David Ellis is an attorney in serious need of a continuance. Not that he's unprepared to face any judge or jury he might come up against; he goes through as many barrels of midnight oil as anyone on the Chicago bar. But sipping black coffee last week at a café across from the State of Illinois Building, where he works as special counsel for Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, Ellis looks exhausted.
Best known for successfully prosecuting Gov. Rod Blagojevich in his Senate impeachment trial in early 2009, Ellis has spent the past few weeks working on legal briefs for theU.S. Supreme Court defending the state's redistricting plan. In May, he slogged through another complex case involving Medicaid financing.
A couple weeks ago, his ninth novel — a legal thriller titled "The Wrong Man," his third featuring the similarly hard-working defense lawyer Jason Kolarich — was being published, just three months after the appearance of "Guilty Wives," co-written with the publishing juggernaut James Patterson.
For a 44-year-old husband and father of three young children who still writes fiction mostly at night, "after everyone's gone to bed," it's a heavy work load.
"I'm an unusual author in that I have a very demanding day job," he says. "I spend a great deal of my time on the law and only two to three hours a day writing fiction. So unlike a lot of full-time authors, I'm not living and breathing writing 24/7."
That might be changing soon. Like all products of the Patterson brand, "Guilty Wives" is a national best-seller. Ellis and his publishing team at Putnam hope that the book's commercial success — along with that of his next collaboration with Patterson, "Mistress," to be published within the next year — will rub off on Ellis' solo efforts, allowing him to devote more time to matters literary rather than legal.
The transition has already begun. Since late last year, he has technically worked part time for Madigan — emphasis on "technically," he cautions with a smile — and now occasionally finds himself with the luxury of writing fiction during the day. "Which is great," he says, "because I'm not so bleary-eyed."
Madigan himself seems resigned to eventually losing his star advocate to the book world. "My personal reading habits tend toward history and biography," the House speaker says. "But I've been told by many that his work should be ranked at the top of his class."
As Ellis likes to tell people who ask about his dual careers, he was a writer before he was a lawyer. Growing up in the northwest suburb of Downers Grove, he wrote a series of Hardy Boys-like mystery stories featuring two kid sleuth brothers, Dave and Rich, whose father was a detective. In one story, the boys traveled to Scotland, where they unmasked a villain at Loch Ness; in another story, they rescued their dad from a kidnapper.
At Downers Grove North High School, Ellis was distracted by girls and sports — he played football and baseball — and his love of writing fiction fell dormant. He majored in business at the University of Illinois, then got a law degree at Northwestern and plunged into a career in the rough-and-tumble courts of Chicago, becoming a commercial litigator with a special interest in constitutional law.
All along, however, the urge to write kept asserting itself. On vacation in south Florida in 1995, sipping a cocktail and gazing at the sun setting over the Gulf of Mexico, Ellis put himself on the witness stand, under oath.
"I told myself, 'You're missing something,'" he says. "'There's something you want to do, and you're not doing it.' I just realized that I'd always wanted to write, but I'd stopped, and I couldn't think of a good reason why. And I made a decision then that I was really going to give it a shot, and I wasn't going to do it half-ass — you know, write for a few days and see how it feels. No, I was actually going to do this and see it through."
For three years, Ellis made himself take a few hours almost every day to write what would become his first novel, "Line of Vision," about a young man accused of having murdered his lover's husband. The work was fun but lonely and full of self-doubt. "It's very easy to not write your first book," he says. "If you're writing a work of fiction and you have no name, it's very easy to give up and quit. You're taking thousands of hours of your life — hours you could be spending with someone you love or exercising or partying — to do something that may never get published. But I was ready for that. If there's one thing I'm proudest of, it's that I saw that first book through. Sure, writing fiction takes talent. But more than that, it takes the sheer willpower to make it happen."
It took willpower, too, to make it through waves of rejection from literary agents, none of whom "would say boo to me," Ellis recalls — this despite a referral, in one case, from another Chicago lawyer-novelist, Scott Turow, Ellis' co-counsel in a case in which they defended a contractor from a lawsuit by the city. Even so, Turow's advice was a comfort.
