Interview – 1 book in 5 questions : The Anniversary Man – R.J. Ellory

1 livre en 5 questions

An interview with R.J. Ellory about his book : 

The Anniversary Man (just released in France)

R.J. Ellory - Tha anniversary manR.J. Ellory - Les assassins

This serial killer story is not like the others, combining both fiction and reality...

I wanted to write a kind of ultimate serial killer novel, I guess. I created a killer who replicates some of the most famous serial killings in US history, and carries them out on the anniversary of their original occurrence. I featured everyone from Arthur Shawcross to John Wayne Gacy to the Sunset Slayers to Zodiac to the Amityville Horror killer.

The story deals with a somewhat autistic serial killing survivor, a man who knows more about serial killers than most people in the FBI, and his work with a New York Homicide Detective in their efforts to secure the identification and arrest of this ‘Anniversary Man’.

It was great to write, because it satisfied both my enthusiasm for research and my love of fiction.

I try and stretch myself in a different way with each novel. I think it’s important for an author to have many colours on the palette. That sounds pretentious, but you know what I mean, right?

I like the book a lot. I am pleased with it. The acid test for me, as I think should be the case for all books by all authors, is would they actually find the book interesting? I think I would. I keep trying to write the kind of book I would like to read, and I think I would enjoy this book as a reader.

This phenomenon of serial killers is an integral part of America, as well as other themes that you developed in your various other novels…

Yes, absolutely. Of course, there have been serial killers in every country in the world, I am sure, but with the advent of radio and television, we somehow found ourselves exposed to these crimes as an American phenomenon.

Looking at it from a psychological perspective, when speaking of serial killers we talk of situational dynamics. These are the social, familial, environmental, educational, mental and emotional factors around and about a person that drive them to do the things they do.

I don’t think current mental technologies have given us any kind of an understanding of why people can be so utterly destructive, and they certainly haven’t given us an explanation that has resulted in anything even remotely close to a remedy or a cure, and so we are left dismayed and uncertain about the kind of people that can do these things.

I think that serial killing is perhaps the most incomprehensible of all criminal actions. It isn’t like theft. You can see why someone would rob a bank or steal a car or kidnap someone for a ransom. They want something they haven’t got.

A serial killer is a different kind of identity altogether. And serial killers are not like other individuals who kill. This isn’t murder precipitated by rage, jealousy, passion, hatred, revenge or anything else. Serial killers kill people because…

Well, why do they kill people? Not just one or two, but three or twelve or fifty. What is it that motivates that level of destructive need? It is said that you can never rationalise irrationality, but everyone considers themselves rational.

What is the rationale for John Wayne Gacy or the Zodiac? What problem are they solving? What reality do they exist in that makes this kind of behaviour inevitable?

That’s what fascinates me, and I think that’s what fascinates a lot of other people who read about serial killers. We don’t understand the motivation, and no-one appears to have an explanation. I think it is a combination of many factors, all of which contribute to the person being pushed over the edge of standard human behaviour characteristics.

There is even now a school of thought that is looking at something called the Exceptional Human Experience – a single occurrence that provokes a reaction in a person that drives them to do something so out-of-character that it defies description and explanation.

There are many theories, yet a theory is only so good as it can open the door to a solution, and we have no solution aside from locking these people up. Logically, therefore, we do not have the answer.

Perhaps it is just the case that there is a very small percentage of the population that are truly evil and truly destructive, at least in their actions, if not in their hearts. I believe that such people are disassociated from the reality that we all routinely perceive, and they are somehow resolving a long-ago problem that – for them – is still a continuous and current problem. They kill ‘enemies’, believing that they are under threat from their ‘enemies’. An intense paranoia perhaps.

They associate one type of personality with a personality that was threatening to them in the past, and now they are just fighting back in order to preserve their own life and well-being. But that, once again, is a theory, and we already have too many theories and not enough answers! Perhaps, in summary, writing about such things is merely an effort to try and understand them, or at least exorcise the subject from your own thoughts.

We feel that your research work on the phenomenon of American serial killers was huge. How long did you take for your research? How did you proceed?

I did a tremendous amount of research. It was very, very important to me to ensure that everything mentioned in the book was genuine and correct as far as the time and place were concerned. It was quite a task. But I find research fascinating.

