Helen Ellis, KISS ME IN THE CORAL LOUNGE: Intimate Confessions from a Happy Marriage

Helen Ellis, KISS ME IN THE CORAL LOUNGE: Intimate Confessions from a Happy Marriage

Zibby is joined by New York Times bestselling author (and poker player!) Helen Ellis to discuss her surprising, sexy, and hilariously frank collection of essays, Kiss Me in the Coral Lounge: Intimate Confessions from a Happy Marriage. Helen talks about the real-life coral lounge – a joyful room in her New York City apartment that Zibby has been to! The two discuss happy marriages, viagra, snoring husbands, plants, back-alley Botox, sexy books from the 80s, and last first kisses. Helen also describes her writing and publishing journey and reveals the theme of her next essay collection.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Helen. Thank you so much for coming back on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Kiss Me in the Coral Lounge: Intimate Confessions from a Happy Marriage.

Helen Ellis: Hello. You have been in this coral lounge.

Zibby: I have. I have been in the coral lounge. I had a great time. Yes.

Helen: You made quite an impression.

Zibby: I’m so glad I went that night.

Helen: You’re legendary in the coral lounge.

Zibby: It was a lot of fun. It benefited One Story, right? One Story?

Helen: Yes. Pre-pandemic, this coral lounge was a hopping place. Can I tell what had happened?

Zibby: You can tell.

Helen: What had happened was we had a game night for One Story magazine, the best lit mag out there. In addition to things like charades and memory game and family feud, we had a dare bag. For a hundred points, you drew a dare out of the dare bag, and you did it. What it was was you — I assume you stepped into the bathroom.

Zibby: Yes.

Helen: With a stranger from another team and completely changed clothes with this person, who I believe was my friend Jean, and wore the other woman’s clothes all night long. Do you think we could still get away with that at parties? I don’t know. I think you synched the win for your team.

Zibby: I was so determined to win the game night that I would do anything. Actually, when your friend put on the dress I was wearing, I was like, oh, my gosh, I’m never going to wear that dress again. It looks terrible. It’s such an unflattering dress. What was I even thinking? I know exactly which dress it is. I can’t bring myself to give it away. I still have it because I like the color of it. That was a memorable night. When I was reading in the book about the coral lounge abandoned post-COVID or during COVID and what you two were up to in the house and even how the plants have sort of taken over and what it’s become, I still feel like there’s all that joy from before. It doesn’t leave, all that festivity and warmth.

Helen: That’s right. It is a festive room. In these days with the pandemic, it was me, my husband, and Joan Collins and a bunch of monstera plants. That was it.

Zibby: Both those sections were hilarious. The part about what you learned, I think I dogeared this section, what you learned from Joan Collins and Alexis and all of that. Oh, my gosh, wait, we have to talk about the snoring. Can I just read this little part?

Helen: I love it when someone quotes me to me.

Zibby: I’ll quote you to you. You were thinking you wanted to be exactly like her. Then you said, “Well, maybe not a thrice divorcée with a caviar addiction, but I want to live like a 1980s TV villainess.” Then you said, “If someone doesn’t return my call, I want to climb into the back of a Rolls-Royce and flip through a Vogue as I’m chauffeured to their home or place of work. No, it doesn’t matter if they’re in bed or in a meeting. I will tuck my patent leather clutch under my armpit, barge in, and demand an answer. If I don’t like what I hear, I will slap that person across the face. Yes, slap her. I will slap a lady in a hospital.”

Helen: I will slap a lady in front of a Shih Tzu. I will slap a lady in a hospital corridor.

Zibby: I will wrestle a lady at a koi pond. Oh, my gosh, you’re so funny.

Helen: I was never allowed to watch Dynasty in the eighties when I was a kid. That is how I spent my pandemic, watching all nine seasons. Those seasons are twenty-eight to thirty episodes long. It lasted me a good long time during the pandemic. I just fell in love with 1980s Joan Collins.

Zibby: It’s so true. My mom would watch Dallas and Dynasty while I was watching Little House on the Prairie. That was the rundown in the house.

