We Are Not Gods: Talking with Elizabeth Ellen

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It could be said Elizabeth Ellen is a literary godmother in the indie lit scene. As the deputy editor of Hobart Pulp, she has published countless emerging writers, generously giving of her time to mentor them, too, over the last fifteen or so years. I was lucky enough to be one of these writers, and Ellen’s work and vision has expanded what I thought possible for literary work; I didn’t think it could be so devastatingly relatable. Admittedly, I struggled to come up with formal questions for this interview because we talk, every day, about almost everything: politics, relationships, raising kids, art. There is nothing we haven’t discussed. During quarantine she sent me The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, a collection of his riffs on life, fame, creative work, love, sex, etc., which we read together. We also worked on our story collections together, corresponding every day about their progress.

Her Lesser Work, Ellen’s latest book, feels like it’s more for Elizabeth Ellen than for anyone else—a work that belongs so purely to its creator that perhaps it does not matter how it is received by the wider world. Ellen first attempted to work with an agent to sell the collection, then, dissatisfied with the process, decided to publish it herself, without having to sacrifice her vision. Her Lesser Work is Ellen’s third self-published story collection through SF/LD Books.

The protagonists of the stories within the book, similarly, belong only to themselves. In “YOLO,” a woman living alone envisions herself running away with a burglar who breaks and enters into her home (“I started wondering who was kidnapping who here and who might end up with Stockholm Syndrome.”) In “Lucky Woman,” published in Harper’s, a near-divorced couple looks at bed frames for the husband’s new apartment and buys a new mattress to replace the one he’s taking for himself. There’s a certain satisfying intensity that builds as each story in the collection finishes.

Over email, I asked Ellen about her newest collection while reacquainting myself with the years of her creative work I’ve come to admire. We spoke about about longevity, fearlessness, and books about “difficult women.”

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The Rumpus: I want to talk to you about legacy. I think about, for example, Bukowski—and many writers—whose struggle to be seen didn’t really culminate until extremely late in life or after death. Are you thinking about what your writing life will look like in ten or twenty years, or what your writing life will look like when you’re gone? I guess, to really frame the question, do you think about your death?

Elizabeth Ellen: Yes, in the last year I have often thought, Probably my books will start selling when I’m dead. Which seems a funny (narcissistic? voices of men I have been romantically linked to in my head here…) thought to have. But a somewhat comforting one. Or a voice of acceptance. I think, Maybe my daughter will get some money; cool. But maybe more what you’re asking: Yes, I write knowing the sort of writing I’m doing, the sort of person I am, is the sort that’s not marketable until the author is dead. And even then…

And I’m okay/fine with that.

Rumpus: One of the things that I most love is that you write fearlessly. One I remember vividly is “A Review of By the Sea, or, How to Be an Artist and Female, i.e. How to Be Unlikable, or, How to (Not) Pander” published at Hobart in 2015. It affected me so much at that time. Even now, I am afraid to say why I loved it so much, in part because it explored how hard it is to be with someone long term—the truth of it, which doesn’t usually come out. And why? Probably because of that same fear, of being seen as “selfish.”

You wrote, “I could decide how I am to be viewed.” It’s a kind of power, to decide it. To have something be your vision only and unblemished by what other people might think. Was there ever a time you feel that you have given in to your fear?

Ellen: Admittedly, I have had the money (safety net of) to back up my lack of fear. I still could have been fearless, without the money, but it’s definitely cost me. Being outspoken, it took my upward mobility in the reverse for several years. And, actually, to be perfectly honest, without my own money, maybe I wouldn’t have been able to keep publishing. Angelina wouldn’t have been able to make By the Sea without financial independence. She could afford for the movie to flop. (By the way, I highly encourage people to watch that film; I want to rewatch it now that you brought it up.) What’s the opposite of a victim? I think the goal is for women to be that. To be the one in control of their lives/decisions/art/sex/failures, etc. You need courage, sure, but you also need money. There’s just no getting around it.

Fear of being viewed as selfish is definitely a female problem. One men often use it to their advantage. Ignore that fear. Or better yet, despise it. It’s a roadblock purposefully put in your way, in your path, because it’s human nature to envy success and power, doubly so in a female. Of course you have to be somewhat selfish to succeed! What does that word even mean?

Rumpus: How can one grow more independent as an artist, ensuring for themselves they remain completely influenced only in the ways they want to be influenced?

Ellen: Well, one can burn bridges. Lol. That sort of ensures an independence. Though no one can ever control how they’re influenced or by what or whom. That would make you a god. We are not gods.

