Relationships & Divorce
Relationships & Divorce
Grown-Ass Lady Gangs: Helen Ellis on Old Friends, Being Honest and Being Atrocious
The bestselling author's latest book of essays tackles every kind of friendship
Whether it’s lifelong childhood BFFs or the new friends we may be lucky enough to find in midlife, our gangs of “Grown-Ass Lady” friends — as bestselling author Helen Ellis calls them in her hilarious and poignant new book, Bring Your Baggage and Don’t Pack Light — are vital to our existence.
Raised in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Ellis moved to New York in 1992, married a New Yorker, and has lived in New York City ever since. Her journey as a writer was difficult and inspiring, as it took 15 years after her first novel to get her next book, American Housewife, published. Her latest work is a collections of essays. CoveyClub chatted with Ellis about her inspiration for it.
CoveyClub: Your writing career, which had stalled for many years, had a renaissance later in your life. How did you return to writing, after all those years of rejection?
Ellis: I had given up on writing and started identifying as a housewife. Which is what I was! I kept getting asked, “What do you do all day?” And I would say, “Whatever I want to.”
CoveyClub: You couldn’t say you were a stay-at-home mom, because you don’t have kids, right?
Ellis: We have two cats. I started this anonymous Twitter account, called “What I Do All Day.” I started getting feedback, and retweets and followers. And I began to see patterns emerge in the things I Tweeted about. I started writing stories about that, with twists. Those stories eventually became my book, American Housewife.
CoveyClub: Your new book title is Bring Your Baggage and Don’t Pack Light. What does that mean?
Ellis: It’s about long-term friendship. The first piece in the collection is about me getting together with friends from 40 years. You don’t judge each other. You can tell each other anything. You bring that talk of that divorce, that bad mammogram, that parent’s death, that affair. Whatever it is, I’m going to be on your side. So you overpack. This book is about women in their late forties and early fifties taking that second chance. Whether it’s getting out of a bad marriage, beating a terminal disease, having a baby all by yourself at 50 years old, plastic surgery, or going through menopause (one essay opens with the lines, “Are you there, Menopause? It’s me, Helen. I just finished my 453rd period.”). It’s about embracing your friends for who they are. It’s also about looking to the future. There’s a piece in the book called “She’s Young,” where my octogenarian upstairs neighbor really taught me that I’m in the middle, that the middle is a great place.
CoveyClub: In your book’s opening essay, “Grown-Ass Ladies Gone Mild,” you’re at a reunion of childhood friends, where one of the friends is dealing with a recent suspicious mammogram. After the trip, and the subsequent cancer diagnosis, you rally around your friend, wearing matching pink-ribbon bracelets. I love your line, “Sometimes all we can do is show our solidarity with accessories.” Also, “Don’t let them put her new boobs on her back!” This essay hit me hard, because I have a close friend who is going through cancer, and our college “gang of four” has done our best to support her and make her laugh through the pain. And wasn’t it the most serious essay in the book?
Ellis: Yeah. It’s really the heart of the book.
CoveyClub: How do you maintain these friendships with your old friends?
Ellis: I prefer to call them “dear friends.” The great thing about lifelong friends is that you pick up just like that. I was in a condo on the beach in a twin bed, and it was like a slumber party in middle school, except everybody was drunk. When we were 12 or 13, we were all calling each other, saying, “Did you get your period?” and now we’re all calling each other and saying, “Have you gotten your colonoscopy?” It’s like this big powwow at different stages of your life. I was there for two of their weddings, a second wedding in our forties, and whenever I would go home to Alabama, they would be there. Now all of them live in Athens (GA) and Atlanta, so that’s been one of the best things about being on book tours. When I’d come through, I’d stay with them.
CoveyClub: You describe in the book some distinct friend groups. What’s special about these different groups?
Ellis: During COVID, I had four different regular Zooms. Every Sunday I Zoomed with The Bridge Ladies. They are all about 10 years older than me. Everything I’m experiencing, they’ve already experienced. They’re like my menopause sherpas. They’ve all been in New York forever, so they offer that level of advice. Every Wednesday I have my Writing Workshop, and that offers me everything. A place to show my work, and they will tell you the truth. We’ve been together since 1995. I would never complain about anything in my writing life to anyone other than my writing group friends. I call them my Writerly Wives. And then I have my Grown-Ass Lady Group (my “dear” Alabama friends), and we meet once a month on Zoom. My other is the Classic Trashy Book Club. We read those kinds of books that we weren’t allowed to read in high school.
CoveyClub: Do you ask permission to use your friends’ names and stories in your books?
Ellis: Yes. My friend Patti allowed me to use her name when she confided that her husband is “well-endowed,” because they felt it was only flattering. Every piece I write is born from me falling more in love with a friend. It’s me saying, “Look at what she did.” It’s from a point of pride.
CoveyClub: Is it easier to get together with your mom friends now that many of their children are grown?
Ellis: Empty Nesters are the new gay men of New York. They’re going everywhere. And I’m happy to go along. A lot of people are like, “The kids are gone, and we are ready to have a good time.”
CoveyClub: In one essay, you say you’re a “second best” friend. What does that mean?
Ellis: I have my “number one,” who is my friend Patti. She moved to Colorado to be near her family, and it took me years in New York to find a friend who I could be as honest and atrocious with. I can’t say who my “number two” is, but I have many friends where I am the number two or the backup plan, and I respect that.
CoveyClub: At this stage in life, making new friends can be hard. Are you always open to making new friends?
Ellis: Yeah, being middle-aged, we’re not only forgiving of old friends, we’re also open to new friendships. One writer friend and I met in 2016. I wanted to be friends with her. I asked if she wanted to come to my house and work a jigsaw puzzle.
Ellis: Yeah. On Instagram we were both always doing that. A whole Puzzle Posse was formed, and we are open to new friends. Everyone comes to my house. In two hours, the five of us finish a 500-piece puzzle. Everyone’s drinking and eating, and it’s very therapeutic. During the pandemic, we’ve been shipping puzzles to each other. That’s a group where one friend, Camille, is 10 years younger than the rest of us. I’m now a “Bridge Lady” to Camille! We all need some Bridge Ladies in our lives. I wrote this book because it’s, “Let me tell you what’s coming.”
CoveyClub: Have you ever had a toxic friendship where you had to break up with someone?
Ellis: I was much more confrontational when I was younger. But that did not come to a good end. So I’ve had to embrace patience with myself and just be a more forgiving person. These days, I’ll hold a grudge for you. I’ll say “Why do we hate that person?” It’s hard to let a lifelong friendship go. But this lockdown sort of weeded out some friendships. I saw some people during COVID who I didn’t see as much before because they’ve been in the City during this time.
CoveyClub: What are the top three qualities you look for in a friend? And are those the same ones that you looked for when you were younger?
Ellis: I probably look for the same qualities I looked for in middle school: Loyalty, laughter, and listening.
CoveyClub: How would you choose whom to live with in a Golden Girls–type house?
Ellis: Whoever’s widowed and left standing! Living together like that has definitely been discussed. That’s why so many women play bridge. A lot of times we think, “Our husbands are going to die, so we need a hobby and we need to ward off Alzheimer’s.”