Written by: Camryn Johnson
I sat down with the University of Connecticut’s Associate Director of the Creative Writing Program and English professor Ellen Litman to discuss her writing process and what makes her tick. Professor Litman is a mother of two and the author of two books, The Last Chicken in America and Mannequin Girl, as well as numerous works of fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction that can be found in The New Yorker and literary journals across the nation such as Tinhouse Magazine and Dossier Journal.
[This interview was conducted over WebEx.]
CAMRYN JOHNSON: All right, if you don’t mind, we’ll get started. I noticed that you got your undergraduate degree in information sciences, and then you got an MFA in Creative Writing/Fiction. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit more about what led you to those disciplines because they seem very distinct from each other.
PROFESSOR ELLEN LITMAN: Yeah, that’s interesting. [Actually] my eleven year old just asked me today, “When did you know what you wanted to do in life?” I knew I wanted to write pretty early on—I think I was twelve or something like that—but I was living in Russia at the time and the path to having any kind of profession like that, one that was creative, was very, very limited, and not particularly realistic. There were very few places where you could learn to be a journalist or a writer or anything, and they were pretty heavily restricted. So, my teachers and my parents kind of had to have a talk with me to say: “Oh you can do it for yourself, you can always write just for you, but [in the] meantime, why don’t you think about [a] practical profession?”
And my mom, who was a secondary school math teacher and who was just starting to learn about Informatics and, you know, computer stuff, started giving me books like Informatics for Children and things like that. Essentially, in Russia, most people who graduated high school, at that time, went to engineering colleges and universities. That was the primary direction. And so I was kind of like, “Well, I’ll be a computer programmer.”
I started studying that back in Russia, had two years of college there, and then my whole family immigrated from Moscow to Pittsburgh where we had family, and I ended up transferring to the University of Pittsburgh and spending another two years completing my degree there. Coming to America was sort of like, “Oh, well, English is my second language. I’ll never be able to write now, for sure.”
But then, when I was finishing my undergrad and having to write papers and take English classes as requirements, I did well in writing papers and I really enjoyed it. I found that language was less of an obstacle than the desire to tell stories or the ability to create or think of stories in your mind, or to construct ideas that you want to convey. So I ended up still pursuing my career and getting my degree working as a computer programmer. [But] I kept thinking about it [writing] and I thought, well, I’ll try it on my own, but it’s hard to do on your own because you start a draft and then you end up halfway through feeling like “This is just disgraceful. No.”
CJ: [laughs] I can vouch for that.
EL: [laughs] And then you abandon it. At some point, I started taking classes at night at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education. I was living in Boston at the time working at a startup as a software developer, and then at Grub Street, which at the time was this tiny writing school that two women started and now it’s a huge nonprofit writing center in Boston that does lots of amazing things. But, I got enough encouragement from there to just keep doing it, and eventually, I realized I wanted to do it more.
Since I was still working at a startup I had to get up super early to write. I would set my alarm to 5:00 or 5:30 so I could write for a bit before going to work because I never knew what time I would be coming home. And so I eventually applied to grad schools because I figured I needed to spend more time on my writing if I wanted to be good at it. I fully expected to go back to software development as my primary job afterwards, but things kind of worked out in its own way and I never did.
CJ: Yeah, that’s amazing. I think that tends to happen to a lot of us where we have an idea that’s more practical but then there’s something else that gets your creative side out. I think it’s great when you’re able to nurture that passion and go to school for it. That brings me to asking how your dual nationalities—being from Russian and living here [The United States] for what seems like most of your life—have impacted, or influenced what you write about?
EL: Well, I mean, it’s influenced [my writing] pretty directly because my first book was about Russian immigrants living in America, in Pittsburgh, in this neighborhood called Squirrel Hill. My second book was a normal coming of age story set primarily in Moscow in the eighties. So up until now, I’d been writing primarily about characters that have at least something to do with Russia or [were] completely living in that world.
