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In ‘Fortune,’ a St. Paul Author Blends Suspense with the Melancholy of Motherhood

Ellen Won Steil's dark debut novel is out now.

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A wealthy midwestern widow has an enticing proposition for the people of her small town: submit a DNA sample and you'll receive a lottery ticket that could net you a multi-million dollar prize. It's as simple as that! But not everyone in the community wants to play—some women remember the mysterious disappearance of a baby nearly two decades earlier, and suspect that the DNA lottery has something to do with it.

This is the premise of St. Paul-based author Ellen Won Steil's debut novel Fortune (October 1, 2023, Lake Union Publishing, 345 pages). Part psychological thriller and part emotional exploration of womanhood, Fortune is a twisty-turny book that intrigues with multiple points of view and intertwining timelines.

We sat down with Steil to talk about publishing her first book, motherhood, and how the past has a way of sneaking up on us. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

When you describe your book to folks, what do you tell them about it? There’s kind of a lot going on!

Fortune is about a billionaire widow in the Midwest who announces a DNA lottery to solve an unsolved mystery—an almost two-decade-old mystery—of an infant’s remains. It surrounds three women who at the time were in high school, and suspicions on their involvement, and their lives, and how their lives have changed since then, particularly as mothers. It’s got suspense, it has emotion, and really, at the heart of it, even though it is a suspense novel, it has a theme of the bittersweetness of being a parent and a mother.

And these women, they know one another, they were old friends, and so it also has these nostalgic elements there, of childhood friendship, growing apart, of how family changes ourselves and our relationships.

There’s multiple points of view, flashbacks—it’s funny, because when this book was written, I was pregnant with my second child, smack in the midst of the pandemic, in summer 2020. I don’t know what that says about me as a person, that I was like, “I want to write a really dark story.” Hormones? I don’t know, but nothing else was going on, and I just put a lot of those elements into that book. 

I love that you wrote this book during the pandemic. I was so unproductive during the pandemic, myself, and you were like, “Well, I’m gonna write a novel.”

It was definitely an interesting time for everybody. I also had a toddler at the time, I was working from home, my husband was working from home—you had to find some kind of outlet. And it wasn’t the very first book I ever wrote, but you know… I think parenting during the pandemic was really put under a microscope. If that’s all you have in front of you, if you have children, it really gave me a chance to pour out some of that: some of that angst, some of that guilt you constantly have as a parent, the bittersweetness of your kids growing up, and wanting to be the best parent—it was all right there to write about.

It’s obviously not a Pandemic Novel in the sense that it’s not one of these books with themes of isolation and separation, but I think some of the anxiety and the uncertainty of that time does come through.

[Laughs] Yes, it’s not a calm book, there’s a lot of tension, and each character has a lot of issues going on in her life as a woman, as a parent, and dealing with their own parents. Cleo is moving back in with her mom after a divorce; Alex has her very unusual and kind of abusive relationship with Maude, her mother; and then there’s Gemma, who never really had a good relationship with her mom growing up, which definitely affected how she is in the present. The deep and dark secrets from their past are coming to the present, and it just really kind of haunts them.

Yes, you definitely get this idea of: You can’t outrun the past. 

Right. And I love flashbacks in books, I love writing that. Because what happens to a character as a child, or when they’re growing up, profoundly impacts people, right? It profoundly impacts who you are as a person. So I love having that in books, because it can speak volumes about a character’s motivations and why they are the way they are. 

The book is set here in the Midwest, in Iowa. Can you talk about the setting and how living in the Midwest yourself informed that choice?

I grew up in the Midwest, in Urbandale, Iowa, Des Moines, Iowa. My parents are immigrants from South Korea, and so there are some influences of that in the book; there’s a character who’s Korean-American, Cleo Song, she’s one of the three women. I still connect to the Midwest—I live in the Midwest, obviously—and I just like to bring attention to that setting. There are so many other places where you can write a book, but I love the realness of it, the influences around me.

How did it go in terms of getting your first novel published?

So I’ve been at this for about 10 years—I love writing. Had nothing ever come of this… it’s like going back to the barre as a dancer. No matter what happens in publishing, because there’s always ups and downs, you just go back to the barre, and write, because that’s what you love. About 10 years ago I was just out of law school, at my first job, and I just told my husband, “This is what I want to do." I didn’t tell anyone else, I just went for it. I’ve had so many rejections, and books that never sold. For anyone who wants to be a writer—it’s not for the faint of heart, but if you truly love writing, then you will get there. If you truly love the craft of storytelling, you will get there. 

And this is actually the first of a few novels we’ll see from you right?

Yes! OK, so it’s kind of confusing. Fortune was actually not the book that my editor had interest in, it was actually what’s going to be published next: Becoming Marlow Fin. That was the book that my editor was initially interested in buying, but she wanted to see what else I had written, and this was unpublished. And so if anyone is interested, there’s another one coming shortly—tentatively this coming summer. 

Exciting! So after a decade you’ll have two books out within a year of each other, first Fortune, this weekend, and then Becoming Marlow Fin.

And Fortune has been out on Amazon First Reads, so that’s been really fun, seeing reviews and seeing people reading it and getting excited. I’ve been told that actual publishing day is pretty anticlimactic, so I’m just going to go about life as usual. Some people have parties, and I’m one of those people where, even my own baby shower, my own birthday, I’m like, “No! Nothing to see here!” I’d rather be holed up doing something else. [Laughs] We’ll see.

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