Fiction » Contemporary Fiction

The best books on Human Dramas

recommended by R J Ellory

Roger Ellory is a bestselling author whose recommendations include Annie Proulx, Stephen King and Truman Capote. There are, he says, no rules to great writing

  • 1

    The Shining
    by Stephen King

  • 2

    The Shipping News
    by Annie Proulx

  • 3

    In Cold Blood
    by Truman Capote

  • The Things They Carried cover

    4

    The Things They Carried
    by Tim O’ Brien

  • 5

    Winter’s Bone
    by Daniel Woodrell

Roger Ellory is a bestselling author whose recommendations include Annie Proulx, Stephen King and Truman Capote. There are, he says, no rules to great writing

R J Ellory

R J Ellory is author of eight critically acclaimed novels, including the bestselling A Quiet Belief in Angels. Often listed as a crime author, he doesn’t like to be pigeonholed and calls his work ‘human drama’.

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Before we start, what do you mean by human dramas?

In my mind, a human drama is a novel that presents us with characters we can believe in, themselves faced with situations that are realistic, often challenging, and generates within the reader a real sense of engagement, mentally and emotionally, so much so that by the end of the book you really feel as though you are leaving behind people that you not only know, but people you have come to care for.

Your first choice is one of the most chilling books around – The Shining by Stephen King.

I chose The Shining because it was the first book which impinged on me and made me so aware of the emotive power of literature. I was orphaned at seven and I went to different state-run institutions and I ended up at a boarding school in the Oxfordshire countryside. While I was there I contracted chicken pox and I was quarantined in a sanatorium and I was alone in a 12-bed dormitory with the door locked, with a circular window in the door that looked out on to a black and white chequerboard floored corridor off which were six doors on each side which led into different wards for children who had other diseases. I would hear footsteps in the corridor and I would run to the window to see who was out there but by the time I got to the window whoever had been there was gone. So I constantly heard footsteps of people who were not there and while I was quarantined for a week or two I read The Shining.

Aged how old?

Aged 12 – half of the book I didn’t understand, half of it scared the living Jesus out of me and I would wake up in the middle of the night, restless, agitated and terrified, and have to go and read some more. It was almost like reading it was an exorcism from itself. It was a bizarre experience with a fever, and just horrible, but at the same time brilliant and compelling and strange and surreal.

And that got you hooked on Stephen King?

Yes, I have always rated Stephen King. I think he is so much more than just a commercially successful horror writer. I think the guy is a great humanist and a great writer of character and I think that is the key to his success. Prior to King we had H P Lovecraft, we had Bray, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Hammer and Vincent Price and so on. And then King comes along and essentially creates an entire new genre. He says, I can take a regular blue-collar working guy from Pennsylvania and stick a clown in his garage and scare the crap out of him or I can take a teenage girl with psychokinetic powers and literally frighten the hell out of you. I can take the banal and present it in such as way that it becomes actually terrifying. And he did that by getting you to believe in the reality of the characters that he created. And I think that is his true strength.

Your

next book is a Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Shipping News by Annie Proulx.

I think fundamentally there are three types of novel. There is your commercial page-turning pot boiler which presents you with a question in chapter one and you have to read through the novel to get the answer to the question. And there is this satisfying denouement or unsatisfying denouement at the end and two or three weeks later you have pretty much forgotten the book. It is not the sort of book that you read for the scintillating turn of phrase. It is mechanically written, it is very clever and crafted but it is ultimately sort of Chinese takeaway, and I am not saying that in any way, shape or form as a negative critical thing. It just is what it is. With those types of books, you know the titles, you know the writers. They do what they say on the tin. Then you get literary fiction, which is often criticised for style over substance, where the author has taken as much time over how they are going to say something as opposed to what they are going to say.

The Shipping News is an extraordinary book. I mean, take the plot: stupid guy marries promiscuous girl, they have a couple of kids, she dies in a car crash and he moves house – that’s it. It is a vignette of somebody’s life. But, for 350 pages, she does the most extraordinary thing with language – things which break all the rules. W Somerset Maugham said there are only three rules for writing and no one ever agrees what they are. Well, she takes what rules anyone may have and breaks all of them.

She takes human characteristics and ascribes them to inanimate objects and takes the characteristics of an inanimate object and ascribes them to humans in such as way as you recognise that human being. I was asked in Dubai how I would define a classic and I said, for me a classic is the kind of book which presents you with a narrative so compelling you can’t read it fast enough, yet it is written so beautifully you can’t read it slow enough. And it leaves you in that limbo of, you have to finish it but you don’t want it to finish. And I am not necessarily saying The Shipping News is one of those books because I don’t think it presents you with a narrative which is so compelling.

But I think it is the third kind of book, which is how I would define a classic. The thing about The Shipping News is that she has created these four or five characters like Quoyle and Bunny and Sunshine, the kids, and the Aunt and the girl he falls in love with and the people he works at the newspaper with, and they are such rich involved characters that you so engage with them on almost every level. You see their fears, their anxieties and their tribulations. And I think it is just extraordinary the way she does it. If you have a range of human dramas with, on the far left something like In Cold Blood, on the far right you would have something like The Shipping News because it is a gentle lilting story.

Let’s move on to In Cold Blood by Truman Capote which is all about the crimes committed in Finney County and not a gentle lilting story.

