Thursday, September 15, 2022

Q&A with Ellen Pall




Ellen Pall is the author of the new novel Must Read Well. Her other books include Among the Ginzburgs, and her work has appeared in The New York Times. She lives in New York City.


Q: What inspired you to write Must Read Well, and how did you create your characters Elizabeth and Anne?


A: The idea for this book came to me out of the blue five or six years before I started writing Must Read Well. On a scrap of lined paper, I had scribbled: “Woman [writer] who can no longer read hires someone to read her own journals to her.”


The idea that you might not be able to read your most intimate writings—that you might have to have someone else read them to you—struck me as terribly poignant. It also seemed full of literary possibilities.


I stuck that note on a bulletin board near the window in my office. I always have dozens and dozens of notes tacked up like that. 


By the time I looked at this one again, the lines on the lined paper had faded to invisibility. The words were faint, too, but when I read them, they struck me with the same force as when the idea had first come to me. So that was the inspiration for the book and also the seed for Anne’s character.


As for Elizabeth, journals are very, very intimate documents—I know, because I have at least 150 of my own, kept since I was in my early 20s. So if you wanted to reread your journals but couldn’t, who would you ask to read them to you? Not a family member, God knows; in fact, probably someone you’d never have to see again.


A stranger, then, and someone with a good reading voice, someone literate, who could read aloud with meaning. Someone you could pay, and then pay to keep quiet. Out of this need, Elizabeth was born: highly literate, short on money, apparently discreet, and apparently a stranger. I use the word “apparently” for reasons the reader learns very early on.


Q: The writer Barbara Basbanes Richter said of the book, “[R]eading and writing are normally solitary and anonymous endeavors. Not so in Ellen Pall’s bewitching Must Read Well, an examination of love, lust and literature told via secret diaries read aloud…” What do you think of that description, and can you say more about why you chose to focus on a series of diaries in the novel?


A: For one thing, I think Barbara Basbanes Richter is a genius, as well as a very generous human being, because Must Read Well is a hard book to summarize: it’s a story within a story.


I agree with her that the tale of Anne’s passionate love affair is the heart of the novel. But we learn that story in daily installments, as Elizabeth reads Anne’s journal entries aloud. Elizabeth’s own story is wrapped around those hours, and hers is one of ambition and deception.

The love affair has a lot of tumultuous feeling and suspense built into it—it’s an extra-marital affair for both Anne and her lover, and it ends in catastrophe. But the story initiated by the lies Elizabeth tells to insinuate herself into Anne Weil’s life, her devious portrayal of herself a simply a quiet, educated young woman a little at sea in life—that storyline has its own suspenseful traction.


As for focusing on a series of diaries, or journals, as I said, I’ve kept my own all my adult life, so the idea came naturally to me. In fact, they’re stuffed into a bookshelf a couple of feet from the desk where I write. The mere idea of anyone else reading any part of them makes my blood run cold—never mind having someone read them aloud while I sit and listen! What a nightmare!


Q: How would you describe the dynamic between Elizabeth and Anne?


A: Well, this is the crux of the whole book. In some ways, each of them wants the best for the other—as long as it’s what she conceives to be “the best.” In other ways, they are predator and prey, cat and mouse—although who is the cat and who the mouse is not always clear.


I do think each of them winds up developing something like genuine affection for the other. But there’s never a moment where either one of them kicks back and pours out her heart. With the exception of a couple of brief outbursts, each of them keeps her own counsel very carefully.


Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you  make many changes along the way?


A: I didn’t know how the novel would end until quite late in the game, and I made many, many changes along the way. Must Read Well is pretty short and swift, but it took a long time to write, and it went through a lot of versions before I finally found the right one. Sometimes I wondered if I’d live long enough to finish it, just as Elizabeth wonders if she can live long enough to pay off her student debt.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I have eight or 10 little stacks of paper lying around my office that are the beginnings of different personal essays about various parts of my life. These are all on subjects I’ve been brooding about for years, some for decades.


I’d like to finish even one of these essays, but I’m getting worried that maybe they’re all really part of the same story, and that that story would amount to a book-length memoir. I’m going to have to have a serious chat with myself about whether such a book would be helpful and interesting to some readers, like a conversation with an honest, open friend, or a terrible self-indulgence, like someone who can’t shut up at a dinner party.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Yes! There’s a new song called Must Read Well. My publisher suggested I write one after he learned that I play guitar and sing with friends. I wrote some songs long ago, but those were for my own entertainment.


After I wrote this one, I asked my friend Cindy Thrall to sing it. She’s a pro, a lifelong performer, and a real belter. She not only said yes, she made it much, much better.


We ended up collaborating on it, making the musical structure more sophisticated, and building a story into the lyrics, during a series of hilarious, exhilarating meetings at my apartment this past winter. Of course, I’ve always worked alone, so the whole process was a real rush for me.


Then Cindy brought in other professionals, people she’s worked with over the years, and they recorded it with her. I think it sounds amazing. I’m using the chorus to accompany TikTok posts for the book, and we’re hoping to have the whole song out and available online soon.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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