Interview By Brett King for ITW's The Big Thrill
J.T. Ellison’s latest novel, So Close The Hand Of Death, pits Nashville homicide lieutenant Taylor Jackson against her greatest enemy. The Pretender is a brilliant psychopath who kidnapped and tortured her mentor and father figure, Sergeant Pete Fitzgerald, in Ellison’s previous novel, The Immortals. The killer returns in her latest book, this time working with disciples recruited to execute a series of disturbing crimes that echo the work of the Boston Strangler, the Zodiac Killer, and the Son of Sam. Isolating herself to protect her loved ones, Taylor Jackson is “tripwire-tense and ready to snap” as she prepares for an inevitable showdown with The Pretender.
Beginning with her debut novel in 2007, Ellison has written six books in her series and her work has been published in 21 countries. Bookreporter raved, “What J.T. Ellison has done with the city in her award-winning Taylor Jackson books is magnificent….Lovers of mystery and suspense fiction could not ask for more.” A former White House staffer, Ellison lives with her husband and a “poorly trained cat” in Nashville. I had the chance to visit with J. T. about her fascinating characters as well as her new book.
The Pretender made an appearance in your previous novels, 14 and The Immortals. Did you gain new insights into the character as a result of his collaboration with his disciples?
The Pretender has finally become the killer he set out to be. He’s a mimic, has never had a style all his own. That makes him incredibly dangerous, and hard to track. And now he wants to play a game, a game that leads to Taylor Jackson’s door. He’s turned the tables from his role in 14 – instead of being the apprentice, he is now the master. This book was five books in the making, and I’m excited that the showdown between Taylor and the Pretender has come at last.
But of course, unmasking him involves finding out who he really is. That was the fun part, finding out his underlying motivations, why he chose Taylor, why he’s a mimic. The why of the killer – it’s the reason I write these kinds of books. The psychology behind them fascinates me.
It’s clear that The Pretender regards Taylor Jackson with a twisted mix of respect and contempt. What does he understand about her that she doesn’t know about herself?
He knows she will stop at nothing to protect the ones she loves. Nothing. He’s counting on the fact that she doesn’t realize she is capable of the level of hatred it takes to step into the abyss alongside him.
On your website, you’ve written an interesting piece on “How to Build A Character.” In that spirit, what do you strive for in creating a compelling and terrifying antagonist?
He or she must have some redeeming qualities, and their motives must be understandable. I think it’s much more frightening to see a regular person pushed over the edge into murder than a gore-fest. They must tread in a world that is foreign to us, and at the same time, touch on the little bits of anger and frustration that we’ve all experienced. They must be human, fully actualized, and believable, not caricatures of the mwa-ha-ha villain. Evil resides in the most benign packages. Tapping into that can be terrifying.
Your passion for music seems to play a critical role in writing your novels. If you had to pick one, what song best captures Taylor Jackson’s personality and/or her journey?
Gosh, what a great question. Each book has it’s own individual soundtrack, so it’s hard to say. I’ll steal one from the October 2011 book, WHERE ALL THE DEAD LIE – by One Republic and Sara Bareillas – COME HOME. It’s a culmination of the struggles she’s faced, and faced with John Baldwin at her side. She’s a hard woman to love, and has a difficult time giving herself completely to her relationships. Her character has grown so much over the series, and this song is all about forgiveness and understanding, moving forward together. She’s not complete without Baldwin, and she’s finally come to understand that he is the most important thing in her life. When I heard the song for the first time, I was in tears, sobbing, in the car, this crazy light bulb shining over my head. I must have looked daft, but everything she was going through suddenly made sense.
What song best symbolizes Taylor’s relationship with FBI Special Supervisory Agent and profiler Dr. John Baldwin?
Baldwin always manifests himself in classical for me. The adagio from Rodrigo’s Concerto de Aranjuez was my initial inspiration for him. It’s wonderfully seductive, which is, at its most basic, Baldwin’s real purpose in the story. He’s her seduction, both as a lover, and into the criminal world he resides in. Rachmaninoff’s Concerto #2 is also a big, sprawling, romantic piece that embodies their whole relationship for me.
Have you ever dreamed about any of the characters in your books?
Absolutely. Especially when I’m getting close to the ¾ mark of writing the book, and things are incredibly intense. My daily word counts are rising, and I’m truly living the story. I’ll dream I’m Taylor, and part of the plot will work its way into the dream, and I’ll wake with the next day’s material ready to go. I wish it happened more, but it does happen quite a bit. The plot of the first book, ALL THE PRETTY GIRLS was a dream as well, from start to finish. Mine the dreams, I always say.
Your novels contain rich psychological themes. Did you take psychology classes at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College? Full disclosure: I’m a psychology professor, so please don’t break my heart and say you hated psychology!
I loved psychology, and did take a few classes. At the time, I think it was lost on me, but as I’ve grown older, I’ve returned to it. Maybe it’s that early training making it’s way in, or the latter day work, but I always feel like I need to study more. I just look at people’s motivations and extrapolate the worst.
Extrapolate the worst?
I’ve found that in real life, people’s motivations for doing cruel things to one another are generally borne out of ignorance and conceit. People don’t always think about their actions, their statements. They don’t look at how their actions might affect the people near them because, let’s face it, we’re all the stars of our own plays. But in the fictional realm, I can take those careless moments and turn them into pure evil. Imagine a slight you’ve felt recently. Maybe a friend neglected to invite you to a dinner where other friends were gathered. Probably a simple oversight. But what if that slight was because your friend did it on purpose? That she was really getting together a group to talk about you, or maybe… to think up the best way to murder you?
Overactive imaginations are a requirement for writers, I’m afraid.
Given your background in politics, it makes all kinds of sense that you would write a novel with political intrigue. Do you have plans for a political thriller in the future?
Never say never. I have all sorts of ideas, for all kinds of books. It’s my most fervent wish that I’m allowed to continue experimenting and growing as a writer. It’s a wonderful job. But many other writers do political books, and do it incredibly well. I think I’ve found my niche in dark psychological thrillers, with and without serial killers.
Name a favorite novel that you wish you had written.
Goodness, that’s a hard one. I have so many writers that I admire, who I read and walk away shaking my head at their brilliance. I don’t think to myself I wish I’d written that book so much as I wish I had that kind of mind, to invent that kind of world. Worldbuilding is so vital to great storytelling. I aspire to creative worldbuilding, a la Suzanne Collins. How’s that?
Works for me. Can you share a little about the next book in the Taylor Jackson series?
I can only share a little – it’s called WHERE ALL THE DEAD LIE. It releases October 1, takes place in Scotland, Memphis Highsmythe is back, and it’s not a thriller, but a Gothic suspense. It’s a revolutionary book for Taylor, I will say that.
Brett King is an award-winning psychology professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder. His debut novel, THE RADIX, appeared in May 2010. New York Times bestselling author Jeffery Deaver calls it, “A topnotch thriller! Part Da Vinci Code, part 24, The Radix is roller-coaster storytelling at its best.” The second book in the series, THE FALSE DOOR, will be released in Fall 2011. King is currently writing his third novel.