July 10, 2020 |

Our Conversation with Anne Elliott

Anne Elliott is the winner of the inaugural Story Foundation Prize and author of The Artstars (Blue Lights Books/Indiana University Press, 2019) and The Beginning of the End of the Beginning (Ploughshares Solos, 2014). Her prize-winning story, “Night Watch,” centers around an art history professor who finally visits a famous portrait in Amsterdam. After spending a number of years studying visual art in San Diego and performing poetry in New York City, Anne now lives in Portland, Maine, where she is finishing a low-residency MFA program at Warren Wilson College.

INTERVIEWER

Congratulations on “Night Watch.” It’s absolutely beautiful. When did you start writing short fiction?

ELLIOTT

Well, my first attempt at fiction was a short story. Then I wrote a long story, and I tried to make it into a novel, and didn’t succeed. I’ve only succeeded at short fiction ever since, and I’ve had some success with essays and poetry, but the novel eludes me.

INTERVIEWER

What do you like so much about short fiction? Can you tell me about what resonates with you?

ELLIOTT

I’m not going to say the simplicity of it, because I find it to be very complex. But I think you can get away with quite a bit more in short fiction than you can in the novel, in a way. I like something that I can complete a draft in a weekend. That’s really nice.

I think I heard somewhere, maybe it was Alice Munro, who said that she wrote short fiction because she could squeeze it in around the periphery of her life. The problem for me with writing novels is that I end up wanting to throw in everything I’m thinking about over the years it takes to write a novel. I lose all track of what it’s really about. Maybe that’s the beauty of doing it, but that doesn’t happen with a short story. In terms of reading short stories, I love the form. I think it’s underrated. I like the way you can collect a lot of ideas in one book of short stories, a lot of characters, a lot of time periods, without necessarily having to string them together. There’s so many different kinds of ligature you can create between short stories in a collection. It doesn’t just have to be some of the traditional ideas that you would see in a novel. My favorite form, of course, though, is the long short story. My perfect length is ten thousand words to fifteen thousand words, which nobody wants to publish, but that’s sort of where things naturally fall for me.

INTERVIEWER

I see what you mean about the novel. Because you’re writing it for such a long period of time, with all your different experiences, the characters change so much. More than they probably should.

ELLIOTT

[ Laughs ] Because the writer is changing!

INTERVIEWER

Exactly! Now, you mentioned poetry, and I know you have a background with the poetry scene in New York City. Can you tell me a bit about that experience and how that has shaped your fiction writing?

ELLIOTT

I studied art for graduate school at UC San Diego, and at the time, there were several poets on the faculty in the art department. I worked closely with in particular Jerome Rothenberg, who influenced me greatly. That’s where I discovered that poetry is really something that’s in your mouth and not just in your mind. It made me start to think differently about language. At the time, I was doing performative work. Some of that work involved whitewashing the walls of a room and then covering the walls with text, which I would make up on the spot, so it became this performance. When I was working with Jerome Rothenberg, I started thinking that this could be aloud also, so I began reading the walls out loud.

I left San Diego and moved to a teeny tiny apartment in New York City, where I couldn’t do sculpture anymore. It just didn’t make sense. I started going to poetry slams at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe which was a real growing space for me. That was a place where you could learn without any of the academic constraints. You get immediate feedback when you’re doing slam poetry. You don’t have to worry about getting it ready for a workshop or psyching yourself out for a workshop, and wondering if people are going to like it. You get up there, and you know right away if people like it. That was really helpful. I made a lot of good friends in that community, and it was just a great outlet during a period when I was going through a lot and growing a lot. But then, I realized that I was reading more fiction. I was performing poetry, but when I was home, or on the exercise bike at the gym, I was reading fiction. I thought that I might give it a try. I discovered it was the hardest thing I’d ever tried in my life. So, here I am, still trying it.

INTERVIEWER

For being one of the hardest things, what’s kept you sticking with it?

