Secret confessions of a debut novelist: a conversation with Ellen Meister

A Long Island PTA mom herself, Ellen Meister says she’s no stranger to the scandal and drama of the carpool set. (“I write, swear, sing, and dance,” she says, “all from the front seat of my minivan.”) An ad copy writer with a flair for storytelling, Ellen served as editor of an online literary magazine until Harper Collins picked up her debut novel, Secret Confessions of the Applewood PTA. She is unabashedly in love with the English language. Her Applewood characters are heartfelt and human, and once you get to know their author, you’ll know why.

Let’s start with the backstory on Secret Confessions of the Applewood PTA. Please tell me it has nothing to do with “Desperate Housewives”.
Back in 2000, I finally got the gumption to stop procrastinating and pursue my lifelong dream of writing a novel. My head was swimming with the notion when I attended the first PTA meeting of the year at my local elementary school. As I smiled, greeting all the other women with my best soccer mom persona, I thought about the fact that no one in the room knew I had this special dream. In fact, no one knew I had an inner life at all. Then it occurred to me that everyone there could be feeling something pretty similar. As soon as I had that thought, I knew I wanted to write about these types of women--to explore the pain, passion, heartache and joy hidden beneath facade of the perfect suburban housewife--and do it with humor and compassion.

I think Long Island women get a bad rap as being full of money and attitude. I can't honestly say that doesn't exist, but it's a distinct minority, and gets blown way out of proportion, even right here at home. One of the reasons I wanted to write Secret Confessions of the Applewood PTA was to blow the myth apart. I wanted to show the honest heart of these suburban women, to explore the very real pain, passion and joy that often gets overlooked. Most of all, I wanted to do it with tenderness and humor, which was why it was so important for me to make the book more of a friendship story than anything else.

So introduce us to members of the Applewood PTA.
Maddie is an emotionally-needy ex-lawyer who thinks her marriage is on the rocks. Ruth is a brash and wealthy woman who seems to have it all, but her husband is impotent, brain-damaged and sexually inappropriate, so she hides a lot of pain. Lisa is a timid soul whose alcoholic mother made her afraid to shine. On the surface, I have nothing in common with them, but in my heart, there's common ground with each. I wouldn't be able to write about them if there wasn't.

The difference between the hard and paperback covers is pretty drastic. Did you love or hate one more than the other?
I love my new paperback cover! I think my publisher did a brilliant job with it. The apple works on so many levels. First and most obvious, it says "sin," which there is quite a bit of in the book. Also, it reflects the name of my fictional town, Applewood. And finally, since the story revolves around an elementary school, an apple is a great symbol.

Talk to me about the ins and outs of using George Clooney in the book. Wasn’t it a legal hassle?
The book was originally called George Clooney is Coming to Applewood. Some folks raised an eyebrow, asking if it was really okay to use his name. But when I pointed out that Al Franken wrote a book called Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot, most agreed that it wouldn't be a problem. My editor and agents were unconcerned.

Alas, the lawyers at Harper Collins weren't quite so mellow, and put the brakes on at the last minute, saying I couldn't use George Clooney's name in the title without his consent. I was given 48 hours to get approval from Hollywood's most sought-after super hunk. Easy, right?

Fortunately, I'm married to a researcher, and he was able to get me the phone number for Clooney's agent in minutes. So I called the office and they barked out his publicist's phone number before hanging up on me. Then I dialed the other number had this conversation:

"Hello, my name is Ellen Meister and I got your number from George Clooney's agent. They said you were the people to call to—"

"Talk faster. I have people holding."

"IjustwrotemyfirstbookandIneedtotalktoMr.Clooney'sPubli—"

"Gimme your phone number and he'll call you back."

I blurted out my phone number and tried to explain the nature of my call, but she hung up before I could get it out. This was bad, because it was likely she got the impression that I was looking for a publicist. So I called again.

"THIS-IS-ELLEN-MEISTER-AND-I-JUST-CALLED-AND-LEFT-A-MESSAGE-BUT-I-WANT-TO-MAKE-SURE-YOU-UNDERSTAND-THAT-I-WAS-CALLING-TO-GET-PERMISSION-TO-GEORGE-CLOONEY'S-NAME-IN-THE-TITLE-OF-MY-BOOK—"

"Write us a letter."

"WAIT! I DON'T HAVE TIME! I'm in a terrible time crunch and—"

"Here's our email address. Good-bye."

So I wrote his publicist an email and got a quick reply saying it was a long and complicated issue and George Clooney didn't have time for it. I couldn't let it go at that without a bit of groveling, so I wrote back explaining that the book had been my life's work for so many years and that I'd heard that George Clooney was so accessible with a great sense of humor about himself and would he PLEASE pass it by him? The reply was quick. He DID pass it by George Clooney and the answer is no.

So that was it.

If it's any consolation, I like this title better. What’s next?
My next novel is called the The Smart One, and it's the story of a divorced former artist named Bev Bloomrosen, who's about to turn her failed career around and become a school teacher. But when she and her two sisters discover a dead body under the house next door, they come head on with the old childhood roles holding them back. It will be published by Morrow/Avon in 2008.

Let’s wrap it up with the $64,000 Question: Why do you write?
I was born in the Bronx to two devoted readers. I understood from an early age that the best way to get someone's undivided attention was to put words on paper. If I didn't write, I'd be ignoring the thing I'm best at, and that's a scary proposition.

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