J.T. Ellison started her career as a presidential appointee in the White House, finally finding her way back to her first love – creative writing. She went on to become a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author with millions of copies in print, her books published in 16 languages and 28 countries. J.T. is also the Emmy Award-winning co-host of “A Word on Words” on PBS TV in Nashville, Tennessee.
But that’s just her stellar, super-impressive bio. Beyond that…she’s a fun, loving, open-hearted friend who is so generous with her time and support of fellow authors. I felt like I already knew her before we met. And when we did finally connect, we were instant friends.
During my 2019 book tour, I was lucky enough to spend some time with her in Nashville. We had so many deep and ongoing conversations that I thought I’d keep it going here. I especially wanted to discuss her wickedly dark and riveting new thriller GOOD GIRLS LIE, which just released yesterday, December 30. (Buy Now!)
Lisa Unger: For me, there’s always a germ, a moment when a new book begins. That spark can come from anywhere — a news story, a piece of junk mail. Is that how it works for you? If so, what was the germ for GOOD GIRLS LIE? If not, how did it begin?
J.T. Ellison: This was such an organic story for me. I was watching International House Hunters, and the family was moving to Surrey, England so the father could teach at a boarding school. I looked it up—I believe it was Cranleigh—and the lovely red-brick buildings were so reminiscent of my own alma mater (Randolph-Macon Woman’s College) all my spidey senses went off. I looked at my husband and said, I have always wanted to write a boarding school mystery. One of these days…
I thought about it for ten seconds, wrote a teensy blog about it so I’d have the idea if I wanted to return to it, then went back to work on the book I was currently writing. But it wouldn’t let me go. I had started a short story for another project, and I realized hey, this could be an explosive ending to a novel, instead. I married the gothic all girls boarding school setting with the ending, and then all I needed was a character. Ash Carlisle came to me while reading an article in Yoga Journal, of all places. We were heading to England at the time, so I decided to make her British, from Oxford, and that was it, she was alive, it was alive.
I’m curious, how do you manage these errant thoughts about other possible stories while you’re writing a book? Do you write them down, or do a treatment? Or are you disciplined enough to make them wait?
Lisa Unger: I love that story. It so perfectly illustrates how the writer’s mind works — taking pieces of things from our experiences, inspiration for a story or character that come from places you’d least expect. That’s why it’s so important to always be open-hearted and paying attention. You never know where that next moment of inspiration is hiding.
I don’t have a lot of ideas, actually. I don’t see something and think — oh! I want to write about that. It’s more like I might hear something or read something that sparks a curiosity or an obsession in me to learn more about a particular subject. Then I start reading and researching, and if it’s something that maybe connects with other things going on with me, I start to hear a voice. And I follow that voice, or voices through my manuscripts. If I have other thoughts, other voices during the writing of a novel, I generally just let them pass. I don’t keep a journal, or write many things down. I feel like if it comes back to me — the thought, the curiosity, the voice — then it’s powerful enough to explore. For THE STRANGER INSIDE it was the Jungian concept of the splinter psyche, which knocked around in my head for a while from the research for another novel. The germ for THE RED HUNTER was twenty-five years before its writing. There’s usually something nagging at me though as I’m finishing up the book I’m working on. There might already be another voice with something to say.
Speaking of voices — I love the shifting perspectives in GOOD GIRLS LIE. For me, there’s rarely a choice. I’m hearing an urgent first person voice — or I’m hearing multiple voices who all want to tell their side of the story. Each story seems to tell itself it’s own way, and there’s not a whole lot I can do about that. What about for you? Is it a clear choice? Is there a way that you prefer to write? How does your relationship to character change based the POV?
J.T. Ellison: Hold up — you don’t keep any sort of journal or notes? That’s the Stephen King method of creation, right — if the idea is good enough you don’t need to write it down? I think all my best ideas fall into that category — sometimes it feels like the ones I write down lose some of their magic. Their urgency. I don’t tend to return to them after, either.
