Author Helen Ellis warns: "Don't judge a lady by her cardigan."
Unless you’re big on the poker circuit, you might not have heard of Helen Ellis. She’s been entering poker tournaments since 2008, but it’s been 15 years since her last novel, Eating the Cheshire Cat, after which she almost gave up writing altogether. That is, until Ellis, 45 and happily married, started the anonymous Twitter account, @WhatIDoAllDay, a quippy feed of hilarious one-liners (“I’m not a cat lady, I’m a squad leader” and “Good things come to those who RSVP within 24 hours”). Slowly, Ellis re-found her voice. She curated the feed, and many of those tweets actually inspired the stories in her new book of short stories, American Housewife.
Although a housewife is at the center of every story, you won’t find any scenes of women cooking casseroles or sweeping the floors. Instead, you’ll find yourself at a book club meeting where women are recruited to be surrogates for each other, or a moving story about a woman married to the most coveted man in the neighborhood—an expert bra fitter. Some of the more complicated stories are balanced by short, sweet episodes—such as a few pages from the perspective of a cat. Ellis’ characters are complex, funny, and edgy—much like Ellis herself. Originally from Alabama, Ellis currently lives in a two-bedroom in New York City with her husband and two cats.
Her book’s strong reception—Margaret Atwood named it one of her favorite books of 2016—has catapulted Ellis into the limelight. Yet she remains a self-proclaimed “Luddite” who steers clear of most technology (she just got a cell phone two months ago) and fiercely guards her privacy. She broke out of her comfort zone to talk to Real Simple about her twisted housewives, her meditative approach to cleaning, and how Twitter saved her writing career.
These stories are a bit dark and twisted—and also really funny. Is that your own sensibility?
It's inbred for lack of a better word. I am a southerner and my family has been in the south since the 1700s. We enjoy a ghost story, we enjoy a scary story, we enjoy a tall tale, and all of those things were always accepted as fact. Some of the best times I’ve had have been at funerals because we're all talking about the deceased in the broadest way—one person trying to top the other person in terms of storytelling.
How did Twitter help you develop your voice?
This book would not exist if it weren't for Twitter. After writing several novels that wound up in a drawer and then stopping writing for about two years I thought, well, maybe I’ll try it again and maybe I’ll just try one or three sentences per day. I had been a housewife for several years at that point, and every time I would meet someone [they would ask], “What do you do?” And I would say “housewife,” and if they asked another question, which they usually didn’t, the question would be, “What do you do all day?” And so I started a Twitter account called @WhatIDoAllDay and the very first tweet was “Crossword.”
Then I tweeted about what was happening in my life, whether it be about the cats that I live with who I call my life coaches or about my husband [Ellis often tweets her “secrets” to a happy marriage] or about housework. I tweet a lot about housework. My favorite mantra is “vacuum your feelings.”
And how did your Twitter account lead to American Housewife?
Twitter is an excellent editor. I hold true to the mantra that if it's not retweeted, it's deleted. So when you come to my twitter feed, you just see strong tweets. At one point, I ordered my Twitter history, and started scanning through it and realized, oh there's a [story] happening with a lot of these tweets. And that became the first story [in the book], “What I Do All Day.” The first story in the book is 96 percent tweets.
(In fact, What I Do All Day, the opening story, is three pages of witty, short sentences, all about how the heroine housewife passes her time and prepares for a party at her home. The first line? "Inspired by BeyoncÃ©, I stallion-walk to the toaster.")
The first thing people think of when they hear “housewife” is cleaning. There’s something really calming about a clean house.
It's meditative. I'm someone who loves audio books so when the new Stephen King came out I was thrilled and I thought, “Okay, today is the day I’m going at this radiator. Today is the day I'm going to do the floors because I have this book to distract me.”
You’ve said that you really take pride in your home. How so? What does “keeping a home” mean to you?
For me my home is my art. My home is mine and my husband and my two cats' private world. Somebody said to me recently that I have a very “edited” home. We are not archivists. Everything we own is in this two-bedroom apartment and it’s clean, it's full of color, it's full of art, it's full of surprises. For example, we wallpapered our entryway with gray wallpaper with pink flamingoes on it, because it makes me think of a pink flamingo in your yard but we don't have a yard. As you come around the corner into the apartment, we cut out one little flamingo and wallpapered just him onto the living room wall so it looks like one is running away. This apartment has a sense of humor and so do we.
You tweeted in early January, “The difference between modesty and self-deprecation is the word "just." I'm a housewife. I'm not just a housewife.” Do you think women who stay at home sell themselves short, and how did you hope to change that narrative with these stories?
All I can think is to lead by example. I have called myself a “housewife” for 10 years, and I’ve never said “just” a housewife. I’m 45. I know who I am, I know what I do, I know the life I lead, and I don’t need to lay it out on the table for you when I first meet you. My idea of “housewife” is privacy and power.
Did you intend all of the stories to be linked together, or do you think each can stand on its own?
I never meant them to be linked, but I think there's an overarching theme: a woman's home is her kingdom. When backed into a corner, women will fight. And it’s the thought of, “Don't judge a lady by her cardigan.”
Ellis loved that sentence, and later tweeted a variation.
You can purchase American Housewife on Amazon ($17).