ELLIOTT

If it weren’t for the writer’s community, I would’ve quit a long time ago. I love workshops. I go to a lot of them and a lot of summer conferences. I had a writer’s group in Brooklyn for about ten years. I moved to Maine in 2015, and I’ve had the same writer’s group here for five years. I love them so much. I just find that when writers connect with each other, they can talk about craft. That’s what keeps me going. It’s really exciting to see people’s work grow. So many of the people I’ve workshopped with over the years have become huge successes. I’m not going to name any names, but it’s really exciting to watch. I’m so jealous, and at the same time, I think that they deserve this. I’m so excited for them because I saw the beginning stages when they weren’t sure, and now everybody’s sure. That’s really cool to see.

INTERVIEWER

That’s amazing.

ELLIOTT

Yeah. And, you know, my attitude about fiction has evolved. There have been times when I’ve been purely focused on a sentence, and the sound of the sentence, and other times when I’ve been focusing on structure. At the moment, I’m focusing on structure. I think that helps me stick with it too. Focus on one area, and you get passionate about that. And do a lot of reading. I read a lot of craft books as well as reading fiction. I do read poetry still.

INTERVIEWER

What was the catalyst for your move from New York to Portland, Maine?

ELLIOTT

I had been working in the finance industry for a long time, about twenty years. In order to stay in New York, I had to keep doing that because New York is so expensive. Portland is not as cheap as other parts of Maine, but it is cheaper than New York City. In New York, you have to spend most of your day either going to work, on your way to work, at work, or on your way home from work, because in order to live affordably, you live far away from your job. Even just moving to Maine, I could live a five-minute drive from my job in a much cheaper house. That was part of the motivation.

Initially, I left my finance job. I got here and realized I was addicted to work, and I immediately thought, I need to get a job, or I’ll lose my mind. I didn’t have the constant stimulation of New York City. I didn’t have my job. I had nothing familiar to connect to because it was so quiet. So, I got a finance job in Maine and stayed there for two years. I also taught briefly at a community college, which I loved, and that’s something I might like to do again. But I don’t know if I want to go back to finance, if I can afford not to. I live with my husband, and there’s two of us making money, so we have to figure things out as a unit.

INTERVIEWER

Absolutely. So, how has your writing process changed, moving from New York City to Portland? Like you said, that’s quite an environmental shift.

ELLIOTT

In New York, for me, writing was more of a social process. I could go out to readings several nights a week, if I wanted to. I could go to workshops on a regular basis, which we have here in Maine, but they quite frankly have more offerings in New York. There’s more to choose from, and constant inspiration and stimulation from the community. There isn’t as much quiet time with the computer and the contemplation that you really need to grow as a writer. It’s kind of a one-eighty turn coming to Maine. I get a lot more of the quiet. I have a lot more time, and here I am, stuck with myself. So, when it’s going well, it’s awesome. When it’s not going well, I miss the distractions of New York. But you can’t be a writer without putting your hands to the keyboard and writing.

INTERVIEWER

That’s something I often have to remind myself!

ELLIOTT

[ Laughs ] You have to do it! I do way more of that in Maine. That’s great.

INTERVIEWER

Can you tell me a little bit about specifically Story and the Story Foundation contest with “Night Watch”?

ELLIOTT

Well, it’s fairly simple. I saw that Story had come back into the world and I was very excited about it, so I submitted a story to the contest. I was shocked when I got a call saying that I had won the contest. I’m absolutely thrilled. I don’t know what to say. I’m speechless! I submit regularly, and my process is to read at least one issue of the magazine before I submit to familiarize myself with the publication. Story already had a reputation, but I looked at a couple of issues since the revival, and I thought, wow, okay sure! I’ll try.

INTERVIEWER

And lo and behold! So, was “Night Watch” a short story that you already had and sent in, or you saw that there was the contest, and created it?