I used to write series, so the voices were established. Taylor or Sam would start talking and I was just the receptacle sharing their thoughts. When I started writing standalones, all that changed. Different voices started to speak, and they wanted to tell their stories their own ways. It took me several runs at several books to realize the voices had altered, and I had to alter my writing style to go along with them. Which, for GOOD GIRLS LIE meant writing a first person, present tense narrative, something I’d never done.
Writing close third feels slow and awkward and distant to me now, so much so I’ve just taken a new book out of that POV and moved to first present. I’m realizing the basis of the story is dictating the voice I tell it in. So now… meh. I write them all, see what feels right, and go with that. This new book has first present, close third past, and omniscient third. When I get to the point of writing a single, first person narrative, maybe I’ll be back to square one.
In all the conversations we’ve had about writing and voice recently, I get the sense that you are a wee bit more in control of the process than I am. What is your process? I know you aren’t a big outliner, but how do you take the voices from mind to page? What’s your daily grind look like?
Lisa Unger: I do have a notebook that I carry with me everywhere. But it’s not for notes as much as it is for writing long hand — which I do a lot. I am an early riser, usually at my desk between 5-6 am. My golden creative hours are from 5 am to noon, and I work in my office at home. But I can write anywhere, anytime — which I think is a product of writing when I had another full-time job. But I wouldn’t say I’m in control of the process. Quite the opposite. In many ways, I feel more like the story is already there, I’m just trying to find it. I guess it’s more about being present for it, then controlling it. When I hear those voices, I just sit down to write and the story evolves for me on the page, much as it will for the reader. So, no outline, no idea who will show up and what they will do day-to-day. I’ve written every one of my eighteen novels this way.
I know what you mean about having established relationships with series characters. I feel that way about the people who populate my books set in The Hollows. When I hear those voices, it feels so familiar, so comfortable. In GOOD GIRLS LIE to which of your characters did you feel most connected? Who surprised you the most?
J.T. Ellison: I was very connected to Dean Westhaven, right off the bat. When I was in school, I too would stare out over the Blue Ridge Mountains and dream of being a writer one day. So much of my creative spine was developed at RMWC. Other than the professor who told me I wasn’t good enough to get published—which, at the time, was probably accurate, but still, mean!—I found the environment incredibly supportive. It was gothic, loaded with female drama, ripe for writing about. Strangely enough, it was my main character Ash who I had the most trouble with—until I switched to first person and found her waiting for me. Becca Curtis, though… the head girl, head of the secret societies, the real power behind the girls of Goode. She was so intriguing, and fun to write. She surprised me over and over again. And she wouldn’t conform to the plans I had for her.
Has that ever happened to you —you have a character mapped out, you know their role, how they’re going to play it, and then they walk onstage, start ad-libbing, and then you have to let them take it away from you?
Lisa Unger: I definitely know that feeling. I don’t have a lot of plans for my characters. In fact, I almost experience them as people that I meet. I am constantly surprised, sometimes annoyed or even horrified by their thoughts and actions. I know it’s me. That every character is an amalgamation of my ideas, my observations, my imagination, my prejudices. But it really doesn’t feel that way. I’m sensing a theme here. There’s a lot that’s outside of our control! I think that’s where all the magic resides. Do you agree?
GOOD GIRLS LIE was a smart, twisty, absolutely riveting read — deeply involving from page one. It kept me company when I was on the road. And I was so deep into reading YOUR BOOK when we were together in Nashville that I was late meeting YOU for tea! I know it’s getting rave reviews from readers and the trades alike! Is there anything you most especially want readers to take away from this book? A core theme or message?
J.T. Ellison: I do agree, the magic of writing lies in allowing the story to create itself. When we push it too hard, it goes up in smoke.
On GOOD GIRLS LIE, female empowerment is one of my core values, and this book in particular has that message sewn into the story. I took so much away from my single-sex education that I wanted to show the power it has to transform the lives of these girls. It may not have ended up for them as it did for me, but it’s still something quite important to shed light on. Education is power, in my mind. Our school motto––Vita Abundantior (Life More Abundant) fits both me and the book perfectly.
I could go on and on and on chatting with you!!! Thanks