Helen: I love Little House on the Prairie. I’m still recovering from Mary going blind.

Zibby: I know. I know.

Helen: It traumatized me so deeply.

Zibby: I’m always really worried about having glasses in the sun after that. I’m like, oh, my gosh, I have my glasses, and it’s really sunny. I think about it all the time. Also in this chapter, you said, “I want to wear makeup so heavy it exceeds JetBlue’s carry-on limits.” You’re so funny. “I want a sex drive that rivals a Chevrolet dealership.” Anyway, so funny, the whole thing. I laughed at least twenty times, a big laugh out loud by myself as opposed to the many chuckles and the many “oh, it’s funny” times.

Helen: Thank you very much. I know you’re very happily married, so that makes me very happy to hear that.

Zibby: I feel like the subtitle of this book is so good because what does it mean to even have a happy marriage, especially if you are not happy all the time? Can you have a happy marriage and not be happy in other areas of your life? Is it okay to still fight? Is it still a happy marriage? What does that even mean? I feel like everyone aspires to that. What are the limits of a happy marriage? How happy do you have to be to have a happy marriage?

Helen: Happiness, romance, those things are small things. They’re constant, quiet things. I think in today’s worldwide web, people think they have to be so public about their marriages. Things have to be grand gestures. We all have to be up in hot air balloons. That is not the case. We’ve been married for twenty-two years, a very, very long time. When you’re married a very long time, you appreciate the good times. Even when you’re in bad, bad times, you think, we’ve been through this before. I’m really happy to be with this partner. That’s another thing. Marriage is long, and romance is small. Does that make sense?

Zibby: Yes.

Helen: I just thought of it.

Zibby: Although, it sounds like romance was fairly large given your whole section on Viagra.

Helen: Take note. I can drop off a sample. Would you like me to run around the corner? You can thank me later. Just put it in his milkshake. I’ll tell you, that’s the very first piece I wrote for the collection. You interviewed me and had me to your house for Southern Lady Code a few years back. In that book, I wrote a piece called “Free to be You and Me and Childfree.” It was a piece that I wrote to my younger self to let me know it was okay and I would be happy without having children. It’s a choice. It’s a big choice. I wrote this piece called “The Bright Side” about Viagra because I wanted everybody and my younger self to know about it. Don’t wait. It’s recreational. Go get it. It’s very enjoyable.

Zibby: You’re like, no, we’re never going back.

Helen: . What if we try it and then we don’t want to do it without it? We don’t. adultery, and it’s with my own husband.

Zibby: He’s cool? Obviously, you’ve talked about it. Is he okay with you sharing all this stuff?

Helen: He comes across very well. It’s a very flattering story. Like I said, it was the first piece I wrote. I said, “I’m going to write about it. Is that okay?” He said yeah because he wished he had known about it a little bit earlier. Doubleday wrote me a nice check. Everybody has their price. He had his price. I think Viagra should be sponsoring this book tour.

Zibby: It really should. You should go after them. You should at least get some affiliate revenue or something, a discount code. You should call them.

Helen: I know. KISSME, discount code.

Zibby: You also talk about your husband’s snoring and how everybody you know deals with their husband’s snoring so differently.

Helen: Does Kyle snore?

Zibby: I don’t know if he would want me to talk about it.

Helen: That means yes.

Zibby: I’ll just say this in general. Yes.

Helen: They all snore. My husband is the one who actually titled that chapter. I think I called it Sleeping with Other People or something like that. He said, “No, you should call it My Husband Snores, and Yours Will Too,” because that’s what we all are talking about. All of our husbands snore. We all deal with it in creative ways.

Zibby: You said how you flail your legs up and then whack them against the bed so that it all shakes and then pretend you don’t do anything.

Helen: It’s the closest I come to being a mermaid. My legs are glued together, and I just go, whoop. Then I pretend. He wakes up. “What?” “Oh, you had a terrible dream. You’re dreaming.” There’s a great scene in — speaking of slapping. It’s a Doris Day, Rock Hudson movie. I want to say it’s Pillow Talk, but I’m not sure. She’s in this beautiful green — do you hear the sirens? You’re going to hear them come around your —

Zibby: — I hear them out my window.