A lot of my literary influences [were Russian] because that’s where I came of age, but I’ve also spent more than half my life now in America. So there is sort of a tug towards wanting to understand what life is like there [Russia] or how life [has] changed there since I left. But there’s also another side of me that wants to write things that are not really about Russia so much. It goes back and forth.
CJ: I did take some time to read part of Mannequin Girl, your second novel. I’ve gotten through the first chapter so far and it’s great. I love it. I find it so interesting how you presented the characters. So, I was just wondering—and you’ve touched on this a little bit with your last answer—what was the catalyst for making you want to write Mannequin Girl. I know that you were diagnosed with Scoliosis yourself and that’s the primary struggle of your main character. Can you expand a little bit on what aspects of your life you put into that novel? And what really made you want to sit down and write it?
EL: I wanted to show the world that I came from the world of Moscow in the ‘80s and, you know, and to me that school [for disabled children] that the character ends up at is part of it. I thought it would be interesting…I mean, I went to a school like that, but at the same time, I thought it would be interesting to show how the world was changing through this very institutional environment — one of those institutions that, on the one hand, emphasizes the insignificance of one person compared to the collective, especially in the Soviet years. And then how one might want to break out of it. The changes in the country allowed people like myself to sort of argue with that, or turn against it in some ways.
[Normally,] we wouldn’t be able to without taking a much bigger risk [by] rebelling against the old, old structures of the Soviet world. But we were lucky that we were living in this very dynamic, very changing time when we could [do that.] I wanted to capture that excitement as well as the very structured and very limited world that we had and then how it started breaking open and opening up.
But, yeah, I tend to start with biographical material and I remember writing the first draft of the first chapter and the family was very much like mine and the main character was pretty much like me. I was starting to get really bored with it and sick of myself. I don’t think I’m well suited to writing memoirs.
So, at some point, it’s like, well, okay but what if the character was not a daughter of these kinds of people? There was this charismatic pair of literature teachers at the school that I was modeling it on, so it was like, what if the girl was their daughter? How would that change who she was, her personality, what kind of child they would have? This allowed me to start inventing things and the personality of the protagonist, Cat, [became] very different from mine. She has a lot more ambition and is much less complacent than I was, you know. I had very strong expectations growing up, but she has more expectations [about] being exceptional, which I didn’t have, expectations about being some kind of star. It was a lot of fun to do, once I broke away from myself. It was fun to write about a character unlike myself and have that freedom to [imagine] what the character would do.
CJ: That’s really interesting. I thought maybe we could relate that changing Soviet world to how your role at UConn as a professor and the Associate Director of the Creative Writing Program has been different. Or, what has surprised you with the changing world we’re experiencing right now?
EL: That’s a great question. I think when I came to UConn, back in 2007 — which is ages ago now — I was hired as one of the co-directors of the Creative Writing Program. Professor Pelizzon and I alternated semesters when we were acting directors and it was definitely, interestingly, a busier program; we had more events [and] we had more funding for those events. In the years since, things shifted and now Professor Sean Forbes is the main director, but because of cuts to the budget, we ended up streamlining, streamlining, streamlining things.
It’s interesting because even before the pandemic, I think there were so many events fighting for our attention, right? And with a pandemic it’s interesting how on the one hand we’re, again, so limited because we can’t go places, but on the other, things that weren’t accessible to us [before] are accessible in terms of the literary world. You can’t be there in person, but you can connect and go. It’s all very tempting, but you can do it all! A good friend of mine had a release party for her new book of poetry and she lives outside Chicago. In the olden days, I wouldn’t be able to be there, but [because] it was a Zoom, hundreds of people were there — people from France, her supporters, her fans from all over — and they didn’t have to travel to Chicago; all they had to do was connect. So, that part is amazing, but trying to fit it in with teaching, along with other responsibilities, is impossible, and this is something we had to think about at the Creative Writing Program when the pandemic started. We very quickly realized we could make all these things accessible, but very soon most people had this fatigue of screen time, so we had to be thoughtful and selective about what we were doing. Some things we started and then realized that people just don’t have the bandwidth to participate in this and participate in that. Us kind of having to adjust on the fly, I think, has been very important in [being] aware of the needs and capacities of our community. On the flip side, I was able to do something that I’ve been wanting to do for years and started this newsletter, the Creating Writing Digest, that I try to do most weeks.
