Noah Cicero interviews Elizabeth Ellen
Elizabeth Ellen writes in the classical sense: she focuses her energy on the story being told. She doesn’t two things most writers fall into: she doesn’t over styilize and use experimental weirdness to express emotion. Her stories are always very linear, have beginning/middle and end. But at the same time she doesn’t write in cliché language and have big explosive plots involving guns and beautiful people walking around. Fast Machine by Elizabeth Ellen takes the middle ground between alternative/experimental and popular literature.
The stories come out strange and unique, I think because Elizabeth Ellen is inspired by writers like Dave Eggers, but at the same time because of the circumstances of her life she did not get an MFA and go through many writing workshops, her writing turned to be a marriage of Bukowski and Eggers. The writing has some of that nice Eggers clarity and smoothness but at the same time covers Bukowski themes like humiliation, failed romantic relationships, divorse, raising a child in difficult circumstances, violent sex, drinking, weight gain, disapointment, in general about failure and hardship.
I met Elizabeth Ellen at AWP only for a second, we shook hands in a hallway. But I could see in those few seconds, her eyes, strangely she reminded me of some Clint Eastwood character. A person with a thousand stories of little miseries, but kept getting up everyday trying desperately to get things done, hoping that it is the right thing that she is doing.
It is so sad, in the story, “How I stopped Loving Dave Eggers and Stole your MFA,” you see this woman, she has a child and a failed marriage. She lives in some little place, carrying out some normal sad version of American existence. She begins writing emails to a guy she thinks is Dave Eggers, but isn’t. Then she writes, “It’s possible I was slightly insane during this time. I almost forgot to mention that at some point, during all this. I filed for divorce, put the house up for sale, and moved with my daughter into a small, two bedroom apartment across the street from Kmart.”
It is usually the habit of the reader to imagine just what the story says: but you can go farther and really see the life lived by the character. The woman gets up everyday, goes to work and takes care of her kids in a small apartment. She walks around everyday thinking about how her marriage failed, she thinks about all the things she misses about husband, she assumes she is stupid for even getting married, then she assumes she is stupid for getting divorced. But she can’t run away from it all: she has a daugter now, she can’t run. She has to work and keep this kid alive and make sure she is raised properly, she has to teach her kid the alphabete and how to count, there is no time to play around. She can’t go to a cabin somewhere and spend some time alone. Her vista is the Kmart (A big parking lot with a giant stupid looking building on it.) She walks out of her two bedroom apartment and what does she see, not mountains or the ocean. But a Kmart. So she retreats to the internet for solace. A place where modern humans have learned that they go to escape reality. Then your brain goes, “Ain’t that some Chopin/Dickinson shit.” Lonely woman taking care of kids mixed with lonely woman writing sad stories in the few free minutes of the day. As a man with no kids, that’s not my problem. If I’m not at work, I have time to write. But a woman with a child, damn, I could only imagine the time budgeting, “All right, at this time I will have one hour to write, gotta get it down.” When I hear of mom writers, I am just amazed by their perseverance. Which I think might be the underlying theme of Elizabeth Ellen’s writing, perseverance, note The Last American Woman.
NC: How come you decided to make Fast Machine, a giant epic collection of short stories? How did all this come about?
EE: It came about in a number of ways. One, I was lazy and didn’t put out smaller collections over the years, like most people do. So I had all these stories saved up from the last decade or so. Two, one of my favorite books of all time is The Portable Dorothy Parker. I’ve always loved its heft/density/weight, the mix of reviews and stories and poems. Three, I thought it would be sort of funny to skip over the normal publishing trajectory and go straight to an end-of-career anthology, at what is, hopefully, the beginning, or beginning-going-into-the-middle, of my career.
NC: If you wanted people to read five short stories from this collection which ones would they be?
2. I Will Destroy You
3. State Liquor
4. Middle School Sex/Wedding/Halloween (these three are one story in my mind)
5. and either Winter Haven, Florida or What I’ve Been Told with Regard to the Pianist
NC: Is “How I Stopped Loving Dave Eggers and Stole Your MFA” a true story? Are many of the stories true? Because when I write a lot of the stories contain truth, but at the same time contain some made up stuff. Could you describe your process of mixing truth with fiction?
EE: Yeah, “How I Stopped Loving Dave Eggers and Stole Your MFA” was originally published as an essay on Bookslut under the title “Stalking Dave Eggers” (they changed the title without consulting me and declined to change it back when I asked). Everything else in the collection, I would say, is fiction. Or some mix of fact and fiction. I think as we’re seeing, as we’ve always known but pretended otherwise, there is no such thing as nonfiction in storytelling. Memoir or essay or otherwise. Just as there is no such thing as a “fact,” in science or anyplace else. It’s all fiction, to some extent.
NC: Objectively which story do you think a professor could make students in an Intro to Literature class read? Subjectively which story do you think everyone in America should read?
EE: Oh, boy. I had trouble with this question since I’ve never taught, and am not really sure what professors look for in stories, what makes a story good for teaching. I would maybe say “The Last American Woman,” although I honestly don’t know why. It just feels faintly like what I imagine people I know who are professors might teach. But honestly, I don’t have a clue.
