Smoking With Ellen Meister

Read the Story March 15, 2004

In your story, you used the Hungarian phrase “Tetszik” which you translate as “does it please you,” words filled with meaning. Did the phrase come first or the character/story?

The phrase came first, and in fact the whole story was inspired by a conversation with my widowed grandmother. We were talking about my grandfather, and I happened to mention how often he cleaned their car, which I always thought was simply a product of his fastidious nature. But my grandmother said, “Yes, he liked me to have a clean car.” I was surprised by that, and thought there was so much love in it my heart nearly broke. But what she said next really slayed me. She told me that after he cleaned it he would always say the one Hungarian word he knew, “Tetszik.” She told me it meant “Does it please you?” and I thought that was about the most romantic thing I ever heard. I knew right away I would need to wrap it into a story.

How would you describe the Ellen Meister writing style?

I think my background in advertising has had a major influence on my writing style. I was trained to imagine my words on a page in a stranger’s hand, held over the trash. So I try to be as entertaining as possible, and make my point fast.

What keeps you writing?

Terror. If I didn’t write, what would I be?

Okay Ellen, tell the truth, what was the naughtiest thing you did as a child and how does it reflect you as a writer?

Good question! I had to think about it a while, because most of my childhood naughtiness is pretty boring. I never set fire to the cat or cut up my Mom’s best dress or pushed the lawnmower around in a circle on the living room carpet.

But I do remember one incident that got me into some hot water. It was Passover at my grandparents’ apartment in the Bronx, and before the seder us girl cousins shut ourselves in the bedroom and looked for something to do. I spotted a wide-mouthed jar of cold cream and opened it up. The inside looked so slippery and white I couldn’t resist dipping my fingers into it and pulling out a gobful. It smelled sweet and flowery and grown-up, like a lady in high heels. Just holding it in my hand was splendid, but I wanted to do something with it, something everyone would like. So I made an announcement to the other girls. We would put this glorious substance in our hair! As much of it as we could manage!

Needless to say, the idea seemed less sublime once we saw the grown-ups’ reaction to our slime-coated heads. And the cousins wasted no time ratting me out as the ringleader. But I think the way I felt then about the cold cream is the way I feel now about turning my ideas into stories. The things that strike me as rich and luscious and appealing are the things I want others to experience like I do. I just hope it washes out of your hair.

What would be your creative outlet if you weren’t able to write?

I think I could sell hats.

About the Author:

Ellen Meister lives and writes in the suburbs of New York. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Fiction Warehouse, Word Riot, Pindeldyboz, Yankee Pot Roast, Haypenny, Amarillo Bay and Light Quarterly. You can contact her at ellenmeister@hotmail.com.