Truth be told

Author Ellen Gilchrist on her life in words


“When i was writing every single day for four hours in the mornings, which went on for many years, I accumulated a lot of things,” writer Ellen Gilchrist says, speaking of the fodder for her new collection of essays, Things Like the Truth. She’s on the phone from her little brick condominium in Fayetteville, the one she bought after selling the Fay Jones house she called home for so long, which figures prominently in her newest book. She’s recalling the moments her essays are brimming with: days spent in the bright-but-beat-up Fay Jones house, Christmas mornings with grandchildren tearing through the gifts in their stockings and the uncertain hours driving to Jackson, Mississippi, to reunite with her family, who had fled New Orleans following the 2005 hurricane. “And I have a great big family that does a lot of interesting things,” she adds.

Although this is only Ellen’s third collection of personal essays, she has written close to 25 books—one of which, Victory Over Japan, earned her the National Book Award for Fiction in 1984, the year she moved to Fayetteville from Mississippi (where she still owns a summer house). When her family asks her why she migrated so far away, her response is always the same: It’s where she writes. It’s where she’s spent much of her later life. It’s where she’s been teaching creative writing to University of Arkansas students for the past 14 years.

“I just decided it was time [to write a sequel],” Ellen says. “And I already knew what I wanted it to be called. I wanted it to be called Things Like the Truth from the Ben Jonson quotation. It’s the thing that you try so desperately to teach students: It doesn’t matter if it’s fiction or nonfiction—it’s all autobiographical.”

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Screen Shot 2016-08-05 at 2.37.58 PM1. “Oh my god. It’s impossible [to pick a favorite book] because I’ve been reading nonstop since I was 4 or 5 years old. I learned about language through all the great poets and all the great physicists who have been writing in the last century. Freeman Dyson, William Manchester and John McPhee. So No. 1, William Shakespeare. No. 2, William Faulkner.”

2. “I’ve been writing on a typewriter since I was 12 years old. It’s hard for me to get an electric one. I had a hard time making that change. Cormac [McCarthy] used to write on one. He has about 26 of them. I have seven or eight of the electric ones and closets full of the tapes. The keyboard on a typewriter is entirely different than the keyboard on a computer, and my hands just can’t do it.”

3. “My favorite composer is Johann Sebastian Bach, and after that is all the work of Beethoven. To a small degree, Mozart. Einstein said that a mind cannot be stupid while listening to Bach—maybe “stupid” wasn’t the word he used. Mathematicians and physicists all love Bach. I just never get tired of listening to it.”

4. “I like organic vegetables. You know, I don’t know what I liked as a child—I ate mayonnaise and white bread and chocolate milk. My favorite [place to eat] is the Whole Foods Company. Any place I can get a great, big, wonderful salad and some salmon.”

5. “I have a bicycle that was designed for wounded warriors. It has three wheels. Have you seen them? My friend gave it to me. It made me feel good when I couldn’t swim anymore. It’s magnificent. You can go really fast. And I go to the Fayetteville Athletic Club that I’ve been going to for the past 25 years, and I work out. All of my doctors go there.”