Ellen Bryson

Ellen Bryson Deborah Copaken Kogan

ELLEN BRYSON holds a BA in English from Columbia University and an MA in creative writing from Johns Hopkins University in Washington, DC. Formerly a modern dancer, she lives in Southern California. The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno is her first novel.

Q & A

Where are you from?
I’m a total gypsy. I was raised in Cleveland, Ohio, but spent 15 years in Manhattan, married a Navy SEAL and lived in San Diego, California; Duluth, Minnesota; Bahrain in the Middle East; and Washington D.C. We now live part time in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and are debating our next move.

Who are your favorite writers?
I don’t have favorite writers, I have favorites reading moments, and these have changed drastically over the years. I do enjoy lyrical writers but also love high tension story tellers.

Which book/books have had the biggest influence on your writing?
There are so many books. I love Lori Moore’s Who Will Run The Frog Hospital, Michael Ondaatje’s In The Skin Of The Lion, Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion, Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem, Spider by Patrick McGrath, and pretty much anything where the protagonist is out of the mainstream.

What are your hobbies and outside interests?
Travel, travel and more travel. I also will watch movies until my eyes blur.

What is the single best piece of advice anyone ever gave you?
If you want something, don’t stop. Also, success is based on your capacity to overcome failure.

What is your favorite quote?
“The sunlights differ but there is only one darkness” from The Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin.

What inspired you to write your first book?
The book started with an image of six bearded sisters standing in the middle of a circus ring, each shouting out her name. (I only remember two names at this point: one was Iell, the other Esmeralda.) It was Iell who rose as the protagonist, but for the life of me, I couldn’t get a clear vision of Iell. I could see her but couldn’t hear her, and I realized I needed someone else to discover her for me. Then, I tried to start the story in the early 1940s, but I kept fixating on the year 1865. I started researching 1865 circuses and came up with Barnum’s American Museum, and from there, off it went. Pictures of the freaks from his Museum gave me all I needed for characters, and images of Living Skelton’s brought me Fortuno. He was so proud and prevalent, I knew the story had to be in his voice. The book took nearly ten years to develop, but many years, I did little or nothing on it. I started it in New York, ignored it for four years, and didn’t finish a first draft until graduate school in Washington, DC. It took getting an agent to make me really dig in. At her behest, I spent a year doing deeper research on freaks and circuses and life in New York City, then another year-and-a-half writing and rewriting before it was ready to be sent out to publishers.

Where do you write?
During the creative phase, I write in bed. Editing I can do anywhere.



Bartholomew Fortuno, the World’s Thinnest Man, believes that his unusual body is a gift. Hired by none other than P.T. Barnum to work at his spectacular American Museum—a modern...