Though she began her career working as a staffer in the White House, J.T. Ellison now lives in Nashville and writes full time. Her novels — All the Pretty Girls, 14 and Judas Kiss — have earned her a reputation as a popular and prolific mystery novelist.
“Fusing gritty cop drama with dark psychological thriller, Ellison distinguishes herself with exceptional character development, consistently breakneck pacing and a sense of authenticity,” is what the Chicago Tribune wrote about her.
Ellison’s fourth mystery novel, The Cold Room [Mira, $7.99], once again features Nashville homicide detective Taylor Jackson. This time around, Jackson’s investigation takes her into the twisted horrors of necrophilia and through a macabre chase involving re-enactments of famous paintings both here and in Europe.
Recently, Ellison sat down to talk about Nashville, her writing and the delights of research, which in her case includes some quality time with Nashville’s boys in blue.
Q: How did you develop your detective, Taylor Jackson? Did she just come to you, or is she based on individuals you have known?
A: I got the idea for Taylor after reading John Sandford’s Prey series. I was driving down Interstate 40, thinking about Lucas Davenport’s icy smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes, and that scar, and his depression, and realized I wanted to write about a woman in his shoes. A woman in control, who’s strong without being strident, who commands the respect of her peers and her enemies. One who’s worked hard and paid her dues.
Taylor literally leapt fully formed into my mind, talking in that low, smoky drawl, and I was hooked. I knew I had to tell her story.
Q: How much research do you do for each of your crime novels?
A: Oh my, research is one of the best, most exciting aspects of this job. It all started when I decided I wanted to write a cop and realized my expertise was fully informed by Law & Order, and I didn’t know the first thing about how cops really operate. So I called down to my local homicide office, chatted up the kind detective who answered the phone, and finagled a ride-along invitation.
My first overnight patrol was quite an experience. The captain assigned me to an officer, and he immediately balked, said he wasn’t going to take a woman out on shift. Another officer put up his hand and said, “I’ll take her.” We left right after that and got a call immediately. We jumped into the patrol car and took off, lights and sirens screaming, into the heart of the projects in Nashville. I asked him what kind of call it was, and he said, “stabbing.” I said, “What do I do?” He said, “Stay on me.”
By that time we’re on Lischey, in a really bad part of Nashville, and he’s already out of the car and running. I took off after him. We beat the first responders to the victim, who’d been stabbed by a man he was buying drugs from. It was bad, blood everywhere, his family crying … you can imagine how shocking it was.
We caught the suspect, retrieved the murder weapon, then took him to the Criminal Justice Center in the backseat of the patrol car — a killer, literally breathing down my neck — and took him to booking. The man he stabbed died. When I got home, at six the next morning, I saw I had his blood on my boot.
Q: How do you define your niche in the mystery genre? Who is the audience you’re thinking about when you write?
A: I call my genre psychological crime thrillers. They aren’t light or fluffy, and though there is a love story, they’re definitely not romance. I want my readers to enjoy themselves — and think, if they really want to. My goal is to present an alternate reality, even if it’s just for a few hours, where heroes reign supreme, the bad guys get caught, and our fair city gets a chance to be in the spotlight.
Q: How did you come to relocate here?
A: It was a man. Isn’t it always? My husband is a Nashville native, and we met in graduate school in Washington, D.C. He always wanted to come back here, so when the opportunity arose, we jumped on it. I was a little leery, but man, this city: It just grows on you until you can’t imagine being anywhere else.
I love the dichotomies — the Old South money, the beauty of the language, the rolling hills, the amazing culture, and, of course, I find the crime fascinating. We have the same problems as a massive city like New York or L.A. It’s my inspiration, after all.
Q: How do you develop these twisted plots? Do you give yourself nightmares?
A: I do give myself nightmares. I’ve dreamed plots before. The Cold Room was the most difficult book I’ve ever written, for myriad reasons. People ask me why I didn’t go in a different direction, and as much as I would have loved to do that, this story was the one that needed to be told. But it’s all worth it, in the end, when the story comes together and the nightmares end.
To be honest, nothing I can come up with holds a candle to the tragedies so many people face in real life. There’s real evil in the world. This is my way of combating it, of giving justice and redemption, one little story at a time.
Q: After a career in government and the private sector, how did you change directions and start writing novels?
A: When we moved to Nashville, my experience lay in presidential politics and aerospace marketing, neither of which I was going to find here. I had no luck on the job front, and I finally got so stir-crazy that I went to work for our vet’s office. On the third day, I blew out my back and ended up needing surgery. It was during my recovery that I came across the Sandford books, and the rest, as they say, is history.