The Big Thrill Interview on The Lost Key by Catherine Coulter and J.T. Ellison
By Steph Cha
J.T. Ellison is a seasoned thriller writer with more than a dozen novels holstered to her belt. She’s written both series and standalones, made bestseller lists and won accolades, including the 2010 ITW Thriller Award for best paperback original for her novel THE COLD ROOM. In her latest venture (one of them, anyway), she’s teamed up with the formidable Catherine Coulter, for the Nicholas Drummond series, about a Brit in the FBI. THE FINAL CUT came out last year and sold like thriller-stamped hotcakes, and the sequel THE LOST KEY hits stores this month.
J.T. took time out of her busy thriller-cranking schedule to talk collaboration, discipline, and White House gaffes.
I’ll start with the most obvious question—what’s it like collaborating on a novel, and with Catherine Coulter in particular? Enquiring lonely writers want to know.
It’s awesome. Absolutely one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had. I wasn’t in the market to co-write, and I wouldn’t have done it with just anyone. But I’ve been a huge Catherine Coulter fan my whole life. I’ve been reading her books—both romances and thrillers—since well before I wanted to be a writer. The opportunity to work with one of my all-time favorite writers was impossible to pass up. And as it happens, it’s bigger and better than I could have ever hoped. Not only am I getting a Ph.D. in writing, we have a real synchronicity together that leads to heights of creativity we’d never find ourselves. We’re downright combustible together.
Writing is supposed to be a lonely occupation, but I’ve always had creative people around me that make me better, from my first critique group, to beta readers and editors, and now Catherine. They do it in screenwriting, so why not novels?
THE LOST KEY is the second in your Brit in the FBI series, featuring new agent Nicholas Drummond. How did you go about doing research for this novel? Did you and Catherine divvy it up?
I do a lot more research than Catherine simply because she’s got a Master’s in early 19th Century history, and a career of research behind her for both her historicals and her FBI thrillers, and I’m playing catch up. For THE LOST KEY, we spent a lot of time working on the story together, doing a pretty comprehensive outline, then I went off and worked on the actual writing, and did most of the research on the fly as I went. It was incredibly broad for this book, including a research trip to Scotland to get everything just right. My kind of research, actually, the hands-on work.
You’ve created multiple series, and I wonder if you have any thoughts on series vs. standalone writing. When you’re writing an individual novel, how much attention do you pay to its position in your series? Do you ever reach a point where you think a series is just done? What’s in store for Nicholas Drummond’s?
I will tell you, I’ve learned what NOT to do in a series, having anchored my Taylor Jackson series too much in the reality of police work. I’m very careful now to make sure there’s lots of room for the series to grow and expand and take on a life of its own, which is what’s happening with both my Sam novels and with Nicholas and Mike. We’ve got big international thrillers going on, and I see that trend continuing. We’re already talking about book 3, and what we’re planning is going to be a blast to research and to write.
Standalones are both harder and easier, in many ways. You have to create a new world every time, but the characters evolve over the course of the story, and there are never any loose ends, which I like. I love both forms.
You’ve written, what, more than a dozen novels? That is so many books! Do you write quickly? Is it easy for you?
I’ve actually written fifteen, having quite literally just finished my new Samantha Owens for next year, WHAT LIES BEHIND. I feel the same way. Fifteen novels! It’s totally surreal to me. Yes, I do write fast. I’ve done a minimum of two books a year since I started—making up for lost time, I guess. Every book is different, though. Some flow smoothly, some are teeth-pullers, some are quiet and malleable, others refuse the call and make me wonder what in the world I was thinking even trying.
Consistency is the key. It’s all about word counts for me, setting and measuring goals, and giving myself rewards when I meet said goals. I know if I sit down and touch my work every day, I’ll end up with the words I need. I shoot for 1000 words a day. Some days are more, some days are less, some days I watch movies. But I do try to write at least five days a week. I love word sprints—I can write 1000 words in an hour if I really focus, and then poof—I’m done for the day, should I so choose. But that’s usually when the juices are getting flowing, so I’ll do another, just to see what happens. I love the big days. 12K is my personal best.
Do you also read a lot? What do you like to read?
I’m a huge reader, and I like most everything but what I started in, serial killers. I have enough nightmares to share, without bringing in others. I love YA, that whole sense of awakening to the world, and dystopians, and fantasy, and historical romance and domestic suspense. And spy thrillers. I’m always down for a great spy thriller. Plus the usual suspects from the literary world. These genres are where the bulk of my fiction reading has been in the past few years. My non-fiction is varied too—lots on writing and process, our society, histories of the intelligence services, anything and everything that might help my work.
It looks like you became a (bestselling, acclaimed, beloved) writer despite active discouragement from people who should have known better. What kept the dream alive? Any advice for aspiring writers?
Can I keep you? You’re making me blush, for real. Let’s stick with bestselling, that’s the only one I will claim.
I did have a lot of “active discouragement” (love that, by the way, I’m stealing it) from people I greatly respected. It still amazes me—yes, I wasn’t good enough to get published coming out of college, but if I’d been encouraged to hone my craft, maybe I’d have a few practice novels in the drawer, instead of starting from scratch the way I did, eight years later, and writing furiously to make up for lost time. The dream was snuffed out for me, completely, and it wasn’t until a librarian handed me a copy of a John Sandford novel that it was relit.
My advice would be not to let anyone, ever, make you feel like you’re less than them. You have to believe in yourself, believe in your craft, believe your story will find a home. But you need to do everything you can to help it along. Read your brains out, work hard, write every day you can, and recognize that resistance is an ugly wench who will try her damnedest to drag you away from your dream, even while you’re living it. I’m still pissed I let her get in my way for so many years, and I get quite upset when she rears her head, as she’s wont to do. But my muse is stronger, and I let them battle it out while I get my butt in the chair and get to work.
And kind of off topic, but you worked in the White House! Do you have a favorite story, presidential or otherwise?
I always loved it when the President was leaving, or flying in, and they asked people to join him on the White House lawn to wave goodbye, or hello. Marine 1 was incredibly impressive, and he so genuinely loved seeing his folks. He always stopped and chatted with people, made sure we knew he appreciated us being there. Such a class act.
And then there was the day I nearly got myself shot for running into the Vice President. Falling into him on the main staircase at the Executive Office Building is more like it. I wasn’t paying attention, and I’ve never been good with stairs. I was rushing down, he was rushing up with his cadre of agents, and I slipped, and fell right into his arms. Things were tense for a moment until they realized I was just another clumsy young thing. He had me stop by the office and signed a photo for me. Another classy guy.