Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Author Interview: Ellen Meister

Last week I reviewed The Other Life by Ellen Meister.  This week we are pleased to bring you a Q & A we had with Ms. Meister. 

GJR:  Have you wished for a fissure into another life?  If so, what would your other life be?

Ellen Meister (EM):  Indeed. I think that's why I write fiction—it's the ultimate escape into another life. And in fact, that was exactly what sparked the idea for THE OTHER LIFE. I was sitting alone in the quiet house, ready to slip through my metaphorical escape hatch, when I wondered what would happen if a married, suburban mom like me had an actual portal that led her to the life she would have had if she never got married and had kids. The idea gave me such a rush that I knew right away it had the potential to become a book.

As far as my own "other life, I suppose it would be the opposite of my busy, suburban, child-centered existence. But instead of a high drama single life in Manhattan like my character, I have a romantic vision of The Writer's Life that includes a small house in the woods somewhere in New England. I'd live alone and have a big dog, a few cats, a wood-burning stove and several well-worn cardigans.

GJR:  Depression is something very difficult to read let alone write, how hard was it for you to write a character that wrestles with that darkness? 

EM:  You're right that it can be very difficult. In fact, I had to go to a dark place in order to find Nan's despair. But while it was emotionally challenging to write, there was something gratifying about digging deep enough to find right language to convey the emotion. And of course, there's a big, comfortable gap between clinical depression and the kind of imaginary place I went to find my character.

GJR: I loved the way you described the Quinn Deconstructed paintings.  Do you paint?  Where does your love of art come from?

EM: Thanks! I do wish I had the talent to paint, but I don't. I am, however, grateful to my parents for exposing me to art at a young age. They were collectors, in their own way, and had a passion for "naïve" painting. So growing up, I understood there was more to art than capturing reality. It was a wonderful place to start and I only grew to appreciate art more and more.

GJR:  Something about Nan drew me to her.  I want to know how she went from the carefree girl in the painting to the woman cloaked in darkness.  Any plans for a Nan prequel? 

EM:  I'm so glad you were drawn to Nan. Right now, I have no plans to write more about her, but I certainly haven't shut the door on it. Of course, I would only visit the idea of writing a prequel or a sequel if I got an idea I fell in love with as much as I did with the story in THE OTHER LIFE.

GJR:  What motivates you to write?  How do you overcome the dreaded writer’s block?

EM:  It's terrible to admit, but I think that fear has always been a big motivating factor for me. It was fear about my own mortality that got me to finally stop procrastinating and pursue my dream of writing a novel. Now I'm so deep into it I don't think I could stop even if I wanted to!

As far as writer's block, I don't allow myself that indulgence. I approach writing as a job, and that means putting my butt in the seat every day and getting to work. If I don't know where a particular scene is going or I'm  having problems figuring out the direction of a story, I open up a Word document and start making notes—asking myself questions about all the different things that could happen. Eventually, the answers emerge.

GJR:  Are you working on a new novel?  If so, what is the premise?

EM:  Yes, I'm working on a novel called about a timid woman movie critic whose life is changed in all kinds of unexpected ways when she is visited by the ghost of her idol, Dorothy Parker.  The working title is FAREWELL, DOROTHY PARKER.

GJR:  Who are your favorite authors? Why?

EM: My favorite authors are those who explore the relationships between people in new and surprising ways, and whose affection for their characters—despite their flaws—goes directly from the page to my heart. It's a long, ever-changing list, but some constants include Richard Russo, Richard Yates, Elinor Lipman, Steve Almond, Susan Isaacs, Harper Lee, Maya Angelou, Alice Hoffman, John Irving, Mary Gordon, E.L. Doctorow, Jane Austen, Jonathan Franzen and J.D. Salinger.

GJR:  What are you currently reading?

EM:  A beautifully-written and thoroughly enchanting debut novel by Liz Michalski called EVENFALL

GJR:  When you write, do you have total quiet or background noise? Has this changed over the years? 

EM: I do my best writing in the morning. And I know a lot of writers love to listen to music as they work, but I find it distracting. I prefer the quiet—perhaps some white noise to drown out distractions.

I think I've always needed a quiet environment to write. I spent many years of my career as a marketing copywriter, and some of my employers thought it was fine to situate the copywriter in a cubicle right in the center of the action. This drove me mad. Even when I was writing sales promotion copy, I needed quiet to concentrate.
GJR:  How do you decide to whom to dedicate a novel?

EM:  Ah, one of the hardest things!! I always want to dedicate my books to someone I love and cherish, and I'm fortunate enough to have a big and wonderful list to choose from. The problem is narrowing it down …

GJR:  Something different:  I (Alice) have a love affair with Long Island.   If I were to plan a weekend getaway, where should I stay? What should I see?

EM:  So glad you love Long Island! Most people who come here want to see the Hamptons and Montauk Point. And I certainly wouldn't discourage anyone from visiting those beautiful places. But please be sure to make a stop at Jones Beach, which I think has the most glorious light in the world!

Thanks again to Ms. Meister for taking the time to answer our questions. 

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