“My bite is much worse than my bark,” says Helen Ellis, whose sweet voice, bubbly personality, and gracious manners, make her seem like your typical book club-hosting Upper East Side housewife. But once you read Ellis’s short story collection American Housewife, you learn that Ellis has a sharp tongue and a dark side. Speaking with her, I learned that she also has a penchant for gambling and a soft spot for reality TV, and that most of her villians (and heroes) are inspired by her own personality.
American Housewife is an extremely fun read — one that you’ll find yourself recommending to friends and wanting to read over again. You can’t finish the book without wanting to become Helen’s friend, even if it means joining her creepy book club. I spoke with Helen about writing, poker, and what’s on her bookshelf.
TEDDY MINFORD: I had so much fun reading this book, so I have to ask: was it fun to write?
HELEN ELLIS: Yes, it was. I had several books — four novels — that were written and dead in a drawer. I stopped writing for many years, and when I started writing again it was with this anonymous Twitter account, which was fun to keep a secret, because I don’t keep that many secrets. here was such instant gratification once I started writing stories; I would write one little story, and send them off. Nobody knew I was doing it. (Well, my husband knew, after I got 100 Twitter followers and I said “I have something I need to tell you.” All the color drained from his face and he said “Please don’t ever frighten me like that again.”)
The first one I wrote was “Dumpster Diving With the Stars.” It was very personal, as you can imagine, because it’s about a writer who hasn’t published in 15 years deciding if she’s going to write again, which is really what I was doing. I wrote it and then sent it off to literary magazines like the New Yorker and the Atlantic, where it was rejected, of course. After many months, Five Chapters pulled it out of their slush pile and published it. It was such a thrill, almost like gambling.
I thought “I want to have that thrill again” so I wrote “Hello, Welcome to Book Club” and I sent it out. It became this process of sending each story out to ten or 20 places and as soon as a rejection rolled in I would send it off again to another one. Every single one of the stories in the book, except for “The Doormen,” which I never submitted anywhere, was pulled out of the slush. That kind of encouragement made me write another and another.
Are any of the characters based on you or somebody you know?
Every single one is a portion of me. The book is about 84% truth. Every story starts with me thinking: “What would I do?” I enjoy throwing a party, but what if my bookclub had ulterior motives? What lengths would I go to to be the best hostess? I live in a co-op building, so what lengths would I go to to keep the apartment in the best shape? It’s always me putting myself in a situation. What if my husband was a bra fitter? What would that be like? (“I’d be so, so jealous” “I’d never allow it. I don’t even like my husband to show up in somebody else’s Instagram feed.”) Or in “Dumpster Diving with the Stars,” the question becomes: “What would I do if I went on a reality show to try to start writing again?”
Would you ever go on Dumpster Diving with the Stars, the show?
ABSOLUTELY NOT! Never. Although sometimes when my husband and I travel, I pretend we’re on The Amazing Race. “We have to behave ourselves in this airport so we don’t get caught on film”; “I’ll be the one that eats the two pounds of caviar but you’re the one who has to bungee jump;” “Yes, I will shave my head to get a fast forward.” You can bury me in a coffin with rats, and I’ll eat anything, but nothing to do with heights.
So where do you get the villains from?
Also me! I am relatively well-behaved in my real life, so I like writing stories because I get to do all the things I can’t do in real life. It’s the reason I love to play poker. It’s my most natural self, which I think is a quiet killer.
Is there any skill you use in poker that has helped you become a better writer?
Patience. Patience is the number one thing I use. I play tournament poker mostly, so a lot of it is patience. Waiting for a good hand or a good opportunity. You just cannot play every hand.
And forgiveness. When it comes to tournament poker, you’re doing really, really well if you cash ten percent of the time. The other 90 percent, you’re failing, you’re losing, you’re busting. You have to forgive yourself and learn. And it’s the same thing with writing — the forgiveness for the novels in the drawer, and the patience as you’re waiting for a short story to be plucked out of the slush, and the forgiveness again when you get rejections.
What would you say to somebody who was just starting out and wanted to become a really good poker player, your one tip for a wannabe card shark?
It’s okay to be scared, but don’t play scared. I say it to myself everytime I walk into a poker tournament and I say it to myself when I sit down to write (which is a lot easier, in my opinion). You’re scared of confrontation, you’re scared of losing, you’re scared of failing, you’re scared of someone saying something unkind to you. All f these things happen every single time. But you can’t alter your play. If you’ve got aces, you raise with those aces. If you’ve got a 5-7 off suit anda loose cannon in front of you, you raise with your 5-7 off suit.You have to be brave.
What your one tip for a wannabe writer?
ork the New York Times crossword puzzle every day, in pencil. And when you get the right answer, put it in ink. That’s the thing about a crossword puzzle. People are afraid to make a mistake or put the wrong word in. Just put the wrong word in! And when you realize it’s the wrong word, erase it and put the right word in.
Who are your literary idols?
I have Christmas tree ornaments of three writers dressed as Santa: Ann Patchett dressed as Santa, John Irving dressed as Santa, and Stephen King dressed as Santa.
What’s the best book you’ve read this year?
The Vegetarian by Han Kang. It’s a translation. It’s scary, i’s unpredictable, and it’s one of the best female characters I’ve read in a long time, and probably one of the best first sentences I’ve read in a long time.
What are you reading right now?
I’m in a book club (of course) and my book club is a “classic trashy” book club, so that means that the book has to be at least 20 years old, has probably been banned, has probably been made into a mini-series, or is classified as “chick lit.” Right now we’re reading The Lives and Loves of a She-Devil,by Fay Weldon, an English feminist writer. I read it first when I was 21 years old, and it’s probably the best book I’ve ever read, and an excellent “how to” on revenge.
Read along with Helen Ellis’s “Classic Trashy” Book Club
- The Lives and Loves of a She-Devil by Fay Weldon
- Princess Daisy by Judith Krantz
- The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough
- Fear of Flying by Erica Jong
- Wifey by Judy Blume
- The Other Side of Midnight by Sidney Sheldon