Housewife, star poker player, writer

American Housewife by Helen Ellis (above) comprises short addictive tales in the voices of housewives.
American Housewife by Helen Ellis (above) comprises short addictive tales in the voices of housewives.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

Helen Ellis releases her new short story collection, which trains a dark and humorous lens on domestic issues

NEW YORK • "You realise, of course, this is actually a fight club," Helen Ellis said, as she took my coat.

She spoke in a sweet Southern accent. Behind her were four members of her weekly bridge group, wearing cashmere cardigans or fitted black dresses with chunky jewellery.

At 10 on a Tuesday morning, we stood in the living room of Ellis' spacious Upper East Side apartment. She had set out a pot of tea, a tray of pastries, berries with cream. Nearby was a white Christmas tree decorated entirely in insect ornaments: gold glitter dragonflies, glass ladybugs, brightly coloured beetles.

Each December, her tree has a different theme. She includes the previous year's ornaments in the gift bags she gives to the 150 guests at her annual holiday party.

Ellis, 45, calls herself a housewife. But that only begins to describe her. She is also a shrewd poker player who regularly competes in high-stakes tournaments, and the author of a forth- coming story collection, American Housewife, that trains a dark and humorous lens on the domestic.


American Housewife by Helen Ellis (above) comprises short addictive tales in the voices of housewives. PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

Early reviews have been glowing; Booklist compared her to Shirley Jackson and Margaret Atwood.

Atwood herself recently tweeted: "Reading American Housewife by Helen Ellis. Pretty ferocious! (And ferocious about 'pretty'.) Cackle-making."

Weeks before the book's release, she named it one of her favourites of the year in The Guardian.

Said one of Ellis' bridge guests, Ms Jean McKeever: "When you meet Helen, at first you think: president of a Southern college sorority. What you find is she's this hilarious, twisted, many-layered person."

Midway through the game, one player accidentally showed her cards. Ellis sneaked a peek.

"She's a cheater," said her bridge partner, Ms Erica Schultz.

"It's not cheating if someone puts a kitten in your lap," Ellis said.

Raised in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, shes moved to New York in 1992, on her 22nd birthday. She wanted to be a writer. Later, she was hired as an assistant at Individual Investor magazine. While there, she applied to, and was rejected by, several MFA programmes. But eventually, New York University took her off the waitlist.

The day after she got the news, a reporter named Lex Haris walked into her office. "I had the biggest smile on my face," she said. "He thought it was for him, but really, it was because I had just quit."

The misunderstanding was fortuitous. She had been trying to flirt with him for weeks. "I would bring him People magazines, wrinkled because I had read them in the tub. I just put that image in his mind."

They went out that night and were married six years later.

Haris is now the executive editor of CNNMoney. Child-free, they have two cats, Tang Tang and Big Boy, who weighs 11kg.

During her last semester in graduate school, Ellis became a secretary in the chairman's office at Chanel, a job she would keep for a decade.

A year out of school, in 1998, she sold her debut novel, Eating The Cheshire Cat. The book earned good reviews and solid sales. But a follow-up proved elusive. Ellis spent six years writing a second novel that was never published. She wrote another after that, which also failed to find a home. Then her husband suggested that she quit her job to write full time.

"So I quit," she said. "I wrote another book. Nobody wanted to buy that one either."

She wrote a young adult book "for hire", about teenagers who turn into cats. The sales were dismal.

After that, she stopped writing . "I settled into what became a very happy life," she said. "You ask yourself, 'What happens if I stop writing?' First of all, nobody cares. And you put on 4.5kg. That's all it is."

She also had more time to devote to a lifelong passion: poker. Her father taught her seven-card stud when she was six. She started entering tournaments in 2008. In 2010, she played at the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas for the first time. She won nearly US$20,000.

One of her regular games is attended by both Broadway pit musicians and high-ranking members of law enforcement, all but one of them male.

In 2011, writer Colson Whitehead hired Ellis to be his coach at the World Series of Poker. He immortalised the experience in his book The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky And Death.

"In a male-dominated game, where female players often affect an Annie Oakley tomboy thing to fit in, the housewife-player was an unlikely sight," he wrote. "The dudes flirted and condescended, and then this prim creature in a black sweater and pearls walloped them. 'A lot of people don't think women will bluff,' Helen said. She was bluffing the moment she walked into the room."

She was thrilled by his portrayal of her. "I thought at the time, 'If this is the last that I'm published, I'm very happy letting that be what anybody thinks.'"

But the urge to write remained. So she started an anonymous Twitter feed with the name American Housewife and the handle @WhatIDoAllDay. When she tweeted, "Inspired by Beyonce, I stallion-walk to the toaster," she was retweeted more than 100 times and earned dozens of followers. The tweet became the opening line of what would eventually be her new book.

Slowly, she began to write again. Short stories this time, in the voices of housewives. The stories are addictive and full of pitch-perfect observations such as, "the only thing with less character than Chardonnay is wainscoting" and "Delores was as fertile as a Duggar" (a member of the 19 Kids And Counting reality television family).

Ellis placed the stories in literary journals. Last spring, her agent sent the collection to publishers. The book received multiple pre-empt offers and sold in three days to Doubleday.

Fifteen years after the release of her first book, she said: "I am very aware at 45 that this is special."

She displays none of the neuroses of most writers on the cusp of a book release: "The worst-case scenario is that this fails terribly and I go back to a very nice life."

NEW YORK TIMES

  • American Housewife can be ordered through Books Kinokuniya for $33.26.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 03, 2016, with the headline 'Housewife, star poker player, writer'. Print Edition | Subscribe