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Author puts in good word for Birmingham

Novellist RJ Ellory has decided it’s time to shout about Birmingham. Graham Young reports.

Author RJ Ellory
Author RJ Ellory

Having the ability to write a bestselling thriller would probably be enough for most people.

But RJ Ellory isn’t most people and his prolific output reflects that.

As well as the 30 novels in storage that he wrote before finding a publisher, his 12th (untitled) book will hit the shops next year.

One again, it has been written with extraordinary tenacity.

“I do 3-5,000 words per day on a PC and aim to complete a novel in 12 weeks,” says Roger Jon Ellory.

“Then I leave it for two or three weeks, go back to it and then send it to my editor.

“But I’m the kind of person who has to be doing something...”

And so he’s a guitarist, too, working with musicians who are being produced by Jeff Lynne’s former bass player, Martin Smith.

After changing their name from The Whiskey Poets to Zero Navigator, they’ve just spent nine days recording an album and could be touring next year.

“We all come from different musical backgrounds, so we’ve ended up with something different, a mixture of Free, The Beatles, Small Faces and the Allman Brothers,” says Roger.

“As Eleanor Roosevelt said: ‘It’s never too late to be what you might have been’. ’’

In the meantime, Roger has another project up his sleeve.

Tonight, he’ll be the star of a free CityTalks event at Birmingham Conservatoire.

Organised by Birmingham City University, the theme of the inaugural night will be ‘We Are Birmingham’, with guest speakers invited to eulogise about Birmingham’s contribution to international culture.

Having travelled widely on the back of his success with thrillers like A Simple Act of Violence (2008), Roger is fascinated by Birmingham’s contribution to the history of the world – and perplexed by its inability to get the message across.

A friend of his has made a short four-minute film for screening at tonight’s event.

Set to ELO’s Standing in the Rain, it encapsulates many of the most memorable aspects of the city’s history.

For copyright reasons, the film is unlikely to be seen anywhere else but Roger is delighted with it and will talk for about 15 minutes about what he thinks makes Birmingham – and the Black Country – so great.

“I am really proud of where I’m from and, on a global scale, Birmingham is something else,” he says.

“Historically, culturally... from the Gun Quarter to the Jewellery Quarter, pens, pre-Raphaelites and the Lunar Society... this was the city of 1,000 trades.

“We’ve got Jaguars, Land Rovers and everything from Spitfires and Lord of the Rings to Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, UB40 and Simon Rattle and the Symphony Hall, one of the great concert halls in the world.

“The city’s motto is ‘Forward’ and it’s constantly reinventing itself. The new library is astonishing – and brave.”

Should the old Central Library be demolished?

“Art Deco used to be considered ugly,” he reasons. “In time, we mellow in our attitude towards things.

“It all depends what’s going to be there instead.

“I want the city to renovate Digbeth, where I’m very pleased to see the Kennedy Memorial.

“When I went to Nashville, I was taken to the outskirts and shown a building – and at first I couldn’t see why.

“Then I was told it was built in 1902, to which I replied: ‘Birmingham’s history can be traced back to Roman times and we have buildings like The Crown... from 1368!’

“Birmingham is a much easier city to get in and out of than London because of the concentration of the city.

“I live close to the airport and can get to most places in Europe in about an hour and a half.

“It’s a world class city with a history comparable to anywhere else in the world, yet people have a strange misconception of it.”

The success of his novels has seen him travelling ever wider – with France becoming his No.1 sales territory above even England and the US where his books are set.

“I remind the French of how brave Churchill said its people were,” he says of his attempts to slay popular misconceptions of British attitudes towards a country he loves.

In 2009 during one seven month tour of duty, Roger visited 49 cities in 11 countries and only spent 17 days at home.

He’s still spending up to five months abroad every year.

“I wouldn’t say I’m wealthy – I don’t drive a Bentley Continental and I’m not a millionaire but I support a relatively comfortable lifestyle,” he says.

“In fact, for a long time I was accumulating a lot of debt, but managed to pay it off about four years ago.

“Now, my (second) wife works as a volunteer and I send my 16-year-old son, Ryan, to private school. I’m just content to be able to earn a living at something I enjoy doing when 80 per cent of writers have to have a second income.”

Roger never knew his father and the death of his TV actress mother left him orphaned at the age of seven, when his grandmother started to bring the two brothers up.

Her death led to the boys fending for themselves, leading to Roger ending up with a prison sentence for poaching.

His first marriage ended after 18 months in 1989 and he remarried a year later.

After his print debut in 2003, all was going well until last year, when it was revealed he had posted 12 internet comments – ten praised his own novels, while two were disparaging ones about rivals.

Insisting that it was all blown out of proportion, Roger says: “I posted one comment about each of my ten novels over ten years and it was just meant to be a bit of fun – I’d try to be the first.

“Of course, I shouldn’t have done it.

“With the others it was like a playground squabble. I apologised to them and they accepted that, so we moved on.

“One expert I heard said it’s believed that 30 to 40 per cent of comments on line are from people associated with a product.

“I can only look at it as a lesson I needed to learn the hard way.”

As we talk in Cafe Rouge in the Mailbox, Roger reveals he admires friend and fellow Brummie Lee Childs, whose Jack Reacher character became a film starring Tom Cruise.

“Lee has created his own genre and writes that kind of book as well as it can be written,” says Roger. “And he’s very generous, telling me how to get a US agent, which I did.

“Being a writer is 50 per cent about ego and the rest about insecurity.”

Talks about his own novels have been held with Olivier Dahan, director of La Vie En Rose (2007), while Pierre Morrel, the director of Taken (2008) asked for several books to read.

“They always say nothing happens for six years then everything in two weeks,” says Roger. “But a film only uses about 30 to 40 per cent of any book, so you can’t be precious about it and I’m not – I don’t see myself as an important person.

“A Quiet Belief in Angels (2007), which Olivier was considering, would have had a $70-80 million budget to recreate the New York of the early 1950s. Once you need costumes and so on, the budget doubles.”

Roger recently worked on ideas for Channel 4, only for the commissioning editor to leave the company to work for himself.

“We drew up an outline for a three-part TV series a bit like Red Riding,” says Roger.

“Unlike my novels, it would have been set in Birmingham and been centred on people who had either survived murder attempts on their lives or how they’d coped with the murder of relatives. It would have been a fresh, British, Birmingham-based crime thriller.”

Perhaps now that Steven Knight’s Peaky Blinders has taken off, there will be another call.

* For details about tonight’s 6.30pm event at Birmingham Conservatoire, visit www.citytalks-eorg.eventbrite.co.uk.

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