Helen Ellis is an American novelist. She is the author of two published novels, as well as several works of short fiction. Her first novel, Eating the Cheshire Cat, is a dark comedy written in Southern Gothic fiction style. It tells the story of three girls raised in the South, and the odd, sometimes macabre tribulations they endure.
"My Apron is My Armor," an Interview with Helen Ellis
This interview was conducted via e-mail by Interview Editor Tonissa Saul. Of the process she said,"When I read American Housewives, the narrative voices in the stories made it feel like I was having a gab session with Helen Ellis. I jumped at the opportunity to speak to her on the phone for this interview. Her tone and manner of speaking was like talking to an old friend. I am extremely grateful for the conversation we were able to have."
Superstition Review: In your interview in The New York Times, you talk about quitting writing for a couple of years after your two follow up manuscripts were not published. How do you feel that impacted what you are writing now?
Helen Ellis: What happened was, after so much failure, when you try again no one is looking. So it gave me a lot of freedom and a lot of fearlessness. Most people who have come into my life in the last ten years or so didn’t know that I wrote. My first novel came out in 2000 I wasn’t advertising the failures. In the two or three years that I quit I became comfortable with my life, and I just wasn’t afraid. So I thought, let me write what I know. With Cheshire, I was in my late 20’s. I knew about college life, the machine that runs the University of Alabama Greek system, dynamics between young woman, cutting, hiding, the book is anti-marriage because at the time I had no interest in getting married. When I did have an interest, I had a hard rule that I had to have a book published before I got married. And that is exactly what happened.
In between, I wrote about things that interested me but I knew nothing about. One was about a 1950’s housewife who infects her entire neighborhood with herpes, or a 19th century prostitute opposed to the war. I have to say, I’m kind of happy that they didn’t see the light of day. When I quit all that happens is you put on ten pounds and nobody cares. When I started again, I did it very secretly. I started an anonymous twitter account called @whatidoallday. I didn’t tell my husband. My writer’s group who had accepted me even when I wasn’t writing, we’ve been together almost twenty years and I didn’t tell them. I just started secretly tweeting what I knew and it gave me my voice back. Even today, I tweet constantly in this voice.
I was on a grown ass lady’s trip this weekend with another Southern Lady. She says to me, I’m going to go back to the hotel to lighten my load before we go walking. Is that southern lady code for poop? Sometimes I would tweet things and if they are not immediately retweeted, I will delete them. It really gave me my voice and my writing life back. The story, What I Do All Day, is composed 96% of those tweets. It gave me privacy to do it because no one was watching. That’s where I’m heading back to now that the paperback is out, I’m not on the road as much and I am looking to disappear again. I am looking forward to becoming Mrs. Haris for a while.
SR: It was a stroke of brilliance to turn your Twitter feed into the short story What I Do All Day instead of leaving it there on the web. What was that process like?
HE: My Twitter account is only my writing voice. I don’t interact with people publicly on Twitter. So, if you were to retweet me, I would probably send you a quick, nice, direct message thank you note. You can see which lines land the best. So what I did was culled my Twitter history, I still do that. I was a secretary for a very long time so it’s just my organizational brain. So you know, you pull your Twitter account and you sort it so you can see all the #southerladycodes or #takeitfromcats. You can see the word party, or marriage, or hostess pop up. You can see the things you’re writing about and it shows you what people are responding to. So with the very first line of the book, “Inspired by Beyonce," I stallion walk to the toaster.” I tweeted that after the Super Bowl. At the time, that was my most popular tweet. I remember saying to myself at the time, ‘If I ever write a book, that will be the first line.’ And it is.
SR: How fearless are you as a poker player and how does that effect your writing?
HE: I will tell you that it feeds into it beautifully. And I should tell you I was thinking about Superstition Review. I sent "How to Be a Patron of the Arts" to your review, did you know that?
SR: No, I didn’t
HE: Well, let me tell you. The reason I’m on the phone with you right now is because in 2013 I submitted "How to Be a Patron of the Arts" to your review. I got a very nice note from Patricia Murphy that said ‘we are very interested in the story, would you consider rewrites.’ I said absolutely. I got edits from your review, I took the advice, you wound up passing on the story but I submitted it with those edits to future literary magazines and it was swiftly snapped up by Crab Creek Review. So, I have a very special place in my heart for your review.