Helen: We live on the same block. Doris Day, Rock Hudson. Rock Hudson is snoring like a chainsaw. She walks into his bedroom in a beautiful, beautiful green negligee. She hauls her hand back, and she slaps him across the face. He wakes up. She says, “Oh, my darling, you were having a nightmare. You poor thing.” I have threatened to wake him up that way, but technique.

Zibby: I think that’s part of the genius of this whole collection, is that you take all these things — maybe not everyday days, like finding crazy buried objects in basements of abandoned New York City buildings or whatever, but mostly everyday things, taking care of two cats, and making it into the funniest thing ever. It is funny how specific we all are with the needs of our animals or our plants or just all the things that we keep in our heads. When you put them out on paper, and especially in your funny voice, it’s just hilarious. Everyday life becomes such material for comedy.

Helen: It’s true. Now when we have a cat sitter, I just give him that essay because it’s true. It’s all true. That’s the thing about the book. It’s a very normal marriage. It’s a very normal, happy marriage. There’s nothing in there, maybe outside of what we found in a box in the basement, that you don’t recognize. Romance is small, but humor is small. What to say?

Zibby: Talk to me about the gardening because I’m interested in this too. Kyle loves plants. When we first got together, he came with all these plants.

Helen: He moved in with the plants?

Zibby: Oh, yeah. He moved in with the plants. One, in fact, we put on — he had rented this apartment when he first came to the city. I was moving stuff around trying to organize for him. Not that he wanted that, necessarily, but that’s what I do.

Helen: I’m looking at the color-coded bookcase in the back.

Zibby: A little neurotic. I won’t lie. I’ve got my issues.

Helen: That’s just décor. That’s an eye for décor.

Zibby: I had the plant where you press the button and the shade would go down. The shade went right into the plant. He dove across the room to rescue his plant. I was like, what is going on? What is the big deal? I don’t even understand.

Helen: Was it a fiddle-leaf fig? I bet it was a fiddle-leaf fig.

Zibby: I don’t even know what to call it. You and he should have a talk. You should come around here and check out our plants. It landed in such a way, it almost amputated part of this plant that he had had for many, many years. It now has grown differently. It survived, but it grew differently. I feel like this is a beautiful commentary on — .

Helen: On your marriage.

Zibby: Yes, a little hobbling around.

Helen: Agree. I have murdered a lot of plants. I never have plants. I’m from the South. We’re supposed to be garden ladies. My mother had plants. Her grandmother had plants. It goes way, way back. This is in my nature like Alabama football. This should be innate to me. I got plants during the pandemic. I got them shipped to me because you couldn’t go out. I was trying to support small businesses. They came from Florida all wrapped up in cotton candy gauze. They came from Washington State. They came from Brooklyn and arrived at the door mummified. Most of them survived, but some of them did not survive. I do have quite a few still in the house. I became a pandemic plant lady. I have a friend who really became a pandemic plant lady up in Vermont and started growing pot in her garage. There were a lot of us.

Zibby: You wrote that first essay. Then just when the spirit moved you, you kept writing essays and then put them together?

Helen: When the spirit moved me. That’s the logo for Viagra. I’ll tell you. That was the first one. This is my third collection of essays. God bless Doubleday. I can come to them and say, I want to write a book about marriage. They say, okay. It’s just a miracle. I list the things that I plan to write about. Some things, I always knew I wanted to write about. Some things, I didn’t. The Viagra piece is the one that really started the whole thing. I start every essay with the idea of, I have got to tell you about what just happened. It’s always a positive thing. I’ve got to tell you about a friend who had a baby at fifty all on her own. I’ve got to tell you about a friend who got out of a bad marriage. I’ve got to tell you about a friend who got a back-alley abortion. I’ve got Botox, back-alley Botox. I had to tell you about Viagra. Then some pieces, I always wanted to write about and then finally have the outlet to do it. There’s a piece called “Permanent Vacation Plans.” It’s about how we’re married a long time, so you have to have those discussions about planning for death and planning for the sickness part of the vow. What are you going to do? Then some things are really spur of the moment. One of the last pieces I wrote was because a friend sent me the obituary of the boy, who’s now a fifty-three-year-old man, who was my first kiss. He died. It got me thinking about the fact that my husband, Lex, is my last first kiss. Twenty-eight years ago was my last first kiss, we hope. They just come very easily. After this long, I have a lot of material.

