From Her Cabin in Montana
Ellen Malphrus knows how to disconnect. Our telephone interview required an email, voicemail, text and several days of spotty phone calls before we could arrange a window of time when Ellen could come back down the mountain to the small town, where there is cell phone reception and Internet connection. This summer she is living in her one room cabin in Big Sky Country. The cabin has no electricity or running water. There is a generator for the well; a horse trough for the water she uses to bathe and wash her hair. At night, candles and stars provide the light against the dark.
Who is this intrepid woman? Prior to our interview I’m told Ellen Malphrus is a professor of English at USCB. She teaches creative writing. She is a writer. She has a fondness for Flannery O’Connor. The grainy timbre of her voice makes it impossible for me to determine an approximate age. Later, she will email a cascade of photographs. I meet a slender woman with animated blue eyes and a mane of long curly hair. She is a world traveler; as comfortable dressed as a native in Zanzibar as looking sultry and glamorous in a black lace shawl in Seville. I realize the mountain woman secluded in her Montana retreat is only one facet of Ellen’s kaleidoscopic life.
Ellen was born and raised in the Lowcountry. She and her husband, Andy, live on the May River. She says, “I love wide open spaces and I love living on the water, but really I’m open to the world. I love adventure—other places, other cultures, other food. My family used to say, ‘That girl was born with wheels on her ass.’”
Ellen recalls when she was a little girl her mother read her John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley: In Search of America. In this classic 1960s road trip/travelogue, Steinbeck takes his camper (he names it “Rocinante” after Don Quixote’s horse) and his wife’s 10-year-old French poodle, Charley, as his companion on a trip from Maine to the Pacific Northwest. Steinbeck fell in love with Montana. Ellen says, “My mother and I are both romantics and his descriptions of Montana never left my imagination. Seven years ago, I sold some property I’d inherited on the Okatie River. We considered buying something in the North Carolina mountains, but my husband said Montana had always been my dream. So 40 feet of deep water in South Carolina got me 40 acres of land in Montana.”
Steinbeck fired her imagination for Montana. He may also have fueled her desire for a literary career. After graduating from University of South Carolina, Ellen took her LSATs to apply to law school. Destiny intervened and she found herself walking to USC’s graduate English Department. She studied with the renowned James Dickey, writing poetry and short stories. She received both her MFA and Ph.D from the University of California. She knew she wanted to keep her home base in Bluffton. Her only job application was to USCB. “I never considered it a risk to apply to only one school. I’ve always done things a little differently. ’ve found when I know what I want and I follow that course, doors will open.”
Dr. Malphrus describes herself as someone with an intensely strong sense of home and belongingness to the Lowcountry, combined with a limitless desire for discovery and experience. She has explored these themes of “rootedness and restlessness” in a course (of the same name) she taught at USCB and in her first novel, recently accepted for publication by Story River Books. One of the many doors that opened for Ellen is having bestselling author Pat Conroy as a mentor. He personally prodded her to “get your ass at your desk…live it, work it, 12-14 hours a day.” Pat Conroy is the new editor-at-large for Story River Books, which is a South Carolina based original fiction imprint published by the University of South Carolina Press.
Like most professional creative women with families and multiple interests, Ellen juggles to keep her life in balance. Her own writing gets bogged down once school starts. She has to fit in her solitary time with her extroverted travels, teaching and social life. Montana is the place of wide-open space and quietude where she goes deeply inside herself and her writing.
Ellen finished her manuscript on Sept. 21, the autumnal equinox and received word of its acceptance for editorial review on Dec. 21, the winter solstice. For a woman attuned to the rhythms of nature, the timing augurs well. She thinks the title has been decided: Untying the Moon. I wonder if the inscription is to John Steinbeck? We’ll find out.
Bucking family tradition: Both siblings are lawyers. Ellen’s brother (Joey) is mayor of Ridgeland, her sister (Deborah) is a S.C. family court judge.
Creating family tradition: Ellen considers Sarah (step-daughter) and Brann, Sara and Andrew (sister’s kids) her children. Every year, one of them accompanies her on a world trip.
How her children describe her: Fun and always ready to roll.
Life Philosophy: Joseph Campbell’s Follow your Bliss. Go for it. Open yourself to the world and to knowing who you are.