by Angela Wilson
Taylor Jackson is back in print - and this time the Nashville lieutenant is dodging in-house politics while matching wits with a highly-skilled killer. This latest case takes fans on a wild ride - one that they continue to rave about on their blogs and book buying sites. Today, the talented creator of the Jackson series, J.T. Ellison, drops by to chat about the latest in the series with Book Addict Editor Angela Wilson.
Tell us about your latest Taylor Jackson novel, Judas Kiss.
Judas Kiss is a bit of a departure for me, it’s not a serial killer novel like the first two Taylor Jackson books. The plot centers on a single murder - a young, pregnant suburban mother named Corinne Wolff, bludgeoned to death in her home in an upper middle class Nashville neighborhood. The crime stories that seem to capture our interest as a society are the ones that take place where we feel the safest, and the majority of homicides take place in our homes. And we all know how much the media loves a good suburban murder, especially in my fictional Nashville. There’s a sense of the fantastic surrounding the case, an “it could have happened to me” mentality couple with the media frenzy – satellite trucks parks on quiet streets, reporters camped on the lawns, every moment chronicled. It doesn’t happen that way in the Section 8 housing. The drug and vendetta killings don’t make the news very much. So in a sense, I’m capitalizing on what does capture our attention.
And in another departure, this book was right from the heart. Twisted as I am, my imagination usually guides the stories. I made an exception for Judas Kiss. The murder of Corinne Wolf was based on a real case. In 2006, I saw an article from a North Carolina newspaper about a young pregnant mother named Michelle Young found murdered by her sister. Her death was violent, and her child had been alone in the house with her mother’s corpse. The media reported a number of salient details, including the bloody footprints the child had left through the house. I watched the case, hoping there would be a resolution. Unfortunately, Michelle Young’s murder still isn’t solved. Her husband is the prime suspect. That became the opening of Judas Kiss, but the rest of the story is an utter fabrication.
The leading cause of death for pregnant women is homicide. It breaks my heart, and I wanted to share that with my readers.
You have received critical acclaim for the Jackson novels and were named Best Mystery/Thriller Writer of 2008 by Nashville Scene. Tell us, is this a tough standard to live up to?
Certainly. The honor of being singled out as the best of anything is overwhelming. As an author, my foremost goal is to improve my craft, to make each book better, stronger and sleeker than the last. I’m constantly evolving as a writer, learning more about the craft, working to find efficiencies in my writing. Hopefully this constant worrying will allow me to keep getting better. And maybe I’ll be a best of again someday.
You worked in D.C. at the White House and Department of Commerce before you moved into marketing and financial analysis in the private sector. What did you take from your experiences in D.C. that works into your novels? Does it help with scenarios? Character development?
Working in D.C., especially in politics, is a Ph.D. course in human nature. I haven’t written a political thriller yet, but I certainly have one buzzing around in my head. To be honest, I left Washington and politics because I was much too idealistic. Fiction allows me to live in the world I wish existed, rather than the rancorous realities of Washington’s elite. But for the writing, my adopted hometown of Nashville has been much more influential. I moved here over ten years ago and have been seduced by the dichotomies – class wars, serious crime, the beauty of the city and the strong southern style that permeates every molecule of air here. It’s a great town, one I’m proud to write about.
How did a woman who worked D.C. and marketing end up researching forensics and crime?
I’ve asked myself that question before. I attribute it to the early days dating my husband, and our quiet date nights at home, studying for our graduate school classes, with our favorite shows Profiler and Millennium playing in the background. They sparked an interest in law enforcement that I didn’t know existed, and it grew from there. If I were ten years younger, I would have gone to the FBI to work, without a doubt. The cultural phenomenon that is forensics would have reached me sooner, and I would have been drawn in before my career path was set in a different direction.
What fascinates you about forensics and crime?
I love to figure out what motivates people to do things. I studied psychology, actually thought about a path in psychiatry for a brief moment (the whole med school cadaver thing was too much for my delicate constitution to handle.) Then I got caught up in the thrill of politics and veered away from that path. Finding it again through writing has been one of my greatest joys. I like to listen to people, to see what’s behind the words, the façade. Everyone has a secret, a shame, a motivation for their public persona. The same goes for a criminal. How do they decide that taking the easy way out is their purpose in life? What catalyst drives their break from good to evil? Where in their psyche does it say that cheating and stealing and murdering is good, and right? When do they proceed to choose that path? Choices… for me it’s all about the choices people make.
In your research with law enforcement agencies, what was a key point you discovered that you never realized - and probably never would have if you weren’t sitting with the officers, listening to their war stories?
