Thursday, November 08, 2007

Winter Blog Blast Tour: Ellen Emerson White

Ellen Emerson White is the author of Long May She Reign, a book I've included in my Best Books of 2007 (see sidebar). Readers may remember that I highlighted Ellen's books in my Under The Radar sequence this summer. You can imagine how happy I am that Ellen agreed to an interview for the Winter Blog Blast Tour!

As you read, you can see why I adore Ellen's books; as in her interview, they are a mix of serious and humor. I also found it interesting to think of Long May She Reign as a post 9/11 book, even tho 9/11 itself is not a factor in the book.

And someone who loves Buffy and Battlestar Galactica? And lives in New York City and is a Red Sox fan? How can you not love Ellen Emerson White? And it's not just me! Publishers Weekly included Long May She Reign in their Best Books of 2007. See the full PW starred review here.

Liz B: Your new book, Long May She Reign (October 2007), features Meg Powers, a character introduced in three books published in the 1980s, The President's Daughter (1984), White House Autumn (1985), and Long Live the Queen (1989.) Please tell us a bit about Long May She Reign.

Ellen: The book is very, very long--so, if you have orthopedic issues, please consult a medical professional before attempting to lift it.

It picks up approximately three months after Long Live the Queen ends. Since I am Not Very Bright, the earlier books are quite solidly set in the 1980s, or--to put it less politely--they are extremely dated. Which is why I am currently re-typing them, to bring them up to the near-future, since Long May She Reign clearly exists in a post-Bush world. All three of them are going to be reissued next spring.

As the book opens, Meg is not doing very well. (She said, with extreme understatement.) Her parents' marriage seems to be falling apart, her brother Steven is falling apart--and Meg has already fallen apart. So, all is not well at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Obviously, she's in tough shape psychologically, but she also hasn't healed from her injuries--and, it's clear, is never going to have anything close to a full physical recovery.

Everything is looking pretty hopeless, and since she really doesn't have any other options, or much prospect of ever leading a normal life, she ends up deciding to go away to college, after all--in lieu of staying in her bedroom permanently. And college turns out to be very difficult--but, interesting.

In case that all sounds too bleak, I must stress that there are jokes, also.

Liz B: Your fans have been waiting for a new Meg book since 1989. Why revisit Meg now? How did you get back into Meg's head?

Ellen: There are a lot of reasons. My own life took some unexpected twists and turns, which changed the way I look at things--and if you're a writer and you don't try to address that through art, you are in the wrong profession. Also, I'm a New Yorker, and I was here on 9/11--and there's no getting around the fact that the entire world as we know it is different now. I think this is a very much a book about people waiting, uneasily, for the next bad thing to happen--and I'm sure 9/11 plays into all of that, somewhere.

Plus, sometimes you want to write a book which is just too hard to write. It took me 3 1/2 years--to the exclusion of everything else--which was a great gift creatively, but maybe not the wisest choice from a practical "pay the rent" standpoint. As a reader, I am often frustrated by writers who seem to write the same book over and over--and I really enjoy writers who absolutely swing for the fences and try to be as ambitious as possible, even if the finished novel is--short of perfection. (The Virgo in me wants to faint when I type those words.) Long May She Reign was a tremendous challenge, because I wrote the best book that I am capable of writing. 110% effort. Left it all out on the field. All of those good sports cliches. But, it's a little disconcerting to realize that you have absolutely exhausted the full extent of your abilities--and that the book is still flawed. But, what can you do?

I thought I had grown out of Meg years ago--but, no, she popped right back into my psyche in about a second and a half. The voice, the rhythm, the mind-set--all of it. And she is just as grouchy as ever. I thought that Rebecca, the lead character in a couple of my other novels, was my true alter ego--but, writing about Meg just felt like coming home.

A character from my very first novel (not a great book, but I was only 18) is a major character in this novel, and to my surprise, Susan (a less well developed character originally, and certainly much less likeable and approachable) also came back as soon as I started typing. She and Meg are an absolutely combustible mix, and that aspect of the book was really fun to write.

Liz B: Politics have always played a big part in the Meg Powers books, what with Meg being the daughter of the first woman President. But the media is also a huge part of Meg's life, especially now that she is no longer famous just for being "daughter of." What are your thoughts on today's media, and teens caught in the spotlight?

Ellen: An eleven year old I adore refers to everyone over 18 as "an elderly dude"--and sometimes, I think she might be right. The Internet has changed everything--especially, it seems, people's grasp of the concept that there is such a thing as Too Much Information.

But, given Meg's inherent New England reserve--and the fact that she has always had to be so very careful every waking moment of her life--makes it easier to fit her into this new world, without having to change her at all, really.

The media has become omnipresent, and often, irresponsible--but, I can't really complain
since I read the New York Post regularly, and watch American Idol, and just generally participate in the fun of tabloidization. So, I'm nowhere near the moral high ground on this subject.

It's very sad that so many starlet types in the public eye (especially a Lindsay Lohan, who is
actually talented) are crashing and burning, but sometimes, I think they're so addicted to the fame and attention, that they're embracing the constant coverage and exposure, despite the fact that it mostly makes them look ridiculous. Even Andy Warhol might be flummoxed by today's media climate.

