Exploring The Underbelly Of The American Housewife

The women in Helen Ellis’s stunning and very funny collection, American Housewife, are very, very real. An Upper East Side housewife, driven to insanity over wainscoting. Book club members, sweet and unassuming on the outside, slowly peel back the layers to reveal their prickly cores. A reality show contestant, running through the gauntlet of Dumpster Diving With The Stars. A dying wife fitting a bra on the woman who will eventually replace her, wrapping her measuring tape around her ribs. You know these women, or women like them. You’ve passed them on the street, sat next to them on the subway and eavesdropped on their conversations at brunch. They’re familiar and polite and charming, but there’s an edge of something a little more sinister lurking underneath.

After reading the book the first time in one sitting, I kept it on my nightstand, thumbing through it every now and then, imprinting the stories in my psyche. The state of the American housewife feels like old hat, but Ellis breathes life into the concept. The stories themselves are tricky, shiny jewels, and the women that populate them are tough nuts to crack, all sharp edges and elbows. They keep you on your toes.

On the occasion of this book’s publication, we talked to Helen Ellis about women’s fiction, chick lit and writing what you know.

One of the things I really liked about this collection is how you skewer tropes of “women’s fiction” — housewives, book club mavens, Upper East Side doyennes — and get into the darkness that lies beneath. What inspired you to take this route?

I enjoy the macabre. I like ghosts. I like monsters. And, for me, the scariest monsters look like the neighbor lady next door. Think Ruth Gordon in Rosemary’s Baby or Nicole Kidman in To Die For. Women who are composed and cute on the outside, but – as we’d say in the South – “not right” on the inside.

For example, in “Dead Doorman” what interested me was the realization that the housewife – who is haunted by building staff, imprisoned by her husband, and domineered by her mother-in-law – is the scariest one of all.

Do you think there’s anything universally wrong with the phrase “chick lit”?

No. Call it what you want, and I’ll learn about you. I’ll see the person who calls a lot of very good novels written by women “chick lit” for what he or she is: judgmental. Sexist. And probably a non-reader. It’s like when a man I don’t know calls me sweetheart. I know who I am, I don’t need to correct a total stranger. A man calling me that shows me the type of man the man is. The kind of man who says “chick lit.”

Are any of these characters inspired by women you actually know?

Of course! But, mostly by me. For example, “How to Be a Patron of the Arts” is closest to my real life. In that story a washed up writer decides if she will quit writing. She does. I, as a result of writing that story, did not.

What were your inspirations for this book? What authors did you read to get into the mind of creating these characters?

My inspiration for the book was, honestly, my life. I’m a housewife. I live in a building with doormen, I belong to two book clubs, I have a bra fitter, I watch Toddlers & Tiaras, Dancing With the Stars and American Pickers, and I’m a grown-ass lady.

I read a lot of short story collection to study the craft. George Saunders, Loorie Moore, Lucy Woods, Kelly Link, Stephen King, Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, Jamie Quatro, and Rebecca Lee to name a few.

You write especially well about the social mores of a certain kind of woman in New York. How much firsthand experience do you have in that realm? “Hello! Welcome To Book Club” highlighted almost all the reasons why I wouldn’t to be a part of a book club, but I enjoyed it very, very much, as an example.

Thank you. My first hand experience is that I live on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. And book clubs are fun. I myself am a member of “Classic Trashy Book Club.” There is wine. And supper. And friendship. And talk of books. Sometimes a cat wanders through the room. It’s enjoyable!

There’s a lot in the book about the notion of how a woman should be, especially housewives. I liked that this was less of the traditional dark-inner-life-Mrs. Dalloway and more deranged, for a lack of a better word. Do you think there’s a dearth of this kind of fiction? This is the first book I can remember reading that got dark in a way that felt fresh.

Thank you! I can think of a few dark and deranged female writers out there off the top of my head. Alissa Nutting; Diane Cook; Kit Reed; Charlaine Harris, Karen Joy Fowler. Their characters look one way and behave very differently.

Do you prefer short stories to novels? Which feels easier for you to write?

I don’t prefer reading one over the other, but – for me – short stories are much easier to write than novels. For me, writing a short story is like baking and icing a cake. Writing a novel is catering a six course sit-down dinner for 16.

And as a special bonus, listen to Rebecca Lowman read “How To Be Like A Cat.”

American Housewife is out today.