Interview with J.E. Ellis

When did you first start writing?
I wrote my first stories in the 7th grade--little handwritten nightmares about being chased by monsters, home invasions, serial killers. Yes, my childhood was pretty screwed up, although no more than a lot of other kids'. I also built my first world: a 1000-word social studies assignment to explore different types of governments turned into a 30-page compendium of an imaginary nation complete with geography, climate, crops, etc., as well as political and cultural structures. And I only got a B- on it!
What's the story behind your latest book?
The kernel of the idea behind "The Essence of Humanity" was first alien contact; but per my own contrariness, I wanted to make the "hero" someone more real to me. Bobby Porter is the kind of guy I've met often over the years: a selfish, minimal-effort, what's-in-it-for-me kind of guy. Definitely not your typical hero, and much more interesting to me as a writer. Concurrently, we were developing the history for the Starfall universe, and the two sort of segued into each other. Thus, "Essence" is a prequel to Starfall in a broad sense, but it's also a stand-alone story, humanity's reaction to a galaxy that refuses to conform to our conceptions.
What motivated you to become an indie author?
It always bugged me to do all the work and get so little of the payoff--and with traditional publishing, that's the bare truth. I consider myself to be living in a fortuitous time. The advances in tech, but more importantly, the way readers have embraced the tech, has given me and thousands of others to tell the stories that burn inside us. And actually get rewarded for our efforts.
What is the greatest joy of writing for you?
The completion of a story brings me the greatest joy. My mantra is, "good stories told well," and when I can sit back and know I've done that to the best of my ability, that's very rewarding. A close second comes from when others enjoy the work--that's an affirmation that my confidence in the story isn't just some delusion of my own ego.
What do your fans mean to you?
I consider every fan a friend. Someone who, by the act of spending money on my stories, creates an obligation in me to keep writing with excellence and imagination. It's a relationship born of common interests and expectations. I take that relationship seriously, and fulfill it joyfully.
Who are your favorite authors?
Authors I enjoy to read cross genres and eras, from Tolkien and Heinlein and Raymond Chandler to Sanderson and James Lee Burke. I've often tried to find a common denominator, but can't really pin it down. My faves depend on where I'm at personally and professionally at that moment, although their influences tend to stay with me and become part of the "standing on the shoulders of giants" legacy I attribute much of my skill to.
Do you remember the first story you ever read, and the impact it had on you?
"The Red Badge of Courage" is the first story I remember reading. I'm sure I read others before that, but that one is the first to make a lasting impression. I also read and was deeply impacted by "Pillar of Iron" by Taylor Caldwell, Rand's "Atlas Shrugged" and "The Fountainhead." Mostly, however, it was Tolkien that blew my mind and opened my imagination. I've read LotR 6 times, and the "Silmarillion" twice. That's a lot of nerdness coming out!
How do you approach cover design?
I leave covers up to the pros who make a living at creating and formatting evocative, effective covers. They'll read enough of the story and talk to me about the themes and arcs, and then do their thing. I rarely try to influence the designer. If he/she thinks the cover will get people to open the book, then their job is done. Then it's up to me to craft a first sentence/paragraph/page that gets them to buy it.
What is your e-reading device of choice?
I have a couple of different apps on my phone. The screen is big enough for me, and it saves me the expense of a separate device.
What book marketing techniques have been most effective for you?
Far and away, word-of-mouth is the most effective marketing. That's why I try to attend as many sci-fi cons, writing conferences and bookstore events as I can. And do interviews, both live and archived. The more people get to know me and my peculiar perspective on life, the more likely they will be to read my stories. And tell their friends about them.
Describe your desk
I sit in an armless video game chair with my laptop on my lap. The laptop is hooked to a larger monitor on a high stand. My reference books (real and virtual) are on my left hand; folders with notes, outlines and character bios are on my right. Earphones with great music playing are stuck in my ears.
What are you working on next?
I'm always working on several things at once, it helps keep my perspectives on any one work fresh. Currently I'm working on the script for episode 2 of our sci-fi TV show Starfall, a new sci-fi novel (sort of a spaghetti western set on a distant planet), and a literary fantasy, a harkening back to the "lost world" genre of Haggard and Burroughs. Then, of course, there's the urban fantasy involving mental illness, and a straight-up epic fantasy trilogy.
Published 2014-02-02.
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