J.T. Ellison pulls no punches. I love her direct way of talking about her work and the business of writing. (She’s a regular contributor to the Anthony-nominated crime-writing blog Murderati.) And J.T. is definitely serious about the business: Her first novel, the acclaimed thriller All The Pretty Girls came out just last November, the second book in her Taylor Jackson series, 14, is available now, and book three, Judas Kiss, will be out this coming January!
A few years back, J.T. gave up her job as a White House staffer in order to take on the mean streets of Nashville, where she lives and does her research for her novels. Recently she was named “Best Mystery/Thriller Writer of 2008” by the Nashville Scene.
Today I’m delighted to annouce that on January ninth we’ll be appearing together at Murder by the Book in Houston!
I’ve never been much of a feminist.
Open my door, pay for my dinner, support me in the manner to which I’ve become accustomed – no worries on my end. I’ve always had a love affair with the male species, and a much more difficult time relating to women who thought I should be out there striving for gains for our sex.
This used to be especially true when it came to reading. I read men. It wasn’t a conscious decision, just a natural gravitation toward the sex I understood better. I was the ultimate tomboy. God forbid you try to get me in a dress. I had two older brothers who treated me like a boy – playing football, roughhousing, teaching me how to play poker. My dad worked for a huge aerospace company with lots of military men who treated me like an equal, not a child. I guess all that testosterone rubbed off. Plus, at an early age, it became readily apparent that I wasn’t going to be a sweet, petite little thing, but an Amazon, with broad shoulders and height that exceeded my father. It’s hard to feel girly when you top your classmates by a foot. Top it with my mother, who was the height of femininity yet never used her stunning good looks to get ahead, and I was hardwired to run with the wolves.
So how in the world did I end up with a female protagonist?
One of the beautiful things about launching a book is the questions posed by interviewers. For me, this forced introspection, the public delving into psyche, the attempts to understand the internal motivations behind my writing has led me to some interesting realizations about who I am as a woman, as well as a writer. In preparation for the questions, I asked some of myself. Most importantly, why did I choose to write from the female POV when all my favorite leads were male?
Taylor Jackson, my homicide lieutenant, is a lot like me in a number of ways. We have the same background, have the same physical attributes, the same no nonsense attitude toward life. But Taylor is an idealized version of me. She was born out of my own hero complex. Have you ever happened upon a horrible accident, a few minutes past the actual event, where people have already begun attending to the injured? Do you ever wonder what you would have done if you were a party to the accident? If you’d seen the car careen out of control, roll over, smash against a concrete divider, burst into flames – would you stop? Would you race to the car, risk your own life to rescue the occupants? If they were injured or bleeding, their heart and breath gone, would you lay them down, administer CPR, save their lives? And when the inevitable media came to the scene, would you stick around, allow yourself to be interviewed, or would you slink off, comfortable in the knowledge that you’d done all you could? Would you be a hero?
Taylor would. She wouldn’t hesitate. She’d risk herself to save someone else. It wouldn’t even be a conscious thought. She’d act. Immediately.
Would I? I’d like to think so. But until faced with the experience, do we really know how we’d react?
Once I realized who Taylor was, I knew she was my character. I knew intuitively that she had to be a cop, had to be a legitimate hero, someone who would undertake the risks we all avoid with enthusiasm. Who wouldn’t think twice about the danger. Because that’s what our law enforcement officers do – male and female. They put themselves second, reach into the abyss to make us safe. That selflessness defines Taylor. She gets to face the worst the world has to offer, isn’t overcome with emotion, doesn’t simper or faint. She’s rough and ready and willing to take it on.
I really didn’t want to fall into the trap of having a female character in a man’s job being harassed. If Taylor was as strong as I planned to portray her, she would have the admiration of the men around her. Like any strong, successful woman, there have been whispers in her past. But no one would dare do that to her face. It allows the story to move forward, the plot and pace to tear away unhindered. I wrote her in what some would call an idealist situation, but since I’ve only faced a few instances of being treated like a girl, it made more sense to me that she be treated with the respect she’s earned after thirteen years on the force.
I love having this character in my life. Where I started to get into trouble was when John Baldwin came along. My natural propensity toward testosterone made him the easiest character I’ve ever written. I was able to tap into his emotions, his realities, so much easier than I ever did with Taylor. It was an interesting dichotomy. Who knew that a woman writing a man would be simpler than a woman writing a woman?
Then I faced an ever greater challenge. My strong woman was in love. Inherently, she became weak, dominated, conquered. I had to fight tooth and nail not to let that happen. I hope the reader feels I’ve succeeded. In my mind, Taylor and Baldwin are equals in every sense of the word.
As I got deeper into my writing, I started seeking out women in the mystery field. What I found excited me. There were plenty of incredibly strong female protagonists, women who are written by women, women fictional and real whom I can admire. Tess Gerritsen, Laura Lippman, Karin Slaughter, Alex Kava, Erica Spindler, Zoe Sharp – all write with the ferocity behind their women that I so respect. Now I read just as many women as I do men, in all genres. When I tick off my favorites, the sexes are equally represented, and I’m comfortable recommending many of the female writers to male readers who would normally shy away because they can’t identify, or don’t think a woman can write an action scene. I’m here to tell you, we can. I write using initials so that the men who don’t know I’m a woman might just take a chance. I think they’ll be surprised.
Just keep opening those doors, boys. Strong women or not, we all want to be treated like a lady.
[Remember–Everyone who comments is entered to win $100 Godiva Chocolatier and Harry & David giftbaskets, plus books from several Octoberguest! authors! Drawing held November 2nd.]