I thought it might be interesting for you to know how many places I submitted "How to Be a Patron of the Arts" because it fed into that gambling, well I hate to say that poker is gambling, but I am a bit of a gambler. Now a days you usually send submissions off via Submittable or Submishmash and it’s so easy. I had this motto that as soon as a story was finished, I would send it out to twenty places. With my first story I just sent it to The New Yorker and The Paris Review and I thought, oh my goodness what if they both want it at the same time. Well, they did not. So, I have spreadsheets for every story, I have a master spreadsheet of the lit mags, when they received a story, when they accepted it. "How to Be a Patron of the Arts" went to fifty-five places. I start with twenty, as soon as someone rejected it, it would go to another review with the caveat that it was simultaneous submissions. It was rejected by thirty-one places, and it was accepted after five months of being out in the world.
So, it was like gambling to me. You send it out, you see who takes it, rejects it. The rejections are fine, because as soon as someone says no, it can go to someone else. It really shows you that not everybody likes what you do and that’s absolutely fine you know, you’re not going to constantly win.
The book is in existence because of lit reviews like yours. I would send these stories out to the slush piles because nobody on the staff of a university review remembers who I was. It was sixteen years ago so the people working there were in elementary school when the first book came out. It’s well out of print, so I didn’t even say who I was. As soon as I got one or two credits I would say I was published in Crab Creek, or Hayden’s Ferry and then some nice editor would pull that story out of the slush. So Twitter was the first step, lit reviews were the second step to building that voice. So when somebody would take it that was a huge win. When Patricia Murphy sent me that feedback, even though you didn’t take the story, it was tremendous encouragement to keep going. There was always a story out and I was writing a new one. All the stories were written in the course of two years.
With poker, I am not a cash poker player, I play tournaments. You walk into a room and maybe there’s 100 people in the room and maybe there’s 8,000 people in the room and one person is left standing at the end. Ten percent of the people get paid. If it’s a hundred people in the room, ten people get paid so you lose a lot. You’re a winner if you get ten percent and there’s always another game. The more you lose, the easier it gets. I would walk into these sort of gladiator situations in real life, what did I care if The New Yorker says no. I don’t care. If they said no, I would promptly send them another one. So that kind of in your face confrontation made writing a new story and sending it to nice people in Missouri or New Mexico easy and fun.
SR: I actually did read Cheshire, I read it when it came out. I saw it in my local bookstore and bought it because I loved the title. I’ve been looking for more work from you ever since then. So I’m so glad this collection exists.
HE: Thank you, that makes my day.
SR: You just mentioned Hayden’s Ferry Review. They are our sister magazine here at the university and my next question is about the story you published with them. "The Fitter" was published in HFR, another ASU Literary Journal, in October 2014. In "The Story Behind the Story" section under your piece, you talk about the real life situation that led to its creation. Could you discuss how you make choices about characterization, especially with details that might be close to real life? How do you feel about preserving the integrity of the people who inspired each story?
HE: I never met the gentleman from that story. The way it happened was that I had a fitter. I used to have a fitter Raquel who was tattooed and read headed and now my fitter is Samantha. I was walking home from a fitting, cause you know, your boobs change. I heard from a friend of mine that she saw a fitter on the lower east side. He was Hasidic Jewish, so he never touched the women, he never saw the women and he had other female employees that would fit you. So you would walk in and he would say you know, 34DD, and then these women would take you in the back and scoop and pour you into bras.
I remember walking home thinking about what it would be like to be married to a fitter. My first thought was that I would be rabidly jealous. So that’s exactly how it starts. I think the first line is “The fitter is mine.” I had no idea where the story was going. I knew that she was jealous, then I realized she was sick, then I realized what she was sick with, it all was a surprise to me. The version in the book is a little longer than the version in Hayden’s Ferry that was one of the few stories I put a little more work into and really it was the question of how did he become a fitter. My editor asked me and as soon as she did I knew the answer was that it started with his father. I start with a question to myself. With "The Fitter" it was, what would it be like to be married to a fitter? With "Dumpster Diving With the Stars," which was very personal to me, it was, what would it be like to get on a game show to get my writing life back? You never see authors on those reality shows. I would love to see Stephen King doing the cha-cha, I would love to see Ann Patchett eating two pounds of caviar on The Amazing Race. For "Pageant Protection," I was watching the last season of Breaking Bad and at one point an unmarked van picks him up to take him to witness protection. I thought what if they picked up a six year old from Toddlers and Tiara. That’s how that story started.
