My guest today is Ellen Harger, who wrote the mainstream novel, Strong Enough, that I reviewed last Sunday. As I mentioned then, Ellen could not make it here tomorrow for the usual Wednesday’s Guest spot, so I made time for the visit today. Ellen and I will be having some iced-cold sweet tea, as it is blistering hot here in Texas today. I have some ice-cream sundaes as well, so pull up a chair and join us at the table.
Enjoy your tea and ice-cream Ellen, but first give the readers a short intro to who you are and what you write.
Thanks, Maryann. As a military brat, I moved often during my childhood–something I never resented and continued as an adult. The constant starting over influenced my first published novel, Strong Enough.
I am a tortoise when it comes to writing, but I finished. Throughout the process, I wrote for various reasons. First it was to see if I could do it. Merely finishing became an objective because leaving the book half-written was worse than writing a maudlin novel. And finally, finally through all that, I found the story I wanted to tell. Mostly, I think it took so long because I was not ready as an author on so many levels.
Mystery/crime thrillers are my favorite books to read but impossible for me to write (though, the challenge will be attempted). What I love is the intricacy of story telling necessary for a good mystery. It requires leaving red herrings and hiding important caches of info in plain sight. You don’t just write a thriller; you sculpt it.
I took that appreciation for mystery and applied it to a mainstream/slice of life story with a strong female lead. It’s subtler in some ways because readers don’t look as hard for the clues, but there a very few writerly accidents. I carefully built, analyzed, and reduced the story to its primary themes. I pulled from all facets of my life and experiences–a technique that required more living than college theory to accomplish. We can’t all be like the Brontes.
That process is very interesting, and I think many writers do the same thing as there is always that element of mystery in any story. You mentioned that you drew on past experiences, so please share with us your fondest childhood memory.
One of my fondest memories was when I asked my mom for a Barbie. We were living in Cheyenne, Wyoming on FE Warren AFB. I was about 3 years old. Mom was finishing her under-graduate education by correspondence course and studied at our kitchen table. I was allowed to play nearby, if I was quiet. Since I was my mother’s third leg, I brought toys down and entertained myself.
I remember, clearly, one day asking if I could have a Barbie. My older sisters (nearly 9 and 11) had many but I wasn’t allowed to touch them. My mother told me I could have one when I was 10. This didn’t faze me in the slightest. I went up the back stairs of our enormous base house to my corner bedroom. There were the essential tools to my plan: a small green stove and matching folding table, both hand-me-downs.
I played house by sending myself to school and then returning to do homework. With great deliberation, I celebrated 7 birthdays–though I do believe that each year came faster than the last. Once I obtained my desired age, I returned to my mother and informed her that I was 10 and I would like a Barbie.
What a great story. You were obviously very clever and strong-willed. Did you come by that naturally?
I grew up surrounded by strong women and feminists who read everything. My father’s mother had a college education and two careers in education after her third son started school. My mother is a strong, independent woman, the ninth of ten children. Her mother maintained a WV farm during the depression with just the children to help whenever Papaw was at the mine, and the first to receive her Masters. I am fascinated by and proud of both of my grandmothers. Grammy loved Little Women and Mamaw loved The Secret Garden. I used to spend many glorious hours reading with my mom on her bed.
So when it came to writing, strong women are natural characters for me. Even as a college-filtered feminist, romance doesn’t threaten me, so I found it possible to focus on women while acknowledging a major aspect of life–love.
It sounds like you have a terrific family. What is their favorite story to tell on you?
The time a friend and I ate portions of an old, stale gingerbread house my eldest sister made? How about the time I tried to take training wheels off my bike with a plumber’s wrench? Maybe the time in Germany when I insisted on accompanying my parents on a bike ride, and then, because I deemed the route was too long, I rammed my bike into a fence like a petulant kamikaze fighter? Or in Montana when my Grampy helped me transform the dog’s house into a Barbie two story?
No, it was the time when I picked a special way to give a book report and my mother handled me like a pro. See, I thought I was being clever. I chose something that seemed so much less ostentatious than a fashion show or newscast. After I told my mom my choice, she wisely asked me if I knew what dramatization meant. My stomach flopped and flipped because suddenly I did, but I said, “it means I’m going to read it really well.” Needless-to-say, my mom used the potential disappointment of my teacher to keep me committed. It was a major transformational moment in my life. I performed a chapter from James Herriot’s All Things Bright and Beautiful for a room of thoroughly bored eighth graders and one beaming teacher.
What other creative things do you do?
Growing up, I was busier drawing than writing stories. I have an art minor and I enjoy painting. Almost all of the art in our house is my own. I also enjoy photography, though I am a total amateur. I danced in college and found a lot of creative expression buried inside me. Once I started dancing, I also started theater. This was a huge step for me because I was bitterly shy growing up.
I think most writers have other creative endeavors that help feed their muse. When it comes to writing, where do your stories begin? With character or plot?
For Strong Enough, it began with characters. I had a few fuzzy images of people who kept nagging me so I wrote trial and error style until I figured out their story. However, most of the following manuscripts have been centered on plot with me meeting the characters as I write.
Most writers I know are animal lovers. Do you have a pet?
Always. Currently our dogs are Peanut Butter and my stepchildren’s dog, Roxy. Peanut/Nutter Butter is a mutt, and Roxy is a long-haired Chihuahua. I’m passionate about always finding my animals from shelters or rescue organizations. I would like to have more dogs but my husband is firm about the two-dog limit.
Most of us have had a variety of jobs in our lives before focusing on writing. What is the most interesting job you ever had?
Probably the most interesting job was when I worked for a Christian dating service while I was in college. I worked for the nicest woman who was trying to start a business after her husband divorced her. The job itself wasn’t that hard. I did data entry and manned the office so my boss didn’t have to be there every waking hour–I was her only relief and part-time. I sold dating packages and filmed new clients for the video library. When a client came in, I showed them to the private viewing space. It was a little amusing watching then make their videos and then wait for someone else to pick them out. This was before match.com really took off and then the various off-shoots. My boss never gave up, though. She was a hard working, well-intentioned woman and not long before we finally parted ways, her business was bought by a large Christian dating franchise. I hope she did well.
Thanks for sharing some tea and conversation, Ellen. It was fun getting to know more about you. Readers, if you would like to enter the contest to win one of the copies of Strong Enough that Ellen is giving away, visit my Sunday Post where I reviewed the book. You can also catch up with the tour and enter there to win a copy of the book.