Ellis, Jerry 1947-

views updated

ELLIS, Jerry 1947-

PERSONAL: Born November 28, 1947, in Fort Payne, AL; son of J. P. (a carpenter) and Viva (Buckles) Ellis; married Debi Holmes-Binney (a writer and composer), March 23, 2001. Ethnicity: "Native American." Education: University of Alabama, B.A., 1970. Hobbies and other interests: "I am a collector of Native-American artifacts, folk art, sculpture, paintings, and general Americana. International travel, cooking, and languages excite me."


ADDRESSES: Offıce—1714 Smith Gap Rd. NW, Fort Payne, AL 35968. Agent—George Nicholson, Sterling Lord Literistic, Inc., 65 Bleecker St., New York, NY 10019; Adult books—Peter Miller, PMA and Film Management, Inc., 45 West 21st St., New York, NY 10010. E-mail—[email protected]


CAREER: Writer, lecturer, playwright, and Native-American folk artist. Cofounder of Tanager Center for Creative Endeavors.


MEMBER: Authors Guild.


AWARDS, HONORS: Playwriting fellowship, Alabama Arts Council, 1985; multi-media grant, Rockefeller Foundation and National Endowments for the Arts, 1989; Pulitzer Prize nomination, 1991, for Walking the Trail: One Man's Journey along the Cherokee Trail of Tears; Twice winner of playwriting awards, 1984 and 1989.


WRITINGS:

Walking the Trail: One Man's Journey along the Cherokee Trail of Tears, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1991.

Bareback! One Man's Journey along the Pony Express Trail, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1993; republished as On the Trail of the Pony Express, University of Nebraska Press (Lincoln, NE), 2002.

Marching through Georgia: My Walk with Sherman, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1995; republished as Marching through Georgia: My Walk along Sherman's Route, University of Georgia Press (Athens, GA), 2002.

(Compiler) In Short: A Collection of Brief Creative Non-Fiction, Norton (New York, NY), 1996.

Walking to Canterbury: A Modern Journey through Chaucer's Medieval England, Ballantine (New York, NY), 2003.


PLAYS

The Pandora Complex, produced in Oklahoma City, OK, at Contemporary Arts' Center, 1972.

Tom's Coffee Dog, produced in Denver, CO, at Changing Scene Theater, 1988.

Watermelon War Song, produced in Denver, CO, at Changing Scene Theater, 1989.

Heart Business, produced in Lexington, KY, at Lexington Playhouse, 1989.

Bowl of Love, produced in Rome, Italy, at The Living Theater, 2004.



OTHER

Author of musical, Virtual Love, 2004.


WORK IN PROGRESS: Hitchhiking with a Wild Indian (non-fiction); Walking the Trail Where They Cried (middle-grade nonfiction); Si, See Italia (musical).

SIDELIGHTS: Many of Jerry Ellis's works take readers on long walks, traveling hundreds of miles across the country. In his books, Ellis relays his experiences as he walks the Native American "Trail of Tears," follows the route of the Pony Express, and journeys the path of Civil War general William T. Sherman. Ellis once told CA, "I never dreamed of being a writer when I was a child growing up in the mountains of Fort Payne, Alabama—the site of an old Cherokee town. I wasn't even big on reading; I preferred to roam the woods and creeks where my Indian ancestors had once lived.


"I got the first hint that I would become a writer when I was twenty years old. I fell for a woman living in Oklahoma and began to write love letters to her.


"By the age of twenty-six, I had thumbed enough miles in the United States to circle the earth five times. I had heard so many stories and felt so much along the way that I was overtaken by a need to tell others about these experiences. I began to write stories and plays."


"In 1985 I moved to Hollywood to try to sell my screenplay. It was about the Cherokee Trail of Tears, where five thousand of my ancestors died in 1838, when seven thousand armed U.S. soldiers forced them to march barefooted nine hundred miles from their homes in the Deep South to Oklahoma in the heart of winter. I couldn't sell the script, but I felt compelled to tell the story, so, in 1989, I became the first person in modern history to walk those nine hundred miles. It was an extraordinary journey, and I wrote a book about it." Ellis titled the book Walking the Trail: One Man's Journey along the Cherokee Trail of Tears.


