Home // June.12.2017 // Vlad Savich

I Write for Purely Selfish Reasons

An interview with Florida writer Brian Alan Ellis—the author of three novellas, three story collections, a book of humorous non-fiction, and Something to Do with Self-Hate, a novel.


Brian Alan Ellis, who should have been a wrestler

Pictured: Brian Alan Ellis, in his Mighty Anxiety shirt. A blurb from Verbicide for his novel Something to Do with Self-Hate reads: "He takes an honest look at things crawling around in humanity's bottom rung and exposing them to us with unflinching honest and a healthy dose of humor. He is a master of short, sharp prose from the gutter."

Vlad Savich: When I was studying as a journalist, one of the subjects was THE PROBLEM OF THE FIRST QUESTION IN THE INTERVIEW. The solution here will be simple: Who are you?

Brian Alan Ellis: I'm a thirty-five year-old man who sleeps on a shitty mattress in a $200-a-month room I rent in a dilapidated house in Florida that is being consumed by termites. I have a cat. I wait tables. I've sabotaged every romantic relationship I've ever been in. I never met my biological father; he's apparently dead. I probably drink too much. I also write and publish books. That's pretty much who I am.

VS: What are your books about?

BAE: Each book is a bit different. The latest books are Failure Pie in a Sadness Face, which is a collection of fiction stories and humor essays that are mainly about depression and pop culture, and Something to Do with Self-Hate, which is a novel about unrequited love, sexual misadventures, dysfunctional families, and substance abuse. I write feel-bad books.

VS: If you live in a room for $200 a month then you must write good books, no?

BAE: When I say “feel-bad,” I mean “depressing,” Someone who sleeps on a shitty mattress in a $200-a-month room in a dilapidated house in Florida that is being consumed by termites probably writes pretty depressing books. But also pretty funny ones, I'd like to think. I embrace how ridiculous my life is.

VS: Would you be able to write a Harry Potter? It would bring you lots of money.

BAE: I don't care about money—or even my well-being, for that matter—which just means I'm crazy, self-destructive, and conditioned to remain poor, so the chances of me writing a YA novel about wizards is highly unlikely. Most of my writing comes in manic bursts which I cobble together to form something semi-coherent. I don't think I'd have the endurance, attention span, or common sense to tackle something commercially viable.

VS: Is writing a gift or a punishment?

BAE: It's probably all of those things, but mostly it's a distraction.

VS: Do you have literary influences? Do you know Russian literature? Do you think of yourself as a creator, like God?

BAE: I read a lot of Russians in my early twenties. Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Gogol, Nabokov… the usual suspects. Mikhail Bulgakov. My favorite was Chekov. Big Russian dick party. I read mostly women writers now. I'm more dog than god, or maybe even less than that. I am human garbage waiting to be thrown away.

VS: Martin Luther King Jr. said, “I have a dream;” ABBA said the same. Do you have a dream? Like, say, writing a new Crime and Punishment? Or The Cherry Orchard? Or Don Quixote? Or, at the least, Hamlet?

BAE: My dreams are dead, though I would like to one day write the literary equivalent to an Arby's Beef 'n Cheddar Classic.

VS: If the world were a computer game, would you see yourself as a hero or a villain?

BAE: The greatest American hero. The kind of hero Mariah Carey does songs about. When Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters sings, “There goes my hero,” he's talking about me. A real American hero, like Hulk Hogan. (Who is the Hulk Hogan of Russia?)

In other words, a hero that transcends good and bad. “I'm not a good guy, I'm not a bad guy, I'm THE guy,” as WWE superstar Roman Reigns says. And like Enrique Iglesias once promised, “I will be your hero, baby. I can kiss away the pain. I will stand by you forever. You can take my breath away.” So yeah, pretty goddamn heroic.

Just kidding. I'm actually the computer character in the computer game who gets overwhelmed and just jumps off the computer ledge into the computer abyss, so party.

VS: In Russia, there is a superhero named Ivan Fool. He does nothing but he is always very lucky. Are you a lucky man?

BAE: Hmm… I think every bit of luck comes wrapped in a bit of a curse, depending on how you look at it, and maybe vice versa, I don't know. It sounds like Ivan Fool is just a product of wishful thinking, a cartoon to give hope to simpletons. I do like a good underdog story, though. Lucky, unlucky, does it matter? I just am what I am. I think Popeye said that.

VS: To be or not to be—which would you choose?

BAE: To BAE or not to BAE? It really doesn't matter.

VS: Where do your stories originate—from your life experiences or from your head?

BAE: My stories come from both places, which I think is how most creative people operate. I live mostly in my head. Though I've done a lot of reckless, in-the-moment things, I'm always observing what's going on around me, overthinking situations. My mind is an anxiety factory, which makes living strange. My brain is trying to murder me as we speak.

VS: I've been writing for years, but I can't decide—is a writer someone who makes money from literary work, or is a writer anyone who simply writes?

BAE: Just a person who writes is a writer, I'd imagine. When I meet people I generally don't tell them what I am; I just let them figure it out via my actions and/or personality/interests. I just write and publish books, and I barely make any money doing it. People have their own perceptions about shit, obviously. Whether someone thinks what I do is legit or not, well, it doesn't matter to me so much.

