The 5-Question [Author] Interview: Novelist Ellen Meister

by Meredith Resnick

The author talks about her natural place as a writer, learning, unlearning and finding her way back and how she’s never been able to buy a thicker skin at Target. Oh, and Richard Yates.

ELLEN MEISTER is the author of two novels, Secret Confessions of the Applewood PTA and The Smart One, a Woman’s Day pick for one of 2008’s 10 Best Beach Reads, and which Library Journal called Library Journal called “character-driven” and “fast-paced” with “great dialog.”

But very early in her career, she says, “I took a job as an assistant to a high-powered literary agent at ICM in New York. It was a crazy work environment, but I’m too afraid of being sued to spill the details. Suffice to say one co-worker remarked that I looked like Alice in Wonderland sitting at my desk. I lasted five months before I quit.

“But one highlight was that Richard Yates was a client, and I was the one who answered the phone whenever he called. I gushed like a blathering idiot every time, and he was always so gracious. In fact, he inscribed my copy of Liars in Love, and to this day it remains my most prized possession.”

Meredith: The Talmud says that “Every blade of grass has its Angel that bends over it and whispers, “Grow, grow.” Do you have a personal interpretation for what this means to you as a writer? Do you have an angel–or something equivalent?

ELLEN: In my interpretation, the story is the blade of grass. Sometimes the little bugger doesn’t want to grow. Other times it wants to meander along the ground in the dark. I’m the hardworking angel coaxing it toward the sun.

Meredith: What did you have to unlearn to find your truth as a writer? What had to go? Can you share how? Was there a turning point to your own narrative?

ELLEN: For me it was a process of learning, unlearning and then finding my way back. In college, I had a creative writing professor who was very experimental. He pushed us hard to leave the conventional behind and explore brave new worlds of writing. It was good for me. I loosened up and found more creativity than I knew I had.

Years later it became clear to me that my natural place as a writer was in a third-person, past-tense limited perspective. Not exactly meta-fiction, but it was important journey for me. Those years of experimenting taught me to take chances, and that has helped my writing immeasurably.

Meredith: Is it true—for you—what “they” say, that every character in fiction is really a part of the author, a reflection of their personality. So, do your stories create the characters or do the characters create the story? Would you say this was true for all your novels?

ELLEN: I think it’s vital to find something of myself in each character, something I can relate to on a fundamental level. Because if I can’t relate to the character, how can I expect the reader to?

I like your question about whether my characters create the story or the story creates my characters. It’s not something I’m conscious of when I’m laying the groundwork for a new book, but what I’ve noticed is that it’s the relationship between the characters that drives both.

For instance, in my first book, Secret Confessions of the Applewood PTA, I knew that the friendship between my three main characters would be the engine that drove the story. I wanted each of the women to have an arc that was directly related to the journey of their friendship. So I came up with a plot device that would bring the characters together and present obstacles they would have to work together to overcome.

Likewise, in my second book, The Smart One, I knew I wanted to write a story about the relationship between three sisters whose adult lives were impacted by their childhood labels. So I developed both the characters and the story to achieve that goal.

My third book, which is in production now, started with a high concept; I wondered what it would be like if a woman could find a pathway to the life she would have had if she had made a very different life decision. I played with the idea for years, and came up with all sorts of rich details about the main character and her story. But the book didn’t come together for me until I realized that her relationship with her mother was at the center of the tale. As soon as that occurred to me, the story unfolded.

I guess it worked, because the proposal generated a lot of excitement among editors and the book sold at auction. It will be published in January 2011 by Putnam. The working title is The Other Life, and here’s how it was summarized in the trades:

Pitched as “Jodi Picoult meets THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE,” THE OTHER LIFE tells the story of a suburban mom expecting her second child who discovers that she might be able to slip through a portal to the life she would have had if she never got married. When a routine sonogram reveals unexpected problems, her grief lures her to escape to the life that might have been—in which she discovers that she’s stayed with her neurotic ex-boyfriend, and that her mother, who committed suicide several years before, is very much alive.

