Perry Mason Disciple: 10 Questions With Crime Writer J.T. Ellison

  J.T. Ellison

J.T. Ellison

By Sean Tuohy

You know those things that go bump in the night? Most of us tend to hide under the covers. The New York Times best-selling author J.T. Ellison runs toward the sound with a flashlight in one hand and a note pad in the other.

With the help of favorite television lawyer Perry Mason, Ellison took her love for the macabre and mystery a step further and began writing novels about killers, cops, and everything in between. Her next novel, The Lost Key, was written with Catherine Coulter and comes out Sept. 30.

I sat down with Ellison to talk about her career, Perry Mason, and what the future holds.

ST: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

JTE: I read very early, and was advanced for my age. So I was probably 8 years old and was writing some poetry and little short stories. I received my first rejection at 10 years old. My grandmother sent a poem I’d written to True Confessions magazine. Of course they said no…it was about slavery!

ST: You lived in rural Colorado and than moved to Washington D.C. Did this have an affect on your writing later in life?

JTE: I think it did. I was very sheltered in Colorado. We lived on a dirt road 40 minutes from the nearest town. There was a great group of über-smart people around, but it was small, and while my parents were wonderful about exposing me to culture, D.C. was so much more accessible and immediate. Politics permeated every discussion. We could go to the symphony and opera all the time, and did. There were so many different kinds of people, from all over the world. It was incredibly different, and helped round me out.

ST: How long did it take you to complete your first novel?

JTE: About a year. I did six months of research before I started writing. But I had a lot of stops and starts until I settled down to it full-time in 2003.

ST: Can you describe what influence Perry Mason had on your writing?

JTE: I thought Perry Mason was God when I was growing up—not a god, but God himself. No flowing beards and pearly gates. When I said my nightly prayers, it was a sober man in a black suit I was talking to. That may be where my crime fiction fascination came from.

ST: What draws you to crime fiction? Is it the mystery, the characters, the problem solving?

JTE: All of it. I’m fascinated by how awful people can be to one another. How cutthroat and mean and deadly. And how some people will fight to stop those capable of committing such heinous acts. I like white hats and black hats, like examining the why behind the crimes and the effect crime has on normal people.

ST: What is your writing process like?

JTE: I write daily, and shoot for 1,000 words a day. I do business first thing and really settle into my writing day around 10:00 a.m. or 11:00 a.m. I write until my husband gets home, with an hour break for lunch. I definitely do my best work in the late afternoon. I am not a morning person. There’s a lot of tea being pumped into my system.

ST: Do you have an in-depth research process?

JTE: I used to. I did a lot of hands-on work—ride-alongs, autopsies, and interviewing everyone I could find. Now it’s catch as catch can, skimming the important parts and supplementing on the go as I write. I have a great assistant who can grab details for me, and I read a lot of non-fiction. So much of my work is topical, sometimes too topical. So I can do research by reading the daily news.

ST: What does the future hold for J.T. Ellison?

JTE: More books, and more writing. I have a few more under contract right now, and ideas for more to come. The mass market of When Shadows Fall releases Aug. 26, the mass market of my first collaboration book, The Final Cut, with Catherine Coulter, comes out Sept. 2. The Lost Key, also with Catherine, comes out Sept. 30, and my next Dr. Samantha Owens book is due out in June 2015. No rest for the wicked, eh?

ST: What advice do you give to up and coming writers?

JTE: Read everything you can get your hands on. Read in your genre so you know what’s out there and what the standards are. Read Stephen King’s On Writing and Elizabeth George’s Write Away. Make lists. Journal. Anytime something strikes your fancy, write it down. Work everyday. Guard your writing time, it is your most precious commodity. Don’t give up. Simultaneously submit. Believe in yourself. If you’re hitting roadblocks, read The War of Art by Stephen Pressfield. If you have real writer’s block, try The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron.

ST: Can you tell us one random fact about yourself?

JTE: I like golf. I am inches from being a crazy cat lady. And I am a really good shot with a pistol (Did I mention I am not a fan of math?).

To learn more about J.T. Ellison, check out her official website, like her Facebook page, or follow her on Twitter @thrillerchick.

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