“I cleaned,” says Ellen Slezak, opening the door to her West Hollywood apartment. Slezak, 46, has a scrubbed, rosy-cheeked look that her age and her sly sense of humor belie. Her apartment, a roomy, older Craftsman-style flat, is quite tidy and appealing: built-ins, wood floors, yards and yards of books. She shows off her “office” — in a coat closet — “I never close the door,” she admits.
The approximately 16 square feet is where Slezak spent three and a half of the last five years writing her new novel, All These Girls. Before that, she’d always written stories — which require less sustained closet time. (Her 2002 collection, Last Year’s Jesus, was critically acclaimed.) “Annie Dillard says it takes between two and 10 years to write a novel. So three and a half years . . . God, there were still those parts in the process where I thought, it just won’t ever end.”
Which parts, for example?
“The beginning, the middle and the end.”
Slezak has a full, gratifying laugh. “It’s so hard. A lot of writing is just forcing yourself to put in the hours, the act of sitting your rear in the chair. There’s a German word, Sitzfleisch, it’s literally ‘sitting on the meat.’ You gotta, hafta just sit on the meat.” She slaps the side of her upper thighs.
Although she’s lived in Los Angeles for six years, Slezak grew up in Detroit (“a great place to be from, but I don’t know how you stay there”), and her writing is still Michigan-based. All These Girls is about three women: Candy, a 16-year-old high school basketball star whose mother has recently died; Candy’s aunt Elizabeth, who’s recovering from a tough divorce; and Candy’s great aunt Glo, a strict Catholic. When Candy’s basketball coach
is forced to resign — supposedly for sexually abusing her —
Candy quits the school team in disgust. Her aunts, determined
to get her back on the team, scoop her up for a pilgrimage to the Cross in the Woods in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula — Glo’s idea. Elizabeth is a dubious participant, and Candy, well, she’s not
buying any of it.
“Candy came to me as this fierce, strong, reckless, furious girl,” Slezak says. “I just liked how she felt — fuck you to everybody, everybody. She was messed up and screwed up, but she knew what was real. It’s not like she had the answers, I don’t even think she thought she had the answers, she just knew ‘I’m not going to pretend, I’m not going to be polite, I’m not going to be civil lots of the time.’ I liked that about her. I’m glad the world is more civil to each other than teenagers are, but I do like the thing I see in them, how they often don’t mask just how stooopid you are — and they’re kind of right. They’ll call you on stuff with just a look.”
Slezak also knew from the get-go that Candy would be an athlete. “I had the choice which sport she would play. I know basketball really well, and love it. There are so many different layers and levels to it.”
Indeed. Slezak writes about basketball not only with in-depth knowledge but with lyric, muscled, energized prose — she captures the physicality and psychology, the poetry and sheer action of the game as only a knowing practitioner, and excellent writer, can.
“I’m an old jock,” Slezak admits. “I played sports as a young girl in high school.” While writing the book, she went regularly to West Hollywood Park on Sundays, where, she says, “There was a really great women’s game.” She didn’t play — not with those women. “I wasn’t great when I did play. But I can go out there and just shoot around as a 46-year-old woman and not disgrace myself.”
ALL THESE GIRLS | By ELLEN SLEZAK | Theia/Hyperion | 372 pages $24 hardcover