In 2000, the Alabama-born writer Helen Ellis published her debut novel Eating the Cheshire Cat to rave reviews. Ellis was chosen as a Barnes & Noble Discover author and the novel was an Indy Next Pick. Just three years out of NYU’s MFA program, Ellis’s literary career appeared golden.
Then there was the next decade, which became Ellis’s publishing Waterloo. While working as an executive assistant for a high-end fashion company, Ellis diligently wrote three novels, none of which were picked up by publishers.
On a lark in Las Vegas, Ellis entered a low buy-in poker tournament with many players, gambling until 5 a.m. and winning $10,000. In 2010, Ellis threw off her writing career and became a poker player in the sexist world of tournament poker. With her immaculate hair and makeup and her coy identification as a “homemaker,” Ellis bluffed her way to victory through tables of cocky men.
In 2013, Ellis started submitting stories to literary magazines. Stories were accepted by reputable journals such as Blue Mesa Review and FiveChapters.com. The Rumpus also published one of her early stories. When her number of published stories hit a critical mass, her new agent sent around the story collection to major houses. After three offers in two days, Ellis wound up with Doubleday.
Ellis’s short-story collection American Housewife transports her Southern Gothic black humor to the refined, pretentious and mean streets of Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where co-op residents fight hand-to-hand over wainscoting in common hallways and depressed doormen jump off artfully curated balconies. Ellis skewers reality TV shows where Playboy bunny contestants bedazzle their private parts and a New York art world where tinfoil artists are king. Along the way, Ellis mocks writers suffering from writer’s block and a lack of literary respect. She creates an underground railroad for child beauty pageant stars escaping trailer living in the South for adoption by blueblood bankers in New York City. Ellis’s stories are murderously humorous and dig deep into the unseen places of the human soul.
Ellis, forty-five, met with The Rumpus at an Upper East Side café where waiters served French pastries.
The Rumpus: How did your writing career start?
Helen Ellis: I moved to New York City after the University of Colorado on my twenty-second birthday. I was here for three or four years before I went to graduate school. If you are going to be a writer, you go to New York. I became an assistant manager at a Talbot’s. Then I became an executive assistant to the CEO at Chanel. I stayed there for many years.
Rumpus: Who did you study with at NYU’s graduate writing program?
Ellis: I studied with Dani Shapiro and A.M. Homes, who is a fantastic short-story writer. She insisted in that class that we only work on short stories. She was amazing.
Rumpus: Your first novel Eating the Cheshire Cat is a black comedy in the Southern Gothic style, where a nerdy girl blows up her Queen Bee nemesis at a University of Alabama homecoming parade. How did the novel come to be published?
Ellis: The first chapter was my graduate thesis. I graduated in 1997. It was sold in 1998 and published in 2000. It was an Indy Next Pick. The book was bright as sunshine.
Rumpus: What manuscripts did you work on after the debut novel?
Ellis: There were several. There was a story of an 1860s prostitute, who turned her plantation into a hospital for wounded Confederate soldiers. There was a book about a witch set in 1950s suburbia. There was a book about a serial killer on the poker circuit. There were books that never saw the light of day.
Rumpus: What was your emotional response to this failure to publish?
Ellis: Heartache. I quit for several years, after the third one wasn’t taken. I quit. You know what happens? Nobody cares. I left my original agent after the second book. I wanted an agent who was more involved as an editor. Susanna Einstein took me on. She has a good editor’s eye.
Rumpus: When did you quit writing?
Ellis: About 2010. I became more serious about poker. I thought that would be my thing. It’s still my thing. I wrote a piece about this for the Huffington Post. In Las Vegas, I joined a poker tournament that had a low buy-in, several hundred dollars. The field was enormous, with thousands of players. I played from 4 o’clock to 5 a.m. and won $10,000. I entered a more expensive tournament and did well in that, too.
Rumpus: You also played at an underground poker club in Manhattan. What was it like?
Ellis: I can’t tell you where it is—let’s just say downtown. When I played ten years ago, the clubs were a lot more prevalent. It was a lot of teenage boys, who were there illegally. It was me and somebody’s sixteen-year-old son and a lot of Hasidic men. There was always no limit. I’ve seen pots that go from $50 to several thousand dollars. I never go alone. My husband always comes with me. The only place I play poker alone is at casinos. I’ve gone to the Borgata in Atlantic City by myself, and have been to Las Vegas by myself.
Rumpus: Do you come from a gaming family?
Ellis: I learned how to play poker at the age of six. I’ve been playing in the casinos since I was twenty-one. My father and I still go to the casinos in Mississippi at least twice a year. His father was a poker player, as well.
Rumpus: Why do you think male poker players are fooled by your immaculate hair and makeup and your self-identification as a homemaker?
Ellis: I think they see housewife and think subservient. They see quiet as weak. I am neither.
Rumpus: Since you started your intense playing in 2010, are things improving for women on the tournament circuit? Are the male professional poker players on to the fact you are a great bluffer and a deadly player?
Ellis: Things are better on the circuit since Vanessa Selbst spoke out against the World Series of Poker closing women’s restrooms at the breaks so that men could use them.
Most men are not onto the fact that I bluff or am deadly. Until I bluff or felt them. (“To felt” another player is to bankrupt them by taking all their chips.) Then they never forget.
Rumpus: The novelist Colson Whitehead was given $10,000 by a magazine to enter a Las Vegas’ World Series of Poker tournament and to write about it. How did you wind up coaching him?
Ellis: Colson has a regular poker game with a lot of writers. My friend Hannah Tinti plays in that game and she introduced us. He was looking for a coach. He tells me now that once you play the main event, after you play tournament poker, it is hard to go back to nickel-and-dime poker.
