“All of my work has been about the transformative power of attention. Attention is the heat that fires the raw clay of research and daydream into fiction. A tea master’s meditative attention turns eating and drinking into a ritual performance; a painter’s sexual attention turns a model into a lover. And the attention required to write a haiku every day for fifteen years turns life into a treasure hunt.”
The only writer ever to have received the American Library Association Stonewall Award for Fiction twice, Ellis Avery was the author of two novels, a memoir, and a book of poetry. Her novels, The Last Nude (Riverhead 2012) and The Teahouse Fire (Riverhead 2006) received Lambda, Ohioana, and Golden Crown awards, and her work was translated into six languages. She taught fiction writing at Columbia University and the University of California, Berkeley.
Raised in Columbus, Ohio and Princeton, New Jersey, Avery’s first love as a reader was the high fantasy of J.R.R. Tolkien and Ursula K. LeGuin. In her teenage years, she discovered writers like Annie Dillard and Virginia Woolf, whose lush specificity tempted her back to the waking world.
Interested in the overlap between theater, anthropology, and religion, Avery pursued an independent major in Performance Studies at Bryn Mawr College, graduating in 1993. She spent the next few years in San Francisco working for queer youth organizations and earning an MFA in Writing from Goddard College’s low residency program. Drawn back to the seasons and architecture of the East Coast, she settled in New York in 1997, where in 1999 she met her partner of twenty years, Sharon Marcus.
After personally witnessing the devastation of September 11th, 2001, and the anti-war response that swept the city in its wake, Avery wrote her first book, a personal account of the attacks and their aftermath, entitled The Smoke Week. She spent five years studying Japanese language and tea ceremony, including seven months in Kyoto, in order to write her first novel, The Teahouse Fire. A lifelong appreciation for Paris in the 1920s led Avery to write her second novel, The Last Nude, a love letter to Sylvia Beach, founder of Shakespeare and Company bookshop and publisher of Ulysses; to Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast; and to the sleek Art Deco imagery of Tamara de Lempicka.
Broken Rooms, Avery’s first volume of poetry, featured selections from a year’s worth of haiku, paired with images by sculptor Will Corwin. In 2017, she began to collect each year’s haiku into an annually published datebook. To foster writing that brought the same attention to writing about place that she brought to her daily haiku, in 2014 Avery founded and edited a column on the Public Books website called Public Streets.