Texas Talent: Heather Harper Ellett

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Tell us about growing up in East Texas.

I was born in Lufkin, and my family lived in Livingston for the first five or six years of my life, then my dad, who was a banker, got a job in Madisonville, and we moved there. I spent every weekend at a Groveton football game or in Woodlake, Chester, or some other place in the Piney Woods. But, for most of my childhood, we lived in Madisonville, and that’s where I graduated high school in 1998.

If you went to school at Madisonville, you may have been taught by Joyce Diserens, whom Postcards profiled several years ago.

She was my first-grade teacher, and she was absolutely wonderful! We all adored her, and I must say, I got an amazing creative writing education in Madisonville schools. My fourth-grade teacher Laura Cannon told the most incredible Texas history stories, as did her sister Lana Wells, my seventh-grade writing teacher. Mary Green and Bonnie Hendrix were other brilliant writing teachers. I’m very thankful for how talented and inspiring they all were. My friends and I turned out some really fun work because of those teachers.

What did you study at SMU?

I was on a full-tuition scholarship and had two majors. First, I majored in English, with a Creative Writing Specialization. Second, I majored in Biology.

I bet your advisor didn’t see a lot of that combination.

Probably not, but I added the science to make myself more marketable. I had done some work for medical publications in college, and I thought this combination would allow for optimum flexibility and marketability.

What about your Master’s Degree?

I went to Amberton University in Garland, Texas. It was close to my house, and I was able to get my Master’s while working full-time in the corporate world. Then I became a Licensed Professional Counselor, which is still my day job.

Your husband, Bryan Ellett, is also a medical professional.

Yes, he is an acupuncturist. We moved to Austin in 2009 so he could go to school for that. We had our son Emerson while Bryan was still in school, in 2012.

And then, in an interesting choice of timing, you decided to pursue seriously your writing career. This had to be the busiest time of your life.

Yes! My son was two or three, my husband was starting his business, I was growing my counseling business, and I decided to pursue a writing career. We tackled a lot of big dreams all at once. But by 2014, we were back in Dallas, and a friend suggested I do a program called “The Writer’s Path” at SMU. It’s a five-course adult education program. I found it very beneficial. When I finished, I applied to an SMU-sponsored seminar in New York City, in which agents and editors read the draft of your novel and provide feedback. That’s how I found my agent.

And you were working on what became Ain’t Nobody Nobody during that time?

Yes. It took me some time to develop the story in my head. I was focusing on the characters. I’m a therapist, and I love people, so I just kept writing about all these characters, and the plot evolved from there.

The plot of your novel is interesting, balanced nicely with imagery and, for lack of a more precise term, color. Could you describe your approach to managing those different elements?

I tend to write in images, an idea that captures my imagination, and that was certainly true of this novel. As an example, my mother and I were walking through our family’s land a few years ago, and I noticed little lizards and grasshoppers impaled on the fence. I asked my cousin, who is a veterinarian, “What little sociopathic animal does that to these lizards?” He said that shrikes (carnivorous birds in the family Laniidae, which is Latin for “butcher”) impale small animals on the fence’s barbs, then they pick the prey apart. This was the craziest thing I’d ever heard. I asked my mom, “What would you do if you saw a person impaled on a fence like that?” She responded that she wasn’t sure, but that she would not tell the police, because someone in her family was probably responsible. She has a wicked sense of humor.

Remind me not to trespass on your land.

Right! But this image got in my head, and it prompted me to think of a character, one with misplaced loyalties, and he finds a body on a fence. He is sure someone he loves committed this crime. What follows from that premise? And that helped me kick off the narrative.

That setup is, in part, a product of an illegal drug operation.

Yes, and this was another image that grabbed me. Around the time I began writing, I read an article in The Houston Chronicle about a hunter in Polk County who came across thousands of marijuana plants in the middle of the Piney Woods. The DEA estimated the crops to be worth 175 million dollars! This was a major operation in the middle of a rural community, but it was a sophisticated illegal operation, involving miles of irrigation, tents, supplies, weapons, and so forth. This kind of discovery challenges a community, especially a rural area that views itself as law-abiding and God-fearing, and I wanted to play with this idea as well.

Speaking of images, the cover depicts a hog. Tell us about that.

Maybe it’s my biology degree, but the feral hog problem in Texas fascinates me. They are the most prolific land mammal on the face of the earth, and they cause more than 50 million dollars of agricultural damage per year in Texas. So, in terms of interesting images related to Texas, you really can’t do much better than the feral hog, and hogs play an important role in the novel. Plus, it’s a great symbol for problems escalating beyond our control.

