My long-time friend, the author Ellen Miller, died just before Christmas this year. I'd gotten an email from her on December 13th saying she hoped to meet over the holidays. When I didn't hear back from her, I assumed that she'd been caught up in the chaos that had hounded her for the past few years.
Ellen was one of the most talented people I've ever met. She had an intense feeling for language - for word play, metaphor, style. Her first novel 'Like Being Killed' did well both critically and in sales - a rare combination. Ellen reminded me of two of my best professors from college. Like them she was from New York, Jewish, very left, both earthy and intellectual, and not particularly crazy about Israel's treatment of Palestinians (Grace Paley also comes to mind, although they were very different writers).
Job had nothing on Ellen. In the last few years, she'd been afflicted by severe health issues that nearly killed her a number of times (her doctors almost did her in also with their clumsy attempts to figure out what was wrong with her). Her landlord kept trying to evict her from her beautiful apartment, a typical New York story. All of these issues kept her from focusing on her writing, and working, which only made things worse. She did have a very long manuscript in process and hope I'll get to see it some day.
Ellen never gave up. I'd talk to her and be astounded by the suffering she'd gone through. I think it would have broken me. To see this vital, intelligent, kind friend being tortured was almost unbearable. Apparently she collapsed in a local deli and couldn't be revived quickly enough. I include her obituary below. I will miss having Ellen in my life.
Ellen’s life and work will be remembered by friends and family at a memorial service scheduled for February 8, 2008. Details below. All are welcome.
Ellen grew up in the Carnarsie neighborhood of Brooklyn, in a working-class Jewish environment. Her vivid experience of this upbringing formed an important element in her second (unfinished) novel, Stop, Drop, Roll, an excerpt of which appeared in the anthology Lost Tribe: Jewish Fiction from the Edge (2003). She also contributed stories to the anthologies 110 Stories: New YorkWrites After Sept 11and Brooklyn Noir, among others.
In addition, Ellen taught creative writing at New York University, Pratt, and the New School, where she was admired by her students and colleagues not only for her mastery of the writing craft and dedication to teaching, but for her remarkable courage and honesty both on the page and in the classroom. Notwithstanding years of chronic illness and other hardships, which she faced with superhuman strength and determination, Ellen lived a rich and creative life and deeply touched many others. In the terminology of her favorite hobby, boxing, Ellen had “a lot of heart.”
She received her BA from WesleyanUniversityin 1988 with Honors and Phi Beta Kappa and later earned her MFAfrom the New York University Creative Writing program where she was the recipient of the NYU Creative Writing Fellowship for Fiction. She was also awarded a residency at the MacDowell Colony, among others.
Drafted in a six-month creative burst and published in 1998, Ellen’s novel Like Being Killed enjoyed many critical accolades, including a brief appearance on the San Francisco Chronicle’s bestseller list (after a cover review). Kirkus Reviews noted that “[the narrator’s] voice is authentic in unsparingly illuminating the link between self-protection and self-destruction, revealing a tender inner life that persists despite addiction, depression, and descent into squalor. A bleak, bracing debut.” Meanwhile, her teacher and mentor Annie Dillard wrote: “Ellen Miller hurls herself, along with her readers, into a world that resonates with moral complexity, startling anecdote, humor and good humor, brutality and compassion. Her prose is uncommonly clear, compelling, unaffected, and strong. The range of her narrative concerns--from Primo Levi, Nietzsche, and dead languages to bagels and peach pies--proves that she can make anything interesting."
She is survived by her devoted partner, Christopher Rowell, her step-father, Scott Hyde, her two brothers Steven and Michael, and her beloved god-daughter, Olivia Francesca Foster. She will be missed dearly by all.
A memorial service in honor of Ellen’s life and work will be held on Sunday, February 8th, 2009 from 4:00 to 6:00 pm at the Lillian Vernon Creative Writers House, 58 West 10th Street (btw 5th and 6th Aves.), New York, NY. All are welcome.