Interview: Robert Ellis

Robert Ellis, a crime novelist, was born in 1954 in Philadelphia and studied film and philosophy at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio.  After an early career as a writer, producer, and director in film, television, and advertising (his work included an award-winning documentary for National Geographic; television ads for political candidates; and a ghostwriting stint on the final draft of Nightmare on Elm Street, Part 4), he turned to fiction writing. He is the author of five novels, including a series about flawed but righteous LAPD Robbery/Homicide detective Lena Gamble, who is smart, morally complex, attractive, and more than a little human. In her first outing, City of Fire (2007), Gamble, a newcomer to robbery/homicide, is assigned a seemingly dead-end case by higher-ups looking to get rid of her. In The Lost Witness (2009), she investigates the gruesome Cock-a-doodle-do homicide, in which money buys a cover-up.  Now, in Ellis’ latest novel, Murder Season, which one bookseller called “a kick-ass police procedural,” Lena takes on a complicated case in which nothing is quite what it seems. In each book in the series, Ellis’s writing is evocative, fast-paced, and drenched in Los Angeles.


RWR: You used to skip school and sit through murder trials.  What was the appeal even then of crime and the law?

Ellis: The neighborhood outside Philadelphia where I grew up was still to some extent undeveloped. There were houses, but there were fields and forests and lonely country roads as well. One day a man was collecting pine cones with his dog about a mile from our house. When he stepped into a small grove of pine trees, his dog picked up the scent of something in the ground and started digging. What they uncovered was a young woman’s body in a shallow grave. I was a young boy at the time, and was deeply shaken by the discovery. The trees were right along the side of the road. I passed them almost every day. It took me a year to get the courage to climb off my bicycle, walk into the grove, and look at the grave. Even now as I think it over, my imagination takes off and I can see the young woman’s hair rising out of the soil. So, yes, my interest in crime began early in my life! By the time I began skipping school to sit through murder trials at City Hall, I was seventeen. I was already into film and crime fiction, especially Hitchcock movies and Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, and turned what I learned in the courtroom into a series of short stories. When I handed them into my English teacher, she figured out what I had been doing and a certain degree of mayhem ensued.

RWR: Did your earlier work in film and television involve crime dramas?  What kinds of material did you work on?

Ellis: Most of my work in film and television had been in advertising. I won an award at the New York Film Festival for a film I made with a friend for National Geographic, and I received a regional Emmy for work done with CBS News. But a few years after that I wrote a screenplay called Between Two Borders. At the time, I was producing a tribute to the Challenger disaster with another friend of mine. The footage we’d collected from NASA’s archives was just terrific. The film was to be broadcast on “The Today Show” on the first anniversary of the explosion, and we were negotiating with David Bowie for the use of his song “Space Oddity.” When David Bowie found out that I had studied screenwriting with Walter Tevis, author of The Hustler and The Man Who Fell to Earth, he asked to read my screenplay. One week later I was told that he loved it and wanted to become involved. I moved to Los Angeles, was signed by the William Morris Agency, and the screenplay made the rounds. I can remember spending a remarkable afternoon with Sandra Bullock in her kitchen drinking coffee and listening to her tell me how much she wanted to make this movie as well. A lot of people wanted to make this movie. But after all the meetings ended, Borders was still on the shelf and I ghostwrote the final draft of Nightmare on Elm Street 4 instead.

RWR: Your writing is unusually tight and fast-paced. How did you learn to write like that? Did studying with Walter Tevis have anything to do with it?

Ellis: Thanks for saying that. I studied with Walter Tevis, but I met John Truby in Los Angeles, and worked with him as well. John is a screenwriter, a script doctor, and the author of Anatomy of a Story. I’m more than grateful to have had the opportunity to learn from both, and very much believe that studying films has made a great deal of difference in my work. But if there’s a secret to the way my novels move, I think it comes down to giving your characters so much depth that they seem like they’re alive, and then throwing them off with as much conflict as you can possibly imagine. Joseph Campbell was right. Your hero is on a journey. But if you really want to throw gasoline on the fire, your hero has to be caught up in the worst day of their life! In Murder Season, LAPD Detective Lena Gamble is under extreme pressure to solve a horrific double murder as quickly as she possible can. Her personal fate, the fate of the LAPD, even the fate of Los Angeles, is at stake. I think the speed comes from the fact that the reader knows that the opposition is so overwhelming, there’s a good chance she won’t win and may not even survive.

RWR: Does your work as a media consultant to politicians inform your fiction?  I suspect it would have exposed you to a side of politicians few of us see.  Another of my favorite crime/thriller writers, Ross Thomas, drew on a similar background in his fiction.  Do you know his work?

Ellis: That’s a great question, and I’m going check out Ross Thomas as soon as I can. There seems to be some connection between politics and crime fiction, some draw to the arts by people with a social conscience who have become disillusioned by the system. What’s so amazing is that it starts at the very beginning of the genre. John Buchan was a Member of Parliament and wrote The Thirty-Nine Steps and Greenmantle and all those wonderful books featuring Richard Hannay that inspired Alfred Hitchcock. Dashiell Hammett was a political activist before he wrote masterpieces with such strong themes like The Maltese Falcon. John Grisham served in the Mississippi State House of Representatives for six years, before kicking it off with A Time to Kill. I grew up during the Vietnam War. Social criticism, a sense of right and wrong, was alive in all of the arts and fueled our culture. My role in politics was as a filmmaker. For the most part I made television ads. But every once in a while I was assigned the task of recording surveillance footage of some pretty frightening people. Everything I did seemed to involve documenting corruption on either the political, criminal, or corporate level. For me, a crime novel worth writing or even reading, has to be about more than the murder itself. What gives a crime novel real juice is the world your detective is living in, and discovering who and why the opponent decided murder was their only way out. My background seemed like basic training for writing thrillers. When I started writing crime novels, it felt like I had been set free.


