By Sean Tuohy
Robert Ellis takes readers into a world filled with dark characters and twisted crimes in his best-selling novels. His latest novel, City of Echoes featuring LAPD detective Matt Jones, has garnered major praise.
Ellis talked to me recently about his writing career, his research process, and what inspired Matt Jones and City of Echoes.
Sean Tuohy: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Robert Ellis: I spent most of my early life wanting to make films, but was always an avid reader. In high school I used to skip classes and go to movies. Then one day I discovered City Hall. I sat through several murder trials, which absolutely blew my mind. I mention it because this was really where my writing began. Seeds that wouldn't bloom until many years later. I wrote the trials up as short stories and turned them over to my English teacher (which almost got me kicked out of school!). I also co-edited the school newspaper, so writing was always a part of my life.
But this is a tough question because it took me another six years before I decided that I really wanted to become a writer. I remember the exact moment it happened, and it's a difficult memory to deal with because it came with a certain price. I was 24 years old and driving a VW bus west on Route 70 about 30 miles east of Pittsburgh. It was a hot summer day in August and I was on my way to graduate school for an MFA in film production. Traffic had been reduced to a single lane because of road construction, and I was sandwiched in between two tractor trailers.
I'm sure you can guess what happened. Everything was good until the truck in front of me came to a sudden stop. When I checked the rearview mirror I thought the truck a hundred yards behind me was going to stop as well. After a few moments, I checked again and guessed that the driver had fallen asleep at the wheel. The truck was coming right at me, full speed ahead. I had enough time to get the VW bus into first gear, pop the clutch, and turn the steering wheel. I didn't have a seatbelt on, and was knocked unconscious on impact. The van was totaled. I must have been out for 10 or 15 minutes, because when I woke up, there was a crowd standing in front of the wreckage thinking that they were looking at a dead kid. It was a really horrendous time. An entire family had died in the same accident on that very spot one week before. Another family died on the same spot one week later. To this day I have no idea how I survived except to say that I knew it was coming for about five seconds. But the bottom line was that I passed through this near death experience a changed human being. My perspectives had changed, my entire world. Suddenly an MFA in film production didn't seem so necessary any more, especially because I already had a BFA in the same subject from the same university. Life was no longer infinite. I couldn't handle wasting time repeating lessons I'd already learned.
As it turned out, Walter Tevis, the novelist who wrote The Hustler, The Man Who Fell to Earth, and The Color of Money was teaching in the university's English department. With his help, I quit school after the first quarter, rented a small house, and started writing. I never dreamed that one day I would create an epic thriller like City of Echoes. I never thought anything like this would happen, and I'm very grateful to everyone who helped me get to this point as a writer!
ST: What authors did you worship growing up?
RE: Elmore Leonard's Unknown Man No. 89 and The Switch changed my life. Before Leonard I had been reading things like John Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps, Doyle's The Complete Sherlock Holmes. But Leonard was the first author who brought the seedy side of life into the forefront for me. Leonard was my introduction to characters who were essentially losers, and the whole thing made me laugh. I love to do this in my own writing now. All of my novels involve a character like this, usually an opponent who's out in the open (meaning that he's not the main opponent even though the reader thinks he is). Writing about Martin Fellows in City of Fire, Nathan G. Cava in The Lost Witness, or LAPD Detective Dan Cobb in Murder Season, is absolutely the best part of making a story. Fleshing out characters like these is what makes it fun. When I wrote The Dead Room, specifically the chapters from Eddie Trisco's point of view, I wrote each one in a couple of hours, then ran out of the office into the living room laughing, even cackling. Every one of the Eddie Trisco chapters, actually every chapter with any of the characters I just mentioned, was published as written. That's something I never thought about before. These chapters with these characters never required editing. It must me that when a writer creates characters like these, the writer is truly at play. I know actors feel this way about playing the "bad guy." They say they love it.
ST: What is your writing process like? Do you outline?
RE: I've heard many authors claim that they do not outline. In fact, it may be possible to write a detective story without outlining. At the same time, one of my favorite authors of detective fiction once said that he doesn't usually outline, but did for three of his novels. When he named the titles, I didn't say anything, but those three works are by far his best novels.
While it may be possible to write a detective story or a formulaic mystery without an outline, there is no possible way to write novels like mine, all-out thrillers, without an outline. Writing a thriller means that your story is layered. In order to pay the story out and entertain your readers, it's all about the number and intensity of the twists and turns toward the end. The reveals. Your hero's revelations. It's not a casual process. No one could "wing it" because the writer needs to set the moment up.
This is how I look at it. You can't make a great movie without a great screenplay. You can't build a great building without a great set of architectural plans. You can't paint a great painting without a great rough sketch or great subject. Why would a novel be any different? A novel is the most complex work of art in any medium. In a novel, the author is creating an entire world. How could anyone begin to build that world if they didn't have some idea of how they wanted it to turn out in the end?
ST: What is your research process like?
