Ellie Eaton is in limbo. She grew up in England and has lived in America for the past decade. She’s both an English writer and an American one. But she’s also neither.
Her book, like her, straddles between an American adulthood and coming-of-age in a British boarding school. The girls in The Divines are nothing like her and her friends, but the spirit is there. Half of the story takes place in the insulated world of a British boarding school where the real world barely matters. The other half is about one of the girls, all grown up, reckoning with the decisions she made decades ago.
I spoke with Eaton about being a British or American writer, coming-of-age novels, and whether or not she was a Divine via phone.
When did you move from England to the U.S.?
I moved a few months after I got married. We both wanted to live abroad and I was actually obsessed with American culture when I was a child. I had two uncles that moved to L.A. to be in the music industry and that gave this weird allure to America. The books that I loved were largely from America.
We’ve been here about 10 years now. At that time, I also got a fellowship to be in Jack Kerouac’s old house in Florida for three months. My husband got a job in Chicago, so when we arrived, I left for Florida. It was a surreal and magical time.
It was odd to be in a completely new country shortly after getting married all by yourself. It was a really incredible start to my literary life in America because I had three months to exclusively write.
What was your life like in England growing up as a child obsessed with American culture?
I grew up in a conservative, bookish family. I had always been obsessed with books and I knew I wanted to do something with words. I’m not sure if I knew I’d be a writer, but I knew I wanted to work with words in some way.
I ended up doing an M.A. and worked for three years as a writer in residence in a prison in the U.K.
What were some of those American books that drew you in?
I think those classic American stories like A Catcher in the Rye. I also loved Steinbeck. In school growing up, I was really fed the canon. Austen, Shakespeare, and lots of old, white people.
By the time I got to university, I just fell in love with a lot of the American books. I wonder how they would hold up now though. I was reading a lot of writers like Phillip Roth. I haven’t gone back and re-read those books as of late. I think I may read them in a different light in my 40s than in my 20s.
I read a lot of Cormac McCarthy and his landscapes captivated me. It felt very different than my experience in England. I also remember reading, and I know she’s not American, but reading Alice Munro the first time. I had this very profound moment of recognizing my teenage experience on paper for the first time when I read Lives of Girls and Women. There’s a very descriptive section of a girl sweating and I never came across that in British fiction. There was this expression of the teenage experience that felt so much more real and unafraid to investigate the experience of being a young woman or in a young body. That’s also what appealed to me: the fearlessness of the writing. It wasn’t prissy or stuck up. It seemed so dynamic and limitless.
Are there other differences you notice between American and British writers?
I think 10 years ago I would have said they were completely different, but not so much now. There are a lot of exciting writers coming out of England – or really Ireland, I suppose. Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan and Sally Rooney’s writing is very exciting. The first writer that really set me alive as an adult was Virginia Woolf, who is very British.
It’s not to say I prefer one style or the other. American writing just seems so uninhibited.
It’s funny were so obsessed with American culture because I feel a lot of American children are so obsessed with English culture.
I think one of the anxieties I had while writing the book was that I had a U.K. agent but I was living here and it made less and less sense to have an agent over there and I now have a U.S. agent. But what I was anxious about when I was finding an agent here was this book is so British and I wasn’t sure if there’d be interest. It’s a very British story.
Then I was talking to a friend here about the book and my concerns and she said, “Are you mad? This is fascinating!”
It’s become interesting to see how people responded to this book. In a way, it doesn’t matter if it’s a British high school experience or an American one. What interests people are the friendships and dynamics people have at that age.
I love to read about teens in that phase where they think they have freedom but they’re tied to all these rules that don’t apply to adults.
People say their school years are the best years of their lives but I never actually met someone who has said that. I’d love to meet the person who genuinely believes that. It’s such a strange period, but it’s such a rich period for writers to explore.
The beautiful thing about writing about a boarding school is there is a heightened sense of drama because of the rituals and pageantry that goes along with these institutions. It’s to make the world of school feel more real than the real world. The girls in my book don’t read newspapers or magazines. Their only real interaction with the outside world is their testy relationship with the townies.
I think school novels are a way to allow these children to be the adults of the story in a way because there are so few adults they interact with.
It’s very Lord of the Flies. They’re on their own island. In this case, it’s an elite boarding school. That’s part of what I wanted to explore. As I was finishing the book, Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford were in the news, and obviously, that is very different than what happens in my book, but one of the conversations that were being brought up was, “Well, he was young! He was a teenager! It doesn’t really matter.”
That idea interested me. Is it to say the mistakes we make at that age don’t really matter because we’re a different self when we’re that age and we shed it like a skin to become something else? Or is it to say the decisions we make at that age are a cornerstone of our personalities?
I’m obviously not saying what he did should be given a pass, but there seems to be this window of time where we’re allowed to make mistakes before the rest of your life is allowed to start and take place.
This book takes place in America as well as England. You live in America and grew up in England. Do you consider yourself an American or British writer?
I am in limbo. It’s really interesting because I read 99% of what I am reading is debuts by American writers. I am reading very little literature out of the U.K. right now and most of those are Irish.
I think one of the benefits of being away and out of your country is to be able to approach it in a way you couldn’t if you were still there. When I go back to the U.K. I notice how absurd the class system is there. You can say one word in a particular way and people can place your background almost instantly. Even the time of day you eat your evening meal and what you call it puts you inside a box.
I think the oddity of that once you step outside of it becomes more apparent. That’s a benefit of being in limbo.
We’ve touched upon what your book is about throughout this conversation. It takes place in a 1990s British school and modern-day L.A. You grew up going to a British school and live in modern-day L.A. Are you a Divine?
I am not a Divine. The school is based on the type of school I went to. The setting is very much based on the geography of the school I went to. For a time, my sister and I went to an all-girls boarding school in England. I had gone back a few summers ago and I was near the town where we went to school. I was the type who left school and never looked back. I never went to a reunion and didn’t keep a friend I had from those years. But since I was close, we decided to drive by. Everything was knocked down and the sports fields were all gone. The only building that remained the same was the chapel but it had become a dentistry.
I had this very visceral reaction and I felt like I was back there. I remembered how strange those teenage years were. For me, writing the book was a return to school in some ways and processing what everything meant.