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A Conversation With J.T. Ellison on Voice: Hamburgers or Coq au Vin (Killer Writers)

Killer Nashville founder Clay Stafford kicks off a series of interviews with mystery, thriller, and suspense authors. Here he has a conversation with J.T. Ellison, the bestselling author of over 25 novels.

I was talking with New York Times and USA Today bestselling author J.T. Ellison about the best transcription apps for interviews when the subject changed to hamburgers and coq au vin, which is super appropriate because J.T. knows more about wines than anyone I know. Which led us to a discussion of writing. Too much wine? The question: Hamburger or coq au vin?

J.T. is currently working on five books (all at the same time), but one has particularly gotten her focus. I asked her, as a writer, what plagued her the most, and what, as a writer, she cares about most.

“Interestingly, what plagues me is what I care about the most, which is how can I deliver the best possible book to my readers, one that is entertaining and challenging, and allows me to elevate my craft at the same time? Because those two things don't always mesh.”

That got my attention.

“Readers want the same story, only different. I don't know who said that, but it's true. Comfort reading is a real thing.”

“Like comfort food?”

“Same story, only different. That's a hard thing for me. I guess it depends upon what you’re trying to do. Right now, I’m writing a Taylor novel. It’s picking a series up ten years later. I’m trying to match a voice and a style, almost impossible to do. I’ve struggled so much with this book. It was supposed to be quick. I know these characters. I’ve written eighteen books and multiple short stories. It should go like that.” She snaps her fingers. 

“But when I got into it, I found I am a different writer than I was ten years ago. I’m a different person. I’ve changed. The characters have changed. The world has changed. What might have been appropriate or right ten years ago is not the same. I had to approach it from a completely new angle. I had drafted a lot of the story. I went back and read the older Taylor books, and now I’m able to start layering in the voice. I’m getting to know her again. She had become a stranger. You have somebody who is your dearest closest friend, and they moved to another city…”

J.T. Ellison

J.T. Ellison

“For ten years.”

“…and suddenly you aren’t sharing in the day-to-day of somebody’s life, and it drives a small wedge between you, regardless of how close you are, because you aren’t experiencing it with them. It’s the same thing.”

“Your voice has changed?”

“I think I’m tighter. It’s not as flowery. I think I had a lot of descriptive prose. I’m a little more direct. Get the point across and move on. Instead of lingering around what things look like, what things sound like. I keep stopping myself and going back and saying, wait you need to scratch this scene. You need to set the stage. I’m not setting the stage as much as I used to. I’m just plowing through.”

“I can see the problems that come from going back years later to a series, but wouldn’t we expect writers to change as they go through their careers?”

“You would think so. What’s ironic is that writers who don’t change are the ones who have the most success. They get better, but it’s the ones who are writing the epic series that go on and on and on that the readers know exactly what they’re going to get when they pick up this book. That is why they pick it up. That is why we listen to songs over and over. It’s why we watch movies again and again. Because we know what our intellectual stimulation is going to be from that.”

“You’re looking for your own intellectual stimulation?”

“I’ve never been one to follow the rules. I would probably be a lot more successful if I had.”

Of course, I’m talking with a New York Times bestseller here. That doesn’t seem to matter.


Check out J.T. Ellison's novel Her Dark Lies:

Her Dark Lies, by J.T. Ellison

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Her hand gestures dismissively. “I don’t like writing the same book over and over.”

“That makes it hard for a series if readers are expecting the same thing.”

“I set out when I started my career to make sure that I wrote a different book every time. Something about it: Voice, structure, setting, something was different. Even though it was the same characters, I got bored. I want to be a better writer. We joke that I’m trying to make the perfect coq au vin.”

“Do you need to?”

“I can give you a hamburger and you’re going to love it. In fact, you would probably love it more. It’s more familiar. Comfortable.”

“But it’s not as satisfying to you?”

She counts it off. “It’s not as satisfying. It’s not as exciting. I can try it, but I always end up embellishing to the point that, all right now, we have the ten-course meal…”

“You complicate things to grow…”

“…instead of the hamburger. I would love to write a hamburger.”

“But you can’t? Or you don’t want to?”

“I haven’t learned how. I think I’m just learning.”

“After twenty-something books?”

“I think that’s part of what I’m trying to do.”

“So how do you achieve it?”

“Stripping it back. Not making it quite so deluxe.”

I can see J.T. making hamburgers. No condiment will be left from the table.

Conversation With J.T. Ellison (Killer Writers)

“This is why indie writers are so incredibly successful. They know exactly what their reader wants. They know exactly the conventions of the genre. Readers eat it up. Super smart. You have to be an incredibly talented author to be able to do that.”

“To make it simple?”

“I feel like I’m still learning, and growing. Every day, I sit down to the page, and I learn something. This would’ve been handy ten years ago.”

“Don’t you think that’s what every writer should do? Shoot for getting better with each book?”

“I think so. Like you, I think that’s the fun of being a writer. Discovering. Oh wow, look at this path. This could be easier—or more difficult—but a fun and challenging path. Readers are smart. If you ever write down to them, that will blow up in your face. To me, trying to level myself up to find that formula that really works…”

“For you and the reader?”

“It’s taken me a long time to realize that I’m doing it, I’m giving the same thing, only different, but I’m just doing it in a different way.”

“Not in plot, but something else?”

“All of my books have a theme: A woman coming into her power. Regardless of whether it’s fantasy, police procedural, domestic suspense, or whatever it is, it’s always that.”

“That’s your voice.”

“It’s like Ruth Ware always has some kind of locked room aspect to her work. Readers love that.”

“The consistency.”

“Readers absolutely love that.”

“And that theme is your voice?”

“They will read over and over because it gives them a great emotional response, and they’re super smart, and they know exactly what they want.”

“I’m a fan of your books. I see that.”

“I would hope that I’m a little more seasoned. I’ve written—I’m on book twenty-nine right now—and I’m feeling I’m starting to get an idea of what I’m doing. It’s taken that many years for me to feel like, all right, when I sit down to the page, there is something that I am trying to do…”

“That theme.”

“…and I know how to accomplish it. That’s different. That’s something that has happened in the past couple of years.”

“By writing and writing, you discovered yourself.”

“I started to feel like, all right, you know what you’re doing, and it’s okay. Sally forth.”

As far as transcription apps, we never did come to a mutual conclusion, but isn’t that the way it is for most writer discussions? It became a conversation of voice, of growing as a writer, and what we might want on our plate that day. 

We decided that we both loved hamburgers, as well as coq au vin, and that’s okay. The important thing is that we prepare each dish as well as we can, and—with time and repetition—we’re going to grow, change, get better, and hopefully be proud of what we’ve made. We find who we are as cooks and writers, more so with every dish—or sentence—we prepare. And that’s the way it should be.

“Sally forth.”


J.T. Ellison is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of more than twenty-five novels.

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