Elizabeth Ellen Interview
What has the arc of your writing career been like?
Well, my mother was an unpublished poet who read a lot, subscribed to The New Yorker, assigned me books to read…and I knew early on that I wanted to be a writer, though I didn’t actively do anything much about it aside from keeping a journal and starting an occasional novel that inevitably got tossed aside mid first chapter, until I was in my early thirties. Enter 2001. It was a big year for me: I bought my first computer, saw Dave Eggers read, and filed for divorce. I also started writing short stories and sending them to impossible places like The New Yorker and The Paris Review. But at Dave’s reading he, obviously, talked about McSweeney’s and I started reading the website daily after that. This was the year of the first 215 Festival in Philly and McSweeney’s linked to a group of online writers who were looking for people to stay with at the festival. I followed the link and started hanging out on their thread; reading their posts, taking note of the books and authors they were reading and recommending, the places they were submitting to and/or edited, etc. It was an education for me, really. I dropped out of college my sophomore year, with no plans of ever going back. If I hadn’t somehow stumbled onto this group of writers, I honestly don’t think I’d be writing today. I certainly don’t think I’d be publishing. Which is why I dedicated this book to the Internet. I owe everything to it. And to the people of that thread. And, I suppose, in some part, to Dave Eggers. Oddly enough, the very first thing I ever published was a list on McSweeney’s. So it all comes full circle.
There's a lot of driving in these stories. Do you have a fixation on travel?
I wouldn’t say that I have a fixation on travel, per se. I pretty much just love to drive, regardless of whether or not I actually have somewhere to go. It’s an intoxicating experience, and I don’t have that many vices, so I make up reasons to get in my car. I find the forward motion liberating, I guess. And the speed. I’m a total speed freak. And the solitude…you just can’t beat the speed/loud music/solitude combo. Of course it’s not great for the environment, but vices aren’t supposed to be good for you, or anyone else, for that matter.
How has being a mother affected your direction as a writer?
Well, I hope it hasn’t. I don’t think you can think about things like being someone’s mother or someone’s daughter or lover or friend when you’re writing or deciding what to write. Or, you probably shouldn’t. I certainly don’t want to. I try to keep those different aspects of my life separate. Or, as separate as possible. I mean, of course my daughter is aware of that fact that I write. Luckily, at this point, however, she has expressed almost zero interest in reading my writing or in me as a writer. Which is perfectly fine with me.
Do you think your daughter might become a writer?
It’s hard to tell. She’s ten, so currently she is all about horror films, animals and boys, in that order. At this point I’m thinking if she does grow up to be a writer she’ll likely be the female Stephen King. She has yet to see a movie that’s really scared her or given her nightmares. Which is the only reason I let her watch them. I mean, she laughed her way through both The Exorcist and Carrie, for crying out loud. The girl, clearly, has issues.
How would regionalism play a part in your writing? Would you consider yourself a "midwest writer"?
Well, I’m from Nowheresville, Ohio and spent eight years in B.F.E., Michigan, so I guess that has probably affected my writing in ways I’m not even aware of. I actually see it more in the novel I’m working on, which is set in a fictional, small town in northern Michigan, than I do in my stories. And I guess I do consider myself a Midwest writer, though I’ve never actually thought of it until now. But, sure. Why not? What’s not to love about the Midwest? I mean, we’ve got the four seasons, we’ve got cornfields and cow pastures, we’ve got more churches per square mile than anywhere else in the country and we’ve got Kid Rock and Eminem. What more could anyone want?
Who are some of your favorite writers and other inspirations?
Well, my old standbys are writers like Bukowski and Henry Miller and Salinger and William Burroughs and Dorothy Parker. And they’re still my favorites. I still go back and read them again and again. I just reread Dorothy Parker’s short story, Big Blonde, again for maybe the tenth time. I hadn’t read it in a few years, and it completely blew me away. Absolutely killed me. Again. But what I realized this time, is how similar this story is to something like George Saunders’ The Barber’s Unhappiness, which I’ve also read at least ten times, probably more, okay, much more, and adore. They’re both extremely funny and tragic at the same time. Which is, of course, a wonderful combination, and one that’s insanely hard to pull off. Dave Eggers pulled it off in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Lorrie Moore consistently pulls it off…And I don’t think there’s enough humor in fiction. People tend to take themselves too seriously. Which is what I love about Bukowski’s writing; there’s the sense, when reading his books that he had a pretty darn good time writing them. And they’re entertaining. Which is great. I want to be entertained when I open a book. And, you know, people like George Saunders and Denis Johnson and Michelle Tea and my friend Jeff Parker, who is an exasperating person to be around a great deal of the time but whose writing never fails to kick my ass, entertain me. And that’s all the inspiration you need, really.
What's the best way to seduce a writer?
Yeah, good question. I’m about 0 for10 in that department. And, believe me, I’ve tried just about everything: reading their books, going to their readings, writing fan letters, emails, stalking…nothing really seems to work. Editors, on the other hand, I’ve had better luck with. I’m something like 3 for 5 there. So my advice is to forget writers. They’re typically moody and distant. Go for the editor instead. They require less concentration and are more easily distracted. They’re also usually more social and fun at parties. Just don’t let them eat after midnight.