ELLIOTT

I have never written toward a specific publication. I’ve always followed what my obsessions are, personally. Sometimes, you finish a story and it’s very clear where you need to send it. Like, I wrote a story about a woman with polio, and it was very clear that I needed to send it to the Bellevue Literary Review, which publishes work about health and healing. Sometimes it’s just obvious where to send something. Other times, you give it a guess. It’s all a matter of who’s on the editorial staff for that reading period and what else they’re getting at that time, and whether they can shape an issue out of it. I have definitely reached a point where I don’t take the rejection personally because there’s so many factors that go into a decision. I mean, right now, during COVID, there are some places that are just clearing the slush pile because they can’t keep on top of it during COVID. It has nothing to do with the quality of the work in the pile. So, you really can’t take it personally at all. Just keep trying.

INTERVIEWER

Definitely. There are so many factors all the time. It’s hard to separate them out.

ELLIOTT

Here’s what I would recommend to writers. Don’t reject yourself. Don’t think, Oh, they would never like this so I better not send it. If you can afford to send it, send it. If you think it’s done, give it a shot. And if everybody says no, then it’s not done. Do the best you can on the writing piece, and then just send it on. It’s like planting seeds. Some of them are going to come up, and some aren’t.

INTERVIEWER

That’s a great point. Was it a process to get to that point where you don’t take rejection personally, and what do you think initiated that feeling?

ELLIOTT

I was lucky to have been a reader in a contest pretty early on in the game, while I was becoming a writer, or starting to think of myself as a writer. I realized how quick the decision has to be based on the number of submissions they get. I was just a screener for the contest, I wasn’t a judge, but I realized that I was making decisions that affected the outcome of this contest and that there’s a luck factor here. But, that being said, there have been times when I really got my hopes up. Like when they contact me and ask if it’s still available and I say yes yes! and then they finally write to me and say that they decided not to take it. Those times are disappointing. I still don’t take it personally. It’s just disappointing.

INTERVIEWER

Right. Like you said, it’s about following your passions. Or, I think you worded it “obsessions,” which I love. What are some of your main obsessions? I’ve been reading your collection of short stories, The Artstars, so I know that art is a big focus. What really pulls you in?

ELLIOTT

That’s a great question, because I think it’s something every writer needs to think about. When I was working on The Artstars — or those stories which eventually became The Artstars — my obsession was the process of being an artist, or the experience of being an artist. Now, my obsession is more about the experience of being in the audience, and the permanence of art, or the impermanence of art.

I’ve been paying attention to European master paintings and portraits, in particular, because then you have a relationship between artist and subject. In the case of the European masters, the subjects tend to be wealthy people who commissioned the portrait, so there’s a power component there.

When I was in art school, I never paid attention to European masters. I was just thinking that they’re a bunch of dead old white guys. Why should I care? All they’re doing is painting female nudes, and you can tell that there’s almost a sort of sexual predatory thing happening in these artworks, and why is nobody talking about that? You know, they’re talking about the form, but come on! Then, I discovered people were talking about that. There actually was a whole feminist overlay that people had. Still, when I go through a museum, I marvel at the lack of female representation in the little plaques. There are plenty of women in the pictures, and museums have made a real effort to find the works of women from three hundred or four hundred years ago, but they’re just not there. There were women practicing, I know that there were. They’re just not finding them. Of course, it’s much more egalitarian in the present day, but it’s still not perfect.

I’m curious about that. I’m curious about the woman as a subject. I’m curious about the relationship between the painter of the portrait and the subject of the portrait, and the vanity of the subject if they’ve commissioned the portrait. That’s fascinating to me.

INTERVIEWER

I noticed that in your story “Night Watch,” especially with the mascot girl, you point out those little details. When did you first discover that painting, The Night Watch, and can you tell me about why you’re so interested in it?

