Interview With Author Robert Ellis

# You’ve just published your ninth novel, CITY OF STONES, the fourth book in the critically acclaimed Detective Matt Jones Thriller Series. Tell us about yourself and your books?

The truth is that writing thriller novels came to me almost by accident. I was a film major in college. After I graduated, I began writing spec screenplays, working in film, television, and advertising, and hoping for something to break. I’d studied screenwriting with Walter Tevis, author of THE HUSTLER, THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH, THE COLOR OF MONEY, and THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT. While producing a tribute to the Challenger space shuttle explosion with a friend of mine for The Today Show, I was in New York negotiating the rights to the song SPACE ODDITY with David Bowie’s manager. Apparently, David Bowie felt that THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH was the best film he’d ever acted in. When he heard that I had studied with Walter Tevis, he wanted to read my latest screenplay.

# Let me guess. David Bowie read your screenplay and loved it.

It was amazing. He wanted to be in it. One of the two leading roles. I was immediately signed as a writer/director by the William Morris Agency, and moved from the East Coast to Los Angeles.

# What was the name of the screenplay?

BETWEEN TWO BORDERS. It was never made, even after Sandra Bullock read the screenplay and wanted to be in it as well. I ended up ghostwriting the final draft of NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 4: THE DREAM MASTER, and moved on.

# But how did you make the turn to writing novels?

I had met John Truby, author of THE ANATOMY OF STORY, by now and was focused on pushing my screenplays over the top. After writing another spec script, the Creative Artists Agency took me on, and things went nuclear. Everybody in the movie business wanted a shot at making this film. It was a political thriller called ACCESS TO POWER. That’s right. My first novel, based on this screenplay that had high hopes, and was greenlighted with a director attached. Unfortunately, like so many others, the project fizzled out over producers arguing amongst themselves about money. One wanted a low budget production, another, including the director, wanted to go big. In the end, no one won the day. I remember meeting Michael Connelly after a production meeting. He was signing books at a wonderful store that used to be on the Venice Beach boardwalk. We had a chance to talk, and I told him what was going in. He gave me a look and said, why don’t you just write the novel. And that’s exactly what I did. I started the following day. Within a week after completing the first draft, I had a book agent. Three days later, ACCESS TO POWER was sold, and when it was published, debuted as a national bestseller.

# Which do you like more? Writing screenplays or writing novels?

No doubt about it. Writing novels is so much more fun, and for a lot of reasons anyone who writes or reads fiction can understand. First, a novel is a finished work. A complete universe. Until you hand it over to an editor, it’s all yours. But even more thrilling, at least for me, when you write a novel you have the unique pleasure and joy of expressing what a character is thinking. No other artform gives the artist such a wide-screen view of the interplay between character and story. Only novels have that kind of dimension.

# Tell us how you made the transition between writing the Lena Gamble novels to creating the Matt Jones Thriller Series.

Lena Gamble was a huge success for me, not just here in the States but big time in the UK and Europe, especially Germany. I can remember going on book tours for those novels. Readers really were in love with Detective Lena Gamble. Guys always asked for her phone number. Women kept telling me that they wanted to be her. It was as if the character had become real, and the entire experience was just awesome. No one could figure out how a male writer could create a female character who seemed so authentic and struck so many nerves.

# So why haven’t you continued with the series?

ACCESS TO POWER was my debut novel as far as the world goes. But for me, my career as a novelist really begins with my second book, THE DEAD ROOM, which is a story about a young civil attorney, Teddy Mack, just out of law school who’s forced by his boss for unknown reasons to represent a serial killer. The story is chilling in a RED DRAGON sort of way. Teddy’s ordeal and the challenges he faces are gigantic, and the novel became an underground hit, and eventually, a No. 1 Bestseller in the US and the UK on Amazon. At the largest independent bookstore on the East Coast, THE DEAD ROOM outsold Harry Potter, if you can imagine. This was a paperback original that crossed the Atlantic with various editions in other languages. The French have translated THE DEAD ROOM three different times. The reason I mention this is because I always felt that if Teddy ever met a woman, she would have to rise to the occasion. Only a woman who had been through a grueling ordeal like Teddy’s would work. And that’s how Lena Gamble came into being. Lena’s first appearance is in a book called CITY OF FIRE. I expected it to be one and done, and that Lena would enter Teddy’s world and meet in a book that followed. But when I turned in the manuscript for CITY OF FIRE, publishers flipped out over Lena, the critics loved the book, and everything changed.

