By Leslie Lindsay
Dark domestic suspense meets police procedural in this unique read encompassing genetics, secrets, lies, and so much more in TEAR ME APART.
Join me in conversation with J.T. as she talks about the stigma of mental illness lifting, how she’s been haunted by the book for awhile now, the fact that writer’s block is your story’s way of saying something’s not working and so much more.
How far would a loving mother go to protect her superstar daughter? Mindy Wright is seventeen years old and a spectacular downhill skier in Vail, Colorado. She’s vying for a position in the U.S. Olympic team when a horrible crash sends her to the hospital with a broken leg requiring surgery. During the pre-op blood work, doctors discover she is suffering from a severe form of leukemia. Only a stem cell transplant will save her. But no one in her immediate family is a genetic match.
How could that be?
Told from multiple POVs, TEAR ME APART is a very complex, multilayered read, revealing decades-old secrets and lies.
I wanted to get to the bottom of the mystery. I was especially intrigued with the psychiatric hospital connection and the letters back and forth between two young patients. TEAR ME APART may also be the first story I’ve encountered featuring a downhill skier and the world of sports competition, which I found fascinating– Ellison has clearly done her homework in terms of medical, psychiatric, and competitive sports goes.
TEAR ME APART is a powerful story of love, sacrifice, and murder. It has given me a lot to ponder.
Please join me in welcoming J.T. Ellison to the author interview series.
J.T., it’s a pleasure to have you. I understand you were haunted by a mother sacrificing herself so her family could have the chance at a happy life, and also the world of competitive sports. Can you shed a little more light into the inception of TEAR ME APART?
Thanks for having me, Leslie! This story started back in 2011 with the idea of a young mother who commits suicide but makes it look like a murder in order to get her family an insurance payout. It was a very dark idea, and I wasn’t sure how to make it work. I wrote some, thinking maybe it was a short story, then put it on hold to work on another book. But the concept wouldn’t leave me alone. Fast forward several years. By now, I knew there was a grieving husband and a missing baby, too. I dove into the story and realized quickly it wasn’t at all what I originally thought it was about. Instead, it was the story of a young phenom skier who finds out over a course of terrible events that she’s not her mother’s daughter.
I also loved the idea of looking at a child who’s grown up destined for glory, to be the best skier in the world. The pressure of her training, the intensity, lent itself well to the story and its pacing.
While I was drafting the book, I came across a great article in National Geographic about a new forensic DNA method called phenotyping. When I read it, I knew I had to use it in the story. Mindy’s aunt Juliet works for the CBI, and has the ability to find out who Mindy’s true parents are through phenotyping. It was a great tool for conflict.
And I knew I wanted to have a discourse on mental illness. I feel like we’ve finally reached an era where the stigma is disappearing, which means more and more people will get the help they need. I hope this book sets a few people on a path to recovery, as well as raises awareness about some difficult issues.
So a number of different facets came together to build the story over the course of several years. Not an unusual path for one of my books.
Your research into skiing is evident. Do you have experience with it yourself? How did that piece of the story present itself?
Yes! I grew up in Colorado, started skiing when I was 5. My parents used to take us up the mountain on weekends and I loved it. I even raced for a (very) short period of time, but quickly realized that I’d need discipline and talent far beyond my abilities. I always wondered what would have happened if I’d stuck with it – and Mindy Wright was born, at the gate, ready to make the Olympic team with her blistering-fast run.
There’s are so many layers to TEAR ME APART. Do you write with an outline or do you let the characters direct you? Maybe a little of both? Do you ever write yourself into a corner?
I always write myself into corners. But I believe in the process, believe in my subconscious. If I’ve written to a certain point and it’s not working, I feel I’m not seeing the whole picture. Writer’s block is your story’s way of telling you you’re going in the wrong direction.
I outline more now than I used to. It usually comes in the guise of a thorough synopsis, ten pages or so, and I take the beats from the synopsis and put them into a Scrivener document, then flesh from there. Once I’m well into the story, usually over halfway, that’s when I outline heavily to figure out how to get to the end.
I believe in the characters’ rights to speak as much as trying to infuse the story with my own voice and ideas, so I try not to be married to what I draft. Sometimes they want to go somewhere else with their lives other than what I originally foresaw. Honestly, that’s the joy of writing for me, when I find myself somewhere surprising at the end of a workday. It’s a very organic, loose process, with a few walls nailed into place to hold up the roof.
Turning to the psychiatric piece of the story—I especially enjoyed this bit because I’m a former adolescent psych R.N.—I felt much of the teenage psychiatric institutions were spot-on (although many things have changed since those 1990s-ish scenes). What research did you do to bring this piece to life?
“[An] outstanding domestic thriller… The intense plot…builds to a stunning conclusion. Ellison is at the top of her game.”
—★ Publishers Weekly, starred review
The research was more first-hand than I would have preferred. Mental illness, suicide, and self-harm have affected my family deeply. I hope I’ve done the situations and characters justice. It’s a difficult topic, and one I’ve wanted to dive into for a long time. I hate the stigmas attached to mental illness, and want to see them go away so more people will get help if they need it. I also became aware of Project Semicolon several years ago, and wanted to dedicate the book to those who are struggling. I address this in my author’s note at length.
What did you find most satisfying about the writing process? The most challenging?
I love the writing itself. It brings me such joy, such a feeling of peace and accomplishment. I mean, it’s hard, and gets harder with every book. I never want to write the same book twice, I always strive to get better, to be clearer, more concise, more evocative. But I will take a bad writing day over anything else.
I love the connection it makes with strangers. There’s nothing like an email from a reader who tells me they spent a few hours reading one of my books and felt like they’d escaped from their difficulties for a while. I write to entertain, to help people escape, to hopefully make them think, and because there might be the one person out there who reads my words on a day when they need them. Makes it all worthwhile.
The page is blank. What’s calling to you now?
I have a short story I’m playing with, and of course, I’ll have to gear up and write another novel here soon. I’m being drawn to boarding school mysteries and epic fantasies right now, so who knows where it might lead. It’s very rare for me not to know exactly what’s coming, but I don’t. I’ve had a long eighteen months of grinding out a lot of words, and it’s time to refill my well and take a break!
J.T., it’s been a pleasure. Is there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten?
Not at all, though I would love to mention where you can find me these days – on Facebook, we have a private group called JT Ellison’s Literati, and I’m very active on Instagram @thrillerchick. And always, jtellison.com is home base for all my bookish endeavors.
It’s been wonderful, Leslie! Thanks for having me, and for loving TEAR ME APART.
For more information, to connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of TEAR ME APART, please visit:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: New York Times and USA Today bestselling author J.T. Ellison writes standalone domestic noir and psychological thriller series, the latter starring Nashville Homicide Lt. Taylor Jackson and medical examiner Dr. Samantha Owens, and pens the international thriller series “A Brit in the FBI” with #1 New York Times bestselling author Catherine Coulter. Cohost of the EMMY Award-winning literary television series A Word on Words, Ellison lives in Nashville with her husband and twin kittens.
You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites:
- Facebook: LeslieLindsayWriter
- Twitter: @LeslieLindsay1
- Instagram: @LeslieLindsay1
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[Cover and author images courtesy of MIRA Books and used with permission. Author photo credit: Krista Lee Photography. Bookstore image retrieved from author’s Instagram account, 9.4.18]