Monday, April 11, 2005

Holding court with author David Ellis

April 10, 2005

BY MIKE THOMAS Staff Reporter

Trial attorney David Ellis is an author. Which makes him about as rare as bad beer at Wrigley Field.

But here's the thing: Ellis, 37, can actually write. Oh, and plot like a mo-fo. That, the Downers Grove native and former high school jock will tell you, is his strongest suit. Publisher's Weekly, Kirkus Reviews and several other pubs agree. So, apparently, do the folks who hand out coveted Edgar Allan Poe Awards for best first novels. Ellis garnered one for his debut effort, 2001's Line of Vision.

In the Company of Liars (G.P. Putnam's Sons, $24.95), his fourth and newest mystery-thriller, out this month, already is getting raves -- and not just from blurbmeister pals, either. "This is another impressive performance from a writer who expands his ambition and artistry from book to book," declared PW in late February. It's also a Mystery Guild and Book-of-the-Month Club alternate selection. And if past praise is any indiction, that's merely a taste of what's to come.

A confident first-run of 50,000 -- about 700,000 short of Scott Turow and millions short of John Grisham, but highly respectable nonetheless -- bodes well, too. A mass market paperback version (all his books have gone mass market) will likely quintuple that number.

In this tale of murder, terrorism and governmental shadiness, Liars unfurls chronologically in reverse, with some purposely bamboozling red herrings tossed in for good measure. Circumstances and characters aren't always what and who they appear to be. Ellis, as those who read him know, digs his twists.

He's a trained performer, too, both on the stage and on the page. Success in law (trial law, anyway) and literature depends on it.

"I think lawyers are naturals for creative writing and for fiction writing," he says over midday java in a cacophonous coffee shop across from his law offices in the Civic Opera Building on North Wacker. Dressed in a dark-blue double-vented suit, a red power tie and a spread-collar white button-down, he looks every bit the legal eagle.

"I'm not surprised that lawyers write fiction, because I think at the end of the day, the same talents that go into being a good trial lawyer go into being a good writer. No. 1 is you have to recognize that there's an audience, and you have to see through their eyes. If you have a jury in Cook County, and you're trying to convince them of something, it's very possible that you come from a very different background than those jurors. They could have any number of differences from you. And yet, it's their opinion that matters, not yours. So you have to present things in a way that's gonna convince them particularly."

For the past five years, Ellis, who lives in Lincoln Park with his wife of almost two years, Susan, an attorney, has handled cases involving election law and government. He joined his current practice, Williams, Bax & Ellis, P.C., in 2000, after stints with big firms and in Springfield, where he served as deputy counsel to Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan. But he's spent most of his life in and around Chicago, absorbing the sites and sounds and sly dealings of a city where clout is king, and drawing repeatedly on experiences in and out of the courtroom for his story lines.

An avid runner, Ellis has three marathons and a slew of shorter races to his credit. Aside from physical fortitude, running brings creative clarity. And when it comes to penning intricate thrillers, clarity rules.

"I do my best thinking when I'm alone," he says. "I also do my best thinking when I'm inspired. So I run with headphones, and I listen to music that inspires me." The Cure, R.E.M., Smashing Pumpkins, assorted hip-hop, Alanis Morissette. His mood, distance and pace dictate the mix.


Ellis wrote as a young kid (Hardy Boys-inspired fare, he says), but then sports and girls and studies and girls got in the way, and prose took an extended powder. A finance major at the University of Illinois (no hurtful hoops jokes, please), he went on to earn a law degree at Northwestern in 1993, leaping thereafter into Big Firm life. As it is now, law was his primary focus, but writing was ever on the brain, if only in its deepest recesses. Life just got in the way. That, however, would soon change.

Missy Thompson, Ellis' former associate at the now-defunct firm Pope & John, recalls a creative writing class they took together through the University of Chicago in 1995. At the time, she says, Ellis mentioned nothing about authoring a novel. In fact, unbeknownst to her and most everyone else, he'd just begun work on his first, Line of Vision. Pre-submission tweaking continued for the next three years, and select friends viewed the work-in-progress. Then, at long last, he sent it out into the world.