Rumpus: In one of your stories, “YOLO,” a husband and wife argue about nihilism, about morality, about whether or not the other believes in it. Recently, I tweeted this quote by Ottessa Moshfegh from an article in Bookforum, and the tweet got a bit of traction. Moshfegh said something to the effect of novels not being there to be a neat generalization of culture, that novels need characters to be free to range into the dark and wrong in order for us to understand ourselves. What do you make about rejecting the pressure to write for the betterment of society?

Ellen: I’m reading a biography of Patricia Highsmith right now and she talks a lot about writing amoral characters. The need to write them, the need for them to exist. But I think the words “amoral” and “immoral” are misleading in this context since we are all sinners, right? We just sin in different ways, in ways acceptable to us. We sin by degrees. But we still sin. None of us are likable or would be likable if you could read our every thought, see our every deed. So I think what Ottessa and Patricia mean, maybe, is that it’s necessary to depict our sins and sinfulness, too. Not just our good deeds. To not write about them, us, their sins, our sins, is to be in denial about what it means to be human, to deny what is in each of us, to deny what we have labeled “dark” or “bad” but which is still human. Even psychopaths (a label I find cruel and useless, particularly if this is a mental illness one can do nothing about, but whatever) are human.

Rumpus: Is there anything in writing that can go too far? I’m thinking of a book like, for example, The End of Alice by A.M. Homes. It was written from the perspective of an older male pedophile in jail, who was writing letters to a younger, teenaged, female pedophile. The younger woman would tell the older man of her efforts to victimize a boy in her neighborhood, and all the while the older pedophile encouraged her and recounted his own childhood horrors. Published in the 1990s, it’s hard to imagine it being published today—it would probably be seen as “going too far.” Is there a limit to darkness in art?

Ellen: Oh, that sounds very interesting; I will definitely add that book to my list. And I’m so curious about any interviews A.M. Homes did when the book was released.

This goes back to your previous question. I think a novel like this would be very important to the culture because pedophiles do exist and it can only benefit society to better understand them, their inherent compulsions, the way their minds work. There’s a difference between glorification and exploration. There is also a difference between a novel and real life. Art is for the “safe” exploration of violence, hatred, sexuality in all its (“perverse”) forms, ugly emotions and drives, et al. I don’t see any reason to ever limit exploration/expression/existence.

Rumpus: Do you like being considered a transgressive author? Where do you pull your inspirations from?

Ellen: I don’t think I ever thought the word “transgressive” until you said it to me some months back. When I first started publishing it was popular to refer to a writer as gritty. I don’t know why. But Mary Miller and I were definitely called gritty on more than one occasion. Is gritty the same as transgressive? Lol.

I think I’m just interested in writing about things and people I haven’t necessarily seen on the page (I’m not that educated, though, so there are a lot of holes in my reading history). Like with Saul Stories: I had never read a book about a forty-year-old female who is friends with a fourteen-year-old male. I liked taking the narrative away from where the reader would likely think a story like that would go, i.e. Lolita territory. Tampa territory. I don’t really get off on fulfilling the reader’s expectations, or in regurgitating for them something they’ve already digested.

I don’t know; I’m inspired by everything I’ve read/seen/heard/viewed: Andy Warhol; John Waters; Tarantino; Nabokov; Kanye West; Dave Chapelle; Fiona Apple; Courtney Love; Kurt Cobain; David Lynch; Terrence Malick; Tyler, the Creator; Charlotte Gainsbourg; Woody Allen; Wes Anderson; Spike Lee; Burroughs; Baldwin; Bukowski; Plath; Sexton; Camus; Highsmith; Ellis… it’s a never-ending list.

Rumpus: Your work has a very specific cadence to it. It’s hard for me to describe. It has the natural flow of thought; it is often layered with epiphanies the narrator has but does not necessarily reveal to us until later. The experience I have when reading your writing is of layered realizations about the world, about society, about people. Do you have rules for yourself when reading over your work and editing, and what are they?

Ellen: Interesting, someone else said how layered the stories in Her Lesser Work are. Chelsea Martin, maybe. Not something I did intentionally. I almost never do anything intentionally when writing.

What do I look for when editing my stories? It’s hard to even remember, honestly… I think you just aim to tighten? To cut unnecessary bits. I don’t have any rules. One thing I tried to do with this collection was to cut references I’d made in more than one story. Say, to lawn signs, for instance. I have a tendency to repeat myself in my storytelling, in real life and in fiction. It’s embarrassing. I’m always super embarrassed when my boyfriend says, “Yeah, you told me that before.” I feel the same when someone mentions repetition in my writing. Unless it’s purposeful, deliberate, repetition to make a particular point. Which it almost never is. Usually it’s laziness. Narcissism. Shit like that. Embarrassing.

