Jan Ellison’s debut novel A Small Indiscretion (Random House), which debuted early this year to much critical acclaim, is a story of passion and dedication both on and off the page. What seems like every writer’s dream — a Master of Fine Arts thesis picked up by a major publisher right after receiving it, followed by an Oprah Winfrey endorsement — is the product of seven years juggling graduate school with four children. Ellison credits her success to the support of her professors and her own sense of determination.
A Small Indiscretion catches up with Annie, whose family life falls apart upon returning to London 20 years after spending a reckless winter there. To save her family, she must untangle the mysteries of the winter that drew an invisible map of her future. USA Today writes: “Ellison is a tantalizing storyteller ... moving her story forward with cinematic verve.”
Had you been working on your thesis before you joined the M.F.A. program?
I started working on it here [at SF State]. I set out to write a short story. I was working with [Professor] Nona Caspers at the time. I’d published a few short stories by then, and I’d written maybe four or five. I thought, I’ll write four or five more stories and then I’ll have a collection, and in a year I’ll have a book. It didn’t quite work out that way.
At some point it grew to novella length, and it had an ending, and Nona said, “Well, you could put it together with some short stories and have a book that way.” But I knew that it wasn’t the whole story. I didn’t know what the whole story was, but I knew that 80 pages did not represent everything that that narrator had to say.
It seems that I’ve heard that before: “It was supposed to be a short story.”
I think [Professor] Maxine [Chernoff] said to the class one time: “You want to avoid, at all costs, accidentally writing a novel.” But that’s what I did. …
Breaking into print that first time around is very, very difficult — much more difficult for me than selling the book. The [novel] sold overnight to Random House, but it took me 27 tries to get my first short story published. And then [the story won] an O. Henry Prize. What I learned from that is no doesn’t not mean no — no means keep trying.
That’s great advice because it can be very discouraging.
It can be terribly discouraging. Somebody gave me a wonderful piece of advice: When you start to try to get your first piece published, your job is not to get your first piece published. Your job is to collect 100 rejections. …
I was probably around 75 rejections when the New England Review published [my short story] “The Company of Men,” and then six months later it was selected for an O. Henry Prize.
I was reading in your bio that you had a very different career [marketing for technology startups] before writing. Do you feel like that has influenced your writing?
I wrote one story inspired by this Silicon Valley setting. It was published in Narrative, won a prize in Narrative. Aside from that, it hasn’t provided a whole lot of direct inspiration for my writing.
In comparison, the traveling that I did — I took a year off of college and lived in Paris and London and then took two years after college — those three years have been at the heart of most of what I’ve written.
What were your favorite aspects of the M.F.A. program?
The first one was deadlines, just having assignments and deadlines that forced you to put words on a page and turn things in. That is what created in me this experience of the pleasure of writing. And if I hadn’t had to do the writing, I might not have done it and I might not have learned how much I loved and needed to do it.
The second was the faculty. I had some phenomenal teachers here. … I feel like I was introduced to a canon of literature that wasn’t necessarily the traditional canon of literature you get in undergrad, and that, I might not have discovered on my own.
And then the recognition. I won a story contest here that for the first time made me think, Well maybe it’s possible, maybe there is something that I have to say.
And then the friends I made. Some are still my very dear friends. I have a writing group. We’ve been together five years, and four of us were in the M.F.A. program.
Do you have advice for students who are also parents?
I have thought about this a lot. It’s very difficult. I started writing seriously at the same time I became a parent. I started writing when my second child was six months old, and then I had two more kids. There were times, weeks, months, years when the writing I did was three days a week from 9:15 to 11:15 while the two eldest were at preschool. I’d drop them off, go to Starbucks. I had two hours and then I went back. That was it.
There was no room for writer’s block. I never wasted a second ever. I’ve never had writer’s block. …
I think that pressure can be very useful, and the most important piece of advice I could offer, especially for mothers, is that if you are compelled to write, you must write. And nobody will support you in it. You might get lucky and have a supportive husband, but it’s not really in his benefit to have you going off and writing because you’re not going to make any money.
Someone else is going to have to take care of the kids. It’s going to be distracting. It’s going to make dinners late and the house a mess, and you still have to do it. You have to do it before you’ve ever made a dime or thought about making a dime. You have to do it when nobody believes in you. You have to do it when you don’t believe in yourself.
To me it’s not about belief; it’s about compulsion. I think if you are compelled then you must do it, even when you feel guilty. ... Stake out the territory of your writing life.
Do you have any favorite classes or professors from State?
Yes, Alice LaPlante comes to mind for sure. She’s not teaching here anymore; she just moved to Spain. It’s been wonderful to watch the trajectory of her career because she worked so hard and taught for so long and gave so much back to the community, and her first novel is wildly successful.
Nona Caspers, who was my thesis adviser for a long time. Maxine Chernoff, who took over as my thesis adviser. Toni Mirosevich’s classes were really great. I took one right at the very end when I was finishing up ... I wrote about my cousin in there, and I feel like that made its way into the novel.
So this is it then. You’re writing. You’re not planning to go back to marketing?
No. … I also now have a writing career ... but it’s also a whole separate career from the actual writing of the book. The speaking, the responding to e-mails, planning events and going to book clubs. The best part about that, I told my husband, “This is like a really, really labor-intensive way to buy a ticket into the world of writers” — which is, of course, what everybody wants, to hang out with writers. So I’m really psyched about that.