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Part 8: Writing on the road, conferences, editing, themes, and the future of the book

The prolific Devon Ellington seems to be everywhere these days – she writes the column “The Literary Athlete” for THE SCRUFFY DOG REVIEW , has the high-traffic blog on the writing life Ink in My Coffee, covers sports for FEMMEFAN. Her fiction has been published in ESPRESSO FICTION, WILD CHILD, THE ROSE AND THORN, THEMA, EMERGING WOMEN WRITERS, GRIT, THE SCRUFFY DOG REVIEW, and more; her non-fiction credits include TOASTED CHEESE, HAMPTON FAMILY LIFE, THE CRAFTY TRAVELLER, THE SAVVY GAL, BLESSED GARDENS, THE ARMCHAIR DETECTIVE, and ELLE. Her plays have been produced in the Edinburgh Festival Fringe twice and the Adelaide Festival Fringe (in Australia) once, as well as in London and New York.

Ellington publishes under several names. August 1 saw the release of her paranormal action/adventure novella HEX BREAKER from Firedrakes Weyr Publishing. In September, NEW MYTHS will publish “The Merry’s Dalliance”, a pirate fantasy, and her play BEHIND THE MAN opens Cloverleaf’s January 2009 season. The notoriously reclusive Ellington is unusually candid in her answers to our questions.

Benson: How do you write on the road?

Ellington: However I can. If I’m on the road covering sports, I have to file stories at night, when the event is done. I kind of hate that, because I don’t get to revise enough, but that’s the way it works. You adjust the process to fit the gig. But I still try to get up early and do 1K of fiction in the morning.

Benson: Even at conventions?

Ellington: Yes. I haven’t done conventions for awhile, but that’ll start again soon. I like meeting people from everywhere, but I’m worried the events won’t be as much fun anymore.

Benson: What do you mean?

Ellington: Writers work a lot in isolation. That’s why it’s good for me to keep one toe in theatre – otherwise, I could easily go for weeks in complete solitude. Anyway, conferences are good for writers because you meet other writers and agents and publishers and, most importantly, readers. It used to be you could go and really blow off steam at these things. Let’s face it, no one can be on best behavior all the time, you’ll explode. Now, everything shows up on You Tube.

Benson: You mean like hook ups?

Ellington: Not even that. You can make a flippant comment just because someone gives you an opening, and it winds up out of context on the internet and everyone’s horrified. Everyone needs a place to play hard sometimes and not have it splashed all over the web.

Benson: But there’s a lot of hooking up?

Ellington: I don’t think it’s as bad as when the corporate types go off to a conference and make total asses out of themselves. But there will always be a contingent of us who work really hard, which means we also like to play really hard. That doesn’t mean we’re behaving like scumbags or hurting anyone or doing anything illegal. Plus, just because something isn’t forever doesn’t mean it’s sleazy. People come into your life at a specific time for a specific reason. And sometimes it’s just for a weekend.

Benson: So you’re not a romantic?

Ellington: Unfortunately, I am a romantic, but that’s why I keep my armor of cynicism tightly fastened. I don’t think short-term relationships are necessarily unromantic. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being enough of a realist to know that every man with whom there’s a mutual attraction is not going to be long-term. I think if you look at every person you meet, or to whom you’re attracted as a potential bed partner, you miss out on a lot of layers of friendships and working relationships and all sorts of experiences. Get to know them as individuals, and the rest happens organically. The swing back to Puritanism and judgments of other people’s relationships in this country is really disturbing. The only people who know what the relationship is about are those directly involved, and, frankly, it’s not anyone else’s business. My relationships – be they friendships or romantic relationships – are sacred to me. I do my best to keep them off the radar. And I stay out of other people’s relationships, unless it’s a friend who directly asks for advice. I’m kind of dim in many respects when it comes to relationships anyway. One guy, with whom I was for about two, three years, had decided he was gong to date me the first time we met, but it never occurred to me he was interested until he told me very bluntly several months later. I just wasn’t picking up the signals, although I was very attracted to him. We always disagreed as to what our anniversary date was.

Benson: You don’t believe in love at first sight?

Ellington: I believe in spontaneous combustion at first sight. And I sure wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything. That sounds like a contradiction to what I said before, but it’s not. It’s about individuals again. But, at the risk of sounding like a cliché, I think love is something that grows out of like, respect, and understanding, as well as chemistry. And there are lots of permutations of love, plenty of which never end up as sexual relationships. There are plenty of creative partnerships that are very passionate, that involve a lot of love and trust, but they’re not sexual or romantic. It’s not that anything’s being repressed, it’s simply not an issue. Also, you can love somebody like crazy, but still not make the daily details work.

Benson: How does your view of relationships affect your writing?

Ellington: I’m not really sure. I think you’d have to ask my readers. It depends on the story, the genre, and, most importantly, the characters. I’m not writing myself over and over again – I’m writing individuals who are going to respond differently in their various situations. I’ve definitely used writing for catharsis, but that’s usually not what gets out into the world. There’s a reason one keeps a private diary. There’s a reason one burns pages in the sink. Stupid people, ignorant people, usually get killed off in my work, and those who are cruel usually get their comeuppance. Deliberate cruelty is inexcusable to me; we commit acts of thoughtless cruelty constantly that are bad enough, but to set out to be cruel? Uh-uh. I lose patience quickly with people who are weak or passive, and by that I mean won’t take a stand for what they believe, or fight for those they love, or take charge of their own lives. Loyalty is something of supreme importance to me, both on and off the page, and we live in a time where it’s disregarded. Either the characters have an epiphany and show some growth, or I kill off those characters. In life, you just walk away, but in fiction, you can take it farther. Part of writing fiction, I think, is to make people see the world a little differently than they might otherwise see it, the good, the bad, the indifferent. I also think it’s part of our responsibility to write our way into a better world. If you only bear witness to what’s wrong and don’t offer solutions for positive change, you’re shirking your responsibility.

Benson: Has there ever been a defining moment in your work, where you felt like it made a difference?

Ellington: Yes. About a year after my play was in Australia, I received a letter from a woman who’d come to see the show. She’d sent it to the Festival office, and they forwarded it to me here in NY. She was very depressed at the time, contemplating suicide. She sat at the play and one of the lines in it, “If you don’t like your life, go out and change it; don’t come whining to me about it” really hit close to the bone. After the show, she went and asked for help, and in the interim year, she had gone back to school, started painting again, had fallen in love, and generally took charge of her own life, making it happen instead of letting it happen. She said that my show was the key to it, and that reminded me why I do this. It was interesting that we intersected at that particular point, because I was going through a rough time through a good portion of the Australian odyssey, which later turned into the seeds of PLATEAU, but it didn’t make it any more pleasant to live through. But then, everything is material. Nothing a writer says, does, sees, feels, or experiences is ever wasted.

Benson: How do you edit?

Ellington: I’m assuming you mean my own work, and not the work I’m paid to edit?

Benson: Yes.

Ellington: It depends on the deadline. In my perfect writing world, for something novel-length, I write the first draft. I put it away for two months. I take it out and revise, this time overwriting. My first drafts are generally skeletons, mostly in dialogue and images. Sometimes I’ll write the first draft as a script, and then adapt it back into prose – I’ve got a thriller that’s being written that way. In the second draft, I open everything out, overwrite, follow every possible tangent. Then, I get out the red machete and cut, cut, cut, cut, cut for the third draft. The fourth draft goes to the Trusted Readers, who turn it around in about two weeks. I incorporate the suggestions I think serve the story into the fifth draft, cut in the sixth draft, so it’s usually the seventh draft that starts making the rounds. If it needs more work, it gets it. Plays usually have fewer drafts, because there’s a point of diminishing return until you have actors and are in the room with them. Short stories have a shorter process. And, if I’m on deadline for something, I’ll have to truncate the process. But that’s basically, how it works.

Benson: Do you like editing?

Ellington: Very much. That’s where you make or break the piece. I used to hate editing in film, because I’m of the generation where you had to sit and clean out the sprocket holes, but on the page, I love it. I also need to work in full drafts — I can’t go back and rewrite while I’m in a first draft, unless I’ve gotten so far off track I have to throw it all out and start over. I also love and appreciate a good editor.

Benson: What’s your definition of a good editor?

Ellington: Someone who catches me out in my myriad of bad habits. Someone who respects my stubbornness in spelling theatre –t-r-e to the point where I put it in my contracts, because the spelling to me defines the difference between a professional and an amateur, and I’ve dedicated most of my life to theatre. Someone who understands my vision of the story and wants to bring it to the best it can be, not rewrite it as though she was the author. Someone who will tell me the truth when something’s not working, even when I get stubborn.

Benson: What’s your definition of a bad editor?

Ellington: A wanna-be writer who’s not writing and punishes those of us who are.

Benson: A colleague of yours said you have the biggest brass balls he’d ever encountered.

