Posted on 02/27/2019 at 10:00 AM by Sadye Scott-Hainchek

Another interviewer said it best: Author Ellison Cooper’s life sounds like an Indiana Jones movie.

It’s an apt observation, for many reasons. 

First is Cooper’s admission, in that same interview, that Indiana Jones first piqued her interest in archaeology. 

And second is her thrilling resume. 

With her Ph.D. in anthropology and studies in archaeology, cultural neuroscience, ancient religion, colonialism, and human rights, she’s taken on incredible challenges like serving as a private investigator for the Public Defender’s Service in Washington, D.C., and living off the grid — and among dangerous wild animals — in the jungles of Belize.

(Seriously — check out her earlier interview with best-selling author SL Huang for more on these tales.)

Cooper’s job nowadays is decidedly safer, but exciting nevertheless.

Her debut novel, Caged, received rave reviews this summer, and anticipation is building for the follow-up thriller, Buried.

Live vicariously through her in the interview she was kind enough to grant us.

SADYE: What led to you beginning to write fiction?

ELLISON: I actually began writing fiction after my infant son was born. 

He became quite ill and so I quit my tenure track professorship in order to make sure he was getting the care he needed. 

I found myself spending a lot of time in doctor’s office waiting rooms, and I started writing fiction to keep my mind from tumbling into some very dark places.

SADYE: Would people who knew you as a kid be surprised that you ended up writing novels?

ELLISON: My childhood friends all seem perfectly unsurprised that I’ve ended up writing suspense thrillers. 

I’m not exactly sure what that says about me, ha!

SADYE: You’re a very qualified person in many fields. When you began writing fiction, did you feel like an extreme novice all over again? 

ELLISON: I was definitely an extreme novice at fiction writing. 

When I first began writing fiction, I dove directly into a novel and realized very quickly that I didn’t know what I was doing. 

I had no idea how to create characters or plot an effective story arc. I actually didn’t even know how to properly format quotes. 

When I realized that I needed to work on my craft but didn’t have the time or money for writing classes, I shifted to short stories and tried to write at least two stories a month. 

I quickly began submitting them to professional magazines. I still have a copy of the very first short story I submitted — I literally included academic-type citations in the text! 

Over time, I shifted from getting all form rejections, to personal rejections with feedback, and then, eventually, acceptances. 

The personal feedback from those editors was instrumental in helping me figure what on earth I was doing.

SADYE: Has your background in archaeology, ancient religion, and colonialism affected your fiction writing?

ELLISON: My background and experience definitely impacts my fiction. 

In fact, the fundamental idea for my Sayer Altair series was born from my academic and personal passions. 

The basic premise came from a conversation with my husband. 

I was actually looking for something to read and I said to him, “I wish someone would write a thriller that combined archaeology, neuroscience, and dogs.” 

It was like being struck by lightning — I realized that was exactly the book I should write. 

Creating this series has allowed me to channel everything I know about world religion, ancient history, cultural neuroscience, and K9 search and rescue into one place. 

SADYE: What has been your proudest moment as a writer?

ELLISON: From getting my amazing agent, to my book going to auction, to signing a three-book deal, to reading people talking about loving my book, it’s literally impossible for me to pinpoint a specific moment as my proudest moment. 

When I began writing, I never imagined that this would turn into a career, and so I’m just reveling in everything that is happening along the way.

SADYE: What do you hope readers take away from your work?

ELLISON: As I said, I began writing fiction as a way to process the incredible mix of emotions I was feeling about my son. 

Though the basic premise of my series focuses on Sayer Altair, an FBI neuroscientist hunting down a serial killer, the subtext of my book really ended up being about two things.

First, survival. 

In all of my books, rather than get into the mind of the killer, I go into the minds of the victims and their fierce fight for survival. 

The women who are being targeted never wait around to be saved — they are agents in their own escape. So, I suppose survival stories are important to me.

Second, the power of grief. 

Though I didn’t consciously set out to write about grief, my main character is suffering from the loss of her fiancé, and many of my own complex feelings have made it into my books. 

A huge part of my series is about Sayer’s struggle to recover from her loss. 

At the beginning of Caged (the first in the series), Sayer’s pain and fear have cut her off from her support network but, over the course of the novel, she is slowly remembering how to reconnect to those around her. 

She does that by remembering that family is all about who you love and who loves you back.

* * *

Learn more about Ellison Cooper on her website, where her books can also be purchased; like her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter

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Categories: Author Interview

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