Hi J.T. and welcome to SHADOWS FALL N FRIENDS. When did you start scribbling? Tell us a bit about your writing history.
I’ve been a writer my whole life. I started young, with picture book stories, little shorts with handmade felt hard covers that I illustrated and carried around proudly. I dabbled in poetry, read anything my parents would let me (which was pretty much everything) and dreamed of being famous one day. Then came my first introduction to the harsh world of publishing.
I won a contest when I was in the third grade – a poetry assignment for the local newspaper. I was studying slavery at the time, and wrote this poem from a slave’s point of view. My grandmother on my Dad’s side was a journalistic type; she wrote a column in the newspaper, did some short romances, that kind of stuff. My parents sent her the poem. She sent it to TRUE CONFESSIONS magazine. I promptly received a very nice REJECTION LETTER. I was eight. I understood why they didn’t want my poem about slavery – really, what’s romantic about that?
Fast forward to college, senior year, and a professor who told me I’d never get published. That probably offhand comment by a frustrated artist killed my creative spirit. I stopped writing, took a job in politics, went to graduate school to learn how to run political campaigns. Met my husband, so I guess I need to thank her at the same time. It’s one of those things, the road not taken, which baffles me. I can’t imagine doing it any other way, but what if she had been encouraging, thought I should go ahead with my MFA? Would I still be here?
Fast forward to 2003. I’m living in Tennessee, am in between jobs, and have some time on my hands while I recover from back surgery. I’m reading John Sandford’s Prey series front to back. I have a wild hair. I’m going to write a book.
What inspired you to write this book?
In 2006, I saw an article from a North Carolina newspaper about a young pregnant mother named Michelle Young who was found murdered by her sister. Her death was unspeakably violent, and her child had been alone in the house for days 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.
Her story became the opening of JUDAS KISS.
The crime stories that seem to capture our interest as a society are the ones that take place where we feel the safest, which is inside our own homes. That’s where the majority of homicides take place. And we all know how much the media loves a good suburban murder, especially in my fictional Nashville. In the novel, there’s a sense of the fantastic surrounding this 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.
What kind of work routine did you use?
I’m a night owl, so I rise late in the morning, do the business side (answer email, read Murderati, Twitter, etc.) From 12-4 I write. I shoot for at least 1,000 words a day. It takes me six months to write a book – one month for research, four for writing, and one for editing. In a perfect world, I’d be writing a solid eight months out of the year, and researching and edited in the other four. Unfortunately, it never works that way, because the books go through their process at the house, and need touring, promotion, etc. It’s a juggling act, but an awful lot of fun.
What was the biggest challenge you encountered completing this book?
Actually, I had a lot of trouble because it was the first book I’d ever had more than a bare bones outline for. I had an in-depth 13 page synopsis, and it threw me for a loop because I’m a pantser – I write by the seat of my pants. My feeling is if I’m surprised, the reader will be too. I also think that despite my difficulties having a script to follow, the book is my best effort, the most solid of all my stories. I’m working on the sixth book in the series now, and I’m outlining that one, simply because I have the time and I’d like to see if I’m still anti-outline. I can always throw it out if it becomes too confining.
What was the greatest reward?
The starred Publisher’s Weekly review, hands down. I was shocked, and thrilled.
Why did you choose this particular title for your work?
It’s a literal title – the kiss of betrayal. I named it two years before I wrote it – sometimes a book knows its name from the start. In contrast, my fourth, THE COLD ROOM, is on its third title. I also must, must, must have a title before I can start writing. I can’t work without one.
What advice would you give to writers trying to get published?
Write every day. Read. Write every day. Read. Write every day. Read. Read. Read some more.
And follow your heart. You always hear write what you know. Well, I knew less than nothing about being a cop, but I’m passionate about forensics and behavioral analysis. I wanted to write something I’d enjoy reading, and knew I’d love doing the research. And I get to hang around with a bunch of cops now, so it was all worth it.
What book would you tell them is a must to read and why?
Stephen King’s ON WRITING and Elizabeth George’s WRITE AWAY. King’s book changed the way I thought about my writing. I read it while I was writing JUDAS KISS, and it shows, I think. The George book I read back at the very beginning. It’s a hugely detailed “Process,” and I highly recommend it for writers doing standalone, because it teaches how to world-build. And Christopher Vogler’s THE WRITER’S JOURNEY, which covers the mythic structure of fiction.
Who is your favorite author and why?
I’m a huge, huge fan of so many writers, it’s hard to pinpoint just one. I take different things from different authors and different styles. That said, in crime fiction, John Connolly is one of the most talented writers alive. John Sandford and Lee Child are brilliant series writers, Diana Gabaldon writes my favorite historical time-travel romances. I also love Nabokov, Austen, Rand and Rowling.
What book are you reading right now?
Jeff Abbott’s COLLISION. Mr. Abbott is another one of my favourites – the smart reader’s thriller writer. He’s fantastic.
What advice would you give to a debut novelist to survive in today’s publishing world?
Patience is a virtue, and perseverance is key. Be a good teammate, and MEET YOUR DEADLINES. I can’t emphasize that enough. When your book goes on submission, start the next one. Write thank you notes, and be sure that any kindness you receive, you pay forward. Karma is hard at work in the publishing industry. I have more tips on my website, JTEllison.com.
Thanks for having me!
My pleasure. Thanks for dropping by and all the best with the new book.