J.T. Ellison loves what she does, and her joy in doing it shows. The Nashville writer is the author or co-author of 15 novels (that’s a book or two a year, not even including a handful of novellas and short stories — wow), including a New York Times bestselling series she creates along with a writing partner, Catherine Coulter. With her latest release, she gives fans a new standalone thriller, No One Knows.
In a recent review, Chapter16 noted what Ellison does best is create characters who resist falling into obvious good-guy/bad-guy territory. In No One Knows, “…it’s difficult to conclude who is most, or least, sympathetic. No one in this novel is without serious lapses in judgment and fatal flaws.” Not unlike real life, right?
Ellison celebrates the release of her new book right here at Parnassus Books this Tuesday, March 22, 2016 at 6:30 p.m. Meanwhile, she’s answering a few questions for our Musing editor, Mary Laura Philpott — with whom Ellison also co-hosts the reboot of Nashville Public Television’s literary interview show, A Word on Words. Here’s their conversation.
Your books are full of lies, double-crossing, kidnapping, murder… As I was reading No One Knows, it tickled me to think that you — my mild-mannered and friendly television co-host! — wrote it. I’m curious about where your fascination with this type of story comes from. Do you often find yourself questioning people’s behavior or wondering if they have dark ulterior motives?
JTE: Um… yes? It’s terrible of me, I know. I can create a world for you that you’ll never recognize. It stems from the concept that we don’t ever really know someone, nor do we know what happens behind closed doors. When I’m low on characters I’ll just pop in to Starbucks and walk out with a whole cast.
And I’m fascinated by choices. I’d like to think I have a pretty steady moral compass, so when someone does something unethical, or criminal, I’m always aghast. And then I want to sit them down and find out why. What drove you to that decision? Was it easier to cheat? Weren’t you worried about how it would look? You weren’t afraid of going to jail? The idea that our society is split in two — law-abiders and criminals — makes novels like mine come to life. I love Nashville as the palette for this kind of story, too. The juxtapositions in this town are fabulous.
Scouting new characters at Starbucks — I love it. What did you read growing up? Were there particular authors or books that shaped your tastes as a reader and writer?
JTE: Everything. From Judy Blume to Karleen Koen, Peter Straub to Coleen McCullough. And poetry, lots of poetry. I was a precocious reader, and my parents didn’t put any limits on me. If I could understand it, great. I loved dragons and witches and romance and mysteries and sci-fi—all genres I continue to read.
I have all my old Nancy Drew’s. Do you remember the order sheets in the back? Mine have comments: “This looks stupid.” “I’d like this story.” Always a critic, even at 10. I spent an inordinate amount of time with Dr. Spock’s book on child-rearing and Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs. I think I was trying to figure myself out, and their insights seemed so logical and obvious. (And yes, as a Taurus, I wisely married a Leo. Thanks for the advice!)
How has your writing evolved throughout your career? Do you ever look back at an early book and think, “Oh, I’d never do this or that now…” or do you find that your style has been pretty consistent?
JTE: It’s funny you ask that. My husband and I were just discussing how my style has evolved. I’m rereading one of my older books, prepping for the newest installment in the series, and I realized my style has changed. Not a lot, but it’s smoother now, less flowery (cough *purple* cough). I’ve been rather free with the rules from Day One, and will continue to be, but I have (finally) conquered my comma splice issue. I’ve learned a lot in the past few years, and I’m sure I have more to go. Though I do have bugaboos — dogs pad, people walk. Drives me nuts when people are “padding” all over the place. The visuals are all wrong. I love words: big, small, everything in between. They exist for a reason, so I like to use them, broadly and reverentially.
I know you’re a creature of habit and routine, and I’m wondering if that’s the secret to your productivity. Do you set daily or weekly word- or page-count goals for your writing?
JTE: I do — the simple answer is I shoot for 1,000 words a day (about five pages), five days a week. The more complicated answer is I was clearly an accountant in some ancient life, because I am fascinated by the numbers. Not math. Never math. But I love to calculate exactly how many words a day I need to write to meet a deadline (just ask, I’ll do it for you!). It helps when things aren’t going well, because I KNOW that if I just hit that number, day in and day out, I WILL have a finished book on time. I also set annual writing goals and track everything in Excel spreadsheets. Because GOALS!
You’re a cat person! Let’s talk about that.
JTE: I truly am part crazy cat lady. I’ve had cats and dogs my whole life, but I’m allergic to dogs, so I have to get my daily fuzzies in feline form. My previous cat, Jade, was the reason I ended up being a writer. She was my muse for thirteen years, and her loss is still felt keenly. For a while I worried I couldn’t do it without her. But she’s with me, in spirit. My current beasts are twin sisters, silver mackerel tabbies who are two years old and truly still kittens. They’re very doglike — Jordan worships my husband, follows him around, wagging her (very fluffy) tail. Jameson is a love, but trouble disguised as a very small cat. If there’s something to get into, she’s in it. They both love to play catch (balls, mice, bananas) and are the sweetest, silliest creatures. Our home is quite raucous, filled with trills and merps (Jordan never figured out the whole meowing thing — she sort of sounds like a baby pterodactyl) and lots of love.
If I could go back and tell my 30-year-old self something, it would be: Buckle up, buttercup. The ride is just about to start. Don’t close your eyes, either.
In 10 years, I hope to be: Sitting in my (slightly more expensive) chair, typing on my (slightly smaller and faster) laptop, creating a standalone novel that will shatter all previous conceptions of what a book should be. Did I mention this should be done overlooking a lake in Italy?
My worst habit: Obsessively checking my email. Also, leaving half-drunk cups of tea in the microwave.
My prize possession: This is so shallow, but I bought a used BMW a couple of years ago, and he (“Bode” as in “Bodhisattva”) is my pride and joy. Also see: my laptop.
First thing I do every morning: Open my iPad and read the news. With the cats tucked under my arms.
My favorite thing about the real-live bookstore experience is: interacting with the booksellers, getting recommendations, then quietly browsing the stacks, marveling at all the books. It’s still amazing to me how many books exist in the world.
The last thing I loved reading and the next thing I’m excited to read:
I’m literally getting nightmares from Lisa Gardner’s amazing thriller, Find Her. Lisa has such an amazing voice, and such a wicked imagination. She’s absolutely one of the best thriller writers out there. I’m also big into YA fantasy right now, so when I put down Lisa’s book, I’ll dive right into Victoria (V.E.) Schwab’s A Gathering of Shadows, the sequel to A Darker Shade of Magic. I can’t wait to see what happens with Rhy and Kell and Lila! I’m also listening to Don Winslow’s The Cartel at the gym. It’s fascinating and frightening, and I really hope the movie does the book justice. And don’t get me started with Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies… I actually set it down after the opening pages, recognizing I’ll need some decent headspace to read it. I clearly need a beach trip, STAT!
Thank you so much. This was fun!
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Also today, Tuesday, 3/22 – The Salon@615 author series presents Roy Blount, Jr., who will read from and sign his new collection, Save Room for Pie, at 6:15 p.m. at the downtown Nashville Public Library