Rumpus: How was it training Colson Whitehead?
Ellis: He was an excellent student. He did what I said. I’ve been a fan of his since The Intuitionist. His portrait of me in his poker book The Noble Hustle was thrilling. It was like Chuck Close painting a picture of you, warts and all. He sent me a galley. I said, “Don’t change a thing.”
Rumpus: When did you start submitting stories again?
Ellis: I started sending out stories in 2013. It was a very different situation when I submitted stories in graduate school, when you’d put them in a manila envelope with a SASE (self-addressed envelope). It is so easy now. Most of it is on the computer. It is like gambling to me. If somebody rejected a story, I had it ready to go somewhere else. I had a massive spreadsheet of journals. I didn’t tell anyone who I was as a writer. I may have mentioned I’d published stories here and there, but the editors who were pulling my stories out of the slush pile were about five when Cheshire Cat came out. Dave Daley who runs FiveChapters.com published my second story. He knew who I was.
You look where stories are published. If I see that a story has been published in the FiveChapters or One Story, I know it is going to be good.
My first story was published in Blue Mesa Review. They pulled it out of the slush. Because so many of these journals are just online, if the story is accepted, it may be up on the website two weeks later. It’s that instant gratification that feeds my gambling fetish.
Rumpus: How did you sell the collection American Housewife?
Ellis: My agent sent it out. I think the collection went to twenty publishers. We got a call the first day, then a call the second. It was sold in three days later. It was good karma that the publisher is Doubleday, for that is Colson’s publisher.
Rumpus: In American Housewife, you bring your dark Southern humor to the Upper East Side. Why did you decide to write about the mores of Manhattan co-ops, where people fight over wainscoting in the hallway?
Ellis: Well, I live in a co-op building where we do share a hallway with two other apartments. There have been discussions about the hallway. “The Wainscoting War” was spurred by that. The same with the story “Dead Doormen.” My first book was me writing about the South. Now I’ve lived on the Upper East Side for quite a while. I’ve lived in my co-op for fifteen years. I write what I know.
Rumpus: Have you ever seen one resident unleash her starving feral cats on another?
Ellis: That’s not true!
Rumpus: In the story “Dumpster Diving with the Stars,” you mercilessly mock a writer character who has stopped publishing. Is that autobiographical?
Ellis: Definitely “Dumpster Diving” and my story “How to Be a Patron of the Arts” are close to the bone. “Dumpster Diving” was the first story I published in 2013. The question was whether I would write again or not. In that story, she does. In “Patron,” the writer decides she won’t. I really did become a patron of the arts when I wasn’t writing. What else did I do? I also threw myself into exercise. I threw myself into being a homemaker. A bridge playing friend said to me, “Your apartment is extremely edited.” It’s true.
Ellis: When I met Lex, his parents had passed. It was moving into an apartment where he had lived in since he was a child, that was still decorated as it was when he was growing up. All the doors are still cut three inches off the floor from the old 1970s shag carpeting. The apartment was a kind of a big ghost for me. It’s been years of me making peace with the apartment, which I did. I feel now that it is my apartment.
My husband is the executive editor of CNN Money. We would not have passed the board interview. If his parents hadn’t bought the apartment when it went co-op in 1970-something, we would not be there.
Rumpus: After reading your story “Dead Doormen,” about a serene and malevolent homemaker who assists the building’s doormen in their suicides, I fear you will never get any more packages. What is your relationship with your doormen?
Ellis: I thought the story was very pro-doorman. I think it is more sympathetic to the doorman than the residents. I do think that doormen know all. I have heard many a story because I do my own laundry, so I am down in the basement with the doormen a lot. If they are talking about other people, you know they are also talking about you.
My relationship with the doormen is one of respect. In a way, they are my protectors. I’m alone in the apartment all day. We even have a picture of one of the doormen teaching Lex how to ride a bike when he was six. That doorman didn’t jump off the balcony. He just retired.
“Dead Doormen” took a long time to write. I wanted to originally paint the narrator as the victim, that she’s surrounded by ghosts in the apartment and she’s married to a monster. In reality, she’s the monster. The mother-in-law wanted the apartment to stay as it was. She wanted someone who would get the job done and keep it at the same level.
Rumpus: Did the mother-in-law see a kindred spirit in your homemaker?
Ellis: I think of Dexter, where the father saw the killer spark in his son. I think the mother-in-law sees the same spark in her son’s wife.
Rumpus: How has the publishing world changed in your fifteen years of exile?
Ellis: It feels good to be back. It’s surprising, because there was no Internet promotion back then. There was only Beatrice.com. It’s been interesting to see people’s reactions to the book. To see Margaret Atwood tweet about it, that gave me a full-blown heart attack.
So much now is put on the author. When I went to Doubleday to discuss promotion, they were very happy that my then-anonymous Twitter account had 6300 followers. (Ellis’s Twitter account is @WhatIDoAllDay.) I’ve been doing Instagram and I’m enjoying it, but I am a bit of a Luddite.
Rumpus: In two stories, you betray the coded language of the Southern Lady Talk, by writing things like “She has her fun” means a woman is loose, and “She’s a character” means she’s a drunk. How do you use this language?
Ellis: It’s code. “You’re bad!” means “Tell me more!” I was raised with the mantra, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, sit next to me!” It’s a secret language and I still speak it fluently.
Rumpus: What do think you’ll write next?
Ellis: Got me. The stories were a joy and came easily. Maybe the next one will be “American Housewife Gets a Hobby.”
Author photograph © Michael Lionstar.