Sunday, February 1, 2009

Ellen Miller, 1967-2008

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.


Steven Imparl said...

Please accept my condolences. This has to be a very painful loss for you: to lose someone close and dear who departed so young, yet who also apparently lived a very full and inspiring life. All I know about Ellen Miller is what you have posted here, but that is enough to inspire me and give me a little boost to keep going in life. I'm sorry to learn that she suffered so much; it seems heartbreaking.

I wish I had the words to make this much better for you, but I don't; despite my best intentions, I'm not good at this consoling stuff.

But maybe that doesn't matter. I sense that your friend wrote, said, and did many things that touched deeply all those she loved and all who loved her, and will comfort them for a very long time.

May Ellen Miller rest in peace. May you, my brother in boxing and writing, live in peace comforted by knowing that your dear friend still lives in your mind and heart. Always.

Anonymous said...

I am so sorry to hear that Ellen Miller has left this world. I wish I had learned about her years sooner; I would have tried to be her friend. I just read her story "Practicing" in Brooklyn Noir, my introduction to Ellen Miller. Actually, just read it about 10 times, and each time the story offered new revelations, new reasons for metaphor. Each time, I felt, "I need to learn about this writer" and even, hopefully, study with her. Too late... Such a great author, such a great loss. I hope you are comforted by having taken away some of her pain.

Robot Boy said...

Ellen was a great talent. She talked like she wrote - there was the vital and explosive joy in words. I'm glad she's found a new fan.

Anonymous said...

I'm very sorry to hear that Ellen Miller has died. I bought 'Like Being Killed' all those years ago. I was about 19 or 20. It was the best book I had ever read and I related to some of the pain felt by the novel's protagonist Ilyana. This book has stayed with me and is still the best book I have ever read - and I have now read very, very many books. I have read it time and time again and will keep doing so. Over the years I have asked in various book shops over the years if they have anything else by the author but they never had anything. I randomly today decided to search online only to discover sadly about her death. I have, however, also discovered her work is there to be bought and now ordered 'Lost Tribe:Jewish Fiction from the Edge' and 'Brooklyn Noir'. I have never posted a comment on the internet before. I can't explain how much her writing moved me.

Robot Boy said...

I agree with you completely that Ellen perfectly captured in prose the struggles of the young and sensitive (women, most of all). I didn't know her boyfriend at the end and I don't know the status of her estate. I do know that she left thousands of pages of work in various stages of evolution. I hope that we get to see it at some point.

Anonymous said...

Hello Robert
My comment may come through twice - had some trouble posting this. I was saying that I really do hope we get to see it. I have written or been trying to write for some time, although have written not that much. She has always inspired me. The lovely thing is that she lives on in everyone who reads her work :)

Robot Boy said...

That's why we write, mais non? It's perverse because we can't enjoy it, but still... Ellen will always be around for me and her writing is a big part of it.

Anonymous said...

I see others' writing in that way, that they live on through it, but never thought of my own writing like that. I just write because it’s the best way to feel happy and I feel all kinds of emotions depending on what I write about, and when I get up for a break I feel like I’ve had a bit of a spring clean of the soul. It takes me right outside of myself and afterwards I see things more light heartedly and clearly. Anyway it’s been great talking with you on this blog and I’m pleased I found it.

Robot Boy said...

I really appreciate the generosity of your posts. When writing becomes a job you can lose track of why you started doing it in the first place. You've reminded me why.

Anonymous said...

I'm smiling.