My first encounter with Elizabeth Ellen’s work was her debut novel Person/a, about romantic obsession and the stories we tell ourselves (and, if we’re writers, tell others) when we’re in the fire of longing and loss. Since then, I’ve been excited to follow her work. In April, Ellen released Exit, Carefully, a play, and Her Lesser Work, a short story collection, both through her press, Short Flight/Long Drive Books.
Her Lesser Work features a cast of female characters who are “not dying in any conventional sense,” but meeting a slow demise at the hands of boredom, lonely or destructive relationships, and of course inertia. They seek ways to break out, with varying success. In “Person Under Train,” Lauren approaches a tragic end. But in “YOLO,” the narrator turns the tables on a home intruder, ultimately cutting off her own pinkie and ‘kidnapping herself’ on the route to finally leaving her husband (and her book club) in the rear-view mirror. Other stories break the glass not through plot but Ellen’s own formal play—switching perspective, digressing, and addressing the reader with truths like “No one else will tell you this but your books are boring as shit” (“G.O.A.T.”). Exit, Carefully confronts similar themes in a different genre and form, following a mother, daughter, and granddaughter’s escalating conflict with the mother’s boyfriend, Gary, which leads each to confront their relationship with men, sex, love, and each other.
I was excited to talk with EE about these books over email in the week following their release.
Rebecca van Laer: In “Plant Hospital,” the narrator writes that “Image is everything, but you decide the image.” With that in mind, tell me about the cover and title to Her Lesser Work (both iconic!).
Elizabeth Ellen: haha, well … I had the idea for that title maybe two years ago. I just always think it’s funny when critics refer to (or did in the past) someone’s ‘work’ that way (shittily) … and it seemed funny to, like a hip-hop artist, diss myself first, before anyone else could. As for the cover… full disclosure? I took that photo w/out much thought for my boyfriend and later liked the way the lines (my tan lines/the outfit’s lines – haha) looked and how I’d cut my head off for the photo accidentally but…reminded me of statues that are only torsos, no heads, and also (this is prob gna sound pretentious AF but it is the truth and our truths are often pretentious AS FUCK) I think of it as art/a feminist statement/a statement on female bodies and aging and sexuality/and, of course, as a ‘fuck you’ to a community that has pretended I don’t exist for seven plus years. Hi! I’m still here. Lol. (Of course, I realize it will prob make them ignore me more as it looks like an obvious play for attention. That’s fine too. But I think the stories contained w/in are really good, for whatever that’s worth.) Also, the cover just makes me laugh.
RvL: In in “Abdomens of Young, Attractive Lawn Dawn Throwers,” the story shifts from third person to first person to include the scene of its writing. Do moments like these show that fiction is always derived from life, or that it’s completely artificial?
EE: I was just copying/making a nod to Salinger, “For Esme – with Love and Squalor.” Copying his mid-story shift. Seeing if I could pull it off. I don’t know if I did. Sometimes as a writer you just want to try something new. Entertain yourself.
RvL: Entertaining myself is often the main draw! Relatedly, you’d told me in an earlier exchange that one reader had recommended you try standardizing the characters and names in this collection. Why did that feel like the wrong choice?
EE: You mean giving all the main female characters/protagonists the same name so that it becomes a ‘linked’ story collection? That was a former agent’s suggestion and I’m sure she suggested that to sell the collection. But, for me, I don’t know… I guess I don’t think of them all as the same person. I mean, they’re definitely not. And for that to be successful I also would have had to remove a couple/few stories, like “Snatch Shots,” which is about a woman not unlike Britney Spears…and I didn’t want to do that. I also didn’t want to make this neat little package to sell to big publishers. There are already plenty of those.
RvL: Yes! “Neat” is so boring, something this collection addresses. Across these stories, there’s a deep sense of ennui, and this desire to do anything to break out of it. In “I Was Punishing Myself,” you write, “She worried she would contract a venereal disease. More than that, she worried that she wouldn’t.” Is boredom the only thing worse than a crisis or breakdown?
