow your wife to always buy more shoes ;-). Apart from this aspect, is her opinion important when you write a novel?
My wife reads all my work, but she does not make an editorial comments or suggestions. She considers that she is a reader, not an editor, and we know from experience that it is better that way! She has always supported me completely, even for all the years that I was not being published, and now I have been published she is very happy.
The comment about the shoes was a joke, for sure, but there is always an element of truth in such jokes. I think she is happy that we have made this success together, and she enjoys the life that we have with the family.
You proved on this day in Mulhouse, that you’re very close to your readers. Is this contact essential for you?
Absolutely. Without readers, there is no reason to write! I love to talk with readers, always to meet new people, to see different places, and it is always exciting to be at the festivals in France as the kindness and generosity of people is greater than most other places in the world. You have a culture that supports art and music and literature, and all of these things are very close to my heart.
This blog is made of words and sounds. You’re also a rock musician. Is music important in your creative process?
Yes, most definitely! Well, I have always been passionate about music, and just as I found a great empathy in American literature, so I found a great empathy in jazz and blues and country music. I have had long discussions about this very subject with my friend, Antoine de Caunes!
Someone once said to me that music was the way in which one person translated their emotions into sounds, and then gave those sounds to someone else who translated them back into emotion for themselves. I agree with this. I think good literature works on an emotional level, and I definitely feel that good music works on an emotional level. I like to conceive of a song that I write as delivering an emotional message, and when the message is delivered the song is done. I think they are very much the same. Literature is evoking an emotion with words. Music is evoking an emotion with sounds. I think writing a song is like writing a chapter, and writing an album is like writing a book. Both are there to deliver an emotional message, and both can accomplish this but in different ways.
During your stay in Mulhouse, could you tasted the fabulous white wines from Alsace?
Yes, I did, and it is great wine, but I also had a chance to taste some truly excellent Alsace whisky as well at Patrick’s wonderful shop! Patrick is a friend of Herve, and he was very generous to welcome myself and Ingrid Astier to taste some whiskies when we arrived in Mulhouse. It was a great afternoon!
The final word?
Well, I just have to say that it was a great honour to be invited as the godfather of the first Festival Sans Nom. The kindness, generosity and warmth of everyone here has been extraordinary, and I hope that the festival continues to enjoy great, great success for many years to come. I hope to come back some day, and if I am invited there will be no hesitation! And thank you as well for your interest and your time. It means a great deal to me.
Ma petite photo perso de son interview de hier :