I love to read. I love to ask questions and find out everything I can about somebody or something. That is just my nature. John Lennon said that you should find something to do that you love, and then you will never work another day in your life.

I love doing this, so it never feels like hard labour to me. I research as I go, finding out the things I need to know as I’m writing the book. Often I might leave blanks in the script for dates and names and such things as I don’t want to interrupt the flow of the material.

Research can be addictive as there are so many different subjects one can become interested in. As for time, when I am working on a book I am writing and researching daily.

This book was perhaps a little more difficult in the research area because serial killers are also liars, and there were so many contradictions in the things that they said. In one interview they said one thing, in another interview they contradict themselves in order to confuse the police and the authorities.

Wherever possible, I used the most reliable sources, and I cross-referenced dates and times and places as best I could with the available material. The first draft of the book took about three months to write, which is about usual for me.

Apart from the realistic aspect of the story, you did in parallel a lot of efforts to develop a complex and addictive plot…

My agent once made a tremendously valid point. He said ‘Wear your learning lightly’, meaning that you should never bury your fictional storyline beneath a tonnage of fact. You’re not writing a textbook, you’re writing something that has entertainment and the evocation of emotional engagement as its primary purposes.

The primary issue is character. That is what makes a book compelling for me. It is not a question of ‘I have to find out what happens next’. It is a question of ‘I have to find out what happens next to…’ and here we find the character that we care about most.

I think that determines the difference between a good book and a great book, that sense of empathy and identification with a character. I want to create characters that people care about. I want someone to finish reading one of my books and feel like they are leaving behind old friends, even when those friends may be a little crazy!

So yes, the characters and the inter-relationships between those characters were always at the forefront of my mind. These people drive the story, they are on the stage, and the serial killers are part of the scenery and back-story.

As a writer, in what state were you having finished writing a so dark novel?

Well, there was certainly a great deal more factual research about the horrific things that human beings are capable of doing to one another than for any other book I have written, and it was an education in itself. I read a lot of books and a lot of court statements and affidavits from a lot of very, very disturbed and dangerous people. After a few weeks of this my wife actually asked me to stop reading them. It was making me a bit intense.

Hugely fascinating material, but really about a gallery of the worst kinds of human beings you could imagine. It had to be done for the sake of the book as I wanted all of the serial killer characters in it to be real, aside – of course – from the ‘Hammer of God’ killer himself.

I actually find that with every book I do I get very involved in the people, the places, the time period, the history. I get into it all very deeply. I find it fascinating, and in a way it does affect my state of mind during the time that I’m working on the book.

When you do something that subjective, it is sometimes difficult to be objective again. It was impossible to forget that these were real people, and the victims were real people, and it wasn’t easy to disassociate myself from this knowledge. The balance had to be found between fact and fiction in a novel like this.

As I said earlier, non-fiction is all about giving the reader information. Fiction is all about evoking an emotional reaction. I came away after some weeks of work with a very slanted view of people. If you like, I was sort of wearing the shadows.

But to write with authenticity, with credibility, to not subject your reader to too much ‘suspended disbelief’, you have to get inside these subjects and try and make sense of them.

I think writing the book was then like an exorcism. I think we have to face evil. A significant percentage of life can appear to be destructive and terrifying, and if we don’t realize it’s there and face it, then we can become more easily affected by it.

It is the things that you don’t deal with that hurt you the most. The moment you look at something directly it becomes less able to harm you. The more you understand about life, about people, about what they are capable of doing, the more you realize that the truly dangerous ones make up a very, very small percentage of the population. That, in itself, is a powerful realization to have.

The more you know, the more in control of your own life and your own environment you are. So research, though absorbing, sometimes disturbing, can also be an education in itself, and I have an intensely inquiring mind.

However, once the bulk of the research has been done, it can actually be quite therapeutic and cathartic to write it all out of your system. I don’t hang onto it all once the book is done. When the book is finished I try and leave it all behind.

So, in essence, the result was a certainty that the truly dangerous people are very rare, and that the vast majority of people are good and decent and kind. I think, ultimately, the book served to rehabilitate my faith in basic human nature.

R.J. Ellory

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