You know, there’s always that sense that we were not reaching out to as many people interested in creative writing as we could. We have the undergraduate listserv, we have this, we have that, but a lot of people outside the major were not really getting the information — not to mention those who graduated or are alumni. When the pandemic started, it felt very important to me to try to create a stronger sense of community and do this. Not just a listing of an event, but [trying] to make it warm and conversational and solicit ideas and news from people so there’s this sense of, “we’re together” whether it’s people in English or not.
That’s just been really fun and rewarding—time consuming, but rewarding. [Especially] hearing back from [students] about their jobs, about the grad programs they got accepted to, from people who graduated a while ago, people just starting, you know. It’s just really fun and really cool to know what people are doing. Even if they’re not still writing, they’re still part of our world. So, that’s been the change for me.
CJ: You sounds somehow busier now than you were years ago.
EL: It’s amazing. I think the pandemic made everything a bit busier, in part because it’s so easy to commit yourself to [everything]. Like “Oh, yeah, I finished teaching at 11:30. Sure, I can be at a meeting at 11:31. Sure, I can participate in this talk at 11-something.”
So I think there’s a sense that we are more available, but you end up really burned out from all the meetings, and the screen time, and all the committees. Compared to other disciplines you can do English class or creative writing class online, absolutely. But the amount of energy and thinking and planning it takes to kind of create a semblance of the community [is a lot]. It makes sense, but I still just feel like, why am I so much busier than before?
CJ: I definitely relate to this. On the Long River Review, we’ve had to adjust how we edit things, how that process is, and right now we’re trying to plan a virtual release party that’s engaging and that people will want to show up for. So it’s been an adjustment, really, that takes a lot of thought, like you said.
EL: Yeah, definitely.
CJ: So moving on from that. I’d like to know what has been the most fulfilling course for you to have taught during this time: a class or an event or something that you hosted that has been the most self-fulfilling or impactful?
EL: I’m trying to think…I think the newsletter has been really fulfilling, just because it put me in touch with current students and students from before and it makes me feel like I’m doing something useful. Hopefully. In terms of classes, I always love doing the workshops and I love the fact that it’s something the students can look forward to. That when they gather together, it doesn’t feel like any other class and they can get excited about one another’s work. I think anything that just allows for a bit of an outlet, for personal moments, laughter, anything, has been rewarding. I’m also teaching the Graphic Novel class for the first time this semester. I’ve always loved graphic novels, but I’m not in any way proficient in them or have any artistic talents myself, so that’s been a lot of fun because it’s just such an amazing medium and the titles we look at are exciting and different and sometimes match, weirdly, what’s happening in the world.
It’s still a class, but to me, at least, there’s a little element of play, especially once we start looking at what [an] artist’s process is like. I give my students creative exercises to do, and seeing the talent among them is really cool because I think there are some really great budding artists within the class, so that’s always exciting.
CJ: Yeah, I noticed that class when I was planning my major, and I was like, “wow, that sounds really interesting. I hope I have time to take it!” That class seems like it’d be really fulfilling and exciting to even just learn about as a teacher yourself.
EL: Yeah, there are definitely students in that class who know a lot more about comics and manga than I do. And I’m very happy to admit that [even though] I’m teaching it, I’m new to it as well, [so we] kind of figure it out together. They bring some really interesting insights to it.
CJ: So, I have two more questions for you. I know you have pieces in different anthologies and literary journals across the nation and you have your two novels. I was wondering if you could tell me what you feel has been your most widely received piece of work, or what you feel has impacted people the most.
EL: To me, my first book [The Last Chicken in America, 2007 ] is still the closest to my heart because that’s one of my interests, writing about immigration. I think immigration is such a difficult and complex process to me. It’s close to my heart because it’s raw and has more resonance, I think, or continues to have resonance as a subject matter.
