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Inspiring Stories, Inspiring People

Eleni Gage, writer

Eleni Gage, writer

Eleni Gage loves to write. She’s covered beauty for InStyle and People, the globe for Travel & Leisure, motherhood for The New York Times and The Huffington Post, and the Olympics for the New York Sun. And in her spare time, she’s authored two beautiful books and is hard at work on her third. Check out her blog,, or follow her on Twitter @elenigage.

PPF: When you were little, what did you tell people you wanted to be when you grew up?

EG: For some reason, I started choosing careers very early. I made a list at about age 6, and it included “shoe shopper,” i.e. someone who gets paid to buy shoes, which I still think would be a great job. I just kept adding to the list as I grew up. I wanted to be a teacher, work in a bookstore and a lingerie store, and I wanted to be the person who names nail polishes and lipsticks.


PPF: Did any of those childhood dreams come to fruition?

EG: Well, I was a beauty editor for about ten years, so I kind of did the naming nail polishes and lipsticks thing, albeit in a roundabout way. I’ve never worked in a bookstore, but I’ve done signings in them. I still think working in a bookstore would be a really interesting job–but probably maddening when people come in to browse, then buy ebooks online. Lingerie store seems less glamorous to me now, but I’ve replaced it with a new dream job: bridal store consultant. I am addicted to Say Yes to the Dress, and I just think it would be so gratifying to help people prepare for such a significant ritual in their lives. But the price tags would stress me out—my own wedding dress came from The Bridal Garden in New York. It was a sample the designer donated, and the proceeds were sent to a school in Bedford Stuyvesant, so that made me feel better about spending as much on a dress as I normally do on a round-trip flight to Greece. In high season. As for teaching, I taught University Writing at Columbia for four semesters, and have taught travel writing to journalists through Mediabistro, and tutored sixth graders in creative writing. I’d love to teach academic writing or creative writing at the college level again, once we’re in one place for longer than four months at a time!


PPF: Tell me a little bit about your upbringing. Your dad is Greek and your mother is from Minnesota, correct? Where did you live most of your childhood?

EG: That’s right. I was born in Manhattan, but we moved to Athens, Greece, right before I turned three—my mother dragged neighborhood kids in off the street to throw me a birthday party. And then, in the middle of second grade, we moved to Worcester, Massachusetts, where my father and his sisters had settled when they emigrated from Greece in 1950. But we had such a huge Greek family in Worcester, it was like Greece on the banks of Lake Quinsigamond.


PPF: What are your earliest memories of Greece? I know you have such a strong connection to the place.

EG: My earliest memories are very fleeting and visual; I remember a green-blue dragonfly hovering above the fountain outside my great-aunt’s house in our village. But as time went on I remember my kindergarten and first grade teachers, finding 500 drachmas on the pavement, and a man at a taverna asking me in Greek what language my family was speaking–it was English. I also remember having a really strong sense that my family wasn’t like all our neighbors who were really from here, so I should pay attention and see how the people around me behaved. I think that’s what made me become a writer, that really early, visceral sense of observing the world around you and trying to figure out what was going on under the surface, or what other people knew that you didn’t—yet.


PPF: What was your first real job?

EG: How real? Assistant teaching Arts and Crafts classes in the North Grafton parks when I was in high school during the summers. Then, in college, I cooked for the Masters’ teas and I wrote, then edited, then became a managing editor for the Let’s Go travel guides which are produced by Harvard Student Agencies. That was the beginning of my travel writing career, and it was an incredible opportunity for a student to have. I’m so grateful I did that. And then, my first real grown-up job was being an editorial assistant at Allure magazine, working for the Articles Editor and the Entertainment Editor. I started working four days after graduation. Looking back, part of me wishes I had taken some time off to travel a little, but at the time, it just wasn’t in my nature. I loved college and was nervous about not having that support system around me, so I was really eager to get on to the next phase of my “real” life.


PPF: How would you describe your current occupation?

EG: Freelance writer and editor and an author. I’m working on my third book and promoting my first novel, Other Waters.


PPF: Were you formally trained to do what you do now? 