VS: If you had the ability to become an animal, which animal would it be— a writer's cat or a bloodthirsty crocodile, maybe a talking parrot or a bat drinking blood, possibly a shark in the ocean?

BAE: If I had to live life as an animal and not just a piece of garbage floating in a puddle of piss, I think I'd enjoy being a cat. Cats are low key, independent. Also, they're popular on the Internet, which would help in my constant need for validation. I'm lazy, and moody by nature, so being a cat would probably suit me just fine.

VS: I hear cats have nine lives. Would you like to live nine lives?

BAE: I would not. One life seems more than enough. Having to live nine lives would be hella exhausting, so no thanks.

VS: In my opinion, the writer is a person who can see into future. What future do you predict for the human race?

BAE: When I think about what the human race will be like in the future, in my head I just hear the sound of toilets flushing.

VS: Do you have any regrets?

BAE: I really should have followed my dream to become a professional wrestler, honestly. I followed my music dream but that kind of fizzled out after several years. Writing is all I have left. Unless I decide to do stand-up comedy, which I've been sort of considering. We'll see.

VS: Writing involves letters, words, sentences, and so on. Do you have any favorite letters, words, sentences?

BAE: The “r” key on my laptop computer often sticks, so all the letters besides that one are pretty cool. Seriously, fuck that “r” key.

VS: The United States is like a modern Roman empire—do you enjoy living there or would you prefer living in a province like North Korea?

BAE: I've mainly lived in Florida my whole life. I seem to keep coming back to it. I've never traveled outside of the United State. There hasn't been much desire or opportunity or money for me to do so. It's not like I have some crazy American pride or even a distaste for other countries. Traveling just makes me very anxious. I'm also pretty lazy. North Korea is 100% out of the question.

VS: Do you consider yourself an American or an alien?

BAE: I self-identify as a broken rear-view mirror hanging off of a car that the owner is too lazy and/or broke to fix.

VS: Do you know the modern Russian writers? Also, what's your opinion on JD Salinger?

BAE: I don't think I know of any modern Russian writers. Any recommendations? I'm pretty fascinated by Salinger, though the only books of his I've read are Catcher in the Rye and Nine Stories (“A Perfect Day for Bananafish” is one of my favorite stories, I think), but I've seen documentaries and have even read that big-ass, 800-page oral biography about him, which I thought was incredible. He's completely insane, and I love that about him.

VS: What was your childhood dream? Any role models growing up? Favorite subjects in school? Were you blessed by blondes or brunettes?

BAE: I was born on Long Island, New York, but grew up in a trailer park in south Florida. I was raised by my mom and my grandmother. I never met my biological father. I played video games and watched too much television, spent a lot of time alone. I dreamed of being a professional wrestler. I also wanted to be in a hard rock band, like Mötley Crüe or Guns N' Roses. I read Cracked and Mad Magazine, comic books. My heroes were the Ultimate Warrior, KISS, and maybe ALF. I have no idea what being blessed by blondes or brunettes entails. My mom is a blonde. My grandma had very reddish brown hair. All my heroes were fictitious, like the Ghostbusters.

VS: What does being a poet/writer in the United States mean?

BAE: It means absolutely nothing.

VS: What will be human language of the future?

BAE: Emoji.

VS: Why do you write? What new things do you want to add to what has already been written about? Perhaps you'll come up with a new letter or punctuation mark and become renown in the history of mankind…

BAE: I write for purely selfish reasons. I like to create things, and writing comes the most natural to me. I'm not trying to leave any mark on mankind. I just do my thing. If people are entertained or inspired by my shit, or if they relate, then that's cool, I welcome the validation but it's not something I lose sleep over.

VS: What do you lose sleep over?

BAE: I lose sleep thinking about all the mad shit the people working at my local Domino's must talk about me since I order pizza and pasta bowls from there so damn much, like to an unhealthy degree.

VS: Is thinking a good quality to have or should lobotomies be required?

BAE: I could probably benefit from having a lobotomy, sure.

VS: Lunacharsky had a conversation with Lenin in which, by the former's recollection, Lenin made his oft-quoted statement: “…of all the arts the most important for us is the cinema.” Are you a film fan? Would you write for Hollywood?

BAE: The 1970s is probably my favorite era of cinema. I dig Bogdanovich, Hal Ashby, Robert Altman, Cassavetes, William Friedkin—everything covered in that Easy Riders, Raging Bulls book, basically. I also dig Fassbinder a lot. I'm also into stuff like Revenge of the Nerds, silly comedies and such. Horror and exploitation.

I've never written a movie screenplay but for a time I had an interest in writing plays. I was heavily influenced by Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, Joe Orton, Sam Shepard, etc. etc. Some of my favorite writers are predominantly playwrights. I just didn't know how to go about producing my plays so I just turned them into short stories.

VS: Those writers are like dinosaurs. There are young people who know these authors? Maybe it's time for you to fight these relics? After all, you dreamed of being a professional wrestler...

BAE: I have no comment about dinosaurs. Shakespeare is a dinosaur and you seem to quote him freely so I' m not sure what you're getting at.

