The first time I met Elizabeth Ellen was in Columbus, Ohio. She made me buy her latest book Person/a: a novel. Later that day we went to a diner with a bunch of people. She made fun of how long it took for me to decide what to order. She tried to predict what I would order. I think her prediction was correct. I ordered a reuben. I think she felt bad, like maybe she thought she’d hurt my feelings. She hadn’t. A few weeks later I read Person/a. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in a long time.
The second time I met Elizabeth Ellen was when she came into the bookstore where I was working at the time. With her were her daughter and two of her daughter’s friends. They seemed like they were Elizabeth’s friends too. Like she was the older sibling to the other three, including her daughter. She gave me a copy of Saul Stories, which I’d asked her to bring for me. I gave her a stack of typewritten poems I’d written, sort of as a joke. Sort of.
The third time I met Elizabeth Ellen was at a popular reading series in New York. She read first. She did a good job. I went outside. I hadn’t smoked cigarettes in awhile and she bummed a bunch to me. I was grateful.
The fourth time I met Elizabeth Ellen was in Chicago. I’d driven from Beckley, West Virginia with Scott McClanahan and Juliet Escoria. Scott had a reading. We were only there for the night. At the end of the night we all sat around a hotel room. I laid on the floor. At one point she made a comment about how young I am. It made me feel bad.
This interview was conducted via email. I was in the passenger seat of a car headed to St. Louis. I’m not sure where Elizabeth Ellen was. We talk about her latest book, Saul Stories, and some other stuff. It is a good interview. It is not boring.
There are three stories in Saul Stories entitled “Halloween” (I, II, III). Personally, I haven’t enjoyed Halloween since I was a little kid. What do you think of Halloween?
What do I think of Halloween? Um, I think it’s a holiday maybe most enjoyed by middle school aged youth, which Saul Stories centers around. It goes with horror movie watching, which is also most enjoyed, probably, by middle school aged people. I definitely was the most into Halloween and dressing up at that age. Though back then we called it “junior high.” Lol. My friends and I got in the Volunteers of America box and grabbed stuff for costumes. Then went out by ourselves in the dark to trick or treat. Do kids ever go out into the dark by themselves anymore? Do any junior high or middle school kids drink beer or make out or have oral sex? I read recently that childhood has been extended into the late teens, adolescence pushed much later. Given the prevalence of teen anxiety and suicide (we’ve had a recent outbreak in Ann Arbor in the last year of ninth graders jumping from the roofs of parking garages), I’m not so sure.
I like Halloween, though. I like horror movies and haunted houses and being scared. I just went with my husband, daughter and daughter’s boyfriend to a set of haunted houses. At one point we had to get down, individually, on hands and knees and crawl through a very claustrophobic area to move forward and my daughter and her boyfriend went first and then my daughter said she heard me yelling, “I can’t. I can’t,” and thought I was going to have to be taken out the back exit, ie a loser. But I pushed ahead, past my fears, and I felt a dumb sense of pride for doing so. I love that my daughter loves seeing me scared and doing something anyway. Same with roller coasters we went on over the summer. I was screaming my head off. She loves that.
I recently re-watched that Noah Baumbach movie Margot at the Wedding. Jack Black’s character, Malcolm, has this line that resonated with me, and made me think of the narrator of Saul Stories: “I haven’t had that thing yet where you realize that you’re not the most important person in the world. Anxious for that to happen.” Have you reached that point? When, if ever, does a person reach that point?
I saw Margot at the Wedding a long time ago, when it came out, so I don’t remember it well. But … oh wait. Read that quote in reverse. As “when do you realize you’re the most important person in the world.” Lol. Well, I’m sure the cliche answer to “when do you realize you’re not the most important person in the world” is when you become a parent, right? But I don’t think I ever felt I was important. When you grow up an only child during the hippie era, you don’t really feel anything close to important. You feel like background noise. A kid in the corner of the room where grown ups are drinking Rolling Rock and smoking dope and listening to Fleetwood Mac. And maybe that was better. See first answer. I don’t know if kids thinking they’re important is actually good for their transition into adulthood. In fact, it seems to retard it.
What do you think? Do you feel important?
Well, I wouldn’t say I think I’m important. I don’t think I’ll go down in any history books or anything like that. But I do feel like the star of the movie of my life, so in some ways I guess I do feel important—sometimes. I feel like a character in a movie, and when the movie changes, my character changes. Do you ever feel like that or do this? It seems crazy. The narrator of Saul Stories often does this, envisions herself as a character in a film.
Oh, all the time.
Here are movies that pop to mind that I relate to:
–Greenberg (speaking of Noah Baumbach)
I see what you mean but even when I feel like someone in a movie, I’m not an IMPORTANT person in a movie.