RWR: What prompted you to create the character Lena Gamble? What do you admire—or dislike—about her? Are you still learning things about her? Does she ever surprise you?

Ellis: My second novel The Dead Room was the story of Teddy Mack, a young civil attorney just out of law school who is forced by his boss to represent a man who has just been arrested for the rape and murder of a young woman. Over the course of his investigation, Teddy begins to suspect that his client murdered other young women. The novel came out as an original paperback and was an underground hit in the summer of 2002. At the largest independent bookstore on the east coast, it’s still one of the bestselling works of crime fiction on record. 950 copies were sold out of that single store before the book went out of print and was republished as an eBook. After this sensational response, I thought that Teddy Mack was series bound. But even more, if he was ever to meet a woman, that woman would have to have experienced an ordeal as horrific and grueling as his had been. The Dead Room was set in Philadelphia, but I was living in Los Angeles and wanted to move my stories west. I wrote City of Fire with LAPD Detective Lena Gamble working her first murder case, and when it made the rounds, things just took off. In Germany and the Scandinavian countries, they still are. Translations of the first two books featuring Lena Gamble (City of Fire and The Lost Witness) are off the charts and have been for the past nine months. So I guess the answer is that Lena Gamble is a remarkable character who came to life by accident. And yes, she shocks me at every turn.

RWR: How do the LAPD detectives that you consult with feel about Lena? Are they keen on the series, and why?

Ellis: I think they love the series. They pass my novels around, they show up at book signings. They’re wonderful people. I work with two Homicide Special detectives in the Cold Case Unit, and a DNA specialist from the Scientific Investigation Division. All three understand that my books are fiction and that they aren’t on the line for any technical mistake I might make in the story. I love researching my novels. I’m extremely grateful for the help they’ve given me. In most cases everything you’re reading is factual, so the novels come off real. But I also think that they really like the idea of Lena Gamble, not just the series. I receive as many emails from guys as I do from women. Guys usually ask for Lena’s phone number. Women usually tell me that they are either living her life, or want to come back and be her next time around. The detectives I work with have told me the same thing.


RWR: Whence your affection for Los Angeles?  Lena seems very much at home there.  In what ways is she of the city?

Ellis: I love Los Angeles. Maybe because I was born and raised on the east coast, the moment I arrived in L.A., I could feel it. The city has a pulse. Like New York, Los Angeles is a city where people come to chase their dreams. And that’s why Lena Gamble is of the City of Angels. She and her brother were runaways. They grew up the hard way, but survived in spite of their past. Like Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade, Lena doesn’t see the world in black and white, but in gray. She’s morally complex. She’s not always right, yet willing to own up to her mistakes. But even more, she understands that what she’s seeing probably isn’t the way things really are. L.A. is a city where you are confronted by one mirage after the next. Anyone who has read one of my novels knows that they work like a roller coaster ride. At some point everything that the reader thinks might happen gets turned upside down.

RWR: What’s the challenge of writing about a female protagonist?

Ellis: I think one reason why guys like this series as much as women could be that Lena comes off so real. She’s not written as a cartoon or as a man with a woman’s name. For me that’s the challenge, and maybe even the challenge for any author who writes thrillers. The goal is to create a character who is smart enough and strong enough to beat overwhelming opposition, yet remain vulnerable and ultra human. I can remember her first appearance in City of Fire. It took three weeks of writing and tossing pages out before I finally discovered her voice.


RWR: You’ve said that the crime novel is “defining the modern American myth.”  Please explain.

Ellis: This gets back to what I learned about life before I became an author. We live in a world that is primarily unjust and overwrought with corruption. We are human beings, not machines, and when most of us make a mistake, we’d rather hide it than own up to it. That’s why I think crime stories are so wonderful. Whether they come out as a novel or appear on the screen as a film, crime stories are actively exploring this world and how we act and react to it. Crime stories help us cope and understand, and in some cases, show us the proper way to live and survive in this world.


RWR: What inspired your latest novel, Murder Season?

Ellis: What inspired me to write Murder Season was extremely powerful. I was living in Los Angeles during the OJ Simpson trial and had watched almost every minute of it. I had always wanted to address that trial is some way. Not the details of the trial, but the magnitude of its impact on the city. Years later after finishing The Lost Witness and in search of a new story, I came upon a murder case where a teenage boy stood accused of murdering a girl he had a crush on. What inspired me to write Murder Season was the prosecutor’s closing argument. He had taken the audio that the police recorded during the boy’s interview and cut it to sound like he was making a confession. The boy was talking about masturbating while watching the girl through her bedroom window. But the jury heard him admitting to murder. Large photos of the girl’s corpse were on display as the edited tape was played. Not only did the prosecutor lie to the jury, the judge backed him up. The realization that attorneys manufacture truth in a murder trial the same way we see people manufacturing truth in politics blew my mind. At that point, I had to write Murder Season.


RWR: What’s next?

Ellis: One of the themes in Murder Season gets back to our discussion about someone making a catastrophic mistake that has huge implications and trying to cover it up in order to save their own skin. To me this is almost the definition of living in America. What I’d like to do is explore this theme from another perspective and amp up the stakes. With any luck, the novel should end in an entirely new place.

-Joseph Barbato

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