# I’m guessing you’re about to say that the same thing happened one more time.

CITY OF FIRE, THE LOST WITNESS, MURDER SEASON. I love them like they were my kids. But when I finished MURDER SEASON, if Lena was going to meet someone, I no longer thought going back to Teddy would work out. I know, it sounds funny in a way. But if Lena was going to meet someone, it had to be someone new who had gone through what she had gone through. Enter rookie detective Matt Jones in CITY OF ECHOES.

# But you never came back to Lena.

Writing the Matt Jones thrillers has been the greatest experience I’ve had in my creative life. Lena Gamble makes an appearance in CITY OF ECHOES. It’s brief but scary and wonderful. And she’s mentioned throughout the series because she and Matt live in the same world. The same fictional universe. But the Matt Jones thrillers are different, and offer me as a writer, so many more challenges.

# What makes the two series different?

I love the crime genre. I love mysteries, thrillers, and crime stories, and I’m always mixing the three forms in various ways in all nine of my books. But the Matt Jones series is more thriller than mystery. That means that character is every bit as important as plot. That the problems Matt’s having in his personal life have to match the crime in some thematic way and have to click for readers in order to get that rush of feeling through the plot, and the keen sense of discovery and atmosphere from the beginning to the end. It also means that Matt must remain a rookie, an innocent who has retained his vulnerability as a human being for everything to hit just right. I admit that what I’m up to is entirely experimental, but it seems to be working. We see the story through Matt’s eyes, so just like the reader, everything he experiences is a first-time experience. Everything is new.

# But you take it even further, right? The Matt Jones thrillers are continuous.

That’s why I’m so excited about what’s happening, and truly believe this is a special series. The Matt Jones novels actually do run as one continuous story. All four books take up just three months in Matt’s life, yet it doesn’t matter where a reader decides to step in. CITY OF ECHOES, THE LOVE KILLINGS, THE GIRL BURIED IN THE WOODS, and now, CITY OF STONES … The series has been written is such a way that it makes no real difference where you begin.

# The Matt Jones series has received wonderful editorial reviews. A starred review from Booklist. A Best Book of the Month from Amazon.

I’m so grateful for the response and support I’ve been getting from all my readers. It means much more than I can say. It means the world to me. And if I could just add how lucky I feel to have had this kind of feedback, I’d say it again and again.

# Let’s talk about your new book, CITY OF STONES. It received a terrific review from KIRKUS. What did they say? “A moody white-knuckle murder tale. Rapid-fire dialogue. A taut atmosphere. A riveting book.” You’ve been calling CITY OF STONES your personal favorite.

I love all my books, but yes, I’m singling out STONES these days. I think it deserves something extra because of the unique characters surrounding Matt throughout the novel. The fact that so many of them exhibit true character change as the story works its way to the point of crisis. The shock of the whole thing raises my blood pressure through the roof. When I was writing CITY OF STONES, I felt like I had company. With every chapter that included Fresno and Cook from the FBI, it almost seemed like Dashiell Hammett was watching me type from over my shoulder. When it came to Jack Temps, a homicide detective living in disgrace, there was no doubt about it. Elmore Leonard and Michael Connelly were sitting on the other side of my desk. And when it came down to writing Dr. Julie May, Matt’s shrink, and Vince Sato, a reporter and best friend of the first murder victim, I had every author I ever loved in the room at the same time. Writing CITY OF STONES was an amazing experience. I feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to bring this special book to all my readers who have had my back since the beginning.

# If you could say one thing to an aspiring writer, what would it be?

I would say to anyone who wants to become a writer, no matter what the medium, write what you like to read or watch. Try to focus on the fact that without good characters, you can’t have a good story. And without a good story, you can’t have good characters. The reason being that a character is defined by what he or she does. Not by what they say, and not by what they might like to eat for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. A great character is the summation of how they handle themselves. How he or she acts in the world of your story.

Thanks so much, and all the best to everyone.



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