EG: No and yes. I didn’t study journalism; my undergrad major was Folklore and Mythology, which I loved. But I actually think that was great training for a journalist, because we studied different communities and their rituals and wrote ethnographic reports about them. I still look at the world through that sort of urban anthropologist lens, and I blog about rituals on my website,

As for the creative writing, I wrote my travel memoir, North of Ithaka, after six years working in magazines, so that was my training. But then I decided that I wanted to try my hand at fiction, which I’d never attempted before, and I suspected that I didn’t have the skills to do so. I also knew that, as a freelancer, I was never going to sit down and write a novel that might never be purchased or published, when I could be writing articles that could pay my rent. So, ten years after graduating from college, I enrolled in Columbia’s School of the Arts to get my MFA in Creative Writing. That way, I figured, if no one bought the novel I planned to write while there, I’d at least get a degree out of it and be able to teach one day. My thesis became Other Waters. So I did have formal training in fiction writing, to the extent that one can.


PPF: How did you first get into journalism?

EG: Both my parents were journalists, and I swore I would never be one; it seemed to me like a lot of fairly solitary work, and when you did interact with people, you were asking them questions they didn’t want to answer. But then, in college, I started working for the Let’s Go guides, and I loved that. And my roommate began writing for the paper’s weekly lifestyle magazine, Fifteen Minutes, so I followed her to a meeting one day and saw that you could actually write about fun things that people enjoyed, instead of going up to people whose house had burned down and saying, “How does it feel to have lost everything?”–which is what my mother told me she had to do in journalism school. But then, my mom does have a penchant for drama!


PPF: Was there a particular mentor, or a person who believed in you and gave you a chance when no one else would?

EG: In the publishing world, there definitely was: My editor at St. Martin’s, Nichole Argyres. I had sold my travel memoir when it was in proposal form to an editor at a different house, who then proceeded to flake out and never comment on the manuscript I turned in after a year of living in a small mountain village in Greece, overseeing the rebuilding of my grandparents’ house. So my agents and I took back the rights to the manuscript. I got to keep the advance from the first editor, because she was in breach of contract, but it wasn’t very much in the first place. But that left me in the position of having to sell a finished manuscript after already having invested all that time into living in Greece and writing the book. There were definitely some weeks there when I thought it might not happen and the book would never get published, during which time I thought, “I should have gone to law school!”

But then Nichole, who is also Greek-American, really responded to the story and took it on; she’s a fabulous editor and really championed the book. She quickly went from being a respected colleague to a close friend, confidant, and inspiration in terms of being a mom and having a career. She also edited Other Waters.

I had a lot of wonderful colleagues, mentors, and bosses in magazines; regardless of what you see in The Devil Wears Prada,  (and I never worked at Vogue), I found magazine journalism to be a really nurturing environment thanks to my mostly female colleagues. And some of them even did wear Prada.


PPF: You spent some time at InStyle magazine during the early years. What was that like? Tell me a little bit about that job. The ups, the downs, the perks.

EG: It was pretty darn fabulous! I got there just before the five-year anniversary. To celebrate that occasion, each staff member was given a Gucci watch. I wore that for 11 years until I lost it in a move. That kind of thing would never happen in magazines today; no one has the money for it.

But for me, the job was a real game changer. Time Inc. paid a lot more generously than Condé Nast and Hachette, where I’d worked before–I think because they had lots of men on staff too, at Time, for example, whereas the companies that mainly published fashion magazines acted like they only employed former debutantes who had parents who would support their penchant for writing and would use their salary as a clothing allowance. But on top of that, InStyle was the first place where I was high enough on the masthead to get a glimpse at the business side of how a magazine works, to hear feedback on how well each article in the magazine did, for example.

While there, I attended the Oscars, the Golden Globes, and Jennie Garth’s wedding to Peter Facinelli. She was sort of my idol from my teenage years watching 90210, so that was a thrill—and I danced with Kevin Spacey while there. They just got divorced, and I have a feeling I’m really not Kevin Spacey’s type, but as far as I’m concerned, we’ll always have Santa Barbara.

I also really admired the journalistic standards of the magazine. Every single fact in that magazine is checked as it would be at a newspaper, back in the pre-Jayson-Blair days. Even though the subject matter is often lighthearted, they respect the reader enough to treat it seriously. There really wasn’t a downside to working there, and that’s sort of why I left. It was basically an ideal job, but I still wanted the time to do other things. So I left to go freelance, and six months later, I was living in Greece, writing my first book. Which sounds like a triumph—and it was—but it also meant that I cut my income so much that I got audited by the IRS for the year I lived there–2002–because they figured no one could live on that little money. But I did, and they ruled no change at the audit.


PPF: What was it like to work for People? Was it more stressful at a weekly? And how did you get that job? 