Ellington: Brass ovaries, actually. Much more effective, considering my biology. I had to grow them or be squashed. Considering how much I hate confrontation, how I have to battle and face down my own cowardice on a daily basis, it’s amazing I learned how to do any of this. One of the reasons cowardice bothers me so much in others is because it’s a reflection of the part of myself I’m constantly working to change. My goal is to live my live fearlessly, to constantly take risks and challenge myself on every level. I’m the most fearful, shy, awkward person I know, but it’s not like there’s anyone out there protecting me; I have to rely on myself. There’s a point where it becomes a choice to let yourself get steamrolled. We all make mistakes, but there are so many times when there are warning signs or someone actually gives enough of a damn to warn us or give us the tools to change the route of that Mack truck coming to smack us down, and we ignore it anyway to avoid a temporary unpleasantness. I hate confrontation, loathe it. But I’ve learned how to do it, for sheer survival. We all learn by being burned. Hopefully, we can learn from other people’s mistakes, but if we choose not to and get screwed . . .at least learn enough not to let it happen the next time.

Benson: Do you think digital publishing will replace print?

Ellington: I think they’re both important, in their own ways. I don’t like reading on a screen, so even if I buy something digital, I print a hard copy. But people swear by this Amazon Kindle thing. Of course, most of them have Blackberrys – I don’t know how much text you can read on those, hell, I don’t even know how they work – I’m lucky I can make a phone call on my cell. I finally learned how to initiate a text message, but I still can’t reply. I can do oh, so many complicated things, and I have a problem text messaging.

Benson: It’s like mini-email.

Ellington: Anyway, I don’t think one can replace the sensual pleasure that holding a book in one’s hand allows. There’s an intimacy between reader and writer when a printed page is held – especially if it’s a beautifully made book – that doesn’t happen on screen. The screen separates the reader and writer, somehow, in my experience, where the printed page provides a more sensual and sensory experience that I think is important between reader and writer. Let’s face it: A love letter is more seductive than a text message, at least in my opinion. Reading is a very intimate experience between reader and writer. Technology may develop to the point where one can read a book and enter its virtual reality, but I think there will always be readers who love the feel of the book in the hands. I’m one of them.

Devon Ellington’s novella HEX BREAKER is available from Firedrakes Weyr Publishing, www.firedrakesweyr.com. Or you can visit the Hex Breaker website: http://hexbreaker.devonellingtonwork.com.

Thank you, Devon, for spending the month of August with us!

–Lily Benson

Part 7: Themes in the Work, The Muse Online Writers’ Conference, Nano, mentoring, and writing routines

The prolific Devon Ellington seems to be everywhere these days – she writes the column “The Literary Athlete” for THE SCRUFFY DOG REVIEW, has the high-traffic blog on the writing life Ink in My Coffee, covers sports for FEMMEFAN. Her fiction has been published in ESPRESSO FICTION, WILD CHILD, THE ROSE AND THORN, THEMA, EMERGING WOMEN WRITERS, GRIT, THE SCRUFFY DOG REVIEW, and more; her non-fiction credits include TOASTED CHEESE, HAMPTON FAMILY LIFE, THE CRAFTY TRAVELLER, THE SAVVY GAL, BLESSED GARDENS, THE ARMCHAIR DETECTIVE, and ELLE. Her plays have been produced in the Edinburgh Festival Fringe twice and the Adelaide Festival Fringe (in Australia) once, as well as in London and New York.

Ellington publishes under several names. August 1 saw the release of her paranormal action/adventure novella HEX BREAKER from Firedrakes Weyr Publishing. In September, NEW MYTHS will publish “The Merry’s Dalliance”, a pirate fantasy, and her play BEHIND THE MAN opens Cloverleaf’s January 2009 season. The notoriously reclusive Ellington is unusually candid in her answers to our questions.

Benson: Similar themes run through a lot of your work: Loyalty, betrayal, and the Misfit.

Ellington: I’ve been a misfit all my life. I’ve never fit anywhere. I learned not only to live with it, but enjoy it. Growing up, the one big rule in the household was that you never do or want something because “everyone” does it or wants it. Do the research, make your own decision. We’re getting more and more into a mind state of over-medication and irresponsibility. Nothing is anyone’s fault – always blame someone else. Take a pill and fix it. Not only does that cause personality to crumble, but I don’t like giving up control of myself and my life to someone who probably doesn’t have my best interests at heart. Often in my work, characters have been hurt because they wanted to be accepted in spite of being non-conformist, and, over the course of the story, they learn not only self-acceptance, but how to find others who will accept them on their own terms without fear or manipulation. How people find each other, how people mesh, especially when they are individualists rather than conformists, really interests me. That intersection between fate and choice is something that fascinates me. Everyone gets there differently. Just because you were hurt by someone in the past doesn’t mean you have to punish everyone who comes into your life in the future, which is something I think happens frequently. And yet, you also have to have a certain amount of defense mechanisms, you have to learn from experience to experience, or you keep making the same mistakes. How one learns, how one applies it is all very interesting. Loyalty is very important to me; however, people are going to disappoint you, hurt you, even if that’s not the intent. That’s the nature of human relationships. There are predators, but, for the most part, people are muddling along doing the best they can, and responding the best way they can, even if it’s not the response you want. That exploration of the muddling and the unmuddling, when it’s worth to keep investing in someone else, when you need to walk away . . .I think it’s a universal dilemma. Part of my job as a writer is to explore those permutations, make the personal universal and the universal personal.

Benson: You’re teaching at the Muse Online Conference again this year, correct?

Ellington: Yes, I’ll be teaching the dialogue workshop again for the entire week in October. It’s a great conference. There are so many wonderful workshops, it’s online, so you do it in your own time, and it’s free. Last year I developed my Nano novel for it.

Benson: For those who don’t know, Nano is National Novel Writing Month. (www.nanowrimo.org) During the month of November, tens of thousands of people all over the world commit to writing 50,000 words in 30 days. Was last year your first Nano?

Ellington: My third. My second year as a mentor, but my third overall.

Benson: What’s come out of Nano?

Ellington: The first year’s was called THE FIX-IT GIRL, about a woman in the publicity department of a Hollywood studio in the 1930s. I need to break it into two books and do some re-structuring. There was just too much in there for one book. The second year I tried my hand at romantic suspense with something called ASSUMPTION OF RIGHT. It was a mess, I was trying to stretch out of my comfort zone, and there’s some very bad writing in it, although recently I’ve had someone interested in it. If that ever does see the light of day, it’ll go under a completely different name. Last year, I developed EARTH BRIDE in Christine Amsden’s world-building workshop – she calls it “science fantasy”, because it mixes elements of both the science fiction and fantasy genres. That worked pretty well, although it’s nowhere near ready for submission. But that was my first foray into that genre, and really opened up my confidence in writing mythological fantasy, which is what’s sold for me recently. But, because the point of Nano is quantity, not quality, it can get frustrating, and anything created during that month needs much more work than material created elsewhere. There’s also a burnout factor where, at the end of Nano, I just can’t look at it anymore, sometimes for years. Which is bad, because unfinished work drains everything else.

Benson: How did you develop a book while you taught?

Ellington: I took both Christine’s workshop and Karina Fabian’s workshop, and developed science-fantasy pieces in each. It was fun, because Karina took my workshop, and we both took Christine’s – if it had been in life, instead of virtual, we wouldn’t have been allowed to sit together. I did the homework for their workshops, which got the creative juices flowing, and worked with my students, and did a lot of yoga poses in between hours at the computer. EARTH BRIDE pulled harder, the characters would not shut up, so that was my Nano; I need to do more reading in biology for the other piece because so much of the story is based on plant and animal life. I’m a taskmaster – my students had daily exercises, which they posted and I critiqued, sent them back to do rewrites, etc. Several of them have published their first pieces in the year since, so I’m proud of the progress. 200 people signed up for my workshop, but about 40 did the daily exercises. Still, 40 exercises/day to critique takes time. You want to give every piece the attention it deserves.

Benson: You mentioned you mentor during Nano. How does that work?

Ellington: Yeah, there’s this thing where first-years get adopted by people who have done it before. To hit 50K in 30 days, you only have to do 1661 words/day, but I like to do 2500 words/day and be done before Thanksgiving. I send them daily encouragement emails as a group and then hop on and off the forum all day to answer individual questions.

Benson: How many do you mentor?

Ellington: The first year, it was around thirteen, fifteen? Something like that. Last year I had thirty-four.

Benson: Thirty-four?

Ellington: Yeah, it was a bit much. And some of them drop out because they don’t have the commitment, although I have very little patience with that. I want to be inclusive, but people who don’t keep up their end of the bargain, which is to write every day, drain everyone. If I do Nano again this year – and it’s a big “if” – and I mentor, then I’ll make some changes in how I do it.

Benson: How do you do it?