I think in all honesty it is one of the finest books ever written. Capote set out to write essentially a novel written in a novel style but about a true story. This was the story of Herbert Clutter, a wealthy farmer, his wife and two of their children who were all murdered in Holcomb in Kansas. Capote is an example of someone who literally committed his life to creating something. It took him six years to finish it because he had to wait for the court case and the final verdict which was the two perpetrators being executed.

And there were all these connections with Harper Lee. He grew up alongside her and she went on to be his researcher when he went for the initial interviews with people in Holcomb. While she was researching In Cold Blood with him she heard that her book, To Kill A Mockingbird had been accepted for publication.

The film Capote was made while he had still yet to complete In Cold Blood, and he went to the premier and the film won an Oscar; meanwhile Harper Lee won the Pulitzer Prize for To Kill a Mockingbird. Even Norman Mailer published an article which said that there was a very strong possibility that they co-wrote both books. These are two of the most important works of contemporary American fiction. To Kill a Mockingbird is read by every child. In Cold Blood made Capote the most respected and highly-paid writer in America for probably 20 years. Yet, neither of them ever published again. She went into reclusion, playing golf and sitting in the back of courts listening to court cases in a tiny little village in America. And he moved to New York and spent the next 20 years using however much money he made to drink himself to death. The whole thing is shrouded with mystery and curiosity. In Cold Blood is one of the rare books that I read, got to the end, and turned back to page one and started again.

I think it is a bit of a Marmite book. Fifty per cent of people who read it love it and 50 per cent hate it. The language is very literary for a non-fiction book and I think he did something quite extraordinary. The New Yorker published it in four serials in four magazines – one a month in its entirety, which is the only time The New Yorker has devoted all of its pages cover to cover to one publication.

What was it about it which captivated people so much?

I think that it was 1959 and it was the first time something so shocking and horrific as these four murders had been made so broadly public because of television and radio. I think that it horrified and scared people. Prior to that, they had had organised crime with people like Pretty Boy Floyd and the Italian-American organised crime families. I think this classic case really brought heinous crime into the living room for the first time and it was publicised so broadly and now had this celebrity connected to it. And the huge promotion of the book and tantalising readings that he did prior to the publication of the book made it all very popular. There was this buzz that was created about it.

It sounds like it. Your next book, The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, is about Vietnam and playing with the truth.

Yes, it’s short stories about Vietnam written by a guy who was there as a very young man. And it really is a book about what it is like to be a regular ordinary American teenager and suddenly find yourself neck-deep in a jungle fighting a war that you neither understand nor care about. Killing people that are so different from you with no opportunity to understand or appreciate their culture. And, just as Stephen King shocks you by presenting the surreal against the banal, so Tim O’Brien creates characters for you that are so immensely believable, based on real people and based on himself, and he also presents you with situations that just defy comprehension as far as any point of reference or context is concerned.

He presents you with a gang of teenagers carrying 60 or 70 pounds of equipment in 40-plus centigrade temperatures with malaria, fighting insects, fighting monsoons, fighting conscience, fighting political ideology, fighting religious ideas and their own code of ethics and morals even more than they are fighting what they have been told is the common enemy. And I think the way that he does that with such humanity and such heart is outstanding. And again it is a book I have read probably three times.

Many authors I talk to think that character and a sense of place are just as important as plot. What about you?

I absolutely agree. I and other crime authors I know have been asked many times what creates tension and I believe the real tension is created by people being interested in and caring enough about their characters to want to know what is going to happen to them next. I think that is where real tension comes from irrespective of the genre.

What about this idea of a sense of place, because all the books you have described are very evocative and that is a big part of your novels as well?

I am of the opinion that the location, the setting and the time period are just as important as any of the individuals in the books. I think the worst criticism for an author is: I read your book and I can’t remember what it was about. I want people to be unsettled, I want people to feel uncomfortable and challenged, I want people to have to think. I really couldn’t care whether people remember the title of the book they have read by me or even remember my name. That is of no concern. However, what is important to me is that someone is reminded of a book of mine they read six months ago, not because of all the characters and the plot, but because of the way it made them feel. And that is as much the job of putting them in New York or putting them in Washington in the middle of a political conspiracy or putting them in Georgia in the Depression in 1939 while there were child murders going on and feeling the heat and the dust and the parched air. All that kind of stuff is just as important to me because I think it contributes so much of the story.

Your final book, Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell, is all about a girl’s desperate search for her father.

Yes, again I couldn’t recommend this more. There is this bleak, cold, desolate landscape which makes you feel chilled to the bone. It makes you feel unsettled. It is written beautifully. I have read it three times. I went to San Francisco recently for a crime fiction festival and took it with me to read on the plane. I had it in my jacket pocket. I got into San Francisco, didn’t change my jacket, went into the event and who was there but the author, and so I ended up sitting with him and having drinks for a couple of hours. He is a wonderful, charming, delightful guy. He is very humble and unassuming and very smart and just the most tremendous writer. I love what he does.

In a similar way to Tim O’Brien and Annie Proulx, I just love the way he plays with your emotions by turn of phrase and language. It is just a stunning book which is short and to the point. You really are there with the girl as she looks for her father. And you feel what she is feeling, that sense of urgency and desperation, of desolate loneliness almost, because no one is willing to help her and then you find out why. I think it is an extraordinary work. It is wonderful.

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R J Ellory

R J Ellory is author of eight critically acclaimed novels, including the bestselling A Quiet Belief in Angels. Often listed as a crime author, he doesn’t like to be pigeonholed and calls his work ‘human drama’.