Home > NewsRelease > In Conversation With Ellen Pall Author of More than a Dozen Novels, Including Among the Ginzburgs, Corpse de Ballet, and Slightly Abridged. Her Most Recent Novel, MUST READ WELL Will Shortly be Published
In Conversation With Ellen Pall Author of More than a Dozen Novels, Including Among the Ginzburgs, Corpse de Ballet, and Slightly Abridged. Her Most Recent Novel, MUST READ WELL Will Shortly be Published
Norm Goldman --  bookpleasures.com Norm Goldman -- bookpleasures.com
For Immediate Release:
Dateline: Montreal, QC
Wednesday, May 25, 2022


Bookpleasures.com  welcomes as our guest Ellen Pall. Ellen is the author of more than a dozennovels, including  Among the Ginzburgs, Corpse de Ballet,and Slightly Abridged. Her most recent novel, MUSTREAD WELL will shortly be published.

She has also written manyfeatures about people in the arts for The New Yorker and TheNew York Times, and published numerous personal essays, mostrecently in The New York Review of Books. 

Ellen grew up on LongIsland, went to college at U.C. Santa Barbara, then moved to LosAngeles. There, she wrote eight Regency Romances under the penname Fiona Hill. (Not to be confused with the former U.S. NationalSecurity Council official Fiona Hill. Very different person.) 

After ten years, she leftCalifornia for New York, where she promptly began work as ajournalist, wrote novels under her own name, and met her husband, theinternational human rights advocate Richard Dicker. She now dividesher time between New York and L.A.

Norm: Good day Ellenand thanks for taking part in our interview.

Ellen:My pleasure entirely!

Norm: How did you getstarted in writing? What keeps you going?  

Ellen: I was a naturalreader. My mother died when I was very young, and after that loss,books became my refuge. I’ve pretty much had my nose in a book eversince.

Writing also camenaturally to me. I knew from the age of twelve that I wanted to be awriter. I loved creating imaginary worlds even as a little girl,worlds not unlike my own but full of different people, with differenthistories and desires.

They would just come to methrough the ether. Even now, when I’m writing a novel, the worldI’m building there is a place of private retreat for me, a retreatI carry inside my head wherever I go. 

Norm: What advice canyou give aspiring writers that you wished you had received, or thatyou wished you would have listened to?

Ellen: For one thing,I like to point out to that trying to write is a very low stakesgame. If you start writing something and later you realize it’s notworking, all you’ve wasted is some paper and ink and maybe sometime. We’re not sculpting in marble here. I wish someone had toldme that early on.

I also wish someone hadtold me that not every writer needs to “make a statement” in anovel, or be “the voice of their generation.”

I wish I’d been toldthat bringing people into another world, an imagined world, or givingthem a way to see our real, shared world from another point of view,is valuable all by itself. And also that it’s a gift just toentertain people. We all need escape sometimes. Life is sometimesvery hard.

Norm: How has yourenvironment/upbringing colored your writing?

Ellen: As for thefact that I made a life for myself in the arts, my mother was anartist, and even though I was very young when she died, as a littlegirl I did sit and watch her paint, and that gave me a sense thatcreativity was natural and worthwhile.

My father was a scientistand inventor, so he was a creator too, but in a much different way.

He grew up very poor inrural Canada but eventually received a National Medal of Technologyfrom the President of the United States.

He was a man of greatachievement, so without saying a word, he set a very high standard. Ifelt the pressure of that, and for better or worse, it pushed me toachieve—to write a lot of books, to publish early and often, towrite where my work would be seen. I wanted his respect.

As to what I write, orwhat my style is, as you can imagine, it was very painful to lose mymother so young, and confusing, and traumatic. (I wrote an essayabout this that ran in the New York Review of Books in August of2020.)

My father remarried almostimmediately and I was plunged into another culture—a much moreformal culture, the culture of his new wife’s family.

I became very quiet there,listened a lot and spoke very little.

While I sat at dinners andholiday gatherings, I began to memorize conversations—eventually Icould remember up to an hour of conversation among half a dozenpeople or more, verbatim. So that gave me an ear for dialogue.

And even more importantly,the painfulness of losing my old life and being plunged into this newone gave me a reason to live in my imagination.  For a longtime, my real life was a very uncomfortable place to be.

Norm: Do you write moreby logic or intuition, or some combination of the two? Pleasesummarize your writing process.  

