It is my pleasure to share an interview with author Ellie Beals, who answers questions about writing.
What inspired you to start writing?
Despite, or perhaps because I’m generally a highly focused human, I’ve always enjoyed the occasions when I allow my mind to wander. I enjoy how my stream of consciousness meanders through concepts I didn’t know were related to one another until I found them intermingling in that stream. But that stream is evanescent - by the time I’ve followed it to its end, I’ve forgotten where it started and what twists and turns took me to where it ended. I remember being frustrated by that even as a very young child, before I learned to write, and how similar it was to being unable to remember a dream teasing on the far-side of memory, upon awakening. From the time that I first learned to write, I recognized it as the tool I’d always longed for, to allow thought chains to be captured and enhanced.
It was that delight in playing inside my own head that first inspired me to write. Which I did throughout my life, either as a method of self-discovery or artistic expression, or as the foundation of my professional success as a management consultant – a field I entered as a specialist in plain language.
But that’s not what inspired me to start writing Emergence. The inspiration there was very concrete: a flashing sign, as I approached my 70th birthday, saying: NOW OR NEVER. I knew that I was a technically accomplished writer. But I didn’t know if I was capable of what for me, has always been the zenith of accomplishment for a writer: producing a novel. Could I prove to myself and whatever portion of the world had the slightest interest, that I could write the kind of book I most like to read? And so I embarked on a project to write a novel of psychological suspense, featuring powerful women, realistic dogs, and a sometimes lyrical voice. Emergence was the output of my Now or Never project.
What comes first, the plot or characters?
For me, so far this is completely a chicken or egg kind of
question. I did not develop a detailed outline
(or indeed, any outline) for Emergence before I actually started to write. I had a cast of major characters I knew I
wanted to develop, and three major incidents I wanted as the foundation for
plot development. They were, and are, so
intertwined that it is not possible for me to separate them. If and when I write another novel, I’ll be
curious to see if this is simply my modus operandi, or if some primacy between
plot and character evolves.
What is the best part of your day?
Biorhythm is destiny. I have been and always will be a morning person. I envy people like my husband, who kind of ooze into their days, snoozing and drowsing until they slowly achieve full wakefulness. That’s foreign to me. Sometime between 4 and 6 every morning, my eyes fly open, like shutters flung apart on a window. I am fully cognizant. I know exactly what’s on my To Do list for the day. I am up!! And even though I feign envy of those who start the day more gradually, I love the energy and the solitude of my early starts….the dim lights in the kitchen, the birdsong outside, the skittery jittery I-love-you wiggles of my dogs as they greet me, the sleepy gratitude of my husband as I bring him a coffee at an hour much more reasonable for his awakening. Mornings are like a good youth, full of promise and hope.
Describe your writing space.
We have a small bungalow in Ottawa, and a log cabin in the woods of West Quebec. I have offices in both places. My Ottawa work space is a standard home-office, with a large modern desk, a big, comfortable executive chair, shelves and cupboards cluttered with the binders of thirty years of curriculum development, surfaces littered with reminder notes to myself, and collections of framed photos – some of my grandchildren, but mostly pictures of me and my canine partners spanning 25 years of obedience competition. I often think it is a cheerful, realistic though not-very-flattering representation of my absence of tidiness and presence of ego.
Emergence wasn’t written in Ottawa. It was written in our log cabin in Quebec. My office there is in a loft over the living room, which allows me to look down and out the large living room window, through the wooded hillside that makes the cabin feel like a treehouse over the lake, which I can discern from my office mostly as a glint. There is also a window almost covered by the branches of a tree in which birds often nest, only inches from where I write. My desk is a small wooden table, my chair is a brutally simple and uncomfortable wooden kitchen chair. My supplies and not-of-the-moment work are housed on a two-tiered metal cart, which I believe started its life in the 1950s as some sort of small, smart cocktail-serving aid. That’s it. It would be hard to put together a less opulent or more uncomfortable work space. But I love it, and that’s where I wrote Emergence.
Are you working on anything at the present you would like to share with your readers?
I have two big projects on the go right now. The first is raising a puppy, Zoom (Taygold’s Till We Meet Again) who will be my next obedience partner. He is almost 13 weeks old now. The early months of puppy-raising are a complex mix of joy and fatigue. How can you not love a puppy? Even though I’ve always been pretty impervious to human infants, I ache with the desire to constantly have my hands on a puppy. Oxytocin overload. And the “regular” tasks of house-breaking and civilizing a young animal are amped way up for people involved in dog-sport. You start teaching pups how to learn, how to love learning, and the foundation skills of your sport, from the first moment they enter your household. It is tremendous fun. It is a lot of work.
