(The Nitty Gritty of Ellen Leroe)
(Okay, so my biography is only a little bit nitty, and not so very gritty, but I had to grab your attention, didn’t I?)
I was born in East Orange, New Jersey, with a pencil tattooed on my forehead. Well, no, not literally, but trust me, close. I loved to draw and illustrate stories as a little girl and wrote my first book when I was seven. Called Jim and Johnny Build a Snowman, the 8-page story recounted how two young brothers saved a tiny snowman in their freezer so they’d have it to impress their friends when summer arrived. I still remember the pride and happiness I felt when I stapled the pages together and showed my parents. Their praise was all I needed to want to do more.
“Making up stories is something I have to do. It’s a compulsion, or an obsession. It’s like an allergy.”
When my older brother and sister were outside playing with their friends, I was downstairs in my cellar, writing my stories. It was a shadow-filled, spooky cavern, and I sat under the dim light of a fluorescent bulb at a drafting table. But my imagination always took off in that snug, silent space. And because I loved all things magical and mysterious, I focused on fairy tales populated with evil wizards, talking ravens, and dungeons situated in places called Skeleton Castle.
Graduating from Elmira College in upstate New York, I worked as a Junior Sportswear buyer for a New Jersey department chain called Hahne’s. After three years, however, I knew it wasn’t for me. Merchandising wasn’t self-expressive and I wanted to go back to writing. I quit my job as a buyer and took an eight-week crash course in typing, then followed my sister Jane to California. Jane went to Boalt Law School in Berkeley— and I went crazy. I took all sorts of weird jobs to pay for my writing habit, but the two most sane included working as the Administrator of the San Francisco Junior Chamber of Commerce, and editing a publication for a large engineering company. I’d come home at 6:30, eat dinner, and then would sit at my kitchen table and pound out adult novels on an old Selectric typewriter. I finished seven adult novels that never got published before deciding to try children’s books again, as well as poetry.
Obsessions: red cherry Twizzlers, Starbuck’s Java Chip ice cream, and Whopper Malt Balls!
My luck, or fortune, changed. After 93 rejections, I got a collection of adult poetry published by Tandem Press in 1983, and sold single poems to magazines like Cosmopolitan, Ladies’ Home Journal, and Good Housekeeping. That gave me the confidence to return to fiction and plot my first Young Adult novel, Confessions of a Teenage TV Addict. Soon after, I was delighted to find an agent who liked my voice and writing style, and took me on as a client. When Lodestar/E.P. Dutton accepted my novel, I thought, that’s it. I’m quitting my day jobs and focusing solely on my writing. I felt creatively re-energized. I moved from Berkeley to San Francisco, and found an apartment on Russian Hill, with a view of Alcatraz and the Bay. No writing was getting done because I kept staring out the window. Back to the cellar I went, symbolically speaking. From then on, all of my best writing was done either in snug, dark closets, or at desks facing blank walls.
I begin a new book on a Monday—it has to be Monday; I always write my books longhand on pads of the same kind of paper; my pencils are special gifts from friends and I break in a new one each time I write “Chapter One.”
In the 20-odd years since my first published title, I’ve sold over thirty books for children of all ages, toddler board books, fun, fantastical chapter books, spooky, suspenseful middle grade series or individual titles, and my personal favorite, teen novels. Along the way, I’ve also created a greeting card line, won poetry awards, and lent my song lyrics to a friend’s jazz CD. When I’m not writing or wrestling with my creative muse—a rare occurrence!—I enjoy taking long walks around San Francisco, exercising like crazy (it’s when I get my best ideas), collecting miniature typewriters, hanging out with my friends, and spending quality time with my significant other and partner of 19 years. And did I forget to mention reading? I love to read and finish two to three books a week.
But writing continues to be my main passion, chief form of entertainment, and an ongoing love affair with words that began at the age of seven in that dark, spooky, dungeon of a cellar.