Ellington: I keep the same writing schedule I do outside of Nano: Get up early, feed the cats (because nothing gets done if the cats are hungry), put on the coffee, do my yoga, and then write. Normally, it’s my first 1000 words of the day; during Nano, it’s the first 2500 words of the day. Anyone in my life has to accept the fact that once I’m actually out of the bed, don’t talk to me for the first two hours of the day until I get the yoga and the first 1K of the day complete. It’s non-negotiable. Then, during Nano, I send out the daily encouragements, then I write the blog, check email, and go back to whatever writing’s on deadline, and switch off on projects all day, depending on what needs to be done. I usually read or do research in the afternoons. I’m good in the morning or at night – afternoons are low-energy for me, and I have trouble focusing. On anything. I’m basically useless. If I’m working in the theatre, I have a truncated writing day – especially on matinee days – because I have to give myself two hours to get in, due to lousy train service. If I don’t have shows, I’ll usually spend evenings with friends or loved ones, or maybe do a workshop or a reading, or if someone I know is performing, I’ll go see them, or, if the writing’s going well (or I’m on a tight deadline), write some more at night. When I lived in Manhattan, working in theatre full-time, I went out after shows at least five nights a week – I mean, I’m in New York, I should take advantage of it, right? But now that I have an hour and a half to two hour commute AND the trains stop running at a certain point, I usually have to leave directly after the show to make a train so I can get home sometime between midnight and one a.m. Sometimes I’ll go out for a glass of wine, but I have to keep checking the time.

Benson: Do you write when you come back from the theatre?

Ellington: Rarely. I’m too tired and I’m covered in the energy of the people with whom I’ve worked. That’s not a bad thing, it just affects the writing. And then it’s battling across town through the crowds to get back to the train station, and dealing with the drunks on the train ride home. I need to relax with a glass of red wine, shower, chill out for awhile, play with the cats, or they’ll keep me up all night, maybe check email – it takes me a couple of hours to putter around and go to bed. I get back around midnight most nights, so it’s usually about 2 before I get to sleep. Sometimes, if a character’s been talking in my ear all night, I’ll write a few pages just so the character will shut up, but usually I write first thing in the morning, before I’ve had contact with the world.

Benson: When do you normally get up?

Ellington: Without an alarm, around 6 or 7, depending how late it was went I went to sleep. If I haven’t had a show the night before, anywhere between 4 AM and 6 AM. If I don’t get to bed until 2, it’s later, and then there’s usually one day a week where I’ll go back to bed in the afternoon to catch up.

Benson: Do you ever take a day off?

Ellington: That’s why I freelance; so I can take time off whenever I want! I usually have a floating day off, whenever the mood strikes. And some days, the writing goes badly, so I give myself the day off to replenish the creative well. Read a book, go to a museum – looking at paintings always gets the words flowing again.

Benson: Do you get writer’s block?

Ellington: I don’t have the luxury of writer’s block. This is my business, not my hobby, as well as being my passion and my vocation. But it’s not what I do on the side. I don’t rely on anyone else’s income – it’s all up to me. On the bad days, you have to rely on craft to get you through. If you only write when you feel like it, in this day and age, you won’t be able to sustain a career. Unless you’re in that top tier of money earners, you also have to be able to juggle multiple projects, and you also have to realize that plenty of them will never see light of day. But, hopefully, you learn something on each one that you can apply to the next one.

On Friday, we run the final installment of the interview. Ellington discusses writing on the road, relationships, editing, and what she believes in the electronic publishing vs. traditional print conflict.

To read an excerpt of Hex Breaker, visit the website.

To purchase a copy of HEX BREAKER, visit FireDrakes Weyr Publishing.

Part 6:  Mythology, How Working Behind the Scenes Influences the Writing, HEX BREAKER, Erotica, and Solitude

The prolific Devon Ellington seems to be everywhere these days – she writes the column “The Literary Athlete” for THE SCRUFFY DOG REVIEW, has the high-traffic blog on the writing life Ink in My Coffee , covers sports for FEMMEFAN .  Her fiction has been published in ESPRESSO FICTION, WILD CHILD, THE ROSE AND THORN, THEMA, EMERGING WOMEN WRITERS, GRIT, THE SCRUFFY DOG REVIEW, and more; her non-fiction credits include TOASTED CHEESE, HAMPTON FAMILY LIFE, THE CRAFTY TRAVELLER, THE SAVVY GAL, BLESSED GARDENS, THE ARMCHAIR DETECTIVE, and ELLE.  Her plays have been produced in the Edinburgh Festival Fringe twice and the Adelaide Festival Fringe (in Australia) once, as well as in London and New York.

 

Ellington publishes under several names.  August 1 saw the release of her paranormal action/adventure novella HEX BREAKER from Firedrakes Weyr Publishing.  In September, NEW MYTHS will publish “The Merry’s Dalliance”, a pirate fantasy, and her play BEHIND THE MAN opens Cloverleaf’s January 2009 season.  The notoriously reclusive Ellington is unusually candid in her answers to our questions.

Benson:          Do you watch a lot of TV?

 

Ellington:        Not really.  Isn’t that terrible?  If I’m up for a job, or I’m updating my portfolio, I’ll sit and watch a bunch of episodes in a row.  Mostly, I’ll watch something I worked on to see how different what’s aired is from what we shot, and what I can learn from it. I watch what my friends are on.  I watch what colleagues and former colleagues are on.  Only then do I get to watch something that might catch my attention.  I used to tape stuff I missed and wanted to see, but I never got around to watching it, so I just don’t anymore.  Or, if I’m interviewing someone, as I’m preparing to do for a piece, I’ll watch the whole season on DVD to get a sense of character and story arcs and process, so I can ask relevant questions.  I recently worked with an actor who is just fantastically creative and talented and wonderful, both on and off-stage, who was on a show I’d pretty much stopped watching just before his character came on to it, so now I have to go back and catch up!

 

Benson:          What about reality television?

 

Ellington:        I loathe it.  I won’t watch it.  Why should these people be rewarded for being their worst selves?

 

Benson:          How has working behind-the-scenes helped your writing?

 

Ellington:        It’s taught me a lot about structure, plot, and arcs both for story and character.  It’s taught me how to layer character cadence over an actor’s natural cadence. For instance, I’ve written a script.  The character cadences are specific – it’s the old adage in prose where you shouldn’t need tags like “she said” and “he said” to know who’s talking.  Then, you get actors.  A good actor can adapt to any cadence, but also has his own innate way of speaking.  So, in the rehearsal room, I’ll do some tweaks to align the two a little more, make the character cadence and the actor’s natural rhythm overlap a bit, so it truly sounds like the actor is thinking up the words in the moment.  Sometimes it’s just changing word here and there.  There’s usually cutting involved.  I like to cut in rehearsal.

 

Benson:          Why?

 

Ellington:        An actor brings dimension to what’s on the page.  A good actor in the right role will take it far beyond what I could have imagined in the writing process.  There’s the walk, the way the actor holds his body, the small gestures he comes up with in rehearsal – all of those add to the overall character, and usually mean you can get rid of unnecessary words.  There are plenty of times when the actor can communicate what’s going on, so we can cut the words and let the actor, well, ACT.

 

Benson:          HEX BREAKER takes place on a film set.  How much reality is there in it?

 

Ellington:        Um, let’s see, zombies on a film set?  Not so much!  Seriously, I wrote it on a dare.  The scene where Jain has to cut off Mike’s head and the car chase scene came to me while going home after excruciatingly long days on set, driving home in a bad mood.  And then I had to do some research into zombie mythology, because that’s a whole folklore that’s never really captured me.  And I changed some things.

 

Benson:          You mix several different mythologies.

 

Ellington:        Yes.  And then I tweak them a little to serve the story.

 

Benson:          Are the characters based on specific actors or films?

 

Ellington:        Originally, yes; but they grew away from their inspirations and became their own people.  When I’m doing my job properly, that’s what happens.

 

Benson:          Can you tell us who they are?

 

Ellington:        No.  I can tell you that the characters of Zig and Randy are based on two wardrobe buddies of mine and that opening premise came out of a dream I had while working with Randy last year.  So when I was handed the dare, several things coalesced, or maybe they congealed, depending upon how you look at it.  Jain Lazarus appeared, and started telling me her story, and these other bits kind of fell into place in it, so off we went.

 

Benson:          The Jain Lazarus Adventures are a series?

 

Ellington:        Hopefully!  The second one, currently titled OLD-FASHIONED DETECTIVE WORK, is told through Wyatt’s eyes.  I’m almost done with the first draft.    The third will be told through Billy Root’s eyes – at the end of HEX BREAKER, he decides to quit acting and train with the people who trained Jain in the use of her, um, special skills. He’s intelligent and funny, so it will be interesting to watch him hone his talent.  Then we’ll go back to Jain’s POV, and the big finale, for which Niall will return from the underworld.  Wyatt and Niall were both surprises in the writing process, and they’re characters to whom the Trusted Readers have strongly responded, so we’ll see more of them.  I had no idea Wyatt was going to be a character in these stories until he sauntered in during Chapter Two of HEX BREAKER and took over.

 

Benson:          Your first published work was in erotica, right?

 

Ellington:        My FIRST published work was when I was, like eight, in local magazines.  And I wrote for local newspapers in high school, wrote plays, stuff like that.  I got away from it in college because I worked in production. I worked my way through NYU film school by working in theatre and doing work-study for the Interactive Telecommunications Program, which is a little backwards.  I was the really practical one in film school, ended up doing the production management work, so I got away from the writing.  I hated being a PA on features after college, so I went back into theatre, lived in different places around the country for a few years, then came back and started working in New York again.  I started writing seriously again in the early 90s, some plays, but my lover at the time landed an erotica contract.  I read some of what he’d written and was like, “that’s no so hard, I can do that” and he said, “well, why don’t you, then?” so I did, and then he got mad because I published more than he did.  Women were just starting to break into the field, so I was lucky.

