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