Adderson reveals the dramatic, messy world of Ellen

Caroline Adderson’s novel Ellen in Pieces has been nominated for a 2015 B.C. Book Prize. She is the author of three previous novels, A History of Forgetting, Sitting Practice, and The Sky is Falling, two collections of short stories, Bad Imaginings and Pleased to Meet You. A two-time winner of the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, Adderson’s work has also been nominated for many awards including the Scotiabank Giller (longlist) and the Governor General’s Literary Award. Recently Adderson answered Traci Skuce’s questions for The Coastal Spectator.

Each chapter in Ellen in Pieces reads like a short story. In fact three of the chapters won, or were long listed, for various magazine awards. At the same time, there’s a cohesion and propulsion that moves the reader from one chapter to the next. Can you comment on your choice of form? Did it grow out of the character, Ellen, or did Ellen grow out of the form?

Neither, actually.  The idea of the form came about as a kind of protest. In 2009, I read Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, which I thoroughly enjoyed, except for the fact that it was touted as a novel when it is obviously a collection of linked stories. The next year I read Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, which I loved even more, but again, there was that word on the cover — “novel”. I was irritated for two reasons. First, did publishers think readers wouldn’t notice that they were reading stories and, second, were they so ashamed of the form (my favourite) that they wouldn’t even admit to publishing it?  Once I got over my irritation, I started to wonder if it was possible to write a novel wherein each chapter is a stand-alone story. That’s what I set out to do. Once I finished the stories and put them in order, however, I had to do a lot of cutting and shaping, mostly to eliminate the repetition of background material that each stand-alone story needed.

How Ellen came to me was quite dramatic.  I write for children, as well as adults. (I’ve published 12 kids’ books now.) Kid lit is a genre, meaning simply that it has rules. One of the primary rules is that the child protagonist, or the child-substitute (the squirrel or the bear), must solve her problem on her own, not have an adult solve the problem for her. In other words, she must be active. As soon as I grasped that principle, I recognized a flaw in my own writing – that my protagonists tend to be, while not necessarily passive, quite reflective.  Suddenly a door kicked open in my head and there stood Ellen, Super-Active Protagonist. She acts. She messes up her life, and then she fixes it, and everyone else’s while she’s at it.

The novel also breaks down into two parts: Act One and Act Two. The first two-thirds of the novel (Act One) is told mostly from Ellen’s point of view (with the exception of two chapters), but none of Act Two is. When in the writing did you realize you’d have to break out of Ellen’s point of view? Or had you intended it from the outset?

I intended it from the outset.  I wanted to make readers feel that Ellen was their close personal friend.  When the event happens which forces Ellen to retreat inside herself, her point of view disappears and we see her through the eyes of other people.  I was trying to mimic what happens when we actually lose a friend, how the stories about her are all we have left.

So when I started reading the book, I glanced at the blurb on the cover by Annabel Lyon: “Sexy, searing, and very, very funny.” And, of course, Ellen is so outrageous and bawdy in some moments that I laughed out loud. The sex is funny. The lice. Her father’s constipation. At the same time, the beauty, the real art of your work, is that you balance this with tragedy. My heart ached for these characters. I thought and worried about them—even dreamt about them! Can you talk about this balance between tragedy and comedy? Why striking that balance is important for you, and also the reader?

I’m sure there are readers who won’t go near my books after hearing what some of them are about: Buddhism and spinal cord injury (people actually recoil when I tell them that one!); the fear of nuclear war; hairdressers who make a pilgrimage to the Auschwitz Museum.  I’m a tragic-comic writer. I’m interested in dark subjects, but I explore them with a lot of humour. Life is suffering. Better laugh when you can.

I found Ellen to be incredibly self-aware. Anger, her default emotion, flares frequently, and sometimes she acts upon it, and sometimes not. But she’s able to name it, cool it out when she has to. She also reflects on the past, sees her part in things (particularly strained relationships) even if she doesn’t like what she sees. She’s also in her mid-forties. So I’m wondering how reaching mid-life impacts the way Ellen mulls over the past?

The book is really about middle-age and the great contentment that’s waiting there, unseen by the young. It’s so freeing to get some distance on what you’ve already lived and see that the things that seemed so important at the time, aren’t, and as a consequence, that the things ruffling you in the present perhaps aren’t going to turn out to be very important either. So why not just get on with life? That’s one road anyway. The other is bitterness and regret, such as Larry, Ellen’s ex husband, feels. Ellen, being an active protagonist, chooses life. So could we.

Many many writers have been directly (or indirectly) influenced by Chekhov. And in Ellen in Pieces, there’s a chapter where Ellen takes in a stray dog and in her search to name him pulls Chekhov’s “Lady with the Lap Dog” off the shelf and rereads the story. I loved that she did that, that you showed this character engaged with a story, both remembering the feelings she’d had reading it when she was younger and the new insights she gained as a dog owner. Can you talk about the ways you feel Chekhov has influenced you? And about the process of integrating literature—particularly Chekhov—into your stories and novels.

My last novel, The Sky Is Falling, was partly about the love of Russian literature. I worried about doing a similar thing in this book too, but it seems that Ellen is reaching more readers, so perhaps those who connect with that chapter might like to pick up the last book and really indulge themselves. Apart from the fact that Chekhov revolutionized the short story by making it about character instead of plot, quiet moments instead of dramatic revelations, it’s his tone that draws me.  Again, the stories are incredibly sad, yet so funny, which is the balance that moves me as a reader and a writer.  Also, in Russian writing — Chekhov and Tolstoy especially — there are continual references to both writers and literary characters. Yet in contemporary writing, there is very little of this. The characters rarely even read books. I’ve always found that odd. Ellen is very much a reader; she even has an old-fashioned dentist chair specifically to read in. I enjoyed rounding out her character through her literary tastes. In one chapter, for example, she manages to shake off a crush on a man because he offers her a Dean Koontz novel.

Traci Skuce lives in the Comox Valley. She recently completed her MFA at Pacific University, Oregon.