Q+A with author Elizabeth Ellen

‘You like me best five minutes after I’ve said goodbye.’ Elizabeth Ellen

A chronicle of obsession and self-indulgence, author Elisabeth Ellen’s PERSON/A is easy to spend moments reading between wrapping holiday presents or a replacement for that holiday party you don’t want to go to. Feeling self destructive? Instead of going there you can live vicariously through Ellen’s character by perusing diary entries and letters to and from others, and various quotes all revolving around a younger man. 

Always the subject of the narrator’s obsession, sometimes this man is a musician, sometimes a writer — but he’s the same man. Sometimes Ellen — the main character uses the same name as the author — has a son, sometimes a daughter. But she’s always a mother. Reality and fiction blur in this book. While it’s an easy read, PERSON/A is a great example of the modern rise of the anti-heroine. Instead of the female character portrayed as delicate and prone to insanity like Streetcar Named Desire or The Yellow Wallpaper, Ellen remains mentally intact and continues to meet expectations and obligations to the outside world. She continues her work, continues to be a mother/live-in girlfriend/wife. She takes control of the obsession by not backing down from it and writing the book.

In the book, Ellen asked the following questions in PERSON/A to author Lydia Davis.  There are similarities between Davis’s short story, The End of The Story  and PERSON/A. So I asked Ellen the same exact questions. I’m not sure if Ellen’s PERSON/A is purposefully an homage to Davis. But they both allow us to try on the shoes of a Mrs. Robinson type character without the consequences. If that’s not a good gift for a girlfriend or yourself, I don’t know what is.

Person/a seems to be as much about what’s left off the page as what is included. Did you remove a significant amount of text before publication or did you write Person/a with the intent of retaining a distance or of begin less direct perhaps than you could have been?

I don’t have the sense re-reading Person/a that I left that much off the page or distanced myself that much from the story, in the way when rereading The End of the Story I feel that distance. In fact, I think maybe I left too much on the page. I don’t know. I think it’s too soon to tell. I think The End of the Story, because of its ‘distance’ feels classier, more elegant. I think Person/a feels comparatively rougher, uglier. I don’t think that is necessarily a good thing. Nor do I necessarily think it is a bad thing. They are just very different books. But I obviously set out to be less distant in my telling.

That said, no, I did not remove any text before publication. I just kept adding, with each new draft, to the detriment, perhaps, of the reader’s enjoyment (and eyesight).

One could make assumptions based about your life during the writing of  Person/a, based on what one reads in Person/a. If assumptions are correct, and you were with a longtime partner during the creative process, did the relationship  (“LEE”) affect what you left in the story and what you left out?

At various times while writing what ultimately became called, Person/a, I was in or out of a relationship with the same man who is now my husband. Looking back, I can’t see where I edited to be more distance when he and I were together or edited to be less distant when he and I were broken up. I think I stayed at a fairly consistent level of intimacy in the writing, and only my stress and anxiety levels changed, based on if he and I were together or broken up, as a result of feeling ‘unethical’ or ‘disloyal’ to him in not changing the intimacy level in the novel once he and I were married.

Do you think a writer or an artist can ever be truthful, to herself and the events of the story she is trying to tell, if she is engaged in a romantic relationship during the creative process? In, say, the way she would be if she were single?

I don’t think a writer can ever be truthful to herself period. Haha. Because we’re never truthful with ourselves outside of writing. We are full of denials and re-imaginations and retellings. However, I think it is particularly challenging to remain open and honest and intimate in one’s writing if in a relationship because the natural thought is to imagine one’s partner reading one’s writing and knowing things, being exposed to things, he or she would not normally, if you were not a writer, need to know or want to know.

I also think women, more than men, are raised with the primary focus of not hurting people’s feelings. It is inelegant to do so. Therefore, unfeminine.

You said in your New Yorker profile that children are “off limits,” as far as being the subjects of one’s writing. And I wonder why you think this (you are not alone, obviously; the majority of my female friends feel similarly). Why one often has no problem writing about one’s parents, say, or one’s siblings, neither of whom asked to have a relative who is an author either … can one ethically explore through one’s writing the relationship of being a parent, of having a child?

I think exploring the relationship of parent and child, of being a mother or father, is a worthy exploration because it is so infrequently explored. We have all read many, many books about being the child. about childhood. But so rarely do I read about the other side, about being a parent, in fiction, particularly, other than in self-help parenting books, it seems.

I think Scott McClanahan does an excellent job of writing ‘honestly’ about being a parent.

I don’t see why separate rules should apply to one’s children. I think if you “don’t want to hurt anyone with your writing”, you shouldn’t write about your parents or siblings or lovers or anyone.

I understand there is a want to protect one’s children that is not necessarily present in reverse. We do not have the instinct to protect our parents, it seems. But that does not mean we shouldn’t. Hopefully some sort of compromise can be made between protecting your child and writing about your experience as a parent.

But I’ll admit, it’s a very tough line to walk.

I think, too, most of us are okay with a parent being angry with us but are not okay with our children being angry with us. Another instinct.

I for one hate my child being angry with me. I’d rather make anyone else in the world angry. I’d rather hurt anyone else.

But the intent in writing isn’t to hurt. The intent is, I hope, to explore and to learn. So I think it is important to remind yourself of that.

Do you think female writers concern themselves more with the “ethics” of writing than their male counterparts?

Yes, obviously. If we women concern ourselves with “ethics” (with not hurting friends/family) when writing fiction (or nonfiction), can we possibly be truthful or reveal new truths about ourselves or others?

I think this was a rhetorical question, now that I’m being posed it.

Is there anything you left in  Person/a you wish you had taken out or vice versa, something you removed that you now wish you had included?

I don’t think there is anything I took out that I would put back in. I think there are things I wish I had fictionalized more.

Did your agent/publisher seem to understand the novel from the beginning? Or was it, as they say, a “hard sell”?

Well, since I don’t have an agent and am my own publisher, YES! Very ‘hard sell.’ Haha.

Did the novel change much from the first draft you showed the publisher to its final form that we read today? If it changed, in what way did it change?

Yes, the novel changed a lot over the years. From its initial inception as a novella in 2009, to a three volume novel for 2-3 years, and finally to its six volume (three “Volume One”s, and the addition of a Volume Four) form. Over the years it became as much about the publishing of and editing of this novel as it was about anything else (i.e., the ‘love story’ I was originally attempting to tell or to explore or to survive – haha).

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