"I didn't think that either of us really took [writing] more seriously than the other," Thompson says. "We thought, well, that was interesting and that was fun, and then we just went on to other things. We never read each other's stuff and I don't think we even wrote anything out of class ... I don't even think we turned anything in. It was more how to do the process. Because I wasn't writing anything, maybe I just didn't have any higher expectations of him," she says, laughing.

For Ellis, wisdom from his late father ("the most important influence in my life, without question") and best-selling Chicago counselor Scott Turow (they worked on a case together), and dogged persistence in the face of rejection kept hope afloat. Before long, his first manuscript found an agent, a publisher and, eventually, an audience. The Cult of Dave, as you might call it, has grown considerably since, and their hyperbolic plaudits keep coming. "David Ellis sets a new standard with this superb legal thriller," declared blogger Stacy Alesi at of 2003's Life Sentence. is filled with similar accolades, and jaded newspaper critics from coast to coast have been wowed as well.

Ellis, for his part, retains an understated, "aw, shucks" attitude. He doesn't lack confidence, but neither is he a horn-tooter. Far from it. One friend calls him "modest to a fault."

"The amazing part of Dave is he gets it all done, 'cause he doesn't sleep much," says Ellis' law partner and colleague of 13 years, David Williams. The two met in 1993 as newbie associates at Pope & John. "He's not a part-time writer or a part-time lawyer. He really throws himself into both, and it's not an easy thing to balance the two. But he manages to pull it off. And he has the unbelievable ability to get things done very, very well in tight time frames. He'll have a brief due Monday, and he'll know if it's Thursday afternoon, he doesn't really have to hunker down until Friday at 2, and he'll work all weekend and stay up all night to get it done, and get it done."

Ellis' fifth work already is in progress, and he's brainstorming on plots for the sixth. (Don't ask, he won't tell.) The obsessive process of writing, he says, never truly ends. Neither, it seems, does the public's hunger for law-based books, TV shows and films.

"Law affects every aspect of our lives," he says, seated behind the desk of his newly uncluttered office high above the city. "There's attention there, because we don't understand something that is having a profound influence on us, so we want to know more about it."

And while he's gunning to be tops in his field (Dad would have expected no less), the next Grisham or Turow, Ellis is content simply to have seen the light and realized a dream so early on.

"I'd love to have Scott Turow's success," he says. "If that happens, great, but I'm not gonna worry about it. You can psyche yourself out. All you gotta focus on is, What's the best book I can write, and what do people want to read. And there's always a tug between writing what you think serves your artistic integrity and what people want, but that's a tug I don't mind having."

'Put the gun down, Doctor'
Excerpt from In the Company of Liars:

McCoy is first through the door. She hears the man running through the house, his bare feet slapping across the hardwood floor. "Back bedroom," she is told via her earpiece by a member of the team at the rear of the house, looking through the kitchen window, blocking an escape route.

They flood in behind her, a team of eight agents, but she is first down the hallway. Her back against the wall, both hands on the Glock at her side, she shuffles up to the bedroom door and listens. Over the sound of her team's shoes on the hardwood, she can hear sobbing. She reaches across the width of the door and tries the knob. The door opens slightly, then McCoy pushes it open wider with her foot and pivots, her Glock trained inside the room, and she sees what she expects.

He is standing at the opposite end of the bedroom, near what appears to be a walk-in closet and then a bathroom. A large bed separates the man and McCoy.

McCoy holds a hand up behind her, freezing the other agents in place, before returning her hand to the Glock trained on the suspect.

"Put the gun down, Doctor," she says.

Doctor Lomas, she knows, is a broken man, nothing like the proud figure she has seen in the company brochures. She stifles the instinct to think of him as a victim, though a victim, in many ways, is precisely what he is.

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Holding court with author David Ellis

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