Sunday, January 25, 2009

Coming to America with R J Ellory – Part I “The Overlook Connection”

Last week, I had dinner with Roger Jon Ellory and his delightful wife Vicky. I brought wine to celebrate Roger finally seeing is work in print in the US. I was impressed to discover that his US publisher is in the legendary Peter Mayer of Overlook [US] and Duckworth [UK]. It appears that Overlook is publishing ‘A Quiet Belief in Angels’ [Roger’s breakout novel, and a 2007 Richard and Judy selection] in the Fall of 2009. A second book [yet to be named] will be released in 2010. Roger recently had lunch with Peter Mayer and was very impressed by him, and was delighted to be joining the US publishing house ‘Overlook’. Over lunch he remarked that ‘Overlook’ reminded him of the ‘Overlook Hotel’ in Stephen King’s ‘The Shining’, at which Peter told Roger of his own long term friendship with the wordsmith from Maine. I think that the relationship between Peter Mayer and Roger Ellory will be a big win / win for publisher and author, knowing them both as well as I do.

So as we tucked into Roger’s beef stew. I informed Roger that it was coincidentally thanks to Peter Mayer that I managed to get an exclusive interview with the reclusive and publicity-shy Robert Littell, one of Duckworth’s and Overlook’s most commercial writers. I knew it was Mayer who basically came up with the idea for Littell’s novel “The Company” – a fictionalised re-telling of the history of the CIA. Robert Littell told me at the time that it was Peter Mayer, his friend, publisher and editor who was behind [the curtain of] ‘The Company’ –

The truth is that the editor is always critical, because to launch yourself [into writing] a book that could take two to four years, you really have to be ardent about the project. You can't just write on a whim ... So Peter [Mayer] suggested that everything I had ever written was leading up to a big project, a saga that would take in the first 50 years of the CIA, right up to the end of the Cold War. He says my eyes widened with interest, and I thought, How could it be that it had never been done? Well, apart from Norman Mailer's Harlot's Ghost (1991). From the time I left lunch with Peter and had returned to my friend's house, I had pretty much figured out the book. I told my friend, the movie director Michael Ritchie, who is now sadly dead, about the project and how I could do it. Michael said, "You write it and I'll produce it." Pretty much after that, Peter Mayer was going to the Frankfurt Bookfair to sell the foreign rights so I could have enough money to write it for four years, because I had to eat. On the plane back to France, I wrote an outline for The Company -- I had never written such a detailed outline before, and I attached a letter: "Dear Peter -- Please find an outline of what the book could look like." The outline had notes, a précis, actual scenes -- I'd say 90 percent of the book was there in that outline. I thought it was a thrilling idea. Then Peter phoned me up from Frankfurt and said, "Well, we've sold it in Italy, in Germany, in Holland, England." And my response was "Oh Jesus ... I really have to do it now" ... And I spent a year doing nothing but reading and note-taking, and then I spent the next three years writing The Company. When Peter sent me the first proof copy of the book, I read the opening and thought, Where the hell did I get the nerve to launch myself into a project so daunting? Because when I started it, I just could not see the end.

Read the full feature here

Robert Littell’s “The Company” was adapted into a TV Miniseries in 2007. The surreal angle was that Roger’s own work [especially his latest] “A Simple Act of Violence” has a CIA theme striated across the hunt for a vicious serial killer –

Washington, embroiled in the mid-term elections, did not want to hear about serial killings. But when the newspapers reported a fourth murder, when they gave the killer a name and details of his horrendous crimes, there were few people that could ignore it. Detective Robert Miller is assigned to the case. He and his partner begin the task of correlating and cross-referencing the details of each crime scene. Rapidly things begin to complicate. The victims do not officially exist. Their personal details do not register on any known systems. The harder Miller works, the less it makes sense. And as Miller unearths ever more disturbing facts, he starts to face truths so far-removed from his own reality that he begins to fear for his life. This is a novel about trust, loyalty, and beliefs that are so ingrained which, when challenged, they leave people with nothing. Vast in scope, A SIMPLE ACT OF VIOLENCE is an expose of the brutality of covert operations, the power of greed and the insidious nature of corruption. It is also a story of love and trust that somehow managed to survive the very worst that the world could throw at it.

We toasted Roger’s success, and I thanked him for having my name in the acknowledgments page. I like Roger. His modesty and humility has not changed one iota despite his huge success. He always considers himself fortunate and places his success down to hard work and luck, however I have argued with him on several occasions, that his success is more down to his writing ability than luck; as well as his work ethic. If you care to glance at his blog – you can see for yourself that he lives to write, and he writes to live.

We plotted to return together to Bouchercon 40 in Indianapolis later this year as we had such a great time last year. We are the odd couple, as Roger is slightly reserved [despite doing a plethora of library events], while I’m more outgoing, but we both share the same world-view of reality, and our sense of humour about the absurdities of life are identical. In fact Roger said he plans to go to Bouchercon for the next 25 years and insists that I should be his travelling companion. Let’s hope we both live that long.