Zibby: Do you already have a new crop of essays? What is your next collection about?

Helen: I think — you’re hearing it here first.

Zibby: Woohoo!

Helen: I’ve been nice for a long time, Zibby. My mantra for writing nonfiction is, be honest, be funny, be kind. I want to be naughty. I want to write a naughty novel.

Zibby: A naughty novel, ooh.

Helen: We’ll see. I’ve got some ideas.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, that’s amazing. I can’t wait. Yay. Inspired by Dynasty, perhaps?

Helen: I think so. I think it was shoulder pads. Should pads and lip gloss, that’s a good time. I want the eighties to come back. I’m ready for my perm. My bangs and a perm, I’m ready.

Zibby: I loved the shoulder pad look. Shoulder pads, oversized sweater, a lot of it is coming back. The oversized is now back, apparently.

Helen: Yes. God bless. I want the waistline up to my nipples. I want shoulder pads out as wide as a flying saucer. I’m ready. Hair, big, big, big. I want Suzanne Sugarbaker permed, curled, Designing Women hair.

Zibby: You could do it. I bet you could pull that off.

Helen: I bet I could. I had it all.

Zibby: When you’re writing an essay, is it something like, you sit down and just, it’s all done?

Helen: It’s that like. Before I started writing essays, which were very much a surprise to me — I never knew I was going to write nonfiction. I wrote short stories. When I write a short story, it starts with a question. What if a writer went on a reality TV show? What if a book club had a more sinister motive? When I write essays, I ask myself, why do I keep telling this story over and over again? With the “What’s in the Box?” story you mentioned, my husband and a friend found this box in an abandoned basement and had us all guess what was in it. I kept telling the story over and over. I thought, why am I telling it over and over? Same with this piece called “The Best Part of a Wedding is the Worst Part of the Wedding.” Why do we keep telling stories about what went wrong at a wedding? Then I start writing it, and I figure out why. What was the worst thing that happened at your wedding?

Zibby: The worst thing that happened at my wedding to Kyle, the night before, all the furniture that — we rented some furniture. We had it at a rental house and rented the tables and chairs for the actual thing. It was all terrible. I was like, I can’t. We wanted it to look like farmhouse tables. They were disgusting. It was like it had been in someone’s back attic. I was like, these are supposed to be nice farm tables.

Helen: We’re going to call that rustic.

Zibby: This is beyond rustic. This is literally from the trash heap. It was pouring rain. Then all the furniture we rented for the lounge area or whatever thing was oversized and gaudy. I was like, nothing looks the way it did online. We had to fix the whole thing before the next afternoon.

Helen: You did it.

Zibby: God bless her, I had this amazing wedding planner. She fixed it all. We put tablecloths. Nobody knew the difference. I guess it’s not that bad. Also, when I did the hora — you know the dance with ?

Helen: Yes.

Zibby: My daughter, at the time, was — I don’t even know how old she was. Maybe three. She was so scared. She was looking at me screaming and sobbing as I was in the air bouncing around. I was trying to be like, “Put me down.” Everyone’s like, “Yeah, go!” What about you?

Helen: The worst thing that happened at our wedding was that the place we were supposed to have our reception dinner burnt to the ground the night .

Zibby: Yes, you wrote that.

Helen: Again, I think those stories — how you deal with a situation like that is how you’re going to deal with things in your marriage. I was a secretary at the time. I just made a phone call to Rue 57 on 57th and 6th. They opened up the downstairs bordello-like basement for my forty-nine guests. We had a wonderful time. It’s what you remember about every wedding, is the worst part. That’s the first thing you tell because it’s the most fun thing to tell.

