(This interview originally appeared in the March 2011 issue of The Practicing Writer.)
Ellen Meeropol and I first crossed paths virtually several years ago on the Poets & Writers Speakeasy online discussion boards. We seemed to share a number of literary interests back then, and we’ve continued to correspond over the years. We finally met “in real life” (or “IRL,” as the kids say) a few weeks ago, at this year’s Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) conference in D.C.
The AWP conference happened to coincide with Ellen’s book launch, and I’m thrilled to feature in this newsletter issue an interview in which Elli tells us more about her debut novel. House Arrest is a striking and multi-layered book that coalesces, as its publisher says, around “the theme of political activism and its consequences, especially when politics become personal. House Arrest explores the meaning of family loyalty when beliefs conflict, and questions the necessity of sometimes breaking rules to serve justice.”
A self-described literary late bloomer, Ellen Meeropol began writing fiction in her fifties when she was working as a nurse practitioner in a pediatric hospital. Since leaving her nursing practice in 2005, Ellen has worked as the publicist and book group coordinator for an independent bookstore and taught fiction workshops. She is a founding member of the Rosenberg Fund for Children and author of the script for their dramatic program “Celebrate.”
Ellen holds an MFA in creative writing from the Stonecoast program at the University of Southern Maine. Her stories have appeared in The Drum, Bridges, Portland Magazine, Pedestal, Patchwork Journal, and The Women’s Times. She lives in Western Massachusetts.
Please welcome Ellen Meeropol.
Erika Dreifus (ED): Ellen, you are a self-described “literary late bloomer.” Please tell us about this! When did you begin to “bloom,” in literary terms, and, looking back, what do you think contributed to this development?
Ellen Meeropol (EM): I’ve always been a reader and I’ve always thought about writing, someday. For years, I scribbled ideas for short stories on scraps of paper and napkins and tucked them away in a desk drawer. Then, in late 1999 as I was making arrangements for a short sabbatical so that my husband could work on a writing project, I realized that this was my opportunity too. Two months in a rented cottage on an island off the coast of Maine and it changed my life: I was totally hooked on making up stories and writing them down.
ED: You and I have become acquainted through several years’ worth of posts on the Poets & Writers Speakeasy discussion boards. You are also a graduate of the Stonecoast MFA program at the University of Southern Maine. Please tell us about how these (or other) communities of writers have shaped your work as a writer.
EM: Stonecoast was an extremely important community to me – not only because I learned so much there and made deep friendships with other writers, but also because enrolling in the MFA program was a commitment to myself, a promise to take my writing seriously. This was an enormous gift.
I’m also fortunate to live in an area with many writers and a vibrant literary scene – The New York Times called the Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts, “the most author-saturated, book-cherishing, literature-celebrating place in the nation.” My local manuscript group has been meeting for about eight years; their careful reading, feedback, and support are nurturing and sustaining.
Certainly in the past few years, online communities like the Speakeasy have become important to me, but honestly, I only joined Facebook and Twitter because my publisher told me to. I’ve made wonderful friends through these communities and am regularly surprised and touched by the generosity of many established authors towards a newbie.
ED: Readers – and certainly readers who are also fiction writers – will notice that House Arrest comprises chapters told through alternating points of view. For the most part, these chapters (titled “Pippa,” “Gina, “Sam”) use a close third-person focus on Pippa, Gina, or Sam. Exceptionally, the thread sustained by the central character of Emily relies on Emily’s first-person narrative. How did these techniques evolve? Were they clear to you early on, or did they emerge during the writing process itself? What other structures/voices did you experiment with or consider, if any?
EM: I love reading novels with multiple narrators so it feels natural to me to write that way. In early drafts of House Arrest, the narrative alternated between Emily and Pippa in close third-person point of view. As the story developed, I added a few chapters by Sam, and then Gina, to give different perspectives on the conflicts between the main characters, to add complexity and texture to the story. Competing perspectives – the way events can look so different depending on a character’s situation and needs – fascinates me. I changed Emily’s point of view relatively late in the revision process. Because I felt that Pippa was in some ways a more compelling character, I rewrote Emily in first person to try to ratchet up the intimacy of her emotional connection to the reader, and to subtly (I hope!) indicate Emily’s central role.
ED: What was the biggest craft- or technique-related challenge that you encountered in writing House Arrest, and how did you resolve it?
EM: While the POV issue was probably the major craft issue, a more general challenge was setting the right tone for the politics in the story. I didn’t set out to write about politics. In fact, this book was supposed to be an “easy” write after struggling with a novel set during the anti-war movement of the 60s and 70s and finally putting it aside. The spark for House Arrest was a very short article I read in the Boston Globe about a pregnant cult member under home monitoring and the visiting nurse assigned to her. But as I wrote about Emily and Pippa, the backstories of their parents’ political choices became critical and I worked hard to make those childhood details authentic and organic. I see both Emily and Pippa as outsiders, haunted by their parents’ actions – very different actions -and constrained by these legacies. It was a challenge to embed those legacies into a story without being heavy-handed.
ED: What’s next for you?
EM: What’s next? My agent is shopping my second novel – that’s the one I put aside to write House Arrest and then completely rewrote. In Her Sister’s Tattoo, Rosa and Esther Cohen are arrested when a 1968 antiwar protest turns violent. Rosa wants a political trial; Esther has an infant and accepts a plea bargain even though it means testifying against her sister. Again told from multiple points of view and through the sisters’ unsent letters, it explores the intersection of political commitment, family blame, guilt and forgiveness. And, while Tattoo looks for its perfect publisher home, I’m working on a third novel manuscript.
I’m delighted to be doing a number of book festivals and writers conferences this winter and spring. House Arrest made its debut at AWP followed by a book launch reading and party at the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, Mass. I’ll also be at the Virginia Festival of the Book, among others. It’s all very exciting and I’m looking forward to meeting and talking with readers as much as possible.
ED: Thanks very much, Ellen, and all the best with your book!
To learn more about Ellen Meeropol and House Arrest (Red Hen Press), please visit http://www.ellenmeeropol.com