It’s always a question and I always have a title first. Most of the stories were written in two weeks to a month with revisions in between. "Dead Doormen" took about two years. I went though so many different drafts, the only thing that stayed the same, was the title.
SR: I’m the worst with titles. I change my titles hundreds of times.
HE: It’s the best part. I’m writing a story right now called "Bad Hair and zombies"- I have the title, but I don’t really know what it’s about. Mostly letting go of vanity during the apocalypse.
SR: "Dumpster Diving" was one of the stories that I really liked. It did feel very personal.
HE: It was, though I’ve never been on a show. People ask me that all the time, DID you really do that? No! I’m lying. I’m lying to you.
SR: That’s were my question about "The Fitter" came from. Every time I write something people ask me if it’s true. I wonder that people don’t know the premise of fiction.
HE: It’s the same thing with poker, you’re lying. It makes you very comfortable with lying. I have a poker coach Matt Matrose who tells me, “When you play a hand, you’re telling a story.” Your telling them, I have the full house, or that you’re bluffing. When you’re playing against someone else, you have to think “does the other person’s story make sense?” He did this, now he’s doing this, does that make sense, should I call him? You know, things like that. I’m very comfortable with lying but I try not to do it in too many situations. But I tell you I must lie every day.
SR: I think we have to, to be polite even.
HE: Yes, well that’s what "Southern Lady Code" is. If you don’t have something nice to say, say something not so nice in a nice way.
SR: Yes, my family is from the south and when I was reading "Southern Lady Code" I thought, oh yes, I know these codes.
HE: That’s wonderful.
SR: That’s also why I asked you how you would like to be addressed at the beginning of this interview. I grew up with so many rules about how you address ladies.
HE: I play cards in Biloxi, MS and I was just on that grown as ladies trip in Charleston, SC and I will tell you, everybody Ma’am’s me. And I love to be Ma’am’d.
SR: I love it too, I don’t know why people get so mad.
HE: Some women see it as an age thing, like they’re saying you’re too old. But I have a seven year old niece and I say yes ma’am and no ma’am to her. You know, you need to be polite. I love to be ma’am’d. And I like being called Mrs. Haris.
SR: In "Dumpster Diving," the character says that Mitzy might be “The most undervalued thing she finds on this show,” and is very sympathetic towards her. On the other hand, the book club ladies are very judgmental and catty…
HE: You’re wrong. Book Club women are not catty. They are loyal and protective. I’ve heard that once or twice, but I think that hostess is the best hostess. That was the question I asked my self “How far would I go to be the best hostess?” That woman is going to great lengths to give her friends what they want even if it’s not what she wants. These women want to have children and cannot have children. She has gone to great lengths to find them a surrogate. I mean, that is better than a gift bag. She has gone the extra mile and knows them inside and out. She’s very loyal. Just the other day a friend of mine said, "My husband says you have such a special way of saying things” which means, crass.
SR: What did you want the collection to say about the various roles of a housewife?
HE: I didn’t start out to write the collection about housewives. I just kept writing what I knew and then I realized every character is going to be a housewife. I, myself am a housewife and I thought these are private, powerful women. The thing about being a house wife is that nobody really knows what you do all day and there is a power in that privacy. Each woman in the story is the queen of her castle. Every story is a turf war. So whether someone steps through her door and insults her meatloaf, like in "How to be a Grown Ass Lady," or if someone steps over her threshold with intent to do her harm, like in "Dead Doormen," that woman is going to lay down the law. I think that’s true when it comes to women in their homes. If I came to your house I would do what you ask, that is your domain. It was really a question of what goes on behind closed doors and it was a question of being misjudged.