 

Benson:          Did you like writing erotica?

 

Ellington:        Sometimes.  One of the reasons I stopped was because I kept getting shot down for putting humor in it.  I think sex is a lot of fun and can be very funny, so why not enjoy it, but, especially at that time, humor was frowned on.  Now that you have not only the surge in erotica, but romantica, you’re getting more humor, like with Jill Shalvis and Annette Blair, in that vein, it’s more accepted, but not back when I started.  Also, it’s very technical writing, so there’s a high burn-out factor.

 

Benson:          Technical, how?

 

Ellington:        Oh, gosh, how can I phrase this without everything becoming a double entendre?  When you write regular prose, or a play or whatever, you’re trying to evoke an emotional response from the reader or the audience.  In erotica, you’re going for the physical response.  If  it’s a piece where the characters wind up dancing off into the sunset together, more romantica that straight-up erotica, you’re going for both, but the main intent is still getting the physical response. It’s not nicknamed “friction fiction” for nothing.  So you have to approach it with a clinical sense of structure and rhythm. It’s less about character and more about biology.   I don’t find it particularly fulfilling as a writer.  It’s kind of like, okay, I met that challenge, I’ve done it, time to try something new, as far as craft and genre.

 

Benson:          And I suppose there are limitations.

 

Ellington:        The human body is amazing, especially when you apply some imagination and a good lubricant.

 

Benson:          Would you ever go back to it?

 

Ellington:        I don’t know.  For the right money, probably.  I am just that mercenary.   But I’d either have to resurrect a retired name or create a new one, and it would have to be marketed separately, not connected to any of my other work.

 

Benson:          You think it would hurt your career?

 

Ellington:        I don’t feel like I should have to explain myself, and if you write erotica, there’s too much justification involved.  Oooh, how can you write books for kids if you’re writing about sex?  What?  The kids’ books have nothing to do with it, and how do you think those kids were created in the first place?  It’s not like I’m going to slip sexual references into a children’s picture book.  Actually, the questions are worse from people who kind of know you, but don’t really, because they imagine you’re writing about them, or about your fantasy of them.  When in reality, it’s like, Buddy, if I wanted you, I would have had you already. You know?  Any man who’s in my bed is way too sacred to be splattered all over the page somewhere.  I keep real life very separate from my work.

 

Benson:          You never use a man you know in your work?  That’s hard to believe.

 

Ellington:        Oh, I’ve killed off all the exes in fiction.  Much healthier than revenge or sulking, don’t you think?  It gets a little weird when, a few years later you’re back on cordial terms with them, but oh, well.  The good men – yeah, they’ve been inspirations for protagonists, but when I do my job properly, they evolve into individuals separate from the men who inspired them, not the same guy with his name changed or a different color hair. If I write a role with a specific actor in mind, I write it because I think he has the chops to pull it off, not because I’m writing to put his real personality on screen.  I’m trying to show another layer of his talent, not expose his personal life or fulfill some fantasy.  I stopped fantasizing about actors when I started working with them on a regular basis.

 

Benson:          Do you do a lot of social networking?

 

Ellington:        I have a MySpace page.  I haven’t really figured out how to utilize MySpace to its full potential.  Joe Konrath is the master at it; I’m trying to learn from him.  Mostly, MySpace has exposed me to a bunch of indie musicians I might never have found otherwise.  I don’t have a Facebook account, I don’t do Twitter.  I belong to Media Bistro and attend their events in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, but that’s kind of it.  I’m not a very social person.  I’m more one-on-one.  Ink in My Coffee is my best tool for social networking – I look at it as morning coffee with friends and colleagues, where we can brainstorm.  And I visit back and forth with a bunch of other blogs. It’s that old, “to have a friend, you need to be a friend” thing.

 

Benson:          Do you find writing lonely?

 

Ellington:        No.  I mean, you’re living with all these characters who, when you’re immersed in the process, are very real in the moment.  All those voices in my head – it can get very crowded.  I need a lot of solitude, a lot of percolation time.  I can’t be around people for extended periods of time, even people I love.  I need a lot of quiet time. If I’m in an intense work period, I can go for weeks without seeing anyone, just in contact via email.  I’m getting better about balancing it – after all, I want to be a good friend when my friends need it, not just when I need it. If a friend is in trouble, I’m there, no questions asked, without strings attached.  I’ve gotten a phone call from a friend and driven straight to the airport and jumped on the next plane to wherever.  It’s not an issue, or a problem.  You’re my friend, you need me, I’m there, no questions asked.

 

Besides, it’s often lonelier to be in a large group than to be off on your own somewhere.  I was on a tour once that was the loneliest experience of my life.  Part of that was working for someone who was crazy, would pick a target, and do as much emotional damage as possible.  I was the target of that for awhile – nearly quit the tour, actually.  And sometimes I chose to draw fire because I knew I could take it better than the target du jour.  But it wasn’t fun.  And, certainly, I’ve found the loneliest place to be is in an unhealthy relationship.  I’m lucky to have built a strong network of friends so that doesn’t happen as much as it did, say, in my mid-twenties.  I really don’t think you can be an equal partner in a relationship if you’re not comfortable with your individuality and you’re afraid to be alone.  I think there’s a huge difference between loneliness and solitude.

On Monday:  Themes in the work, The Muse Online Writers Conference, Nano, mentoring, and writing routines.

To read an excerpt from Hex Breaker, visit the website.

To purchase HEX BREAKER, visit FireDrakes Weyr Publishing.

 

Part 5: Friendship, Touring, Working with Actors as a Writer

The prolific Devon Ellington seems to be everywhere these days – she writes the column “The Literary Athlete” for THE SCRUFFY DOG REVIEW , has the high-traffic blog on the writing life Ink in My Coffee, covers sports for FEMMEFAN . Her fiction has been published in ESPRESSO FICTION, WILD CHILD, THE ROSE AND THORN, THEMA, EMERGING WOMEN WRITERS, GRIT, THE SCRUFFY DOG REVIEW, and more; her non-fiction credits include TOASTED CHEESE, HAMPTON FAMILY LIFE, THE CRAFTY TRAVELLER, THE SAVVY GAL, BLESSED GARDENS, THE ARMCHAIR DETECTIVE, and ELLE. Her plays have been produced in the Edinburgh Festival Fringe twice and the Adelaide Festival Fringe (in Australia) once, as well as in London and New York.

Ellington publishes under several names. August 1 saw the release of her paranormal action/adventure novella HEX BREAKER from Firedrakes Weyr Publishing. In September, NEW MYTHS will publish “The Merry’s Dalliance”, a pirate fantasy, and her play BEHIND THE MAN opens Cloverleaf’s January 2009 season. The notoriously reclusive Ellington is unusually candid in her answers to our questions.

Benson: Do you consider any of them (actors) friends?

Ellington: Some of them, yes, but that doesn’t mean we’re in touch every single day. And of course, there are work friends, where you spend a lot of time on the show, but then not until the next show, and there are actual, real friends. Some I’m closer with than others. It’s like any friendship; there are ebbs and flows. Sometimes, too, you can have a great experience working with someone, but don’t get the chance to spend time outside of the show. So sometimes you lay the foundation of the friendship in the initial working relationship, keep in touch, and it builds over time. And it’s at a different place the next time you work together. And then there are actors where I started as their dresser, but as the friendship developed over time, it really works better for them to have someone else as their dresser and we just go to dinner and catch up when they’re in town, or I write for them instead of dress them. The dynamic has shifted. There are actors with whom I wasn’t that close on a run, but for whatever reason, we kept in touch, became friends, and then actively sought out ways to work together. There are also those people you stay in loose touch with, but it doesn’t mean you’re not close – in trouble, you’d always have each other’s back – and then, when you land on the next project together, it’s like you just left the dressing room together yesterday. You pick up immediately where you left off, but better.

The great thing about working with people over and over again, especially when you like them, is you develop a shorthand. You have to be careful, though, that it doesn’t seem like an exclusive club to others on the show. That can be detrimental to the overall backstage atmosphere. Although I’ve been on shows that have been such a mess that the actor and I had to bond with an “us-against-the-world” attitude for sheer survival, especially in out-of-town tryouts.

Benson: Do you tour a lot?

Ellington: No. Through the years I discovered that, although I prefer theatre work to film work, I prefer film (or TV) location work to touring theatre.

Benson: Why?

Ellington: It’s my own eccentricities, my own personal weirdness. In film, you’re there for a very finite period of time, the hours are brutal, it’s intense, and you don’t have much time to do anything but live the project for that concentrated period. Touring theatre, I find I feel cooped up, resentful of being on other people’s schedules, and trapped. It’s lonely in a lot of ways (even when you have an amazing group of people), but at the same time, I don’t have enough solitude to get any real writing done. I travel a lot for the writing, and I like being on my own schedule when I’m out of town, not on someone else’s. Also, road contracts for crews have been decimated over the last few negotiations. It used to be lucrative to go on tour for a few years; now, it costs money unless you’re in a relationship with a fellow tour member and can save at least one person’s income. I also resent it when local crew makes twice what I do, when they have one fourth of the skills. I get claustrophobic and then I act out. At this point, I’d go out for a limited time because a specific actor asked me to and put me in the contract, but not book a tour just to work a tour.

