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An Interview with Ellen Balka


I spent my professional life as an academic (studying social aspects of information and computer technologies, and in particular, how women experience technological change in healthcare settings). I’ve published 6 books (1 sole authored, 4 edited books, and most recently a co-authored book) as well as numerous book chapters, journal articles and conference papers.

A year into a 3-year sick leave from work, I began working on a memoir about my experience of becoming ill with an uncommon response to a common virus, which nearly killed me. I’ve enjoyed learning about the craft of creative non-fiction story-telling, and hope that my past work experience won’t deter agents or publishers from taking me on!

When I’m not writing I am often taking photographs, skiing, riding a bicycle or enjoying my family and friends.

What inspired you to start writing this book?

A year into my sick leave I ran into a work colleague while waiting for a ferry. My colleague was with a friend of his who was a neuro-psychologist. I explained to my colleague that I hadn’t seen him recently because I’d been sick. As we waited for the ferry I ended up having a long conversation with the neuro-psychologist about my illness. It was probably the first day in over a year I’d felt at all like my pre-illness self, and I ended up telling the neuro-psychologist some of what I’d been through (which by then included temporarily loosing my ability to speak, and having my first bout of transient global amnesia (temporary amnesia where you can’t make any new memories). We had a terrific and intense conversation. As the ferry was pulling in, my conversational partner encouraged me to write about my experiences. I figured that if a neuro-psychologist found what I had to say about living with a chronic viral infection that affected my nervous system interesting, that I probably should write about it. When I got home I tightened up my journal keeping about my illness and starting reading books about the craft of memoir. The thing that really kept me going with this project is knowing that there are a lot of people out there who, like me, slipped through diagnostic cracks and could have improved health with correct diagnosis and treatment.

Tell us the story of your book’s current title. Was it easy to find, or did it take forever?

When I was hitch-hiking from Seattle to Yosemite, California in the 1970s my climbing partner and I got stuck on the side of the road in Northern California. The sun was hot and we took turns going into the nearby thrift store to browse and get out of the sun. I came across a 1934 edition of a Roget’s Thesaurus which had a foreign words and phrases section in the back. Flipping through it, I came across the Latin phrase “Ignotum per Ignotius”—“the unknown (explained) by the still more unknown.” I thought it was hilarious, and bought the book (and carried it around in a backpack for the next 3 months).

Years later after I’d begun working on the memoir, I realized that this phrase perfectly explained the phenomenon which had kept me alive through the toughest parts of my illness—Ignotum per Ignotius: Living with and Learning About an Uncommon Response to a Common Virus. Each time I hit a dead end in terms of understanding my illness, I’d dive into the medical literature, and find an answer to something that had eluded my specialist and I, which would often only partially make sense (to me), but the bit that would make sense would be explained by something even more unknown.

Describe your dream book cover.

That’s a hard question. Probably a collage that juxtaposes some of my favorite places on top of Whistler Mountain (where many scenes in my book take place) with images that relate to the science of my virus, to reflect different views of living. Being on my skis is my happy place, and I’m pretty happy to still be alive and able to ski.

If your book had a soundtrack, what are some songs that would be on it?

I have eclectic musical tastes. Carolyn Mark’s “Fuzzy Slippers,” Melbourne Ska Orchestra’s “Learn to Love Again” and “The Best Things in Life are Free,” Bebe K’Roche’s “Kahlua Mama,” Norton Buffalo’s “Another Day,” Brandi Carlile’s “The Story,” Orleans’ “Mountain,” Elton John’s “I’m Still Standing,” and Jackson Browne’s “My Opening Farewell,” sung by Bonnie Raitt.

What books are you reading (for research or comfort) as you continue the writing process?

The latest edition of Betsy Warland’s Breathing the Page: Reading the Act of Writing for writing, and Danielle Ofri’s What Patients Say, What Doctor’s Hear and How Doctors Think by Groopman for research.

What other professions have you worked in? What’s something about you that your readers wouldn’t know?

I dressed as a clown and sold balloons—they were really punch-balls—on the street when I was young. I worked in a hippie engineering firm in the early 1980s doing research about energy conservation and solar heating.

I’m a fairly open book so I never thing there is much people don’t know about me but most people don’t know that in spite of what often appears to be a disregard for rules, that I follow directions well.

Who/what made you want to write? Was there a particular person, or particular writers/works/art forms that influenced you?

Good question… I’ve always enjoyed writing. The people who probably had the biggest influence on my were teachers that encouraged me to explore how I felt in writing in high school. I also had someone on my thesis committee when I was a Master’s student who encouraged me to write as I spoke, and that was incredibly helpful. At that time it was a new thing for people in academia to write in an accessible voice.

While I was sick a friend loaned me Brain on Fire, and that was helpful.

Where is your favorite place to write?

In my blue lazy girl glider chair in the north end of my bedroom that looks out over the Burrard Inlet (which separates Vancouver from North Vancouver) and Vancouver’s North Shore Mountains.

Do you have any writing rituals?

Oddly, not really. Because I worked so long as an academic and their were always a million things that could keep one from writing, one of the skills I eventually developed was being able to write anyplace. The only thing that comes close to a writing ritual is getting up on winter mornings in Whistler, having a large cappuccino that I make at home on my very old Italian plug-in machine, and returning to bed and slowing drinking my coffee as I write with my lap top in bed. After a few hours of writing I’ll go out and ski, which allows things to percolate so I can be productive for another writing stint in the afternoon.

What is one thing you hope readers take away from reading your book? How do you envision your perfect reader?

I hope people will take away the idea that health is precious, that medicine is as much about relationships as it is about science, that when you are sick your friends and family matter a whole lot, and that hope is essential to health. And that no job is more important that your health!

My perfect reader is someone who likes a mystery, is open to the idea of learning a thing or two about science (or will skim here and there if they aren’t interested), and/or may have struggled to be heard by care providers or experienced a misdiagnosis.

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