Monday, September 19, 2022

Ellen Pall Interview - Must Read Well

Photo Content from Ellen Pall

ELLEN PALL is the author of more than a dozen novels, including Among the Ginzburgs, Corpse de Ballet, and Slightly Abridged. She has also written many features about people in the arts for The New Yorker and The New York Times, and published numerous personal essays, most recently in The New York Review of Books. Ellen grew up on Long Island, went to college at U.C. Santa Barbara, then moved to Los Angeles. There, she wrote eight Regency Romances under the pen name Fiona Hill. (Not to be confused with the former U.S. National Security Council official Fiona Hill. Very different person.) After ten years, she left California for New York, where she promptly began work as a journalist, wrote novels under her own name, and met her husband, the international human rights advocate Richard Dicker. She now divides her time between New York and L.A.


What was the single worst distraction that kept you from writing this book?
Food! The kitchen. Oh, how much easier it is to snack, or even cook, than to write! I eat like a squirrel—a little at a time, but all day, and very often—and sometimes I’ll put a tiny bowl of sunflower seeds or blueberries on my writing desk just to lure myself there.

Why is storytelling so important for all of us?
For starters, everyone sees the world from their own point of view—we can’t help that—and that makes us all natural protagonists. And we all want our lives to make sense, to have shape. What would it be like if we perceived our own lives as an uninterrupted stream of random incidents with no relation to each other? Complete madness! We crave story: action and reaction, decision and consequence, effort and reward, struggle and triumph, confusion followed by understanding. We want our lives to tell a story, to be a story, and we want to know the stories of other people, too. God bless story. What would life be without it?

What was the most surprising thing you learned in creating your characters?
Apparently, I have an inner skank! I’ve been 100% faithful during more than thirty-five years of marriage, yet I had no trouble at all dreaming up Anne Weil’s flagrant and prolonged betrayal of her husband. So embarrassing!

Greatest thing I learned at school:
That I might be a writer. My fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Varon, assigned us to choose an inanimate object and write a paragraph in the voice of that object. I’m not even sure what I chose—maybe a bottle of perfume?—but I do remember vividly what a pleasure it was to me to look at the world from point of view other than my own, and how easily the object’s “voice” came to me. My teacher praised me lavishly, and from then on, I started to think of my imagination as a strength.

When/how did you realize you had a creative dream or calling to fulfill?
This is weird, but I kind of fell in love with John Keats when I was twelve years old. This was soon followed by a massive crush on John Donne. I had a sad childhood—my mother got very ill when I was five and died when I was seven—and as I reached adolescence, a lot of painful emotion was churning around inside me. Expressing my feelings creatively helped me make sense of myself—and it made me feel like my idols. My poetry was terrible, but it meant a lot to me. Thankfully, I eventually found my way to prose.

Tell us your most rewarding experience since being published.
Writing a song called Must Read Well. This is a reward still in progress, because the book won’t officially come out until September 13 and the recording is still in production, but after my publisher learned that I play music with friends, he suggested I write a song with the same title. I laughed, but then I wrote one, a very simple one, and asked my friend Cindy Thrall, who’s a professional singer and a powerhouse belter, to sing it. She not only agreed, she had great ideas about how to make it better, and we wound up collaborating on it during weeks of intense, hilarious, exhilarating meetings. After a lifetime of working alone, it was the most sheer fun I had as a writer. She and some of her pro friends recorded it, and now I’m using the chorus for TikTok posts about the book. The whole song, with Cindy’s amazing vocals, will be online soon.

Writing Behind the Scenes
I love choosing the names of my characters. I always have. The right name seems to make the character suddenly much more real.

I keep a New York City phone directory next to my desk to flip through for names. I write down any that appeal to me and later I go through those and make a decision.

For Anne, the elderly, vision-impaired writer who is one of the two protagonists in Must Read Well, I wanted a three part name, Someone Someone Someone. I felt the three parts would give her a kind of literary solidity.

I also wanted a name that would suggest she was Jewish without foregrounding it. So I scanned the phone book looking for uncommon Jewish surnames, names that might make you wonder if that person was Jewish but be unsure. And I wanted a hint of classiness, elegance, because Anne aspires to that.

I still have the list of names I considered for her, and I see now that she could have been Anne Leibling SomethingElse. But she became Anne Taussig Weil. As soon as I put that name together, I knew I had her.

