WAG: Your choice of genre for your first
published novel—psychological suspense thriller—doesn't
immediately spring to mind as the genre of choice
for writers coming out of MFA programs. Most readers
would expect (fairly or not) recent MFA grads to
produce heartfelt, minimalist short story collections
or experimental novels. What attracted you to the
thriller genre? And where did the idea to set it
in a spiritualist community come from?
Ellis: I'm writing genre fiction?!? Yipes. I never
set out to do that. In grad school, I certainly
wrote my share of minimalist stuff, but that voice
is hard to maintain for a whole novel. And as for
heartfelt—I think a lot of the stuff you're
talking about is probably autobiographical, and
since I was blessed with a happily dull childhood,
I've always had to make up stuff. With After
Life, I tried to write the kind of book I'd
like to read—enough plot to give the book
forward momentum, but not at the expense of character
or solid sentences. Nonetheless, my grad-school
self would be mortified to think I'd written a "thriller."
Writing about spiritualism appealed
to me because it deals with the big questions (life
vs. death, faith vs. science, etc.) while providing
lots of lushly detailed subject matter. I knew I
could fill my book with objects: Ouija boards, seance
rooms, and so on. Also, it's fairly untrammeled
territory—it was just screaming to be written
Is there really a Train Line, New York, and
if so, is it as spiritualist-driven as you suggest?
Ellis: There is no Train Line, but there is a Lily
Dale, New York, which bears a striking resemblance.
On After Life's "Notes and Acknowledgments"
page, you list spiritualism-related books you studied
as background, but many of the wonderfully chosen
details in the novel suggest you actually hung out
with a variety of mediums and picked up on their
individual styles and idiosyncrasies. Did you, in
fact, at some point close the books and wade into
the spiritualist crowd?
Ellis: Yes—a lot of my research was footwork,
mostly just hanging around Spiritualists and getting
a feel for the questions that compelled them and
a sense of their daily lives. I did want to retain
some fictional space, however, so I didn't "interview"
anyone or try to represent any specific medium's
beliefs totally accurately. My brother-in-law grew
up in a Spiritualist community, so I had him look
the book over, too.
Given After Life's spiritualist
themes, is it wrong to read something into its having
thirteen chapters (plus epilogue)?
Ellis: Yes—it's totally deliberate. In my
original vision for the book, I pictured it coming
out around Halloween, and the original title (which
I will not reveal) had witches in it. There were
many times during the revisions that I thought I
ought to cut a chapter into two—but then I'd
have fourteen chapters! So I didn't. I'm glad someone
Which writers (or film directors—David
Lynch for his quirkiness and Alfred Hitchcock for
his studies of guilt came to my mind most readily
while reading After Life) have influenced
you the most?
Ellis: Actually—though I never thought of
it—both Hitchcock and Lynch were huge influences.
At different periods of my life, I've watched both
of them obsessively. I learned about suspense from
Hitchcock—was it he who pointed out that a
bomb exploding is not suspenseful, but two people
having a boring conversation while a bomb ticks
under the table is? And Lynch does such memorable
characters, of course, and manages to imbue his
work with such atmosphere—I strive for that.
Writers are harder—the influences
have been less direct. I love Alice Munro, Nabokov,
Chekhov (especially his character details), Marilynne
Robinson, Francine Prose, Denis Johnson and Diane
Johnson, for a start.
Your husband is also a published novelist.
How does a two-novelist house work? Do you show
each other works-in-progress? And how, with two
children, do you work out your schedules to allow
each of you to get long periods of silent work done?
Ellis: My husband and I often exchange work, but
I find that when I'm feeling uncertain about whatever
I'm working on (which is most of the time) reading
his stuff will either make me feel inferior or will
just make me want to imitate him—no good either
way. I didn't read his first novel until it was
published. And he's only marginally useful to me
as a critic—he likes everything (sometimes
that's nice, though). We do spend a lot of time
bouncing ideas off each other, and that's great.
John works in the morning and
I work in the afternoon, which is how we'd work
even without kids. When I think about what I required
before I had kids (absolute quiet, six solid hours)
compared to what I need now (one free hand, coffee),
I collapse in hysterics.
On the business side, how hard was it to
sell your first novel?
Ellis: Finding an agent took some work, and some
serious time. When I finally found the right person,
she sold it almost immediately. I think it's usually
a mistake to try and negotiate the waters of New
York publishing without an agent; you need an advocate
How well do you think your MFA program prepared
you for the publishing world?
Ellis: I think it helped me learn to deal with criticism—to
actually use it sometimes. It also instilled a modicum
of discipline. If you're asking whether MFA school
was worthwhile, I'd have to say yes. You can certainly
run into trouble if you use the workshops to write-by-committee,
to try and please everyone. But I met many very
smart people there and made some very tiny connections,
and that made it possible for me to dedicate the
next five years of my life to being a writer, even
though I had almost no luck getting published during
Are you working on a new novel now, and can
you tell us something about it?
Ellis: Yes, I am. All I can really say about it
right now is that there probably won't be a murder
in it. I had a baby this summer, and so I'm a lot
more squeamish these days. It might be about a fat
Finally, two related questions. Many writers
have a favorite 'neglected' writer—someone
they think has been unfairly ignored by the general
reading public. Do you have one yourself? And who
do you think is the best under-appreciated writer
Ellis: Most writers are neglected, I think—it's
rare that I can go to a party and talk about books;
it's easier to talk about movies, if for no other
reason than two random people are more likely to
have watched the same movies than to have read the
same books. I haven't read so many things my friends
tell me to; and, for example, Philip Roth's The
Human Stain was brilliant, but I can't get anyone
else to read it. Maybe you can tell I don't get
on the Internet much...
Diane Johnson's novels are terrific—funny
and tightly plotted and full of good characters
("The Shadow Knows," for example). I tell
everyone to read "The World as I Found It"
by Bruce Duffy. As far as who is the most under-appreciated
writers working today, I'd suggest Lydia Davis (the
woman's totally brilliant and no one pays any attention)
and Stephen Dixon (a lot people find him unreadable,
but much of his work is brilliant).