The novel at least implicitly addresses a divide between rural and urban communities in the United States.

I have lived in rural East Texas, but I have also lived in Austin and Dallas, and I am struck by the vastly different experiences people have in these places. When I moved to Dallas—which isn’t too far from Madisonville—I realized that few people knew what it was like to have feral hogs run through your yard or to have car damage because you hit a cow that had wandered onto a county road. When I’d talk about these kinds of things, people found them really interesting, so I thought, “What are some other experiences common to rural life?” There are definitely disadvantages and quirky aspects of rural existence, but rural areas offer bold personalities and a lot of color for a novel.

Did you experience some of the rural-urban divides when you pitched this book in New York City?

I did. Most of the agents and editors I met were born and raised in New York City, and after they read the first few pages, they asked all sorts of questions, like: “Who in the world owns two gun safes?” And “Why would anybody need a pair of binoculars if they aren’t a stalker?” I might as well have been from the other side of the planet.

One of the distinctive aspects of the novel is the language you use. You have a character who speaks as though “Cajun and Texas accents” are having “a brawl in his mouth.” Another character is “plain as bread, pleasant as gout.” And another character (a woman) who cleans “her ears with…[a]pocketknife—the Russian roulette of hygiene.”

I wanted to give the reader the sense that they were sitting across from a very specific person and getting a perspective they wouldn’t get from anyone else. To me, irrespective of whether you are writing literary or genre fiction, a compelling voice is the most important thing. I wanted the voice to be dark but quite funny too, like my favorite people in real life. I know you didn’t base this novel on any specific place you grew up, but are there any specific things you drew on from your experiences in the novel? It would be a mistake to draw too many specific similarities because the setting is more of an amalgam of all the communities I visited and spent time in, but of course, I used some details from my childhood that are special or funny to me. In my memory, for example, every East Texas town had at least 20 men named Jimmy, so there is a scene in which the main character encounters three men, all named Jimmy, in the country store. But rather than use specific instances of vignettes of my experiences growing up, I wanted to get the atmosphere, tone, and voice just right.

As we’ve noted, the characters can be parochial, but they are also, in some cases, highly literate. The characters often mention literary figures, and you incorporate literary allusions from the Bible, Shakespeare, Larry McMurtry, Ernest Hemingway, Henry David Thoreau, and others.

Part of that maybe my love of literature coming through, but I think I also have a bit of a chip on my shoulder about how rural America is portrayed in the media. I’ve noticed it more living in the city, but when something serious happens in a rural area, the media find the most stereotypical “country” person to interview, and it isn’t always flattering. , Sure, some of those stereotypes are true, but some of the most erudite, well-read people I know are from rural areas. My uncle, who has a handlebar mustache and an accent so thick he’d probably need a translator in New York, has a gigantic vocabulary and could go head-to-head with any professor.

You mention transcendentalists often in the novel, particularly Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. I notice your son is named Emerson. Is that a coincidence?

It’s not a coincidence. We didn’t specifically name him after the writer, but we didn’t not name him after him. I thought about naming him Henry David, but that name was already taken in our family. The transcendentalists mean a lot to me. What did Thoreau do? He went to the woods to live deliberately, and it’s the place I feel the happiest, but being in Dallas, I don’t get to the woods as much these days.

You incorporate a lot of religious imagery in the book. Can you discuss that?

The book is a murder mystery, so I clearly wasn’t writing a religious novel, but I do appreciate religious symbolism, and there’s no way you can separate East Texas from religion and nature. I think religion often captures the tragedy and hopefulness that populate our lives, and I hope that is reflected in the book. But I also wanted it to have some humor because, from a psychological viewpoint, humor and tragedy are often intertwined.

Speaking of psychology, how does your career in counseling contribute to your writing?

I think good counseling is about helping people find balance. People’s lives can go out of balance, and that’s true of the characters in Ain’t Nobody Nobody. We have characters who value loyalty or the desire to please, and those are good qualities unless they are pursued in a manner that sacrifices other positive virtues. So I think just being empathetic and knowing a little about human nature—qualities essential in counseling—also contribute to writing believable and compelling stories.

Why do you think East Texas has proven such a fertile ground for your writing ideas?

East Texas has an incredible mixture of beautiful landscapes, larger than life characters, and occasional weird crimes that make it a breeding ground for good fiction. Joe Lansdale, Bill Crider, Melissa Lenhardt, Eryk Pruitt, and Attica Locke all play well in this sandbox. Even though I was writing a murder mystery, I wanted to write a book that celebrates the beauty, the personalities, and the quirkiness of a place that I love deeply.

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