Danielle Ellison is a writer and nomad who grew up in West Virginia. She’s lived in South Carolina, Nashville, Boston, and Northern Virginia – until she fell in love and moved to Athens, Georgia.
I talked with Danielle about writing, teenagers, being an Aries, and getting tattoos.
Daria: You describe yourself as an author, lover of television, traveler, reader, event planner, and wearer of figurative hats. How do all of these personas relate with one another?
Danielle: I think I’m always looking for something. A story, an adventure, a challenge, a new way to discover. We as people are all works in progress. Life is about the journey, and if you look separately at all these personas you will find that deep down they are all focused on that one thing. Writing, stories, TV shows, etc. are all stories that progress, grow and develop. Even event planning starts with this one idea – then you have to make it happen.
Daria: When and how did you know you wanted to be an author?
Danielle: I’ve been writing since I was a child. I was an early reader and I read a lot of books. I was always pretending and making up stories as a kid. I wrote some short stories about haunted houses in elementary school, Backstreet Boy fan fiction in middle school, plays and Harry Potter fan fiction in high school… My family and friends say I always wanted to be a writer, but I don’t remember it that way. In high school, during the playwriting season, my theater teacher really encouraged me to be a writer. To own that. In college I read A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly and cried because I wanted to write stories like that. My roommate looked at me: “Then do it!” That was it for me. That’s when I started thinking of writing as a real path. After college I wrote my first book.
Daria: You write Young Adult Literature. What do like most about your audience?
Danielle: Teenagers are brilliant. I love connecting with them and hearing what they have to say. They are way smarter than I was at their age, more plugged in and opinionated. I like that. Being a teenager is such a tumultuous time, full of firsts and lasts, questions and hormones. Everything is bigger because it’s the first. I enjoy writing this because I didn’t have a normal teenage existence and I get to live it all over and over in these ways you imagine it to be. Be that worse or better!
“Being a teenager is such a tumultuous time, full of firsts and lasts, questions and hormones. Everything is bigger because it’s the first.”
Teenagers hunger for stories they can relate to, for someone to feel things like they see them. You know that feeling when you read a book that changes something inside you? That’s why I write – to have that impact on one person. And if that person can be a teen who needs a story, whose life changes even in some small way, then that’s everything.
Daria: In what way did you not have a normal teenage existence?
Danielle: I started working at 15 to help my single mom – I think I specifically did it so we could have cable. (I’m not noble or anything.) I started to babysit neighbor kids when I was about 11 or 12. My baby sister was born when I was 11 – it was just not what I saw as normal for other people. I went to school, work, and church. That was my life. I didn’t have all those teenage firsts – kisses, dates, boyfriends, etc. – until I was an adult.
Daria: You recently landed a book deal for Southern Charmed, a novel about a teen girl who agrees to a fake relationship with her gay best friend. What inspired you to write this story?
Danielle: She spoke to me. That’s how it always happens for me. I can’t remember what I was doing – brushing my teeth maybe? – and the main character, Georgie, told me the first line: “Only three people in Culler, South Carolina, know that Will Montgomery is gay: Will Montgomery, God Almighty, and me.” I had the first chapter and many random scenes over the next few weeks. After that it’s an exploring game to find out why, how and what happens. Then it’s a story – eventually.
“You know that feeling when you read a book that changes something inside you? That’s why I write – to have that impact on one person.”
Daria: I remember you saying that. We were sitting around the old wooden table at La Rocca, an ancient villa in the Tuscan hills, when you told me you were a character-driven writer. How much do you initially know about their journey before you begin to tell their story?
Danielle: I’m a plotter: Before I write, I need to know the beginning and feel good about what the characters want and why they can’t have it. I need to have a good rhythm with their voice, and I like to have the ending in mind. Sometimes I write, sometimes I just picture it. I do a lot of character worksheets and freewriting – whatever I can to learn as much about them as possible. Of course that changes when you’re writing and learning more and more because of the situations they get into, but that’s the fun part!
Daria: How do you know when a story is done?
Danielle: When the characters’ journey is done. When they’ve slayed the dragon and saved the princess. That’s the goal they wanted to accomplish and that’s the story you were telling. I think you just know. It feels natural, whereas continuing on may not. I think a lot comes from practice.
Daria: It didn’t take us long to figure out that we’re both Aries. What is your strongest “Aries feature?”
Danielle: For the negative trait: Impatience. I want things when I want them.
“I’m super impatient and I want things to be exactly how I want them exactly when I want them.”
For a positive trait: Enthusiasm. Passion. Drive. I have all those things. They’re important in life because I strive to live a passionate life. I want to be excited about everything I do, everywhere I go, everything I eat.
Daria: Would you say that your Aries personality is reflected in your writing or the writing process?
Danielle: I’d say yes, sometimes. I’m super impatient and I want things to be exactly how I want them exactly when I want them. But I’m also optimistic and courageous and enthusiastic about the work I’m doing. It’s all or nothing for me with writing – if I’m not into what I’m writing then I won’t write it. I’ll also prove you wrong if you say I can’t, which is a good trait to have when dealing with rejection.
Daria: In Italy, you got a tattoo that says “vivere.” What does the word mean to you?
Danielle: In Italian it means “to live” – and in some other languages it’s close to the same. I was in this country I’d always dreamed of seeing and I felt so amazing, happy and free. I have anxiety so this alone is an amazing feeling. 2016 was a year with a lot of hard things in my personal life. I’ve also been undergoing a weight loss journey. Being there, it just felt right.
I’m ambitious and I always want more, I’m impatient, I wear a lot of hats. The purpose of all that is because I want to live a great life, one free of insecurity, one where I’m not afraid of taking chances. To live means to have no regrets. To be in the moment as much as possible. To look around and know you’re lucky to be living this life. To not let hardships or pain or fear keep you down. To live this one life you have been given to the fullest.
“I want to look back and know what I’m leaving behind is a true representation of who am – that’s what people will remember.”
An author once said, “At the end of my life all I have is my name on some books on a shelf and it’s up to me make sure those are stories I want to leave behind.” That has stuck with me for years because it’s about writing but it’s also about life. At the end of it, all you have is the journey you went on and I want to look back and know what I’m leaving behind is a true representation of who am – that’s what people will remember.