R.J. Ellory is the Brummie who writes thrillers set in America read by a growing number of Britons. Some Americans might struggle with the term ‘Brummie’ so let’s explain that Brummie refers to someone from Birmingham – that’s Birmingham in the West Midlands, not Birmingham, Alabama.
Ellory has seven novels in print but another 22 unpublished ones can be found gathering dust in his attic – a lingering testament to his commitment to become a successful writer before his big break in 2003. With a steadily growing following in the UK, Ellory is attempting to crack the American market with the US release of A Quiet Belief in Angels – a thriller set in rural Georgia and bustling Brooklyn that was originally published in 2007 in Britain.
A Quiet Belief in Angels was selected for the Richard and Judy book club, the UK’s answer to Oprah’s book club, and Ellory hopes his tale of a persistent serial killer will help him win a new set of readers. He is quick to brush off any thoughts that Brits should write about Britain and leave America to the Americans.
“People always say that you should write about what you know,” he said. “Well, I think you should write about what you are fascinated by. I’m fascinated by serial killers, the Deep South, JFK, Martin Luther King – America is a broad canvas.
“There’s a pub just three miles away from my house that was built in 1368 – many years before America was discovered by Columbus in 1492. In 200 years, America has managed to affect the world like no other country. Imagine that England is the stuffy older brother who stays at home and looks after the family business, well America is the brash younger brother who goes off and sees the world, and ends up with the best of everything, including the best girls.”
A Quiet Belief in Angels is dedicated to Truman Capote, the author of In Cold Blood – a book much admired by Ellory. While Capote was drawn to the real-life murders of four people in a Kansas farmhouse in 1959, A Quiet Belief in Angels tells the story of a series of baffling murders over several decades.
“In Cold Blood sold millions of copies and Capote retired from writing after that book, and drank himself to death,” said Ellory. “His childhood friend, Harper Lee, wrote To Kill A Mockingbird, had huge success and also never wrote another book. Those books killed their careers. In Cold Blood is a very special book but it was Capote’s downfall.”
Ellory is a relentless self publicist. He blogs, he twitters and responds to every enquiry from his readers “I’ll go anywhere to talk about my books,” he admitted. “I’ll go to a book club with 15 people if they’ll have me. I’m very pragmatic and realistic about my success so far – look at the film stars from the early 1990s, where are they now? My 23rd book was the one that was published and I have 22 others in my loft. I have around 400 rejection letters, which I keep as a reminder, but I just kept on going.”
Candlemoth was the book that eventually transformed him from a wannabe, who had been writing continuously since 1987, to a published author in 2003. Even then it took a hefty slice of fortune.
“I sent the manuscript to 36 publishers and 35 publishers returned it,” he said. “Bloomsbury kept it and I followed up with calls and letters. Eventually an editor at Bloomsbury passed it to a friend, Jon Wood at Orion, who had a stable of thriller writers including Ian Rankin. Ten to 11 people had to read it at Orion to get it through the approval process and I had a horrible three to four months just waiting. I’d phone up every Wednesday to get an update until only the MD hadn’t read it. The story goes that Jon Wood eventually threatened to publish the book himself before he was given the final approval.”
Ellory believes that his ‘watershed’ moment has yet to happen and has concerns his career could stall. “What happens if my books flop in the States? I would be unpublishable in the US and then that would have a huge effect on whether I get published in Asia, and Australia and New Zealand.”
One unusual fact about Ellory worth noting is that he’s an ex-con with a conviction for… wait for it…poaching. So what did he poach – deer, pheasants? “Chickens from a monastery actually,” he explains. “Eight chickens from a monastery down the road in Yardley (a district in Birmingham). We were living in a house with no light or heat so me and my brother thought it would be a good idea. We ate one and then the nuns (yes they also have nuns in monasteries too, he adds), came round and identified all seven remaining chickens by name. They had been named after Canadian provinces and we’d eaten Alberta. I spent three months in a prison in Nottingham.”
Not quite Oscar Wilde and Reading Gaol, but surely Ellory is the only author who has gone to prison for stealing and eating a chicken called Alberta?