An Interview with Lyndsey Ellis
by Michaella Thornton
I had the good fortune of being introduced to Lyndsey Ellis’ phenomenal writing through a creative writing teacher and indie publisher we both love, Christi Craig of Hidden Timber Books. Once I read Lyndsey’s debut novel, Bone Broth, last summer, I was in awe of how Lyndsey captures the nuance and soul of the Midwest and the Black Midwest specifically, of how characters move through intergenerational trauma and healing so we readers might learn a thing or two about sitting with the pain, and how where we grow up steeps our art and creativity like the sun tea I religiously place on my front porch. Plus, Lyndsey’s unflappable and adaptable brunch game is strong. When the pancake joint we had initially agreed to meet up at had a crazy wait, we met up for an awesome omelet (her) and biscuits and gravy (me). Lyndsey’s thoughts about writing and her stories and essays nourish us all. My goal for this interview is for new readers to love Lyndsey’s creative work as much as I do.
Michaella: When did you realize that you wanted to pursue writing? (I’d love to hear your origin story as a writer…)
Lyndsey: I’ve been into creative writing since forever, but I first realized it was something that I wanted to be a lifelong practice when I was a college student. Rewind to when I was around seven – during that time, my parents divorced, and it crushed me. Like many kids who find themselves in that predicament, I was somewhat aware of the emotional toll it took on both my Mom and Dad (even if I didn’t fully understand it, or wasn’t able to articulate it), in addition to coping with my own feelings about everything. Being an only child, I had ample time and space to explore my imagination, though, and although I didn’t pick up the gift of music that my Mom and her side of the family are blessed with, I naturally took to writing as self-expression. Later, in college (at Mizzou – go Tigers!), I decided to take the leap as an English major to help ground me in the fundamentals, and I committed to always keep writing, whether it’s part of my career or just me living and being a human. Thankfully, it’s mostly been a huge chunk of both.
MT: As sociologist Tamara K. Nopper shared on Twitter earlier this summer, “Toni Morrison is not widely described as a Midwestern author or associated with a region. But many of her books take place in Ohio and she said, ‘I am from the Midwest so I have a special affection for it. My beginnings are always there. No matter what I write, I begin there.’ How does your relationship to the Midwest and Missouri specifically influence your writing, if at all?
LE: Omg, I’ve always loved that quote and I’m so glad Ms. Nopper shared it. Toni Morrison, of course, is someone I consider a literary ancestor. She and her legacy means so much to so many of us who identify as creative writers. But, I do think she means the world to those of us who are Midwesterners and/or share her sentiment about the Midwest.
To be honest, I write about Missouri and the Midwest even when I don’t mean to, which you, as a fellow Midwesterner, or others might do, too. The culture and our way of life is just so heavy inside me, it’s sometimes difficult to see or feel past it. And, that’s fine with me because we have so much to share with the world.
Just like the South, and the West or the East Coast, there’s variations in who we are, from belief systems and dialect to the food we eat and quirks we normalize. And, since a lot of that’s often overlooked or lumped together, particularly by the media and its limited narratives, I almost feel it’s a social responsibility to have the Midwest show up in my writing and just be a small part of the creative writing community that helps negate stereotypes by accurately highlighting our joys and our struggles.
MT: As I read Bone Broth, the form of the novel struck me as a great example of sociological storytelling, whereby the author tells the story of a system, in this case, the story of matriarch Justine Holmes and her three grown children, as well as how racism, classism, and more are baked into the places we live. How did you decide to center your novel’s story around four distinct narrators? Were there other novels that influenced how you structured your novel?
LE: I actually didn’t set out to write Bone Broth from four perspectives. When I first started the book in grad school (shout-out to California College of the Arts in San Francisco!), I only saw Justine and an inkling of who she was. But, as time progressed, I started hearing and seeing pieces of her grown children. I began doing character sketches of them and then, eventually decided I wanted to include their voices, too, mainly to show that the Black community—like other communities—is not monolithic. Even, and especially, when co-existing in the same region, or same state, or same city, we don’t all think alike, or hang together, we’re not all even in the same class, regardless of being in the same family unit, as you can see in the book. But, in some ways, the characters still share this universal feeling of grief (on a personal and collective scale) – it’s just they all let it manifest differently. Regardless, I wanted these characters to be seen. I wanted their humanity on the page – something I feel gets lost in our community underneath the weight of history and national issues that people often associate with us.
