Today’s Feature – September 21-22: Devon Ellington

September 23, 2008 at 6:26 pm (Today's Feature)

Devon Ellington is a stupendous writer. That’s the first thing you need to know. The second thing is that she has her hands in a lot of projects:

* The second Jain Lazarus adventure (the first being Hex Breaker)
* She’s adapting his series Angel Hunt into novel format
* Several short stories
* On and backstage theatre work (over 20 years of it)
* Her regular column, “The Literary Athlete”

“The Literary Athlete,” which runs in The Scruffy Dog Review, is the piece of work that I feel most defines Ellington. The purpose of the column applies to everyone, and there’s no better way to put it than to allow Ellington to do it herself: “In this day and age, if you want to make a living as a writer, you MUST be a ‘literary athlete.’ If you have a day job, if you have a family, if you want to write badly enough, you must treat it like a second job until it is your only job. You can write ‘on the side,’ but it will be a different trajectory and chances are, you won’t make a living at it. I’m really tired of people who whine about ‘not having time to write.’ It means you: A) can’t manage your time and B) don’t want it enough. We all have 24 hours in a day. It’s how we choose to use them that defines us.”

Damn right. Get into the XXQ’s for a whole lot more.

XXQs: Devon Ellington

PensEyeView.com (PEV): Tell us a little about your current work and what we can expect.

DE: I always juggle multiple projects. I just submitted the second Jain Lazarus adventure to my publisher (the first was HEX BREAKER, released in August), and have started work on the third. I’m adapting ANGEL HUNT (which ran for 18 months as a serial) into novel format, so it can go out on submission in October; I’m working on several short stories. And, of course, there are the articles, reviews, critiques, and copywriting work that comes in and those usually need a quick turnaround.

PEV: Now living outside of New York City, what kind of books were you reading growing up?

DE: I’ve always been a voracious reader. I was a big fan of the juvenile series mysteries growing up, like Nancy Drew, Beverly Gray, Vicki Barr, Cherry Ames, Judy Bolton – all of those. Now, as an adult, I can say that I “collect” them! 😉 I read the classics growing up – I started reading Shakespeare when I was eight, and I’m a rabid Shakespeare fan. I read all the Childhood of Famous Americans books and the Little House on the Prairie books and Winnie the Pooh – all of that. I read lots of classics in high school. My grandmother had leather-bound editions of Dickens, Poe, Austen, etc., and I loved to sit beside the fireplace with one of those and read. I’ve been a bibliophile since I was big enough to hold a book.

PEV: Having worked on Broadway, TV and film, is there one you prefer over the others? Why?

DE: I love theatre. I love working backstage on a show because it’s live and you have to be able to think on your feet. I love the dynamic and the rhythm you build with the actors with whom you work, that mutual trust and fun. The great thing about film and television is that the performance is captured forever, where in theatre, it’s fleeting. But that’s also the wonderful thing about theatre – every performance is unique. The money’s a lot better in film and television, though.

PEV: What was it like for you when you were first breaking into the business? Better yet, HOW did you break into the business?

DE: I started writing as a kid, and was published while I was in school, wrote for the local paper in high school, etc. I was a dancer, but sustained a permanent injury and started working backstage. I saw my first Broadway show when I was twelve, and knew I wanted to be in the theatre. I did a lot of theatre in college, but when I transferred to NYU, it was into the film program, although I continued to work in theatre. I’ve worked in the theatre my entire professional life, since I was 18. I got away from writing while I was in film school because I’m organized and I was good at things like production management. I started writing plays again working off-Broadway, because a lot of the actresses with whom I worked couldn’t find decent monologues for women. The monologues expanded into plays, I started writing short stories and erotica, and it all kind of evolved from there. For quite a few years, I ran dual careers – writing until I had to go to the theatre – but in the last few years, I’ve been transitioning into writing full-time. It’s hard to give up the backstage work because I love it so much, but I need to focus on my own creative work at this point.

PEV: What can fans expect from a Devon Ellington story/production?

DE: The aim is to craft strong, interesting, INTELLIGENT characters who work their way through interesting challenges and learn. Through their learning curve, hopefully the reader will see the world slightly differently than before.

PEV: How has your writing evolved from when you first started out?

DE: Nothing a writer experiences is ever wasted. As I gain life experience (and I’m interested in almost everything except math and anchovies, so I’m constantly gaining life experience), my characters are richer and more complex. Some of the themes remain the same: love, loyalty, betrayal, consequences – but the characters are more layered and complex.

PEV: Having worked 20 years backstage on Broadway, TV and film, are there any crazy stories about things that have happened live?