As for the story I think everyone in America should read? I don’t know…”Period Sex,” maybe. Just to fuck with them. Why not?
NC: In the story “Discernible” you write, “The woman does not want to feel delicate.” After I read that, I just stopped reading, like, it hit me. How I have had sex with women and they have not wanted to be treated ‘delicate.’ This doesn’t have anything to do with literature, but could you describe what that means, why doesn’t a woman want to be treated politely in bed? Why do some women want to be treated roughly. Because often times, I wish I was treated delicately by a woman, like I was a little flower or something. Not all the time, but sometimes.
EE: First of all, I’m a hundred percent fascinated by your admission that you’d like to be treated delicately by a woman. I’ve been trying to figure out all weekend what specifically you mean by that. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a man say that. And I don’t think you mean merely that you wish to be submissive. Delicate seems completely different to me than submissive. No?
Second, well, I read somewhere recently that the number one female fantasy is to be submissive. Or to be dominated. In some manner. Which is probably why Mad Men and Don Draper are so popular right now. For the most part today, men have been raised to be sensitive and politically correct in how they treat women. They have also been granted this somewhat extended adolescence, that seems to go on into their thirties, in many cases. In general, they go with the flow, are happy to be dominated by women in relationships, are reluctant to grow up, in many ways. Which is good for equal rights, because boys don’t really challenge women. They’re passive aggressive. They’re easy to get along with.
But good sex is about abandonment, of thought and awareness and body. And when women are being the dominant ones, sexually, they give up that abandonment. They have to think about how the act is going to progress. They are in charge. Sex becomes more neurotic. More like work.
So the woman in “Discernible” is longing to be, as they used to say in Harlequin romances, “taken.” It’s also about lack of responsibility, moral and otherwise.
NC: I feel like I’ve read your stories and come to understand women better. When you write do you think, “I hope men understand women better after reading this.” Do you have an audience in mind when you write? Or do you just write and let the interpretations take place? Because I’ve met authors who get angry when people interpret their work in ways they disagree with. Do you care if people read your work and come up with ideas about the story you never thought of?
EE: Haha. No, I’ve never had that conscious thought or motivation, to make men understand women better. But I like it. I like that maybe you have. Looking back, that’s probably a large part of why I read so much Bukowski. And Henry Miller. To understand men better. To get their perspective.
Typically, if I have any audience in mind at all, it is one person. Maybe the goal is less general and more specific. Like, I want one specific person to better understand me. And that one person changes.
I don’t mind at all how people interpret my work. Or I haven’t yet. We’ll see…
NC: I think the story “Conjoined” is amazing, like a modern version of Aristophanes’ speech in “The Symposium.” I think it shows maturity, if the word maturity means ‘been through shit.’ I mean so many young people between the ages of 19 to 23 and I don’t think they would understand this story. It seems like a fable, a fable that shows the moment when a person realizes, “Oh fuck, this is what love is.” Because there is some terror in realizing that you love someone for the first time, that you are ready to stick it out with them come what may. How old were you when you wrote that story, could you describe what made you write it? Also “The Last American Woman” seems to be in fable form. Do you enjoy writing fables or do you even think of them as fables?
EE: Wow. So first off, I had to google “Aristophanes’ speech.” Had never heard of such a thing. But thank you. “Conjoined” was one of the earliest stories I wrote. So I must have been… thirty-two? It’s hard to remember now, but I think a couple things inspired me. One being the story of Chang and Eng, a pair of Siamese twins from the 1800s. I’d recently seen a plaster cast of them at the Mutter Museum in Philly. Second, I think maybe the whole Dave Eggers thing. It was in the aftermath of learning that the man I’d been communicating with wasn’t Dave Eggers, but was a married man in Texas. It was hard to know what to do with that information. With my emotions. For a while after that.
As for fables…honestly, I’ve never viewed any of my stories as such. To me, and maybe I’m incorrect on this, the purpose of a fable is to moralize. And I don’t think any of my stories do this. Certainly that’s not the conscious intent.
NC: Why have you chosen to utilize the Internet as a means of putting out your work?
EE: Well, because when I started writing, it felt like my only option. I was already married, on my way to divorce, was already a parent of a small child, was a college dropout, living in BFE, Michigan…
I mean, what were my other options? I didn’t have the confidence or money to go back to college. Nor, to be honest, the drive.
The Internet was something I stumbled onto. I sort of accidentally came to know about these small publishing sites online, to “meet” a small handful of the writers who published on them. I had absolutely nothing to lose.
And over the years, as I’ve published more, I’ve continued to publish almost exclusively online (or in the print version of the same Indie journals), for the most part out of loyalty, but also as a “screw you” to the professors who tell their students not to publish on the Internet, to wait for bigger and better publications. Fuck you.
NOAH CICERO is the author of many books. He would like me to say he is handsome and charming and has a gap between his teeth as well. That is part of his charm, he claims.