Bookpleasures welcomes as our guest writer, reader, teacher, mother, wife, and Dorothy Parker fan, Ellen Meister. Ellen is the author of Dorthy Parker Drank Here (Putnam 2015), Farewell Dorothy Parker (Putnam 2013), The Other Life (Putnam 2011), The Smart One (HarperCollins 2008) and Secret Confessions of the Applewood PTA (HarperCollins 2006), as well as numerous essays and short stories. Ellen teaches creative writing at Hofstra University Continuing Education, mentors emerging authors, lectures on Dorothy Parker and the Algonquin Round Table, and does public speaking about her books and other writing-related topics.
Norm: Good day Ellen and thanks for participating in our interview.
What do you think is the future of reading/writing?
Ellen: The sad irony of the digital revolution is that it has produced more writers and less readers. And yet I'm hopeful that the pendulum will swing in favor of literacy. This is yet another bi-product of the digital revolution—it's now cool to be a nerd, and young people are taking pride in their intelligence. So we may yet see a resurgence in the love of reading.
Norm: In your opinion, what is the most difficult part of the writing process?
Ellen: For me it's story.
Once I know what I want to write about, I can crack my knuckles and
get to work. I'm not saying the scenes come easily to me, but
figuring out what happens and why is the part that always drives me
Norm: What do you think most characterizes your writing?
Ellen: My goal is to be compelling and entertaining on every page, while crafting each sentence with as much artistry as I can. It's up to the reader to decide whether I have succeeded.
Norm: What did you find most useful in learning to write? What was least useful or most destructive?
Ellen: Reading is the most important tool/teacher/muse for any writer. I learn something from every book I read. In my opinion, if you don't read, you don't get to call yourself a writer. It's a fundamental part of the process.
I'm not sure what's most destructive, but I recently read an article in the Wall Street Journal about elementary school teachers forbidding their young students to use simple words like "good," bad," "fun" and "said," in favor of fancier vocabulary, as if it's always better to write "he beseeched emphatically" than "he said." I wish I could swoop in and save those poor students.
Norm: Do you write more by logic or intuition, or some combination of the two? Summarize your writing process.
Ellen: I suppose it's all of the above. My process is to pay attention to the stray thoughts that flit through my mind, no matter how absurd. The ideas that keep coming back to visit are the ones I begin to examine for a possible book. They usually live in my head for quite a while before I write a single word.
My next step is to start making notes about the story. Who is the main character and what do they want that they cannot have? What will lead them on their journey? What is the narrative arc? What is the character arc? Once the answers begin to emerge, I try to write the first couple of chapters, to get a sense of the story's voice and pace. Then I begin to create a rough outline, which remains a fluid document throughout the writing of the book.
Norm: What is your role in the writing community?
Ellen: For several years I've been teaching creative writing to continuing education students at Hofstra University on Long Island. I also work one-on-one with writers as a mentor and coach. Helping these writers has been a source of tremendous fulfillment for me!
Norm: What process did you go through to get your books published?
Ellen: My books are published traditionally, so I have a literary agent who handles that end of things. I hope that doesn't make it sound too simple. Getting a literary agent was one of the hardest things I've ever done.
Norm: How did you become involved with the subject or theme of Dorothy Parker Drank Here and Farewell, Dorothy Parker?
Ellen: I've been a Dorothy Parker fan my whole life. I think she was the greatest American literary wit of the twentieth century, a pithy poet who understood heartbreak, and a brilliant short story writer.
The idea for resurrecting her as a fictional character was the result of noticing how many books pay homage to another of my favorite authors, Jane Austen. As soon as the idea entered my head, I had a vision of Dorothy Parker sitting in an easy chair in a modern woman's living room, offering her brand of sharp and searing advice. The story for the first book took off from there.
Norm: What were your goals and intentions in these books, and how well do you feel you achieved them?
Ellen: I had two goals: to entertain the reader, and to pay responsible tribute to Dorothy Parker. You see, many people know her only for her scathing wit, and don't know about the pain beneath it, nor her dedication to social causes. So it was important to me to portray her as a full person, while crafting an engaging story with heart and wit. I'm proud of the final product.
Norm: What are some of the references that you used while researching these books?
Ellen: I read biographies about Parker and her contemporaries. But the most important references were Parker's own stories, essays and letters. Those were the places I visited to hear her voice so that I could accurately capture it.
Norm: What did you enjoy most about writing these books?
Ellen: There were moments when Dorothy Parker's voice came through to me so strongly I almost felt as if I were taking dictation. That's about as close to rapture as I get!
Norm: What would you like to say to writers who are reading this interview and wondering if they can keep creating, if they are good enough, if their voices and visions matter enough to share?
Ellen: I would tell them there isn't a writer in the world who doesn't experience these doubts. Not a good writer, anyway. That insecurity keeps us working, honing, revising and improving. It's part of the process. The best we can do is accept it and understand that we need to get back to work and hope tomorrow will be better.
Norm: Where can our readers find out more about you and your books?
Norm: What is next for Ellen Meister?
Ellen: I'm working on a new project that I hope will intrigue a publisher. I'll be sure to tweet about it if I have some exciting news to share.
Norm: As this interview comes to an end, what question do you wish that someone would ask about your book, but nobody has?
Ellen: People don't ask if I was intimidated by the task of trying to capture Dorothy Parker's voice. In fact, I was terrified! But once the idea came to me I was compelled ... and so I pushed past the fear. In the end, I'm so glad I did.
Norm: Thanks once again and good luck with all of your future endeavors.