When we were finishing our coffee, Roger indicated that he is over in Washington D.C. next week with a BBC Film crew recording a TV special about the city of Washington following the win by Barack Obama. He again was very modest about this, almost embarrassed by this development. It seems that the BBC picked Roger for the TV special due to his setting “A Simple Act of Violence” in the US Capitol. I am so glad Roger has finally really broken through, but he is as modest as ever about fulfilling his dream, writing full time and being published in America.

So with stomachs filled with the Ellory stew, we laughed about our adventures last year at Bouchercon Baltimore, both thanking Roger’s wife Vicky for putting the photos of our adventures online. Click here to see them all. When the economic situation gets me down and depressed, I like to re-live the trip to perk me up.

The seeds for our Baltimore adventure started when Roger and I had met at the Heffer Bookstore’s annual ‘Bodies in the Bookstore’ earlier in the year, [the “Bodies” event was incidentally where I first met Roger] – we had agreed to attend Bouchercon Baltimore together – splitting the cost. This was a great idea, but seemed less so when I collected Roger from his house at 2am on the Wednesday before Bouchercon [to drive down to Gatwick airport for our transatlantic flight].

Despite the early start, it was delightful to have Roger as a travel companion especially considering the modern hassles of air travel these days. It was also rather weird reading his latest novel ‘A Simple Act of Violence’ on the plane while he snored away. Despite the various nominations [CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger] he has received over the years for his scribbling. He has yet to win an award from the CWA, but we were hopeful this year as he was nominated for a Barry Award for ‘A Quiet Belief in Angels’; and I was up for an Anthony Award – for my Special Services to the Crime and Thriller Genre. We both felt that neither of us had a chance of winning anything, but it was a good excuse to raise some glasses, which we did on the flight from London. We had a change of plane in Charlotte, which was an excuse for a few beers with our hamburgers in the airport lounge to relax after all the wiffling and nobbing associated with long-haul travel.

The surreal feature of this life is seeing colleagues in weird places. Roger and I had smiles on our faces when we landed in Baltimore as we spotted Stuart MacBride looking somewhat lost at the baggage carousel. Being an old hand at US travel and conventions and conferences, I asked Stuart to join us in our taxi to the hotel, congratulating him on his win at the ITV-3 Awards in London merely a few days before [where the three of us had met over a few drinks last].

It would be impractical to give a blow-by-blow account of the whole event, as I probably only sampled 10% of what was on offer, as the panel tracks were diverse with four panels on at any one time, as well as karaoke crime bar. From a practical perspective the organisation by Ruth Jordan and Judy Bobalik, and their horde of helpers [many surnamed ‘Jordan’] was excellent. The whole weekend ran like a well lubricated machine. The crime and thriller fiction world thanks in large part to the Internet, has become a global community of fans, and in Baltimore, the Uber fans as I like to refer to them were out in force. We had Jiro Kimura from Gumshoe Japan, Maggie Griffin, Jeff and Beth of Cincinnati Media, Janet Rudolf of Mystery Readers International, The Deadly Pleasures crew led by George Easter and Larry Gandle, Sarah Weinman, Dana Kaye, The Jordan clan from Crimespree, Jim Huang of the Drood Review, Peter Rozovsky, The Mystery News and Mystery Scene gang, Jeff Pierce from The Rap Sheet, Linda Richards from January Magazine, The Strand Magazine team, David Montgomery of Mystery Ink, Gangs from Dorothy L and Rec.Arts.Mystery [RAM], Maddy Hertbruggan and her cabal from 4-MA, Gerald So of Thrilling Detective, Sandra Ruttan and Brian of Spinetingler, Russel Mclean of Crimescene Scotland, Ayo Onatade from Mystery Women, as well as myself with many hats including my bullet-ridden Shots, Rap Sheet, Deadly Pleasures, Crimespree, Books and Bytes, Mystery Readers International and Red Herrings Hat[s]. I should also add that there were more bloggers than you can toss a mouse at and far too many to name here.

I was pleased to see despite the austerity measures facing the world, forward thinking British Publishers joined the Baltimore melee. I spotted Selina Walker from Transworld, David Shelly from Little Brown and Kate Mills from Orion Publishing. Coupled with more awards to celebrate the genre than any other event, such as The Barry, The Macavity, The Shamus, The Crimespree and of course The Anthony Awards that closed the event on a delightful Sunday Brunch. And let’s not forget the book sellers and dealers who cost me a fortune as the book room was as vast as one could have hoped for. But with the global recession heading to toward publishing, I did my bit to spend as much as I dared on books. As there is no competition among friends, we also had The Left Coast Crime gang extolling the virtues of attending their Hawaii event next year, as well as Myles Alfrey and Liz Hatherall touting the gathering with the delights of Bristol for next year’s Crimefest. I even got in on the act sporting my Harrogate tee-shirt with pride. Both Harrogate and Crimefest 2009 events in the UK look well worth attending.

To be Continued


  1. All very interesting. Keep up the good work.

  2. One really has to wonder about all the hype when books are published. It is getting to the point that it is almost as bad as movie trailers, etc. Until I read a book, or actually speak to the author, I will reserve my opinion on the book and the author.