Elizabeth Ellen’s Fast Machine is one of the best books of the year. Published by Short Flight/ Long Drive Books, it’s a collection of her strongest work from the past decade. Being a long-time Elizabeth Ellen boy-kitten, I was familiar with a great number of these stories beforehand, but to read them together in one book, back to back, is the type of experience that makes you glow for weeks afterwards.
I once spent a strange night in her home. She had invited me to read at her Great Lakes/Great Times reading series and I had accepted, knowing that Ann Arbor, Michigan was the hometown of Iggy Pop and the Stooges. For some reason, a friend and I decided it would be funny to listen again and again to the same version of “The Tennessee Waltz” on the eight hour drive from West Virginia to Michigan. We showed up feeling psychotic and made another decision to pretend that my friend was French. No one truly believed he was French, but we kept it up all night. We believed in his French-ness, and that was all that mattered.
The next day we discovered that Ellen lived only 200 yards from the original Stooges’ Funhouse. The house had been torn down long ago and replaced with preppy townhouses, but I did “Elvis karate” in front of these townhouses to make the demons go away. I realized then that when I think of the work of Elizabeth Ellen, I think of the Stooges. I think of people cutting their chests, and peanut butter, and strange metallic sounds. I think of grown men crapping behind amplifiers. I think of wild dogs. I think of raw power gurgling somewhere deep inside our groins. I think of raw power gurgling deep inside our guts. I think of things exploding. We explode.
PART ONE–IN WHICH ELIZABETH ELLEN ANSWERS QUESTIONS ABOUT LEMONS, FAST MACHINE, SHORT FLIGHT/LONG DRIVE BOOKS, MICK JAGGER, AND BEEF JERKY
Would you rather be an orange or a lemon? Explain.
I would be the lemon the man is obsessed with in that book Lemon, by Lawrence Krauser. That was one of the first really weird novels I was aware of (bought but didn’t read). I feel like I love that book even though I didn’t read it.
Do you buy more books than you read? I do. Why do we do this? I buy beef jerky all of the time but I always eat it. I buy beer all of the time but I always drink it. What are some books that you have bought and pretended to read?
Well, I don’t know if I have “pretended” to read books. I’m usually pretty upfront about not having read a book. Or having “skimmed” a book or having read only the first chapter. But, yes, I definitely buy more books than I read, though I think the Kindle has cut down on this number as now I can get just the “sample” and read it and only buy the full book if I make it through the sample, which only seems to happen about one out of eight or nine times. I think we have high hopes for more books than we can possibly read. It’s like phone numbers. I have phone numbers for people I had some interaction with once three years ago still in my phone but I don’t delete them. It’s hope. We want to maintain friendships with more people than we can possibly find time to interact with on a regular basis. It’s the same with books.
How did you select the stories you put into the book? Did you see it as a collection of your best work, or were you simply looking for a certain tone or order throughout? For instance, I wonder if you eliminated any stories simply because they didn’t fit the overall flow?
Initially I was going to include everything I had written/published over the last ten years. The good, the bad, and the very ugly. I was going to arrange the stories chronologically, according to when I’d published them. I got this idea from listening to an interview with R. Crumb’s daughter, who published a book of her art in a similar fashion. I thought it would be interesting to see the progression. I still think it would be interesting. But I doubted myself. I asked other writers what they thought about this and they were all categorically against it, against including the weak, early stuff…so I caved to convention.
I put together a physical copy of all my stories and sent it to Mary Miller. And she told me to cut about twenty percent of the stories, mostly early ones. They were the ones I was most unsure of anyway. And then she helped me come up with an order for the stories as well.
I love your idea of a collection where a progression is apparent. I think this is one of the most interesting ideas I’ve ever heard in relationship to a collection of stories, and I can’t believe people would try to talk you out of it. Do you think it is helpful to talk to other writers? Why do writers feel the need to talk to other writers about writing? I can’t imagine Pete Townshend calling up Mick Jagger and asking his opinion on anything. Am I wrong?
Damn, Scott. Damn, damn, damn, damn, damn. I knew I should have asked you. I think most writers are taught to present their best work in a collection, and they were worried I’d regret showing my less than best work, and that the less-than-best work would have to be presented first in the collection…I don’t know. I think writers are pretty insecure people and look to others to reassure them more than in other professions. I have no idea about Mick Jagger and Pete Townshend, but Jay-Z and Kanye might call each other up for advice, no?
