Elle Jeffries is a 2015 graduate of The Ohio State University. She received her Master’s in Education from the University of Maryland – College Park and has lived in the DC area for the last four years. She is the phenomenal author of deep condition and was recently kind enough to chat with me about the making of her debut novel. Keep reading for some spectacular insights on her personal story, how deep condition came to be, why she writes under a pseudonym, and her aspirations for the novel moving forward. Grab a snack and a cup of tea and check it out.
The following transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Elle Jeffries: I started writing around twelve. Initially it was little poems and musings. I actually point to Brown Sugar and “I Used to Love H.E.R.” by Common as like probably the main catalysts for me to start writing. I think I always had a way with words. I was a gifted student and in advanced classes. But I remember that movie and that song unlocking this new creative desire in me. So, I was like, “Oh, I want to write a poem!’ I think my first poem was about clouds or something. I just remember for the first time, when I listened to that Common song – you know we’d studied metaphors in school before, but that song really hit home for me, and I had a deep connection to it immediately. And I loved the film! Where you see Sydney and Dre’s relationship being this metaphor for hip hop . It was like this lightbulb went off in my head. So, I started doing poetry and then writing short stories. It was initially on fan-fiction boards. I used to write a lot of silly short stories around like B2K and Chris Brown. When I got to high-school and early adulthood is when I started writing more mature material online on a number of different forums for most of my teens. Around 2014 is when I initially conceived the character that would become Nia, and in 2017 is when I came back to the story and revamped it for it to become deep condition.
LitBlkGrl: So at OSU were you doing education or English? What did you study?
EJ: I actually studied psychology. I’m sure, after reading the book, you could probably tell that I’m a counselor. But writing was always just something that I did on the side. I didn’t take it seriously ever. If you’d told me in 2015 that I would have published a book, I would have laughed. I never thought it was something that I would pursue seriously. I was just studying psych and preparing to go into a counseling career.
LBG: So, how did you go from “I would never think I’d publish a book” to “I’m publishing a book.”
EJ: You know it’s so funny. I don’t think there was a specific moment where the switch happened. I was really tired in graduate school. Throughout my entire program, I thought about quitting. It just took a lot out of me. I was not able to write. I was not able to connect to the creative side of myself. I feel like graduate school puts so many constraints around your thinking. You spend a lot of time reading and writing academic texts I feel like part of my brain was switched off for two years. Near the end of my second year, when I knew that the end was near, I started checking out, and checking out in graduate school allowed that other side of my brain to turn back on. I started writing again and sort of toiling the soil. I decided then that it would be “cute,” right, to publish this. So I started looking into it. I didn’t know how I was going to do it. The title was initially going to be “Brown Girls Don’t Break.” I had a book cover designer, but I didn’t know how I was going to publish it. I didn’t know how I was about to pay for all of this. I just knew that I wanted to do something, and really for myself. I didn’t think I was going to make any money off of it. I was not interested in any big rewards or accolades. I just wanted to put something out. I just started playing around with it. And then the longer I was in it, the more serious I got, and the more committed to it I became because I really started feeling like I had something worth sharing. It took a lot of time and commitment to myself and to my art. I had to have a lot of conversations with myself like, “You’re worth so much more than you give yourself credit for. Your work is good. It’s been good for a number of years. People have always given you amazing feedback. Let’s do this, let’s actually claim it.” So I did. Finally.
LBJ: You mentioned the cover art. I think that the cover art for deep condition is so beautiful. I want a poster of it. So, did you hire someone to make that or did you just find art that you liked, or what did you do?
EJ: Initially, the person I was going with ended up quitting on me last summer, and I asked her for recommendations. She recommended this guy in Ohio; I believe he’s out of Youngstown. We really developed it together. We had a few conversations on the phone. He asked me about the book; I sent him the prologue and a few other really important scenes in the book. He asked me what I was looking for, what the title of it was. He brought back the initial sketch, and her hair was too perfect. I made him give her a fro that wasn’t super circular. So, we did that; he added the orange pop of color behind her, and it was done. I mean it was really almost a one and done. It was not at all what I thought it would be, but it is by far the thing that makes people stop when they see me reading it. Or like, it’s the thing on social media that everyone is commenting on, “Oh my God, that cover is beautiful!” It’s striking. He did such a good job. His name is Tyler Evan Shaw. That’s his social media as well. We created something really beautiful. It’s our artwork. It’s all ours.
LBG: I’ve always judged books by their cover. My whole life, I would go to the library, and I would just look for things that caught my eye. And then I would read the cover jacket, but it has to, like, look interesting. I think that you did such an amazing job in the art tying together so many of the key facets of the book – about the Black woman and her hair. She has this reflective tone about herself… I just want the book to be on my night stand or my coffee table so that everybody can see it. You did yourself an amazing favor to make it also look beautiful, so kudos to ya’ll.
LBG: What authors have been influential to you? What about their work has spoken to you?
