16 September 2014

Face to Face with Ellen Airgood

When we first set eyes on Ellen Airgood, we have to confess that we didn’t realize it was her. We foolishly fell into the trap of thinking that a writer is just a writer. And didn’t realize that, like The Mom, Ellen Airgood is a woman who wears many hats (or in this case glasses and a purple bandana). The image of Ellen Airgood on the book jacket is as different from "real life Ellen" as Clark Kent is different from Superman, and if you really look, it is obvious. 
The Big Sister, Ellen Airgood, The Little Sister
Hiding behind Prairie Evers and South of Superior
photo credit: BFWP
We happened upon Ellen Airgood on glorious summer day in Grand Marais, Michigan just about one year ago. We took leap and invited her to do an impromptu interview (during the dinner hour, no less). And thankfully the beloved Michigan author of South of Superior was willing to emerge from the kitchen of the West Bay Diner, transform into "Ellen the writer" (she shed a bit of flour and removed her purple bandana), and joined us at our table for a short interview. All the while we enjoyed our dinner at Ellen Airgood's super hero hideout... The West Bay Diner.

 The following is a slightly abridged version of our interview:

BFWP: That moment we saw you earlier you blended perfectly into the restaurant, flour, purple bandana and all, what were you putting in the oven?  It looked like brownies, maybe?
Ellen Airgood:  It was cream cheese brownies!
(Note dear reader that The West Bay Diner was full of the scent of freshly baked brownies, can you smell it?! Okay, back to the interview.)
BFWP: We have to admit when we first saw you we thought, “Who is she?” And then looking at your book jacket, we realized “that’s her, that’s the author of South of Superior!”
The West Bay Diner Grand Marais, Michigan
Photo credit: BFWP
Ellen Airgood:   And not everybody recognizes the bandana. They had me take my glasses off for the book jacket photo and they had me wear makeup, which I don’t  – I had never done before.
First question from The Dad:
The Dad:  My question is about Prairie Evers, did you have any particular inspiration for the book, did you feel like “I’ve got to write a book about this”?
Ellen Airgood:  I did.  It was really cool.  Prairie was a writing gift to me.  And I don’t know if I’ll ever have another gift like that.  I got a grant from the State of Michigan in the winter of 2000 – to write a book, so I closed the diner down and I spent the winter writing a young adult novel.  It was called Tin Camp Road.  I worked really, really hard on it.  And I think, if you read it, you’d think, “Wow.  She worked really, really hard on this,” which is not really the effect you want in a novel. Well, I did it.  And then I thought, because I had to do writing workshops in schools, which I did around the U.P.   And I had to do a reading, which was very traumatic.  And I had a heckler, so I got that out of my way, right away.  And I had to write a novel, which I did, and I had to send it to my state rep, which I didn’t even know who they were, so I learned something.
BFWP:  And that was all a part of the grant?
Ellen Airgood:  That was part of the grant.  And it was the first time I got paid anything, well, I had made twenty-five dollars for winning an essay contest in the Old Farmer’s Almanac once.  And I had won a couple writing contests and got published in Dare Magazine.  But to actually make a little – I mean, it wasn’t some huge amount.  But it was real money from the grant, so that made me feel like a writer.  So, anyway, I finished that book.  And we were getting ready to reopen the diner.  And I was sitting on my bed.  It was raining.  It was April.  And I was, I wasn’t even trying to write another book.  I’m like “I’m so” – “I’m done.”  I mean, good – good to go.  I’ve got to go back to work.  And I heard this voice in my head, and Prairie said, “Folks said it could not be done, but I did it.”  And I literally – I was like, “What?”  It was like somebody talking in my head. That does not, happen usually, and I’m not that kind of writer.  
We couldn’t help but interrupt her with wows and ohhh, at this point.
Ellen Airgood:  I’ve written a lot, but I’ve never had that kind of thing happen.  And so I actually – I took scrap pages from this other book, the one I worked so hard on, and flipped them over, and I started – and I wrote that down.  I still have those pages somewhere.
The Dad:  Oh, cool.
Ellen Airgood:  And she told me she had moved from North Carolina to New York State, and that she hated it, that her grandma had always homeschooled her, and now she was going to have to go to public school, and she hated it, and that there were a lot of very gossipy people around, and that she hated that.  But she obviously wasn’t an unhappy kid, she was just very – she was like a force of nature.  She just had something to say, and she said it.  And that’s how I met Prairie.  And if I ever had that happen to me again in life, it would be awesome, but I don’t necessarily expect that.
BFWP:  What a cool story, can you tell us more about the work you did in schools?
Ellen Airgood:  One of the writing workshops that I had done was in Sault Ste. Marie, a tribal school.  And I am not a teacher.  I am not trained as a teacher.  I am trained as a scientist, and I work in, I run a restaurant.
The Mom:  Science! What did you study?
Ellen Airgood:  I have a Bachelor’s of Science in natural resources from the University of Michigan.  I wanted to work outside.  
The Mom:  Oh, that’s incredible.
We were amazed that Ellen could stay on point with all four of us interacting with her story —our “interview” was much more of a series of interruptions…
Ellen Airgood:  But a student there actually was the inspiration for Ivy -- the character Ivy in this book.  While working at the school a boy told his story very courageously about something that had happened in his family, which, as a non teacher, I wasn’t prepared for.  It happened during the writing exercise** (I’d usually done with veterans): write for five minutes, or ten if they’re older,  starting with, “I remember.”  And I offer them the chance to read aloud after.  So kids are saying, “I remember going to the fair” or “I remember Christmas,” or like -- all these fun – and then he stood up, and he said, “I remember,” and he told about something extremely traumatic.  And I was like, “Oh, I’m an idiot.”  Because it didn’t even dawn on me. He was very grateful and courageous.  And he stayed with me.  He still stays with me.  I don’t know his name – you know, I never saw him again.  
