Archive for August 22nd, 2008

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.


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