ELLIOTT

I’ve been doing a series of works about paintings that are considered important paintings. A lot of it is just based on my vague memory of Art History 101 from my first year of college, and remembering which paintings got a lot of time. The Night Watch was one of those. I didn’t really pay attention back then. So, I just started thinking about that. If I had a character who was an art history teacher, which paintings would she be obliged to talk about, and would there be any irony in her love for those paintings? That’s sort of the question I’ve been trying to answer. I’ve done several stories about this same protagonist, looking at different master portraits.

These group portraits are fascinating to me, because sometimes, there’s quite a bit of subversion in what the painter does with them. This other topic that comes up briefly in the story — the representation of enslaved people — I think people are having a little more awareness of it now, you see that some curators are paying attention to it and grouping paintings so that you can see a pattern in how the enslaved people are depicted. Nowadays, we attempt to find the names of these people, and put them in the placards, but I don’t know how much access we have to that information for these names that are so old.

Even the mascot girl in The Night Watch — you can see I’m obsessed, so here we go, you’re getting my obsession — even the mascot girl is mysterious. Nobody knows exactly what her role was in that militia. She wasn’t a member of the militia, so why is she in the painting?

INTERVIEWER

Right.

ELLIOTT

Maybe she’s a girl that they bring along to entertain them, or something.

INTERVIEWER

Something that I kept thinking about after reading your story and looking at the painting was about why the painter would choose to illuminate that girl so much, when that might not have been wanted or expected from the subjects in the painting. It’s curious, this backlash from the painter towards his own subjects.

ELLIOTT

Agreed.

INTERVIEWER

As you mentioned, The Artstars mainly focuses on the experience of artists. Can you tell me about what has led you to focus more on characters like Jules, who studies art more than makes it, and talks about a feeling of invisibility? What brought about that switch?

ELLIOTT

From the maker to the invisible observer?

INTERVIEWER

Exactly.

ELLIOTT

Well, I’m a middle-aged lady, so I’ve seen a change with how I’m perceived in the world, which is primarily fascinating for me. I won’t say that I grieve the attention that I used to get when I was younger and cuter. I feel like it almost becomes a superpower, that invisibility. But it does create trouble as well, when you need to be seen. It can be hard to get the attention that you require. So, that’s something that fascinates me. Middle age to me is — and I say this a lot, so I may sound like a broken record — but I think of middle age as a kind of adolescence. You’re going from being one kind of person to being another kind of person. You’re perceived differently out in the world. Your role in the family is different, your role in the world is different, and you’re adjusting to all of that. Just like adolescence and when you’re coming of age, you get to decide what it’s going to be, to a degree, based on all the constraints of what it is. Based on all the constraints of your hormones changing, your appearance changing, and your desires changing. Based on all of that, you do still have some choices you can make.

When you’re becoming an adult, the world is your oyster, in a way. You can become whatever you want to be. It’s exciting. You have your whole life ahead of you. As you’re coming toward the end of your life, you realize that oh, I don’t have my whole life ahead of me. What are the things I still want to do? To me, that’s exciting. The urgency of the bucket list. That’s sort of the place that I’m working from. It gives urgency to fiction. Any time you constrain the time your characters have to accomplish something, it creates a kind of compression and urgency that I like.

INTERVIEWER

Speaking of traveling, with everything going on, with the coronavirus pandemic, can you tell me about how that’s affected your writing process, if at all?

ELLIOTT

Well, it’s got me thinking about one thing in particular. I’m working on a story right now about Jules again, traveling to Belgium to see the works of Jan van Eyck. The Ghent altarpiece, which is a giant painting, maybe two stories tall, is undergoing restoration. They have the restored pieces in a gallery at eye-level, where you can be face to face with this painting. But the gallery is closed because of COVID. The only people who can do that are the staff.

So, I got to see a video made by a member of the staff, going through the gallery and showing all these paintings up close. They’ve had pieces of it in the museum behind bulletproof glass in the lab and they’ve also had them in the church up high where you can barely see them. Now, they’re in a gallery where the staff goes by with a video camera. Here, in Portland, Maine, I can see it on my screen, at least. It’s full of interesting ironies.