Like, does anyone in Greenberg’s life notice him?
If they did, he probably wouldn’t be wasting time writing letters to Starbucks or whatever companies he’s pissed off with in acts of fighting existential panic. 🙂
Ditto Michael Douglas’s character in Falling Down. No one is paying him the attention he wants.
In Saul Stories, the narrator wants to feel like a person in a movie she realizes she will never be like, though. Like anyone Juliette Lewis ever played. Like a cool chick with a gun.
I want to identify with Stephen Dorff’s character in Somewhere but the reality is I identify with the offscreen woman (we assume woman) texting him that he’s full of shit. The person he doesn’t text back.
I guess all the characters I admire in movies are people who I think I could be in my own reality, and so I romanticize them and make them out to be ‘important’ people, even when they’re not ‘important’ within their own fictional world. Even when they’re just sad, lonely guys who fall in love with operating systems or guys who write letters to Starbucks (I also identify with Greenberg).
How old do you feel? If you had to pinpoint what age you feel? Lately I’ve been living with married couples who are in their thirties, and I have to keep reminding myself that I am not a married man who’s in his thirties.
Hahaha maybe you ARE a married man in your 30s.
I don’t know. Do people feel ages? What does age mean to you?
You seem very … interested in age.
Do you want to know how old I am? I’m 48.
I guess I feel 48.
I don’t think being or feeling 48 has anything to do with interacting with or feeling comfortable with people older or younger, or relating to them or having them relate to me.
A year ago I left a job I loved because the person I had to interact with the most—a young man in his early to mid twenties—really seemed uncomfortable speaking to me. It made a job I LOVED, sort of miserable. Everything was made a million times worse by another coworker who told me the young man I was having trouble working with, felt uncomfortable interacting with older women. It sort of broke my heart. I’ve never had any problem interacting with anyone of any age. But that broke me. I felt like I had failed this young man by being 1) ‘old’ and 2) a woman. I made his life/job harder. Because he felt he couldn’t ask me to do things or talk to me the way he’d talk to the younger women who worked there.
I wish I were a more mature person and had talked with him openly about this.
Instead I walked away from the job.
Sometimes life breaks your heart. Or you break your own heart. Or allow your heart to be broken.
This was definitely one of those times.
Fuck that guy. Yeah, I think people feel ages. I think people feel old or young. I don’t know. I don’t care about age but people like to remind me that I’m young, even though I don’t always feel that way. I’m in the car with Scott [McClanahan] right now and he said he feels about 80. I don’t feel excited by the things most twenty-year-olds I know feel excited about. It’s made it harder for me to hangout with people my own age. I started to become a hermit in New York City. Lately, I feel like a boring middle-aged man, especially when people ask me about my music taste. There’s a great scene in Saul Stories that takes place at a rap concert. The narrator discovers this rap group in a New Yorker article. I feel like I missed out on rap. I’m completely out of the loop when it comes to that genre of music and I often feel ashamed of myself because of it. How do you find out about music? What kind of music are you most drawn to these days?
I love music. How dumb a statement is that? But I don’t know, not everyone LOVES IT.
I LOVE it. ALL MUSIC. I used to be the person who said (my entire life until about four years ago): “I love all music except country.”
Now I love country, too.
The years my daughter was in 8th and 9th grades were years I was living as a single person.
So I spent a lot of time with her and her friends. Which is reflected, though fictionalized, in Saul Stories.
I feel like when you become single after being in a relationship a long time, music becomes more important again.
And you can have almost another adolescent moment with music.
If that makes sense. Rediscover it. Renew your connection to it. Discover new music. Reconnect with old music. etc. etc.
We went to a lot of concerts that year or two. My daughter and I and her friends. Here are the concerts I can remember off the top of my head:
-Nicki Minaj/Lil Wayne/Rick Ross
-Eminem and Jay Z
I don’t think you should feel ashamed about anything, least of all not having yet discovered particular genre of music or literature or art.
Why waste time feeling ashamed? If you have an interest, indulge it!
Do you want me to make you a mixtape?
I go back and forth listening to ‘classic rock’ which now includes stuff like Nirvana and AC/DC!, country and hip hop.
Those are my main three. And I like them all equally.
Country is the newest so I might listen to it slightly more right now since it is newer to me and so I feel like I’m discovering more of it all the time.
Yes, please make me a mixtape.
I enjoyed the way you write about race in Saul Stories, from the perspective of a privileged white woman. It felt honest, pertinent, but also casual. I never felt like you were preaching to me or to anyone. I think a lot of privileged white writers are too scared to broach the topic of race in their work.
Well, it’s hard to talk about race. I just tried to write my experience in as honest a manner as possible.