"I told David that one of the seldom mentioned keys to success in the arts is persistence," said Turow, author of "Presumed Innocent" and many other books, via email.
The neophyte writer took the master's words to heart. The counseled persistence finally paid off when, after 18 months, Ellis found an agent. A week later, the manuscript of "Line of Vision" was accepted by Penguin and published in early 2001; the following year, it won the Edgar Allen Poe Award, the genre's highest honor, for best first novel.
Like Turow, Ellis began by spending a fair amount of time in the legal arena in his novels, then branched out. Several of the books venture well beyond the courtroom: "Eye of the Beholder" (2007) is a serial-killer yarn that's been compared with Stieg Larsson's "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo." Several of the novels deal with government corruption — notably "The Hidden Man" (2009), the first Jason Kolarich novel, which draws on Ellis' experience on the Blagojevich case.
"People always ask where I get my ideas for my books, and I always say, 'I go to work every day and open my eyes,'" he says. "With Blagojevich, we saw an awful lot of bad stuff, and we investigated some of it, even before he was impeached. I saw up close what corruption in government looks like, and I used it."
Ellis' versatility has served him well. "Sometimes lawyers stick with the legal thriller thing and that's all they do, but David is an incredibly talented writer who has the unusual ability to write different kinds of thrillers," says his current agent, Susanna Einstein. "He's going great guns, and now that he's writing with James Patterson, David's going nowhere but up."
Twists and turns
The Patterson connection was the brainchild of Larry Kirshbaum, Ellis' former agent and now head of the publishing division at Amazon. Kirshbaum knew the mega-selling Patterson from their days together at Time Warner Book Group, where Kirshbaum was once CEO. He suggested that his old friend bring Ellis into his stable of co-writers, with whom he produces books in various genres — all with his signature brief chapters of 1,200 words or less — every year.
"Jim is a very good plotter who likes twists and turns, and so is David," Kirshbaum says. "I thought, 'Well, we've got two guys here who can really write a terrific mystery. Let's see what happens if they work together.' I also knew that David hadn't yet had a best-seller, while Jim's spent most of his life on the best-seller list. Putting them together would obviously increase David's visibility and obviously be a great boost for his career."
Ellis admits to having doubts about working with Patterson — not because of the latter's critics, who regard him as a fiction factory who churns out novels as if on an assembly line — but because he worried about loss of control over the finished product. "I'm very proprietary about my stories," he says. "The idea of sharing a book with anybody was something completely foreign to me."
The commercial logic of the arrangement was undeniable, however, and soon Patterson — who had admired Ellis' books dating back to "Line of Vision," for which he'd provided a rapturous blurb — sent a detailed outline for what became "Guilty Wives." Ellis' job was to draft the novel from the outline, conferring with Patterson every few weeks.
"F---ing disaster," Patterson jokes about working with Ellis. "No, seriously, when I do these co-writes, it all depends on mutual respect, and that's the way it's been with David. He listens to me, I listen to him. And he's just my kind of writer — not a lot of wasted words, wasted scenes. Very tight, lots of tension. 'Guilty Wives' turned out really well, and the narrator's voice in 'Mistress' is very unusual and cool. The characters are not your run-of-the-mill, cookie-cutter characters, and the bad guy is extraordinary. And that's all David."
The main task for Ellis was to accommodate himself to Patterson's mandate for the short, punchy chapters. "Of course Jim does it for a reason, which is that he wants to force you to pack a punch in every chapter," he says. "He doesn't want you to waste time getting to the point of that chapter, whether it's to scare you or thrill you or make you laugh or make you cry. The fewer words you can do that in, the more streamlined and efficient you can be, the better. That's why a lot of writers are mimicking that, and why people read his books so fast."
When it came time to write "The Wrong Man" — in which Kolarich defends an Iraq war veteran suffering frompost-traumatic stress disorder against murder charges — Ellis realized he'd taken Patterson's object lessons to heart. "I found myself writing shorter chapters," he says a little sheepishly. "I don't have a strict limit, as Jim does, but he's definitely in my head now."
The Wrong Man
By David Ellis, Putnam, 389 pages, $26.95
This piece ran in full in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email.
Like to read more? Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.