EJ: Super cliché, [but] Toni Morrison. The thing about Toni that I knew I was not going to replicate with my book is how complicated her narratives are. I wanted a book that could be read and received by a lot of people. I love Toni, but it does take me about 70-100 pages into her book to understand what the heck is going on. I did not want that for my story because I wanted people to make it past the first chapter! Jodi Picault – [a] white author. I have liked Jodi’s work since I was a teen because she deals with very sensitive topics. She’s not someone who’s going to shy away from the hard stuff. So, from like My Sister’s Keeper where you’re dealing with health and bodily autonomy, to this book that I just read called Small Great Things where she’s tackling white supremacy. As a white author writing about white supremacy and a Black female protagonist, [it] is like a really big task. My most recent discovery is Octavia Butler, who I’m super excited about. From her, I’d say risk taking. To even try to embark on sci-fi is incredible for Black women. And for it to be good! I just finished Parable of the Sower, and I was obsessed. Lastly, I’ve really started getting into West African writers. So Chimamanda, and Yaa Gyasi for Homegoing. From them, I get this feeling of this deep connection to culture, and a beautiful way of expressing that to people who have no connection to where they’re from and [are] still feeling the same emotions, the same desire to love and be loved. And the same longing too. I feel like they do a really good job of writing emotions.
LBG: What do you want for deep condition?
EJ: Where I am now is, I want to connect with people and build communities. Not only from the book itself, but around the ideas that the book introduces. In particular, narrative building and storytelling, and how we make sense of our world. And if we’re doing it in ways that harm us, heal us, or protect us. Which even in that protection, I think you have the ability to harm or heal again. Mental health is so important to me. It’s literally what I do every day. It’s what I’ve done for the last seven years since eighteen. It’s provided a foundation for me to build my sense of self on. It’s me as a whole being. My mental state not being separate from my physical state. I think if there’s anything I can do with this book, I just want to get to communities and just really start getting people to think about who they are as the sum of their parts. And if some of those parts are broken or cracked or a little blurry, like how can we go back and start unpacking some of those things and really getting people to be as close to whole as possible. From young women – I would love to work with teens up to college aged women and beyond. I want to have some dialogues and start getting people to do some storytelling and re-storytelling and learning.
I mean really what I want for the book — it would be great to sell a million of them, but I think it would be even more meaningful to me if I’m able to impact lives beyond the pages of the book.
LBG: I feel like those are all things that are very clearly articulated in the story that you tell in deep condition. Nia talks a lot about writing as healing, and when she starts teaching writing, she wants to provide a space for these kids to heal and work through the trauma of their day to day lives. I think the interesting thing for us as readers and reading Nia’s story is that we see – I said this in my review – how you’ve arranged the pieces of her together so closely that we have this idea of what she could be like if she were whole, if she were to fully commit to doing the work of dealing with her own pain and grief and her own history. I connected to the story a lot because I’ve also been dealing with my own mental health journey and recently started seeing a therapist. I think that you do a really great job connecting the mental to the physical in a way that so many people don’t necessarily consider. The state of your mind, of your spirit, is physically manifested. Those themes are so clearly presented, and I think the dialogue around them is going to be really impactful.
EJ: Yeah, I’m super excited. I’m working on two upcoming engagements, so we’ll see how they go. I also just want people to feel like this is accessible. I’ve had a number of folks just come up to me and say, “Oh my goodness, now that you’ve done this, I want to really be serious about starting this blog. Or really get this hair braiding thing off the ground, and really start investing.” Because when I tell people the number, the amount of money that I’ve had to put into myself and put into this project… I feel like we dream all day, but it takes putting some money behind something to be like, “I actually believe in myself!” because otherwise I would not be doing this! There were times where I was cutting checks, and I was like, “Sis this book better sell something!” But it’s just at a point now where I think people are also just inspired by the journey – an authentic journey too. Because I feel like we also see a lot of overnight successes on social media. But a lot of folks around me saw me doing the work. I think that’s accessible to a lot of people. And so, that’s been good too.
LBG: Why do you write under a pseudonym?
EJ: I did “Elle” because I really wanted to separate these two lives. Like in an ideal world, I’ll get to go to work every day and do what I love to do at night as well. I think that because writing was always so far fetched for me and something that I did when I felt like it, now that it’s tangibly bound in a book, it’s like “You could actually do something more aligned with your creative instincts.” So when I decided to publish under Elle, it’s because I didn’t think I would even be that serious about this, and I would just have this writer life and have this work life. But it’s honestly shaken up my world because I’m really thinking a lot about all the things I’m excited about after work, and I’m not having that same joy from 9-5 every day. I decided to write under Elle to separate them.
LBG: So now do you feel like writing or a life or career path that’s more in line with your creative self is more accessible for you or is something that you want to see take up more of that 9-5 space in your life?
