Friday, August 8, 2008

Meet Author Ellen Meister

Interview by Marta Stephens 2008 all rights reserved

MS: Ellen, thanks so much for agreeing to be interviewed. Let me start by asking you to please share with us a little about when you made the decision to become a writer.

EM: As a young teenager, I loved to read and had very romantic notions about what it meant to be writer. Still, my self-image didn't leave room for me to even dream about becoming one myself. Then, in high school, I got a writing assignment from a very difficult and ornery teacher I didn't get along with. I handed in the paper, which was simply a scene between two fictional characters, and got it back with an A and the remark that I had written believable dialogue. It wasn't exactly a rave review, but it lit something in me. I knew the teacher was right—it was believable dialogue. And at that moment it occurred to me that this was something I could do. In fact, it felt as if I had wanted to be a writer all along but had buried the ambition in self-doubt. From there the dream caught fire and took over.

MS: It seems you’ve been drawn to the publishing world from a young age. What from your experience in working for a medical book publisher, literary agency, and various marketing and publicity organizations would you say has influenced your decision to write fiction?

EM: It was really the other way around. The jobs didn't influence me to be a writer. The writing aspirations influenced me to take related jobs.

MS: Your books sound like they’d be great fun to read. How would you describe the genre you write in and what motivated you in that direction?

EM: I never made a conscious decision to write in any particular genre. I just took J.D. Salinger/Seymour Glass's advice to write the story I most wanted to read. In fact, when I wrote SECRET CONFESSIONS OF THE APPLEWOOD PTA, I had no idea I had written mom lit. I never even knew such a thing existed! I was telling agents I had written "a suburban comedy with an ample dose of pathos." What a mouthful! Same holds true for THE SMART ONE. I didn't set out to write "women's fiction" or a murder mystery. I had this sister story I wanted to tell, and the idea of using the discovery of a dead body as the catalyst to the arc of their relationship was fairly organic.

MS: An author’s writing journey is always fascinating. How would you describe yours?

EM: Equal parts hope and fear. It was fear that got me motivated to finally pursue the dream I had my whole adult life. I just awoke one morning with a powerful realization about my own mortality, and understood that time was slipping by. I was terrified at the thought of leaving this planet without ever having taken my shot. So I started. It took two years to write the first novel, nine-months of full-time fretting and sweating to get an agent, and then about another six months of rewriting and submitting to get a publisher. And like I said, fear and hope were my constant companions throughout.

MS: What would you say has been your greatest challenge and your greatest achievement as a writer?

EM: No doubt about it. Getting people to buy the books is the greatest challenge. As hard as it is to write a book, it turns out that's the easy part. I like to think my greatest achievement is the book I'm currently working on!

MS: Do you, as an author, have a main concern?

EM: I'd like to have enough success to be able to continue writing and publishing.

MS: How do you deal with these concerns?

EM: I work like an animal and hope for the best.

MS: I couldn’t agree more with your tactics. Achieving writing success does take an enormous amount of work and dedication. What type of book marketing and promotions do you find most beneficial?

EM: The jury is still out on that. I try everything and it's always an uphill battle. The most important elements for a book's success—distribution and display space—are beyond my control.
MS: What challenges do you see ahead of you?

EM: The book I'm working on right now is a huge departure from what I've done before—much darker and more serious. That could create marketing problems down the road, but we'll see.

MS: When you begin a new project, how do you prepare for it?

EM: I spend a lot of time just living with the idea, developing the characters in my head and scribbling random notes. Eventually, the notes start to look like a plot and I make some feeble attempts at an outline. For me, I can't get very far with an outline until I get a sense of the voice and the pacing. So I write a chapter or two and then go back to the outline, which I eventually ignore anyway! Seriously, my stories usually evolve and stray from the outline, which I think is fine. In my opinion, a writer has to be open to the organic part of the process.

MS: What is your latest book about?

EM: THE SMART ONE is a story about three adult sisters wrestling with their relationship and the labels of childhood. Then they discover a decades-old body stuffed inside an industrial drum under the house next door, and begin a bold, heartbreaking and sometimes hilarious journey that will either bring them together … or tear them apart for good.

MS: Which aspects of the work do you like the least and why? The most and why?

EM: The despair hits when I realize I have to unravel a large chunk of a novel in order to make a change. It's so overwhelming. I start out in a panic thinking there's just no way I can do it. Then I roll up my sleeves and get to work. The best part is when I do something risky in my writing and discover that it works. Woosh! What a rush.

MS: It’s been such a pleasure for me to interview you. Would you please share your thoughts about anything else you’d like to discuss.

EM: Thanks so much, Marta. I'd just like to offer words of encouragement to any aspiring writers out there. I know how tough it is, and how brutal the rejection can be. But try to remember that almost every published author has a long and painful history of rejections. Keep doing what you love.

* * *

Ellen Meister is the author of two novels, THE SMART ONE (Avon A, 8/08) and SECRET CONFESSIONS OF THE APPLEWOOD PTA (Morrow/Avon, 8/06), as well as numerous short stories. In addition to writing, she served as editor for a literary magazine and now does public speaking about her books and other writing-related issues. She lives on Long Island with her husband and three children. You can learn more about Ellen at


Kim Smith said...

Your dilemma with the rewrite is one I have faced also. It was daunting, but not devastating. I am off to your website to see about life in Long Island :) thanks for stopping in, Ellen!

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Wonderful interview, Marta and Ellen. Ellen - thanks for the insight into your journey. Perseverance and hard work are the key. And, I suppose, a bit of talent! Great piece. ;o)

Ellen said...

Thanks for this great interview, Marta! Terrific questions that I enjoyed answering.

Kim and Aaron ... thanks so much for stopping by to comment! Glad you liked the interview, and good luck to both of you ...


Kenna Coltman said...

Great interview, Marta! Ellen, thanks for sharing your journey with us. Best of luck as it continues, hopefully well into the future!

Wasn't it Edison that said invention is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration (maybe it was genius, but I think invention or creation can be substituted with equal efficacy, since genius is not really applicable in my case!).

Anyway, you inspire me to keep slogging at my writing. Thanks so much for being here!

Unknown said...

A very good interview. It is amazing how a single event in a young person's life can have such a profound influence.

Ellen said...

Thanks for commenting, Kenna. And yes, it's a great Edison quote, even paraphrased!!

Chad, so true. Thanks for commenting.