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

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

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.

ELLIS: Yes.

MARTIN: For a long time.

ELLIS: Yes.

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.

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