I’m realizing I overuse “also” and “too” as I edit stories for readings this week, which Garielle Lutz tried telling me, but I was too dense or stubborn to take in when editing!

Rumpus: Let’s talk about your story “Snatch Shots.” Your inspiration for the story was the life of Britney Spears, which feels relevant right now with her conservatorship making the news. What compelled you to start this story? Did you know about the conservatorship when writing it?

Ellen: Thank you. No, I didn’t know anything about the conservatorship. I didn’t do any research. I just used what I knew or what I think I know about Britney. It’s also a little about Miley and Lindsay. And a little about me. I think the genesis of the story was wanting to talk about aging and women and sexuality and the culture, and it seemed a good way to do that was by making it about a pop star who is—horror!—pushing forty.

I also wanted to tell a story of a female celebrity getting canceled for a minor—certainly she views it as minor, though others around her don’t—transgression. And look into whether her age played any role in how the transgression was viewed.

Last week a male friend and I were having a conversation and he said, “Or even Britney Spears when she was in her prime, when she was nineteen, or eighteen…” and I thought, Damn! A woman is in her prime at age eighteen, nineteen? But I didn’t say anything then. I waited a few days and then said something like, “So, Brad Pitt is, what? Mid to late fifties right now? What age do you think Brad Pitt was in his prime?” to which my male friend said, “I don’t know… thirty? thirty-five?” I smiled, nodded. Sounds about right. For our culture. A woman is in her prime at eighteen or nineteen and a man is in his prime at thirty or thirty-five. Got it.

Rumpus: Recently I tried to search for books with violent female leads. I got hits like “Books with Badass Female Characters!” and “Complicated Women!” etc. In its own way, this diminishes the complexity of the female character in literature. Like it has to be labeled as complicated, as some kind of warning. Whereas, we wouldn’t consider novels with difficult male characters to be “complicated.” Hard to think of someone putting Cherry by Nico Walker, which I know you’re a fan of, on a “Books with Complicated Male Characters” list. The only comparable lists I found were, “Books with Toxic Male Characters” or “Books That Reimagine Masculinity.” What are your thoughts on how we group these kinds of books? Even the words we use to describe them, such as complicated, difficult, toxic?

Ellen: Hahahahahaha. That’s hilarious. “Books with Complicated Male Characters.” You mean, books with men in them? You’re right. It’s completely insulting. To female characters and to women. Also, the implication is that it’s uncommon for a woman to be complicated, or difficult.

Unfortunately, historically, until very recently, women haven’t had many options compared to our male counterparts. So, we probably seemed a bit like dullards. A bit one-note. A bit uninteresting. A bit easy. A means for men to procreate. A vessel for reproduction. What else could we be? We couldn’t even have our own credit cards a handful of decades ago (when my grandmother was a young woman). A woman with the freedom—financial, sexual, et al.—to be “difficult” is actually quite new. Of course we’ve always been complex; we were just so rarely given an opportunity to express this complexity. So rarely, that it is, still, in 2021, something to talk about: a difficult woman. (I’m still laughing, by the way, at the thought of Cherry’s protagonist being described as a “complicated male character.” Hahaha. He just seems like a dude, ya know?)

Rumpus: Do you feel being away from the internet has allowed you to cultivate a kind of persona? Do you think that persona would look or feel different if you were on it, all of the time, as many indie authors are?

Ellen: Hmmm. I’m not sure how to answer that. Probably you could answer that question better than I can. One can never really know or understand how they’re perceived by others. Which is probably for the best. I do think some mystery maintained in any relationship is good, though, don’t you?

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Photograph of Elizabeth Ellen by Elle Nash.


Elle Nash is the author of the short story collection Nudes and the novel Animals Eat Each Other (Dzanc Books), which was featured in O - The Oprah Magazine and hailed by Publishers Weekly as a "complex, impressive exploration of obsession and desire." Her short stories and essays appear in Guernica, The Nervous Breakdown, Literary Hub, The Fanzine, Volume 1 Brooklyn, New York Tyrant, and elsewhere. She is a founding editor of Witch Craft Magazine and a fiction editor at both Hobart Pulp and Expat Literary Journal. She teaches a writing workshop called Textures. Find her on Twitter at @saderotica. More from this author →