Was “Winter Haven, Florida, 1984” ever part of a novel? It’s a great fucking story, but would you please tell us about any of your failed novels (if there are any). Why do writers babble on about trying to write a novel? What is the most embarrassing plot/novelistic device you ever came up with or used (in short form or novel)?
That’s funny. No, it wasn’t ever part of a novel. It was actually a very short set of vignettes in an early issue of Keyhole. I decided to expand it for Fast Machine, assuming it’d end up, maybe, three thousand words. (I think it was under a thousand initially.) After I finished this elongated version (which ended up at just over eleven thousand), though, I did consider expanding it into a full novel. Mostly because it’d been so easy to write. Unlike most other stories.
I do have “failed” or unfinished novels. “As Gracefully As I Knew How” was the first chapter of a novel called Fast Machine, that I started writing years ago, got two or three hundred pages into, before quitting. (It was pretty bad. Only “As Gracefully As I Knew How” was salvageable, because I’d rewritten the opening about fifteen times.)
And there are a few flashes in Fast Machine that were once part of a novella I’ve decided not to publish.
I assume writers babble about writing a novel because it’s the assumed progression. Short stories, then a novel. So if you don’t move on to the novel, you feel as though you aren’t progressing.
Ummm, I don’t really come up with devices. Or even plots, really. That’s probably a downfall. Part of that lack of progression we were talking about.
Is it difficult being married to someone who you also work with as a co-publisher/writer? I guess what I’m asking is does this dynamic complicate or help the process of writing/editing/publishing work?
It’s difficult working with someone you’re broken up with. Much easier when you’re married.
I would say it complicates it in an interesting way. I think it would be much harder to be in a relationship with or married to someone who isn’t a writer/publisher/editor. There’d be too much to explain and not enough to talk about.
[This part deleted so as to avoid sounding whiny and complaining and like a dick.]
Mostly it’s great.
What is the process like in figuring out what books Short Flight/Long Drive will put out? Do you both have to agree on a work before Short Flight/Long Drive puts it out?
Oh, hell no. I pick the books. I read everything and decide. So if anyone’s unclear on whose dick to suck here, it’s mine. (Kidding! But also, it’s still mine.)
Okay, here’s the part I deleted above. (I know I’m going to sound whiny. Make fun. I’d make fun of me. It’s fun making fun!) The only negative I’m encountered in publishing/working with Aaron is when Aaron is given sole credit for stuff we did together or stuff I did on my own. Like book design. I would say a majority of the books, I came up with the initial idea for the design (excluding Jess Stoner’s, as she came to us very much knowing she wanted her book to look like a composition notebook): the passport look for Sicily Papers, the old Dell paperback look for Big World, and the sort of 60s-inspired look of Fast Machine. (Neither of us can ever remember who first said Avian Gospels should resemble a Bible and be in two parts, like the Old and New Testaments; we both think we had the initial idea.) And I’m really proud of the design of our books, because I never thought design was something I was good at or something I had an aptitude for or even a passion for, but I really love it. And Aaron works hard at taking my initial ideas and making them physical covers. It definitely becomes a joint project and we enjoy working on them together. So it naturally pisses me off when I open The Believer and see the design of Big World attributed solely to Aaron. Or when I read on someone’s blog that Aaron is editor of Short Flight/Long Drive books and designs all the books himself, etc. etc. But at the same time, I realize this is a consequence of his being the face of Hobart and of him having a much more public image, and being on social networking sites and just being a more present presence. So I can’t really complain. Though, as you can see, I still occasionally do.
But this minor grievance aside, it’s all great. And I really mean that.
I help him with Hobart and he helps me with SF/LD, and we’re never bored and there’s always something to talk about.
PART TWO–IN WHICH ELIZABETH ELLEN ANSWERS THREE SHORT QUESTIONS WITH THREE SHORT ANSWERS
I get the “How many of these stories are autobiographical?” question all of the time. So therefore, I will ask you. How many of these stories are autobiographical? Why do we care?
And I’ll tell you the same thing I tell my daughter: figure it out for yourself.
