Author interview no.185 with literary novelist Ellen Feldman

Welcome to the one hundred and eighty-fifth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, bloggers, autobiographers and more. Today’s is with novelist, author of social history and book reviewer Ellen Feldman. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further.

Morgen: Hello, Ellen. Please tell us something about yourself and how you came to be a writer.

Ellen: I am a fulltime writer.  All I’ve ever wanted to be was a writer, though for a long time I was too frightened to try, because I thought writers were a breed apart.

Morgen: “too frightened to try” – I love that. What happened next?

Ellen: I worked for a few years in advertising and publishing, then finally got up the courage to start writing.  Lest this sound as if I’m about to say, the rest is history, I’m not.  I spent many years freelancing for publishing houses while I wrote my heart out until I got published.

Morgen: It’s a shame that you felt you needed the courage but you clearly had (have) the passion that so many of us share with you. What genre do you generally write and have you considered other genres?

Ellen: I confess to disliking the idea of genres.  I think it buttonholes writers unfairly and discourages readers who might love the book if it didn’t come with a label.

Morgen: Oh me too. That’s why I stick with short stories. Well, not the only reason (it’s also what I love reading) but I can’t stick with one genre, and that’s the joy of eBooking. How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?

Ellen: I’m not a good marketer, however I happily do whatever my publishers in the UK and the US arrange.  I don’t think of myself as a “brand,” because each of my books is different.

Morgen: You’re very fortunate. I’ve heard of so many writers being pigeon-holed because they write a particular genre and then it’s what’s expected of them, from the industry and readers alike I’d say. Have you won or been shortlisted in any competitions and do you think they help with a writer’s success?

Ellen: I was shortlisted for the Orange Prize and have won a Guggenheim.  I’m not sure how much they help a writer’s success, but they certainly sent this writer over the moon.

Morgen: 🙂 I have your latest novel ‘Next to Love’ and it mentions the Orange Prize shortlist on the (gorgeous) cover. Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?

Ellen: I have an agent in the US and another in the UK.  They work together.  I think they’re invaluable professionally and consider them both personal friends.

Morgen: As do I my editor. 🙂 Are your books available as eBooks?

Ellen: My books are available as e-books, and I think it’s a terrific platform for those who enjoy it.  I don’t care in what form people read my books; I’m just delighted if they read them.

Morgen: Me too. I like to think that most writers write to be read and not just sold. 🙂 Do you read eBooks?

Ellen: I don’t read on an electronic device myself, simply because I like to turn actual pages, but my husband does and swears by it.

Morgen: A lot of people do, although most authors I’ve spoken to love both formats, although some are still fighting eBooks. I think they’re great for different purposes; paperbacks at home, eBooks away. Did you have any say in the title of your books? How important do you think they are?

Ellen: I have chosen all my titles, with help from my US agent.  I think they’re important, though not necessarily crucial.

Morgen: I love titles but yes, they’re not the only reason I buy a book. 🙂 Do any of your books have dedications? If so, to whom and (if appropriate) why?

Ellen: They all have dedications to people, either living or dead, whom I want to honor.

Morgen: Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?

Ellen: Show me a writer who hasn’t had rejections, and I’ll show you someone who’s not telling the whole truth.  The only way I know of dealing with a rejection is to keep writing.

Morgen: To literally “write your heart out”. 🙂 What are you working on at the moment / next?

Ellen: I’m at work on a novel set against the cultural cold war about a marriage and a nation betrayed.

Morgen: Do you manage to write every day? What’s the most you’ve written in a day?

Ellen: I write almost every day, but I do so much backing and filling and rewriting that I never know how much I’ve written in any given day.

Morgen: It sounds like you don’t need to search far but a question some authors dread, where do you get your inspiration from?

Ellen: Ah, I wish I knew.  It’s some deep subterranean process that, strangely enough, tends to bubble up when I run my three miles around the Central Park reservoir every morning.

Morgen: Running, walking works for a lot of writers (I have a notebook in every dog-walking jacket). Central Park is featured in so many movies, it’s looks a wonderful place so it’s not surprising that it’s your muse. Do you have a method for creating your characters?

Ellen: I have no method.  I just have to live with them and get to know them better and better as the book goes on.

Morgen: We’ve mentioned your novels mostly so far, do you do any other type of writing?

Ellen: I write either book reviews or magazine pieces on social history when asked to do so.  I recently wrote a short story for BBC4.

Morgen: I know a lot of people listen to the BBC – they’re so supportive of writers. Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?

Ellen: I do an enormous amount of rewriting.  In fact, I probably do more rewriting now than when I started out, because I demand more of myself.  There’s an old Hemingway quote that goes something to the effect:  When you start out, it’s fun for you and hell for the reader.  By the end, it’s hell for you and fun for the reader.

Morgen: Oh dear. I guess I would rather have it that way round though. One of poets says she finds writing tortuous which is a shame, although her writing is superb so I guess she’s there already. 🙂 How much research do you have to do for your writing? Have you ever received feedback from your readers?

Ellen: I do a great deal of research and love hearing from readers.

Morgen: Let’s hope we have some comments here. 🙂 What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person? Have you ever tried second person?

Ellen: Whether I use first or third depends on the demands of the story I’m trying to tell and the characters themselves.  I’ve never tried second person. Finding the person and more important the voice is crucial for me.  Once I start hearing the voice, I know I’m on the way.

Morgen: Oh I love second person. It’s an acquired taste; sadly most editors haven’t acquired it yet. 😦 Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?

Ellen: I have a novel I worked on for two-and-a-half years that I doubt will ever be published.

Morgen: Oh dear. Looking on the bright side, it was practice (not sure that helps when you’ve spent so long on it)… What advice would you give aspiring writers?

Ellen: If you don’t have to write, don’t.  It’s often a difficult life with much heartbreak.  But if you have to write, go to it.  When it’s going well, few things are more wonderful.

Morgen: Absolutely. Thank you so much Ellen.

Ellen was recently a guest on internet writing-related show Radio Litopia’s ‘After Dark’ which I’ve been involved in for the past year. I was in the chatroom that evening when we were asked to come up with the titles for the show. Knowing that Ellen’s latest book was called ‘Next to love’ I suggested something like ‘Writing is the next best thing to love’. It was picked (minus ‘Writing is’) 🙂 and I won a signed copy of Ellen’s book (which is proudly sitting next to me as I type this). I have just started reading it but am already hooked, not surprising when the opening of Chapter 1 is ‘Babe does not take long to learn the dirty little secret of war’. You can listen to Ellen’s episode on Radio Litopia here.


If you are reading this and you write, in whatever genre, and are thinking “ooh, I’d like to do this” then you can… just email me and I’ll send you the information. They do now (January 2013) carry a fee (£10 / €12.50 / $15) for the new interviews on this blog but everything else (see Opportunities on this blog) is free.

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2 thoughts on “Author interview no.185 with literary novelist Ellen Feldman

  1. ute says:

    Lovely interview, Morgen and Ellen. I have to agree that I hate the idea of being pigeonholed by genre. The new book sounds wonderful. I’m putting it on my TBR list.


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