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Indie Writer: An Interview with Elizabeth Ellen

Elizabeth Ellen grew up in a house littered with The New Yorker magazines, The Paris Review literary journal, and yellow legal pads. “My mother wrote poetry,” Elizabeth said, “so the idea to write was always there.” It wasn’t until 2002, however, that Elizabeth started to take her writing seriously, with an aim toward publication. Newly separated from her husband, Elizabeth, then living in a small Michigan town, stumbled onto the online writing scene.

“Were it not for the internet, I don’t think I would ever have published. I had no degree, no connections… but the internet doesn’t give a fuck if you have an MFA, or can procure a blurb from George Saunders or Rick Moody. The internet just wants to be entertained in a thousand words or less. It seemed do-able.”

Elizabeth started in, and received her first acceptance for “Words Used by my Grandfather in his WWII Diary to Denote Intoxication” from McSweeney’s early that year. Her second story, “Dear God (with a nod to Dorothy Parker)” was taken by Opium shortly afterwards. To date, Elizabeth’s work has appeared in numerous journals, including Juked, SmokeLong Quarterly, elimae, Opium, 3:AM, Monkeybicycle, Spork, Sweet Fancy Moses, Pindeldyboz, and Eyeshot.

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In December of 2006, Future Tense Books published Before You She Was a Pitbull, a chapbook of Elizabeth’s short stories. Her new chapbook of short-shorts, 16 Miles Outside of Phoenix, is forthcoming from Rose Metal Press in 2008. Both collections contain stories that are vibrant and honest and not without pain, but not without hope either. They stare straight into the human heart, with all of its insecurities and obsessions, with its desire to be nothing but loved, without any candy-coating. You’ll often find Elizabeth’s characters in their most vulnerable moments, their darkest times, but she doesn’t leave you any room to feel sorry for them. Her prose is tight, precise, unflinching in its directness. It’s the darkest, fullest coffee in a world of milked up lattes.

3:AM: Let’s start with Before You She Was a Pitbull, your chapbook published by Future Tense Books in December of 2006. How did this collection come to fruition? Discuss the process of putting the collection together.

EE: A few years ago I emailed Kevin [Sampsell] about a story he had on Amy Fusselman’s now defunct site, Surgery of Modern Warfare. We became friends, read each other’s work, and in April of 2005, he emailed me to say he was interested in publishing a collection of my stories. I remember it was April 19th, actually: my birthday. I couldn’t have been more thrilled. As for the process of putting the chapbook together, basically I sent Kevin every story I’d ever written and he whittled it down to these six.

3:AM: Now that’s a birthday gift! But getting your work published, be it a novel, a chapbook, or a short story, isn’t always so simple. Most publishing houses and literary journals have a rejection rate of 98 percent or more, and while it may help to have contacts in the business, that’s not a guarantee of anything. What is your best advice for getting your work noticed?

EE: Well, he didn’t know it was my birthday. It was a happy coincidence. As for getting noticed…I don’t know. You can always try to be controversial, I guess. That’s certainly one way of getting noticed. Initiate a public feud. Be a dick. Write about it on your blog. That sort of thing. Other than that, I’d say just keep doing what you’re doing. This is going to sound like total, lameass bullshit, but I swear it’s true: I enjoy writing. I love it. I get off on it. I don’t do it to be in a particular magazine or to get a particular publisher’s notice. Not that I wouldn’t be stoked to be in The Paris Review or Tin House or with a major publisher. Of course I would. That’d be awesome. It’s just not something I think about on a daily or weekly basis.

3:AM: The actual story “Before You She Was a Pitbull” does not appear in this collection, but will be published in 16 Miles Outside of Phoenix, your chapbook forthcoming from Rose Metal Press early next year. So why this title for this collection?

EE: Originally, I think “Before You She Was a Pit Bull” was going to be in the (Future Tense) collection. I think it was the last story to be eliminated. There just wasn’t enough room. The staples can only hold together so many pages. But Kevin still liked the title. So we kept it.

3:AM: It’s a fantastic title. I can see why he wanted to keep it. It implies a taming of sorts. Not a voluntary settling down, but a muzzling, a suppression. What is the actual story about? Will you share your favorite line, or scene, from it?

EE: That story is about a woman who is infatuated with/in love with a female friend of hers who was involved with a very needy, narcissistic, self-absorbed man; a man who very nearly ruined her. The narrator is speaking directly to this man, whom she loathes, telling him exactly what is transpiring between herself and the woman, now that the woman has left him.

“She waits for me and I watch her mouth redden and soften, reminding me of the pomegranate arils I placed one at a time on her tongue that first night she was not with you. I unlock the door and open it to her, fighting the urge to bloody her lips with my teeth. Unlike you I am a master of restraint. Unlike you I can withhold my longings. I stand aside and let her take the stairs before me. I watch as she glides up them, her head cast downward, her waist more emaciated than I remembered it, her body casting canine shadows on my wall: a greyhound or a whippet, a timid creature with its tail between its legs. This is what you have made of her. Alongside you she has become weakened and I miss her strengths.”

3:AM: Many of your stories are about men and relationships gone awry. Take these circumstances from “What I’ve Been Told With Regard To The Pianist,” for example:

“My mother and I are in a near-constant state of fluctuation. We move annually from one rented farmhouse to the next while the men we know rotate in and out of our lives like the cats and dogs she brings home for me and then gives away… [t]here have been three husbands and many more lovers. There have been ditch diggers and bartenders, tool and dye workers and cemetery caretakers, racquetball players and soul singers…”

Who do these types of stories speak to? Do you think it’s safe to assume that most of your readers are women, perhaps with relationship problems of their own? What do you hope they glean from your work?

