Ellison Cooper took an unusual path to become a crime and thriller author. Diagnosed with dyslexia as a child, the Los Altos resident earned her doctorate in anthropology and taught college courses before working in the video game industry.
“When I was younger, it was a hard road,” she said of growing up with a learning disability. “I struggled in school and might have become a writer much earlier if it weren’t for the clear messaging I got from teachers that I could never do such a thing.”
But Cooper, who recently signed a three-book deal with a publisher, has realized that having dyslexia may have made her a better writer.
“In fact, at this point in my life, I feel like the fact that my brain works differently helps me be more creative than I would otherwise,” she said.
Her debut novel, “Caged,” is scheduled for release July 10. It’s the first book in a three-part series that follows FBI neuroscientist Sayer Altair as the head of a murder investigation in Washington, D.C. Upon the discovery of the victim – a famous senator’s daughter found starved to death in a cage – the FBI discovers another woman barely alive in a cage. The pressure mounts as Altair receives conflicting information on her hunt to find the killer.
Cooper said an internship during college – she worked in the public defender’s office investigating murder and gang violence in D.C. – influenced her writing. She added that the experience helped her learn the “nitty-gritty” of how police and lawyers collaborate.
“It was a lot of detail work, like sitting in an office, interviewing and making statements,” she said of her internship. “But it was occasionally punctuated by these moments of fear and horror.”
Path to publication
Cooper grew up in Northern Virginia, earned her bachelor’s degree in sociology from the New College of Florida and spent a semester at Georgetown Law School before embarking on an archaeological project in Belize.
“I kind of cast about for a while,” she said. “I wandered the world.”
As a child, Cooper never had an interest in writing but considered herself a “voracious” reader.
“I was a tomboy who was always out in the mud,” she said. “I wanted to be Indiana Jones.”
After earning a master’s and doctorate in anthropology from UCLA, Cooper began writing for video game companies, where she met her husband, Sean.
Cooper said her fascination with storytelling began while she was writing her dissertation.
“Sometimes I was out in the field with nothing else to do, so I would write,” she said. “My first book actually started in the island of Yap in Micronesia.”
When Cooper initially found an agent, she had written one book. Several publishers bid on it and, after Macmillan Publishers offered her a three-book deal, Cooper was sold. She’s already written the second book and is amid the editing process.
“The first book was a hobby,” she said. “Now I am on deadline and it’s my job.”
St. Martin’s Press, a division of Macmillan, plans to release the first book on the same day the ThrillerFest XIII book conference begins in New York City.
Despite having to be patient with what she calls the “slowest process in the world,” Cooper loves the people she has met through publishing.
“I was a little surprised that everyone in publishing is just so genuinely nice, especially other authors, who are so supportive,” she said.
When Cooper is not writing or editing, she loves spending time with her 9-year-old son, Grayson. She used to be in a search-and-rescue unit with a dog and hopes to get back into that when her son is older.
Cooper also taught global history and social justice courses at St. Edward’s University for a few years after college.
“I miss teaching from my past life,” she said. “Talking about what it means to be a good person in the world and those kind of things mattered to me.”
For more information on “Caged,” visit ellisoncooper.com.