I'm here today with Helen Ellis. Helen is a novelist, essayist, and professional poker player. Can't wait to hear about that. Her debut novel, Eating the Cheshire Cat, came out in 2001. Her most recent release was a collection of stories called American Housewife, which was actually spurred by a Twitter post that went viral. Her upcoming essay collection, Southern Lady Code, launches in April 2019. Helen is the host of podcast “Southern Lady Code.” A champion of the literary magazine One Story, Helen received her MFA from NYU. Raised in Alabama, she lives with her husband in New York City right near me.
Welcome, Helen. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.”
Helen Ellis: My pleasure. I'm intimidated by your microphone. It’s larger than what I'm used to. It’s girth. [laughs]
Zibby: Amazon. I could go on and on about the microphones.
I know you have Southern Lady Codecoming out. You have this new podcast. There's so much to talk about. I wanted to hear from the beginning. You came to New York when you were twenty-two with hopes of being a writer. Your career has gone in waves. It’s so interesting. I wanted to hear a little about the beginning when you landed.
Helen: “Your career has gone in waves,” the Southern Lady Code for it, you had fifteen years of complete failure. [laughs]
Zibby: That is not what I meant.
Helen: It is what happened.
Zibby: You took a break.
Helen: No. I failed.
Zibby: You did not.
Helen: No, it’s fine. It really is fine. I have no problem with the word. I'm not a best-achievement ribbon type of lady. You have to fail. When you fail and you fail and you fail, when you do have success at forty-five when American Housewifecame out and then again with Southern Lady Code at forty-eight, it is all the more delicious. I moved here at twenty-two on my twenty-second birthday. I didn't know a soul. I had two thousand dollars from working at a summer camp. Through a chain of Alabama mamas, I met another woman, Stephanie, at the clock at Grand Central Station. “You're going to meet her there at noon. You're going to find an apartment.” We did. Six months later, her parents came and brought her back to Alabama. She decided to devote her life to Christ.
Zibby: Oh, no, your friend!
Helen: Yes, my friend. She came to be a model and is even more cutthroat than the writing world, I'm sure. Then I worked as a temp. I worked in retail. I just paid the rent and slept on an egg mattress on Seventy-Fourth and York, and decided I wanted to go to grad school. Maybe that would make me write outside of my diaries. I got rejected by every single grad school I applied to. I get in off the waitlist at NYU. When I quit that job at twenty-four -- I was working as a secretary at a financial journal -- I quit the job because I'd gotten into graduate school. My soon-to-be husband -- that means six years later -- my soon-to-be husband, who was a journalist, walked into the office. I had the biggest smile on my face because I'd just quit. God bless him. He thought that smile was for him. He got the nerve to ask me out. Twenty-four years later, here we are.
I went to grad school where I met Dani Shapiro, who I know you are very close to. In that class, I met my writing workshop of twenty-four years, which is my other marriage, which is the authors Ann Napolitano and Hannah Tinti. We've been together ever since. The first book was Eating the Cheshire Cat. It came out in 1999. It went very much according to plan. I wrote a book while I was temping. The book sold for six figures. I went on a sixteen-city tour. It did great. Then I wrote another book, and nobody would publish it. Then I wrote another book, and nobody would publish it. Then I wrote a third book, and nobody would publish that. Then I quit writing for three years. Nobody cares. All that happens is you put on ten pounds. Still, I had my writing workshop who never told me I wasn’t writer, who still let me read their work and follow their success and sit on their front rows and hold their purse.
Then I started secretly writing through Twitter. For a long, long time, if you met me at a party, “What do you do?” I was very honest. I said, “I'm a housewife.” I'd stopped my job at one point to try to write full time. Because you do things in a particular way or the right way, doesn't mean you'll be successful. I would say, “I'm a housewife.” If there was another question, the question was, “What do you do all day?” I started this Twitter account unbeknownst to my writing workshop, unbeknownst to my husband, called @WhatIDoAllDay. After I got a hundred followers, I told them. I said to my husband, “I have something to tell you.” All the color drained from his face. “What is it?” “I have a secret Twitter account.” “Please don't ever break news to me in this way again.” Same with Ann and Hannah. That is how I started writing again. Twitter is the best editor. I still abide by the practice of, “It’s not retweeted, it’s deleted.”
From the Twitter account, I realized what I was tweeting about. I was tweeting about what I was doing all day, hosting parties, book clubs, solitude, domestic drama, and stories built out of that. I started to write short stories, submit them like I used to do back in the day of graduate school to university presses where you don't get paid a thing but lovely twenty-two-year-olds pull you out of the slush and publish you. It’s fantastic. Then at one point I had a friend and agent say, “How many of these do you have?” I think at the time I had twelve. “Let's see if we can get them published.” I fell ass-backward into a book deal. That's that. That's how it happened.
