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Chicago Author Spotlight: David Ellis

By Betsy Mikel in Arts & Entertainment on Feb 9, 2011 8:20PM

David Ellis' new book is about a corrupt governor.
Being a full-time writer is hard work. Being a full-time lawyer is hard work. Being a full-time writer, a full-time lawyer and full-time parent is super duper triple hard work. But, David Ellis does it.

The Springfield-based author won the 2002 Edgar Allan Poe Award Best First Novel with his Line of Vision. It was a novel he worked on for hundreds upon thousands of hours before being rejected by agents time and time again, revised and finally published. Several novels later, he has earned a reputation as being one of the most popular contemporary thriller writers. And then there’s that one time when he was the Rod Blagojevich Impeachment Prosecutor. “Kind of a big deal” doesn’t begin to explain how big of a deal David Ellis really is.

The lawyer author is now back with a new novel. Breach of Trust is about something we Chicagoans can all relate to: a corrupt governor. Breach of Trust is being released tomorrow, the same day that Ellis is starting his book tour. So we chatted with him about how the book evolved when Blago got impeached and his personal experience both as a writer and with corrupt governors.

David Ellis reads from Breach of Trust, February 11, Barnes & Noble - Webster Ave., 7:30 p.m.

Chicagoist: From now on, you'll have "the prosecutor who convicted former Illinois governer Rod Blagojevich" associated your name. How is this going to (or has it already) affected your writing and/or legal career? Good? Bad?

David Ellis: It certainly affected this novel. I was initially writing a novel about a corrupt governor before his arrest, so I was already writing a book about it. Then I told my publisher we have this governor who is doing these things he shouldn't be doing, and it was taking my time. “Well if he's an interesting person, than write about him,” they said. And I thought “I won't write about him, but I'll write about a corrupt governor.”

Before, I was writing a standard version of what could be corrupt: allegations of pay to play, campaign contributions for official acts. But then, December 8, 2008, the governor got arrested and that changed my novel. And then I knew there would be certain expectations associated with my work. So I continued to write a work of fiction, but I had to spice up some of the things the fictional governor in my book was doing so that fiction could come reality.

C: You said in a past interview that fiction writing has made you a better lawyer. How is that?

DE: Fiction writing forces you to consider the view point of your audience, especially thriller writing. You are trying to surprise the reader at the same time you are trying to mislead or misdirect the reader.

You should be keeping in mind who your audience is, whether it's a judge or a CEO or a reader. Too too often, legal authors use fancy words to impress. But if you're thinking from the viewpoint from the reader, you aren't going to write like that. You have to make it accessible to someone who doesn't have the same level of legal knowledge.

2011_02Ellis.jpg C: So who are your readers? Are your writing for lawyers and people generally involved in the legal world?

DE: I think the mystery readers in general are drawn to legal fiction all the time. Especially when they don't as much about it, it gives them the opportunity to learn about the process as they go along. But you have to streamline a lot of the process. You have to use dramatic license to make it more enjoyable for the reader, but for someone in the industry, they would say that you got a bunch wrong. For example, on those TV shows, they always uncover DNA evidence from fingerprints on a gun. I'm sure I've put fingerprints on a gun myself, but it's actually much more difficult than one thinks.

But, I’ve seen some odd things in my career. I’ve written about stuff and some critics have said “that would never happen.” But it did happen, because I experienced it. One of the people reviewing Breach of Trust made the comment that this book was made a little bit more credible by my own experience [as prosecuting attorney in the Blago impeachment trial]. They’re right. When I was first doing the story, my fictional governor wasn't doing thing as bombastic and sensational in my version. Then truth was stranger than fiction. And then come these allegations of selling the U.S. Senate seat and shaking down the Chicago Tribune. Where at one point I would have been afraid that somebody would have said that could never happen, they aren't saying that now.

C: You say that Line of Vision was rejected by 75 agents before someone accepted it. Then it won the Edgar Award for Best First Novel, and agents who had previously passed on you started calling you. What advice do you have for writers who're trying to find an agent for their books?

DE: The most important thing is to have the will to have everything you need to do to get published. You have to be willing to put in countless hours into a manuscript that may never get published. You have to be able to go for a jog or sleep or spend time with a loved one in exchange for something that may never reach its fulfillment. I spent hours and hours and hundreds and probably thousands of hours writing the first draft of Line of Vision knowing it could just sit in a drawer. I could have looked at that time wasted.

You have to have the will to accept rejection and not let it hurdle you. Every hurdle is psychological. If you're willing to put in the time to actually write it, you have passed the first hurdle. If you are willing to listen to criticism, you've jumped another hurdle. If you send it out to agents and run the risk of letting other people chop it up, you've jumped another hurdle. And I jumped all those hurdles, and realized I had some work to do, and I fixed it. If you're willing to do all those things, I can't guarantee you're going to get published. I can guarantee that you won't get published if you don't do those things. I'm proud that I saw it through. I estimate I worked on it for about three whole years of my life.

C: Is there anything you find particularly interesting or unique about community of authors who write legal fiction?

DE: The biggest surprise for me with mystery writers is how friendly and nice everyone is because we write about such dark subjects. We all get together and talk, and I usually see a surprisingly amount of optimism and openness. They aren't really that intense. Their books are intense and their story lines are very dark, but their personalities are none of those things. They're lively and spirited people.