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After Life
Rhian Ellis
292 pp.

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The Wag Chats with
Rhian Ellis

Novelist Rhian Ellis discusses the benefits of writing a novel about spiritualism and tells us what daily life is like in a two-novelist family with small children.

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 about.

WAG: 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.

WAG: 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.

WAG: 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 noticed.

WAG: 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.

WAG: 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.

WAG: 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 out there.

WAG: 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 that time.

WAG: 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 farm.

WAG: 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 working today?

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).

—Interview conducted by Daphne Frostchild

Posted October 1, 2000


Photo Credit: Marion Ettlinger

Rhian Ellis lives in New York state with her husband, J. Robert Lennon, and their two sons. She holds an MFA from the University of Montana. After Life is her first novel.



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