I shred cheese. I berate a pickle jar. I pump the salad spinner like a CPR dummy. I strangle defrosted spinach and soak things in brandy. I casserole. I pinwheel, I toothpick. I bacon. I iron a tablecloth and think about eating lint from the dryer, but then think better of that because I am sane. I rearrange furniture like a Neanderthal. I mayonnaise water rings. I level picture frames.
Helen Ellis’s new short-story collection American Housewife is a savagely funny and absorbing look at domesticity, the extreme variety. Whether her homemakers are bracing for another epic dinner party, battling over wainscoting in a shared hallway or indoctrinating a new member into their book club, these women are charming, vengeful and totally manic – “passionate,” Ellis would say.
Raised in Alabama, Ellis, 45, keeps house at her striking Upper East Side apartment, where she lives with husband Lex Haris, executive editor of CNNMoney, and two large cats. The author is also a high-stakes poker player, competing at the World Series of Poker tournament. This book – arresting for the sparseness of its language and tight comedy – was born out of Ellis’s Twitter account @WhatIDoAllDay, a satirical retort to the question she would suffer as a modern day housewife with no children (sample tweets: “I have Pyrex envy” and “Every day I don’t have to re-enter society is a good day”).
Ellis has been compared to Margaret Atwood, feminist singer Nellie McKay and Flannery O’Connor, the Southern Gothic master of grotesque characters. Asked where she sees herself in the cultural canon on homemakers, Ellis locates herself somewhere between I Love Lucy and Carol Peletier, the cardigan-wearing, M16-toting former housewife on AMC’s The Walking Dead: “I like to be at home and I like to entertain but if you cross me, whether that be insulting my meatloaf or bringing an infected zombie into my house, I am going to defend myself.”
The author spoke with The Globe and Mail from New York about the art of making a home, and what housewife – or stay-at-home mom or “home manager,” if you prefer – means today.
More than 50 years after Betty Friedan described “the problem that has no name” – the frustration and anger of unfulfilled housewives – why would any woman choose to identify as a housewife today?
I myself am an American housewife. Am I reclaiming the word? It has never left my vocabulary. It’s something that, in my life and among the women I know, never went away. I keep hearing that it’s retro but I was raised in Alabama and my mother was a housewife until she went to law school at 40 years old. In the circles I have always run with, it’s never been a dirty word. I don’t say “just a housewife.” I say “housewife.”
But the housewives in your book are not so quietly unhinged.
That is the word du jour: “unhinged.” I think I’m going to get a T-shirt that says it.
They seem so full of rage, endlessly grocery shopping, cooking, hosting and tidying up.
Aren’t we all?
Why do you think the term scares women today?
I guess they fear a lack of control. Maybe they feel that housewife is a subservient word, but I don’t have that. You never know what goes on inside a marriage. Maybe that’s what’s scary.
There is a mockery with the shows and with that book, which looks at the Upper East Side from an outsider’s point of view. With the television shows, it’s us feeling like outsiders looking in on a world that we don’t belong to. But I will tell you, I enjoy the Beverly Hills housewives. I would love to step into that world: so many flowing gowns and pink nails – it looks delightful. And there are swans.
But what I see on Bravo is not my way of life. For me, it’s more of a traditional appreciation, an old-school housewifery.
What is old-school housewifery to you?
My idea of old-school housewifery is I Love Lucy. I live in an apartment, I cook and I clean. I see friends. I see my husband.
I live a quiet, 1950s life – without the sexism or racism. My home is my pride, my home is art, my home is my kingdom, my home is my domain. It’s my turf. It’s just a contained place that I like to be.
What did you enjoy most about your decade at home?
Well, I’m still there. I think we all are artists. When you go into a woman’s home what you see is a reflection of her: what art is on the wall; which curtains are up; what colour the walls are painted; who lives in the house; what’s stuck on the refrigerator; what’s piled up in the hallway; what books are on her shelf; what placemats are on her table. It has nothing to do with what things cost. Sitting in my bedroom right now, the walls are very dark and the curtains are pale white and my ceiling is wallpapered with a geometric pattern and I’m sitting between two very fat cats on my bed. That can tell you a little about me: I’m a quiet, quirky, loving individual.
Are you ever bored?
No, I’m not bored. I’m someone who likes to be by herself. I am my own best friend. I am my own maid: I clean the house, I cook the meals. That takes up some time, but there’s always time for Wendy Williams. We do have a little time on our hands. It’s the housewives who are going to buy your book, see your movie, buy your brand of your detergent, support you and run your political campaign. We are a force to be reckoned with and we don’t really like to be reckoned with.
How do career women killing themselves to “have it all” view the housewife?
Women are very varied. But I think all women value and treasure their home whether they spend 40 hours or 10 hours away from it a week.
Do working women envy modern housewives their luxury of time?
I was in the workforce for many years – I was a secretary – and I didn’t envy it. But I will tell you that when I wake up in the morning now and don’t go into an office at 8 a.m., I enjoy that. But I hate to say “a working woman” because goddamn, I do a lot of work around here.
They’re all battling a little bit with keeping control of their kingdom. Some of them keep it; some of them don’t.
Alongside traditional baking and quilting, today’s blogging housewives are doing a lot of organizing, from basket storage to cataloguing the fridge. It’s a portrait of OCD. What’s the connection here between an ordered home and an ordered mind?
One of the most popular books out there now is Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. It’s delicious. If I’m ever feeling a little down, my meditation is cleaning. My husband will come home many a time and see that the house is just sparkling. He says, “I’m torn. The house is gorgeous and yet I know that you’re upset about something.”
Of course it’s nothing new. When I was a secretary, if my desk was ordered, my mind was ordered. They say “get your ducks in a row” for a reason.
Like their health regimens and parenting techniques, home is an arena where women compete. What do we get out of the painful comparison game?
I don’t play that game. It’s just not my bag. That’s something you see on television because domestic drama makes for good TV. But it’s nothing different than in any other realm. Nobody’s going to say to a lawyer or a swimmer, “You’re so competitive.” Of course you are.
I write about it myself with “The Wainscoting War,” which is about a competition over a hallway and how it’s going to be decorated. In my own life, my attitude is, if you want to redecorate our common hallway, have at it. If I invite you into my home I expect you not to be critical, and when I go into your home I am not critical. When I go into a person’s home, I appreciate what it took for you to clean those oven dials or to organize that medicine cabinet, because believe me, I’m looking in your medicine cabinet. I appreciate what you’ve done for a dinner party: look at that runner, look at those monogrammed napkins, look at the flowers on the table, look at the name cards. There’s an investment there. I appreciate it and I will tell you so.
Are you making fun of your characters?
Absolutely not. I love my characters. Whether you agree with their motives or their practises, I understand, appreciate and applaud what they are doing. I don’t see them as angry, I see them as passionate.
What are your readers telling you?
That it’s a feminist manifesto. Who knew? It really is. Every woman in the book chose to be in the role she has now, just as I have. You can be a housewife and a feminist, I promise you. I am both.
This interview has been condensed and edited.Report Typo/Error