When I play poker, I look like a nice lady. I am not dressed like the lost and found at Chucky Cheese in like a sweat shirt and flip flops. I am dressed in a skirt or a dress and there are only four percent women in the field. I sit at a table and other players think ‘she’s weak’ or ‘she doesn’t know what to do’ and then they find out they’ve misjudged me when I’m taking all their money. When I meet people, they ask my husband what he does, and he tells them. They ask what I do I say housewife because it helps me judge you. How you react to that helps me judge you. If you don’t ask me another question, then I know you’re not a very interesting person. If you do ask me another question I know we can be friends. It just sort of shuts that conversation down. I don’t have to tell you everything about myself. That’s why I like saying the word housewife, because it’s just privacy. If you come over my threshold, you will find out who I am but you have got to come to me. So all these women in the collection, they’re not bored housewives, they’re laying in wait.
It’s easier to say housewife than writer. If you say writer, they ask more questions about what you write about and where it’s published. Before this collection, it was incredibly painful. They would ask when I was published and it was five years ago, seven years ago, ten years ago and then they act incredulous that I still say writer. So, my apron is my armor.
SR: That phrase is amazing.
HE: I just thought that up! It’s true though. I’m going to have to tweet that!
SR: In "How to Be a Patron of the Arts," one of the mantras is “Thou shalt not compare thy writing schedule to Stephen King’s.” This month, he announced that he is releasing three books in the first half of the year, so that one really hit home for me. What kind of writing schedule do you have? How do you balance your time between writing and poker?
HE: King does 1500 words a day. Have you read his book on Writing?
HE: I just reread, or listened to it on audio actually. I think it’s one of the best books about writing out there. Those rules are rules that I enforced on myself. My writing method has changed in the past 20 years. In grad school, I wrote 1500 words a day before going to work at my office job. It worked for Eating the Cheshire Cat. Then I did the same thing, and that book went in the garbage. I did the same thing again, and that book went into the garbage. Then I quit and then I got started again with 140 characters here and there. Or just a few like ‘I casserole, therefore I am.’ I made up a new way for myself to write. I don’t go by that 1,500 word daily grind anymore. There is always someone who is going to write better, faster. There is always someone who is going to write about the same topics. There are other stories about house wives but no one did it how I did it. No one has the same voice as you.
SR: I think about this a lot. I was writing a story about a serial killer and I thought, maybe I shouldn’t be writing this because there are so many stories about serial killers.
HE: Yeah, I wrote a story about a poker playing serial killer.
SR: Right, but then I thought, there are hundreds of vampire stories out there and more keep getting published. They are all different and you like them for different reasons.
HE: If you like vampires you want to keep reading vampires. My first vampires were Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, and then I fell in love with Charlene Harris’ vampires. You know and dystopia, time travel, I just read Dark Matter and I’m always happy to read more about that. You know somebody said there’s two stories, the stranger comes to town or a hero goes on a journey. What are we going to do, you can’t worry.
How many books about plane crashes are out right now, and the murder mystery. If there’s a cat on the cover of a murder book, I’m going to read it.
SR: I just discovered those cat mysteries. The ones by Lilian Jackson Braun. The cat is the actual one who solves the mystery. I found it in a dollar bin.
HE: That is your gateway.
SR: Yeah, I looked it up and saw that there’s a million of them.
HE: Yes, my latest cat on the cover book is A Dark and Stormy Murder by Julia Buckley. I have a book store that I love called Murder by the Book in Houston. I kind of love and idolize booksellers. There’s a bookseller there named John and we started a cozy of the month. A cozy mystery is where the detective is a domestic. Like the maid knowing who killed Mr. Johnson because of the way the vacuum cord was curled. Murder She Wrote is a cozy. If there is a cat on the cover, you have read a cozy. He sends me a book a month, straight to mass market, cozy. A Dark and Stormy Murder was a young woman in picturesque small town to apprentice with an older, female novelist and someone is murdered and they have to solve the crime. It’s all about writing and there’s a lake, and there’s a cat, and somebody makes brownies, and it’s just delightful. The other cozy I just read is Death on Demand by Carolyn Hart. About murder in a mystery bookstore and there’s a cat. The cat’s name is Agatha. That’s in "How to be a Patron of the Arts," it’s my love for mystery bookstores.
SR: Yeah, we have one here called the Poisoned Pen.
