R.J. Ellory's standout new novel, Saints of New York, is our July 2014 Top Pick in Mystery. Past and present storylines are equally compelling in this vast and beautifully written novel. We chatted with the British author via email about his masterful new work.
The characters in Saints of New York—from the corrupt cops to the good cops—are all extremely flawed. They’re also surrounded by a world that is extremely dark, and even the “saints” are far from saintly. Was this a difficult book to write?
I think it’s an honest book, and I try to imbue every book I write with that kind of analysis and exposure of the human condition. I do not want to write material that strains someone’s believability. I understand that we have to suspend disbelief, but I am of the opinion that if you create strong, realistic characters, characters that people can really identify with, then the situations you place those characters in become all the more credible and acceptable. It is people that I am interested in. Emotions, the internal world, the subjective, the relationships and mistakes and passions and aspirations of people . . . all this kind of thing. People are flawed, each and every one of us, and some quite dramatically flawed. I just wanted to write a book that portrayed a real person dealing with real situations, and even though his life is something like a car crash, he does have this one true thread of decency and humanity as an innate part of his own make-up, and this is the thing that keeps him together. The unsettling realities in the book are nevertheless realities, and as one character says, ‘Just when you think you’ve seen the worst that one human being can do to another, someone goes and does something worse.’
Perhaps my favorite parts of the book are when Frank is describing in detail the history of the New York Mafia. What kind of research did you do, and how much of this history is based in truth? (Essentially, are you in danger of getting whacked?)
I would hope that I am always in danger of getting whacked! From exposés of the CIA in A Simple Act of Violence to the government-sanctioned actions of the Mafia in A Quiet Vendetta to anything I have ever written about the police and organised crime, I think that you can’t escape telling the truth. Inevitably, some people are not going to appreciate the truth being told, but if you can’t upset a few people, then what’s the point of writing this kind of book in the first place? As for research, I am a research junkie, to be honest. The information is out there, and people will talk. Using the Internet—not as a source in itself, but as a means by which you can find credible and reliable sources—makes life a lot easier. I tend to operate with the journalistic tenet: Find a source, confirm it twice.
"Inevitably, some people are not going to appreciate the truth being told, but if you can’t upset a few people, then what’s the point of writing this kind of book in the first place?"
You’ve described your writing style as being very organic—no outline or synopsis—which means your thrillers have the potential to surprise even you. Without giving too much away, what was surprising to you about Saints of New York?
I think the realness of it—the way in which I sort of pushed the characters forward only so far, and then they ran with the ball themselves. That may sound odd, but sometimes it really does feel as though the characters become so substantial as people that they influence the direction a novel takes. Speaking of working with no outline or synopsis, the first thing I decide when I embark upon a new book is What emotions do I want to create in the reader? or When someone has finished this book and they think about it some weeks later, what do I want them to remember? That’s key for me. Those are the books that stay with me, and those are the books I am constantly trying to write.
There are a million books that are brilliantly written, but mechanically so. They are very clever, there are great plot twists, and a brilliant denouement, but if the reader is asked three weeks after reading the book what they thought of it they might have difficulty remembering it. Why? Because it was all very objective. There was no subjective involvement. The characters didn’t experience real situations, or they didn’t react to them the way ordinary people react. It was more of a mental exercise, a puzzle-solving exercise, than a real emotional rollercoaster. In fact, some of the greatest books ever published, the ones that are now rightfully regarded as classics, are those books that have a very simple storyline, but a very rich and powerful emotional pull. It’s the emotion that makes them memorable, and it’s the emotion that makes them special. Character is everything for me, so a book should be filled with the blood of the character, at least figuratively speaking!
In writing this book it changed along the way, as all my books do, and—as I said—they change because the characters become that much more real, and thus they actually begin to inform and influence the direction of the story. I don’t want that to sound pretentious, you know, but I am always working against an emotional barometer. If I don’t feel it, then the reader won’t. Personally, I have a major issue with central characters who are always right, who leap to the wildest conclusions about things, and are then proven right. People are not like that at all. They make mistakes constantly, and investigators and police are the same.
You’re born and bred British but write great, moody American crime. Why the fascination with the United States?
I think I grew up with American culture all around me. I grew up watching "Starsky & Hutch," "Hawaii Five-O," "Kojak," all those kinds of things. I loved the atmosphere, the diversity of culture, the fact that every state is entirely different from every other, and there are 50 of them. The politics fascinated me. America is a new country compared to England, and it just seems to me that there was so much colour and life inherent in its society. I have visited many times now, and I honestly feel like I’m visiting my second home.
And I believe that as a non-American there are many things about American culture that I can look at as a spectator. The difficulty with writing about an area that you are very familiar with is that you tend to stop noticing things. You take things for granted. The odd or interesting things about the people and the area cease to be odd and interesting. As an outsider you never lose that viewpoint of seeing things for the first time, and for me that is very important.
Also many writers are told to write about the things they are familiar with. I don’t think this is wrong, but I think it is very limiting. I believe you should also write about the things that fascinate you. I think in that way you have a chance to let your passion and enthusiasm for the subject come through in your prose. I also believe that you should challenge yourself with each new book. Take on different and varied subjects. Do not allow yourself to fall into the trap of writing things to a formula. Someone once said to me that there were two types of novels. There were those that you read simply because some mystery was created and you had to find out what happened. The second kind of novel was one where you read the book simply for the language itself, the way the author used words, the atmosphere and description. The truly great books are the ones that accomplish both. I think any author wants to write great novels. I don’t think anyone—in their heart of hearts—writes because it’s a sensible choice of profession, or for financial gain. I just love to write, and though the subject matter that I want to write about takes me to the States, it is nevertheless more important to me to write something that can move someone emotionally, perhaps change a view about life, and at the same time to try and write it as beautifully as I can. I also want to write about subjects—whether they be political conspiracies, serial killings, race relations, political assassinations or FBI and CIA investigations—that could only work in the USA. The kind of novels I want to write just wouldn’t work in small, green, leafy villages where you find Hobbits!
What books have been the most influential to your work?
That’s a big question, but I would have to cite Conan Doyle, also Lovecraft, Poe, Ambrose Bierce, a whole host of British and American mystery and horror writers that I read as a child and a teenager. And then on through Steinbeck, Hemingway, Capote, Carson McCullers, Mailer, DeLillo, Annie Proulx, Tim O’Brien, Cormac McCarthy. I am a huge fan of the different ways in which writers defy the "rules’ of writing." Language is so powerful that you can twist it and turn it and still have it hold fast. Nowadays, I spend a great deal of time looking for and reading writers who make me feel like a clumsy and inexperienced writer.
"Language is so powerful that you can twist it and turn it and still have it hold fast."
Well, we have just released the 12th title in the UK, called Carnival of Shadows. I am currently close to competing the 2015 book for the UK, meanwhile working on numerous and varied music-related projects. I am releasing a graphic novel in France based on a trilogy of short stories called Three Days in Chicagoland, and starting the many and varied tours that happen during the summer and fall. I will be at Bouchercon in Long Island in November, and as for the title that is next to be released in the U.S., I am uncertain. We shall have to wait and see!