Every month, I interview an author I admire on his literary firsts.
November’s featured author is Elizabeth Ellen, author of Fast Machine (Short Flight/Long Drive), a riveting short story collection that takes a hard, unapologetic look at the complexities of womanhood.
Elizabeth is also the author of the chapbook Before You She Was a Pit Bull (Future Tense) and the poetry collection Bridget Fonda (Dostoyevsky Wannabe). She co-edits the lit zine Hobart and oversees Hobart’s book division, Short Flight/Long Drive Books.
In this interview Elizabeth talks about writing about life while it’s happening, publishing through her own indie press, dealing with the brutalities of internet culture, and much more.
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Siel: What I love most about your stories in Fast Machine is their sense of immediacy — the feeling of going through a visceral, intense, real-life experience. Do you think some of that immediacy comes from the fact that many of your stories hinge on experiences you’ve personally been through? How long do you wait (if at all) before writing about a real-life experience?
Elizabeth: Funny you should ask, I’ve been going through a pretty traumatic experience the last few days and I’ve found myself writing about it as it’s happening.
I used to hate Arthur Miller because there was the rumor, maybe confirmed, that he took notes on Marilyn while married to her (she allegedly found them) and I hated him for that because I loved Marilyn unconditionally and I imagined that finding those notes written about her must have been so painful for her. She must have felt so betrayed.
But as a writer, the habit of writing has become so therapeutic for me, it’s hard to deal with trauma without writing about it. And/or/also the habit of writing stuff down is just that: habitual, an addiction of sorts. Even when concerning the more mundane. But it’s definitely helped me the last few days. If only in that it is an activity, something to do other than simply worry. As well as a tool to try to make sense of life, and of oneself.
You’ve been dubbed an Alt Lit author, on Wikipedia on elsewhere. Is it a description you embrace?
I neither embrace nor reject the ‘alt lit’ label, though I think it’s a bit outdated as well as maybe irrelevant and just plain meaningless as a descriptor.
I’m curious about your decision to remain unagented, opting instead to publish your books with either your own press or with other small presses. Why have you made — and continue to make — this choice?
To be honest, it is a choice I feel I have both made and been forced into. I think on the one hand, I love being independent and publishing my writing through SF/LD because it means absolute creative freedom. On the other hand, absolute creative freedom can be scary. An editor can be a good thing. A good tool. Since I don’t have an editor I have to rely on myself. And it can be hard to separate yourself as a writer and then as an editor or to be objective. As a consequence, I know my writing is much messier, not as tight, more raw, and I tend to like messier, raw writing to read myself, but I also could probably stand to be reigned in a bit. I don’t know. We’ll see!
A couple years ago, you found yourself at the center of a controversy in the literary world. These types of controversies seem to be getting more and more common in the age of Twitter — There’s a growing list of writers who’ve been suddenly, publicly, and repeatedly castigated on the internet for (often private, long-ago) things they’ve said or done. Do you have any ideas for how we might make the internet a less punitive space for writers with a public profile? And do you have any advice for other writers who might one day unwittingly find themselves in the middle of a sudden controversy?
Well, I think what’s happening with writers on the internet is indicative of what’s happening in the culture in general. There seems to be little to no room for debate or conversation, particularly about the ‘grey areas’ of topics, and an addiction to deciding a villain and a victim in every dispute or disagreement, rather than in seeing every individual as a complex person, or rather than in viewing the subject being discussed for what it is instead of viewing the person speaking as ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ There is the ‘one voice’ mentality, the ‘you’re either with us or against us,’ and questions of any sort are viewed as “against us.”
I was raised in the hippie days of ‘question everything’, which isn’t so popular or welcomed currently. But hey, I was watching a Bob Dylan documentary (the Scorsese one) last night and in it he says something like, “I was like an outsider, Anyway. I came to town an outsider. and in a lot of ways I was still more outsider than I ever was, really. They were trying to make me an insider to some kind of trip they were on. I don’t think so.” And that pretty much sums up how I feel about the current culture and the internet and the writing world; all of it.
How does your work as an editor and publisher for both Hobart and Short Flight/Long Drive Books affect your work as a writer?
My work as an editor has saved me in that I sometimes think, particularly in these last two trying years, to be ultra-DRAMATIC, if it wasn’t for my friendships and editorial relationships with Chelsea Martin and Chloe Caldwell and Mira Gonzalez, I don’t know that I’d have the determination to keep writing. Or to keep publishing my own work.
That’s ultra-dramatic, as I acknowledged, but they do inspire me, their friendships and their writing, to keep chugging along myself. I don’t think that’s really what you were asking, but it’s what’s most important to me, and so that’s my answer. Thank you, Siel.