Interview – 1 book in 5 questions : Mockingbird Songs

An interview with R.J. Ellory 

Mockingbird Songs

English cover / French cover

Even if the story is different, what do you think if I tell you that the atmosphere of this novel made me think of three of your books (« Candlemoth », « Bad Signs », « A Quiet Belief in Angels »)?

That makes perfect sense to me! I seem to write three very different types of novel. The first would be a more conventional investigation, perhaps ‘Saints of New York’ or ‘A Dark and Broken Heart’; the second would be the vast histoircal epic like ‘A Quiet Vendetta’ or ‘A Simple Act of Violence’; then there is the third type, a sort of slow-burn Southern drama. ‘A Quiet Belief in Angels’, ‘Candlemoth’ and ‘Bad Signs’ all belong to that third category, so I can see why this book reminds you of those earlier works. The central idea with such books is – as you say – the atmosphere. I want to create that sense of claustrophobic internalisation that seems to be present in a small town. Everyone knows everybody else; everybody is aware of everyone else’s business, but still – somehow – there are many secrets and endless interpretations of the truth. Just as in war, the victor writes history, so it is in life. The people who survive are the ones who get the opportunity to explain what happened.

This superb story highlights the complex humanity of characters struggling with their dark sides.…

Of course! That is the most interesting kind of story to write! No one is simple. I say that with all honesty. People are complex, even when they think they are simple. That is the business of being human. Every difficulty we experience in life is something that we influenced and created, directly or indirectly. We are all responsible for the situations and conditions in which we find ourselves, but often we don’t want to accept that. We tell ourselves that everything is dependent upon luck, but wolves do not kill unlucky sheep! I don’t believe in good people or bad people. I believe in people that have both good and bad sides, and sometimes the good is very strong, and sometimes the evil is most prominent. Catalysts and events can cause people to change suddenly and dramatically. Sometimes a single act of trauma or violence can change someone’s personality completely. It is these unpredictable aspects of the human condition that fascinate me, and that make the process of writing a book so enjoyable.

Your male characters are full of flaws, while your female characters are very strong. How do you explain it?

Because my wife told me that men are stupid and wrong and women are always totally amazing! She also said that if I said anything negative about women she would lock me in the basement.

So…to answer the question…I think that my life has been influenced more by women than men. I never knew my father, nor did I ever meet his parents, and my mother died when I was seven. My mother was an only child, so I had no aunts or uncles or cousins. My maternal grandfather had already drowned in the 1950s, and my maternal grandmother became my legal guardian. I went to boarding school, and the school matron was responsible for our welfare as we grew up. She became our surrogate mother, if you like. I think I just translate my perceptions of women as capable, strong, able to understand and deal with life situations, able to remain calm in times of stress and be a sort of anchor. I think there has always been a significant female character in my life, and they have always been of great substance and character. Perhaps I write about women in this way as a purely autobiographical expression of my own experiences.

I also don’t want to go back in the basement.

« The idea didn’t seem so bad at first, » is a phrase that appears several times in the novel. Does it partly summarize what makes everything go wrong for the characters?

I think it partly summarises what makes everything go wrong for anyone…anywhere…no matter who they are! This actually came from observing children and how they react when they get into trouble. They do something crazy or stupid, and then they are caught. After all the tears and upsets, when you finally get to ask them why they did this stupid, crazy thing, the answer is always the same: Because it seemed like a good idea at the time. I don’t see this is any different for adults. We are all big children, after all. Sometimes children are smarter than adults, which proves that we often don’t learn from our mistakes. So, generally speaking, when you see someone having a terrible time with something, it’s usually because they did something or said something that didn’t seem such a bad idea at the time, and now it has all gone to hell!

The other central element of the book is music, right?

Now we go back many years! I am seven years old, and I stand in the hallway of a strange house. My mother has just died, and I’ve been sent to stay with a great aunt. She has a son, a teenager, a wild guy, a rocker, and he has a room painted black with posters all over the walls – Hendrix, Joplin, Canned Heat, Jim Morrison and The Doors. He spends his time playing records, smoking cigarettes, drinking beer. I find some strange comfort in the company of this wild teenager. The teenager told me a story and played a record. ‘This is Robert Johnson,’ he said. ‘He went down to the crossroads and sold his soul to the Devil for the Blues…’ And I listened, and I heard something in the music that really connected with me, and I knew that no other music would ever sound the same.

Music is a rhythm, an atmosphere, a heartbeat, a pulse, a colour, a feeling. It isn’t just a sound. You hear sounds with your ears, but music is something you feel in your heart. I listen to music for the same reason that I read: the emotional impact. Music is always there – in good times, bad times, in times of difficulty, travail, loss.

As Virgil Thomson said, ‘I’ve never known a musician who regretted being one. Whatever deceptions life may have in store for you, music is not going to let you down.’ I grew up with music everywhere, and if there wasn’t some already, I would bring it or make it. Four decades later I am still singing some of the same tunes, putting a band back on the road when all sense and sensibility says that such a thing should not be considered by a man of my age. But this is about life. This is about being whoever you are. This is about feeling something inside of yourself that you cannot exorcise without making a noise. People might get older, but the emotion stays young for ever.

Now – even when I write my fiction – I am looking for the same rhythm, the same pace, the same tensions that I find in music. This is what we do. This is what we have to say. This is what we sing about. What we write about. Matters of the heart. Matters of the soul. The business of life. Music is both a destination and a home; it is both a familiar friend and a new acquaintance; it is both a parent and a child.

I look back at my life, and all the important events, all the things that mattered – marriage, fatherhood, new jobs, new places and people – and all of them were somehow connected to music. These things are the soundtrack of our lives. I can say in music what I will never be able to write. I can write in words what I will never be able to communicate with music. And that is why I wrote a crime novel about musicians. It’s the same reason I put ‘The Whiskey Poets’ together and started to play concerts and record albums. I guess we’re all trying to be heard above the noise of life. Seems to me that the very worst thing you can do is stay silent.



Catégories :Interviews littéraires

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