There should be a play written about professional wrestling, however. Not sure if that was ever a thing.

VS: You asked about modern Russian writers. There is a good one by the name Vladimir Sorokin. Recently, he released a new novel, Manaraga: “Reading books has been long dead and buried, with the surviving copies turning into museum artifacts and collectables,” which means that one day books will be used to fuel barbecue grills. What do you think about the future of books?

BAE: I'll always prefer physical books over e-books, though at the same time I view Internet social media as a literary art form worth exploring. I once had a Kindle e-reader that I rarely ever used and have since lost. I like Twitter a lot though, and I think a book-burning barbecue is a hell of an idea.

VS: What was your first literary work, and how old were you when you wrote it?

BAE: In 2003, when I was twenty-one, I published a zine consisting of journal entries and tour diaries I wrote during 2002, when I was twenty. It was basically about me playing in bands, being angry about not connecting with people, and living badly. I followed that up with a self-published poetry chapbook zine called Silent Crisis Center. I did a few of those little things till about 2007, right before I started getting short stories published in literary journals. In high school I wrote music criticism for both the high school newspaper and the local newspaper. I didn't start writing fiction till about 2003/2004.

VS: What do you fear most?

BAE: I fear people, places and things. The world is frightening as fuck.

VS: Does anything please you in this frightening world?

BAE: Beats me. Burger King is pretty tight, I guess.

VS: If you could have any ability that you currently do not possess, what ability would you choose?

BAE: I would like the ability to actually care about anything enough to want to read the book How to Win Friends and Influence People, probably.

VS: What three characteristics would you describe yourself with?

BAE: Crazy, sexy, cool. On the TLC tip, baby.

VS: Joseph Brodsky categorized other people's poems as follows: “This one, he wrote with an erect dick; this one, he wrote with a limp dick.” Do you think sexual potency is an important thing in literary work?

BAE: That's a similar sentiment to when Gene Simmons from KISS talks about metaphorically playing an instrument with one's dick. He basically means using your heart/guts instead of your brain/knowledge. It doesn't have to be a dick thing. Writers, in general, should write with courage and bombast, regardless of gender/sexuality. Write horny, edit impotent.

VS: I taught guitar chords on the street. I guess you too went to music school? You taught scales, sonatas, foreplay Bach, Mozart's minuet, Tchaikovsky waltzes, etc.?

BAE: I never went to school for music. I've only played in punk rock bands. I'm not even very interested in classical music. I tried getting into it in my early twenties because Bukowski wrote about classical music in such a way that I thought I might like it as much as he did, but that never really happened. I gravitated more towards blues and country music. Also, I'm a metal head at heart. 666.

VS: Paul McCartney, my childhood hero, has a song—I'm not sure if you know it—“Hope of Deliverance.” What does “deliverance” mean to you? Also, is Bukowski your Paul McCartney?

BAE: Not familiar with that one. Never a Beatles fan; I prefer the Stones. Yeah, reading Bukowski was a window into a lot of great stuff: John Fante, Carson McCullers, William Saroyan, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, etc. etc. I reckon it's difficult to find a male writer who wasn't in some way influenced by him or Henry Miller or Hunter S. Thompson. Maybe not academic male writers so much; they seem to like David Foster Wallace more, with Raymond Carver being somewhere in the middle, I don't know. It's all gravy, though. As far as “deliverance” goes—it means nothing to me. Unless it's pizza deliverance.

VS: What type of people (I hope it's not me) most often disappoint you, and why?

BAE: I'd like to think I can read people pretty well, and a lot of the faults I find in other people are usually faults that I've found within myself. I feel I'm pretty compassionate, though I do find myself holding people up to my own particular standards at times, as low or as weird as those standards may be. It's easy for everyone to be disappointed by everyone because everyone has their own ideal about how everyone should behave. In short, people are generally pretty disappointing. Perhaps the “Hope of Deliverance” is the physical and spiritual deliverance from others, though there was an awful lot of people in that music video, yikes.

VS: I've always been interested in the subject of writers and suicide. Successful writers, many of whom were loved by the public, have committed suicide. Why do you think that is?

BAE: Suicide has nothing to do with writing or success or being loved. It's a mental health issue.

VS: When you meet God, what will you tell Him?

BAE: I dunno. I never really think about God. God is whatever.

VS: Thank you for your time! What would you like to say to our New England Review of Books readers?

BAE: Thanks, Vlad! It's been a pleasure. I plan on one day getting a NERObooks neck tattoo. I hope its readers will do the same. Solidarity on fleek.


Ellis' writing has appeared at Juked, Hobart, Monkeybicycle, DOGZPLOT, Heavy Feather Review, Connotation Press, Electric Literature, Lost in Thought, Diverse Voices Quarterly, The Collapsar, Talking Book, People Holding, Literary Orphans, Fear No Lit, Queen Mob's Tea House, Hypertext Review, and Atticus Review, among other places. Find him on Twitter as @brianalanellis.

Banner graphic source: palm tree pattern by artist and illustrator Caley Ostrander, founder and creative director of Wildes District design studio.

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