Interview – 1 book in 5 questions : The Devil and the River from R.J. Ellory

After the recent release of his novel in France, an interview with R.J. Ellory.

The Devil and the River / Les neuf cercles (in French)

My review (in French)

Roger, it is an amazing mix of genres that you offer us here …

Well, yes.  A mix of genres.  I wanted to do something different again.  I am always interested to try a fresh approach, a new angle. 

I am always looking for ways that I can explore the human condition, how we think, how we deal with our lives, how we overcome difficulties and obstacles. 

Here we have a character (John Gaines) who seems to be searching for ghosts, and at the same time he is haunted by his own ghosts.  The outer world in which he lives is reflecting his own inner world, and he is afraid of them both. 

How does he handle this?  How does he overcome the things he is afraid of in order to find the truth?  This is what was interesting for me in this story. 

This book is an exploration of areas I have not written about before, and yet they are areas in which I possess a great deal of interest.

Why did you choose this period of American history and the southern region of the United States?

Throughout my novels I have written about many iconic periods and subjects: the death penalty, the Mafia, the CIA, the FBI, serial killers, the KKK, Nixon, Watergate, Nicaragua, the depression, Prohibition etc.

I have – for a long time – wanted to deal with the Vietnam War, but I didn’t feel I could write an honest novel about really being in that war. I have never served ion the military, and I have no personal experience to base such a novel upon.

However, I felt that I could perhaps deal with it from the viewpoint of someone who had survived it and was looking back.

I am also very interested in the supernatural, in the capabilities of the human mind, of the make-up of man and his spiritual nature, and so I felt I could perhaps bring these two areas together.

When I looked at this idea I told my editor that I wanted to write a book that was somewhere between Apocalypse Now and Angel Heart and that is what I tried to do.

As for smalltown America, I again wanted to deal with the atmosphere that you can find only in a small town. I wanted to deal with racial issues, with the ethos and sensibility that is unique to the south. It is a specific and particular atmosphere, and it is something that I very much enjoy creating.

One of the topics of the book is the war and especially what was not yet called at the time “post-traumatic stress syndrome”. How did you do research on this?

Well, I didn’t really research PTSD, as such. PTSD is just a label for what used to be called ‘shell-shock’. It is just a new name for something that is a very old condition.

As with all such subjects and areas, I simply try and place myself in the mind of such a character. John Gaines seemed to me to be a very real person. I could see things from his viewpoint. I looked at situations he was facing and asked myself how he would see them.

I tried my best to imagine what it would feel like to be in a war, and to then return home to an environment where no-one could even begin to understand your experiences or the effect they’d had upon you. That’s what I tried to do with Gaines, and that’s what I try to do with all my characters.

Who is this person? How do they think? What is their viewpoint about life? How would they deal with this situation?

Of course, there is always something of myself in each character because you cannot escape from your own viewpoint and philosophy, but I always try to make them as real as I can.

I want people to identify, to understand, to empathise with these people, and when they have finished the book I want the reader to feel like they are leaving old friends behind.

I was at a book convention in New York a couple of years ago, and a woman came to see me. She did not have a book for me to sign, and I asked her how I could help her. She said that she just wanted to know if Frank Parrish (from ‘Les Anges de New York’) was now okay, if he had got his life on track, if everything was alright with him. That, for me, is possibly the best compliment an author could ever get.


                                     Original cover                      French cover

Death is everywhere in this novel, hanging around on every page …

Yes, indeed! It is a book about people trying to understand what death really is…whether it is the end of everything, or just the beginning of something else.

John Gaines is a man who has come from a war where death is everywhere, where death is just accepted, where it is routine. He returns to a town where death is a stranger, and where everyone wants to believe that someone who is dead is really still alive.

He is asking himself if death is the end of life, or if death is actually the beginning of a different life somewhere else. Perhaps he is struggling with the death of the young woman because he believes that if he understands this, then he will understand more of himself, of his relationship with his mother and father, his memories of the war and the experiences he had there. If he can make sense of this, then perhaps he can make sense of his own life.

Sonatine, your French Publisher, cites Truman Capote and Jim Thompson speaking of this novel. Not bad as references, right?

Ha, these are great compliments! I do not know what to say.

I am just writing the way that I write. I am just trying to tell a story in the best way that I can. Someone once asked me how I would define a classic work of literature. I said that it was a narrative that was so compelling that you could not read it fast enough, and yet it was written so beautifully that you could not read it slowly enough.

You have to know what happens, but you do not want the book to end. You get caught in some kind of limbo. That is the perfect book for me. I want to get lost in a book.

I want to think about the book even when I am not reading it. And when I finish the book, I want to feel a little bit sad because I have left some new friends behind in the pages.

Catégories :Interviews littéraires

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  1. Récapitulatif des interviews 2014 | EmOtionS – Blog littéraire et musical

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