It’s been a long time now, since it came out, but I met with a book club in Pittsburgh [with] young adults age eighteen to twenty-five, and they were reading the book and asked me to talk to them [about it]. It was really nice to listen to them and realize that it’s still something that matters, so I’m kind of happy with that book. Then, I wrote a piece for The New Yorker that was online after the synagogue shooting a couple of years ago that happened in the neighborhood where I lived [Squirrel Hill 2018]. They contacted me and asked for [a] reflection, some kind of memorial piece, and I think that reached a lot of people as well when [it] came out. It’s a short piece, [and] it’s unfortunate [that] these things continue in our country as different groups, different ethnicities and different immigrant groups, continue to be targeted. Unfortunately, the problem is not going away.
CJ: Yeah, those are really heavy topics and you’re right, they are very raw and would impact people. They don’t lose their relevance.
EL: Yeah, we were reading in the graphic novels [class] American Born Chinese and the week we were reading it, it just happened to be the week of the shooting in Atlanta. Actually the author of American Born Chinese visited UConn in 2016.
EL: Yeah, the Asian American Institute brought him as this huge event. I had my class watch the recording of Luen Yang speaking. He talked about stereotypes and comics and how Asian American immigrants were treated or portrayed in comics, as well as popular media and their role in the comic industry later on. That started these really interesting conversations on Tuesday and [then] the shooting happened later that day. And when it happened, that it was just kind of this slap, you know?
CJ: Like, “It’s happening.”
EL: Yeah, it hasn’t gone away, [and] you can’t go to that complacent little stance where it’s like “Oh, that was the past.” Nope.
CJ: So, with that very serious situation in the back of our minds, my final question for you is what is one piece of advice that you wish you’d gotten, but never did as a young writer?
EL: Huh…I got so much good advice. It’s hard to think what I didn’t get!
CJ: That’s great, though. Right?
EL: Yeah. I think really young writers are so focused on getting published and thinking that [they] will get to this point where it will all be figured out. [But] in reality, I [struggled] with how to make my writing a priority, how to fit and balance it with the rest of my life. You think, “Oh, well, if I get to the point of publishing one book or two books, you know, surely, I’ll have some sense of how to do it.” I’m not sure if it would have helped me or not if I knew how hard it would be to find time, especially as your responsibilities increase and you end up caring not just for yourself, but for your family. You [can] have a job that, even though it’s related to writing, also fills your life, and leaves [no] space for your own writing.
I think a lot of people think, “Oh, I want to be a professor. I want to get a teaching job”. You know, when I went to grad school, that was kind of the dream. That’s a great job for a writer and it is, but the struggle is so much deeper than what kind of job you have. It’s really within you and [about] how good are you at balancing things and switching between tasks and carving out that time. You can have a perfect job for writing and still not get anything done. So that’s a very big challenge for me right now and I think for a lot of people.
CJ: Okay, so with that, what is a piece of advice you would give, having lived through your experiences? What would you say to student writers now?
EL: I would say learn to make your writing time a priority. Learn to integrate it in[to] your life. Once you’ve gotten into a pattern, a good pattern, where you write regularly and you have [a] routine, don’t take it for granted. I see a lot of talented students, right? And they write when there’s an assignment, they write, you know, when inspiration strikes, and that’s great. But I think the key for success is to keep doing it, to find the routine where day after day [you] show up and do it. It doesn’t have to trump everything or be more important than everything, but that practice is incredibly important.
CJ: Yeah, as a student, I find it extremely difficult sometimes to find the time to write because when I’m done with my work, I’m like “Ugh, maybe I just want to sit down and watch TV or something.” So yeah, it’s definitely important to prioritize writing if it’s something that you want to pursue.
EL: And also finding your time [and] when is good for you. Like you said. I think when I was in college, sitting and writing at night could have been really good. But as I get older, I get tired by the end of the day and my brain is just not fresh enough for it. So, even though I’m not a morning person, mornings are better times for me to write. Everyone has their own routine and time. I always loved reading about famous writers’ routines. There are people who write after they’ve finished their day job and housework and have put the children to bed. They would write late into the night. So, there is that as well.