EG: After InStyle, I moved to Greece and wrote North of Ithaka. That was in 2002. Then I spent the next two years freelancing and finishing the book, and, right after I got back from covering the Athens Olympics for The New York Sun, which was a real highlight of the last decade for me, my old bosses at InStyle, who were now working at People, called me and said that they thought the magazine needed a beauty editor for the first time, but they didn’t think it was necessarily a full-time position. Was I interested in working three days a week? Of course I was! That was pretty perfect—it left me two days a week to go on my book tour and do other writing outside of the magazine. So I have the honor of saying that I was People magazine’s first ever Beauty Editor, and that job could not have been more fun. But yes, it was more stressful to work at a weekly. The hours are crazy; one year I attended the Oscars, and the second year I was in the office, writing and editing copy as on-the-scene reports came in; I was awake for 33 hours in a row, and that should not happen unless you’re delivering triplets—yours or someone else’s! I also got called in to work on a Saturday to cover a major crisis that was a breaking news story—Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston splitting up.


PPF: Was it difficult to go from the world of glossy publications and offices full of creative types to writing books by yourself? 

EG: I gave up incredible jobs because I wanted to try other types of writing. And I have never, ever regretted it. Sometimes I get dismayed by my desire to write books—it’s so much work for not very much money that I’m not sure it makes logical sense to pursue it. And sometimes I feel like I do so many different things that I’m not doing any of them well—if I stayed in magazines, could I have been a killer Editor in Chief by now? Or if I didn’t work at all, would I be a better mom? But I love doing all these different kinds of writing—journalism, fiction, creative nonfiction, blogging. And I can’t imagine cutting any one of them out. The bottom line is that it’s not easy, but I’m living my dream life. So when I complain, it really is Uptown Problems.


PPF: How did your book, North of Ithaka, come about?

EG: That’s what the first chapter is about. Long story short, my father and his sisters fled their mountaintop village during the Greek Civil War after their mother learned that the occupying Communist army was going to round up all the children and send them behind the Iron Curtain. She had to stay behind at the last minute, and when it was discovered that she planned her children’s escape, she was executed. The house in which my father grew up—where my grandmother had been kept prisoner–eventually fell into ruin. We used to go back to Greece every summer and visit the ruins of the house, which always seemed to be a dark, scary place to me, a somber interruption to our otherwise fun-filled holidays. As an adult, I saw a photo of the house when it was still standing, and it made me want to return to the village for more than a few days, to oversee the rebuilding of the house—I knew my father had drawn up plans to rebuild it but couldn’t bring himself to do so. But I also wanted to build my own relationship with the village—and the country—so that it wasn’t this fear-filled place I had heard about, but a place I actually knew and loved. It was an incredible experience.


PPF: You lived there for an entire year, right? What was it like to go from New York to a small Greek town?

EG: Now, that’s what the whole book is about! I lived there for 10 months, and I was worried I was going to be lonely, in a tiny village full of senior citizens, but I actually had an incredible time. In New York there were a million things going on that I could choose to do, but in Lia, whatever one thing was going on, I was immediately sucked into participating in it, whether it was the local election or a festival or just making pitas with the lady next door. I loved the sense of community, the way you got wrapped up in the day-to-day life of the people around you. In the book, I wrote, “Greece is not for spectators.” Whatever was going on, be it a party or a wake, you had no choice but to engage in it. I have the same feeling in Nicaragua. But the second Saturday here, we were walking to dinner and bumped into three people we knew—a horse and carriage driver, a gallery owner, and a long-lost relative of Emilio’s we had bumped into on the street the night before. In both places, anonymity is not an option. That’s a switch from New York, but my favorite thing about New York is when you get that small-town feeling in the big city—which, if you’ve lived there long enough, actually happens a lot.


PPF: When did your novel, Other Waters, come into being—the idea for it, that is? And how long did it take you to write it?

EG: I started working on it in spring of 2006, and it came out in February of 2012, but the bulk of the writing was done by late 2010. The novel follows Maya Das, an Indian-American psychiatrist who thinks that her family has been cursed, as she travels from New York to India to save her family, heal her broken heart, and try to forge one identity while ricocheting between two cultures. But it’s really about the joys and struggles of being bicultural, which is what North of Ithaka explores as well. My college roommate is an Indian-American doctor and through her, I got to know desi culture quite well, and it fascinated me that so many desis are doctors and engineers, very scientific-based professions, and yet they often have family astrologers and other faith-based cultural beliefs. The situation I describe—a doctor who comes to believe in a curse—seemed like that struggle between faith and science, or two different cultural belief systems, which so many of us face, taken to an extreme degree. I wanted to explore what it would be like to be the young woman in that situation.