I do miss the feeling of “home” one has working in a regional or repertory company, though. Talk about developing a shorthand with these people – -you’re together all season. Even when you can’t stand each other any more, you still miss each other. I had the sense of “home” on SAIGON, because it not only ran for years, but it was an extraordinary group of people. Everyone was working on creative projects all the time. We’d swap manuscript drafts, play new songs for each other, figure out designs, artwork, it was constant creativity. When one person went off to do a showcase of original work somewhere, that person knew at least 100 people from the show – cast, crew, everyone – would show up in support. I keep looking for it again on other Broadway shows, but I haven’t found it. This summer, in particular, while working on another show – a show I loved working on — I missed SAIGON so much sometimes it caused physical pain. There were days where my heart was literally sore. And I hadn’t thought that much about the show for several years; it closed in 2000.

As an aside, I’ve realized I’ve talked a lot about money in several of the questions. There are projects you do for love and projects you do for money; when you’re lucky, they’re one and the same. But, if you’re going to survive in this business, you have to remember it’s a business. Unfortunately, those who hold the purse strings believe – and I’ve sat across from them at negotiations and they’ve flat out said so – believe that we – actors, writers, crew, etc. – should feel privileged to work in this business, and, basically, we should pay them to work in it. Uh, no. If they didn’t have creative work, actors, and crew, there’d be nothing for them to sell. That’s why the writers had to take a stand, why the stagehands had to strike, and why the actor negotiations got so much attention lately. Producers have no product, no reason to exist, without the rest of us, so they need to stop acting like they’re doing us a favor by signing an occasional check.

Benson: How different is your relationship with actors when you’re the writer?

Ellington: I still strive to create an atmosphere of trust. I sometimes manage to get on as a co-producer on things I write, and I thrash out a lot of ground rules with the rest of the producers and the director before we walk into the rehearsal room. I don’t sit quietly in the rehearsal room and not speak to the actors. I don’t contradict the director – we’ll sort out our differences in private and present a united front – but I won’t sit there and whisper to the director who then talks to the actors. We’re not playing telephone. If I have something to say, I’ll say it. I try to retain at least casting approval, although I prefer to participate in the entire process, so we usually start with a pretty solid bunch with a firm foundation and the beginnings of a connection. If you give up rights, it better be for a boatload of cash, and then you better keep your mouth shut if you disagree with their decisions.

Benson: How do you cast?

Ellington: I have an intense casting process. Sometimes, I’ve written a role with an actor in mind, so that person is attached from Day One, and that’s all settled. But if a person has to leave for whatever reason or we’re starting from scratch – I start with 20 minute appointments. I always hire a professional actor to read with auditionees. I think it’s unfair to expect an actor to read with some little office assistant. I usually ask for a 2 minute Shakespeare monologue and a 2 minute contemporary monologue, and then I hand the actor some of my work for a cold reading. There are a few minutes of chatting, to get a sense of who the person is.

Most actors really blossom during the process, because they’re used to being treated like cattle, but there are always a few where you go, what are they thinking? Like the actor who took off his shirt and gave me a lap dance – honey, that is SO not getting you the job, I don’t care how hot you are – or the guy who came in to audition for a tough guy and thought pulling a switchblade on me would impress me. He was flat on his back with the knife at his throat before he knew what hit him. I lived on the Deuce for 13 years before it was Disneyfied – you don’t pull a knife on me and not expect to eat it.

Every actor who auditions gets a phone call, whether they’re cast or not. And sometimes, I’ve seen someone I really liked who wasn’t right for anything in the piece, so I either wrote in an additional role or wrote something else and cast the person in it as the next piece down the line.

Callbacks usually run an hour. I don’t call actors back frivolously. If there’s a callback, there’s something I see in them that I seriously think I’m going to use in the project. I like to see how the actor takes direction, I like to see how much the actor dares to be inventive, if the person can think on his feet. I tend to cast the people who connect most strongly to the work, which means I usually wind up with a pretty diverse cast. There’s an element of colorblind casting to it, but without the quota system.

For MOON TRIBE TALES, because it was a large, ensemble cast and we were going to be together for six months to develop the piece, we mixed and matched the callbacks in groups, doing improves as well as pre-written ensemble scenes, because the chemistry between the actresses was so vital. We had thirteen actresses playing at least a half a dozen roles each. I think we had something like 90 characters in the whole production. There was another project, which, unfortunately, never made it through the casting stage where we knew we had to rent an ice rink for callbacks, because a good portion of the cast had to be skaters. AND they had to have good chemistry together. We didn’t have time to hire an actor who lied about skating ability and then set them up with a coach. They had to be excellent skaters, because we’d only have two weeks to prep them in the skating sequences before shooting.

When we filmed PLATEAU, we cast for nearly a month, and someone I had tossed into the pool from the submissions as a wild card – there was something in his eyes – wound up winning the part. We had an intensive rehearsal process for about three weeks, much of it filmed, so when we got to the location (we had four days to shoot the sucker), all we had to do was camera block and shoot.

On Friday: Television, Mythology, How Working Backstage influenced the writing, and, finally . . .HEX BREAKER.

To read an excerpt of Hex Breaker, visit the site for the Jain Lazarus Adventures.

To purchase a copy of HEX BREAKER, visit the FireDrakes Weyr Publishing site.

Part Four: Working Behind-The-Scenes

The prolific Devon Ellington seems to be everywhere these days – she writes the column “The Literary Athlete” for THE SCRUFFY DOG REVIEW , has the high-traffic blog on the writing life Ink in My Coffee , covers sports for FEMMEFAN . Her fiction has been published in ESPRESSO FICTION, WILD CHILD, THE ROSE AND THORN, THEMA, EMERGING WOMEN WRITERS, GRIT, THE SCRUFFY DOG REVIEW, and more; her non-fiction credits include TOASTED CHEESE, HAMPTON FAMILY LIFE, THE CRAFTY TRAVELLER, THE SAVVY GAL, BLESSED GARDENS, THE ARMCHAIR DETECTIVE, and ELLE. Her plays have been produced in the Edinburgh Festival Fringe twice and the Adelaide Festival Fringe (in Australia) once, as well as in London and New York.

Ellington publishes under several names. August 1 saw the release of her paranormal action/adventure novella HEX BREAKER from Firedrakes Weyr Publishing. In September, NEW MYTHS will publish “The Merry’s Dalliance”, a pirate fantasy, and her play BEHIND THE MAN opens Cloverleaf’s January 2009 season. The notoriously reclusive Ellington is unusually candid in her answers to our questions.

In Part Three of the interview, she began discussing her twenty-plus years working backstage in theatre, film, and television, which continues here:

Benson: Are enjoyable actors the exception?

Ellington: I’ve been really lucky and worked with mostly good people. If you’re going to have a career on Broadway, you have to be collaborative and easy to work with. Unless you’re a searingly brilliant talent, complicated diva behavior will eventually come back to bite you in the ass. The daily grind is just too hard, and eventually, people won’t want to work with you. I mean, I’ve worked with a lot of actors who were labeled “difficult”, but in reality, they were specific, and we got along fine. And then there’s a very short list of people with whom I won’t work again – the way they feel in control and important is to inflict pain, especially emotionally, and it’s just not worth it. The only way they feel alive is to spread misery on everyone around them. That’s not process, or “method”. It’s mean. It’s dysfunctional. We all spend too much time in too small a space to be cooped up with people like that. Even if it was film money, in my mind, it wouldn’t be worth it.

There are also those who act like you’re just the greatest thing ever backstage and then don’t acknowledge your existence outside the building. I don’t mean you have to be best buddies with them outside the show, but if they act like they don’t know you when you’re elsewhere . . .uh, no. You’ve got to cut your losses with them, stay professional, but keep a distance. Those tend to be people who don’t have a lot of theatre experience, who don’t understand it’s a partnership not master/servant relationship. It’s important not to invest yourself in anyone who’s inconsistent in the way they deal with you. They’re playing you, and they’ll suck you dry if you give them a chance. There’s also an element of co-protection involved in the relationship. If I’m willing to go to the mat for someone, I also expect that if management is unhappy with that, the actor will step up and say, “I want this person with me. Deal.” Unfortunately, you sometimes encounter actors who want you to fight their battles for them, but when it comes time for them simply to state that you’re doing what they need, they give you up to save themselves. Of course, it’s best to find that out about someone in a situation that’s not all that important in the overall scheme of the universe, like backstage, than if you were in an actual life-or-death situation. You know you can never trust them if there’s a tough situation and can protect yourself, no matter how disappointed or hurt you might feel on a personal level. Ultimately, you can choose not to have them in your life on any level after a particular experience.