Best date I’ve ever had
Dancing with my future husband to the music of King Sunny Ade and his band at a club called Sounds of Brazil. It was around the corner from the apartment where we lived then in the SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan. That was almost forty years ago, and Sounds of Brazil is still there. The music was fantastic. We were so full of joy. And so sweaty.

First job I ever had
The summer before I went to college, I worked in the office of a small chain of movie theaters. My job was to check the number of tickets sold each week against the amount of money each theater reported taking in that week. It was exactly as exciting as it sounds.

Most memorable travel experience
My husband and I went to Italy for our honeymoon. We rented a car [where?] and drove to Lake Como, arriving during a storm at night to find the hotel room we’d reserved was a weird, narrow, very high-ceilinged cell with a single window well above eye level and a crib in it. I insisted we find another hotel and after the long, twisty drive there in a storm—I wasn’t spending my honeymoon in a room like that!—we had quite an argument. But we did find another place just a little down the road that had a room for us. When we woke up, I opened the wooden shutters on what I’d thought were windows and found they were French doors directly on the lake. The sun flooded in and the world was as beautiful as I’d ever seen it.

When you looked in the mirror first thing this morning, what was the first thing you thought?
“Can I make it to Thursday without washing my hair?” It’s such a pain in the neck, and I have an appointment for a haircut at the salon that day.

What event in your life would make a good movie?
I grew up in Roslyn, Long Island and went to school in California. I stayed in California until I was thirty-two. When I finally moved back east, I rented a tiny fourth-floor walkup in a narrow, six-unit, 135-year-old building in Greenwich Village.

After I moved in, my older sister told me she thought our mother had lived somewhere near my new address before she met our father. I was seven when my mother died and had no idea she’d ever lived in New York City. I knew she’d grown up near Boston, but as far as I was concerned, our family had always lived in Roslyn. My older sister did know, however, and she got in touch with her godmother, who had been our mother’s roommate in 1937. Guess what? Thirty-seven years later, I’d moved into the same little building.

One result was that my mother’s long ago roommate became a treasured friend. I learned more about my mother from her than I’d ever dreamed of knowing—about her childhood, her schooling, her life as a young commercial artist, her nature, her first love, her marriage to my father. Eventually, this coincidence also led me to a trove of letters from her boyfriend of the time—“boyfriend” meaning passionate, poetic lover, a man who later became prominent in the movie industry.

I wrote an article about this experience that ran in the New York Times—it’s called “Mothers Lost and Found,” and you can read it on the Journalism page of my website. I think that would make a great movie.

Ellen Pall's Must Read Well immerses the reader in an escalating game of cat-and-mouse between two women: a millennial scholar driven to deceit to reach her goals and a frail octogenarian no less capable of deception. Narrated by Liz Miller, a penniless Ph.D. candidate desperate to finish her dissertation, the novel begins when Liz's boyfriend abruptly ditches her, rendering Liz homeless and reduced to couch-surfing at best friend Petra's tiny Manhattan studio apartment. Trying to find an affordable living space, she stumbles across a Craigslist posting that will change her life: a room with a view in a pre-war Greenwich Village apartment. The rent is a pittance, but in exchange, the tenant must be willing to read aloud daily to the apartment's sight-impaired landlady.

Liz quickly figures out that the sight-impaired landlady is none other than Anne Taussig Weil, author of the 1965 international blockbuster The Vengeance of Catherine Clark and the very woman whose refusal to cooperate for the past four years has held up Liz's dissertation on the feminist works of mid-century women novelists. Access to Weil is the key to completing her doctorate at Columbia and finally getting her academic career back on track.

Liz sets scruples aside and presents herself as a quiet young woman still finding her way in life. Once settled in, Liz learns from Weil that her need for a reader stems from a desire to revisit a key episode in her life. That episode, recorded in the scrawled journals Weil kept since she was a young girl, turns out to be the story of her passionate, disastrous, secret love affair with a celebrated pianist—the affair, in fact, which gave rise to the plot of Vengeance.

The novel, which builds from there to a double-twist climax, is fast-paced women's fiction, perfect for book club members everywhere.

You can purchase Must Read Well at the following Retailers:

And now, The Giveaways.
Thank you ELLEN PALL for making this giveaway possible.
1 Winner will receive a Copy of Must Read Well by Ellen Pall.


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