PPF: I can’t wait to read it. I don’t know how you find the time, Eleni! How hard is it to be a new mom and a writer? When do you find time to be alone and work on your writing—since writing is often such a solitary endeavor?

EG: Right now, it’s easier than it has been because we’re living in Nicaragua for 4 to 6 months for my husband’s work, and child care is so affordable here. We have an amazing babysitter who watches Amalía every afternoon, while I’m working in a different room. So in the morning when the baby naps, I work on my novel. And in the afternoon when we have the babysitter, I do my freelance work. That’s on an ideal day, of course, assuming the nap happens, the Internet works, and the electricity doesn’t go out.

In Miami, I also had an amazing babysitter; I just couldn’t afford her as often. What’s hard for me is justifying paying a babysitter and working on my novel—which is probably the project I care about the most—as opposed to the articles or Internet work that pay the bills. Basically, I’m always robbing Peter to pay Paul and something is always not getting done. And that something includes what psychiatrists call “self-care.” I have had conversations with my husband where he says, “We have to figure out a way for you to be able to shower every day.” But it really is an embarrassment of riches, having so many fascinating things call on your time.

I do miss the companionship and steady income of working in an office and the idea of a paid maternity leave is so, so appealing. I was sending work emails from the hospital. But I’m reluctant to get a full time job while Amalía and my next book are both so young and needy.


PPF: So you love studying the way cultures collide. How has it been adjusting to life in Nicaragua? What do you most love about it? What is challenging?

EG: Living in Nicaragua right now is reminiscent of living in Greece in the late 70s and early 80s, which we did when I was little: The people are very warm, the landscape is gorgeous, and sometimes the electricity or water go out for hours at a time. What I love about living here is discovering a whole new culture as a semi-insider as opposed to just a casual, passing tourist. I also love living in the setting of my next book and having incredible childcare on-site. Also, one of my neighbors is a Pilates instructor, so now I can actually work out for the first time in six months! I love practicing Spanish and living in a place that looks like the setting for a Garcia Marquez novel—the town we live in, Granada, looks like a cross between Havana and Walnut Grove. What is challenging is being so far from my friends and family. That, and the humidity—when it rains here, for some reason, I get terrible headaches.


PPF: You mentioned Gabriel Garcia Marquez, one of my favorite authors. I’m curious, what are a few of your all-time favorites?

EG: The Wide Sargasso Sea: So short, yet so impactful. And it made me consider something—the book Jane Eyre—in a totally new way. It was really kind of a feminist awakening for me against a whole blame-the-victim mentality. OK, I was 17 when I read it. Jean Rhys also writes so evocatively about cultural bias and about the locations in the book—the setting is almost a character.

Charming Billy. I read it in one day and cried the whole time. The book is about Irish-Americans, but the description of a huge immigrant family really resonated with me. And I thought the characters were so sharply drawn through the use of judicious details.

The Great Gatsby. I mean, it’s perfect. When I think about Daisy tearing up at the sight of Gatsby’s beautiful shirts, I kind of want to cry myself.

A Passage to India. I read it in a van hurtling around Mexico, and it made me really want to visit India, which I did three times while researching Other Waters. I also just thought it was so, so funny.


PPF:  What magazines do you read?

EG: I am a promiscuous reader. I’ll read almost anything. But we subscribe to New York, The New Yorker, Travel+Leisure, Departures, Condé Nast Traveler, Vogue, Elle, Marie Claire, National Geographic Traveler, Smithsonian, and Vanity Fair, and I love it that, as a journalist who writes for them, I have a bona fide excuse to read every single issue of Martha Stewart Weddings even though I’ve been married for two years. I also get the Times and the Post online. I don’t read all of these in any given month or week, or day, but they do sit around our house until I manage to wade through all or part of them, or feel guilty for not reading them. Does that count? And I read and sometimes The Huffington Post.


PPF: What has been the lowest point in your career?

EG: When I didn’t know if my book would get published, I had no regular freelance gig, and I was getting audited by the IRS.


PPF: What has been the highest point so far?

EG: Having a friend from Columbia, who was working as a copyeditor at People, email me a sneak peek of the four-star review for Other Waters. It was so nice of her to do, and such an incredible thrill to know it would be running.


PPF: What is essential to help you do your best work?

EG: A child care provider I trust and my daughter adores. A laptop. And this is not essential, but it’s pretty nice: my desk here in Nicaragua is carved with wooden swans, and I write in an interior courtyard while my baby sleeps. That’s sheer delight.


