"The Best Way to Know a Story": An Interview with Elizabeth Ellen

Elizabeth Ellen was born in the Midwest and will die in the Midwest. Her collection Fast Machine is available here.

Her story "Xenia, ----" appears in Issue Thirty-One of The Collagist.

Here, she speaks with interviewer Joseph Scapellato about retellings, rewriting retellings, and story collections that read like novels and feel like memoirs.  Enjoy!

“Xenia, ----”—a stand-alone work in its own right—is also a retelling of Blake Butler’s “Smoke House.”  What about “Smoke House” moved you to retell it, and what were you shooting for in your retelling?  It’d be wonderful to hear about your approach.

Well, I’ve known Blake for years. He’s one of my oldest writer friends. And I actually accepted “Smoke House” for Hobart back in ’08. Then in ’09, when Scorch Atlas was released, he asked a handful of writers, myself included, to remix stories from the collection, and I chose “Smoke House.” But I was never really happy with my version. It was in first person and pretty obvious and flowery and dramatic and overly sentimental. So I decided to rewrite it for Fast Machine, as I still felt some odd attachment to it and to “Smoke House.” It was actually the last story I completed before we went to print. It took a lot longer than I’d anticipated because I ended up starting from scratch, changing it to third person, completely retelling it. I think my attachment to it had something to do with being an only child and having always wanted an older brother. And even though Blake’s a few years younger than I am, I’ve always felt some sort of fraternal (or sororal? Is that the female equivalent?) attachment to him.

Having read “Smoke House” some time ago, I immediately re-read it after reading “Xenia, ----.”  I love the way these pieces participate in one another’s worlds, the way they enrich each other.  What did you discover about “Smoke House” through retelling it that you didn’t know before?  Do you think that retelling is the best way to “know” a story? 

I definitely think retelling, though a much longer and more arduous process than simply reading, is the best way to know a story. (Must be similar to typing out a novel, as Hunter S. Thompson famously did with The Great Gatsby, something I’ve always meant to do. Not Gatsby necessarily, but a novel. So far I have only typed out Carver’s “Why Don’t You Dance.”) I don’t know how many times I read “Smoke House;” a lot. But at some point I had to set that story aside and work from memory to tell my own.

The discovery I made was based on this sentence from “Smoke House:” “The daughter had begun to convince herself that this was all her fault.” I think “Smoke House” is much more centered on the mother, and her obsession with the son, and in “Xenia, ----“ we come to find out the daughter harbored her own obsession, that she and her brother had this whole sort of secret world together of which the parents were either unaware or turned away from.

The word “xenia” is Greek for “foreign” or “strange”—the root of the word “xenophobic.”  It’s also a town in Ohio.  How did or didn’t any of this play into your decision to title this work, to include the “----”?

That’s interesting, the definition. I didn’t know that. I definitely had Xenia, Ohio in mind at some point while writing this. I’m from Ohio, so I have the ingrained or learned fear of tornadoes, had heard the story of Xenia being wiped out in the seventies. And I think Gummo is set in Xenia, Ohio, and for some reason, I kept thinking of Gummo while writing this. But then when it came to titling the story, I didn’t want it to be so obvious. I wanted the reader to make his or her own decisions when it came to place, to not be so limited to the Midwest or Ohio.

One of the things I admire about this piece is the daughter’s fearlessness—“she liked the world as it was: quiet and desolate and simple…she no longer worried about the curse, the darkness within her”—and how because of this she seems to be in charge, even as she’s pursued by a boy with a knife.  Despite her confidence, the story radiates tension.  Dread looms.  How did you work to achieve this effect?

Hmmm. Well, I don’t see her as in charge, or in thinking she’s in charge. I think her whole life she has worried that she would be the cause of her brother’s death, and now that he’s dead, she’s liberated from that fear. She’s not any more in charge than she ever was, but she’s okay with that now, because she no longer cares. She has no more attachment to life. And, because of this, is maybe even a bit drawn to darkness or to her own dread. She is not so much confident as she is accepting, of life, death, violence, all of it. She’s more curious now, than fearful. In the past, she couldn’t afford to be curious.

This story appears in Fast Machine, your collection out with Short Flight/Long Drive Books.  Can you tell us a little about how this piece fits into this collection, how it resonates (or doesn’t) with its fellow stories?

Well, my initial reaction is that maybe it doesn’t fit in. It’s one of the only stories written in third person, for instance. But I like that about it. I like that it maybe feels different from the other stories in the collection. Then again, there are other stories of adolescence – “Winter Haven, Florida, 1984” and “Halfsies” – so maybe it fits with those.

Tell us something we don’t know about Fast Machine.

Fast Machine is a story collection that Chelsea Martin has said reads like a novel but to me feels like a memoir.  

What other writing projects are you working on right now?

I’m currently taking a break from the physical act of writing (though I’ll be starting work on a novel soon, so I’m sort of figuring that out in my head) and catching up/focusing on editorial duties. Next up for Short Flight/Long Drive books is a story collection by Dylan Nice. So I’m going over edits with him. Editing some essays and stories for Hobart. Trying to put together a small, summer reading tour. That sort of thing.

What knockout fiction have you been reading recently? Are there any upcoming releases you're excited about?

I can’t wait to read Jac Jemc’s novel, My Only Wife. I think that’s out next month. And Sarah Manguso’s new book is an elegy/nonfiction, and I started it recently, late at night, but it was too sad to read before bed, so I need to write myself a note to start it during the day. One of my favorite books last year was Suicide, by Edouard Leve, and I just ordered Autoportrait, so I can’t wait to get that. I recently finished Amelia Gray’s Threats and I Should Have Stayed Home, by Horace McCoy, and am currently reading A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood and Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson. Now that I have a brief break from writing, I want to read everything!


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