That said, I have to wonder where all of their parents are. A rich and famous teenager is still a teenager. It would be nice to see them get a little sensible, adult supervision.

Insofar as the book is concerned, I think Meg's father is a tremendous grounding force in their lives. He's a much more complicated (and sometimes less nice) man than he may appear to be, but there's no question that he is doing everything he can to try and help his children lead something reasonably close to normal lives.

Liz B: Let me be the first to say, I would vote for President Katharine Powers.* (I'd also vote for Laura Roslin, but I don't think they would be running against each other.) I love the insider look at politics; but I also am a bit in awe about the character that is Katharine Powers; meaning, not just who she is but how you portray her. Can you talk a bit about her as a character?

Ellen: Wouldn't Katharine and Laura have one hell of a debate? I'd pay to see that.

When I originally finished the President's Daughter, I was only twenty. The President is much easier to write, now that I'm very close to being her age. She makes sense to me, in a whole different way.

The irony is, that she's actually a wonderful, loving parent--although she gets no credit from anyone--including herself--for being one. I would love to write a book from her point of view, but there are only 43 Americans who would be capable of doing that effectively, and only four of them are still alive, so I guess it's not going to happen. Boy, I'd love to do that book, though. The only way I could ever use her as a main character would be if I wrote a book which takes place when she's Meg's age--and, I don't know. It would be a challenge, but the idea is not without appeal.

I'm blessed in Long May She Reign, since about twelve different characters would be capable of carrying their own books--and I can't imagine what it would be like to see Meg from someone else's point of view. Steven, and Susan, are both viable possibilities for that, though.

But, the President. Hmmm. I love the President. I love it that I genuinely believe that she would have no trouble running the world--but that she is also a very nervous and apologetic person. Well-meaning. Insecure. Sensitive. But, I also like it that she's arrogant, and short-tempered--and has that ruthless, ice-cold streak which surfaces every now and then.

I think that she and Meg mirror each other in so many interesting ways--and yet, Meg is also so very much like her father. Actually, all three of the children are such complicated mixes of their parents--and it was a happy surprise for me when Neal leaped out of his former "I am a cute child" persona in this book, and became a full-fledged, quite pivotal, character, in his own right.

This doesn't really answer any questions about the President, though, does it? She's--elusive. Even for me.

Liz B: Tea Cozy readers are fans; and as fans, they are curious about the creative process. You've written over 25 books, covering everything from picture books to adult mysteries. How does the writing process differ for the different books you write? While writing Meg Powers, for instance, was it a challenge that in earlier books Meg was drinking TAB and watching Hill Street Blues and now she's surfing the 'Net and has an iPod? (And as a total aside, I just saw that Hill Street is now available on DVD. Yay!)

Ellen: Sadly, only the first two seasons of Hill Street are out now, I think--but, maybe the others are coming soon.

I can't really explain my process, because I fall into the idiot savant category--with a very heavy emphasis on the "idiot" part. It's very similar to sports, really, because the minute
you start thinking too much about how you do it--you can't do it anymore.

If I suddenly became independently wealthy, I would spend the rest of my career writing an adult novel every two or three years (spending that entire period working; not lounging about, eating Doritos), and never do anything else. But, as a Buddhist once said in a book I read (I paraphrase), there's nothing wrong with living in the moment--but, you should still open an IRA. Which, in the early 21st century, sums up a novelist's life pretty accurately.

I like some of the books better than others, and some of them are written under pseudonyms--for a reason. And, in some cases, I regret the pseudonyms, so it's a complicated mix for me.

Liz B: Not to be all greedy, considering that the new book is a brand new book, arriving in stores in October. But, can you share with us any current writing projects?

Ellen: I just finished re-typing the President's Daughter, and am on a very short deadline
to do the same with the other two. Back in the day, I used an actual typewriter for those books, so they don't even exist on a floppy disk or anything.

It's very strange to revisit one's twenty-year-old writer self, I must say. I'm not changing anything at all--they are the exact same books), but some of the anachronisms just had to go. Sadly, Meg no longer drinks Tab--she drinks Coke. What can you do? And I assume Coke isn't going anywhere. I didn't feel like changing the TV shows--but now, she's watching them on DVD, and considers them "old." The Internet didn't exist in the first three books--but,
obviously, it does now. That kind of thing. And I think that the President is sort of a "Barack Obama with experience" type. Youngish, attractive "rock star" of a candidate, who you just know must have given the keynote address at an earlier Democratic convention--and leaped into the national spotlight. It makes perfect sense to me that she's someone the Party would have gotten behind--because I would, too.

After that, I'll be doing some less demanding works-for-hire (NYC is expensive!), and then, I have to do the long overdue second adult mystery. Around the time that the first one came out, my life was unexpectedly derailed for a few years--and it's been a challenge to find a way back to that group of characters. Many of my loved ones have said that they think Dana is more like me than any of the other characters I have ever written--but I disagree, since from a writer's perspective, she's so very polite and private that even I find her a bit impenetrable.