EE: Well, Chloe Caldwell and I used to joke that being a healthy (mentally) woman/person/writer is never going to sell a book (maybe a self-help book but not ‘literature’). Or be of interest to anyone/readers. But in the line you quote, I think her thinking is: I want to live. And by living she means have sex and having sex means you might contract a venereal disease. So be it. I think the narrator of that story felt as though she hadn’t been ‘living’ of late. And was seeking to change that.
RvL: In this collection, “living” (or observing life) often entails discomfort. From an opening story that features gorilla incest to a woman who cuts off her pinkie to a narrator who seduces her mother’s ex-lover, you know that your stories “go there.” It seems like these moments of discomfort and disgust are necessary for breaking through the static of boredom and everyday life. How do you approach writing them?
EE: I would argue that isn’t incest, but biological exploration of a female body by male offspring. There was nothing sexual about the encounter. Only we humans add sexuality to everything. I view that strictly as curiosity on the part of the sons. They’ve maybe never seen their mother’s vagina. Or any vagina. In the animal kingdom I’m going to assume that’s normal natural behavior. I remember staring at my mother’s vagina when she would go to the bathroom, change her tampon. I stared at my grandmother’s vagina when she walked around in nude hose without underwear. I don’t think that’s odd or incest or whatever. Just curiosity of body parts. You could touch your mother’s vagina as a small child purely out of curiosity with zero sexual impulse. I think that’s what the gorillas were doing.
The pinkie cutting just seemed the natural conclusion for that particular story. The story had to lead somewhere and that’s where it led me.
The seduction of the mother’s ex-lover was always the impetus for that story.
I don’t think of these events as ‘going there’ or to illicit disgust or shock.
I assume these things have all happened to someone out there. Numerous times.
I think we are constantly shocked and discomforted by things, but that doesn’t make them uncommon. I was listening to a dude who’s a squirrel expert on a podcast recently and you might be shocked and discomforted by many stories he relayed—a male squirrel pushing a copulating squirrel out of a tree so he could copulate with the female, a mother squirrel coming upon her offspring who fell from a tree, nudging him/her to make sure he/she is dead, and once sure, immediately eating the offspring’s brain… these are all events that were they to take place in the human world would be said to be evil. But they’re not unnatural. In fact, they are exactly that: natural. Common. Mammal behavior.
RvL: I’m sure the interpretation says more about me as a reader and the kinds of stories I’ve come to expect! I wanted to talk about your approach to fiction, and the way to avoid moralism (another one of commercial fiction’s more boring traits). In “YOLO,” the narrator fights with her husband about nihilism. Is this something you identify with—nihilism?
EE: Well, my attraction is to ‘nihilism’ as I know it, and I’m definitely not an expert. I haven’t studied philosophy. So my own definition or how I think of it could be way off. But my attraction is the lack of judgment. I view morality the same way I view religion: as a way to judge others, but not yourself. To pick and choose what fits your life/lifestyle and then judge others for what didn’t fit your particular lifestyle. We are either all sinners, or none of us are sinners—that’s my view.
RvL: Person/a is a sexy book, I think in large part because it’s perpetually in that state of longing and unfulfilled desire. But in several of these stories, longing is fulfilled—to different ends, from disgust to empowerment and beyond. Were you consciously thinking about writing this fuller array of female sexual experience?
EE: Is it? I’ve never heard anyone say Person/a is sexy. Thank you. I’ll take it. I think these stories are about repression and fighting through repression and coming out on the other side. I think they are about liberation, and in part, sexual liberation. Female liberation. Female sexual liberation. In particular. That’s what I was interested in exploring.
RvL: I totally got that. Speaking of, what makes the relationship with Bruce in “Plant Hospital” so fulfilling? The constant power exchange, the fact that it’s not all about image (as with Harry Houdini, the other love interest in the story)—or just the actual physicality of it, something that goes beyond words?
EE: Hmmm. I guess I’m more interested in you answering this question. Or in your interpretation. I’ll just repeat. These stories are about female sexual liberation and the fight against repression. How’s that?
RvL: I definitely thought it was about the thrill of taking control in a situation that’s also, on some level, scary. Living on the edge between fear and self-liberation, which I see as a through-thread. In the last story, we see the Britney Spears-like narrator you referenced earlier who is finally able to make her own art (a mix tape) when she has nothing else left to lose. How did you decide to put this one last in the volume?
