A conversation with Ellen Meeropol
What books and/or authors have had the most influence on your writing?
I’ve been most influenced by writers who balance their stories on the fault lines of political/social turmoil and the inner lives of the characters. Early on, I discovered Laura Z. Hobson and I’ve admired her books (Gentlemen’s Agreement, First Paper, Tenth Month, Consenting Adults) for their courage in tackling taboo subjects. Other authors include Doris Lessing, Paule Marshall, and Rosellen Brown. Books that influenced and inspired me early in my reading/writing life are The Mandarins by Simone de Beauvoir, Man’s Fate by André Malraux, The Dew Breaker by Edwidge Danticat, and Solar Storms by Linda Hogan. More recently, I’ve loved Strange as this Weather has Been by Ann Pancake, Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena and Eleanor Morse’s White Dog Fell from the Sky.
How do you decide when a piece you’ve written is “finished” enough to publish?
I rarely consider a piece finished until it is published. I return to manuscripts and fiddle with them, revise and edit, until the last minute. And then, when I do readings from a published piece, I make more changes. I can’t help it – there are so many possibilities.
What would you consider to be a productive day of work, and do you have a writing routine?
I used to write in the evenings but that was only because I worked full-time and it was my only choice. That changed when I was working on a novel with content that scared me, that triggered nightmares. Now, I write first thing in the morning when my brain is at its best. I like to write in my pajamas, coffee at hand, for as many hours as I can manage, before shifting into the other demands of my day. I revise and write “business” in the late afternoons and evenings.
What part of your writing process do you most enjoy?
Writing a first draft is really really hard for me. I never know where a novel or story is going when I start, so there are often false starts and tangents that don’t work. The fun begins once I have a rough draft and know the basic outlines of the narrative. I particularly enjoy playing around in revision with point of view – most of my work is from multiple points of view because I like the complexity and clash this offers. I also enjoy the interaction with my manuscript critique group. We’ve been meeting together for over a decade and I greatly value the feedback I get from my writing buddies, even when they’re wrong.
You hold your MFA from the Stonecoast Program, University of Southern Maine. How did your studying there shape your writing?
Attending Stonecoast was one of the best decisions I ever made. I consider myself a literary late bloomer, so the need to “catch up” and learn craft quickly felt important and a low-residency program was the best match for me. Stonecoast was important for three major reasons beyond the craft I learned. First, the commitment of time and money was significant and forced me to take myself seriously as a writer. Secondly, the intensity of the residencies mixed with the need to work on my own during the semester helped me develop a writing practice that has continued to serve me well. Third, the community of writers, both students and faculty, has enriched me enormously. Many of those relationships continue, both as friendships and in sharing our ongoing work.
You have written in a variety of genres and lengths, including short fiction, essay, and novel. When you first begin a piece, do you assign it a form immediately or do you let it play out first?
I do begin a new piece with knowledge of the genre I’m writing, but t things often morph and change, either during the writing or later. For example, I wrote an essay about a piece of my family history, then made it into a short story, and now it seems to be appearing in the novel manuscript I’m working on. Characters from short fiction have also shown up in novels, dragging bits of plot and backstory with them. Like many writers, I tend to write about and around certain themes that are very important to me, exploring them differently in each piece of work. So I try to encourage the characters living in my head to be flexible, approaching their lives on the page with fluidity and openness.
Do you have a favorite piece you’ve written? If so, what is it and why?
My favorite piece is pretty much always whatever I’m working on at the moment. I begin each piece with enormous hope that I’ll be able to capture the sparkling vision in words and sentences.
What else are you working on, and where can readers go to find more of your work?
I’m very excited about the novel I’m working on now, which weaves together the stories of several characters who had bit parts in House Arrest and takes a look at global warming activism. And I’m also excited about publication of my second novel, which my agent is currently negotiating. Information about and links to other work, and to readings and workshops, is on my website, www.ellenmeeropol.com.
Finally, what advice would you give yourself when you first started writing?
My advice would probably be to jump in sooner – I didn’t start writing fiction until my fifties, and I wish I’d begun sooner. But then maybe I wouldn’t have as much to write about… Really, no advice other than to work hard, read a lot, and value every minute of the work, even the times when you despair getting it even close to right. I feel very lucky to do this work.