J.T. Ellison is the international award-winning author of seven critically acclaimed novels, multiple short stories and has been published in over twenty countries. A former White House staffer, she has worked extensively with the Metro Nashville Police, the FBI and various other law enforcement organizations to research her novels. She lives in Nashville with her husband and a poorly trained cat, and is hard at work on her next novel.
Ellison is the author of the crime series featuring Nashville homicide detective Taylor Jackson. The series opened with the 2007 work, All the Pretty Girls, a novel lauded by BookPage: “Ellison does a skillful job of capturing the city and its flavors, while taking the police procedural out of its usual New York/Los Angeles/Chicago big-city milieu and placing it in a mid-sized, vibrant Southern city. She’s populated her novel with believable players, on both sides of the law.” The Cold Room, the fourth in the series, won the 2011 ITW Thriller Award for best paperback original. Seventh is the series, Where All the Dead Lie, is just out, and has also been praised by the critics, including Publishers Weekly, who felt that “the growing suspense will keep readers glued.”
JT, it’s a real pleasure to have you on Scene of the Crime. Let’s start things off with your own scene of the crime, Nashville. What’s your connection to the city?
Ah, Nashville. If it weren’t for moving to this town, I might not even be a writer today. My husband is a Nashville native. We met the first night of grad school in D.C., and on our first date that weekend, he regaled me with stories of his hometown. Six years later, we relocated, and I fell in love with the city, its dichotomies, class structure, the cosmopolitan downtown married to the old South. I’ve waxed eloquent about my adopted hometown here.
What things about Nashville make it unique and a good physical setting in your books?
Nashville is by its very nature a misunderstood town, simply because outside its borders, we’re known as Music City. What the insiders know is this town is about much more than music – and only a handful of people who are natives are involved in the industry. We are a southern city, with the attendant grace and crime and grit and dark edges, and those were the parts I wanted to explore. It’s small enough to have several recognizable landmarks, which I think helps readers orient themselves, and rich and diverse enough never to run out of stories.
Did you consciously set out to use your location as a “character” in your books, or did this grow naturally out of the initial story or stories?
I did set out to make Nashville a character in the books. I didn’t want to have the same old crime fiction backdrop – New York, L.A., Chicago. I wanted something fresh and new that people weren’t intimately familiar with. The city’s story grows throughout the books just as my main characters do.
How do you incorporate location in your fiction? Do you pay overt attention to it in certain scenes, or is it a background inspiration for you?
For me – it’s where I place the crime scenes, and the path to get there, using both landmarks and places some people don’t know about. But I don’t just write about Nashville – my characters have gone to New York, Italy and Scotland in the books – all places that were a blast to write about. Setting is hugely important to my work. But I won’t put in details that can be seen as superfluous – turn right, turn left – unless it’s important to the story.
How does Taylor Jackson interact with her surroundings? Is she a native, a blow-in, a reluctant or enthusiastic inhabitant, cynical about it, a booster?
Taylor Jackson is a part of the city’s mythology. She attended the prestigious Father Ryan, grew up in Belle Meade, her parents are socialites. She’s eschewed their lifestyle to become a cop, which creates a massive amount of friction for her community.
Has there been any local reaction to your works?
I have been blessed to gather a lot of local readers who really enjoy reading about their town. And all of the foreign translations seem to be very happy with the unique locale – it gives them a feel for the city, and the country, and the South. A reviewer for the Nashville Scene kindly said, “What Jeff Lindsay’s Darkly Dreaming Dexter does for Miami, Ellison’s Jackson novels do for Music City.” [Also check out this link for a guide to all things Nashville in Ellison's books, created by one of her fans.]
Have you ever made any goofs in depicting your location or time period? Please share–the more humorous the better (we all have).
Sure – but the biggest wasn’t a goof so much as a debate – in The Cold Room, there’s a crime scene on Love Circle. That’s a street, but it’s also used as a descriptor for that particular little spot in Nashville. Someone who read it took me to task for calling it Love Circle, it should have been Love Hill. I freaked out, because the last thing I want is to have something wrong about my own city. How embarrassing. So I started to ask around – and it’s one of those things – half the folks call it Love Circle, half call it Love Hill. So both are right. Phew!
Sure. As it happens, that same Love Circle scene is perfect. It ties Taylor to the city in innumerable ways:
“Taylor retrieved her car, made all the lights through West End and finally got caught by a yellow in front of Maggiano’s. The next intersection was her turnoff, and it flashed to red just as she rolled onto the white line.
“To her left, Love Circle wound sinuously around the top of a windy hill in the middle of West End. It held too many memories for her.
“She fingered the bump at the top of her nose, just underneath where the bridge of her sunglasses sat. She’d broken her nose for the first time on Love Hill when she was fourteen, playing football with some boys who’d come to the isolated park at the top of the hill to smoke and shoot the breeze. Her mother had cringed when she saw the break the following morning at breakfast, dragged her to a plastic surgeon friend immediately. He’d realigned the cartilage, clucking all the while, and bandaged her nose in a stupid white brace that she’d discarded the moment her mother left her alone. The hairline fracture never healed properly, giving her the tiny bump that made her profile imperfect.
“She turned left on Orleans, took a quick right on Acklen, then an immediate left onto Love Circle. It was a steep, narrow road, difficult to traverse. The architecture was eclectic, ranging from bungalows from the 1920s to contemporary villas built as recently as five years ago. Many of the houses had no drives; the owners usually left their cars on the street. She wound her way up, surprised by the changes. A huge, post-modern glass house perched at the top of the hill, lit up like Christmas. She remembered there was some flak about it; built by a country music star, something about a landing pad on the roof. She drove past, admiring the architecture.
“At the top of the rise, she stopped for a moment, glanced out the window to the vivid skyline. The sky was deeply dark to the east, with no moon to light the road. The dazzling lights of Nashville beckoned. No wonder the isolated park at the peak was still a favorite teen hangout. There was something about the name, of course. It was rather romantic to head up the hill at sunset to watch the lights of Nashville blink on, one by one, a fiery mass of luminosity cascading through the city.”
John Connolly, and his incredible insights into the culture and landscape of Maine, John Sandford’s Minneapolis, Laura Lippman’s Baltimore, and Diana Gabaldon’s Scotland. Amazing, really, that all my favorite authors’ books are tied so intrinsically to their settings.
What’s next for Taylor?
Taylor’s latest adventure, Where All the Dead Lie, starts in Nashville, but moves to the Scottish Highlands, to the haunted castle belonging to Memphis Highsmythe, the Viscount Dulsie. I will say, she has a rough go of it.
Thanks so much for having me today!
And many thanks, JT, for taking the time to talk with us at Scene of the Crime.
Visit the JT Ellison homepage for more insight into her wicked imagination, or follow her on Twitter @Thrillerchick.