Ellyn Oaksmith writes funny fiction with twisty plots. She’s the USA Today bestselling author of 50 Acts of Kindness, Family Secrets, Funny is the New Sad and Adventures with Max and Louise. “Mr. Montana,” her short story, is part of Killer Beach Reads.
Ellyn’s first YA novel, Chasing Nirvana, about a girl in 1993 who tries to get Nirvana to play at her prom, comes out in fall of 2017.
Ellyn lives in Seattle, Washington with her family where she spends as much time as possible in or on the water or with her nose in a book.
How did you get started writing for publication?
I was a screenwriter first in Los Angeles after getting my MFA from the American Film Institute. None of my original scripts were ever made into feature films but I sold several options and worked on other people’s scripts. I think being a screenwriter has helped me hash out plots and learned to re-write on demand.
50 Acts of Kindness is about a high-power marketing executive woman who gets fired after a video of her chewing out a pregnant woman goes viral on YouTube. So she has to move back home with her mother, who accepts her back only if she practices 50 acts of kindness in 50 days. What inspired this delightful book?
My sister showed me this YouTube video that a sorority sister sent to her sorority, basically screaming and swearing at them for being lazy and socially unmotivated. She never intended for it to go viral, but it did. She was raked over the coals and it ruined her life for quite a while. She left the sorority in shame. I started to think about how someone could get their life ruined by having their worst moment recorded and uploaded to YouTube for public judgment.
In 50 Acts of Kindness, Kylie rescues what seems to be a stray dog, although in reality the dog rescues her. Your website says you love dogs. Have you ever been rescued by a dog?
In college an intruder entered my home at night where I was asleep. He came into my bedroom and shone a flashlight on me. My dog was asleep on my bed and barked and growled and scared him off. Also, there have been many, many times when I needed company or emotional support and a dog was there for me with unconditional love. Every morning my dog greets me like it’s the best day of our lives, which is infectious. It’s a great way to look at life.
In 50 Acts of Kindness, Kylie comes home to find that her mother is running a nudist colony B&B! Did you have to visit such a place do research for the book?
I never visited an entire colony but when I lived in Los Angeles and worked as a screenwriter, a guy I dated came from a family of Austrian nudists. They had property and a house with a pool in the desert in 29 Palms where everyone walked around naked. Seeing your boyfriend’s parents naked is something you just don’t forget. It was bound to end up in one book or another.
How do you organize writing your books? Do you plot them out in advance, or do the story lines develop as you go?
I am a plotter. Every time I’ve tried just to wing it (and I know some very talented authors — Laura Spinella is one — who are pantsters) I get lost in the words and meander, wasting the reader’s precious time, which is a losing prospect for everyone. To me it’s like traveling without a map or, in this day and age, a phone. I need to know where I’m going. I do detour from the outline, but if it’s significant and improves the book, I’ll re-write the outline.
You have written a memoir about your struggle with depression called Funny Is the New Sad. Can you tell us a little bit about what inspired you to write this book?
I was writing my newest book, (soon to be published) Chasing Nirvana, which is a YA book where a gay girl struggles with bullying when she gets nominated prom queen. She’s slammed against a locker and has a concussion for a significant part of the novel. It was an emotionally draining book to write and I realized, when I was finished, that the concussion had been an analogy for my own depression which first started when I was about 14. I wrote Funny is the New Sad to deal with all the emotions swirling around after realizing that I’d unwittingly written about my own struggles.
As someone who has struggled a long time with my own depression, I am touched by your willingness to write so openly about your own fight with depression. What did it cost you personally to write this book?
First of all it was horribly exhausting to write. Writing Chasing Nirvana brought up all these issues I thought I’d dealt with decades ago. I felt very exposed about the shoplifting piece of it because it’s the most shameful thing I’ve ever done. Also, asking my parents’ permission to publish a book that is my perspective on some pretty painful chapters in our family life was tough. I told them what it was about and said it would be better if they didn’t read it. They trusted me. Hopefully they never did read it.
What draws you to writing romantic comedy?
I love using humor to tell a story. Honestly, I don’t know how to write any other way. Even my darker books are infused with humor. Life to too sad to have it any other way.
Tell us about your research process as you write your books.
I am a huge, huge fan of Google for any and all specifics, like what a marketing plan looks like or about crops in North Carolina or home restoration. I normally only write about locations that I’ve physically been to, so Cedar Falls was based on some places I’d been to in North Carolina. I love New York and travel there whenever possible. Right now I am writing a book that takes place in the San Juan islands in Washington where I’ve spent a lot of time. For Chasing Niravana I spent hours on Google to find fan sites and information on Nirvana.
What advice do you have for others who may want to be writers themselves?
Read The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri. Also Stephen King’s book, On Writing. Check out a website called Save the Cat which has a lot of useful information on plotting. Write every day at the same time. Place your desk against a wall unless you have a magnificent but somewhat boring view. I have this framed above my desk: There is no wrong or right. Just write. To me that means, you can always rewrite it, but just get started.
Click here to read my review of 50 Acts of Kindness