That it takes a very specific personality type to make it as a cop, especially a homicide detective. The horror and depravity that they see every day . . . anything I write pales against the realities they live with day to day. There is endless capacity for evil in people. It’s such an honor to write their stories, and I strive to make the non-law enforcement world understand the people who keep them safe.
Is there one case that ever creeped you out so much, you couldn’t even think of writing about something similar?
Sure. I fictionalized a local rapist in my first novel, before he was caught. Not bright. I actually almost did a true crime book on him, because he’s fascinating, but got too scared to do it. I didn’t want my name attached to his in perpetuity. No thanks. And my new book, Edge of Black, has a scene that I wrote on a Thursday that freaked me out so much that I couldn’t even open the manuscript until the following Monday. But I figure if I’m scaring myself, I’m scaring my reader, and that’s what it’s all about.
How did your move to Nashville impact your writing?
It was my personal catalyst. I can honestly say I don’t know if I would be a writer if I hadn’t. I’ve always loved to write, but had a professor in college discourage me, so I went the politics route. When we moved, my expertise was in presidential politics and aerospace marketing, neither of which is to be found in abundance in Nashville. So in a fit of desperation spawned by boredom so deep my brain was turning to mush, I took a job at a vet’s office. I thought it would be fun to work the front desk, greeting the people and their animals… well, the vet decided I should be a tech instead. After three days looking at the back ends of the fluffy creatures I so love, I decided it wasn’t for me. But just as I made the decision to quit, I clumsily picked up a large golden retriever and ruptured a disk in my back. It needed surgical repair, and I was down for the count recovering for a year. I read for pleasure, something I hadn’t done in many years. Crime fiction became my favorite, and I discovered John Sandford. The light bulb went on midway through the Prey series – I want to write a book. And the rest is history.
I see in your bio that you are owned by a poorly trained cat. I know my cats are extremely helpful with writing. They like to leave hairball gifts on my keyboard, or claw my legs until I let them have the nice, comfy office chair. How does your cat aid your writing time?
Hmmm… I’ve just realized that instead of Sandford, I should be crediting my cat with getting me writing. Jade was a rescue, a 5-week-old abandoned kitten with a cold. They were going to put her down; they can’t keep sick cats around. I took one look at her, fell in love, and said do what it takes to get her healthy. The vet who made her better? Yep, that’s the one I worked for.
Jade also knows how to sit quietly and listen when I need to read my work aloud, and she’s especially helpful when I have a particularly sticky scene that isn’t working. Talking it out helps me coalesce my thoughts, and she’s very patient. Though she does tend to fight with my laptop for lap space, and manages to sit on each page of my manuscripts.
What does your husband think of all the blood, guts and forensic research you do for your novels? Does he sleep with one eye open?
He tells everyone that if he dies suspiciously, I should be the first suspect. In all seriousness, he’s been brilliant. He puts up with a lot – me getting excited about my research, doing ride-alongs that take me into harm’s way. He doesn’t blink when I come home from the bookstore with armloads of research books. I’m working on a book now that involves Wicca and vampirism, so he’s been very patient while I explore these new worlds (ie: tell him spells over dinner.) He listens when I need to vent, reads my work, travels with me, and is an all-around fabulous guy. I honestly couldn’t do it without him.
Who are you reading?
I’ve looked right and left – to my right is The Fugitive Poets: Modern Southern Poetry in Perspective, by William Pratt, an anthology and treatment of the fascinating southern group known as The Fugitives, and Cause of Death: A Writer’s Guide to Death, Murder and Forensic Medicine. To the left is Deadly Doses: A Writer’s Guide to Poisons, and The Masque of the Black Tulip, by Lauren Willig. I’m also reading (for the millionth time) Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. I find that her stories transport me and help me focus on my own work. They’re comfort reads. And I just finished The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer. Brilliant book. My book club is reading The Middle Place by Kelly Corrigan, so I need to sandwich that in this week too. I do usually have four or five books going at once, all in different spots in the house. Oh, and I’ve been reading Anthem, by Ayn Rand, on my iPhone, testing out that technology. It just doesn’t replace the feel, the tangible sense that paper gives, but it’s okay.
Where can we find you on the Web?
My website is www.JTEllison.com. On the Author’s Spot page, there are links to my blog, Murderati.com, my Facebook and MySpace pages, RedRoom and Publisher’s Marketplace. My News page has all the latest info, and of course you can Google me - that will give you infinite places to look.
Thanks so much for having me, Angela! This has been wonderful!