Meet Our (National) Members: Ellen Jaffe

Ellen S. Jaffe grew up in New York City, studied in England, and moved to Canada in 1979; she recently moved to Toronto after many years in Hamilton. Her YA novel, Feast of Lights, won the Moonbeam award for multi-cultural fiction in 2007. She has also written nonfiction and poetry and has also adapted Margaret Laurence’s novel for children, Jason’s Quest, into a play. She is working on a new young-adult novel and poetry for children. You can read more about Ellen on her website

Describe your workspace.

I work in the back (extra) bedroom of the townhouse my partner and I share in the Oak Street Co-op in downtown Toronto. The townhouses are built around a courtyard, so I can look out the window and see trees (bare now, letting in light and sun; in the summer they will be leafy green and provide shade.) It is far enough away from the street that I don’t hear much traffic noise. There are many books, on shelves above my desk, and in a bookshelf. The wooden desk is cluttered with too much paper, and has a large open space at the bottom where I can store documents and supplies; my printer is next to the desk, on a built-in wire shelf. There are photographs and pictures on the wall, ones that are especially meaningful (3 of which I will describe below).  

Describe a typical workday.

As I have been going through treatment for cancer for the past year, my workday is different from what it was in the past. I do not feel ill, but my energy fluctuates according to where I am in the chemotherapy cycle, and also what appointments I might have. I am not working outside my home at the moment (up to a year ago, I was teaching writing in schools and community centres, and working part-time as a family therapist). This gives me more time for reading and writing; I try to write for a couple of hours every day, either working on something new or revising earlier drafts. I have always felt much better and more centered when I am writing. And the diagnosis has given me new material to write about.

List three of your most favourite things in your workspace and why they are meaningful.

A hand-typed five-line letter from Margaret Laurence, which she wrote me in 1984 (two years before her death) after I wrote her a “fan letter.” This is one of my special treasures. After she died, I discovered her novel for children, Jason’s Quest, and (with permission from her estate) developed it into a play for young people, which was first produced In 2001.

A painting of autumn trees and a lake by my friend Rita-Anne Piquet, who died (too young) in 2017. I love the peaceful scene, and the picture holds memories of my friend.

A photo of my mother, her sister, and their cousin at the Statue of Liberty in 1928, paired with a photo of my mother, my friend Linda, and me at the Statue of Liberty in 1953. This reminds me of my roots, and I write a lot about family, in fiction, poetry, and memoir..

Do you have any rituals in your work habits?

Not really. For a while, working on a particular project, I wore a red flannel shirt with cows printed on it, which I bought at Valu-Village; I still have the shirt but don’t need to wear it for writing.

What do you listen to while you work?

Usually CBC radio, either the talk programs or “Shift” with Tom Allen (Monday to Friday afternoons), in which he plays a mix of classical and popular music, with interesting observations about music and life.

What is your drink and/or snack of choice while you’re working?

Hot tea, either regular with milk or herbal with honey. I don’t usually eat while working.

How do you develop your story ideas? Do you use an outline, let the muse lead you, or another technique?

I write poetry for adults as well as children’s and young adult stories. The poetry usually starts with a line or image and then I write freely, “letting the muse lead me.” I let the draft sit a while, and then revise. For my novel Feast of Lights, I first got the idea (the protagonist goes back in time, through the light of the Hanukkah candles, to meet relatives from the past), then went through several versions of the story before I found the right narrative line, and made some outlines and notes about the characters and the various scenes to guide me — though I went to new places during the actual writing. I also did some writing exercises which didn’t get into the book itself but through which I learned more about the characters and their lives.

If you were forced to share your workspace but could share it with anyone of your choosing, who would it be?

Yikes! It would be hard to share this workspace, as it is small and full of my things — both tangible and imaginary. When I had a cat, she was welcome to share the space when she felt like it. I have also written in cafés, trains, planes, and similar public places, where I share space with whoever was nearby — but do not have to interact with them. (This can be a pleasant change of pace). At home, if we needed to, I could share this space with my partner Roger — who, though not a writer himself, is an avid reader and gets engrossed in his books, so we can be in the same room but don’t need to talk. He supports my writing and often is the first reader.

What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve heard or received?

“Cut your darlings.” From Don McKay, at Pipers Frith writing workshop in Newfoundland: i.e. that favourite image or scene may have been an inspiration but may not work in the finished piece. Also, “You don’t have to say, Dear Reader, I married him.” From Laurence Hill, when he was writer in residence at McMaster University in Hamilton, commenting on how you don’t need to wrap everything up neatly in a story; sometimes it is better to stay with the poignancy of the moment.

Thanks to Jennifer Chambliss Bertman for the use of her Creative Spaces interview questions.

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