EE: I’m not sure to whom they speak or what, if anything, I hope readers glean from them. I never think of such questions when writing a story. Most of my writing is autobiographical, to one extent or another. This particular story happens to be more memoir than fiction, actually. I’ve exaggerated a bit here, but most of that paragraph is accurate. We moved fourteen times before I was eighteen. We lived primarily in rented farmhouses. We had a lot of cats and dogs. My mother knew a lot of men. Maybe I should rely more on my imagination, but something compels me to write about the truth, or the truth as I know it. Laziness, perhaps.

3:AM: So do you believe in that saying that everything in fiction is mostly true, and everything in memoir is partially bullshit?

EE: I’ve actually never heard that saying but I like it. I think, though, that fiction and memoir are likely each a pretty equal mix of truth and bullshit. I think that’s how our minds, and thus, our writing, work. I’m already seeing this exemplified by my daughter. We remember things very differently. Quite often one of us (usually her) remembers something that the other (usually me) has no memory of at all. It really makes you wonder about your own memories…not just whether your interpretation is questionable, but whether the entire memory is bogus.

3:AM: Talk about these lines from “The Loyalists”: “Smiling was admitting acceptance. Acceptance led to love. Love led to abandonment…”

EE: “The Loyalists” is about a young girl whose mother has been married three times. Essentially the girl has lost (or will lose) three chances at having a dad. So she’s learned to be careful whose smile she returns, whom she allows herself to love. She’s already mindful of setting herself up for loss. Abandonment, unfortunately, is a reality for her.

3:AM: I’ve noticed your work in Before You She Was a Pitbull contains repeated references to snow globes and ceramic ashtrays. What do these items symbolize in your stories?

EE: Well, to be honest, I don’t really think of things like symbolization much when I’m writing. Basically, my mother enrolled me in a lot of art classes when I was little and, consequently, I made her a lot of ceramic ashtrays (also vessels of various shapes and sizes that became pencil holders and vases and a place to keep our pocket change). As for snow globes…I don’t know. I remember my second stepfather, after he and my mother divorced, visiting me and bringing me a snow globe from Niagara Falls, where he’d moved. I kept it on my dresser for a long time after that. I think most children are fascinated with snow globes, though. Snow globes and those sugar eggs you get at Easter; the ones you hold up to your eye and have Easter-related scenes inside of them, like dancing bunnies or chicks in baskets. Any sort of miniature, self-contained world, I think, is fascinating.

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3:AM: You have a new chapbook forthcoming from Rose Metal Press titled 16 Miles Outside of Phoenix. Rose Metal plans to publish your chapbook as a 4×4, in conjunction with three other authors, including Claudia Smith, the winner of their first annual short-short chapbook competition. What more can you tell us?

EE: I can tell you that they’ve already published Claudia’s chapbook, The Sky Is a Well and it’s beautiful. I mean, the book is physically gorgeous: hand bound and letter pressed. And of course the stories inside are amazing. I’ve known Claudia for a few years now and I’m a huge fan of her work. I’m very happy to have my stories published alongside hers, as well as Kathy Fish and Amy L. Clark.

3:AM: What is located 16 miles outside of Phoenix?

EE: Sadly, I have no idea. I once lived in Mesa, which is a suburb of Phoenix, but I have no idea how far the two are apart. My daughter’s currently writing a report on U.F.O. sightings in the Phoenix area for science class (believe it or not), so I prefer to think the title has something to do with that, with UFO’s. That’d be pretty cool.

3:AM: This is a nosy question, but I’m wondering: What is the compensation for publishing chapbooks, monetary and otherwise?

EE: I can only answer from personal experience and tell you I’ve not been compensated monetarily. Kevin gave me a big box of books, which was rad. That’s been about it so far. But we’re not in it for the money, right? It’s all about the boys and fame. At least, for me it is. I don’t want to speak for you. I mean, I’m just guessing…

3:AM: In addition to your writing, you also run the mini book division at Hobart. Tell us about that.

EE: Oh, the “mini book division.” Right. Well, you know, it’s very easy to start the ball rolling and somewhat harder to keep it going. I believe it was two years ago that we published our first book, Michelle Orange’s The Sicily Papers, which was a really phenomenal book. We couldn’t have been more excited about publishing it. We planned on publishing more. We still hope to, actually. We have a few ideas…In the meantime, I try to help out in a more general way with Hobart…reading submissions, putting together this calendar we’ll be giving away to subscribers in December, that sort of thing.

3:AM: Thanks for the chat, Elizabeth. Before you sign off, will you tell us what you’re up to now, and what you want to do next?

EE: Right now I’m working on a novel called “Fast Machine” and it’s kicking my ass. I’ve always heard that once you get the first couple chapters down…the first fifty pages or so hammered out…books pick up momentum and practically start writing themselves. Um, so far this has not happened. Of course, I’ve also been hearing about this so-called “runner’s high” since, like, fifth grade and I’ve yet to experience that either. So, it’s a waiting game at this point. I’m hopeful. I just keep thinking, maybe after this chapter the momentum thing will kick in and I’ll be golden. Then maybe I’ll go for a run.

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Kelly Spitzer‘s writing appears in Cream City Review, 3:AM Magazine, flashquake and elsewhere. She is an editor for Smokelong Quarterly.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, November 15th, 2007.