By Lauren E. Smith
Whether it’s crafting heartfelt tales for the stage or the page, Elna Baker knows how to tell a story. Since taking a leap of faith with her hit memoir, “The New York Regional Singles Halloween Dance,” Elna has wowed listeners and readers of all ages with her gutsy and relatable stories. Her honesty, fearlessness, and vulnerability have landed her coveted assignments with ELLE, Glamour, Men’s Journal and appearances on The Moth Radio Hour, WTF with Marc Maron and This American Life. Elna continues to take the wonderful world of storytelling by storm as a story scout for This American Life, co-host/co-creator of The Talent Show (named Best Variety Show by NY Magazine) and is currently awaiting the publication of her newest novel, “You Are My Revenge” co-written with Kevin Townley.
We caught up with Elna to learn more about her storytelling and writing career in advance of her live online class, So You Want to be a Writer, (6 Wk) starting January 28th.
1.) You’ve been successful in numerous literary genres: Storytelling, Fiction, Journalism, and Solo Performance. Can you tell us how you got into writing?
I started out wanting to be a performer. When I was at NYU, they brought in Elizabeth Swados who had written Runaways and directed a lot on Broadway. She was working with a handful of students to create a show and in one of the rehearsals I got up and told a story. Elizabeth really liked the story and asked if I would come to her house every Friday and tell her different stories. At the end of the semester, we put up a solo show at La MaMA where I told these stories. After that, I continued to develop stories on stage and eventually got an opportunity to write them. That’s when I learned how to take everything that existed in my head and let it live on the page by choosing the right words.
2.) Has one project ever started in one medium, and then ended up in another?
Most of my stories have traveled through all the mediums. I got involved with The Moth and started telling those stories on stage. From there, I got an opportunity to write an article for Elle magazine. That article gave me the opportunity to write my first book. “New York’s Regional Singles Halloween Dance” was basically all the stories I had been developing on stage written into a book.
3.) In your book, “The New York Regional Singles Halloween Dance,” you chronicled your challenges as a 20-something Mormon looking for love in the Big Apple. How did it feel to put yourself out there for the whole world to see and what was the response from family, friends, and the Mormon Community?
I had a total panic attack about it, especially in the months prior to it coming out. I thought, maybe people aren’t meant to be this honest. When it came time to say some of these things out loud, I felt terrified and vulnerable. Additionally, looking at all the moments that suddenly didn’t just exist in my computer, but for the whole world to see, there is an incredible sense of fear that people are going to judge you. However, the act of writing something separates you from the material a bit and you start to become proud of how you’ve written it, so you are willing to put it out there in the world. I think what surprised me the most was the things that hit readers the hardest and what people connected too most were actually the things I was most afraid of saying.
4.) You grew up in Madrid, London, New York City. Can you talk about what that was like and how that has affected your writing?
I think the best part about growing up abroad was reading about events in history books and being able to see them. When I was 11, my parents took me to Auschwitz and that was a huge deal. To be that young and to realize that the world is so cruel and full of these horrifying things, it shifted my perspective. It gave me curiosity and empathy for other people’s experiences and a sense of what I should expect from life. Coming from a Mormon culture where people told you this is how life is, that you have the truth, and living around people who didn’t believe the same thing as me has definitely influenced my writing.
5.) Do you ever get writer’s block, and if so, how do you push through it?
I definitely get it! A fellow writer recently told me, “Let go of the problem you need to solve before you start.” That’s the hardest thing for me. I need a better pencil…a different chair…. I make up things I need to solve, and I end up getting so fixated on having the right idea before I begin, that I never begin. When this happens I’ll remind myself that there IS something that works, and the thing that works is sitting at the page and doing it every single day. When you create a ritual and do it long enough, the combination of effort and time, it gives you something.
6.) You are a story scout for This American Life. How did you get the job and what was your process for finding stand-out stories?
For three years I ran a variety show in New York City and I would scout talent for that show. I would try and find original voices that I liked and fit my taste. At the time I had also contributed to This American Life and through that relationship I was able to start trying to find stories for the show. My favorite stories are the ones that are really surprising. They take a lot of turns and put you on the edge of seat. They make you ask yourself how did anyone find this incredible story? Also, when a storyteller or writer is able to put into words what you’ve been thinking and feeling and shift your perspective so that you are able to see it in a way that you’ve never been used to is what makes a story stand-out.
7.) You were interviewed on Marc Maron’s WTF. What was that like?
It was very fun. It was a live show and I was pretty nervous. I was the only girl on stage. Also, I feel like the medium and the sort of questions that Marc asks brings out a truth in you. Some of the things I said on the show I had never said before, which was a fun and liberating experience.
8.) That’s interesting because Marc’s comedy blends storytelling, traditional stand-up, and interviewing in a unique way. From here, how do you see storytelling evolving as an art form?
I’ve been involved in storytelling since 2004. In the last 11 years the medium has completely exploded. On one side of it, storytelling is a business, it has become a marketing campaign. This is so funny to me because that is the opposite of why people initially get involved in the art. The nice thing is as the medium grows and expands we are able to hear voices from people who have in some ways been silenced. The hope is that people don’t think that there is just one way to tell a story, that there is still some innovation and risk taken when you tell stories. We have much more to discover about this medium.
9.) Do you see yourself tapping into other genres apart from comedy?
Shows like Transparent are breaking through the mold of what needs to be on television. I would love to create a show like it, that’s always been a dream of mine. Like writing my novel, I feel like I would be able to take my personal experiences, some I might not be ready to claim and share, and put them into characters’ world and voices. If anything, I enjoy tapping into my imagination, almost as if I’m not there and embracing those moments when I’m surprised at what comes out of me.
10.) What we can expect from your new novel and when we can get our copy?
We’re hoping to have it published by the end of 2015. My newest novel is an adaptation of the YA Cousin Bette, a classic French novel about revenge. It’s similar to the film, Easy A in that it’s set in a high school and we follow the same plot line, it’s just modernized. Cousin Bette is the story of a female spinster who takes revenge on her family. In my novel instead of a woman spinster, the main character is “Cousin Brett,” a gay second-year senior who takes revenge on his family. It’s really funny and is told through both a female and male voice. I’m excited to see what people respond to.
11.) What will your students learn from your creative writing class?
I’m really excited to teach this class. I’ll never forget when author Salman Rushdie said, “We live in a time where more people are schooled in writing than ever before and yet with all these people writing, it seems harder and harder to find an original voice.” I want to teach people the tools and the process that will help them discover their original voice.
Don’t miss out on the opportunity to get schooled in story! Take Elna’s online workshop So You Want to be a Writer, (6 Wk) starting January 28th.