Helen Ellis is as surprised as anyone at the success she’s having with her short story collection American Housewife.
“I’m sure you know my back story,” she says politely when we meet for this interview, and yes, it’s been hard to miss since heavyweights such as The New York Times and Vogue have run recent profiles of the pretty, petite Manhattaner who originally hailed from Alabama. Now in her mid-40s, American Housewife is the second book Ellis has had published, but she’s got another three in the bottom drawer, the output of years of hard work and unhappiness as she tried to write – or, more importantly, sell – that tricky second novel.
Back in 1998, not long out of graduate school and working as a secretary at Chanel, Ellis sold her debut, Eating the Cheshire Cat. It was published by Scribner in the US and Virago here in the UK, did pretty well, selling forty or fifty thousand copies, she tells me, and was reviewed very favourably, but the follow-up proved much harder than she’d imagined: “I kept writing books that never got published, so after the third one I thought, Well this is just no fun, so I quit.”
The “no fun” could sound affected coming from anyone else, but Ellis is charm personified. She’s exactly what my mind’s eye conjures up when I think of Southern gentility: beautifully polite and elegantly dressed – “I’m all-American maid from top to bottom,” she says with a girlish giggle when I compliment her on her outfit.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I should confess that we talked over vodka martinis in true ‘ladies who lunch’ style (although technically it was early evening), which has to be one of the most civilised accompaniments to any interview I’ve conducted. Though it also means we end up off the record – on both our behalves – rather sooner than anticipated. Not that I’m complaining, in fact I’m seriously considering making copious amounts of chilled vodka my go-to interview beverage from now on.
On first glance American Housewife fits into that current obsession with all things domestically retro, but sedition is very much the name of the game.”
‘What I Do All Day’, the first piece in Ellis’s collection, is a witty take on the day-in-the-life of the proverbial American housewife:
“Inspired by Beyoncé, I stallion-walk to the toaster. I show my husband a burnt spot that looks like the island where we honeymooned, kiss him good-bye, and tell him what time to be home for our party.”
You get the picture: more E.M. Delafield’s Provincial Lady with a salon-perfect blow-dry and manicure than Clarissa Dalloway. Ellis took the opening line from a Tweet she posted on her then anonymous Twitter account @WhatIDoAllDay – the public’s introduction to the voice that’s met with such acclaim since the book’s publication.
On first glance American Housewife fits into that current obsession with all things domestically retro, but sedition is very much the name of the game. A violent, bloody war breaks out between two neighbours over their shared hallway in one of Manhattan’s chic Upper East Side co-ops; a new recruit to a book club is being groomed as a potential surrogate for a barren member; another co-op-dwelling housewife murders a succession of the building’s doormen in order to help her husband retain his power as chairman of the residents’ committee; and a lady novelist is sponsored by Tampax. In many ways the stories are like Ellis herself – not that I’m suggesting she’s a potentially violent psychopath, though I am thinking sponsorship from Tampax would be something of a stoke of genius! – what I mean is that there’s a lot going on beneath the surface.
Ellis proudly proclaims herself a housewife, and as I quickly learn when I make a faux pas, there’s no ‘just’ about it. It’s how she introduces herself to people, being easier all round, she explains, not only because it’s the truth, but “it gives me a great sense of privacy because people don’t tend to ask anything after that.”
For women today success, happiness and fulfillment is more often than not synonymous with ‘having it all’. The Holy Grail is marriage, motherhood and a career. As such, ‘housewife’ is something of a loaded term; not heard as often as in the past, and rarely a role that’s celebrated.
“You have to look past it to get to know me,” Ellis explains. “In the same way that in the book you have to read past the first story, ‘What I Do All Day’. It’s a silly story really, I mean, it’s moving and I love it, but you have to read past it in order to see deeper, darker stories like ‘Dead Doormen’, ‘The Fitter’ [about a woman dying of breast cancer who, despite her jealousy, is trying to set up her husband, an expert bra fitter, with a new wife to look after him after she’s gone] or ‘My Novel is Brought to You By the Good People at Tampax’. In the same way you have to get past my label of ‘housewife’ in order to see the deeper, darker Mrs Haris.”
Ellis might be breezy and giggling now, but the eighteen years between books clearly weren’t a barrel of laughs. After the publication of Eating the Cheshire Cat – when she was 29 – she had the same grand ambitions of any young novelist. She wanted to write “the perfect, prize-winning book.”
“I wanted to be Toni Morrison. I wanted to be Stephen King. I wanted to be Ann Patchett, and apparently I’m not any of those people.”
Having toiled away for six years on a second novel that she couldn’t sell, followed by attempts at another two after that, she eventually gave up and stopped writing completely for two years. By this point she’d also given up her job so I’m forced to ask the question that clearly haunts her. What did she do then?
“I decided to have my mid-life crisis,” she replies with a smile, “and it was so fun!”
Ellis’s particular mid-life crisis involved playing a lot of poker – she’s been playing since her father took her to Vegas when she was 21, and on the professional circuit for the past ten years where’s she’s been called the ‘giggling assassin’ – and training the novelist Colson Whitehead in the game, who then wrote about her in his book The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death. She also threw a lot of charity events, becoming, as she puts it, “quite the patron of the arts.” For anyone who’s read the collection, this will ring a bell since one of the stories is titled ‘How to be a Patron of the Arts’.
