Literary Lion: 5 Questions with Screenwriter and Essayist Trey Ellis

March 31, 2015

Trey Ellis, Columbia UniversityAssociate Professor Trey Ellis is an Emmy-nominated screenwriter, an American Book Award-winning novelist and playwright. He has written screenplays for, among others, Columbia Pictures, Touchstone Pictures, HBO and Showtime. He is an alumnus of the Sundance Institute and a Sundance international mentor. In 1989, when he was a recent graduate of Stanford University, he published the essay, "The New Black Aesthetic". Since then it has been reprinted numerous times, and the terms he coined in it, “new black aesthetic,” and “cultural mulatto,” are routinely cited by scholars.

Q. How does the intersection of teaching and writing affect you?

Teaching makes me much more viciously efficient about my writing. Between teaching and raising three kids, I can't wait until I have long stretches of alone time to write. In terms of the quality of my work, I'm harder on myself now, my writing has gotten better, I believe, because of the thousands of critiques I've done of student work. I'm also reading Stoner right now, a great novel about academia, and I love Sam Lipsyte's The Ask. They're making me think that I need to write something about university life.

Q. How important to the craft of writing is reading?

So much of writing is theft, or at least appropriation. I get so fired up by good writing to write well myself. So, yes, reading is key.

Q. Do you focus on one particular kind of writing or can you easily switch genres?

I began as a novelist but quickly added screenwriting. For the past few years I've also been writing plays and nonfiction. And I've always been a journalist and I’m now a blogger for the Huffington Post. My first novel, Platitudes, contains every form of writing I could think of, from menus to screenplays to an SAT. I mix and match whenever and wherever possible.

Q. How does living and working in New York influence your writing?

I do thrive on the cacophony. I love being surrounded by so many talented writers at Columbia and they definitely compel me to dig deeper, work harder. It's a friendly competition but it's definitely a competition. That said, I now live in Connecticut so I commute in to the competition. I miss the hubbub and Brooklyn might as well be Prague.

Q. What are you working on now?

Two plays of mine will be working their ways around the country this summer and I'm writing a film for HBO on Amos ‘n’ Andy.

— Interviewed by Eve Glasberg