Zibby: Doesn't everyone say write what you know?
Helen: You have to write what you know. Yes. That's true. Maybe I don't know about murdering my doorman, but I've thought about it. [laughs]
Zibby: I shouldn't say that. I know. Now, I'm thinking about it. I didn't think about your novels and everything. In this instance…
Helen: My packages come a lot earlier now.
Zibby: [laughs] I meant the Twitter part. What about Southern Lady Code? American Housewifecomes out. Go from there.
Helen: Just amazing, amazing how that went down. That opened up other doors for me. Magazine editors reached out to me and said, “Would you write about your trips playing poker with your father in Biloxi? Would you write about how to be the best guest at a party?” This is nonfiction. I just lied and said, “Yes, I’ll do it. Yes, I can do it.” I started writing these nonfiction pieces. You know what, Zibby? It is much easier to tell the truth. It’s much, much easier for me. I wrote this piece that was published in Modern Love called “Making a Marriage Magically Tidy” about how I became a recovering slob to save my marriage. Doubleday said, “Would you write a whole book of these?” Again, I just bullshitted my way into it. “Yes, of course I can do it. Yes.” Nine months later, it was done.
Zibby: Nine months? That's fast.
Helen: It was the fastest that I've ever written anything. Again, I didn't have to make anything up. I've been around a little while. I have forty-eight years behind me. I'm not really embarrassed by anything.
Zibby: Personal essays…not to minimize. Your essays are amazing. They all work together in a great way. I was joking when you first got here when our coats are so similar.
Helen: I'm going to take yours. Mine has a peppermint and a MetroCard in mine. I bet yours does too.
Zibby: No. Mine has nothing. It keeps falling out. I've lost my wallet three times out of the same jacket. It’s so slippery. Anyway, the story was called “The Other Woman’s Burberry Coat” about how you picked up the wrong coat at coat check. The one you got was actually a little nicer than yours. You had all this debate what to do about it. You decided to keep the coat and write, “This is the way I handle a lot of problems, aka rich people problems. I'm lucky to have the life that I have, so my motto is ‘Oh, it’s fine.’ I don't send food back in a restaurant unless there's a finger in it. There's never a finger in it, so I don't send food back. It’s fine.” Talk to me about this philosophy of yours.
Helen: It’s true. I grew up in Alabama. New York City, twenty-five years later, is still a very wealthy place to me. I feel very privileged to live here. I've seen and experienced real problems. For example, there's not a finger in my food, or I take the wrong lady’s Burberry trench coat, or tile was put up in the bathroom so that you can't keep the toilet lid up when you pee standing up. I just don't make a fuss about it. I would rather accept it than fight over it. Really, who cares? I have my health. I have a happy marriage. I have two pairs of jeans. What do I have to bitch about? Nothing.
Zibby: This is like the ultimate Don't Sweat the Small Stuff.
Helen: I don't sweat the small stuff. No.
Zibby: I'm just going to regurgitate different sayings to encapsulate everything that you're saying in such a funny way. I'm just going to reduce it all down. Your “Best Guest” essay was also so funny. You wrote about the best guest at a dinner party. You said, “The best guest eats what she is given. If an hors d’oeuvre is on a toothpick, she does not sniff it suspiciously like baby laxative-cut cocaine. She sucks that toothpick clean, and then she asks for seconds.”
Helen: Let me tell you, Zibby. You are a lady who throws a party or two. I met you because you came to a party at my house. You are the best guest. May I tell your listeners why?
Zibby: Yes, sure. [laughs]
Helen: There are certain things that people will do at a party where they can ask me almost for anything, maybe a kidney, because they were such a good guest. I had a fundraiser for One Story magazine. It was a game night. When I say game night, I mean, let's see how quickly you can work this hundred-piece unicorn puzzle in twenty minutes. Let's play Family Feud in my bedroom. All the while, let's have a dare bag where you can get a lot of points if, for example, you put on my bathrobe and strut through the apartment or you speak throughout charades without giving it away. The most points that anybody could get, you did the dare. The dare was change outfits with another person. I look up. There you are in my friend Jean’s dress. She's in your dress. What can I say? That is the best guest. That is what you call a good sport. You are a good sport, madame.
Zibby: You know, I could not believe it. I walked in there. Everyone was doing all these crazy things. I don't even know, what planet have I landed on? The competitive instinct takes over. I had brought my good friend Lauren Costello. She's like, “Oh, we’re going to win this. If we’re here, we’re doing it.”
Helen: Am I right? You were on A.M. Homes’s team?
