What's In a Page: Helen Ellis on friend-brags and menopause
Helen Ellis has done it again. And by it, we mean she's pulled together her thoughts on life's disparate moments and produced an inspiring, hilarious, straight-to-the-point essay collection. In Bring Your Baggage and Don't Pack Light, the author discusses everything from menopause to seeing a psychic. In honor of the publication this week, Ellis answered EW's burning book questions to tell us about her Classic Trashy Book Club, writing in the stacks of the New York Society Library, and her favorite part of the new collection.
What is the first thing — ever — that you remember writing?
All the dirty words I knew on the first page of my 1979 fourth grade Ziggy diary. "Crap!" was number one.
What is the last book that made you cry?
From Scratch by Tembi Locke. It's a memoir about her adventures in Italy, where she falls in love with a man who she marries, loves, but then loses to cancer. It breaks your heart, but builds you up. Because even in sorrow, she shows us that there is appreciation and joy.
Which book is at the top of your current To-Read list?
I'm in a Classic Trashy Book Club, which means we read books that are at least 20 years old and were banned, burned, or made into a 1980s TV miniseries. So that means the likes of Jackie Collins, Sidney Sheldon, Shirley Conran, Harold Robbins, and Jacqueline Susann. Our next book, I'll Take Manhattan, is by our favorite author, Judith Krantz. We founded our club in 2013 and our first pick was Scruples. We've read 76 classic trashy books since then.
Where do you write?
I write at The New York Society Library, where I squirrel myself away at a desk in the stacks. Some days, like today, I work in Stack 7: Biography. Whenever I get stuck writing about my own life, I dip into somebody else's. This week, I read Charles Grodin's memoir It Would Be So Nice If You Weren't Here and his account of going up against Roman Polanksi while filming Rosemary's Baby. Other days, I'm in Stack 6: Fiction K-Z, where I sit in a corner with the short story collections of Yiyun Li over my desk lamp and Kelly Link to my right. When I leave, I pass by a row of Judith Krantz's books. I run my fingers along the spines like I used to low-five the hands of whatever team of little leaguers and whisper, "Goodgamegoodgamegoodgamegoodgame."
Which book made you a forever reader?
Are You There, God? It's Me Margaret by Judy Blume. Part user's manual/part coming-of-age, this novel was banned where I grew up so Mama drove to another town, bought it, and brought it to me in a brown paper bag. I read it at least a hundred times (and wrote about it in my 4th grade Ziggy diary) because it feels like your friend is telling you secrets about what to expect when you're expecting puberty. And whatever happens, you'll be okay.
What is a snack you couldn't write without?
I'm not allowed to eat when I write in the library, but sometimes I sneak in red Scottie dog licorice (don't tell!).
If you could change one thing about any of your books what would it be?
I'd move my acknowledgement pages to the fronts. I'd like to say thank you straight out of the gate.
What is your favorite part of Bring Your Baggage and Don't Pack Light?
My favorite part is bragging about my friends. Look how my friend Vicki beat cancer! Look how my friend Paige got out of a bad marriage! Look how my friend Michelle had a baby on her own at 50! Look how The Bridge Ladies are taking over New York!
What was the hardest plot point or character to write?
The hardest essay for me to write was "Are You There Menopause? It's Me, Helen." Even though I think it's the funniest thing I've ever written, I had to be my most vulnerable. When my eighty-something Mississippi-born Uncle Will read it, he said: "You really let it all hang out!"
Write a movie-poster tag line for the book:
Some women eat, pray, love. I bet, raise, shove.