And then, of course, actors sometimes step up and surprise you. I was once brought in at the last minute to a very troubled show, and, as the tech process continued, they decided to cut a dresser. It should have been me, because I was the last person hired; however, the actors with whom I worked made it clear to management that they wanted me. Someone else was cut. Once an actor put me in the contract, but the supervisor didn’t want me there, so she kept putting off calling me. The actor finally said, “Look, if she’s not at the next run-through, I’m leaving. It’s a condition of my contract that she does the production with me, or I don’t do the show.” I was at the run-through. That mutual loyalty is very important, and you tend to get that from seasoned theatrical people rather than film or television actors who make the occasional foray into theatre. The backstage partnership is much more equal between actor and dresser than between actor and key wardrobe on set.

In my experience, in film and television, there’s behavior that’s not only tolerated but enabled, in the name of staying on schedule, that would never fly in the theatre.

I’m concerned about the turn theatre is taking now, with more film people making production decisions. You can’t run a show like a film set. It’s collaborative in a different sense, with a lot less hierarchy and jockeying for power than you find in film and television. You have to be a lot more self-sufficient in theatre, because you don’t have a bunch of hungry, underpaid PAs trailing after everyone to clean up the mess. I think I’m getting out of the backstage part of it just in time. I’ll just have to be in the rehearsal room as a writer rather than as a production person.

I don’t like the hierarchy in film, or the slowness. It’s like charting a military operation, to get it all done. I am twisted enough to enjoy doing call sheets and script breakdowns, but that’s just me. I do like the fact that, in film and television, you capture the performance and it lives forever, whereas in theatre, it’s a momentary experience – which, paradoxically, is one of the wonderful things about theatre.

My only real experience in television is episodic drama. I know a lot of people who won’t sign on as crew for an episodic because, in their words, “it hurts too much”. The hours are brutal, for actors and crew. I think I’ve only had one day in all my experience that was a straight eight hour work day. The dramas on which I’ve worked have had eight-day shooting schedules, so you’re trying to get the whole thing done in eight days and move on to the next episode, and that means a combination of location and studio work. In ambitious shows, it’s nearly impossible, so there are days where you’re shooting the new episode, but the company is split with part of it shooting from the previous episode or several previous episodes. I worked one drama, where, in my first two days on the show, I worked on five different episodes. Continuity is vital. I spent most of those two days trotting around after the same actor from unit to unit, matching him to the continuity photos taken weeks earlier. Thank god he shared his sides with me, because no one had thought to give me a script, and he was so relieved not to have to worry – I found out later I’d replaced someone who kept putting him in the wrong clothes. It was one of the few experiences where the relationship was almost like being backstage.

In film, it’s often shot at about two pages a day (although on indies I’ve production managed, we tried to work a lot faster than that), for television it’s between 6 and 10 pages, but you’re going for a lot of the same quality. I also think there are too many layers in television – too many people have a say in the final product, and it dilutes the vision. The importance of a brilliant show runner is crucial, to keep the overall vision intact. It used to be that just sitcoms were written by committee, but now it seems like everything is. If I worked my way up in television as a writer, I’d want to train with a good show runner, because a million years into the future, I’d want to show run anything I created. You can tell when a show switches show runners – it’s jarring as an audience member, even if you’re not exactly sure why. I can’t imagine being a show runner for something like LOST or STARGATE ATLANTIS. I’d die. I’m very detail-oriented when it comes to consistency or continuity, but shows like that would kill me. Of course, as a writer, those shows are the ones that are fun, especially when they’re well-cast.

Benson: How honest are you with the actors you work with?

Ellington: In what respect?

Benson: Any respect.

Ellington: Well, I’m not going to sit around giving them notes, no matter what I think about the performance, unless I’m one of the creators of the material. If you’re talking about how I work with them backstage, it completely depends on my relationship with the individual actor. I don’t lie to them, no matter what. Not even when management asks me to.

Benson: Does that happen often?

Ellington: Not often, but it’s happened more than once. Once, in particular, I was on a show because I’d been in a particular actor’s contract. Management asked me to lie to her and I said, “No, she brought me on to this because she knew you’d lie and I wouldn’t.” There are definitely actors with whom I have a strong enough relationship where I can say, “You’re really being an ass today” or “hey, you changed that inflection, that was really nice” and some where you just walk away, or you say, “Don’t cross that line with me.” There are some where you don’t say anything, but you stand in the wings and go, “Oh, he’s tired today, he’s chewing the scenery”, but it’s not always appropriate to say anything. You just adjust what you to do take some of the strain off him. If an actor actually wants and respects my opinion on something, I’ll say what I really think. I worked with one particularly needy actress who wanted to be told how good she was in every change. I finally said, “Look, I’m going to tell you you’re good once a show. If you use it up in the first quick change, you’re shit out of luck for the rest of the night” and I stuck to it.

In other words, don’t ask unless you want the real answer. One of the things I say in preliminary principal dressing interviews is, “If you want a Yes Man, don’t hire me.” There’s a short list for whom I’d take a bullet, literally or figuratively, but I’m not an ass kisser. I think ass kissing breaks the trust you need to work successfully backstage. If something goes wrong, the actor has got to trust me to take care of it, not flutter around trying to get someone else to deal with it. Whether that means not gossiping about what’s said in the dressing room to trying to anticipate something the actor needs if he’s sick or low energy or upset or whatever to knowing when to shut the hell up. Confidentiality in the dressing room is vital, especially when you’re dealing with actors as a dresser. There are some really nasty people out there, lying in public about these performers. Of course, my first instinct is to hunt them down and just rip them to shreds on every level, but that’s not always the most effective solution. I’ve got a piece in progress that was inspired by horrible lies about an actor with whom I’ve worked closely in the past, before he became well-known, and with whom I’ve stayed close. I found these lies by accident, when I was doing research for a completely different piece on tabloids. To me, the only use of a tabloid is if I run out of cat litter and haven’t made it to the store. It’s all crap, and badly written crap at that. But my characters were in the public eye and had to deal with a smear campaign, so I decided, well, maybe I should take a look at this schlock. Once I finished throwing up . . .seriously, it was that bad, and it hurt to see someone I care about, someone I know very well lied about that way . . .and once I was convinced by the friend who was the target that it wasn’t worth committing an act of violence over . . .I wrote about it. I have a particularly grisly way for this son-of-a-bitch to answer for those lies. In this case, I am indulging in Mary Sue-ism, because I’m setting out in graphic detail how I’d like this person to pay for striking out at someone I love.

To get back to the question, if I’m nice to an actor, or I give the person a compliment, it’s because I mean it, not because I want something. I look at our work together as a partnership, not them as a steppingstone. I have a life once I leave the stage door. Unfortunately, quite a few star dressers define themselves by who they dress. I’m invested in them as fellow human beings on the journey, but dressing someone who’s famous does nothing for me except make it more difficult to get out of the stage door at night, you know? If you’re on Broadway for more than ten minutes, you’ll work with someone high profile. I’m in wardrobe, trust me: They’re all the same in their underwear, no matter how much money they’re pulling in. And part of my job is to make sure that when they’re in the dressing room, when they’re on stage, when they’re in the middle of a change . . .no one violates them in any way, be it physically or psychologically. You can’t prevent everything, especially since theatre audiences seem to think they’re watching videos in their living rooms lately. But you try. Being an audience member at a live performance is a privilege. I’m getting sick of audience members who don’t respect that. It’s much more fun at someplace like the Edinburgh Festival, where your audience comes to the show, and they take you out to the bar after not because they’re trying to sleep with you or make money off you, but because they actually have interesting opinions and ideas about the themes in the work.

Benson: You’re pretty intense about your commitment to the actors.

Ellington: Yeah, can you imagine what I’d be like if I didn’t have a life outside the theatre?

On Monday, Part Five of the Interview: Friendship, Touring, Working With Actors as A Writer.

To read an excerpt from HEX BREAKER, visit the website.

To purchase your copy of HEX BREAKER, visit FireDrakes Weyr Publishing.

Part 3: Working in LA, Working with Actors

The prolific Devon Ellington seems to be everywhere these days – she writes the column “The Literary Athlete” for THE SCRUFFY DOG REVIEW , has the high-traffic blog on the writing life Ink in My Coffee, covers sports for FEMMEFAN. Her fiction has been published in ESPRESSO FICTION, WILD CHILD, THE ROSE AND THORN, THEMA, EMERGING WOMEN WRITERS, GRIT, THE SCRUFFY DOG REVIEW, and more; her non-fiction credits include TOASTED CHEESE, HAMPTON FAMILY LIFE, THE CRAFTY TRAVELLER, THE SAVVY GAL, BLESSED GARDENS, THE ARMCHAIR DETECTIVE, and ELLE. Her plays have been produced in the Edinburgh Festival Fringe twice and the Adelaide Festival Fringe (in Australia) once, as well as in London and New York.

Ellington publishes under several names. August 1 saw the release of her paranormal action/adventure novella HEX BREAKER from Firedrakes Weyr Publishing. In September, NEW MYTHS will publish “The Merry’s Dalliance”, a pirate fantasy, and her play BEHIND THE MAN opens Cloverleaf’s January 2009 season. The notoriously reclusive Ellington is unusually candid in her answers to our questions.

