Interview with Jan Ellison
It gives me inexplicable happiness to share an email interview I conducted with Jan Ellison, author of the novel, A Small Indiscretion. Just released in paperback, A Small Indiscretion is a National Bestseller and has been well received by a broad spectrum of reviewers, including Kirkus Reviews, New York Journal of Books, The San Francisco Chronicle and many others.
In Ellison's novel, Annie Black, a wife and mother of three, recounts a series of love affairs from her twenties that are having unexpected and tragic consequences in her family's current day life. The book swells with innumerable pleasures including delicious prose, taut suspense, and the opportunity to spend time in the hearts of original characters. But what puts this novel on my short list of favorites, is Ellison's capacity for empathy. Through her flawed character of Annie Black, Ellison explores our universal longing to be forgiven. So that when Annie says, "I wanted what everyone wants--to be known. To know oneself, and to tell the whole story of that self, and to be loved anyway," it feels as if Ellison is naming the yearning for all of us.
Jan and I met recently at our mutual friend Kristin's 50th Birthday party. I knew Jan's book and I knew of her, but we had never met, and I was too self conscious to ask for an introduction. So it felt like a moment of grace when I realized that the first stranger I introduced myself to at Kristin's party, was Jan, herself. This interview is the continuation of the conversation we started that evening. (Kristin, if you are reading, thank you for including us and setting the stage for a conversation that will go down as one of my favorite I've had the chance to have about writing.)
In person, in this interview, and in her writing, Jan models a way of making art that inspires me. While I'm not sure she would say that writing is her spiritual practice, the things she says about writing remind me of qualities that I have come to associate with spiritual practice--the importance of habit, the way that the act of engaging (rather than the product of the engagement) is what matters (I'm reminded of the line from Wendell Berry, "everyday do something that won't compute") and that when "her writing mind runs the show" she is closer to the person she is "meant to be in the world."
Discussing writing with Jan has uplifted me as a writer and as a human being. I hope you'll feel the same. If you enjoy this interview, please consider sharing it. Jan offers hard won writer's wisdom, and her book is so worthy of people’s time.
What led you to write A Small Indiscretion? Is it true that you kept a journal of a year abroad when you were 19? What role did the notes play?
When I was 19, I took a year off college and spent 3 months in Paris, then moved to London and found a job in an office and a room in a boarding house. I filled notebooks with bits of poems and stories, and with observations about my new surroundings. The writing in those notebooks is not very good at all, but the act of putting words on the page was important. It became a habit, and the habit in turn altered the way I walked through my days. I made word sketches of people I saw on the street. I wrote down bits of dialog. I leapt out of my own skin and began to experience the world as a source of stories and inspiration. I became not only a participant in my own life, but an observer of others’ lives.
The genesis of A Small Indiscretion came from a particular memory from the day I turned 20. It was just a few weeks after I’d arrived in London. I called my mother from a red phone booth across the street from the youth hostel where I was staying. This was before cell phones and the Internet, and it struck me after I’d hung up that my mother had no way to reach me, and neither did anybody else. I was alone in the world for the first time. This feeling was new, and I treasured it. Two decades later, it was that particular feeling I was trying to capture—the freedom to experience the world in an entirely private way.
Motherhood and family life are so present in the novel, and you're the mother of four children. What's the relationship like between motherhood and writing in your life? How does motherhood influence your writing?
I write about motherhood because it has been the most profound experience of my life, and it has shaped my world view. But also because I’ve struggled with its demands. I’ve had difficulties balancing raising a family with the need not only for time to write, but for time to experience the world independently, as I did when I was young. To digest its offerings fully and without interruption, which every writer needs.
I started to write just a few months after I became a stay-at-home mom, so the two pursuits have always gone hand in hand. Which is to say I’ve never really been a writer and not also been a mother, and vice versa. In the beginning, I couldn't work it out: Was I meant to feel guilty when I was writing, or when I was not writing? When I was ignoring my children or when I was turning away from what might turn out to be my only real talent? Was I first and foremost a mother, or first and foremost a writer?
Like other mothers I know who write, I seemed to be first and foremost a writer in my mental wanderings, but in the actual physical motion of the day, in the bulk of the hours, I was a mother. And so the writing, for the first decade or so, was a guilty retreat, the thing I slunk off to as if to a lover.
After I started to publish stories, and especially since my novel came out a year ago, that dynamic has shifted. If I was desperate in the early years to escape the demands of family life into writing, I find that sometimes, now, I want to escape the demands of being an author to plop down on the couch and watch a movie with my kids.