My other project is marketing Emergence. Some aspects of it are fun – first and foremost this blog tour – where my hosts have given me opportunities to write about all kinds of things that matter to me. Working with my step-daughter Tara Skinner, to launch and maintain a creative Facebook campaign has also been fun. But the learning curve required to develop even the smallest shred of comprehension about the digital realities of launching and marketing a self-published book has been stressful, as are the usually-futile efforts to catalyze media interest.
All of that to say – I suspect Kri’s question was geared to
eliciting a description of The Next Book.
But right now, these two projects take up such a large space in my life,
that thinking about a new book is unlikely to rise to the surface until both of
these ongoing projects have matured a bit.
What book is currently on your bedside table?
I’ve read less in the last year than any other time in my life. Busybusybusy, and surprisingly for me, the lady of laser-like attention, short of focus when I have some down-time. And so, the book on my Kindle that beckons “Me, I’m Next” is Later, Stephen King’s newest offering. I’ve read King since he was first published and believe he is one of America’s most under-rated literary talents. It is sadly easy to overlook the technical mastery of someone so incredibly gifted at generating momentum. And that’s what I need right now – a novel that won’t let me go. King has never failed to not let me go, and I’m hoping and trusting this will persist in Later.
Do you have a library membership?
Tail between my legs, ears back, head down,
slinking in shame (is it obvious that dogs are my primary frame of reference?),
I respond: No. I’ve been hooked on Amazon purchases since I
got my first Kindle the first year they were available. One of the biggest Kindle assets for me is
that I no longer have to try to remember to log what I’m reading, so that I
don’t start a “new” book, and go through 1/4 of it feeling that it’s terribly
familiar, before I’m SURE that’s because I already read it. Amazon obligingly tells me if I attempt to
re-order a book I bought previously. I
know it is fashionable to bash Amazon. I
don’t and I won’t. I’m way too grateful
for the way it’s cataloged my reading for me.
If you could invite one person to dinner, who would it be and what would you cook?
I would love to spend an evening with James Lee Burke, author of countless novels set in Louisiana, featuring Dave Robicheaux, and a more limited series about Hacklebury Holland, set in Texas. The Robicheaux series is my favorite, because of the extraordinary descriptions of Louisiana -- a place I’ve never visited, but feel that I know intimately through Burke.
Burke is in his 80s now, but in his most recent book, A Private Cathedral, he displays, perhaps more than ever, the qualities that have fascinated me since I first “met“ him. I am awed that a writer can project such maleness in his writing - I can smell the testosterone wafting off the print. That carries with it descriptions of what happens to people prone to violence – the way they are seized by anger like a palpable force that transports them to a physical place I’ve never been, and to which I hope to never go. Having said that, I have never felt that Burke celebrates this kind of violence, as film-makers like Quentin Tarantino or Sam Peckinpah before him, have. He seems to view it as an elemental force - one that Robicheaux valiantly attempts but sometimes fails to fight successfully,
On the other side of the spectrum, Burke’s descriptions of empathy are every bit as powerful, and as someone who does experience this emotion frequently and intensely, I recognize the often painful ancillary emotions this triggers. Layer on to that, some of the most opulently beautiful descriptions of people, places, food, and emotion – and it leads me to believe that Mr. Burke is a fascinating study in contrasts, and someone I’d love to experience.
As for food - I’d
never begin to attempt any of the Louisiana foods that Dave Robicheaux loves.
I’d go for a hearty stew made ahead of time, served with chunks of warm whole
wheat bread. I wouldn’t want to lose my
focus on Burke by undertaking protracted hosting duties. Unless I’ve misread him, my feeling is that
Mr. Burke would not be a fussy eater.
It starts with Just Watching. But danger emerges when Just Watching ends.
When the "wild child" Xavier first encounters Cass Hardwood and her dogs in the woods of West Quebec, he is enthralled. Unknown to them, he Just Watches them in a lengthy ongoing surveillance, before ¬ finally staging a meeting. His motives are uncertain—even to him.