I’m immediately drawn to James Baldwin’s work again and again because I feel he’s a master at centering versatility within the Black community. Also, Arundhati Roy, another one of my favorites. Both of their works have layered, visceral characters that add texture to their stories.
MT: You have such a delightful ear for dialogue, both in your novel and shorter prose. How do you capture the natural cadence and voice of your characters? What do you suggest other writers practice to create organic, movement-centered conversations in their stories and essays?
LE: For one, I like exploring intergenerational dialogue. The community I grew up in—from my extended family to the church to the schoolyard — had a range of individuals of all ages, and I especially cultivated a love for the elders and hearing them talk and tell stories. I’ve tried to replicate this colorfulness in the dialogue that I use, and also the topics that characters may gravitate to. Everyone has a different approach, but I’m really drawn to good old-fashioned character sketches which help me learn more about the people in a story, from the way they talk and their mannerisms to their love language and food choices.
MT: What writers give you joy and/or help you light the path in your own writing? (anyone you re-read or come back to to center your creativity and inspiration?)
LE: Besides the ones I’ve mentioned, I have to say I’m hooked on Deesha Philyaw, Flannery O’Connor, Roxane Gay, Celeste Ng, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Shirley Jackson, among so many others, all for different reasons. I always, always come back to Zora Neale Hurston because the dialect and the domesticity in her books are unmatched to me.
MT: What types of creative writing projects are you excited to explore in the future that center on and celebrate Blackness? What are you looking forward to next in your writing process?
LE: I’m really into social horror writing which is, I guess, a subcategory of horror, which is a subcategory of speculative fiction. I’m working on a short story collection that centers Blackness and also is a continuation of focusing on how our actions, tempered by racism and classism, often affect how we treat each other. The outcomes can be a horror in itself, but then when it’s coupled with a supernatural element or some other traditionally scary phenomena, it can be a full blown creepshow. But, such is life, right?
In terms of the writing process, I try not to get bogged down in too many expectations or even research (which is a whole other conversation). I just want to let it flow and attempt to polish it later. And, I’m crossing my fingers for nearly every writer’s ask, though: time, time and more time to write!
MT: Is there anything else you’d like to add or say?
LE: Just thank you for being part of my life. Writer to writer, and human to human, I’m touched by the way you move and who you are as a person. Keep doing good because we inspire each other.
Lyndsey Ellis is a writer, editor, teaching artist, and communications professional. She’s passionate about exploring intergenerational struggles and resiliency in the Midwest. Her debut novel, Bone Broth (Hidden Timber Books, 2021) is a 2022 Friends of American Writers Literature Award winner and will be a first-year read at Maryville University in St. Louis for the 2022-2023 school year.
Ellis earned her BA in English from the University of Missouri-Columbia and MFA in Writing from California College of the Arts in San Francisco. She’s been a recipient of San Francisco Foundation’s Joseph Henry Jackson Literary Award and the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund for her fiction.
A VONA and Squaw Valley Writers alumna, Ellis has had residencies at Vermont Studio Center, Paul Artspace and Writers’ Colony at Dairy Hollow, and she was awarded a fiction fellowship from Kimbilio. Her writing appears in Kweli Journal, Catapult, Joyland, Shondaland, Electric Literature, and Black in the Middle: An Anthology of the Black Midwest, among others. Her short story, “American Haint”, was a 2021 finalist for the Midwest Review’s Great Midwest Writing Contest.
Ellis is a prose editor at great weather for MEDIA. and The Account: A Journal of Poetry, Prose & Thought. Sometimes she teaches writing-related classes and enjoys walking with her dog, Titus. See her website for more information, please.
Michaella Thornton learned how to bake at the hips of her mother and her grandmother Anna Lee. A lifetime ago, she baked professionally before realizing baker’s hours require early mornings. Kella’s prose has been featured in Brevity, Essay Daily, Fractured Lit, Hobart After Dark, Reckon Review, New South, Southeast Review, among others, and her writing has been nominated for a James Beard award and Best of the Net. Many moons ago, Kella received her MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of Arizona. She lives in St. Louis, Missouri with her daughter.