Parts 1 and 2 of the interview (scroll down) dealt with fun five questions, writing under pseudonyms, writing serials, and her cycle of novels that begins with TRACKING MEDUSA.

In Part 3, we talk about working behind the scenes and about working in LA.

Benson: Do you always work with the same actors?

Ellington: As a writer, I love having a group of actors I can trust with my work and who trust me to write challenging roles for them, but I also think it’s important for everyone to scatter and do as many different projects with all sorts of people and bring back what you learn from it. Also, the more I work in all aspects of the field, the more I meet new-to-me actors who are exciting to work with, and I love that. I have my “short list” of actors who can call me up at any point and say, “Hey, I’m up for this role, I need a monologue, how fast can you write one?” or “I’m involved in this project and it’s kind of a mess, could you come?” or “Hey, I’m coming back to Broadway, want to come play?”

Benson: Would you go to LA?

Ellington: That would be based on quality of the project and money. I’m not comfortable in LA, it’s not my vibe. The joke is, “You know how much money it would take to get me on a plane to LA? You know how much more money it would take to get me off the plane once it landed?” Although I may be going out there for the Breeders’ Cup this fall out at Hollywood Park. I’m trying not to, but . . .we’ll see what else is going on. I have a couple of producers for whom I do manuscript critiques as they option new material, or for whom I script doctor, but I do that from here. They overnight or email me scripts and I do the work. I’m the Queen of the Confidentiality Agreement at this point.

Benson: Doesn’t it bother you not to have your name on it?

Ellington: No. Because I’m taking the original writer’s vision and just honing it a bit, polishing it. I’m trying to make it more of itself. And I’m well-paid to do it. I’m not trying to destroy it and make it MINE. My own work – that’s mine, and I’ll keep revising until my editor or producer yanks it out of my ink-stained fingers. But I have too much respect for writers and the writing process to do anything but want to clarify their voices.

Benson: Does that mean you’re not seeking work in LA?

Ellington: I’m not willing to start over out there and claw my way up within industry protocols. If I get a good opportunity, sure I’d listen. I’ll talk to anybody, and then take it seriously once there’s a contract in front of me. I tend to work more overseas. I’m more comfortable in the UK or Australia than I am in LA. I’m not interested in the power struggles or the games. I’m interested in the work. And I enjoy being relatively anonymous.

Benson: That must be difficult, with the need to promote.

Ellington: Yes. It’s about keeping the balance of getting the work out so the audience can find it and still having my life be MINE. It’s really not all that fascinating, but it is mine and I intend to keep it that way.

Benson: What if someone you really liked working with called for something specific?

Ellington: I’d be more open to it, but still cautious, whereas if they were working on something based anywhere else, I’d say yes without thinking twice.

Benson: You’ve worked in theatre, film, and television. How different are each of those?

Ellington: Very different creative processes. I’m fortunate because I’ve worked in production, so I could observe the creative process and then apply it to my own work. I started making my living in the theatre when I was eighteen – while still in college. I started working as a roadie in rock and roll. I’ve literally done every job backstage from lighting to sound to props to set painting to stage management to production management to producing to wardrobe. I’ve been a union negotiator. I’ve worked contracts from both sides of the table. My union card’s with the wardrobe union, but I kind of fell into that working off-Broadway and getting tired of being on call 24/7 as a stage manager. I love the theatre; I’m addicted to it. I’m a real theatre junkie. One of the reasons I’m relocating to Massachusetts is that I’ll never stop working backstage until I’m too far away to commute. And I have to stop working production in order to become the best writer I can be. I can’t keep splitting my focus; the price is too high. I used to be able to compartmentalize much more easily than I do now. That rising friction between the writing and backstage work is what led me to start transitioning out of it and into full-time writing a few years ago. I wanted, for once in my life, to do a smooth, planned transition instead of doing what I usually do, which is jump in with both feet, fly off the cliff and see where I land. I’ve hit a point where, when I try to do both simultaneously, I can feel myself start to fracture, like glass prisms shattering and scattering, and it’s hit the point where I feel like I won’t be able to gather up all the shards and put it all back together. It’s difficult, because I love being backstage so much, but I have to start drawing stronger boundaries about when I work on other people’s stuff and when I work on my own. But I still will come back and do shows with specific actors from time to time. There are some people to whom I will not say no, because they’ve earned that kind of loyalty from me.

In film, I’ve worked as a production manager, associate producer, and in wardrobe. In television, I’ve only done episodics – the one hour dramas – and I’ve only done them as an extra wardrobe girl. Although when they get behind schedule and they keep splitting into more and more B units, it’s amazing how quickly the extra wardrobe girl ends up handling the leads! A couple of seasons ago, I did three different series back-to-back . . .I don’t think I ever learned so much so fast in my life. Oh, wait, in college I was the prop girl for a very low-budget TV pilot. I forgot about that.

Benson: What do you like and dislike about each?

Ellington: I love almost everything about theatre. I love the rehearsal process. Tech is a pain in everything, not just the ass, but there’s something wonderful about it anyway – provided you have a good stage manager. I still get a thrill every night when I walk in the stage door. I always promised myself I’d quit when that stopped. I was on MISS SAIGON for five years, and I had a change on the deck during the helicopter scene – and every night, it was exciting. It never got old. I love developing working rhythms with the actors. I love that it’s live, and you have to be on your game and think on your feet all the time. I love when you have complicated show, both technically and emotionally, and you’ve got that two-way trust and partnership with the actor. I’ve done a lot more principal dressing than ensemble dressing, which is very one-on-one, very focused, very much about the actor knowing you’ll be consistent and that, whatever might go wrong, you’re right there, in the moment, to make it work. You’re the anchor offstage that allows the actor to soar onstage. Some days the actor wants to talk or might want you in the dressing room all the time; other days, the actor needs solitude and quiet time. It’s knowing when to be a protector, when to be a co-conspirator, and when to leave the person alone, whatever aids that individual’s creative process and mood and energy level that day. You’re not right all the time, but you try. Whether it’s a busted zipper or a missing prop or a piece of scenery that goes astray, you can make it work and most of the time, the audience will never know. It’s like your little secret. If I’m on the deck between cues, I tend to keep the actors with whom I’m working in my peripheral vision at all times, just in case. If I’m elsewhere in the building, I’m listening, so if I hear that something is different or off, I can bolt to the deck and be on stand-by in case something needs to be done. I’ve had to go out in blackouts to retrieve actors who got stuck in scenery, or caught them as they staggered off after being injured and bedded them down on the floor packed in ice and wrapped in blankets waiting for EMS while putting the understudy on in the quick change. That kind of thing. Of course, there are the productions where you just put them in costume at the top of the show and hand them a jacket somewhere, and you have to adjust to that quieter dynamic.

Actors who can handle an eight-show week over a protracted period of time without freaking out or getting high-maintenance are a joy. Everybody gets tired, everyone has a bad day occasionally, but it’s how you inflict it on others that makes or breaks a production. And if an actor can cut it on the road, where you have to be REALLY self-sufficient – you see what people are made of. Although it takes longer to gain their trust when they come in from tour to Broadway, because they’ve had to deal with so many unreliable crews. It takes weeks for them to believe you’ll actually show up in the quick change, because they’ve been left twisting in the wind so often.

On Friday: More on what it’s like behind-the-scenes

To read an excerpt of HEX BREAKER and find out more about the Jain Lazarus adventures, visit the Hex Breaker site.
To purchase HEX BREAKER, visit Firedrakes Weyr Publishing.

Part 2: Voice, TRACKING MEDUSA, fame, fans, and why she’s not an actor

The prolific Devon Ellington seems to be everywhere these days – she writes the column “The Literary Athlete” for THE SCRUFFY DOG REVIEW (www.thescruffydogreview.com), has the high-traffic blog on the writing life Ink in My Coffee (http://devonellington.wordpress.com), covers sports for FEMMEFAN (www.femmefan.com). Her fiction has been published in ESPRESSO FICTION, WILD CHILD, THE ROSE AND THORN, THEMA, EMERGING WOMEN WRITERS, GRIT, THE SCRUFFY DOG REVIEW, and more; her non-fiction credits include TOASTED CHEESE, HAMPTON FAMILY LIFE, THE CRAFTY TRAVELLER, THE SAVVY GAL, BLESSED GARDENS, THE ARMCHAIR DETECTIVE, and ELLE. Her plays have been produced in the Edinburgh Festival Fringe twice and the Adelaide Festival Fringe (in Australia) once, as well as in London and New York.

Ellington publishes under several names. August 1 saw the release of her paranormal action/adventure novella HEX BREAKER from Firedrakes Weyr Publishing. In September, NEW MYTHS will publish “The Merry’s Dalliance”, a pirate fantasy, and her play BEHIND THE MAN opens Cloverleaf’s January 2009 season. The notoriously reclusive Ellington is unusually candid in her answers to our questions.

In Part One, Ellington answered our Fun Five Questions, discussed pseudonyms and serial writing. Now, the interview continues:

Benson: Have you ever changed voices while writing a piece?