Ellen: Oh gosh. I’d haveto say I write fiction through a combination of logic and intuition,but the proportions vary from book to book.

When I wrote my twomysteries (Corpse de Ballet and Slightly Abridged), Iplotted them out all the way to the end before I wrote page one.

You really don’t want toget to the end of a mystery and realize you don’t know whodunnit.

I also plotted my Regencyromances chapter by chapter before starting to write, but that wasbecause I was writing on a typewriter—my life writing Regenciesas Fiona Hill happened so long ago that people didn’t have personalcomputers.

When you write on atypewriter, you absolutely have to think ahead. If you take a wrongturn in Chapter Three, it’s a whole lot harder to go back fromChapter Seven and fix everything in between.

But both of those,mysteries and Regencies, are genre books.

Writing mainstreamliterary fiction has been very different for me. The first thing thatusually happens is I hear the voices of a couple of characterstalking in my head.

Then comes the situationthey’re in, then a skeletal idea of the story, something to propelmovement or a kernel around which to build a world.

Then I start movingforward by instinct, step by step, letting the characters develop,finding new ones, getting deeper and deeper into the conflicts thatarise among them.

With Must Read Well,this was a very long process. I knew Anne Taussig Weil’s voiceyears before I heard Liz Miller’s.

Once I could hear Liz,things started rolling out fast, especially because Liz’s natureand motive brought an element of suspense that automatically gave thestory traction. Still, even after that cat-and-mouse element was inplace, I did plenty of rewriting. 

Norm: In fiction aswell as in non-fiction, writers very often take liberties with theirmaterial to tell a good story or make a point. But how much is toomuch?  

Ellen: Such an interestingquestion. I think there’s an understanding, or an unwritten rule,that novelists are allowed to set the level of reality for whatevernovel they’re writing.

Then the reader gets todecide whether that’s a world they want to accept and enter.

For myself, as long as I’mengaged with a book and living inside a fully imagined reality thewriter has created, a reality consistent with its own rules, I’mwilling to go wherever the story takes me.

In Must Read Well,there are a number of details that don’t square with reality.

For example, Liz teachesat Columbia, and one of the days she teaches is a Friday. After Iwrote the book, which has a very carefully charted timeline, Ilearned that Columbia seldom schedules classes on Fridays. Does thismatter to the reader? I sure hope not. 

Norm: How did youbecome involved with the subject or theme of  MUST READWELL?

Ellen: Must Read Wellstarted as a note I scribbled to myself about five years before Istarted writing the book. It said, “A woman whose vision hasdeteriorated so much that she can’t read her own writing hiressomeone to read her journals to her in her old age.”

That struck me as apredicament that could be a very poignant starting point for abook—wanting to revisit something very personal and private fromyour past, but being unable to do that without literally lettingsomeone else “read all about it.”

When I finally came backto the note, it was still poignant, but I also saw that it could be agreat jumping-off point for what turned out to be a very suspensefulbook.

The other source of MustRead Well is Henry James’ The Aspern Papers.

In that book, too, anunscrupulous scholar deceives a very elderly woman to gain access todocuments he desperately wants—in his case, love letters written toher by Jeffrey Aspern (a stand-in for Lord Byron) many decadesbefore.

I pretty much stole thenarrative spine of Must Read Well from The Aspern Papers.“We stand on the shoulders of giants . . . ”

Norm: What purpose doyou believe your story serves and what matters to you about thestory? As a follow up, did you write the story to express somethingyou believe or was it just for entertainment?  

Ellen: I very much hopethat readers will find the story entertaining. That’s really myprimary goal. But I also think there’s some substance to it.

It touches on questions oftrust and trustworthiness, both between men and women who love eachother and between two women who are essentially, if informally,working together.

It touches on twogenerations of feminism. I hope it makes people think about old ageand the fact that being old doesn’t mean you’re no longer theperson you’ve always been.

In a minor way, it’salso about some aspects of alcoholism and recovery. All of those arethings I have strong feelings about.  

Norm: How did you goabout creating the characters of Elizabeth Miller and Anne TaussigWeil?

Ellen: Anne came easilyand pretty much all at once. I modeled her unusual voice and herlooks and her very mannered manner on a dear family friend. She is awriter, which is something I share with her, and we’re similar inother ways as well, especially in our habit of observing otherscarefully and often keeping our own counsel.