EE: Well, originally the collection opened with “Person Under Train”, which ends with a woman in a bathtub…a nod to Whitney Houston, her tragic death…and then closed with “Snatch Shots,” in which a woman, I think, says she won’t lie down in a bathtub and die just because she’s reached a certain age. Forty or fifty or whatever. So that’s another ‘theme’ I guess you could say, of the collection: women and aging and sexuality in this society. And originally those bathtub thoughts/scenes bookended the book. But then I threw “Signs” at the opening instead and ruined that symmetry or mirroring.
RvL: I totally saw that—we’re bombarded with such limiting images and narratives. Speaking of, you don’t have a smart phone and you’re mostly not on social media. (I’m jealous.) How does disconnecting from technology help you write?
EE: God, it’s wonderful. I don’t actually know how anyone stays sane, let alone writes, while actively on social media. Or with their phone in their hands 24/7. I have gotten on the Hobart twitter to help promote the new SF/LD books the last week or so and while it’s undeniably a helpful tool for promotion, I cannot wait to be done and back ‘off.’ I try to keep my phone in a drawer the majority of the day while writing. My laptop put away also. or my laptop at a friend’s house for a week or two. Whatever it takes. To feel sane. To write.
RvL: And that writing takes many forms: poetry, fiction, and now drama. What inspired you to write a play?
EE: I always knew, from the age of about nineteen, I would write this play. I was inspired by Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, which I saw at too young an age, but became obsessed with because I couldn’t figure out what was happening but was desperate to know. Later I became interested in Sam Shepard and Tennessee Williams, other playwrights. It just always seemed so cool, the coolest type of writer you could be: a playwright. Wow. How does one do that/become that? I still don’t know. But you just have to entertain yourself, try new things. Fail. Whatever.
RvL: You give everyone in the play a monologue—even Gary. Why was it important to let him speak for himself?
EE: It just seemed only fair. Why shouldn’t Gary speak? he’s a human and part of this family and has frailties and fears and stuff too. He’s not just a monster or bad guy. No woman would be with a man who’s just a bad guy for numerous years. Gary has or had dreams and hopes like the rest of us, a desire to be loved, to love. Let him speak to them. Say his piece.
RvL: Exit, Carefully returns to some similar storylines or anecdotes that we see in Her Lesser Work (desire for a mother’s boyfriend; a dalliance with a long distance trucker, a bitchy grandmother), definitely with that added perspective from all four characters. What do you gain as an artist by returning to, mining, and tweaking one story line?
EE: I don’t think I gain much. It’s probably actually a great fault. Weakness. But I think we all have stories on repeat in our heads we just can’t get rid of. And we keep trying. Whether by telling them orally to friends over and over or writing them down in plays/poems/stories/novels. We probably die telling the same fucking stories. And our friends are like, dude, yes, you’ve told me that before. But okay. Do you see the bright light yet or what?
RvL: You just dropped a batch of truly exciting books from SF/LD including these two, along with titles from Elle Nash, Mik Grantham, and Garielle Lutz. What are you excited about as a publisher right now?
EE: I’m truly, 100% honestly, completely stoked about the books you just cited. Nudes by Elle Nash. Hardcore by Mik Grantham. Worsted by Garielle Lutz. I’m also stoked about this book by Sean Thor Conroe: Fuccboi. And Teenager by Bud Smith. The former I’ve read, the latter I haven’t yet but can’t wait to. Both books were championed by Gian (of Tyrant books). I always looked to Tyrant and Gian for the next best thing. The coolest new book. The shit. Struggling with what sentence to put after that. a sentence about loss and heartbreak. Let’s just leave it at that. And thank you so much, Rebecca!
Elizabeth Ellen is a college dropout and the recipient of a Pushcart Prize for fiction. Her stories have been published in Southwest Review, Joyland and Harper’s Magazine. Her first novel, Person/a, was chosen by Literary Hub as a “best work of experimental literature” in 2017. Her Lesser Work and Exit, Carefully are her most recent books.
Rebecca van Laer is a writer based in Kingston, NY. Her work appears in Joyland, TriQuarterly, Electric Literature, Hobart, the Ploughshares blog, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and elsewhere. She holds a PhD from Brown University and can be found on the internet at @rebecca_vanl.