HE: I love that!
SR: They’re great, they only sell mysteries.
HE: We used to have some good ones in New York, Black Orchid and Partners in Crime. Sort of one room mystery bookshops. They’re all closed now. I love a straight to mass market mystery.
After an episode of my phone beeping…
Helen: I am currently talking to you on a rotary phone.
SR: No way!
Helen: Oh yes, a beautiful, white, 1969, heavy as a typewriter rotary phone. I’ve just been sitting here at my writing desk, tethered to you.
SR: What is some specific advice another writer has given to you that has changed your outlook on writing?
HE: I’m sitting here at my desk and over my desk is a framed thing by Rebecca Lee. Rebecca Lee wrote a fabulous short story collection called Bobcat. It is a fantastic collection. She wrote it, I framed it. It says, “Don’t save up the good ideas, the good words for later. Spend it all now.” That is fantastic advice.
When you’re writing, and you have a good idea, or something good to say, or a good metaphor, or, a good plot point don’t edit yourself. Don’t save it for another chapter, another story, you put it down right now. That’s my best advice.
It’s like "Dumpster Diving with the Stars," I didn’t know who her roommate was going to be. She showed up at the hotel and then I thought Playboy bunny and it worked. Then John Lithgow showed up. I don’t ask why he showed up, I just open my arms and welcome him That was a real thing. I thought am I really going to put a real person in this story. Then Mario Batali showed up and I didn’t question myself, I just did it. I don’t know these men.
That’s what helps me with the tweeting. I’ll think of little things and I just tweet them right away. If they do well, that’s great. If they don’t, I’ll delete it. Apparently, that’s very frowned upon. My husband works for CNN and the reporters are aghast that I delete. I do it daily. IF something isn’t liked or retweeted, it’s gone. If I see a typo, even if it’s received well, I will delete because I am horrified. I enjoy IG and I love my Twitter. I don’t really read other tweets. I just use it for voice. Instagram I get lost in that. It’s really positive.
SR: I like Instagram as well. I follow a lot of artists and I love to start my day looking through all the incredible artwork.
HE: Twitter is my voice. Instagram is a cocktail party. I’m mostly a reposter. I send people to paintings and pinups.
SR: What does your writing space look like?
HE: I’m sitting at it now. It is a white, lacquered, Hollywood regency desk with two drawers. There’s my white, 1960’s rotary phone. There is a pencil holder That I made out of a pot and I painted it when I was twenty-four. On it, is a line from a Neil Young song, it says “twenty-four and there’s so much more.” When I was twenty-four I was sleeping on the floor of a Manhattan apartment and just though my life was over you know. I thought I’m not doing enough, and that was well before social media. I thought I was never going to be a writer. That’s when I applied to graduate school. The quote was me telling myself that you’re young, there’s so much more, and I tell myself that now at forty-six. I would never have guessed but honestly, I think my mid-forties are the prime of my life. Not my twenties.
SR: That makes me feel so much better. I’m almost forty and still an undergrad and it just feels weird.
HE: My mother went to law school at forty. I had fifteen years of failure and published this book at forty-five. This is the prime of your life and this is the time that you’ll appreciate it. Anything that happens to you, you’ll appreciate that success more than you would in your twenties. I certainly do. You’ve lived long enough to have felt disappointment I’m sure. You have the power to say yes or no, it’s a good place to be.
So I have my little twenty four pot. I have a picture of my husband. When we were 25, I bleached his hair blond like Pony Boy from The Outsiders. He’s a very serious executive editor at CNN but I have a picture of him with a bleach blond hairdo. I have a picture of my mother fabulous in the 1970’s with the bouffant hair with me in her lap. I have a lamp, and my computer and some art over the desk that I find inspiring. Facing away from the window. I see people posting picture of their work spaces on line and there people who face the window and people who face away from the window.
SR: I always think that I want a window but I know I wouldn’t get anything done. I’d be too busy people watching or squirrel watching.
HE: Well my window faces other windows it’s a very Alfred Hitchcock Rear Window situation going on back there. So I don’t look out the windows.
SR: Me too and again, that’s another underestimated woman. She looks like a debutante but acts like a cat burglar, and she does it all in taffeta.