Ellis told CA, "During the journey, I gained insight into how my roots, American history, and my great fascination with travel and people was shaping my writing. I had, I felt, a kind of calling to write such books." Since his first endeavor, Ellis has written several other books. In Bareback! One Man's Journey along the Pony Express Trail, Ellis writes about his three-month journey as he traveled the route of the well-known horseback mail carriers. He recounts his own experiences and the experiences of people he meets along the way, compiling what Booklist's Denise Perry Donavin called, a story "full of a sense of discovery."

Ellis's next book, Marching through Georgia: My Walk with Sherman, follows Ellis as he travels along General William T. Sherman's Civil War route that extended across Georgia to the Atlantic Ocean. Along the way, Ellis meets and converses with many people, each with an interesting story to tell. He combines their stories and his own to form a work that is part history, part family history, and part his own perspectives and insights. The result is what Jay Freeman of Booklist called "a portrait of a land and people still holding fast to a sometimes bitter heritage, even in the face of rapid change and so-called progress." A Publishers Weekly contributor noted that Ellis writes with a "deft stylistic touch and wry sense of humor," and creates "a work to be savored."

In Walking to Canterbury: A Modern Journey through Chaucer's Medieval England, Ellis recounts his experience as he embarks on the long and dangerous journey traveled by pilgrims on their way to Canterbury Cathedral, where they sought salvation. As usual, Ellis engages in conversation with complete strangers and captures individuals as unique as those in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. The book is dotted with references to Chaucer's work and reveals much about Ellis's own spiritual connections. Booklist reviewer Gavin Quinn praised, "His optimism and sense of peace are so powerful and contagious that even readers in the comforts of home will find this book an affirming spiritual experience." Through this book, Ellis connects the pilgrims' religious experience to his own Native-American spirituality.


Ellis told CA that he has traveled extensively throughout the United States researching Native-American sacred sites so he can write about their history and mythology and his own adventures along the way. Ellis said, "It has been an extraordinary journey, filled with rare events and people. My partner, Debi Holmes-Binney, has been making a video documentary about the trip, and we've painted our car, Betsy, with murals of the most striking sites we have explored. This has drawn much excitement from onlookers, and they have become part of our journey to probe the spirit of America. . . . As you might gather, I am a strong believer that life is too short and amazing not to try to make the most of it. The spiritual life can be fun and exciting."


Ellis and his wife founded the Tanager Center for Creative Endeavors, a retreat for writers and other artists, which will open in the fall of 2005. Publishing, writing, and motivational seminars will be taught here and writers—aspiring or accomplished—are invited to stay days or weeks at a time for privacy or to commune with other artists. Ellis commented to CA: "Our Center is the outgrowth of being the writers of books, plays, and musicals. Our great intent is to guide, encourage and inspire others. We feel this can be done in a place that celebrates nature, other cultures, fine foods, fun, and many meaningful conversations."


BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

PERIODICALS

Booklist, October 15, 1993, Denise Perry Donavin, review of Bareback! One Man's Journey along the Pony Express Trail, p. 413; October, 1995, Jay Freeman, review of Marching through Georgia: My Walk with Sherman, p. 381; January 1, 2003, Gavin Quinn, review of Walking to Canterbury: A Modern Journey through Chaucer's Medieval England, p. 839.

Kirkus Reviews, December 15, 2002, review of Walking to Canterbury, p. 1819.

Kliatt, January, 2002, Katherine Gillen, review of Walking the Trail: One Man's Journey along the Cherokee Trail of Tears, p. 32.

Publishers Weekly, August 9, 1993, review of Bareback!, p. 440; August 28, 1995, review of Marching through Georgia, p. 97; December 9, 2002, review of Walking to Canterbury, p. 70.

Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), November 25, 2001, review of Walking the Trail, p. 6.