Zibby: You were funny writing about that, too, being like, mostly, it’s good.

Helen: We’ve all seen the good stuff. We’ve all seen the walking down the aisle and the “I dos” and the exchange of the rings and cutting of the cake. We’ve all seen that, but we haven’t seen my husband rip his pants from knee to nuts moments before he walked my mother down the aisle for my sister’s wedding. We haven’t seen my mother fall in a parking lot two days before my sister’s wedding and knock out her front teeth. These things happen, but you deal with them. You move on.

Zibby: Didn’t your mom say something like that your husband —

Helen: — Your father had .

Zibby: No, no. That your husband did that to make her feel better.

Helen: He did. I know. He did. He just said, “Yes, I did.”

Zibby: Aw, oh, my gosh. What advice do you have for aspiring authors, particularly authors who, maybe they think they’re funny? You write humor so well. For people who like to write humor also, how do you pull that off in a good way and not overdo it? You’re such a master at this form. By the way, this has to win the Thurber Prize. You have to submit it immediately.

Helen: Oh, god bless you.

Zibby: It’s so funny.

Helen: Thank you. When you write, you write alone. I said before, I write about stories that I keep telling. I’ll tell a story over and over again. You’ll hear when people laugh. Put that in the book. I kept telling about all the plants coming to the house. I kept saying, Lex asked me, “How many plants do we have in the house?” I said, “How many do you think we have?” He said, “Seven.” I said, “That sounds about right.” We had twenty-eight plants in the house. Anytime you tell something and it gets a laugh, put that in the piece. Really, my thought is just write like you talk. Just write like you talk. There you go. That’s my advice. Sometimes you’ll tell a joke or you’ll tell a part of a story, and you’ll see people’s eyes glaze over. You know to take that out. Just keep peppering it with proven punchlines.

Zibby: Proven punchlines, excellent. When you read, do you opt for funny? Do you go to short stories? Do you like a mix? I know you were in book group with Ann Napolitano and all that. What do you like to read?

Helen: I read it all. I’ll tell you, I read it all. I’ll tell you what I’m reading right now. I’m a classic trashy book clubber. We read a lot of books from the seventies and eighties. I am rereading for the fourth time, Princess Daisy.

Zibby: Oh, my god, that’s one of my favorites. Stop. All-time favorites.

Helen: We’d talk about all the sex scenes that we remembered. That’s all I remembered, was all the sex scenes. That is how we learned back in the eighties. It holds up. It really holds up. It’s delicious. Like I said, I read it in high school. I read it in my twenties. I read it in my forties. Now I’m reading it in my fifties. Judith Krantz, heaven. Heaven. Delicious. That’s what I’m reading. It’s a good summer — they used to call them boink busters. That is a fifty-something-year-old woman telling you a good story.

Zibby: You’re absolutely right. My mom had all those, Scruples and all the books by Judith Krantz. I just weaved my way through them after reading my books. I was like, I’ll just take this one. I’ll just take this one. I haven’t read it, actually, since high school.

Helen: Oh, it’s delicious.

Zibby: Maybe even before high school. I don’t know. I have to go back and read it again.

Helen: I’ll drop off my copy. It’s not in e-book form. It’s not in audiobook. I’ll drop it off at your door.

Zibby: Okay. You’re so sweet. Amazing. Helen, thank you so much. Thank you for this totally enjoyable read, Kiss Me in the Coral Lounge, and for all the fun times in the coral lounge. Hopefully, we can see each other, even though we live so close by and never see each other. Such is New York.

Helen: Thank you, Zibby. Thank you for your continued support. I appreciate it so much.

Zibby: Of course. No problem. Have a great day, Helen.

Helen: Buh-bye.

Zibby: Bye.

KISS ME IN THE CORAL LOUNGE: Intimate Confessions from a Happy Marriage by Helen Ellis

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