Today, we welcome a new entry to our Debut Author Spotlight series. Louise Ells’ Notes Toward Recovery will release from Latitude 46 Publishing on May 1st. Ells’ “Scraping” was selected by A.M. Homes for The Masters Review Volume II and is included in her debut collection. We’re so excited to welcome Ells’ words back to The Masters Review!
As I watched the water rising outside and admitted that death was a real possibility, I focused on coining a word to describe drowning inside a house.
“How long did it take you to write your short story collection?” asks a new friend. It must be a trick; it’s impossible to answer. I have no idea; hundreds of hours, thousands. She re-frames her question. “When did you start writing the first story?”
Well. I started my PhD in October 2011, and Notes Towards Recovery was the first version of the creative component of my practise-based dissertation. The first story I wrote was one I had been thinking about for several years.
I lost all track of time when I was sheltering from Hurricane Ivan in 2004, yet I remember thinking: if I live, and if I use this experience in a piece of fiction, will it matter that the date is September eleventh, or will I have to change that detail to avoid the storm being seen as symbolic of the terrorist attacks of 9/11? As I watched the water rising outside and admitted that death was a real possibility, I focused on coining a word to describe drowning inside a house.
I survived the hurricane and did not lose everything, though for some time it felt as if I had. My marriage ended, my health suffered, and I left the country that had been my home for seven years. I am grateful; Ivan forced me to re-examine my life. I stopped talking about being a writer and started working to become one. I began with a Creative Writing MA at Bath Spa University and a PhD at Anglia Ruskin University.
What about creative writing courses I’d taken in the 1990s as an undergraduate at York University? All the conversations at all the retreats and conferences I was lucky enough to attend over the years? The hours I spent sitting beside a river watching the water’s movement, or hiking—maybe one of those moments was actually when I started these stories.
But. No. When did I really begin writing them?
There is a photograph which does not exist. In my mind it is so clear, however, that I can’t believe there isn’t a faded slide in a long yellow box that can transport me back to this precise memory.
I am sitting on the sofa. Next to me, my big sister, Margie. On our laps, a book, wide open. She is reading to me, as she does every evening in that golden half hour between bath time and bedtime. It’s on this ordinary evening when she runs her fingers under the marks on the page, pointing them out to me as she speaks. This is when I realise those squiggles are the magic that allow her to tell me exactly the same story, over and over. Is this also the day I learn the word for them? Letters. Words. I don’t know. I do know that this is how she teaches me to read— patience and repetition—until I can, or think I can, read all my favourite books out loud to anyone who will listen, or the cat, or an empty room.
Later she shows me another trick. I’ve always known how to ‘read’ my picture books—easy—I just make up a story to match the pictures. But one day when I tell her a story out loud, Margie puts words on paper with a fat red pencil, and recites back to me what I’ve just imagined. All my words—captured and preserved.
Reading. Writing. Those were the gifts my sister gave me in the last months of her life.
What else could I have become as great granddaughter of one of the OED’s original writers, but a lover of words? What else could I have become in a house filled with books, but a reader? What else would I write about but loss, having woken one morning to discover a sister-shaped hole in my world?
I shake my head. I smile. “Forever,” I say to my new friend. “It has taken me my whole life to write my short story collection.”