One of my favorite J.T. Ellison quotes is, "Just how many serial killers can Nashville have?" J.T. is the bestselling author of the Taylor Jackson thriller novel series set in that fair city. In this interview, she reminds me that not all of the Taylor Jackson books are serial killer tales--but it's certainly the case with THE COLD ROOM, her latest. It may be the creepiest as well. And creepy is just what I look for in a killer novel.
THE COLD ROOM is J.T.'s fourth Nashville-based thriller in three years. The woman never slows down. Her next novel, THE IMMORTALS, will go on sale in October, with number six to follow next spring. Plus, Mira Books just announced that they've purchased books seven, eight, and nine in the series.
If you've been around the Handbasket awhile, you know that J.T.'s no stranger here. In fact, we like her work so much around the Benedict household that we asked to publish her short story, Chimera, in SURREAL SOUTH 2009. She also has an essay in David Morrell's and Hank Wagner's upcoming anthology, THRILLERS: 100 MUST-READS (Oceanview, July 5, 2010).
Right now, J.T.'s on a brief break from her tour for THE COLD ROOM. You can catch her at several venues this summer, including Thrillerfest 2010 in NYC and the Romance Writers of America convention in Nashville. (Both are in July.) You can find more dates at her website.
You've talked about how, after writing the first chapter of The Cold Room, you were so surprised (alarmed?) by the story's content that you had to take a step back from it for a while. What made you return to it?
I was completely creeped out. The very idea of a man, so seemingly normal, revealing his true self - and that self is a very, very frightening human being - gave me chills. And the line was so innocuous on its surface, so simple and straightforward... I think I was a little surprised by my own capacity to tap into this guy’s mind so early in the process of a book. Normally it takes me a while to get into their heads, but Gavin - he was there right away.
You've conditioned the readers of the first three Taylor Jackson novels to anticipate grisly and unexpected crimes from the serial killers she tracks. But the subject of necrophilia is rather unexpected territory for even the most seasoned thriller reader. What would you tell the reader who's picking up The Cold Room as his/her first J.T. Ellison book experience?
That I’m not your average thriller writer. Seriously. I know there’s an expected formula to these kinds of books, and I like to break formula. My third novel wasn’t a serial killer book, and this fourth, THE COLD ROOM, was borne from my desire to write a serial killer novel that had no blood, simply because gratuitous violence has become so commonplace in this industry. I wanted something that would make the reader think, not react viscerally to the sounds, smells and visions of blood. There are very few ways to kill without spilling blood, too, so I was limited. I’d already explored strangling in my first book. Necrophilia crept up on me one day, when I realized the victims were being starved to death. Why would a killer starve his victim? So he wouldn’t hurt her. Why doesn't he want to hurt her? So he can have sex with her without guilt. And oh, yeah, she won’t resist if she’s dead. The mental process was like a room full of perfectly aligned dominoes spilling over.
Tell us about the research you did for The Cold Room. Did you discover anything too horrifying to be included in the novel?
Yes. I spent too much time in the heads of some very sick people. But some of the research was fascinating, like finding out that men who use Roofies on women and date rape them are actually necrophiliacs. It’s all about unresisting sex, not necessarily sex with corpses. Plus the Louise Wise studies were fascinating. I address the research in my Author’s Note at the end of the book, because I felt my premise was almost too fantastical to be real. But I proved my theory, so I had to move forward. In the end, it was a lot of fun. I guess it’s like childbirth - you forget the worst of it when the baby is born.
Are there subjects about which you refuse to write, or do you follow your stories anywhere they want to go?
No. I’d be limiting myself as a writer if I did that. I will shy away from anything to do with animal torture. I’m too much of a softy to hurt them purposely. But that’s really my only limit. I’m fascinated by the myriad ways we find to hurt one another, and that drives me through even the darkest of stories.
On a somewhat lighter note....
Taylor Jackson and F.B.I. Agent Baldwin have been a couple throughout the series. Their romance takes an emotionally significant turn in The Cold Room, and the location where it happens is one of the most romantic in Europe. What are your hopes for the two of them as a couple? What adventure/crime-oriented couples (literary or film) are among your favorites?
That is such a hard question. I’d like to marry them off and let them live happily ever after, but that has to be the end of the series, right? So I have a problem - I don’t like dragging their relationship out, but I can’t give it the big white finale yet. So here comes Memphis Highsmythe, this Brit who has a thing for Taylor. He spices things up between Taylor and Baldwin. I think it’s possible to find others attractive even when you’re hopelessly in love. That’s just biology. Seeing her reaction was a lot of fun.
My all time favorites, bar none, are Jamie Fraser and Claire Randall Fraser in Diana Gabaldon’s OUTLANDER series. They love each other and respect each other, just like my characters. They’re both strong willed, and that creates great conflict, just like with my characters. They’re incredibly well-developed together and individually, which I strive for. I look forward to exploring Taylor and Baldwin more as we go along.
You're very specific about Taylor's adult beverage preferences. How do they differ from yours? I should add that the word "wine" occurs no fewer than twenty-seven times in The Cold Room!
She’s actually much more eclectic than I am, because she drinks beer. I hate beer. I cringe every time I write her drinking one. But I want her to be the kind of chick that men want to have a beer with, so there you have it.
Twenty-seven wines. Good grief. She sounds like a wino!
What do you like about writing a series? Do you have plans for another series, or perhaps standalone thrillers?
I’d love to do a couple of standalones. I definitely need to get out of Taylor’s head every once in a while. I think it makes the series stronger, and the standalones stronger. That said, I love that my world is already created as I go, and the challenge of writing each book in the series with enough information so new readers won’t be lost and the continuing readers won’t be bored... there’s the fun!
Many writers have turned their hands--for better or worse--to writing young adult novels. Does that market appeal to you?
I love to read them, but no, I don’t think I’ll be trying to write them. I don’t have kids, and I feel like I'm missing some great cosmic link that would allow me to tap into their psyches in a way that would engage readers. Yes, I was a kid at one time, but I didn’t suffer the angst that I see now. I just sort of bobbed along, happy and content, reading and golfing and doing well in school. So there’s no real mental real estate for me to tap into to make it worthwhile.
And a question from Bengal...
What would you do if you found a Goliath Bird-Eating Spider in your living room?
Evacuate. Immediately. And not return until someone else had handled its assassination.
I have to agree with that plan. Thanks for stopping by, J.T.!