Ellen Meister is rapidly on her way to literary stardom. Her debut novel, GEORGE CLOONEY IS COMING TO APPLEWOOD is due for a 2006 release from Morrow/Avon. It tells the story of three women whose lives are thrown together when Hollywood announces plans to film a movie in their children's schoolyard. A suburban resident of Long Island herself, this is a world that Meister is quite intimate with. And the book promises ample doses of pathos and humor. But does George Clooney actually make an appearance in it? I guess we'll have to pick it up to find out, but I have a feeling that even if he does, the real stars of this novel will be her leading ladies: Lisa, Ruth, and Maddie.
Ellen is also very well published with short fiction, much of which can be found on the web. Often gravitating between funny and heartwrenching, you won't be sure what "type" of story you'll be reading because of her range and diversity. But you will always be riveted and blown away by the end of it. A short sampling:
"Back To Sleep" , "Mrs. Esserman's Eggs", "Blue Shirt" "Womb-o-matic" "A Crack in the Foundation", "Tighter Abs in Six Weeks".
1) Who are some of your favorite writers, and how do you think they've influenced you?
I once met a man who called himself a writer and said he didn’t read any fiction because it might influence him, and he wanted all his work to be original. I’ve since learned that he’s not alone, that there are other writers who feel this way.
I’m sorry, but this is one of the most idiotic things I’ve ever heard. Every single damn thing I read makes me a better writer in some way. And it doesn’t make my work derivative. I do pick things up, but only the things that make sense to me. I suspect it works the same way for all writers.
I guess this is my way of saying I’m influenced by all of them. My favorites? It depends when you ask me, as that shifts, but Richard Russo, J.D. Salinger and Richard Yates are staples, which probably sounds odd coming from a writer of (ostensibly) popular women’s fiction. The long list of others at various times includes Steve Almond, Melissa Bank, Jennifer Crusie, Mary Gordon, John Irving, Susan Isaacs, Wally Lamb, Ann Lamott, Elinor Lipman, Elisabeth Robinson, Tim Sandlin, Maryanne Stahl, Jennifer Weiner and Lolly Winston, to name just a few off the top of my head.
2) What do you think is your greatest strength or asset in your writing? Your biggest weakness or flaw?
My greatest strength might be keeping the reader engaged. I tap dance my little heart out to entertain. I’m also told I’ve got a pretty good ear for dialogue.
Weakness? Probably descriptions. I don’t particularly like reading long descriptions, so I don’t write them, and probably wouldn’t be very good at it if I did.
3) You've written novels and short stories. Which would you like to focus on in the future?
Novels. I don’t even have to think about that.
4) "George Clooney and Other Secret Longings of the Applewood PTA" tells the story of three suburban women and their secret lives. How did you initially come up with the different plot-lines? Was it like a flash where it all came to you, or was a it a slow simmer where the different aspects all came together? When you set out to write your first novel, was it important to you to focus on female leads, or did it just progress that way?
Such good questions wrapped into one! First off, I only just found out that the legal department at HarperCollins pulled the plug on the title—I’m not allowed to use George Clooney’s name. I’ve been frantically brainstorming on new titles all week, and my current frontrunner is Secret Confessions of the Applewood PTA. I haven’t yet heard whether my editor likes it, so it’s up in the air.
Anyway, I’m in awe of people who say they get the ideas for their novels like a bolt from the blue. Nothing like that has ever happened to me. I get a germ of an idea—sometimes it doesn’t even wind up being the main plot point. Some tiny thought just gets lodged in my head and I decide I have to explore it further.
For this novel, I was immersed in the PTA at the same time that I made the life-altering decision that I was going to start writing a novel, which I had wanted to do my whole life. I had so many feelings about being a part of this complicated group of women with all its strange dynamics, that I wanted to explore it in a book. At the time, there were no thoughts about whether or not this would be a marketable concept. I just wanted to write a book I felt like reading.