PPF: Describe your version of the perfect Saturday.

EG: Almond croissant and iced coffee with lots of skim milk, because skim milk makes up for the croissant. A morning stroll that involves me taking great photographs and my daughter staying in her stroller. Lunch by an ocean with friends and family. Watching the sunset while drinking wine. Dinner with my husband. Also, I’m having a thin day and I know I wrote a lot on Friday.


PPF: Who most inspires you and why? 

EG: Amalía, my daughter. She truly sees the wonder in the world–probably because she’s so new to it. And she’s wildly resilient. She can be devastated one minute and delighted the next.


PPF: What job could you never, ever, do, no matter how broke you were?

EG: I could never be an ER doctor. I can’t handle that kind of life and death responsibility.


PPF: When have you been most daring in your life?

EG: It’s a tie between quitting my job to move to Greece and write a book and planning a wedding in four months to a man I’d been dating for less than a year. But I never thought twice about doing either, which may be what made them both so clearly the right choice.


PPF: When have you been most afraid?

EG: Waking up from surgery to remove a cyst I’d been told had a twenty percent chance of being malignant, six months after my baby was born. Thankfully, it was benign.


PPF: What is the best advice you ever got?

EG: My father always says, “Life doesn’t offer us ideals, only options.”


PPF: What do you want your last meal on earth to be?

EG: Rice-stuffed squash blossoms, grilled branzino with zucchini salad on the side, or some kind of crab pasta, chef’s choices, coconut flan, with a different wine pairing to go with each course. But I also don’t want to know it’s my last meal, so if I’m ever served this I’m going to get pretty nervous.


PPF: Here are everyone’s questions: What’s on your bedside table right now?

EG: A pacifier. A glass of water. A lamp. And a bunch of newspaper clippings my mother sent me—she’s good like that. Also the book Wild Swans, a fascinating memoir about three generations of Chinese women.


PPF: What’s the trip you keep talking about taking “one day?”

EG: Morocco, followed by a safari somewhere else in Africa. It was supposed to be my “push present” for having Amalía, but with me wanting to go to Greece every year to see my family, and us living in Nicaragua now for Emilio’s work, I don’t know when it’s ever going to happen. I know, Uptown Problems again.


PPF: First concert you ever went to?

EG: Billy Joel. I think it was the Uptown Girl tour…whatever was mid-to-late-80s. I still remember the sound of the helicopter during “And We Would All Go Down Together.”


PPF: Best concert you ever went to?

EG: Lauryn Hill. But only because I met John-John Kennedy and Carolyn Bessette while walking in the VIP entrance because we had both been given tickets by Armani. Yes, this was when I was at InStyle. John-John was running George when I was at Elle, and I was doing a story that involved having a plastic surgeon tell me what was wrong with me, then seeing if I could fix it through exercise. I was standing in the hall talking about it to my editor and saying “and the doctor said I had saggy boobs,” and grabbing my breasts to underscore the point, right when John-John walked by. The concert was about six months after the incident, and I don’t think he remembered, although he did smile at me very politely as if he recognized me from the elevator bank.


PPF: Song that would be the title track to the soundtrack of your life?

EG: The song my husband and I danced to at our wedding—“You’re Just Too Good to be True” by Franki Valli. But I’d take the Fugees version, too. But keep in mind that I’m not thinking of it as I’m too good to be true—just, as Famous Amos, the cookie czar, said, “Life is never what it seems, it’s always so much more.”


PPF: Best meal you ever had?

EG: I can’t pick! But my mother’s best meal ever was the Grand Marnier corvina here in Granada at a restaurant called El Zajuan. Can I use hers? Oh wait, my wedding reception. Great food, incredible company, there was champagne and lots of wine, and the cake was ah-mazing. You see, it wasn’t really cake, more like individual pudding/icebox cake/semifreddo thingies. Fights almost erupted when people ate their neighbors’ desserts while they were on the dance floor.


PPF: If you could interview someone and ask him or her these questions, who would it be?

EG: This one is tough. I’m assuming I have to limit myself to living people. And it should be someone who knows good food, good trips, and good music. And has a lot of life experience to draw on and knows how to a have a good time…so….Sophia Loren? Bill Clinton? Catherine Deneuve? Really, you never know who is going to be a good interview.


PPF: What are you really good at that would surprise a lot of people?

EG: I have a really, surprisingly good memory for obscure song lyrics. I swear it’s why I couldn’t learn geometry; my head is just too full of the chorus for Fish Heads.














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