Helen: A.M. Homes was a professor of mine in graduate school. As I say on “Southern Lady Code” the podcast, she has a presence, which translates to she scares the shit out of me. She's so accomplished. I've known the woman for twenty-something years. She’ll always be my teacher, like Dani Shapiro will always be my teacher. I will always feel twenty-four years old, which I should take as a good thing. It’s better than Botox. There is A.M. Homes in my apartment with you. Your friend is Lauren, who I'm a little bit in love with, and Jean conga-ing through my apartment. A.M. Homes’s arms are wrapped in toilet paper casts.
Zibby: Yes. That was true too.
Helen: These ladies are going to take it down. The yellow team took it down. At one point, the very last challenge was you had to make the best Scrabble word. I'd hidden Scrabble piles all over the house, which was also another game, a Scrabble hunt. After everybody had left, I had discovered people had gone through my panty drawer. People had emptied out the piggy banks. Again, that's a good guest. That's a good sport.
Zibby: That's a good hostess. That was a killer party. That was unlike any event I've ever been to.
Helen: No phones allowed.
Zibby: I know.
Helen: She lost a lot of points if I saw a phone. We did see phones. People lost points.
Zibby: That was tough. All these calls, the kids are like --
Helen: -- Oh, no. Two hours, you're all mine.
Zibby: I know. When I asked you a second ago where you recorded your podcast, I thought you were going to say on Fifty-Seventh Street or something. Helen just started to talk about how I was in her bathroom. I have now been undressed in her bathroom, which is so random.
Helen: Yes. If you're going to Instagram a picture, that would be the picture to Instagram.
Zibby: Not to mention the outfit I changed into ended up looking so much better than the one I showed up in. I saw what she looked like in my clothes. I was like, “Oh, my god. I'm never wearing that again.” It looked terrible.
Helen: It looked fantastic. Both of you looked fantastic. You asked where I do the podcast. I'm at this point in my life where, for the most part, if I'm given an opportunity, I’ll say yes. People at Penguin and Doubleday said, “Would you do a podcast, a mini-podcast based on Southern Lady Code?” I'm a huge podcast listener. I said, “Yes. Absolutely. Where do I record it?” “Just go into your closet or bathroom.” For the first eight episodes, I sat my ass on the floor of my bathroom, borrowing my cat’s pillow, with a microphone on the toilet lid. I think you said regurgitated earlier. I felt like I was regurgitating, in college, into the toilet. Since then, because Liberty Hardy who does Book Riot showed a picture of where she does her podcast, which is at her desk, which is where we’re sitting in your home, I thought, “This is much more ladylike. I'm going to sit at my desk.” Now, I do it at my desk.
Zibby: Southern Lady Code says get off the bathroom floor.
Helen: Exactly. Just because I am very comfortable being barefoot in the kitchen doesn't mean I need to be barefoot when I do my podcast.
Zibby: What are some of the podcasts? Not to put you on the spot. What do you like to listen to?
Helen: I’ll tell you other little mini-podcasts. My podcast is six to eight minutes. I like that format from time to time. There's a great one called “The Way I Heard It” by Mike Rowe. He tells old Hollywood stories with a twist. There's a fabulous new podcast called “10 Things That Scare Me.”
Zibby: Oh, yeah!
Helen: Isn't it the best? I want to be on it. I got to send them a list.
Zibby: I tried.
Helen: Did you really? Tell me.
Zibby: I went to this women's podcasting event. You should go when it comes back. It’s called Werk It, W-E-R-K, Werk It. They were about to launch that show. They said, “If anybody wants to try, write down your list and come record it with the producers.” I was the first one. Let me try. I should've thought about it.
Helen: What's the weirdest thing you’re afraid of?
Zibby: It wasn’t weird enough. It was death or something totally regular.
Helen: My kids dying. [laughs] It’s got to be weird.
Zibby: I know. I'm not weird enough.
Helen: My biggest fear right now is that my neck will eventually look like when you have a leak at the top of the ceiling and you have a massive water bubble hanging down the paint.
Zibby: I have one in the bathroom. We can go look.
Helen: We can take a picture. We can compare my neck. There's another one called “Cabinet of Curiosities.” The guy who does “Lore,” it’s his new podcast. I love a true crime podcast. I love a good interview show. I love a storytelling podcast. “Risk” is fantastic, which is kind of kinky or bizarre, with Kevin Allison. My sister has a podcast which you would love. It’s called “One Bad Mother.” It’s her and Theresa Thorn, who is Jesse Thorn of Maximum Fun’s wife. It’s been going for six or seven years. They both have kids. It’s just about raising your kids. It’s very honest, which means crass. You should check it out.
Zibby: I will for sure check it out. Tell me about poker. You're a professional poker player?
Helen: I'm a respected amateur.
Zibby: Respected amateur. You were Colson Whitehead’s coach?