She has a dry but veryactive sense of humor, too, which I hope is true of me as well. 

Elizabeth, or Liz as Ithink of her, is very unlike me, and she had quite a long evolution.

At the start, she was allmuscle and drive, no sentimentality at all. But as the writing andrewriting went on, she got warmer and warmer, more likeable, morerelatable, and morally, more conflicted about her actions in thebook. 

Norm: Do you agreethat to have good drama there must be an emotional charge thatusually comes from the individual squaring off against antagonistseither out in the world or within himself or herself? If so, pleaseelaborate and how does it fit into you novel? 

Ellen: The way I would putit is that good drama requires traction. There has to be something inthe story that keeps pulling us forward, that keeps us engaged andwanting to turn the page. In Must Read Well, the tractionsprings from Liz’s act of deception, which happens just a few pagesinto Chapter One. From then on, we are wondering how this game isgoing to play out. 

Norm: There is quite asurprising ending to your novel. Did you know the end of yourbook at the beginning?

Ellen: Nope. Didn’t havea clue.

Norm: If MUSTREAD WELL were turned into a movie, who would you like tosee in the parts of Elizabeth and Anne, and why?

Ellen: Hm. First, let mejust say “May it be so!” and then go knock on some wood. 

Okay. Now for Elizabeth,if I had my druthers, Julia Garner, who plays Ruth in the seriesOzark. Despite her character’s name, she manages to bring a certainruthlessness and flintiness to that role while at the same time beingemotionally vulnerable and morally centered.

Also, Anya Taylor-Joy,who is quietly powerful, emotionally complex and also a bit ruthlessin Queen’s Gambit. Or Hailee Steinfeld, or Kathryn Newton, or DaisyEdgar Jones; any one of them would be terrific.

As for Anne, EllenBurstyn would be wonderful—elegant, intelligent, a little chillyand emotionally contained, yet also capable of passion. It has to besomeone with elegance and backbone and a really good sense of humor.

Helen Mirren, while we’re dreaming. Glenn Close. Judy Davis. MaggieSmith. Vanessa Redgrave. Meryl Streep. 

But we have to keep inmind that at the heart of the book is the story within the story—thestory of the secret, passionate, disastrous love affair Anne had witha married man when she was much younger. So for that younger Anne, Iwould love to cast Elisabeth Moss, Natalie Portman, RachelWeisz—there are so many possibilities . . .

Norm: Did you learnanything from writing your book and what was it? 

Ellen: Yes I did. Ilearned that you don’t always end up where you thought you weregoing when you started out. My first draft was very, very differentfrom my last.

Norm: Where can ourreaders find out more about you and MUST READ WELL?

Ellen: I have a WEBSITEof course, cryptically named Ellen Pall. There are links thereto summaries and reviews of all my novels, and to many of thearticles I wrote for The New York Times Magazine and Arts &Leisure sections, as well as short pieces that ran in The New Yorker,and a more recent, long personal essay that appeared in The New YorkReview of Books. 

Norm: What is next forEllen Pall?

Ellen: I’m working onsome personal essays that I think are separate from each other butthat might end up all being part of some kind of memoir. (A shortmemoir, I hope.) I also have the bare bones of a new novel—the twoprotagonists, the setting, and what I will call the incitingincident. But I still have a lot of living with these ideas to dobefore I’m ready to write Sentence One. So stuff is on my desk,waiting for me. 

Norm: As this interviewcomes to an end, if you were organizing a literary dinner party,which three writers, dead or alive, would you invite and why?

Ellen: Oh my goodness,thank you so much for offering me both the dead and the living, andfor such a tempting purpose.

As I ponder this, I realize there are alot of writers I revere, writers whose works have changed me forever,whose words I will never forget, but with whom I would definitelyprefer not to eat a meal.

So I would say Barbara Pym—a greatlistener, I have no doubt—and Grace Paley (who I imagine was aterrific talker), and maybe Karl Ove Knausgaard, just to mix thingsup. Or even better, Lee Child. We’d have fun!

Norm: Thanks once againand good luck with all of your future endeavors.

Ellen: Thank you!

Follow Here To Read Norm's Review of Must Read Well

 Norm Goldman of Bookpleasures.com

News Media Interview Contact
Name: Norm Goldman
Title: Book Reviewer
Group: bookpleasures.com
Dateline: Montreal, QC Canada
Direct Phone: 514-486-8018
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