From there I struggled to come up with something central that could happen to these women, something big that would affect the whole PTA, and each of them personally. There’s a local woman I know who’s a location scout for movies and TV commercials, and that stimulated the idea of bringing a movie—and a big, sexy Hollywood star—to their town.
The only organic part of the process was that it was clear from the beginning that there would be three female protagonists. I’m not sure why that was so evident, but there you have it. I did struggle to develop personalities and backgrounds for these women. I wanted at least one of them to be someone who left behind a serious professional career to raise her children, so I made Maddie an ex-attorney. Each character had to have a conflict so she could ultimately have an arc, and I gave Maddie a troubled marriage. But I didn’t want her husband to be an insensitive jerk or a womanizer or anything that typical, as it turns me off that so many writers are quick to make the man the bad guy and the woman faultless. So I created a couple who are just out of synch. She’s tremendously emotionally-needy, and he’s too caught up in his work to wrap her in assurances. They do love each other, but have forgotten how it works.
Since I’m from Long Island, I wanted at least one “Jappy” character—someone rich with gawdy tastes in hair, clothes, jewelry, the works. But it was important that she have something huge and painful in her life that wasn’t evident on the surface at PTA meetings. So I gave her a husband who became disabled from a stroke. To temper the sadness with humor, I gave him brain damage that makes him sexually uninhibited and unaware that he’s impotent. He has a tendency to ask strange women for sex.
As this character is loud and brash, so I wanted my third to be shy and a bit timid. She was the most difficult one for me to write, as her personality traits are furthest from my own. I had to work the hardest relating to her and understanding her pain. I even wrote a full short story about her before even starting the book, just to get to know her better.
I guess this my 500-word way of saying that it was indeed a slow simmer.
5) From reading a lot of your short fiction, I notice that you're very adept at delving into both emotionally wrenching territory, and just as talented at a "lighter" touch with bursts of charming humor. Do you try to balance out your work this way? And also, which do think is more "serious" and/or difficult when it comes to writing: drama or humor?
Thanks, Susan. I do like to switch back and forth between pathos and humor, as they’re equally interesting to write.
For the most part, I would say that humor is much more difficult to write. The timing is so critical that it has to be set up perfectly to work. And of course, there are times I know a funny line is called for, and I have bubkes (nothing). Worst case scenario, I walk away from my computer and crack my head against a wall until a joke jars loose.
The novel I’m working on now has a character who’s a comedy writer and has a joke for everything. Why did I do this to myself? I go crazy making him funny.
6) Stock question: Dinner with anyone, dead or alive. Who is it?
Hm. Physicist Richard Feynman, maybe. Or John Lennon. Maybe Groucho Marx? Might be fun to pour gin for Dorothy Parker, get her to dish on the Algonquin Round Table. I can’t decide.
7) One CD, one book, one DVD and a desert island. What book, CD, and DVD do you take?
Wait, I’m stuck on a desert island and you want me to think books and music? You give me too much credit. Couldn’t I just take George Clooney? Or if he’s not available, Steve Hansen?
8) Other than fiction writing, what's the biggest lie you ever told?
“I couldn’t eat another thing.”
9) You can't have both: Would you rather have respect from your peers and critical acclaim (but not making cash from writing), or would you rather be a bestselling author with the fat coin?
Best selling. I’d rather appeal to readers than to critics.
10) You get a bonus question, because much like your writing in how you combine drama and comedy, you combine two of the most revered traits. So which do you think has served you better over the years: Your beauty or your brains?
That’s the most flattering question ever! Honestly, I didn’t grow up feeling beautiful OR brainy. I was a strange and lonely kid, with self-esteem stuck at zero. In high school I started to write, and I was pretty good. It was then that it occurred to me that maybe I wasn’t such an idiot after all. That’s what helped pick me up and start seeing myself in a different light. By the time I went away to college, the glow of self-confidence was just starting to show. It was then that people—guys, anyway—first reacted to me as an attractive woman.
So the answer is brains. It all starts and ends inside our heads, doesn’t it?