Today, I am deviating from the “traditions” of my blog by interviewing someone not tall at all. Ellen Hawley is a charming tiny lady, with a very British sense of humour (although she is, in fact, a born and bred American) and a gigantic writing talent.
She recently published her third book, “The Divorce Diet”, which is one of the many reasons for us to meet.
Short Review of the Book
The book has been classified by critics as ” woman’s fiction”. It is a very easy, humourous read, about a woman whose life falls apart unexpectedly: her husband walks out on her. Alongside coping with the huge changes in her life, she also takes care of her young baby and tries to lose weight. A diet book becomes her “guru”: not because she religiously follows it, but because it gives her the support she needs when dealing with her new life as a single mum.
In the best traditions of books such as “Bridget Jones’ Diary” (but much better written, and no less entertaining), this novel will get you thinking about some serious issues, and none of them are in your face. Instead, they are thoughtfully layered between the lines. There is no drama, no whinging or complaining. The reader can only guess how much Abigail (the character) is struggling from some occasional hints or thrown-in half-statements. What you will find is very well balanced sense of humour mixed with self-depreciation and self-sarcasm, at times so amusing that you find yourself laughing out loudly.
I loved the book from start to finish. Although a very light read, it is a perfectly written novel which deserves recognition as a “proper” literary publication — which is how my conversation with Ellen started.
“The Divorce Diet” As a Commercial Novel
Ellen: “It’s been an odd thing finding out that the book has been sold as popular fiction, commercial fiction. My first two books were sold as literary fiction. I am the same writer I was when I wrote the other two. It is true that “The Divorce Diet” is a light read, but at the same time it deals with some serious subjects: not just about divorce, but the role of women in society, the economics of divorce, the difficulties that single parents face (mothers especially). All of that is serious, heavy stuff in a very light read. I find it a bit baffling, where the dividing line is between what’s literary and what’s not literary; what’s commercial and what’s not commercial. I am happy to see it out there and I am happy for as many people to read it as possible, but it’s an odd business, how books are sold, how it’s all marketed. Everything has its little niche. It’s been targeted as woman’s fiction, which is a commercial category.”
Me: “Yes, but it’s been very well written.”
Ellen: “Thank you. I would have thought that the quality of writing would be the difference.
The book is dedicated to everyone who has even walked away from a relationship or a diet. I wrote it for my friend Janneen when her marriage was breaking up. Sometimes we could all use a good laugh. My feeling is that the line between comedy and tragedy is not that thick; that laughter accompanies tragedy a lot of the time. That was why it came out of the way it did.”
Me: “But it’s a serious book.”
Ellen: “I think so, too. It sounds very vain, but I really love this book. Partly because of how it was written, it’s very close to my heart. I really wanted it to get out into the world. In part because if it can give encouragement to women who are struggling during a hard time in their lives, I would love to be able to do that! That would make me very happy.”
Her Blog, Notes from the U.K.
Over the past year, Ellen’s main work is Notes from the U.K. — an entertaining and highly educational blog about the differences between life in England and other cultures. Here is what she says about her blog.
“One of the things that writing a blog has done is free me from a lot of my preconceptions of what I write. I was very clear in my head that I don’t write autobiography — and I found a lot of my stories creeping into my blog as background, in spite of my preconception. And that makes sense. I’m looking at a culture that’s new to me, and for my vision of it to make sense, you need to know a bit about who I am and what I am bringing to it. It’s little bits and pieces, and I pick and choose carefully.
Working on Another Novel
Nonetheless, I haven’t been working on a novel since I started my blog. I have a novel about half-written, which needs some very, very basic rethinking: it’s not working, and I haven’t been able to finish it. I have been working on it for years; it keeps calling me back. I can’t seem to walk away from it, but at the same time I can’t finish it. There is some basic problem in the way I initially conceived it, I think, and time away may help. Or may not — I don’t know; we’ll find out.
In a perfect world, I’d like it if I could get a book out of my blog, but it would have to change. I’d have to re-envision the material in a different form. I am excited about that possibility. It coheres well. I was very conscious when I started and wanted to have some central theme. I didn’t want to just do a bit of this, and a bit of that.”
Originally from New York, Ellen now lives in the UK — in the, apparently, beautiful country of Cornwall (never visited, but totally trust her judgement).
England and Britons
Me: “So, why did you choose England?”
Ellen: “Basically, we (my partner and I) fell in love with it. We came to visit; we came back and we kept coming back to the same village, so we got to know people. We had always wanted, if we could, to spend a year here. After my mother died (that was the last parent to die), we could do that. Ida had already retired and I could have retired, although I was still working free lance. As a freelancer, I thought I could take a year off and I still slot back in without too much trouble.