Liz B: On to the pop culture; and with this blog being named for a Buffy quote, you knew there would be some pop culture talk. Battlestar Galactica. I never expected to fall so in love with BG, especially since I loved the original. (In my defense, I was 12.) TV sure has changed since The Brady Bunch! What are some of your favorite shows?

Ellen: I don't even know what a tea cozy is--but I want one. (I pretty much have the entire series committed to memory--and think Giles may, in fact, be the Ideal Man.) Firefly never really worked for me, but I had a lot of fun with Angel, even though I think it was a mistake to turn Cordelia into an otherworldly being.

And, "Going Through the Motions" was the best song in the musical, I think.

I love Battlestar Galactica, and am delighted by the way to which gender is entirely irrelevant, insofar as the characters treat one another. I didn't find the show until its second season--but, I adore Laura Roslin, to the degree that I even (gulp) blogged about her.

Mostly, I watch the Red Sox (and the Patriots), and CNN, and C-Span--because I am very, very boring--but I never miss American Idol, to which I was introduced by two evil and manipulative children who got me hooked on what I consider to be television crack. (and yet, one does not want to hear an eight year old happily telling people in a crowded elevator precisely that--and realizing that he is directly quoting someone who should have let her inner-edit button
operate before popping out with that one.)

It was very wrong that Melinda Doolittle didn't win.

I thought Martin Sheen and Stockard Channing were wonderful--but had very mixed feelings about the West Wing. Once Buffy went off the air, I no longer had a show To Love--so I was very happy to find BSG. (actually, I thought the final seasons of Buffy were extremely problematic--and that no villain ever measured up to my beloved Mayor, but it was a great, great show.)

And I love, love, love the Emma Peel episodes of the Avengers. No one has ever been cooler--or ever will be.

Liz B: Thank you so much!

Winter Blog Blast Tour for Thursday:

David Mack at Chasing Ray
Paul Volponi at The Ya Ya Yas
Elizabeth Knox at Shaken & Stirred
Ellen Emerson White at A Chair, A Fireplace and A Tea Cozy
Jack Gantos at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast
David Levithan at Not Your Mother's Book Club
Micol Ostow at Bildungsroman
Laura Amy Schlitz at Miss Erin
Kerry Madden at Hip Writer Mama
Sherman Alexie at Interactive Reader

and as Wednesday somehow disappeared:

Lisa Ann Sandell at Interactive Reader
Christopher Barzak at Chasing Ray
Julie Halpern at The Ya Ya Yas
Micol Ostow at Shaken & Stirred
Rick Yancey at Hip Writer Mama
Jane Yolen at Fuse Number 8
Shannon Hale at Bookshelves of Doom
Maureen Johnson at Bildungsroman
David Lubar at Writing & Ruminating
Sherman Alexie at Finding Wonderland

*Meg's mother.
**The president in Battlestar Galactica.


tanita✿davis said...

See THIS is why I know I love E.E.W. -- in this interview, we have:
a.) Her books
b.) Battlestar Galactica
c.) AND we end with the Avengers AND Emma Peel!!!!!

We are twins separated by birth (and a few other things).

This is SUCH a fun interview! Thank you!

christine M said...

Excellent interview, Liz. I'm so glad you did this!

Jen Robinson said...

Well, now that I know she's a Red Sox fan, I'll definitely be checking out her books. OK, you actually convinced me back with the Radar series, but this is icing on the cake. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this interview! Makes me want to go back and read Long May She Reign again with these insights, but I've got too many other books waiting right now. Sigh.

Angiegirl said...

Great interview! And I would love to read a sequel from Susan's perspective. Her potential career choice has me all jumpy.

Erin said...

FABULOUS interview! SOSOSO much fun!

Anonymous said...

My goodness, I do yap on, don't I? Thanks for posting it, tohugh.


LaurieA-B said...

1) I was surprised to realize, while reading Long May She Reign, that the major change since the '80s is not the Internet--it's the espresso.

2) Mary McDonnell could play Katharine Powers, quite nicely.

3) As I read this interview, I considered where EEW is among my favorite writers. I decided she's my favorite living novelist, sharing the title with Marsha Qualey (whose books would be enjoyed by EEW fans).

4) My sister wrote a rave for Long May She Reign on GoodReads, which she concluded by saying, "I continue to secretly believe that Ellen Emerson White writes for an audience of one (me)."

This made my jaw drop because that's exactly what I felt when reading Long May She Reign--it's the book I always wanted. Thank you.

Saints and Spinners said...

I'm so glad that the previous President's Daughter books are going to be republished. I read them during grad school and had to get all of them through interlibrary-loan. It'll be interesting to reread them again. At the time I read them, I really was frustrated with Katharine Powers and thought that she sacrificed her family's well-being for the sake of her presidency. Now, I wonder how much of that was projection.

Liz B said...

I love how many people love EEW. And to people who have not read her books, this interview totally captures the great dialogue in the books.

Retro Jordan said...

Thanks for posting, I really enjoyed your most recent post. I think you should post more often, you obviously have natural ability for blogging!