EJ: I think it still feels like a really big leap. It still feels like a huge risk. But it’s because I haven’t quite figured out what it looks like. I think once I get closer to identifying ways to merge these two worlds. And there is a way to do it; I feel like I’m so close. Everyone keeps saying to me, “You’re not close. You’re there already. You just need to spend some quiet time reflecting.” I’ve done everything. I taught poetry years ago. I’ve done this counseling thing; I’ve worked in admissions. I’ve done a lot in education, and so now I’m getting to this point where I’m really thinking about in the next two years transitioning to something completely different. I think that might be the space for me to start figuring out how to bring more creativity into my work. The other thing is, I want to honor the process of creativity, and I don’t think it is an on-demand thing. So I don’t want to go too far into the weeds to where my creativity pays my bills. That’s not what I want either. I don’t want anything where it loses its intrinsic value. That’s why I’ve always been very reluctant about writing full time or doing something like that because I don’t want writing to lose its intrinsic value as something that I just love for the sake of loving it. I don’t want to rely on it as my sole career because then I could find myself hating something that I loved out of pure, genuine curiosity. That’s where my battle always comes in – my internal battle.
LBG: It’s really interesting to also think about art for art’s sake because I think so much of the time we get away from that, “Oh I do this because I really love it, not because I have to and I need to make my rent this month but because I like love it.” I think that’s definitely something that as artists we need to honor more.
LBG: So how did you come up with the character of Nia?
EJ: I started writing her story initially in 2014. I had a really hard junior year at Ohio State. Twenty-first and beyond was just a challenging year. So it was kind of a perfect storm. That happened and then Dear White People came out. And I remember for like the first time in college having this really interesting film to talk about the experiences of Black folks who are my age, like right there. It wasn’t A Different World, it wasn’t School Daze. It was like all of a sudden there was this movie with all of these interesting characters that everyone wanted to talk about. I remember I got to meet some of the cast; we had special screenings. I was on a panel. I was also thinking about the experience of Black women in college at the same time. I decided to write Nia sort of as an extension of me. [I thought] it would be interesting to write this super headstrong character who is dealing with her trauma in ways different from mine. So initially, Nia was a lot louder. She became very muted and quiet in this version of deep condition – not muted, but more quiet. And I think it’s because of where I am in my life. Sometimes I feel like my characters start to sound a lot more like me. But back then though, I wanted to be like, ok, let’s see if I can make her loud. She’s angry. She’s lashing out. So, she was a very different character back then. Over time, with my own development, I’m like, “How would somebody actually respond to a trauma like this? How would they interact with the men in their lives?” She’s like a baby! I’ve watched her grow. The initial story started when she was 22. I was like I need to start this earlier. I want to talk about why Nia is the way she is by 22, so I started earlier. I also was thinking about characters like Issa and Mary Jane. With Issa, we meet this woman who’s like 29. She doesn’t seem to be in the job that she enjoys but went to college. Mary Jane, she’s in her early 30s; she’s angry. I feel like there’s all these pre-chapters that we don’t get with Black female characters. It’s like, “Why are you like this?” What is this? You’re 29 making all these mistakes I’m making at 23!
LBG: I would love to know why Issa is the way that Issa is!
EJ: Like what is this about? Molly as well. So, I wanted to write a younger Black female character and have her kind of journey over time. So that people can see that she’s similar from one thing to the next, like how she’s always running away from issues. But then, how does she change? She becomes much more risky near the end. I just needed to see some sort of development. I was like, “I don’t want to write about a year in her life.” I really want to show how she changes or doesn’t change based on seasons, etc. over time.
LBG: I really appreciate that. I hadn’t considered Nia as compared to other Black female characters. I think that so me we are dropped into their lives without any sort of pre-history. Like we meet Molly’s parents, eventually. I don’t think we’ve ever met Issa’s parents though. We learn about Molly’s parents’ relationship, so we can connect the dots with that and her and Dro. But why the heck is Issa like 30 and still tripping this hard? Can we learn about her childhood traumas? Can we unpack this a little bit so we can understand? Nia’s journey is not as jarring because we have followed her from college into adulthood. So, we like understand, like hey, she’s been like this forever. We know how Nia does with men. We know. That’s a really insightful path to take. That’s cool. Thank you.
LBG: Is there anything else you want to add? Anything else you want to say? Anything else you want anyone to know?
EJ: One of the things that we got to talk about at my launch too is that one of the biggest pieces for this, is that there are universal human elements. My editor asked me at the launch, “How do you want non-Black people to interact with this book?” I said, you know, at the end of the day, it is a story about a Black woman written by a Black author. There are parts of that experience that you could feel sympathy for, but you just genuinely won’t be able to empathize with. I mean, her falling potentially into what felt like a depression after watching Jacob be brutalized. Those are things that young Black people, young Black millennials are facing right now. I’m getting second hand trauma from scrolling on Facebook a lot. I think those are pieces that are definitely unique to, I think, experiences of Black and Brown people in America. But there are other parts of the story that have a lot of universality. Like mental health, trauma, abandonment, being in jobs that don’t feel like they’re serving you, that you’re jaded by. So, I would hope that people wouldn’t be discouraged by this very brown, very proud Black woman on the cover of the book, and that they’d be interested to learn more about her experience and how they can connect with her.