Our guest today is not only a great writer but one of my favorite people as well. I met J.T. Ellison a year ago when I moved back to Nashville and I knew instantly that she was a kindred spirit. (How can you not bond with a girl who loves Mexican food and OUTLANDER?) She’s been a huge encouragement to me in my own publishing journey and it’s a such honor to introduce her to you. J.T.’s latest novel, WHEN SHADOWS FALL, releases today (We’ve got a copy up for grabs–see the entry form below). It got starred reviews in Publisher’s Weekly and Booklist and I’m certain it will be one of the year’s hottest thrillers. Grab some coffee. Pull up a chair. And enjoy a peek inside the mind of a truly gifted author.
(Nashville readers: J.T. will be signing books tonight at the Barnes & Noble in Cool Springs. I’ll be there with my party hat on and would love for you to join me in celebrating her most recent success!)
Ariel: You’re a seasoned, established author with eleven published novels under your belt. The general assumption would be that you have this writing thing figured out and that it’s easy for you. But given the nature of art, I’d guess that there’s still something about this process that takes you by surprise. Can you share with us what that might be?
J.T: Every time I sit down to write a book, I forget how to do it. You’d think after writing fourteen novels, I’d get the hang of it. But it never fails, it takes me at least 25,000 words to start feeling comfortable, and believing in the story, and it’s not until I hit 200 pages or so that I relax and start to allow the story to unfold as it needs. I never take anything for granted, because you never know when the muse is going to be naughty and not come out to play. And I’m always astounded when I type those three little pound signs – starting may be hard, but the moment you realize you’re finished is priceless.
Ariel: I’m always fascinated by how certain writers are drawn to certain genres. I tend to think it’s part of our literary DNA. (For instance, my early love of Agatha Christie ensures that anything I write will have a strong Mystery element.) What is it about writing Thrillers that is so compelling for you? What influenced you in that direction?
J.T: It’s the psychology behind crime that does it for me: the idea that one person decides they’re above the law, that they deserve something more than the next person, and carry on down a path that can lead to such dire consequences – murder and betrayal the least of it. I’m always amazed by how terrible people can be to each other. I studied psychology, of course, but it was a show called Profiler my then boyfriend, now husband, and I watched while we were dating that turned me on to this world. If I’d been ten years younger, I probably would have ended up in forensics instead of writing about them.
There is so little real justice in this world. I like to write stories where the bad guys get caught and the good guys ride off into the sunset. Call it an overdeveloped sense of morality. I am aghast at lawlessness. I have quite a healthy overactive imagination, too, which allows me to dream up all sorts of terrors.
Ariel: WHEN SHADOWS FALL is the latest installment in a series featuring forensic pathologist, Samantha Owens. From the outside it looks like you’ve mastered the art of writing series. But I’m curious to know the challenges that come with such an undertaking? And also the benefits? What are the unique considerations you must take when writing a character-driven series?
J.T: Given this is the third series I’m working on… I learned quite a bit of what not to do with my first series. I gave homicide lieutenant Taylor Jackson too many limitations, didn’t give her enough room to expand the series inside her current role. She’s an iconic hero, and iconic heroes don’t change and grow very much. Of course, I never set out to write those books as a series, it sort of happened when I wasn’t looking. Seven books later, I found a way to continue her story without compromising the series.
With Samantha, I’ve been very deliberate, giving her persona and world all sorts of extra nooks and crannies that can be brought out, examined, developed, or stashed away for a later story. It’s very freeing having all these parameters set so loosely. She’s been such fun to write, to grow, to alter as I see fit. She’s a very relatable woman. She’s suffered a tremendous loss — her family drowned in the Nashville floods — and she’s had to find a way to keep facing each dawn since. Her journey from grief to joy to finding love again is the reason I’m writing these books. Sam lives with such grace, such strength. She inspires me. She engenders great loyalty from those around her. She’s smart and sassy and driven, but she steps in it, a lot, too, which makes her fun to write, and I hope, fun to read about.
It’s easy to write a series when your main character has this kind of depth. I build the world, then set the characters loose and see what sort of havoc they can create.
Ariel: Given your subject matter I’d guess that you’ve had at least one interesting experience in the name of research. Have you ever been to the morgue to witness an autopsy? Visited a shooting range? Or interviewed a doctor about the mechanics of murder? Do tell!
Oh, I have a few. I have done a set of autopsies, which was horrifying in its own wonderful way, and one of the most spiritual experiences I’ve ever had. I won’t freak anyone out, but if you’re interested in hearing more about it, here’s a link to a piece I wrote on the experience.
I do go shooting. I grew up in the wilds of Colorado so guns were a part of life. I think it’s important to know what it feels like to handle a gun, to realize how hard it is to load under stress, just how much pressure you need to pull a trigger, all of that. To see a .22 bullet, something so small seems so harmless, and yet we know it’s not. It gives you a healthy dose of reality.
I did multiple ride-alongs with the Metro Nashville police, going out with homicide, overnight patrol. My first overnight, we were called to a stabbing in a terrible part of Nashville. The victim died on the scene, we caught the suspect, recovered the weapon, and took him to be booked, and there I sat, a murderer’s breath on the back of my neck. Very disconcerting, especially when I got home and realized I had the victim’s blood on my cowboy boot.
It all became very real for me that night, understanding the sacrifices our police make to keep us safe. I try very hard to be realistic and compassionate across all aspects of my writing – for the cops, for the victims, and for the villains. There is never gratuitous violence or faceless victims in my books. Only an examination of the psychology behind serious crimes, and maybe a few creepy scenes thrown in for good measure.
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If you are reading this letter, I am dead and I would be most grateful if you could solve my murder…
Forensic pathologist Dr. Samantha Owens thought life was finally returning to normal after she suffered a terrible personal loss. Settling into her new job at Georgetown University, the illusion is shattered when she receives a disturbing letter from a dead man imploring her to solve his murder. There’s only one catch. Timothy Savage’s death was so obviously the suicide of a demented individual that the case has been closed.
When Sam learns Savage left a will requesting she autopsy his body, she feels compelled to look into the case. Sam’s own postmortem discovers clear signs that Savage was indeed murdered. And she finds DNA from a kidnapped child whose remains were recovered years earlier.
The investigation takes Sam into the shadows of a twenty-year-old mystery that must be solved to determine what really happened to Timothy Savage. Nothing about the case makes sense but it is clear someone is unwilling to let anyone, especially Samantha Owens, discover the truth.
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J.T. Ellison is the New York Times bestselling author of eleven critically acclaimed novels, including The Final Cut with Catherine Coulter, When Shadows Fall, Edge of Black and A Deeper Darkness. Her work has been published in over twenty countries. Her novel The Cold Room won the ITW Thriller Award for Best Paperback Original and Where All The Dead Lie was a RITA® Nominee for Best Romantic Suspense. She lives in Nashville with her husband. Visit JTEllison.com for more insight into her wicked imagination, or follow her on Twitter @Thrillerchick orFacebook.com/JTEllison14.