For This Couple, Two Writing Styles, One Vision


It's a bright new day, and Erika and Trey Ellis are kicking back, basking in it.

The last year has been good to the Santa Monica couple. They both have recent novels, which they hope will expand the narrow notions of what a "black story" is or must be.

Erika's debut, "Good Fences" (Random House, 1997), an idiosyncratic, comedic period piece, chronicles an attorney's 20-year shamble toward what he considers the top of the heap. The book, which received enthusiastic reviews at its publication, recently was sold to Showtime to be produced by director Spike Lee.

Trey's latest, "Right Here, Right Now" (Simon & Schuster, 1999), is an outrageous tour de force through the trick-mirror world of motivational speakers-turned-enlightened-gurus. It's the author at his trademark stereotype-smashing best. His protagonist is Ashton Robinson, a Yale grad, surfer dude who has pushed the envelope overtime. Here Trey pokes fun at the culture's obsession with the status quo, the cult of conformity. (In one dead-on moment, Robinson's followers decide to outfit themselves head-to-toe in Gap mix-and-match).

As writers, Trey, 36, and Erika, 33, are worlds apart stylistically as well as thematically. But they both come at the African American experience from sometimes oblique, often unexpected angles. The result: radically shifting perspectives.

"My wife will tell you," Trey mutters in a monotone, "I'm a frustrated cult leader."

Erika nods, her almond-shaped eyes darting, sparkling, "Yes, I will."

Sarcasm aside, there is some truth to the comment.

Trey is the author of two critically acclaimed genre-bending novels: his first, "Platitudes," part of the seminal Vintage Contemporaries paperback series in the '80s, and "Home Repairs, (Simon & Schuster, 1993). At times he has found it claustrophobic to be a fiction writer with a flair for surrealism who, well, just happens to be black.

"I was on book tour at the Borders in San Francisco, and they didn't have my brand-new book in front. They just had it in the back in the African American literature section. And it's like," Trey explains, "Hey, most of my readers probably aren't black. The book is so many more things than that."

As has always been the case, Trey Ellis' novels make not just bookstore clerks but also first-time readers work . . . hard.

"I think a lot of people in general don't understand comic fiction," he explains. "They don't treat it very seriously, and that's a shame. I think really that now that kind of weepy, writing class, coming-of-age fiction is lauded as serious American fiction. And if you look at the William Gaddises, or Vonnegut or Stanley Elkin and try to write in that kind of style, I think you have a really hard time trying to find an audience. I think for black fiction they don't look at the book and say--let's look at T.C. Boyle or David Foster Wallace and Trey Ellis as like thematically, stylistically pretty similar. Instead they just say: What is this?"

His wife may have taken on more traditional territory in her book, which details an African American family's monetary rise but spiritual fall. But it is the book's observations on intraracial bigotry about things such as skin color and middle-class values that tip the polite balance.

"I remember thinking that people are going to be so offended, they are going to be mad," says Erika, fingering her soft halo of wheat-colored hair. "But it really speaks to a lot of black men and women. I went to a couple of reading groups, and a couple of women were, like, 'I don't like all that stuff about the skin, the hair. I closed the book on that stuff; it made me angry.' But I love stuff like that. I'm a drama queen."

The couple, who have a year-old daughter, Ava, met almost 10 years ago at a loft party in New York. "I had just broken up with a girl, I was getting ready to move out here," remembers Trey, "and a friend of mine pointed over to her and said, 'Look at the Lisa Bonet girl!' So I just dedicated myself to picking her up."

Erika recalls the evening. "It was weird. I knew he was my husband the moment I saw him. It was kinda like there he is. There's my husband. . . . But," she says with a giggle, "I made him jump through a few hoops first."

The first sentences of Erika's "Good Fences" appeared when the couple was on vacation in Greece. "Trey was writing and I'd run out of things to read." Four years and 10 drafts later, Erika was ready to give a peek to friends, who encouraged her to press forward.

Until the book sold, Erika, who was born in New Jersey but grew up in Atlanta and Las Vegas, had been professionally adrift. After graduating from Wellesley with a degree in political science, she began dabbling--traveling and teaching, seeing the world. "Trey was the one who said to me, 'Erika, you need to have a career.' "

Trey had put aside his stargazing early. "I figured I'd go into engineering or maybe even be a natural physicist or cosmologist. I was interested in the whole nature of the universe." But at Stanford, he ended up in classes with writers Alexander Theroux and Gilbert Sorrentino and worked on drafts of what was to become the first five chapters of "Platitudes."

After it was published, Trey enjoyed the notoriety, although he admits, "I guess I was expecting to be living in New York, dating supermodels with Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis," a pause for irony, "my cousin."

Now he overlooks a different ocean, and his life has had its share of Hollywood's own brand of star quality, with television and screenwriting, even an Emmy nomination for HBO's "The Tuskegee Airmen." Now in the works: "African Chief," a project with Morgan Freeman, and "The Village," a "dramedy" set in the tumultuous world of the alternative press.

Trey acknowledges the rising number of titles now published by black authors but notes, "I think it's become much more narrow for black fiction. In the case for both of our books, they are certainly fiction written by black people--but they do not fit into the current boom of relationship novels."

"But I think it's changing," counters Erika, "I tend to be more sort of optimistic. . . . I believe that we are creating reality, even now as we're speaking. And I think that books like [ours] aren't the typical ones, but just like in any movement, you begin with a trickle."

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