It’s got me thinking. If travel goes away, and if in-person school goes away, and going to galleries goes away… what does a character like Jules have left? That’s interesting. That’s the same kind of pressure that we were talking about. If you only have a few years left to travel and your travel has been hobbled, and the things that you like to do while you travel aren’t there either, and by the way, you might get sick at any time… I think that does need to find its way into one of the stories. This is a big moment for teachers right now. Teachers are having to rethink how they do everything. If you’re an art history teacher in a big city, as Jules is, you would usually take your students into the museums to look at the artworks in person. You wouldn’t be able to do that nowadays, or be able to see your students at all. It’s a big adjustment.

INTERVIEWER

Definitely. I know that as I’ve been doing some writing during this time, I think it all just naturally seeps into the writing because it’s the current experience. I’ve been really moving back and forth between wanting to process it and write about it, but also not wanting everything I write to be focused on it. Do you think a lot of your stories will deal with this, or is it even something that you want to openly deal with in a story?

ELLIOTT

I think it would depend on what characters I’m working with. So, in the case of Jules, her life could only be deeply affected by this.

If it were a character more like me, my life is not that affected by this. I haven’t been working since the beginning of 2019 because I’m back in school. I’m in a low-residency program, so it doesn’t really affect school much for me as a student. So, if it were a character more like me, it would be kind of a problem on the periphery. If it’s a character like Jules, who’s finally traveling to see these paintings that she’s been in love with for years, it would affect her life. I guess that’s part of it. I think what we have to avoid is falling into a standard narrative when we’re talking about any of these big collective traumas. There’s a kind of — I refer to it as orthodoxy, and maybe that’s the wrong word — there’s a kind of rulebook in talking about it, you know. I was there on 9/11, and I wrote about 9/11 in my story collection, for example. I think it is important for writers to bear witness to what’s happening in and around them, and that’s what I do in that, but I was very conscious the whole time that it could so easily fall into maudlin clichés that stop having meaning if they’re used too much. I wanted to make sure that it was unique to me and to these characters, and that it didn’t fall into this orthodox narrative.

INTERVIEWER

Absolutely. To keep it human. What do you think is the role of stories and words, and maybe specifically fiction, during this time of collective trauma?

ELLIOTT

I feel like time will tell. We don’t know how long all of this is going to last and how permanent these changes will be, or how it’s going to affect our children. I think there may be a lot more writers coming out of this than we know. There might be a lot of gamers coming out of this. We don’t know.

INTERVIEWER

I’ve been thinking about that too. It’s interesting to think about how this will be viewed in history, and especially if I have children someday, how they’ll perceive it. I wonder if they’ll look at things that I do, and say, oh, it’s because she lived through the 2020 pandemic.

ELLIOTT

[ Laughs ] You’ll be hoarding flour and yeast and they’ll be wondering why.

INTERVIEWER

Yeah, they’ll be wondering why I wash my hands so much! So, another big question, Anne, but what’s next for you? What are you working on?

ELLIOTT

So, I’m working on this collection about portraiture, and I hope to finish that by the end of the year, or early next year. I’m going into my final semester at Warren Wilson College. It’s a beautiful community, and it’s a great program because I’ll still be able to have that community once I graduate. And then I need to go back to the workforce. I’ve taken a two-year hiatus, and it’s been lovely, but I do need to get back to regular work, so there will be that. Then, I think I might try another novel next year. I haven’t tried screenplays or plays, so that might be something.

INTERVIEWER

That’s so exciting. I’ll be on the lookout for anything that might be surfacing. Thank you so much for meeting with me today, Anne. I really appreciate it. Good luck with everything moving forward.

ELLIOTT

Thank you so much. This was a real treat for me. Good luck to you.

Sarah Hume is a junior at Denison University, where she is majoring in international studies. Photo courtesy of Paul VanDerWerf; view more of his work on Flickr.