© 2022 All Rights reserved WUSF
News, Jazz, NPR
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

'Manners And Mayhem': A Darker, Snarkier Side To Domesticity


The first line of Helen Ellis' book of short stories is a kind of call to arms for the American housewife. Quote, "inspired by Beyonce, I stallion walk to the toaster." Ellis is a self-described housewife. She's the kind of Southern lady that deals a mean hand of cards and once played at the World Series of Poker. And that Beyonce line, part of the story in the collection called "What I Do All Day," it started as a quip from Ellis' Twitter account, until it caught fire online and spurred an idea to write a series of stories from the perspective of various housewives. I asked her how much of that story reflected who she was in her early days, when she was a married lady living at home.

HELEN ELLIS: Ninety-six percent (laughter).

MARTIN: OK, a lot.

ELLIS: That story in particular is composed entirely - I would say 96 percent - of tweets that I tweeted over the course of two years. You can get your Twitter history. So I got the tweets and started cobbling it together and realized there was a party, and I was the hostess. And that's how that story came about.

MARTIN: I just want to read a few lines of this because they're just great in isolation and in their totality. This is just chronicling your day.

(Reading) I take a break and drink Dr Pepper through a Twizzler. I watch 10 minutes of my favorite movie on TV and lip-sync Molly Ringwald, I loathe the bus. I know every word. "Sixteen Candles" is my "Star Wars." I hop in the shower and assure myself that behind every good woman is a little back fat.

I could go on there. It's a lovely...

ELLIS: Well, you read it better than I do. (Laughter). I love it when someone quotes me to me.

MARTIN: (Laughter) So let's get a little big-picture here. This was a reflection of where you were at in your life. But if you continue to read through these stories, yes, they're really funny and snarky. But there is - there is, like, a very true and authentic darkness in...

ELLIS: Thank you.

MARTIN: In these stories.

ELLIS: I enjoy the macabre.

MARTIN: Tell me where that comes from. This is definitely a darker look at domesticity.

ELLIS: I think it comes from the fact that, A, I will always be a Southern lady, even though I've been in New York over 20 years. And we Southerners enjoy the gothic. So I grew up with ghost stories and scary stories and a lot of tall tales. And it's just very natural to me. So the other thing is that housewives, me included, have a lot of time on their hands. They're alone in their apartments - at least I am - a lot of the day. And nobody knows what kind of mischief you can get up to when you're alone in your apartment.

MARTIN: You are a proud Southerner. But you have made your home on the Upper East Side.


MARTIN: For a long time.


MARTIN: How do those two parts of you reside in yourself?

ELLIS: (Laughter) How do they reside in myself?

MARTIN: Are they in conflict? Do they complement one another?

ELLIS: They're a little bit in conflict. But I'm very happy. I'm very happy on the Upper East Side - once I settled in and realized that I'm not going anywhere unless I go out of the apartment feet-first. So I think it's a mix of manners and mayhem. I - I'm continually surprised by what's important to some people and what's important to me.

MARTIN: What is important to you? And what did you want to imbue your characters with that reflected that?

ELLIS: What's important to me is friendship. I had someone say to me recently, do any of the women in the book have friends? I see them as great friends. There's a loyalty. There's a sense of manners. There's a sense of good behavior that I value. And there's a sense of privacy. And that is what I, I think, as a Southern lady in New York, value. Lots of interesting things go on inside my home. But they only go on inside my home, as opposed to bravo.

MARTIN: Let's talk about poker.

ELLIS: OK. I feel like I'm sidled up to the poker table in this booth right now. I'm in my - my pose.

MARTIN: Not everyone plays poker.

ELLIS: They don't?

MARTIN: No, it's true.

ELLIS: (Laughter).

MARTIN: And it's still - you tell me. But isn't it still kind of exceptional and - to be a woman who's at the top of that game? Because you're really good.

ELLIS: I would not say I'm at the top. I am a very capable, respected amateur (laughter). But in the tournament circuit, it is, I believe, 4 percent women. So I get my nerve up, whether anybody sees it or not, every time I walk into a tournament room.

MARTIN: Is there a connection between poker and writing?

ELLIS: Yes, absolutely.

MARTIN: Tell me.

ELLIS: I think that it's the two places in my life where I lose time. I can sit at a tournament poker table for 15 hours and never know what time it is. I can sit in front of my computer, maybe not for 15 hours, but for four hours, and never know what time it is. And the fact is, I walk into a tournament poker room filled with thousands of men and think, I'm going to outlast them all. And I sit down at the computer and I think, I'm going to write a story. And somebody's going to read it. It's that same kind of gamble. It's that same kind of nerve.

MARTIN: Helen Ellis' new collection of short stories is called "American Housewife." Thanks so much for talking with us, Helen.

ELLIS: It was my pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

WUSF 89.7 depends on donors for the funding it takes to provide you the most trusted source of news and information here in town, across our state, and around the world. Support WUSF now by giving monthly, or make a one-time donation online.