Meredith: Some people refer to their creations as their children, but sometimes I see our creations more as an extension of our own biology. In other words, our words are who we are, just expressed in an alternate form (kind of like how water freezes to ice and then melts and flows again). How do you view your creations and how did you come to seeing them this way?

ELLEN: I like your imagery here. My work absolutely does feel like part of me, which is why harsh reviews hurt so much. It always feels so personal. People have often told me I need to get a thicker skin, but they never tell me where to buy one. Do they sell those online? I’ve looked at Target and they always seem to be out of stock.

Meredith: How do you not hold on so tight to a piece of writing that isn’t working (that you wish would work) and let go so you can discover what will work?

ELLEN: When I bang my head against the desk so many times I can no longer think straight, I know it’s time to move on.

Seriously, I don’t think I ever really tell myself something I worked hard on is hopeless. Rather, I put it aside with the understanding that I can come back to it later with a fresh eye. But I usually have another idea nipping at my heels to get me to this point. Otherwise, I tend to keep rewriting over and over and over …

ELLEN lives on Long Island with her husband and three children, where she is at work on her fourth novel and is a curator for DimeStories. Get to know her at her blog, Side Dish, and at her website by clicking right here.

[Photo and image courtesy of Ellen Meister.]

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Frugal Kiwi

Whenever I read about people who’ve worked in publishing, it sounds nightmarish. Congratulations on surviving those five months and coming out the other side with you passion intact.

Alexandra

Great interview! Congratulations to Ellen on her new book. I cannot wait to read it!

Ellen Meister

Frugal, I guess it depends on where you work–the environment I came from was certainly less than ideal for me. But … as tough as the industry is, I’m often envious of people who work in publishing.

Alexandra, thank you so much!

LitPark

That letter is priceless, wow! And what a helpful story you told – how you sat with a great high-concept idea for years, and then it was discovering the relationship between the main character and her mother that allowed you to write it. Can’t wait to get my copy!

Kim Hooper

Great interview! I like what she said about experimentation, and I can relate (like most writers, I’d guess) to needing “thicker skin.”

Alisa Bowman

These interviews are always so fascinating. I loved the blade of grass question, and the resulting answer.

Nancy Monson

I loved reading the author’s inscription! Thanks for including that in the post!

Ellen Meister

Sue, thank you tons, my friend! It was so helpful knocking the idea around with you.

Kim, let me know if you can figure out how or where to get one of those thick skins people talk about …

Alisa, Meredith’s questions are an inspiration!

Ellen Meister

Nancy, glad you like that Richard Yates inscription. I consider it a treasure.

Sheryl

Great questions, as always, Meredith. And Ellen, I’d like a thicker skin, too. (Maybe we can get a group discount?!) I think, though, it thickens more and more as time goes by- don’t you?

Amy Wallen

Ellen, your next novel sounds amazing. I love the whole concept. Those regrets, those wonderings we all have, “what would have been…” Sounds like you have a real top of the charts winner. Can’t wait to read it. I imagine with your writing style and humor it will be one wild ride. You go, girl! [and I use “girl” here also because that’s what Richard Yates used 😉 ]

Almost Slowfood

Wow! I don’t know exactly how to describe it, but I’ve been having a lot of trouble with my NIP (novel in progress) as far as the relationship between the characters and the story. The way Ellen described her approach to her three books was very enlightening for me. I think I have a clearer idea now for how the big story will intertwine with the small one.

Thank you!!!

Ellen Meister

Sheryl, perhaps it thickens in imperceptible increments?

Amy, thanks a million … and funny you should bring up the “girl” thing. It actually took me years to appreciate the inscription, because at 23 it struck me as condescending. Of course, to a man of Yates’s generation all females were “girls.”