RE: I love doing research. I've walked through every inch of Police Headquarters in Los Angeles where Lena Gamble works. I've toured prisons outside Philadelphia, the morgue at Yale University Hospital in Connecticut, and even climbed to the top of the Capitol Dome in Washington in order make sure the final chase in Access to Power was accurate. Most, if not all, of the details in my novels, including all of the DNA stories in City of Fire, are factually true. And as I'm often asked by readers of City of Fire—yes, it's true. If someone in your family survived the Black Plague in Europe so long ago, then you have a gene that mutated in such a way that you are immune to HIV.
I think things like this make the novel feel more real. Like we spoke about before, a novelist is setting his or her story in a place. That means that they're creating a world. Anything a writer can do to give that world detail will really pay out in the end.
ST: In City of Echoes we meet homicide Detective Matt Jones. Where did he come from?
RE: This is a great question because when I started research for City Of Echoes and began fleshing out a story, the hero wasn't Matt Jones, but Lena Gamble. When I begin a new project I start a journal dedicated to the new novel. This is the document where I type in my ideas, a possible premise, odd facts, anything and everything is in this file. This is also the place where I work out my new ideas and basically ramble and think out loud. At the end of the project this file could be 75 pages long. I mention this because I just took a look at my journal, and for the better part of a month, City Of Echoes was all set to be the fourth Lena Gamble novel.
The reason I made the switch to a new character in LAPD Detective Matt Jones was that Lena Gamble had too much experience to be the lead in this story. Remember, this a thriller, not a detective story. In detective stories you have characters like Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon. There's nothing innocent about the hero in a detective story. The big difference, the key difference, is that in a thriller, your hero is also the victim. That is a very important concept that even most publishers don't get. Everyone wants to call every work of crime fiction a thriller. But nothing could be less true. In a thriller, the hero is usually a complete innocent. This is the way Lena Gamble began in City of Fire. A female detective just promoted to the elite Robbery Homicide Division and completely green. But by the time Gamble works through her third homicide case in Murder Season, she's right there with Sam Spade.
City Of Echoes is about a lot of things—greed, Wall Street, family and friendship, truth and beauty, and ultimately, love and death. As a boy Matt Jones was abandoned by his father when his mother died. He was raised by his aunt in New Jersey, and when he went to Afghanistan as a soldier he became best friends with Kevin Hughes, a young LAPD cop. After their tour of duty, Hughes convinced Jones to move to Los Angeles and become a cop. That was five years ago. When City Of Echoes begins, Matt Jones is working his very first night as a homicide detective. And unfortunately, the murder is a personal outrage making his challenge extremely difficult, and his survival, very much in doubt. That's what makes City Of Echoes an epic thriller.
ST: What attracts you to the mystery genre?
RE: Someone who wants to write novels has a lot of choices. From general fiction to sci-fi to romance to young adult to crime fiction. For me crime fiction is a more fascinating genre to explore ideas because it seems to mirror real life. Crime fiction, and by that I mean detective stories, crime stories, and thrillers, define and detail and question and criticize the world we live in today. And let's face, getting justice in the real world is very much an uncertainty. As most of my readers know, my novels are about more than the murders or even the story. It gets back to building that world we spoke about, and deciding what to put in, what to leave out, and what might, if you're lucky, push your story to the edge.
ST: What is next for Robert Ellis?
RE: Writing City Of Echoes was a very special experience for me. My editors have always said that they believe each one of my novels has been better than the last. This feels true to me, and I think the reason might be that I still feel like I'm learning. With each new novel I feel like I'm starting from scratch and have to learn how to do it all over again. Maybe it's because of the car wreck I survived.
Keeping this in mind, I'm very lucky to have an editor and publisher who, when confronted with anything out of the ordinary, anything that might seem experimental, don't ask why? At least for me, this time around, they said why not?!
My next novel is The Love Killings, and it's not quite a second book in the Detective Matt Jones series. Instead, it's an actual continuation of book one, City Of Echoes, which comes to the last page with a lot of loose ends. So much is still up in the air. So this is what going to happen. City Of Echoes plays out. Then, after only six weeks in story time, The Love Killings begins and the chase is on. I'm really jazzed about this, and can't say how much I appreciate the creative freedom I've been given. Let's hope it works!
ST: What advice do you give to aspiring writers?
RE: The first professor I had in film school was Joseph L. Anderson. At the time, Joe was the leading American authority on Japanese film in the country and beyond. Joe spoke perfect Japanese, worked with Akira Kurosawa on “Throne Of Blood,” and produced the Japanese Director Series for PBS. The first thing he said in my first film class was that your success as an artist depends on your ability to know the difference between good and great. Forget about personal biases and personal opinions. There's a difference between something good, and something great.
You need to see it, and you've got to know it, in order to study and learn from the artists who are pushing the genre forward. That doesn't mean that reading a really bad novel or watching a film that sucks isn't going to be helpful. It's just important that a new writer understands the difference.
After that, once a new writer gets off the ground, he or she needs to learn how to take criticism. From fellow writers, editors, advisors, from everyone the new writer trusts who knows something about stories and writing. Don't ever take it personally like I do (laughs)!
ST: Can you tell us one random fact about yourself?
RE: I love to cook. I love my dogs, Harry (Bosch) and SamE (Elvis Cole). And drinking wine while listening to music is pretty good, too.