When did you know that you wanted to become a writer? When did that wanting shift into a deeper commitment to a writer's life? What changed?
I had dabbled in writing during that year in Europe, and again after college, during a two-year stint abroad. But at 22, when I came back to the States, the last thing I wanted to do was try to be a writer. What I wanted to do was make some money.
So I found a job with a financial software startup, and I didn’t write creatively for 7 years. Then when I was 33 and my second child was born, I quit the job, and that very same day, signed up for a writing class. I can’t say that I ever decided I wanted to become a writer, but on the first day of that first class, I gave in to the compulsion to write, and I’ve been doing it more-or-less steadily ever since.
What are you reading right now? What few books or collections have made the biggest impact on you as a writer?
Lately, I’ve been drawn toward intimate narratives that offer a deep exploration of domestic subjects. A few novels in that vein: Robin Black’s Life Drawing, Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, and Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs.
In terms of my development as a writer, Alice Munro is probably the single writer whose work has most influenced me. I’ve read most of what she’s written, certainly all of her earlier work, much of it more than once. There is a discipline in her writing, a precision in the way she describes how people think and feel. She doesn’t flinch. She doesn’t look away. She doesn’t apologize or moralize. She allows her characters the most outrageous longings and impulses, yet it all feels very much like real life. She’s a master of that blend of authenticity and surprise that I want to strive for in my own work.
Cheryl Strayed says success in the arts is measured very differently than in other endeavors. Your writing has been successful by any measure. Over the years of becoming a writer, how have you defined success for yourself? And how has that changed as you've earned recognition for your work, for example with the O. Henry Prize and then the successful publication of A Small Indiscretion?
At every step of the way, I set goals for myself, ways to measure my success, but they were achievable goals—they were under my control.
Finish a first draft of one short story.
Apply to an MFA program.
Polish one story to submit to the student magazine.
Send work out to literary journals.
Collect 100 rejection letters.
Finish your novel.
What I see, now, is that setting these sorts of goals forced me to engage with my work again and again. To revise and reshape and cut and reimagine. To toss out and begin again, then submit again. It took me 5 years to write and publish my first short story, The Company of Men, which went on to win an O. Henry Prize. That was a hugely lucky break, and it jump-started my writing career. But I view the success as the relentless revising and submitting, not winning the prize.
It took me 8 years to write A Small Indiscretion, and I’m proud of myself for having fought through the doubt and despair to finish it. I’m happy about how quickly it was sold, and how well it’s done. But what happens after you’ve published a book is not a measure of its success; writing it is. Because no matter how many accolades a book receives, no matter how many copies it sells, there is always a book that has done better. There is always a list it missed, or a prize it didn’t win, or a reader who didn’t like it. It’s easy to become discouraged, to begin to measure your work, and yourself, in only these terms. It’s sometimes tempting to turn away from the writing entirely because of the difficult business of having that writing out in the world. But it’s the act of writing, of making art, that matters, not what others think of it, not even what we think of it, ourselves.
As Martha Graham puts it:
“No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching . . .”
What, if anything, has writing taught you, that carries over into other aspects of your life? Are there any habits or routines you keep as a writer that support you in your life in general? In what ways does writing impact your well-being?
I love this question. I’ve been thinking about this a lot, lately, thinking about how important writing is to my well-being.
Last Friday, I took my daughters to a concert at the Fox Theater in Oakland. We didn’t have time to grab dinner beforehand, so we decided we’d eat at the Theater, but we got there to find one guy making grilled cheese sandwiches, one woman taking orders, and a line fifty people long.
We got in line, and my blood began to boil. I was furious at the theater for not lining up more food options. I was furious with the grilled cheese guy for not hiring extra help. I was furious with myself for wasting time being furious.
Then I took a deep breath, and remembered I was a writer. I began to consider the Grilled Cheese Guy as a source of material instead of frustration, and gradually, my fury turned to curiosity. What was the story? How had this barrel-chested, big-armed man ended up here, slapping cheese on sourdough bread while his assistant fumbled with the credit card machine? What could be gleaned from his posture, his facial expressions, his tattoos, about the internal workings of his mind and heart? What did it mean for him when he had to announce to the hungry crowd that he’d run out of bread?
To answer the question: When I let my writing mind run the show, I’m more calm, more curious, more alive, more receptive to humor and joy and tragedy and beauty. I’m closer to the person I was meant to be in the world.