The intersection of the lives of Cass, a
competitive dog handler; her dogs; her cousin Lori; and the complex and
enigmatic Xavier leads them all into a spiral of danger. It starts when Just
Watching ends—when Cass and her crew encounter tragedy in the bush. Xavier's
involvement in the tragedy, unknown to Cass, sets off a chain of potentially
lethal events that begin in the dark woods of Lac Rouge, when hiking, skiing,
hunting, trapping, marijuana grow-ops, and pedophilia collide. It matures in
the suburbs of both Ottawa and Baltimore, and culminates back in Lac Rouge,
when Lori's spurned and abusive lover arrives uninvited at Cass' isolated cabin
in the woods. In the night. In the cold. In the heavily falling snow. His
arrival is observed by Xavier, whose motives are again uncertain, but whose
propensity for action is not.
Join Xavier, Lori, Cass, and the realistic and compelling dogs that are essential players in this dark drama as their fates converge in a deadly loop of revenge, fear, guilt, and hope.
Our cabin doesn’t have a basement. It is raised on cinderblocks, and is only maybe a foot off the ground…That has allowed me to have an excellent place to hide things I don’t want Stefan to know about. There are boards underneath where the kitchen is, that I’ve had to explore when working with insulation. I now have my own special board, where I’ve hollowed out a space where I can hide stuff. My secret stuff incudes extra notebooks with the drawings of Cassie and the dogs, that would reveal how much time I spend observing them. But it also includes special stuff I’ve liberated, that I don’t want Stefan to know about.
Liberation is a game Stefan taught me when I was littlelittle. He told me that good equipment deserves to be well cared-for. When he was teaching me how to Just Watch, he’d find hunting stands where we could watch campers, fishermen, and hunters. And he would explain when they did things right, and when they didn’t. Not looking after your equipment is not right. So when people were careless, and particularly when they were careless and drunk, or even better – careless, drunk and asleep ( which happens pretty often!) he taught me how to do a super-quiet “leopard crawl”, which means crawling really low to the ground on your belly. And I would have to leopard crawl to liberate the good equipment. It was scary and very fun! I got us lots of good stuff. As far as Stefan knew, it all went into a big wooden chest in the book room.
But I have liberated some stuff on my own – things I never told Stefan about. And that stuff goes into my hiding space under the house. Most of it is small stuff. My favorite little liberation was a system for carrying water in a pack with a hose you can sip it through. But the main thing, the big thing in my hiding space, is the rifle I liberated a year ago, when Stefan was away.
I was Just Watching a little clearing off the main road where hunters often met up with each other. It was early in the season, and I was there before any one arrived. But as the sun rose, four SUVs showed up. They were all big, expensive looking vehicles. Six men got out, all dressed in in the kind of clothes that hunters from the city wear and that Stefan makes fun of. One of the men, who I think maybe was younger than the others, acted really excited. He reminded me of how bullshit dogs like Zeke try to act tough but end up wagging their tails really fast and low and licking the mouths of the no-bullshit dogs. He was the guy with the biggest SUV. While they were getting ready to go, he took two rifles out of the car and showed them to the other men. There was a lot of discussion. I’m pretty sure they were deciding which one he should use that day. They decided on the fancier, newer-looking one, with a powerful-looking scope. The guy put the other one back in the SUV…
It never occurred to me to liberate it. Breaking into a car was not something Stefan had taught me to do. But the guy never locked his vehicle! I couldn’t believe it!
AUTHOR Bio and Links:
Ellie Beals grew up in Baltimore, Maryland and moved to Canada when she was 20. She spent the majority of her professional career as a management consultant in Ottawa, Ontario. Plain language writing was one of her specialties.
Dogs have been a constant in Ellie's life from the time she was a child. In the mid-1990s, she started to train and compete in Obedience with Golden Retrievers, with considerable success. In 2014, she had the highest-rated Canadian obedience dog (Fracas—upon whom Chuff is modelled), and her husband David Skinner had the second-rated dog. During a ten-year period, both Ellie and David were regularly ranked among Canada's top ten Obedience competitors. They have an active obedience coaching practice in Ottawa, having retired from their previous professional careers in order to spend more time playing with their dogs and their students.
Like Cass and Noah Harwood, Ellie and David have a log cabin in the wilds of West Quebec, where Ellie is an avid wilderness recreationist, constantly accompanied by her dogs. As COVID-19 spread in March of 2020, she and David temporarily shut down their coaching practice and retreated to their cabin, where Emergence was written. Lac Rouge is not the real name of the lake on which they live. Everything else about the locale for Emergence is faithful to the character of the gentle Laurentian mountains of West Quebec.
Connect with Ellie Beals:
The tour dates can be found here