Helen: I was. He was going to go play the World Series and write about it for Grantland. I think that was 2011, 2012. He had idea I was a writer. I was just a forty-something-year-old poker-playing housewife. Not just, I was a forty-something-year-old poker-playing housewife. What else would you want to be? A lady of leisure. At the time when I read his draft of it, I thought, “If this is the way I go down in history, which was a pretty badass portrait of myself, I would be very happy with that.” It was like seeing a famous artist paint your portrait. I didn't change a word of it.
I remember being at a One Story event. It was 2012. I was introduced to Nan Graham, who was the head of Scribner when I published there in 1999. Someone introduced me to her as Colson Whitehead’s poker coach. She did, thank god, remember me. It had been over ten years since I published. That is what I was being introduced as. That, at the time, was perfectly fine. I will tell you that seeing myself portrayed in a badass way made me more courageous. If I can walk into a room with thousands of men and think, “I’ll be the last one standing,” I can write a little story. So I did. I do thank him in American Housewifefor reminding me that I'm brave. I started playing poker when I was six. My father’s a poker player. His father was a poker player. The only downside of the return to publishing life is that I don't play as much. I haven't played since November, Zibby. I'm in complete withdrawal.
Zibby: You need to have a poker night.
Helen: I do give ladies lessons. Women make up four percent of the poker field. I give ladies lessons. I will come to your house. I will charge. [laughs] I will teach six to ten of your friends how to walk into a casino and play Hold ‘em, Stud, whatever you want to play. I also teach ten-year-old boys as long as their mothers are involved.
Helen: Yes, I do.
Zibby: I have an eleven-year-old boy.
Helen: Perfect. Kids and women, they need to know how to play.
Zibby: That's awesome. I will be figuring out when to have that event.
Helen: I'm already planning for June. June is the World Series in Vegas. My tour will be over by then. I’ll be off to Vegas for a week or two to play. I can't wait. I hope I remember how.
Zibby: You mentioned earlier, we were just talking, your philosophy on life, nothing’s too big a deal because of the stuff that’s gone on before. Is there anything you'd be willing to share? No? Not so much. Okay. Just thought I'd check.
Helen: I can say this. When I first started dating my husband, there was a lot of death in his family. There was the fast death of his twenty-nine-year-old brother to a brain aneurysm. There was a very lengthy death of his grandmother to what happens when you get old and they keep you alive. It was years of being the only caretakers in a very stressed, sad, sad time. Both of us, it’s just never been as hard as that. I'm not going to be upset over much of anything. It never has been as hard as that. I hope it won't be as hard as that. I am older and a little braver than I was in my twenties.
Zibby: You need to wear a shirt that says #brave.
Helen: [laughs] I'm not so brave. I'm not a hotshot firefighter in Montana.
Zibby: Alabama woman in New York, just getting through this is pretty brave. That's pretty awesome. Next for you, you have Southern Lady Code. You're going to do the tour. Are you writing any more?
Helen: I'm working on the podcast. I'm writing. I compare it to what David Sedaris used to do on NPR or what you see Jim Gaffigan do on CBS This Morning, like, “Oh, all of tumors are compared to fruit,” just little, funny, poignant pieces that last three or four minutes. It’s, again, nonfiction. It’s getting that muscle going. I like doing it. I have no idea what I'm writing next to put in a book, and that's cool. Again, I'm just not concerned at all. [laughs]
Zibby: Just getting the content out there. Do you have any advice to aspiring writers?
Helen: [laughs] I didn't know what you were going to ask me.
Zibby: Aspiring poker players? Aspiring Southern Code ladies?
Helen: I have advice for both. I have advice to writers. My advice is two things. One is find yourself one or two friends to read your work. If they're writers, that’s fantastic. If not, that's still okay. When I write something new, Ann and Hannah are the first to read it. My husband reads it. My sister reads it. My friend Martin reads it. That's that.
Zibby: Do they change it? Do you allow them to edit it?
Helen: My husband is an editor at CBS. He’s completely outside my market. I don't fool myself. I do not write for straight men. I write for women, and I write for gay men. If I can keep him interested, then I've really set the bar. Both Ann and Hannah definitely give me critiques. My friend Martin Wilson is a writer. He does. My sister is a rampant reader and stand-up comedian. It’s a good mix.
My other advice is work the crossword puzzle every day. Work it in pencil, for heaven’s sake. Work it in pencil to start. When you work it in pencil, you're more willing to make a mistake. Yes, there's the whole bit about vocabulary. You increase your vocabulary. For me, it’s the daily process of getting my mind working and making a mistake. As soon as you know you've made the right word choice, you put it in pen. Those are my two bits of advice.
Zibby: Amazing. Thank you so much for coming.
Helen: And don't forget to giggle. [laughs]
Zibby: That's the best. You have the best laugh. Oh, my goodness. Thank you for coming on.
Helen: Thank you for having me. It’s a pleasure.
Zibby: Can't wait to hear more of your podcast and see what's next.
Helen: Oh, god. [laughs]
Zibby: Take care.