Name: Elizabeth Ellen
Occupation: Author, poet, editor, owner at Short Flight/Long Drive Books
Current publication: Elizabeth Ellen's Her Lesser Work, her third collection of stories, is available now from Short Flight/Long Drive Books.
Recommendations: I would remind readers of Robert Mapplethorpe, his collection “The Perfect Moment,” which in 1990 was put on trial for obscenity. I was 21 and living in Cincinnati, Ohio where the trial took place at the time. I remember marching in the street with other protestors (in support of the art museum that displayed his photographs), many of us wearing shirts that said, “Censorship is obscene.” That moment – that trial - really shaped who I am today.
I would recommend the short novel or novella I Look Divine by Christopher Coe.
When did you start writing- and what or who were your early passions and influences? What is it about literature and writing that drew you to it?
I knew I wanted to be a writer when I was young, a teenager, maybe. But I didn’t start writing in earnest until I was about thirty-one, thirty-two. And was first published at thirty-three. I was drawn to writers because my mother was drawn to writers: Anais Nin, Virginia Woolf, Henry Miller, the poets …
Then when I was nineteen, the movie Barfly came out, and I fell in love with Charles Bukowski. And then the movie Henry & June a couple years later (the first, I believe, NC-17 film!), and I fell in love with the romance of writing/writers.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
Sure, I remember Lydia Davis’s novel The End of the Story being a huge influence. I remember J. T. Leroy’s The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, early issues of McSweeney’s, … a little later: Denis Johnson and Raymond Carver. The Lover by Marguerite Duras. Play It As It Lays by Didion. Everything Bret Easton Ellis has published. All major influences.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
I don’t really know how to answer this except to cite what other people say about me/tell me about myself: that I’m not afraid, that I’m a contrarian, that I’m transgressive … I guess all those attributes or characteristics produce a certain type of creativity, for better or worse.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
Well, being that I hadn’t graduated college and lived in a small town in Michigan and had zero connections to the literary world when I started out: I guess my main challenge was to get published, anywhere! I tried the traditional route: mailing out typed up stories to big magazines, as I said. That got me nowhere. Then I got a computer and became aware of small online literary magazines and the writers who contributed to and edited them and I began to write very short pieces of fiction and to submit them to these places. That eventually got the ball rolling. Led to more publications. And so on and so forth.
How do you see the relationship between style, form, plot and storytelling – and how would you rate their importance for you, respectively?
To steal from Bret Easton Ellis: style, style, style! If you don’t have style, the rest is probably irrelevant.
Observation and research are often quoted as important elements of the writing process. Can you tell us a bit about your perspective on them?
Hmmm. I mean, yes, you can’t be any type of artist – writer or other – without being aware of the world around you, without making minute observations, the smaller and more detailed and specific the better. I don’t know about research, unless you’re a nonfiction writer or writing a crime thriller or something. Life is, of course, research. Everything we do/see/observe is, then, of course, ‘research.’ People in my life often ask if they themselves are ‘research.’ Ha. I guess they feel, at times, observed.
How do you see the relationship between conscious planning and tapping into the subconscious; between improvisation and composition? When dealing with the end of a story, for example, do you tend to minutely map it out or follow the logic of the narrative as it unfolds itself?
Thinking back on the stories in my latest collection Her Lesser Work I’d say it’s about 50/50 as far as knowing when I began a particular story where it was going/how it would end. Some I knew completely from the beginning. Others I had no clue what was happening, I was only interested in each paragraph as it came to me. That’s probably a much more exciting way to work. But it doesn’t always happen that way.
Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do writing and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
When I am WRITING, I try to work all day. From the moment I get up and make coffee (9am) til about 4 or 5pm, later if I’m really in the throes of a project. (On those days, I work on an old computer that does not have internet and I don’t check my phone all day and try to stay in my imaginative world as long as possible.)
Right now, however, I am not writing (other than note-taking, journal-writing) and am dedicating the days to getting the five new SF/LD books I just published out into the world: shipping, publicity, social media, all the stuff I avoid like the plague when writing. It’s a much more social routine right now than I’m used to. I look forward to returning to solitude as soon as possible.
Can you talk about a breakthrough publication in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
Well, just recently, April 2021, my fiction was featured in Harper’s Magazine. That was a definite breakthrough. Only took me 20 years! Isn’t it funny how every young writer starts out submitting to The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Atlantic …first? At least, we used to. Back when you had to mail in your submissions. You had that sort of belief in your young self as a writer. Then years go by and … well, you stop submitting to The New Yorker.
When I found out Harper’s was taking my story last summer (2020) it was one of the happiest days of my life. It’d been a long, long time since I felt I’d had any advancement in my career (over seven years). And my agent had been sending out stories of mine for at least a year and a half, maybe two years, with no luck. With close calls but no takers. So when she emailed to say Harper’s was taking “Lucky Woman…” like I said, one of the happiest days of my life.
I now feel I could die happy. That’s not an exaggeration. I really feel I achieved something. My mother had the issue framed – open to my story – for me to hang on my office wall. No matter what else happens, they can’t take that away from me!
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
As I said in an earlier answer, when I am in a writing routine, I avoid the internet and my cell phone, both, the majority of each day. I write on a computer that does not have the internet. I don’t have a smart phone, anyway, so even if I were to check my phone, I would be limited to texts.
But texts can also be very distracting/engaging. I keep trying to explain all this to my (fairly new) boyfriend, why I’m so unavailable so many hours a day. It’s not a normal way to live (in 2021). It’s hard for people not to take it personally, as an affront or as disinterest on my part. But I don’t know any other way to write.
Words can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for literature and poetry as a tool for healing?
Of course I have personal experience with words being both hurtful and uplifting. I don’t think a person alive doesn’t. An infant has both experiences.
But I don’t view art as a healing tool or art having any responsibility to heal. I view art as an opportunity to point out hypocrisy. I view art as a means of making people uncomfortable with truths they might rather not be shown or forced to reckon with. I suppose, ultimately, that can lead to “healing.” But I don’t think an artist needs to or should set out to heal the community, as that sounds like pacification, and very few things are learned – or worked through or overcome - through pacifying people.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
I don’t think about things like this. This is for academics and critics to think about and discuss. Art is never about limits or rules or societal norms or pandering to them.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
My approach is to write what interests me.
What can literature or poetry express about life and death which other forms of art may not?
I don’t think they can express anything other art forms cannot, regarding life and death, they just do so in a different way/different ways, from different perspectives and viewpoints. I think Camus’s The Stranger does a good job of expressing a hell of a lot about life and death through a fictional telling of the last days of a man’s life. But I think you could express similar themes, tackle similar incidents, through music, through painting, through sculpture, even through comedy, stand up, improv, etc.