“That was the story that set me back on the writing path,” she explains. “I’d been tweeting privately via the @WhatIDoAllDay handle, and I thought, I’m going to write a story about what I do.”
Although there’s what she describes as a “seed of truth” in each and every one of the stories, ‘How to be a Patron of the Arts’ is the “rawest and closest to the truth of the collection.”
The actual form, short stories, was definitely a new move for Ellis, as although she’d got into graduate school on the basis of some she’d written at the time – twenty-odd years ago now – she’d been writing or trying to write novels ever since. Changing form turned out to be a complete revelation.
It’s like making a little Rice Krispie square as opposed to a twelve-layer wedding cake. If I write another book I can’t imagine it not being short stories.”
“My girlfriend used to tell me, I wish you’d just write short stories, but I wanted to write serious novels. Now, twenty years later, I realise that she was right because they’ve been really easy for me, not to mention given me such instant gratification. It’s like making a little Rice Krispie square as opposed to a twelve-layer wedding cake. If I write another book I can’t imagine it not being short stories. I just want to be the lady George Saunders, the pretty George Saunders.
“And that’s another thing that’s been surprising, fifteen years ago you would never sell a short story collection without a novel in hand, so the fact I sold this in a one-book deal without the promise of a novel is just gravy. And I have to tell you that ‘for a short story collection’ is the new ‘for your age’, as in: ‘It’s a fantastic book, for a short story collection,’ or, ‘It’s selling great, for a short story collection,’ like ‘You look great, for your age.’”
This intrigues me. Ellis is talking about short stories as something of a fallback option. Not in that they aren’t a valid form in their own right, but more in the way that they weren’t her first choice; that she came to them after a certain amount of failure, and, from what she’s saying, they’ve been so much easier and more manageable to work with. And, despite the huge success she’s had with them – the book has just sold to Italy and France, and she’s on her way to Perth Writers Festival in Australia when she leaves London – she clearly doesn’t regard them as the ‘serious’ fiction she originally wanted to write. The irony here, of course, is that they’ve been received so positively. None other than Margaret Atwood chose the collection as one of her two best books of the year in the Guardian before Christmas, for example. And the stories have been claimed in many quarters as contemporary feminist anthems. So all the evidence suggests that Ellis has produced work that’s not just entertaining, not simply well written, but that also conveys a serious message, even if it is packaged in pretty paper with a bow on top. There are plenty of adjectives that could be used to describe the collection – horrifying, gleeful and hilarious to name a few – but earnest is most definitely not one of them.
Having gobbled up the book in the space of one short sitting, I was thrilled to hear she’s already got some ideas for stories for a follow-up collection, and she gives me a tantalising teaser in the form of titles such as ‘So, Your Gay Husband’s Divorcing You’, ‘House Arrest’ – about a woman who lives next door to a Julian Assange type with whom she strikes up a relationship, and ‘Party Pooper’ – the account of a woman who takes another woman’s party hostage.
“Novels are hard!” Ellis exclaims with mock upset. “The reception for this book has been so nice and surprising I don’t know why I’d do anything to break what’s working. I can write American Housewives plural. Look at John Updike’s Rabbit books!”
So she isn’t worried about being pigeonholed?
“That’s what happened first time round,” she says frankly. “I’ve had such failure since then that I have no fear anymore. I’m just going to write what comes to me and I’m not going to worry about it, and I’m not going to get wrapped up in writing something I think people want to read, which is what happened during those years in my 20s, so we’ll see.
“When I started writing again my biggest dream was this much money” – she brings her thumb and finger together to mean barely anything – “a reputable house, and just to see print again. And so everything, and I mean everything, since the day it was bought, has been gravy! And Margaret Atwood’s comments, well, you just cannot burst my bubble!”
So as an older, wiser and apparently much more laid back writer this time round, what advice would she give her younger self if she could go back in time, or what advice would she offer to younger authors writing today?
“Well, while writing this book I just thought, It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be pretty. Don’t get caught up in it – it’s like in the story when the woman from Tampax tells the writer to stop wasting her time researching guns: ‘To write a book, all you got to do is write “The gun went bang-bang”, and leave it alone.’ – all you have to do is get through the story: beginning, middle and end.
“That said,” she adds, “I would never have listened to myself when I was younger. When we’re in our 20s we think we know better, and that’s how we get stuff done! I’m surrounded by 20-something-year-old women in this journey, and they are beasts! I’m just running with the millennials – like the bulls – one day at a time. When I was in my 20s I was never hungrier, never more driven, and I recognise it and I trust it so I’ve put myself in their hands. They think they know better, and to a certain degree they probably do!”
Helen Ellis’s stories have been published in online and print journals including The Rumpus, The Normal School, Hayden’s Ferry Review and Five Chapters. American Housewife is published by Scribner UK in hardback, eBook and audio download. Read more.
Author portrait c/o Simon & Schuster
Read the story ‘Take it from cats‘ from American Housewife
Lucy Scholes is a contributing editor to Bookanista and a literary critic and book reviewer for publications including the Daily Beast, the Independent, the Observer, BBC Culture and the TLS. She also teaches courses at Tate Modern, Tate Britain, the BFI and Waterstones Piccadilly.