Do you get a lot of people referring to the events of Saul Stories as fact? Do people often ask you if Saul is real? If so, do those kinds of questions annoy you? For some reason, while I was reading the book, I kept thinking, ‘Wow this Saul kid would fucking hate me.’ Saul is one of the most confident, sure of himself characters I’ve ever read.
Hahahaha is he? I wonder if that actually means he *is* confident? Or if he just comes across that way, has a lot of bravado? That’s interesting though, your take on Saul.
Well, since the book hasn’t been released yet and we don’t have any review or blurbs, I don’t know. I guess we’ll see if anyone reads it. But feel like I’ve gotten that sort of reaction to Person/a.
I think Saul Stories made me realize that I’m afraid of confident, or seemingly confident, teenagers. They have a special ability to make me feel utterly lame, or like I’ve failed. Also, I think there’s something really sad about me trying to impress a bunch of teenagers, or worrying about how teenagers view me.
I feel like I’ve heard that same sentiment from a few people/writers lately. How confident kids make them uncomfortable.
Not sure what that means. And I wonder if it’s how you imagine you’d feel versus how you would actually feel were you actually interacting with them.
Why the leap to trying to impress though? You feel as though you would have to impress a teen if he/she were confident?
How is this different than how you would feel around a confident ‘adult’ your age?
Do they also make you uncomfortable or lame?
I think this is saying more about you than the ‘teens’. 🙂
Also I think a person—teen or child or adult—can have charisma, which I think is what we’re talking about, and still be insecure and still be vulnerable. I think the assumption that someone who is charismatic or seems confident isn’t also vulnerable, is a bad assumption.
Well yeah, I’m just generally a self-conscious person. I tend to think people think I’m lame until I get comfortable around them (no matter their age). Also, I’m just trying to do a good job interviewing you. I don’t want to be boring.
🙂 You’re doing a great job, Joey! I’m enjoying the interview and I’m not bored. Then again, I’m the subject and most people (not Chelsea Martin but…most people) enjoy talking about themselves.
Do you want people to buy this book? Do you care about that? How would you convince the average person to buy this book?
Of course I want people to buy the book. Or to read it, at least. I don’t know how to convince anyone to read anything, though. I guess. How would you try to convince someone to read it? A friend, say, who knows nothing about it or me?
I would just say that it’s really good, and that it’s different from every other book out there in the world right now. No one else writes books like Elizabeth Ellen. And then if they asked what it was about I’d say something like: “It’s about a forty-something woman who hangs out with her teenage daughter and her teenage daughter’s friends.”
How do you feel about indie literature these days? I think your’s is one of the most interesting, vital voices writing in indie lit right now. What pisses you off most about ‘the lit world’ (for lack of a better phrase) right now? What are you optimistic about, with regard to ‘the lit world’?
Oh, boy. Going to try not to be too cynical here. The literary world has broken my heart, Joey. Damn. How self-indulgent an answer is that? But a true one. Then again, the lit world owes me nothing, nor I it. Writing is a pleasure and joy in and of itself. I think of the Confederacy of Dunces guy [John Kennedy Toole]. His story. Why should mine be any better? Thank you for saying that about my voice. I greatly appreciate hearing that. What pisses me off most about the lit world right now is what pisses me off about the world in general right now: the lack of questioning and thinking for oneself.
Does your daughter have any interest in reading your work? Has she ever read any of your stories/novels/poems, to your knowledge?
Good question. I’ll text her and ask. (While awaiting a reply: she has definitely read some of the poems, cuz I show her ones about or to do with her. Once she said, “I guess this is what passes for poetry these days.” Which was both her being real and her being sarcastic. So of course I then used that line in a poem. Lol.)
“omg leave me alone lol”
At one point in Saul Stories, the narrator admits to feeling like a ‘revolutionary’ because of her art and because of her lifestyle. Have you ever felt like a revolutionary?
[Smile] I have. I do. I’m feeling the fallout. Liberty ain’t cheap. There are prices to pay for being an individual. For not towing the line of the group think. Especially now with social media, which makes everyone the member of a cult. 😉 Don’t drink the Kool-Aid, Joey. There are many more choices than A or Z.
(Already anticipating my daughter’s eye rolls if she ever reads this interview, particularly my last answer. But it’s good for her. Eye exercises.)
Joseph Grantham is the author of Tom Sawyer (CCM Press) and Raking Leaves (Holler Presents), both due out in 2018. He runs Disorder Press with his sister. He lives in America.
Elizabeth Ellen is the author of a previous story collection, Fast Machine, the novel Person/a, and the poetry collection, Elizabeth Ellen. She lives in Ann Arbor.