BFWP:  And that inspiration was the character Ivy?
Ellen Airgood:  For Ivy.  So that was a – kind of a long answer to your question.
Then The Mom got to ask her question:
The Mom: Do you have a favorite author, a go-to writer to inspire you, a muse?  Do you get inspiration from a writer?
Ellen Airgood:  Well, I can never pick a favorite writer, you know, but, like, I can – there’s a lot of great writers.  And I just – all I can ever do is say some books I recently read. Because I freeze like a deer in the headlights.  And since this came out, I’ve done a lot of book talks and stuff, which I really enjoy.  But every single time, they’re like, “Who’s your favorite writer?”  I’m like “Um, um, ahh” – I do read.  I mean, I like to read, you know?  I read voraciously.
The Dad:  Yeah.  There are so many good books!
Ellen Airgood:  I just read a book called, When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead.
The Mom:  Ooh, that’s one of our favorites. It’s in our camper right now!
Ellen Airgood:  Isn’t that an amazing book?  And then “As Small as an Elephant,” which I just loved, another – so these are all middle grades, just because we’re talking about Prairie.  I mean, I love Dickens, and I love Steinbeck, and I love, I love – I don’t know what I — But have you guys read Kate DiCamillo?
The Mom:  Oh, yes, every single book!  
Ellen Airgood:  All right!
The Mom:  Well, we just love books. 
The Little Sister who happens to be a budding pasty chef and can handle her home kitchen like a seasoned pro was ready with the next question:
The Little Sister: What’s it like to be a chef in a restaurant?
Ellen Airgood:  It’s a very demanding job, and it’s really fulfilling. It’s both.  It’s the best of times and the worst of times.  
The Mom:  What role do you play in the restaurant? 
Ellen Airgood:  You guys (she asks some diners sitting at a table nearby) what do I do here?
A sweet couple at a nearby table became a part of the moment...
A “regular” named John:  It would be much easier for her to tell you what she doesn’t do.
The Mom:  Doesn’t do? 
At this point we all laugh and the interview becomes a little hard to follow, we’ll pick up as Ellen explains how she arrived at the kitchen’s door:
The Sisters and their first REAL Malts.
Ellen Airgood:  I married into it (the restaurant business).  When I was a little kid, one of my favorite things was to go into town to the bakery.  I loved that place.  And I have such specific memories.  And then when I graduated from college, people say, “What are you going to do?”  And I didn’t know.  And I kept saying, “You know, open a bakery.”  And I was totally kidding.  I mean, I thought I was kidding. And then I’d ask my sister stuff like, “Do you remember when we went to Kentucky when I was ten, and we ate at that little tiny restaurant that had those little white, thick china cups and the hot chocolate had whip cream on it?” And she’s like, “No.”
The Mom:  And you remember the details!
Ellen Airgood:  So that kind of thing, I think I was really drawn to the food and then the really, really spooky thing happened, my sister has the letter… I while ago I lived in New Hope, New York for a year (which is where Prairie Evers was set).  And I wrote my sister a letter.  And I don’t know why or how there’s this line that says, “Maybe I’ll restore a diner and open it someday.”
More ooohs and ahhs from the tables. 
The Mom:  No, way!!
The amazingly renovated diner.
Ellen Airgood:  Now, there are a lot of diners on the East Coast and  this was two years before it actually happened.  And I had no intentions of doing something like – but – well, not two years – I shouldn’t say that!  It was seventeen years before we did the diner, but it was two years before I married into the restaurant business.  
The Mom:  That’s so amazing.
Ellen Airgood:  So it’s very demanding, very, very demanding. For twenty-some years, a lot of the year, I have worked anywhere from twelve to seventeen hours a day, six or seven days a week.  It takes a lot of focus and a lot of dedication, but a lot of – that’s the first of my life – happened here, too.  And you meet friends. 
The Mom:  Including the friends that are sitting right here.  And I can’t remember their names, but their names are – what are your names?
Genie:  Genie and John.
The Mom:  Genie and John.  How do you spell “Genie,” Genie?
Genie: G E N I E.  It’s short for “Eugenie.”
The Mom:  “Eugenie.”  
The Dad:  That’s beautiful.
The Mom:  Beautiful name.
GENIE:  Thank you.
JOHN:  She popped out of a bottle for me.
The Mom:  I’d say.  Well, that explains your smiles.  Lots of wishes come true between the two of you. 
Dear Reader please note: this couple was adorable and we continued a conversation with them about their sweet love story —we were enamored and elevated (In case they read this: "Hi John and Genie! We hope you’re well.") 
Now back to The Big Sister’s question:
The Big Sister: So how do you juggle the restaurant and writing, and what is your daily schedule, as far as writing goes?
Ellen Airgood:  It’s very – it’s turned into a really hard juggle.  And that’s a really good question.  I haven’t quite figured it out yet.  Prairie Evers I wrote long before I wrote South of Superior, although South of Superior was published first.  And I didn’t – back then, nobody cared if I finished a book or anything.  It was just something I was doing.  It was between me and Prairie.  And I worked on it – not steadily, but off and on for five years.  And then South of Superior, I worked on it when I had time, for seven years.  So that’s how I juggled it, by taking a long time. 
The Mom:  Wow.
The Dad:  Thank you so much.
Ellen Airgood:  You’re welcome.  
She happily takes some time to ask about us as she signs our books!
Ellen Airgood:  Here you go, guys.
The Big Sister:  Thank you.
Ellen Airgood:  Can I have a widespread hug -- 
We share an unforgettable hug-moment. 
The Mom:  Hugging.  Hugging is good. 
The Little Sister: Bye! 
Ellen Airgood:  Bye.  Good luck with that cooking thing!
The Mom:  Who knows?  Maybe by the time you’re ready to retire, she’ll be in the market to take over a restaurant.  What do you think?
Ellen Airgood:  Well, keep in touch.
You bet we will Ellen!! 

