INTERVIEW: Helen Ellis


Aurora is pleased to welcome Helen Ellis, author of The Turning: What Curiosity Kills, her debut YA novel and the first of a series. Even though she lives in Manhattan, she clings to her Southern accent like mayonnaise to white bread. She is also the author of the acclaimed novel Eating the Cheshire Cat.

I asked her to share a little about What Curiosity Kills.

Plucked from foster care, Mary Richards hit the jackpot with a loving family, an apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and a spot in the elite Purser-Lilley Academy. But she might lose it all if people find out about the turning.
Something not human is inside Mary. Her mind is reeling and her body is rebelling. She succumbs to urges and desires she never imagined. And then there’s the bizarre physical transformation.
Struggling with her metamorphosis, Mary is sought out by two boys who share her secret. Will she reject the destiny they swear is hers? Or will she find our what curiosity kills?
You only get one chance to decide if you’ll never turn again.

When Helen was a kid, her only escape was a book. She wasn’t old enough to drive. She wasn’t a kid who would cut school or run away from school. In fact, if you don’t count being dragged by the ankle around the basketball court in a blue one-piece gym suit by Regina Hinton because she was such a skinny, quiet girl, Helen had a relatively happy adolescence. But, still, she wanted to leave Alabama, mean girls, and her shyness behind and losing herself in books helped her “get out of Dodge early.”

She told me that she’s still out of breath from writing What Curiosity Kills because she took Stephen King’s advice in On Writing. He says to write as fast as you can to outrun the self-doubt. Helen wrote What Curiosity Kills in less than six months. She is now working on the second book in The Turning series: The Turning: Swing the Dead. Mary must decide which side she’ll be on in the New York City turf war. Domestic or Stray? Then she finds out that there are more than two sides.

In between Eating the Cheshire Cat and The Turning, however, Helen wrote three books that never saw print. She credits her husband, Lex, with being incredibly supportive.

“I was ready to give up on writing,” she admitted, “but Lex said, ‘Keep going.'” She did, and The Turning: What Curiosity Kills was the result.

When I asked her about her writing process, she told me it was simple: no outlining, no research.

“My entire writing process is me asking myself: ‘And then what happened? And THEN what happened?!’ And, for What Curiosity Kills, if I didn’t know something, I made it up.”

“If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?” I asked.

“I would be a secretary. I was one for most of my day job life. I like filing, scheduling, opening mail, taking calls. Taking care of someone. Being a secretary enabled me to support myself while writing my first novel Eating the Cheshire Cat.

“If I were to choose another creative dream job, it would be designing the windows at Bergdorf Goodman. Every Christmas, I design a new tree. Themes have included Two in the Bush (all bird ornaments) and ‘Fat Ho’s’ (all Santas). I collect ornaments for years from estate sales and eBay. When their time is over, I give them away at our annual Christmas party.”

Helen shared with me that she writes her computers on the computer, but for correspondence she prefers her 1969 Royal typewriter. You can learn how at Diary of a Luddite: How to use a typewriter. And, if you write Helen a real honest-to-goodness letter, she will write one back.

When Helen’s not writing, she enjoys playing poker. In fact, she’s a tournament poker player and just got back from Las Vegas where she took part in the World Series of Poker. She told me, “In Mississippi casinos, I am nicknamed The Velvet Terrorist.”

She is a self-confessed Luddite and said her least favorite word is ‘cellphone.’ She does have an iPod but uses it solely for background music while she writes, so all of the tunes on it are jazz and big band: Glen Miller, Artie Shaw, Charles Mingus, and Count Basie to name a few. She does have one song with lyrics: “Yes” by Liza Minelli from Liza with a Z.

“What’s the most embarrassing thing your mother ever did to you?” I wondered.

“My friend, Laurie Mundy, and I lied to a video arcade quarter jockey and said we’d lost a quarter in Ms. Pac Man. He keyed in a free game. I bragged to Mama about this the next day at the mall, and she made me walk back into The Barrel of Fun, walk up to a random worker, give him a quarter, and say, ‘I owe you this.'”

Finally, I asked, “If you could give any advice to your readers, what would it be?”

“Be brave. That’s the message of The Turning. When you’re young, you haven’t failed as much as you eventually will. It’s easier to get your courage up – to talk to a kid you have a crush on, to apply to a college on the other side of the country, to backpack all by yourself across Europe, or to say what’s on your mind. My advice is: be brave now. The earlier you start, the easier it will be to brave the rest of your life.

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