DE: Every day, something interesting happens in theatre – it’s live! A costume will tear and the actor has to figure out a way to get offstage and to you so you can either put him in something else or pin him together enough to get through it. I’ve had a zipper stick while trying to get the star out of a tight, beaded dress in a quick change and our only option was to rip the dress, scattering the beads, to get her into the next costume and back onstage without the audience noticing. Or your actor gets violently ill during the performance and you have to put the understudy on in the quick change, so you’re tending your regular actor and scrambling to get the understudy dressed at the same time. Or the TV show where we came back to do re-shoots, and the casting people sent me an African American male actor with dreadlocks to replace an Asian female actress. I showed the continuity photos to the assistant director and said, “the best I can do is put him in the same color shirt” and he laughed and promised it would be a really quick pan across the group and no one but us would ever notice. There are, literally, hundreds of stories.

PEV: You also teach a variety of writing workshops, as well as providing manuscript critiques and individual coaching services. How has this kind of interaction helped your writing style or affected it?

DE: I catch some of my own mistakes in others’ work, and it helps me the next time I face the page. Also, so many students fear there’s only “one way” to make something work, when, in reality, every piece you write is a bit like reinventing the wheel. That’s where craft comes in. It is inexcusable for writers not to learn the basics of grammar, spelling, and structure. Your “process” will be different in every piece you do, but the foundation of good grammar and structure remains the same. Even the most brilliantly experimental writing comes from a solid basis in structure and the CHOICE to fly away from it.
PEV: As well, is there an up and coming writer right now that you think we should all be looking out for?

DE: There are so many wonderful writers out there. I think on every trip to the library, you should pick up at least one book by someone of whom you’ve never heard – and, if you like the writer, go out and BUY the book. Support living authors! The best way to find new-to-you authors, I believe, is to read anthologies. Julie Czerneda edited a fabulous anthology earlier this year called MISSPELLED that has one of the best mixes of new and established authors with some of the cleverest stories I’ve read in years.

PEV: Tell us, about your regular columns, in “The Literary Athlete”.

DE: It runs in THE SCRUFFY DOG REVIEW, a quarterly online literary magazine. The columns have followed the entire process from inspiration through revision and trusted readers and query letters to working with editors and will deal with marketing, juggling projects, and building’s one career. In this day and age, if you want to make a living as a writer, you MUST be a “literary athlete”. If you have a day job, if you have a family, if you want to write badly enough, you must treat it like a second job until it is your only job. You can write “on the side”, but it will be a different trajectory and chances are, you won’t make a living at it. I’m really tired of people who whine about “not having time to write”. It means you: A) can’t manage your time and B) don’t want it enough. We all have 24 hours in a day. It’s how we choose to use them that defines us.

PEV: What kind of music do you listen to? How important is music in your life?

DE: I listen to all kinds of music, except country and rap. I listen to a lot of international music, especially Celtic and Scandinavian. When I write, I prefer music without lyrics. I can’t write to soundtracks – I think the original creative vision of the piece for which the soundtrack was created infects the writing. Sometimes I burn play lists specific to characters and play them while I write, but the longer I write, the less I create character play lists and just write whatever fuels MY mood. A friend of mine is the lead singer for a band called Taking Chances – I’m listening to their CD a lot lately because I like it so much, and, surprisingly, find their songs (with lyrics) work well with the revisions I’m doing on ANGEL HUNT. You’d think due to the subject matter of the book, I should be listening to Maidens of the Celtic Harp or Faith No More (depending on the pace of the particular chapter), but it’s Taking Chances. I’m going to have to thank them in the acknowledgements!

I listen to a lot of Kyle Riabko (who’s also great to see live – if you ever get the chance to see him, jump at it), Capercaillie, Texas, Hedingarna, Tellu, Elvendrums, Ani DiFranco, Patty Larkin, Clannad, Old Blind Dogs, Creole Zydeco Farmers, Kirsty MacColl, MacTalla Mor, Jim Sutherland, Shooglenlifty, Bruce Springsteen, Mellancamp, Chris Isaak , B-52s, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Pat Benatar. Edith Piaf, Ella Fitzgerald, Jethro Tull – the list if pretty long.

If I’m writing in a particular historical time period, I play music from the period. For a romantic comedy set in 1921, I hunted down music popular at the time and had that going. Working on a piece about whaling, I had sea chanties playing.

And sometimes, the only thing that works is quiet, classical piano. Every piece is different, every mood is different, and a lot of it has to do with how tired I am – if I’m tired, but need to keep working, I’ll put on something with a bit of an edge to drive me. Those articles on deadline and it’s nearly midnight and I’m not done? That’s more Sound Garden and less Loreena McKennitt.

PEV: You publish under a half a dozen names in both fiction and non-fiction. Why so anonymous?