A great number of the stories from Fast Machine are written in the first person. You’ve always been a master at this POV. Why do you typically write using the first person?
Because I’m lazy and untrained and it feels dishonest writing any other way.
If you only had a few minutes left to live what would you tell your daughter? Aaron?
I don’t know. I guess that’s the sort of shit you figure out when you only have a few minutes to live.
PART THREE–IN WHICH ELIZABETH ELLEN GRACEFULLY ANSWERS QUESTIONS THAT HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH FAST MACHINE AND THAT THE INTERVIEWER WAS STUPID TO ASK IN THE FIRST PLACE
Has anyone ever broken up with you? When? Why? What happened?
I’m more interested in why you asked this question than I am in my answer. Did Fast Machine give you the impression I was either broken up with a lot or not at all?
Of course I’ve been broken up with. My very first serious boyfriend broke up with me. I was seventeen. It was the summer before my senior year. I was living with my best friend that summer as my mother was still out west with her boyfriend. My best friend’s brother was ten years older. His friend asked me out. He was twenty-four. We went on a few dates before my mother returned. I was madly in love with him. But he broke it off before school started, which may have had something to do with my mother. I’m not sure. At the time I just thought he stopped liking me. Which may be true also. I wish I’d lost my virginity with him, rather than with some kid my age at a party over Christmas break. I’m not a proponent of statutory rape laws. Sometimes it makes sense to be with someone considerably older.
I love the Doors, but why has it been fashionable for the past 20+ years to talk shit about Jim Morrison? Do you like/love the Doors? If so, why? What is your favorite song by the Doors?
I loved the movie The Doors. I saw it a couple times in the theater by myself when I was staying in Virginia Beach with my mom and her boyfriend. I was nineteen, I think, so had my own room, and was kind of killing time by myself most of that vacation and there was a small movie theater within walking distance.
I guess “The End.” What does that say about me? That I’m cliché? A poser? Is it like buying The Doors greatest hits? Rather than some old, obscure early album?
Oh, wait. I’ll say, “Hello, I Love You,” because it was one of the songs this senior on the school bus played on his boom box on the way to school when I was a freshman. The two other songs I remember him playing were “Juke Box Hero” by Foreigner and “You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’” by Judas Priest. I thought he was super badass at the time, though now I kind of wonder why he was riding the bus when he was a senior. He actually seems more like a loser, now that I think about it. But Judas Priest will always be badass, even if they do subliminally encourage you to kill yourself.
Have you ever farted accidentally in front of people? If so, what happened? If no, what disgusting habit do you have that you would never admit?
I don’t think so. If I have, I’ve forgotten. As for disgusting habits, one man’s disgusting habit is another man’s…fetish? What are you into, Scott? What do you want to hear? I was actually reading the other day about some cake farting fetish phenomena and at first it sounded disgusting, of course, but after I thought about it, about some super hot chick farting on a nice chocolate cake…I don’t know. I can understand the attraction. My question, though, is, do they then eat the cake? Or is the cake just wasted? I’m sure I have plenty of disgusting habits. Or annoying habits. Or both. But haven’t I shared enough?
Hypothetically, which of these men/women would you abandon your husband and daughter for and run away with?
A.) Sam Shepard
B.) Brandon Flowers (When I was at your house I saw you owned a Killers album. I hope you don’t have anything against Mormons.)
C.) Debbie Harry (circa 1980)
D.) Kid Rock
E.) Mickey Knox
F.) Syd Barret (if he were still living)
1. If I were going to run away, I’d already be gone.
2. I think I know one Killers song, so don’t get the Mormon reference. But I have nothing against them. I mean, I wouldn’t kill one, or anything.
3. Where are the black guys?
4. I always come back.
What are the differences between rich people and poor people?
Rich people have the illusion of power. Poor people have the illusion of goodness.
Also, rich people generally have more bathrooms. Citing the Lil Wayne lyric “I got ten bathrooms, I can shit all day,” as example.
That’s pretty cool.
