An interview with Ellyn Bache by John Weaver, editor of the award-winning online newsletter, PAGE ONE.
"I started writing in an effort to stay sane. My two oldest children were toddlers; we were living in a small town where I knew no one, and I was completely housebound because we had sold our second car so my husband, Terry, could go into business. My first published pieces were real estate features in the D.C. papers about how to finish vacation cabins like the ones Terry was building. Terry gave me a lot of the information, and I could write when the children were asleep. Soon I began to write short stories. I had a M.A. in English, but my model wasn't anything literary. It was the commercial women's magazine story, which I'd been reading since my mother subscribed to Redbook when I was eight. I was lucky to be selling nonfiction, because it took me six years before McCall's bought my first short story. If I hadn't been doing the articles and getting bylines, I would have been awfully discouraged."
"My first book was nonfiction —Culture Clash, about sponsoring Vietnamese refugees. I sent queries to a bunch of agents, and one of them took it on. She sent it to the New York houses, but the only one that was interested wanted me to make it much longer, which I thought would defeat the purpose of quickly teaching people what it's like to deal with a family from a different culture. So I sent it around myself and sold it to a smaller press that got it to exactly the right audience. The book is still selling after seventeen years. I learned from that how important it is to stay focused on what you're trying to do. A few years later when my first novel, Safe Passage, was going around, a young editor told me the protagonist had too many children (seven) and wanted me to take out a set of twins. But the whole point was that this woman had so many children that she was pushed to do things an "ordinary" mom might not. I had four children myself and didn't feel pushed to that limit. So I refused. A few months later the book was sold to a wonderful editor at Crown, who had just given birth to a set of twins. I always thought the twins in Safe Passage were the clincher."
"I think investigative nonfiction is valuable for any writer. You learn to hear not only what people say but also the way they say it. You get comfortable putting conversation in quotes. You learn to do research. You develop the confidence to ask strangers about topics you know nothing about. When I wrote Festival in Fire Season, about people who get caught in a huge wildfire, four different firemen helped me. I wouldn't have been able to write it without them, and without my journalism background, I wouldn't have had the nerve to ask. I still write some nonfiction. Most writers do. But fiction is my first love."
"Any writer who has her novel made into a major motion picture is a happy woman. She gets paid a lot of money. She sells all kinds of rights that may not have been sold before. The book gets a new life. (Safe Passage, for example, was a Literary Guild selection when it first came out and again when the movie was released.) I thought Susan Sarandon was wonderful. But even if I hadn't liked the movie, I'd be pleased. There's nothing "bad" a screen adaptation can do to a book. The book is never "ruined." The book is still there on the shelf, in its original form, for people to read."
" The most important thing is to have a good agent who will protect your rights. Film is a nasty business; it makes publishing look gentlemanly. If someone offers you a film deal and you don't have an agent, use the offer as a bargaining chip to get one. "
"Lots of threads went into that novel. The Activist's Daughter is about Beryl, a Jewish girl from D.C., whose father was investigated by the McCarthy committee (as one of my uncles was) and whose mother is an embarrassingly high-profile civil rights activist. In rebellion, Beryl flees to college at UNC-Chapel Hill (where I went), thinking she's going to escape her left-wing ties and blend in to the conservative South. But it's l963, and she's shocked — not just by race relations. In the dorms, girls have strict curfews but boys have none. Girls are routinely kicked out of school on morals charges; boys rarely are. A black girl lives alone on her hall while white girls are crowded into doubles and triples. It sounds weighty, but it's pretty lighthearted."