DE: Different names in different genres make it possible for me to prevent getting pigeonholed by myopic marketing people. And remaining anonymous means I get to keep my life to myself. I don’t like this propensity for living life on You Tube. My life is not a reality show. My work it out there and people either respond or don’t. My life is MINE. Trust me, it’s not all that fascinating, but it’s mine.

PEV: When you sit down to write what kind of environment do you surround yourself in?

DE: My preferred environment is a room with a door I can close and QUIET. Repetitive machine noise (like drills, jackhammers), make me want to go postal. I need a lot of physical space as well as emotional space, and large swaths of uninterrupted time. There’s some much internal work that needs to happen before words go on paper, a lot of seemingly staring at nothing, a lot of pacing and muttering. The reality is I rarely have quiet. I’ve learned to write anywhere. I write on the train, in planes, at airports, in hotel rooms, on the beach, in the park, in the car, backstage – totally depends on my deadlines. And, if a character won’t shut up, I’ll jot down some notes to get some peace.

PEV: What’s one thing we’d be surprised to hear about Devon Ellington?

DE: I can’t swim. As a Pisces, water should be my natural habitat.

PEV: How have your friends and family reacted to all your success?

DE: They don’t really understand what I do. But they’re glad it’s working. They finally understood the theatre once I jumped to Broadway, or if I work on a TV show they’ve actually heard of. There’s no choice but to be supportive, because I cut people out of my life who aren’t. I have no time for saboteurs. I won’t tolerate it, even if the person is related to me, and I’ll kick to the curb any lover who starts getting destructive. The right person will support your dreams. If you’re with someone who doesn’t – remove that person from your life, because it speaks to a much deeper problem in the relationship than writing. It’s about a lack of respect for you as a person with dreams, ambitions, and creative fire.

PEV: When you are not writing, what can we find you doing in your spare time?

DE: Spare time? What’s that? Seriously, I enjoy almost everything. I love to cook, I travel, I do yoga, I visit friends and support whatever creative endeavors in which they’re involved. I’m a huge fan of both thoroughbred racing and ice hockey – but I write about them, so does that count?

PEV: Working so much writing and with the plays, how is life on the road traveling for you? Good parts? Bad parts?

DE: I don’t tour with theatre any more unless a specific actor puts me in the contract for a specific amount of time –and a good paycheck – or unless it’s something I wrote. That’s because I hate being on someone else’s schedule when I travel. I actually like writing when I travel, because I find a change of scenery is a good catalyst. If you’re with a touring production, your whole life is about the production, that’s why you’re there. I get restless very fast. Whereas if I’m traveling to write about something specific or to research or just because, I’m much more relaxed because it’s MY schedule. The airlines are so intent on screwing and disrespecting their customers that I try to fly as little as possible now. They’ve taken all the joy out of travel, and, honestly, the major carriers deserve to fold. I used to love flying, but now I go by bus or train more often, or, in spite of gas prices, I drive. The joys of owning a Volkswagen.

PEV: In your opinion, is there a certain city (US or International) that you find to be the best city for literary expression or appreciation?

DE: Australia loves writers. Edinburgh loves writers. I set a LOT of my work in Scotland and Northumbria, because I love it there, both as a traveler and as a writer. Iceland has a 100% literacy rate and they have bookstores every few blocks. Books are extremely expensive, but people READ. It’s also a great place to write. I like being in the northeast a lot because people read. On mass transit, you see people hauling books around all the time, and not just paperbacks. They drag around some serious hard backs. New York’s a good place for writers – if you can afford the cost of living.

PEV: Is there one genre of writing you have not worked with, that you would like to? Why?

DE: I’d like to write more about food. I love to cook, I love to try new restaurants. I’d like to write more in that vein, because it’s interesting. And it’s challenging to make the writing sensory and delectable without going over the top.

PEV: So, what’s next for Devon Ellington?

DE: As long as characters keep talking to me, I’ll keep telling their stories. HEX BREAKER is out, and, as I mentioned, I’ve submitted the second book in the series and started the third; NEW MYTHS just published my pirate fantasy story “The Merry’s Dalliance” and I’m working on the next story about the Merry and her crew; Cloverleaf opens their January 2009 season with a comic noir mystery I wrote for them; and I’m juggling a few other projects. I’m thrilled that people respond so positively to Ink in My Coffee, the blog on the writing life. And I’m house-hunting – I need to relocate, so that’s going to be a Big Project in the upcoming months.

For more information on Devon Ellington, check out: http://devonellington.wordpress.com

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2 Comments

  1. eroticanews said,

    Yes …. She led me into raptures. Feel deeply human approach to understand the problem. The author of many thanks. She touched me.

  2. big-piano said,

    Reading this article on Devon Ellington must have made i aware of the fact that you were not exaggerating in your claims when you said that you would provide i with an article with a difference and now i can see for yourself.

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