Please join me in welcoming Ellison Cooper to the blog today. Ellison’s debut mystery, Caged, is a winner. The log line on the advance reading copy I managed to get my hands on reads “Fear Lives Here”––and does it ever. From the first chapter to the final page, you’ll be treated to that rarest of crime fiction reading experiences: too frightened to keep reading (but you will) and too scared to look away (cuz you won’t be able to). So, who is it that’s brining us such a haunting tale, with the promise of more to come? Your friendly neighborhood anthropologist who just happens to also have been a murder investigator in our nation’s capital––that’s who. Read on and find out more about this rising new talent in the world of mysteries and crime thrillers.
MB: So, Ellison, what drew you to anthropology, as a profession?
EC: Even as a little girl, I was endlessly fascinated by the fact that human cultures can be so different, yet underneath those differences, we share also some fundamental aspects of our humanity. I specifically got into anthropology through archaeology (which is one of the subfields of anthropology). When I was 6, I went to Hurst Castle in California. On the grounds there, I saw an ancient Egyptian statue of Sekhmet (an Egyptian half-lioness/half-woman goddess) and became absolutely obsessed with the idea that human hands sculpted that statue over 3,000 years ago. I wanted to know what that artist’s daily life must have been like. What did they wear and eat? What did they believe? What were they afraid of and what did they love? Did they have a family?
So really, anthropology was a natural fit for me in that it allowed me to continue thinking about and studying people.
MB: You’ve done fieldwork in a lot of interesting, far-flung places. Is there a most-fascinating-moment, during your field research? Tell us about it.
EC: I think my most fascinating moment was when I was helping elders document their village history on the island of Yap in Micronesia. The elders wanted help creating a map and oral history of all the legends associated with different pre-colonial buildings. As the elders took me to the remotest corners of the village, I realized that the level of engineering of the landscape was mind blowing. The ruins of extensive waterways, aqueducts, massive community platforms, and sea walls were everywhere. Most of the scholarly literature on the ancient history of Yap clearly had no clue how complex and advanced ancient Yapese culture was. It made me realize that academics absolutely need to partner with local communities to guide their research because we often we just have no clue what we’re talking about, ha! Or better yet, communities should be the ones primarily researching and writing their own histories.
On a lighter note, I think the most fascinating moment, in terms of sheer excitement, was a project I worked on mapping ancient Maya ruins in the jungles of Belize. My team and I cut a straight line between two ancient cities and ended up finding and mapping a number of Maya temples lost in the jungle for over a thousand years. There is just no feeling like that moment when your heart skips a beat and you think to yourself, “that’s not a hill! That is a massive building hidden under the dense foliage.”
MB: What brought you to mystery writing?
EC: While I read quite widely across genres, there is just something about the thrills and twists of a good mystery. Because mystery has always been my favorite genre, when I decided to try writing fiction, it was a natural place for me to start.
MB: Tell us about Sayer Altair, your protagonist, and where the idea for her and for Caged, your debut mystery, came from.
EC: Sayer Altair was inspired both by some of the amazing women I know in real life, as well as by some of my favorite fictional heroes. I knew I wanted to write about a fierce, driven, very smart, and strongly principled woman and Sayer grew directly out of that image.
Caged actually came about because of a conversation I had with my partner. I was looking for a new book to read and I jokingly said that I wished someone would write a crime thriller that involved ancient history, neuroscience, and dogs. I realized that, rather than wish it existed, I should just write that book!
MB: Can you tell us what’s coming next for Sayer?
EC: I’m currently editing book 2 in the Sayer series and I can tell you that she is called in to investigate a cave full of human bones found deep in the Virginia mountains. With the FBI embroiled in a public scandal and a dangerous psychopath interfering with her work, Sayer has to untangle a confusing knot of evidence tying together a murderous mom, an ancient Greek monster, a ritual dagger, and a young woman that went missing seventeen years ago.
MB: Do you have a favorite rock band? Song?
EC: Well this is the hardest question I’ve ever gotten! I love music too much to have a single favorite but, right now, I am obsessed with Janelle Monáe. I’m not sure she counts as a rock band, but she is an amazing all around artist and musician. For more traditional rock, right now I’m on an Elvis Costello kick. He’s always one of my favorites but I sometimes go on a listening streak where I just want to listen to his albums Spike and My Aim is True over and over again. Perhaps ironically, one of my all-time Costello favorites is “Watching the Detectives.”
MB: What was your path to being a published fiction author?
EC: This is a tough one to answer because I really turned to writing after my son was born. He was quite ill and I ended up having to quit my job as a full-time professor to make sure he got the medical care he needed. So, I began writing while sitting around in doctor’s waiting rooms. I started writing just for fun but eventually decided to get serious and spent about six years working on my craft, mostly writing short stories. I completed my first book in 2014 and queried about eighty agents before concluding that it wasn’t all that good. It took me a little over a year to write Caged and, when I queried agents the second time, the process was like night and day. I immediately got a lot of full requests and ended up getting multiple offers of representation. My agent submitted to publishers and Caged ended up going to auction. Since then my life has basically felt like someone else’s dream life! I still wake up every day excited and grateful that people actually want to read Caged.
MB: Around the midpoint in the book, there’s an interesting bit of forensic science that takes the reader by surprise and changes the course of the investigation. Where did the idea for this come from? Is this something that crime fighters will have to contend with?
EC: I actually read an article about this in 2009, and yes, this is definitely real science that the forensics world has been discussing for many years. For Caged, I actually spoke with a number of scientists developing this technology and there is general agreement that this problem could be seen “in the wild” any day now. I’m obviously trying not to spoil the reveal here, but I have a series called “The Science Behind Caged” going up on my web page in a few weeks if people would like to know more.
MB: What led you to set your books in and around the DC area? Were there any other contenders for the location?
EC: I grew up in the DC area and worked in DC as an investigator, lobbyist, and grass roots organizer for a number of years so it was a natural place for me to set the Sayer series. I have lived all over the world (London, West Africa, Micronesia, Belize, etc.) so, one day, I would love to use those settings as well but they just didn’t make as much sense for a series focused on the FBI.
Caged comes out on Tuesday, July 10, 2018 from St. Martin’s Press/Minotaur Books, and is available wherever books are sold. Please visit her at ellisoncooper.com.
Ellison Cooper was interviewed for MurderBooks by Roger Johns.