R.J. Ellory, author of A Quiet Belief in Angels, on why America…and why the South:
"Last year I did more than one hundred and fifty public events in England and abroad, and the question I am forever asked is, ‘Why, as an Englishman, are you writing books set in the United States?’
For me, the answer couldn’t be easier. Paul Auster, a wonderful New York novelist, said that becoming a writer was not a ‘career decision’ like becoming a doctor or a policeman. You didn’t so much choose it as get chosen, and once you accepted the fact that you were not fit for anything else, you had to be prepared to walk a long, hard road for the rest of your days. And that was the case for me when it came to choosing the subject matter I wanted to write about.
I was orphaned at seven and spent the next nine years living at various schools. I read voraciously. That’s what I did to fill my time. Cross-country running, table tennis and reading. I read everything I could get my hands on. Through Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie to Algernon Blackwood and HP Lovecraft, I read and read and read. And then I came across American literature – Steinbeck, Hemingway, McCullers, Harper Lee and William Faulkner. It was like coming home. There was a rhythm and a timbre and a poetry to this literature that I had never experienced before, and I fell in love.
When I was thirteen I contracted chicken pox. I was quarantined and left to my own devices for a good week or so. It was during this time – sequestered in a twelve-bed dormitory by myself, the locked door giving on to a black-and-white checkerboard-tiled corridor – that I read a book called ‘The Shining’. Half of it I didn’t understand, and the half that I did understand scared the hell out of me. It was then that I really grasped the power of a great novel, the fact that whereas non-fiction had – as its primary purpose – the conveyance of information, fiction had as its primary purpose the evocation of an emotion.
It was – coincidentally – another Stephen King book that propelled me to write. It was November of 1987. I was studying in the south of England, and a fellow student spent all his meal times and breaks reading a book. I happened to ask him what it was. ‘IT’, he said, ‘by Stephen King’. And then he went on to detail how transfixed and captivated he was by this novel. It was then – in that moment – that a lightbulb went on in my head and I decided that this was what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to write stories that would captivate and transfix readers to the same degree.
Why the South? Why write a book set in Georgia of all places? What is the appeal of this as a setting for a crime novel?’
Well, that question has a very simple answer as well. I went to visit a friend of mine in Austria, and while I was there I came across a copy of Truman Capote’s ‘In Cold Blood’. Though I had read ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ and ‘Other Voices, Other Rooms’ I had not read Capote’s non-fiction novel masterpiece. I devoured it. I read it a second time, and then became very, very interested in Capote, how the book came about, who he was etc etc. I read his published works again, some articles about him, saw the film ‘Capote’ starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, and I came to the conclusion that here was a writer who gave his life for a book. The book 'In Cold Blood' made him very rich, very respected, the most famous author in America for many, many years, but ultimately it killed him. Afterwards he never really published another word, and certainly never completed another novel, and he drank himself to death. So there was the thing: A book could save someone's life, but it could also kill them. The other aspect of it was the fact that Capote left Monroeville, Alabama as a child and went to New York. The 'In Cold Blood' research (which he undertook with his childhood friend and neighbor Harper Lee) took him from New York back to smalltown, mid-west America, namely Holcomb, Kansas. So there was the other interesting idea: the juxtaposition of two worlds - smalltown mid-west America and bigtown New York. Those were the basic threads of inspiration that started me thinking about writing the book. And I wanted to write something that would (hopefully!) make people feel the way I had felt when I read such things as To Kill a Mockingbird, In Cold Blood, The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter etc etc. A Southern drama. A sweaty, sticky, intense, almost claustrophobic drama that dealt with the seeming indomitability of the human spirit against all odds. I didn't want to write a book where a Police investigation resulted in the apprehension of a killer, the three pages of psychological revelation about why the killer did what he did, the jealousy, the mother complex, the desperate attempts to kill someone who represented some other significant figure in the killer's earlier life etc. I didn't want the story to be about the killer, but the effect that the killer's actions had - not on those he killed - but on the people whose lives he touched, both directly and indirectly.
There is yet another question about fiction, and that is how much of a writer’s work is autobiographical. Yes, I did lose my parents very early in my life, as did my central character. Yes, I did go to prison (though I went for poaching, not for murder!), and yes, I suppose I always did want to be a writer. But that’s where the similarity ends. A Quiet Belief In Angels was written out of a love for the south, a love of great literature, a passion for language and prose and perplexing mysteries! It was not written to exorcise personal demons, though I can say something about this book that makes it special to me. I think it was Hemingway who talked about losing things. He said that if you lost something bad, then the hole it left behind just filled up naturally with the good experiences of life. However, if you lost something or someone good, then the hole it left behind…well, you had to work hard to fill it up. With every other book I have written I came away feeling that I had added something to myself, that I now knew something more about a subject, that my perspective and experience was somehow enhanced. With A Quiet Belief In Angels it was quite different. When I finished the book I really felt like I’d left something of myself behind. And that – whatever it might be – is what I hope you find when you read it."