An Evening with the Hilarious Helen Ellis
Since I moved to the Midwest, I don’t often see Southern writers in town, especially ones who write about the South. However, Southerners tend to be hilarious people and fortunately for me, I live in the same city as the Thurber House. James Thurber was a beloved humorist, so the Thurber House gives out humor awards every year and brings in funny people.
That’s a roundabout way of saying my fellow Alabamian and author Helen Ellis is one of the funniest people around. And it was a delight to hear someone with my accent in Columbus.
I knew I was in for a treat when less than two minutes in she said, “I’ve never been offered pot. I’m so preppy my tramp stamp is a monogram.”
Helen grew up in Tuscaloosa, home of the University of Alabama, and after she got her MFA (which she was quick to note writers shouldn’t feel pressured to do) she did what a lot of writers do: go to New York City. She still lives there today, but was quick to assure the audience that you don’t have to go to NYC to be a writer. (Though her brief mentions of literary parties where she rubs elbows with writers and agents certainly made me reconsider my life choices.)
Her first book, Eating the Cheshire Cat was HUGE. A six-figure advance, a road trip book tour, the whole nine yards. She had what every writer dreams their debut will be. She was riding high.
Until her next three books flopped. Over a decade’s worth of work was roundly rejected and dropped by agents.
She nearly quit writing after that. During this lull in her writing life, she became a professional poker player who competed on the national circuit. She noted that some of her success is due to the sexism of her competitors who don’t think a sweet, preppy-attired woman could possibly take every chip they’ve got on the poker table. But as Beyoncé says, “always stay gracious, the best revenge is your paper.”
Even as a professional writer and poker player, she felt like a housewife since much of her time in NYC with her husband was spent at home. After getting the “What do you do all day?” question endlessly, she started an anonymous (though not anymore) Twitter account called What I Do All Day as an outlet for her humor.
The Twitter account became a way to test out jokes on a readily available audience. She started noticing what got retweeted and what didn’t. The social validation of her humor was just the reminder she needed that she’s hilarious and the world is a less funny place without her words.
She started slowly getting back into writing, collecting 13 short stories over time. Those short stories were accepted in literary magazines and eventually became the collection American Housewife. All the stories in that collection stemmed from reality and were an attempt to get back to what she knew.
During this time, she was also teaching poker lessons, most notably to fellow author Colson Whitehead. She talked about how weird it was that, for awhile, she was introduced at literary parties not as an author herself but as Colson Whitehead’s poker coach.
Between poker and What I Do All Day, she would meet with her writers group––two women she met in her MFA program. More than the workshops and instruction in creative writing itself, she says the best thing she got out of her MFA was meeting these two women who have supported her writing wholeheartedly through 15 years of ups and downs.
Another thing that got her through the years of publishing failure was the New York Society Library, a private library where she wrote most of her latest book, Southern Lady Code.
Her best advice to writers is a two-parter:
1) Find a life outside of writing.
2) You’re going to fail, but if you keep at it, you just might get a second chance.
Being a fellow Alabamian, I had two questions for Helen:
1) “On a scale of one to diabetic coma, how sweet do you like your sweet tea?”
Her reply: “So sweet that I’d accuse my husband of an affair if I saw him drinking it.”
2) “What’s your favorite Southern idiom?”
Her reply: “I love the saying, ‘We’ve met.’ That’s Southern Lady Code for ‘You’re terrible, but you don’t remember me because you’re awful to everyone.’”
I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so much or so hard at an author event before, so I couldn’t wait to get my book signed. As I approached the table, Helen noticed the pen tattoo on my forearm and asked if I was a writer. I answered in the affirmative and she signed my book with an encouraging note:
She joked about how awful her handwriting was and it did take me a minute to decipher, so I’ll spell it out: For Mandy!! From one Alabama writer to another, Roll Tide! Write your balls off!
Now that’s how you sign a book.
And that’s how you make a comeback.
And how you make a fan for life.