Slowfood, my cup runneth over! So glad the interview helped with your writing.

MarthaandMe

Can’t wait to read the new book!

Kristen J. Gough

I like what Ellen had to say about learning and “unlearning and then finding my way back.” Writing is so much more personal than other professions. Everyone has a different path toward finding her own style. As always, great, enlightening interview.

Linda

Very good interview…thank you!

Donna Hull

I enjoyed the interview. Ellen provides valuable advice on writing fiction. Now I’m going to buy her book and read it.

Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell

This little witty gem, “People have often told me I need to get a thicker skin, but they never tell me where to buy one. Do they sell those online? I’ve looked at Target and they always seem to be out of stock,” has convinced me this is an author I must read! 🙂 I can’t wait for your new novel, I love the concept.

Ellen Meister

Such lovely comments!

Martha/me, thanks so much. I hope you like it.

Kristen, much appreciated. And for sure, the learning is an ongoing process.

Linda, so glad you liked it.

Donna, that delights me. Thanks!

Kerri, what a great compliment! Thank you.

Amy Wallen

Ellen, I love that Richard Yates called you “girl”. It’s so Mad Men. I suspect he was smoking a cigarette when he was writing his inscription. And you can tell he meant everything he said because he kept going. Love it! Relish every word!

Jennifer Margulis

This is a fascinating interview. I’ve never heard of Ellen Meister but am looking forward to reading her books. Maybe I’ll suggest one to my book club. Thanks Meredith!

Ellen Meister

Amy, I’d bet money he was smoking while writing it. And I do treasure it!

Jennifer, I appreciate that! I’ve heard from book clubs on both novels, but The Smart One has discussion questions in the back. Also, when my schedule allows, I do phone-in book club appearances. I don’t know if your group has ever done that, but it can be a lot of fun. My website has info: ellenmeister.com.

Alexandra Goodwin

Ellen, excellent interview, intelligent questions, enlightening answers!!! Thank you for sharing your insights with other writers. Very creative way to look at the blade of grass story. If we as writers are the angels whispering for it to grow, what is the water that waters it? Is it talent? Perseverance? Inspiration? Hard work?
In addition, your style is amazingly refreshing and unique. I love it!!!

Sonia Marsh

Great interview and as a mother of 3 sons, I often wonder what my life would have been like had I chosen not to marry and lived the life of a female nomad: living in different parts of the world is both a dream and a reality. Another story for me to think about. Thanks for inspiring us.

Tom McCranie

I appreciate the way Ellen illustrated how the relationships of her characters helped drive her stories. I noted that in Ellen’s first two books there is a trio of main characters (the PTA friends and the sisters). I wonder if there will be a trio in her third book, too. Also, is there a causal relationship between the trio of main characters, she writes in “third person,” is working on her third novel, and the fact she has three children? (Meredith, your question about “creations as children” brought on my question.)

Thank you Ellen and thank you Meredith

PS Ellen’s blog is very interesting. I loved The Raving.

Ellen Meister

Alexandra, you are a sweetheart! Thank you!! I’m glad you like the interview.

Sonia, thanks for the kind comment … and I’m glad the “what if” scenario struck a chord with you. 🙂

Tom, thank you … and I’m glad you like The Raving! Now you got me thinking about all the sets of three in my life. Hm …

Allan Levine

C/o Ms. Resnick
Dear Ellen (if I may):

I visited Marilyn & Gerry last January with my friend from “The Villages”, Carole Silver, a retired teacher (like Gerry & me), and in Feb. asked him to put me in touch with you.

Unfortunately, there are medical concerns & priorities to deal with, so I have not heard from you. I would however like to share some thoughts with you, and some items related directly to Dorothy Parker.

Please give me a nod, and/or a mailing address, and we can, if you have the time, share some critical details of another side of the A? Table.

Kind regards & belated Happy Hanukkah,

Allan Levine, MLS (Librarian, retired), Ottawa, Canada

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