We're back today to better get to know Ellen. Please pull up a chair and join us for a little chat.
2k8: Welcome, Ellen. Please tell us where you do most of your writing?
Ellen: I have a room of my own! It’s tiny, and when we first built our house it doubled as a guest room. But that was OK because my main office was at whatever newspaper employed me at the time. Then we built an addition for my elderly mother, and after she was gone the addition became the guest room. So when I quit my job and started writing The Unnameables I took over the whole office for myself, along with hundreds of books.
Unlike most of the house, this room isn’t actually finished—it has no window trim or molding, and the floor is painted plywood. It’s always a mess, partly because I try to cram so much stuff into so little space. But it has a door that closes, and that’s the important thing.
2k8: That is important. Can you please tell us how the book came about? What got you started writing it?
Ellen: In 1984, I sat down to write a picture book for my partner, Rob, to illustrate. The two main characters were Rob’s alter-ego, Medford Runyuin, and his sidekick, the Goatman, both of whom Rob had been putting in recreational paintings since art school.
The story got away from me, and before I knew it I was writing a novel for older kids. I wrote a terrible first draft, then stuck it in a drawer and plunged into community journalism in the coastal Maine county to which we’d just moved. I thought I’d forgotten all about it, but some part of my brain kept working on it.
Fifteen years later, I started writing it again from scratch. Medford, who had been an adult, turned into a young teenager. The Goatman acquired hooves (he’d worn sandals in the first version) and the power to summon the wind, although not to control it. The setting changed from an isolated town to an isolated island.
There isn’t an illustration to be found, other than a couple of maps done by a stranger. Secretly, Rob is very relieved.
2k8: Wow! What an evolution. How did it find a publisher? Give us the scoop.
Ellen: The area where I live is rife with creative types, especially in the summer. Our town’s literary heritage includes Charlotte’s Web by longtime resident E.B.White. (Charlotte’s settings are based on our county fair and White’s own farm.)
The summer after I finished the new version of my book, I showed it to Bill Henderson, the founding editor and publisher of the Pushcart Prize and Pushcart Press. He lives in a neighboring town during the summer, and runs what he claims is the world’s smallest bookstore.
Bill and his wife, writer Genie Chipps Henderson, liked the book and sent it to Kate Schafer, then a colleague of Bill’s agent at Janklow & Nesbit. She took it on and submitted it to six publishers, all of whom rejected it. They gave me really good critiques, though, so I revised the manuscript before Kate showed it to Kathy Dawson at Harcourt Children’s Books (now part of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Kathy bought it about a year after Kate and I had started working together.
Kate now has moved to Colorado and started her own agency, k.t. literary. I stayed with her, of course, because she’s amazing. Matching the book up with Kathy Dawson was a stroke of genius— Kathy immediately understood the characters and the point of the book, but also diagnosed its problems in a way no one else had done before. And now we’re working together on my next book, temporarily called The Filioli.
2k8: That's an incredible story. So, did anything surprise you or catch you off guard when you were writing The Unnameables?
I had tried twice before to quit my job and write fiction, and both times I lost interest after two or three months and sought gainful employment. Part of the problem was that I stopped having fun and didn’t have the wherewithal to force my way through the shady bits and back into the light on the other side.
This time, I was determined to stick with it. But when I hit my first “writer’s block” about a month in, I thought, “Uh-oh. Here we go.” I considered various folk charms and shamanistic rites. But then, to my great joy, I discovered that I could write my way out of the problem by choosing a character and brainstorming a journal entry or two in that character’s voice. Sometimes what I wrote never made it into the book, but the process always got the juices flowing again.
So far, the method is foolproof. (Knock on wood.)
2k8: That's a great technique. Thanks for sharing it. Now imagine you have an offer from your dream press to publish your dream book, no matter how insane or unmarketable it might be (though of course it might not be). What story would you want to write and why?
Ellen: This is that book, and Harcourt is that publisher. On its surface, The Unnameables is not a supremely marketable book. It doesn’t really fit a genre, and there isn’t a swash or a buckle to be found anywhere, nor a magic wand. I still can’t believe anyone was willing to take it on. And it’s ten times the book it was when Kathy Dawson got her hands on it.
2k8: Incredible! Won't you please tell us what question most people won't know to ask you? And what's your answer?
Ellen: Probably no one would ever think to ask me if I am fluent in Mandarin Chinese.
The answer is no, I’m not.