Featured Writer of the Week: Abby Ellin
Each week, we feature a profile of one of the talented writers, editors, or publishing professinals in our network. This week, meet Abby Ellin, author of the recently released book Duped.
Abby Ellin is a journalist and the author of two books, including Duped: Double Lives, False Identities, and the Con Man I Almost Married, which was released earlier this year. She writes regularly for the New York Times, and has contributed to Time, Newsweek, and The Daily Beast, among other publications. Learn more at abbyellin.com.
Tell me about your writing and publishing journey. How did you begin writing, and how did you break into the industry? When did you know you could make a career out of it?
I’m still not sure I can make a career out of it! But I’m trying. I am very lucky in that I always knew what I wanted to do when I grew up: Write. I still have stories I wrote as a 5 year old, when I was obsessed with Nancy Drew (The Mystery in the Strawberry Patch!), and then a novel I wrote at 12. My handwriting is just as bad as it was then. The other problem was that I was never good with plot. I could get the characters into the room but then they’d kinda look at each other and go, ‘now what?’. So, it became clear that non-fiction was more my thing.
After college I began writing for the Boston Phoenix, an alt weekly, and then moved to New York and freelanced for magazines. I was always freelance; I never understood how faxing and picking up my boss’s dry cleaning would help me be a better writer or editor. Then I sent a story idea to the Business section of the New York Times, about a boot camp for business executives. Not long after, the editor called to tell me that they were starting a new column about young people and money, and invited me to write it. I said no. Kidding! I jumped. And that was that. I began writing for different sections of the paper, almost every section, really, and I still do. I’m still not sure I exist unless I see my name in the Times.
In 2004 I published my first book, Teenage Waistland: A Former Fat Kid Weighs in on Living Large, Losing Weight and How Parents Can (and Can’t) Help, which was based on a piece I’d written for the now-defunct Mademoiselle magazine. That got optioned by Sony, and a script was written, but then the execs got fired and the project went up in flames. I began ghostwriting books, articles, op eds, and blog posts, and I really enjoy it. For the most part, I’ve only had good experiences. In January of this year, I published Duped: Double Lives, False Identities and the Con Man I Almost Married. It’s becoming a six-episode podcast, a la “Dirty John.”
Tell me about Duped. What's the gist of it, and what were a couple of your main conclusions?
Duped sprang out of a cover story I wrote for Psychology Today about deception. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of double lives, and people who aren’t who they seem to be. But then I realized I was more interested in those on the receiving end of this — the “victims.” We all want to know how people lie, or why they lie — are they narcissists? psychopaths? — but we pay little attention to the dupees. We blame them. We shame them. We call them “suckers” or “gullible” because they were stupid enough to get deceived. I’d been engaged to a guy who turned out to be a pathological liar and ultimately went to jail. And the more people I told about the story (I told everyone; It was a great story), the more I realized how common this was. Everyone either has, or knows someone, who has been duped by a lover, colleague, boss, friend, or — ahem — politician. It has been going on forever, but one of the reasons we keep hearing about this is because of social media. Social media has turned us all into liars. And victims.
Do you have any tips for writing a great book proposal?
Hire a ghost!
What does your writing routine look like? How do you stay productive and overcome blocks?
I don’t really get blocks. I procrastinate, but I don’t think of it as a block. More like undiagnosed ADD. There are so many other things to do, especially when I’m on deadline. I stay productive by leaving town. Often. I have the luxury of working anywhere, and so I do. I am highly productive on planes and trains and sometimes buses — the longer the ride the better. I’m very disciplined — you have to be if you’ve been a freelancer for 25 years — but I’m less prolific in New York than elsewhere. Not just because I get distracted with Life here (which I do), but also because I can’t be indoors all the time. In my ideal world, I’d either hike all morning and work in the afternoon, or work in the morning and hike in the afternoon. Hard to do that in the city, especially in the winter.
What's your best piece of advice for someone looking to be a full-time writer?
Don’t do it! Well, OK. If you are really set on being a full-time writer, the good news is that there are so many places looking for ‘content’ (a word I loathe). And if you can actually string two sentences together, then you are at an advantage. You won’t get paid a lot, but you can stay busy. Ghosting is another option, of course. But presumably people have already figured that out, which is why they’re on the GG web site reading this.
What are you working on next?
Turning Duped into a podcast and hopefully a TV show and/or film. I sold all the rights, but, as I have learned, that doesn’t mean much other than minor street cred. When Keanu signs on, then we can celebrate.
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