Ellington: Do you mean shifting from first person to third person? Often. I work from character, especially in early drafts, so I trust the character to tell the story, and then I impose structure as I do more drafts. Sometimes that means changing the POV of the whole piece.

Benson: I meant the author’s voice. Have you ever had a problem deciding which name to put something?

Ellington: Oh, sorry. I’m struggling with that right now. TRACKING MEDUSA, which is the first of a trilogy of archaeological adventures, was begun under the Ava Dunne name, but the voice is more Devon than Ava, so I think I will contract under the “Devon” name. “Ava” is used for lighter, more romantic comedies. Originally, I thought MEDUSA would be more in that vein. It’s darker, it’s more Justin’s story than Gwen’s. Justin morphs from a shy, slightly nerdy young guy who lacks self confidence to a real power in his professional and personal lives thanks in part to the fact that Gwen treats him like an equal partner from day one. But, as the books progress, he falls in love with his newly discovered sense of power, takes it a bit too far, and ends up in a pretty dark place.

Benson: Does he come out of it?

Ellington: I don’t know. I’m only about 50 pages into the second book, THE BALTHAZAAR TREASURE – yes, more pirate stuff, gotta keep using the research, you know? I’ve outlined the third book, most of which takes place in Scotland, but opens in Rome, and he starts at a point where he’s going down a dark road. I’m not sure if he’s going to make it through. He breaks Gwen’s heart – and his own – through his love of his newly-discovered sense of self at the end of BALTHAZAAR. There’s enough going on in the book so I don’t feel I’m giving away too much by that revelation. I’m not sure if they can find their way back to each other in SANDOVAL’S SECRET. They start the third book as antagonists, much the way Gwen and Karl are in MEDUSA.

Benson: I read the blog (Ink in My Coffee) as you wrote TRACKING MEDUSA, and I feel as though I’ve lived through its creation. So Karl’s in all three books? He always intrigued me. It sounded like you originally wanted him to be the uber-villain, and he evolved into something else.

Ellington: Oh, yeah, they couldn’t shake him that easily! After all, Karl and Gwen have twenty years of history together, since they were in grad school. Justin – no matter how crazy he and Gwen are about each other – can’t change that. Karl is part of what makes Gwen who she is. Their rivalry is part of what allowed them to be successful and there’s layer upon layer of emotion that doesn’t always manifest in the healthiest way. And yet, if the shit hits the fan, they’ve got each other’s backs. The original intent in MEDUSA was to kill off Karl, but he made it very clear as the book progressed that he wasn’t going anywhere.

Benson: Will we see more of Edward? The vampire? I wouldn’t kick him out of my bed!

Ellington: I hesitated about having Edward and his companions in MEDUSA at all, because I didn’t want it to go into the now over-crowded vampire genre novels; but he really is an important part of the overall story, even without vampirism being the focus, so he stayed. We’ll see more of Edward, probably in book 3, and more of Irina and Bartholomew, too. After all, Irina’s got a thing for Justin, and there’s a part of him that wants to experience the rough trade she offers. And Bartholomew’s got a crush on Justin, although he’s much gentler in his approach.

Benson: Who’s Gwen’s true love? Justin or Karl?

Ellington: Sometimes I think both; sometimes I think neither. Justin loves her no matter what, but doesn’t always understand her. Karl always understands her, but sometimes he doesn’t like her very much, although he always loves her. Gwen and Karl are a really good team in emergencies, but they drive each other crazy in daily life. Justin’s a better match for her, at least until he starts acting like a sexually narcissistic moron, but either one, or both, could be her True Love.

Benson: Will there be a book about Gwen and Karl?

Ellington: Pre-Justin? I’m thinking about it. Gwen talks so much in MEDUSA about the adventure where she and Karl truly became antagonists, exploring whether Shakespeare really wrote Shakespeare, that I may write it.

Benson: Do you think Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare?

Ellington: Absolutely. Not that he worked in a vacuum or never had input – when you write for a specific group of actors, there’s a creative collaboration that’s pretty astonishing and exciting and brilliant, especially if you cast well. It’s one of the reasons I keep writing plays – I love being in the rehearsal room.

Benson: Do you work on much Shakespeare?

Ellington: I haven’t in the past few years. I miss it. I adore Shakespeare. Some people get crushes on actors or rock stars – I had a crush on Hotspur.

Benson: So fame’s not an attraction for you?

Ellington: I don’t think I really comprehend it, you know? I’ve always thought of fame and celebrity as something that’s imposed on people, even ambitious people, and has very little to do with who they are. I have no desire for it – I want to be well-regarded in my field, but I don’t want people interrupting me at dinner, if that makes any sense. And I don’t find someone attractive BECAUSE they’re out in public all the time.

Benson: Does that mean you don’t like working with big name actors?

Ellington: I’d rather deal with them in human terms, if that makes any sense. There are actors whose work I like and respect, actors with whom I want to work. Who you work with is often luck of the draw. As a crew person, you don’t have that much control over how the work is split up. As a writer, it’s about who connects with the work, and how much control the writer retains over casting, which, in most instances, is not much. I think often it’s better to cast someone less well-known, who comes with less baggage. When I work with someone I’ve never met before, I try to ignore whatever I’ve heard publicly. Of course, crew people share information about those with whom they’ve worked, and that’s helpful. But still, you have to come to the work completely open and assuming it’s going to be a good experience and allow the other person to be who they are, not who you think he should be, or who you expect him to be. Honestly, I’d rather work with someone talented and pleasant than famous; believe me, those qualities don’t always coincide.

Benson: How do you deal with your own fans?

Ellington: I’m not well-known enough to have to worry too much, thank goodness! I get a lot of email from the websites and, under the Cerridwen name, I get a lot of letters forwarded by the publisher. I mean, I’ve been writing for that publisher for fourteen years now, in their calendars and annuals. So I get a big stack of about 300-500 letters (which isn’t that much in the overall scheme of it) when the annuals ship in the fall and another stack soon after the holidays, because people get them as gifts. I answer everything, although it takes a few months. I keep a log of the mail with addresses and emails and locations and all that.

Benson: Why?

Ellington: It’s something I came up with when I star-dressed and doubled as a personal assistant for a few well-known actors. I don’t do personal assistant work anymore – I need to be able to walk out of the stage door at the end of the show, be done, and handle my own life, not someone else’s. The log is a way to keep track of what’s come in and gone out. If they send something to be signed, and then write back two months later and say they didn’t get it, send more, but you know you mailed it. Or they accuse you of not answering and try to guilt you into giving them something. But you’ve got the proof. Or they specifically say they don’t want a personalized signature, so you know they’re trying to sell it. While there are thousands of amazing fans out there for everyone, there’s always a handful of manipulative ones who act like you owe them because they’re a fan, or who have no qualms about attempting emotional blackmail to get what they want. Pretending to have a disability and trying to guilt you into doing stuff for them because you don’t is a big and mightily overused one. Most are so clumsy at it, though, you can spot it a mile away. The log is a way to track the whackos, the stalkers, the trouble-makers, and have the documentation to turn over to the authorities if need be. Also, in my case, since I travel a lot, I can pull up the list wherever I travel and see if there’s enough of an interest in my work to schedule events like a panel or a workshop or a signing and combine it with whatever research or other reason I have for the trip. The Excel program is my friend.

Benson: Have you ever had a stalker?

Ellington: Once or twice. But I handled it myself before it got too far out of line. The only time I really got a lot of personal attention was when I had a show in Australia. I still appeared in photographs then, so everyone at the festival knew what I looked like. Plus, I was guest co-host on a radio show, so they listened to me first thing in the morning, I appeared in every interview and venue promoting the show, and it was a topic that was hot in the area at the time. So I got stopped in the street a lot, and every time I sat down in a restaurant or a café, people would drop into the other chairs and start conversations. I’m pretty good one-on-one, in workshops, on panels, I’m okay in interviews. I’m really bad at parties and making small talk. I just suck at it. Most of the fans were very nice and very interesting. A few were kind of creepy and had to learn that, although my essence influences whatever work I do, I am still separate from the work. And it’s weird when people want to sleep with you because they have this idea of who you are because of something that’s on stage or on the page instead of bothering to find out who you really are. They want you to personify their fantasy and it’s like, wait, that has nothing to do with me. You’re projecting your desires onto me and I won’t sit here and be your canvas. Instead of projecting, learn how to create for yourself and you’ll be happier than living a fantasy through someone else. And yet, so much of the entertainment industry is based on feeding those fantasies. Thank God I’m not an actor! I’d be the most ungracious bitch imaginable! I couldn’t handle the spotlight.

Benson: Is that why you’re not an actor?

Ellington: I’m not an actor because I’m not good at revealing publicly the layers of a character, and I don’t enjoy having that much attention focused on me. I make sense of the world through words. I love to collaborate with actors, but I don’t want to be one.

Join us next Monday, for the next section of the interview with Ellington, where she delves into what it’s like behind-the-scenes.

To read an excerpt of HEX BREAKER, visit the Hex Breaker website.

To purchase a copy of HEX BREAKER, visit Firedrakes Weyr Publishing.