That night we had a delicious meal, made three new friends, and we all fell in love with a restaurant, with a lifestyle and fell in love all over again with the stories behind the books. There are always so many stories aren’t there?! Thank you Ellen Airgood, we'll see you soon.
Now for more on Ellen Airgood, start clicking away! 
  • Read the story behind the diner, written by Ellen for the New York Times: A Side Order of Romance, Please
  • Learn more about Ellen at her blog, including a "Bucket List" story about things she plans to do --including making a dress inspired by none other than The Mom (she even shared my photo! Thanks Ellen!): Bucket List
  • Listen to Ellen on NPR's Weekend Edition: Novel Takes Place 'South of Superior'
  • Want to meet Ellen? We highly recommend it! If you live in the Traverse City area Ellen is making an appearance at Horizon Books on October 25, 2014. A talk at 2pm, followed by a Q&A and book signing. Jill Beauchamp, Events Coordinator at Horizon books shared, "we love Michigan authors and Ellen Airgood is one of our best sellers!" Hope to see you there.
  • **Writing Assignment: do the "I remember" exercise Ellen explained above! Share it with us if you feel inclined!
  • Find Ellen Airgood's Books at your local libraryclick here!
  • Find Ellen on Facebook: Ellen Airgood Author
  • Visit the West Bay Diner on Facebook

Words of Wisdom from the Diner's blackboard: 
"Such as are your habitual thoughts, such also will be the character 
of your mind; for the soul is dyed by 
the thoughts." -Marcus Aurelius


  1. Guys, thanks for this lovely article. I had a blast meeting you, and I can't wait to see you in Traverse City in October!

  2. Oh YAY YAY YAY!!! I love Ellen's writing- and what a SUPER fun interview!!