PART FOUR–IN WHICH THE INTERVIEWER ATTEMPTS TO RECOVER BY ASKING SERIOUS QUESTIONS ABOUT SERIOUS THINGS
When I first started noticing online/indie lit folks in 2006ish or so there were only a couple of people who seemed to keep popping up. There was Elizabeth Ellen, Tao Lin, Zoetrope on-line workshops (maybe even earlier than 2006ish), Noah Cicero, Kevin Sampsell and Future Tense, Kendra Grant Malone, 3AM, Mike Bushnell, Gene Morgan. How has the online indie lit world changed? Is it as much fun now? Was there ever a sense of a community? Where do you see indie-lit going now? What are its current problems?
I’d like to ask you all these same questions, Scott.
“As fun”? Shit, I don’t know. I think things just always seem more fun in the past. You’re younger, there are less expectations of you, you have less expectations for yourself, fewer responsibilities…I think there was and still is a definite sense of community. I feel a bond with some of the people in this (for lack of a better word/someone shoot me:) scene. I feel like we’re separate from other literary groups in America. We’re not, for the most part, the ones being published in more established places like The New Yorker or Harper’s or even Zoetrope or Tin House. I think there’s a freedom still in that. In our position in the lit world. In not conforming to a certain aesthetic or narrative tone or whatever. (Although we just found out two stories from the last issue of Hobart are going to be included in Best American Short Stories this year. So what does that mean? Are “we” becoming more like “them” or are “they” expanding their ideas of “best” literature?)
I think there’s a newfound seriousness amongst certain indie-lit people/places now that they are having higher visibility, being taken more seriously, shown more respect by the larger literary world. But is that bad or good? I don’t know. Probably a little (or a lot) of both.
Does it ever bother you when your stories are called “gritty” or “authentic” or “tough”? For instance, when I think of your work I never think of it trying to be “tough.” I usually hate writers whose stories feel like they’re trying to be “tough.” Your stories always feel extremely vulnerable and naked to me (and of course, this is why the stories are “tough.”). Do you like the way people describe your work? Do you feel misunderstood when you publish?
I’m generally (and genuinely) appreciative anytime anyone says anything about my work, good or bad or whatever. I like words like “gritty” and “tough” because I’ve never been either. For most of my life I was extremely shy and quiet and cowardly and meek. So I’ll take gritty. I’ll take tough. I’ll take whatever you got, Scott.
I’ve never felt misunderstood. Maybe ignored. Or overlooked. But I think that’s as much my fault, because I hate self-promotion and lack a certain type of ambition (the type that seeks out representation and larger publishers and churns out manuscripts in six months). Mostly I’m in no hurry, have no real agenda or timeline for myself. Ultimately I’m a nihilist (or what is my admittedly limited interpretation and understanding of nihilism). So I don’t think any of this ultimately matters. (Remember the “Whoever dies with the most toys wins” t-shirts back in the day? I feel similarly about books and publications.) Maybe that’s a copout. I prefer to think of it as liberation.
I write what interests me, when it interests me. I don’t write for a particular audience or a particular publisher or a particular trend. (God, how much of a pretentious douchebag do I sound like right now?)
What’s next for you? What do you want to write? You have a great short-short story called “Elizabeth Ellen, 1972.” What would a story “Elizabeth Ellen, 2012” look like twenty years from now?
Wow. That’s a hard question. I honestly have no idea how to answer this. I’d like to write one decent novel. Whatever that means. Something I would have read in my early twenties, I guess. Something short and dark and claustrophobic. Something that makes you feel like you’ve been alone in your closet for days when you read it. And you’re okay with that feeling.
PART FIVE: THE FINAL PART: THE FINAL QUESTION: THE FINAL TOPIC: THE DIVINITY OF JAMES DEAN
Why is James Dean so amazing?
It’s interesting that you ask this, as my daughter and my daughter’s best friend (well, mostly her best friend) are currently obsessed with James Dean, and I like to sort of take credit for this, as three years ago now, I took them to James Dean’s hometown in Indiana on our way to Memphis (and, again, on our way back home; twice in one trip!). We have been back two additional times since then.
So I asked Vicky (the best friend) why James Dean is so amazing and she texted back, “Because he is an angel given to us from the gods. They obviously want us to be happy.” There were a lot of exclamation points added. I like that she pluralized gods, for whatever reason.
But I think James Dean is probably amazing for the same reasons Peter Pan is amazing. Similar myths.
You can order Fast Machine here.
You can visit Elizabeth’s Tumblr here.