Ellen Meister is one of the most generous, energized writers I know; and even as she lovingly attends to her friends, she still manages to write a new book every year. Her newest, THE OTHER LIFE, has a high concept plot that’s so good, HBO has optioned it for a TV series. Here’s that plot in a nutshell: A woman who is pregnant with an extremely deformed child has the option to escape this life for one consisting of the other choices she could have made, including time with someone she longs to see again. The New York Journal of Books calls THE OTHER LIFE “mesmerizing,” and I’m so glad to bring Ellen here today to talk about her novel.
Let’s talk about high concept plots because you’re awfully good at coming up with them. First, let’s hear your definition of high-concept. And second, how do you find them? I want to get right inside your creative process.
Thank you, Sue! That’s an especially gratifying compliment since I really struggle with my storylines. For some writers it comes easily, but I find it the most vexing part of the process.
But okay, my definition of a high concept novel is one with a hook that’s so strong it can be conveyed in one dynamic sentence. Often, people know what a high concept novel is about even if they haven’t read it. Lovely Bones is a perfect example.
If I may move from the sublime to the ridiculous, consider all those wacky TV shows from the 1960s. My Mother the Car wasn’t exactly high art, but it was so high concept the whole premise was encapsulated in the title.
As far as how I get my ideas, I think it’s really just a matter of paying attention to the stray thoughts that ramble through my consciousness. For instance, one day while I was thinking about the way I escape into my fiction, I was wondering what would happen if a suburban woman like me had the ultimate escape … the ability to cross over into the life she would have had if she never got married and had children.
If I hadn’t been on the lookout, the thought would have vaporized. But I stopped and examined it and wondered if there might be a book in that idea. Then I had to ask some questions. What would be traumatic enough to make the woman want to cross from her happy life to her alternate reality? And what could she find on the other side that would create enough of an emotional pull to threaten her family?
It took a long time, but when I finally realized that my character’s mother was alive in one life and not in the other, I knew I had a book.
What I love so much about THE OTHER LIFE is it engages the reader’s own moral code. While you attach to these particular characters, you’re also forced to question how you’d handle a similar situation. What I learned from reading your book is that the idea of having an escape hatch in your life may sound wonderful—imagine not having to live with the consequences of your choices—but it’s really a terrible burden.
I actually learned the same thing from writing it! When I first got the idea, it sounded like an exhilarating opportunity. She gets to leave! When her husband and son aren’t home, she gets to slip through to her other life! Yippee!
But once I got inside the character, I understood how emotionally fraught the decision really was. And suddenly, I found myself faced with all kinds of moral issues I had never intended to explore. At another point in my life, this might have caused me to abandon the book. But real life had just thrown such frightening problems my way (a very sick kid, a massive financial crisis), that I was determined to dig in and find my courage.
Along the way I discovered that when we’re deeply connected by love, the mixed emotions of sorrow, joy, longing, regret and hope are so intertwined they simply can’t be separated. So when you leave one behind, you leave it all behind.
As far as engaging the reader’s own moral code, it wasn’t something I was conscious of while writing THE OTHER LIFE. But I’m starting to hear from early readers of book, and they’re sharing so much of their own struggles that I’m seeing how personally people relate to these issues.
One of my favorite parts of the book are the Quinn Deconstructed scenes—the series of paintings in which Quinn’s mother is trying to work through a puzzle in their relationship. Tell me how you came up with this idea.
I was probably about halfway through the book when I realized that Nan, Quinn’s mother, was simply too distant from the reader. I needed to bring her—and her relationship with Quinn—right out front. Since the last conversation between mother and daughter involved a composition Nan had painted to communicate a complex aspect of their relationship, I thought it was natural to show her trying to understand her daughter by capturing her on canvas in a series of portraits.
I liked the idea of Nan taking a systematic approach to the project by starting with Quinn as an adult and going back in time to paint her at various stages of her life. This also served to point the reader back in time toward Quinn’s birth, the pivotal point in which her life split in two.
I want to talk about the humor in this book. The thread that runs through all of your novels, regardless of how serious the topic might be is this fiercely witty dialogue. You really have an ear for comedic timing, and I know your cousin, Lisa Kudrow, has this gift as well. Tell me where this funny gene comes from. Is there a person or an event in the family tree that would explain this outlook on life?
Fiercely witty—I like that. Thanks! I also like being compared to my cousin Lisa, whom I consider brilliant.
My family would probably agree that I got my skinny legs from my mom and my sense of humor from my dad. Lisa is related on that side, so maybe there really is a genetic funny bone.
And I grew up in a funny house—Dad’s stories often had us laughing till we cried—so there’s both nature and nurture at play. But as far as my writing, there’s a third factor—intent. I believe a novelist has a responsibility to entertain the reader, and to me, including humor goes a long way toward achieving that.
So, to write this book, you had to stand in the middle of unresolved conflict, and frequently you had to walk directly toward fear. What did you learn about yourself through this process? Did any part of you become stronger or more tender because of it?
Frankly, if I was any more tender I’d need to be on Thorazine. So, thankfully, I emerged just as much of a mush as I was going in.
What I learned from THE OTHER LIFE relates to the sacrifices a mother is willing to make for her children. I’ve understood that on a visceral level since the day I gave birth to my first baby. But by examining it from all sides, I got to appreciate the wonder and miracle of it. So now, I’m not only grateful for my children, but for the power of my love for them … a gift that fills me every day.