So we came over for a year and halfway through the year decided to stay. Because we had basically retired, we had the luxury to be able to do that. One of the things that really struck us (and it may be about living in England, but I suspect it’s about living in a village) is that in the course of the day we had more human contact, or interactions with other people, than we ever did in Minneapolis. I had lived there for forty years; Ida had lived there for thirty years. It’s not that we are isolated there: we knew a lot of people in the neigbourhood; we had a lot of friends, but everyone was so busy, so tied up that it was much more isolating in a way we hadn’t even noticed. And here, you just walk to the store and you see people, and you exchange a few words, and it’s not a big thing, but we’re social creatures. Human beings are. And we need that. And that’s part of what we really loved about it.
Our experience is that people here are very welcoming, very warm. That does help, because we are in a category people seem to think is exotic in a good way: from movies, TV shows and whatever. People think they have positive associations with Americans — God knows why. It’s an odd business.
We had a real battle with immigration to stay here. It doesn’t matter where you are from. We came here under the “Writers and Artists” category, which allowed for settlement, and then they changed the rules. We had to appeal an order to leave the country, and although people were supportive, a lot of them said really horrible things to us: “Oh, you are the good immigrants; we like you!” What do you say? These are people who are trying to be nice, and you want to seriously slap them! Anyway, it’s very odd to be in a category that people accept even when they are being horrible about immigrants in general. It makes my skin crawl. But, anyway, there it is.
Ellen’s Biography and Her Books
In each one of my books I’ve robbed a bit of my own work life. The first one (“Trip Sheets”): I worked as a cab driver and I used that experience and background. The second one (“Open Line”): I had a part-time job as a radio talk show host and I drew on that. The “Divorce Diet”: I used to work as a waitress, and I was a terrible waitress. Absolutely awful! I’ve got what they call face blindness: I have trouble recognising people. Here I was, trying to deliver food to people and I had no idea who was who. I was always bringing food to the wrong people; I was just hopeless. Anyway, I’ve gone through robbing my work life from job to job to job.”
Me: “Are there any other jobs you haven’t written about?”
Ellen: “Many! Four days I worked as a file clerk. For four hours, I worked as a receptionist. I’ve been a janitor; I’ve been an editor. I did at one point have an idea about setting a novel in a small magazine. It didn’t gel; I’ve gone back to various versions, so I haven’t robbed my editorial life yet. I used to work in a candy factory; I haven’t used that one either. That job cured me: I hardly ever eat candy anymore. It was horrible; my hair always smelt like chocolate. I don’t like sweets as much as I used to. I used to just be crazy for them. Now — eek.
The Community of WordPress
Me: “Do you want to tell us more about your relationships with other bloggers from WordPress?”
Ellen: “That has been fascinating! There are people who comment regularly on my blog whom I just love. Some of them are very, very funny and some of them tell me stuff I would never have known. They do engage a lot. There is a woman who is Scottish, she was living in the US. Because she has the same experience in the other direction, that’s been fascinating. There are other people whose experiences are totally different who write in and engage regularly. It’s wonderful. It’s a great community. And without that community, I’d never have met you.
The community aspect was a great surprise; I really love it. It is so different from paper publishing, where a book goes out into the world, you have no idea what it’s doing out there and it leads a life entirely of its own, and you don’t know a thing about it. With the blog you do, and you actually hear from readers. For the most part, that’s wonderful. Every so often it gets a little strange. Occasionally I find somebody writing something I have to stop and think a little bit about: what do I do with this comment?
It gets very touchy when we get into religion. I come from a family of Jewish atheists. I don’t have a religious impulse in my body. Some of the people who read the blog are religious and I’m happy to respect that, but I’m not going to tone down who I am. I am not against religion. But I am against religions that want to control other people’s lives and tell them how to live, but that’s where I draw the line. What people believe, my feeling is: if it keeps you going — more power to it. I know some people who have had really hard times and religion gets them through, and I can’t challenge that.
It’s been a very interesting experience to be, on one hand, engaged with people who are very religious but who, apparently, accept that I am in a relationship with another woman. That’s not the primary issue in the blog, but I’m not about to hide it; it’s simply a fact. You wouldn’t ask a heterosexual couple to hide that they are together.
Anyway, it’s been an interesting experience to engage with people who life wouldn’t involve me with otherwise. And that’s great; that’s wonderful. I learn from them.
One wonderful thing about blogging is that it’s opened up writing for people who wouldn’t do it otherwise. There a lot of bloggers there who say: “Well, I’m not really a writer”, and yet they are writing and they are being read by many people. And the people they are writing to are engaging with them. That sounds like being a writer to me.”