Author Interview: Helen Ellis

My dear pal and fellow writer (and fellow former Tuscaloosan) Helen Ellis recently took the time to answer some questions I had for her about her fantastic and super-fun YA novel, The Turning: What Curisoity Kills. Below is our exhange. After you read, do yourself a favor and buy here book! And you can check her web site here, where she posts a lot of fun videos (some of which have starred yours truly).

Well, dearest Helen, thanks for answering my questions on my little ole blog. I really loved The Turning: What Curiosity Kills. Or is it What Curiosity Kills: The Turning? Either way, it was a great read, packed with sparkling humor and wit, suspense, fantastical set pieces, and intriguing and colorful characters. In fact, I thought every character, no matter how minor, was packed with such personality. That might be what I loved most about the book. There is not a generic line or person in the entire book. That’s quite hard to pull off. And how can one not love a book with a character named Ling Ling Lebowitz? But I’ll stop gushing and get to the questions:

Now, this novel is the first of a trilogy, right? You end on a definite cliffhanger, so can you spill any dirt about what happens next?

Surely. Book Two of The Turning is called Swing the Dead. A rash of murdered teens sweeps Manhattan and a citywide curfew is enforced. While trying to solve the crimes, Mary is forced to choose which turn side she will rule: domestics or strays. But then she finds out that there are more than two sides.

I kind of hate this question, but I must ask it, because the premise of your novel is so unique. How did you come up with this idea of teenagers turning into cats?

I wrote what I knew. I remember what it’s like to be a teenager and I live with two cats. Also, I had a dream that I woke up and went to my bathroom sink to wash my face. When I looked in the medicine cabinet mirror, I found that my face was not my own. It was inhuman and needed serious electrolysis.

What was the hardest part about pulling this off? Were the “turning” scenes hard to write, or were they the fun part?

The turning scenes were pretty easy for me. When there aren’t popularly known guidelines, like there are with vampires (no garlic, no light) and werewolves (no anger, no full moon), I can just make stuff up. And I did. And it was fun.

The hardest part was teenage angst. It’s no fun to relive puberty.

The novel nicely evokes the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Why did you choose to set the novel there? Why not Alabama, where we both grew up?

I set my first novel, Eating the Cheshire Cat in our hometown of Tuscaloosa, Alabama – where you set your wonderful novel, What They Always Tell Us. I’d been there, done that. So, again, I took a look around me and I wrote what I knew.

I’ve lived on the Upper East Side of Manhattan for well over ten years. In What Curiosity Kills, I wanted to show my Upper East Side – not the glitzy version you see on TV and in the movies.

You basically create this entire “turning” subculture, which clearly sprung from your rich (and twisted!) imagination. But did you do any research to guide you into this world of feline-to-human craziness?

Nope. I did absolutely no research. I’ve had cats for most of my life, so I know how they behave. They’re fastidious, they like to sleep, they like to be pet, and they are curious. Also, the strays in the back of the novel’s Lower East Side salon, Kropps & Bobbers, are real. The salon, too. And when my husband, who is Greek, and I travel to Greece we find the mainland and islands overrun with stray cats. When I started writing, I realized I’d been surrounded my domestics and strays my whole life. I remembered, watched, and wrote.

You clearly love cats, since you have two adorable boy kitties yourself. What is it about cats that attracts and intrigues you?

Cats are comfortably selfish. They want something – affection, food, a fight – they go for it.

Your first novel, Eating the Cheshire Cat (there’s that “cat” word again!), came out about ten years ago. It was written for adults and was quite a success, as I recall. What have you been working on since then, and how did you come to write for teens?

For the past ten years, I’ve been writing and failing to publish. I wrote a second book and my agent couldn’t get a publisher. I poured my soul into a third book for a new agent who, after taking it on, decided she didn’t really like it, after all. Without an agent, I started a fourth book, because I am a writer, and that’s what writers do.

I had that dream about the cat face – remember? I wrote sixty pages and an editor friend asked to see them. He made me an offer before the book was halfway finished. This editor worked for the teen imprint Fire at Sourcebooks. I never intentionally wrote the book aimed at young adults. My characters just happened to be in high school (as they were in Eating the Cheshire Cat). Good stories are good stories. I write for everyone.

What, in your experience, is the difference between writing for adults and teenagers? Do you prefer one over the other?

No, no preference. The only difference I found between writing for adults and teens was in the editing process, where more graphic bits of sensuality and violence were taken out. I didn’t mind because the gist of the book wasn’t changed. And as Mama used to tell me as a teenager, “For heaven’s sake, button your blouse, Helen Michelle, leave a little something to be desired.”

What books and authors have inspired you? And what kind of books do you read for “fun”?

Here are the top three books that I’ve read and that have inspired me this year:

The Nobodies Album by Carolyn Parkhurst

The Irresistible Henry House by Lisa Grunwald

Roses by Leila Meacham

When it comes to reading for fun, all the books I read are for fun. I’m not in school anymore. I’m all grown up and can do what I wanna do. So all the books I read are my choice. And even if the subject matter is difficult or sad, I’m still reading because the act of reading is a good time. And even in our book club, when a book is chosen that I don’t end up enjoying, I’m still having fun because I love talking about books.

Yay, books!

What else are you working on, besides the rest of the Turning books?

I’m working on the first of a cozy mystery series, Rebecca Starling, about a 1930’s starlet who moves to Hollywood and gets mixed up in murder. I’m also revising a shelved adult novel, The Mossy Queen, about a woman who murders her planter husband and turns his plantation into a house of prostitution. Oh dear, what will Mama say about that one?


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