A Tribute to Virginia Renfro Ellis

by Nancy Knight

When I agreed to write this article, I imagined it would be a whiz. I’ve written many articles . . . After all, I am a writer. But, this turned out to be much more difficult than I ever thought possible.

It’s like painting a portrait. When someone I care about asks me to paint his or her portrait, I usually turn them down. Not because I can’t paint a portrait, but because I agonize over them. I have to get them right, really right. I have to see their hearts in the portrait.

That’s the way I feel about this article. There are a lot of things I could say about Gin Ellis, about how she worked hard to make GRW a better organization or about how she always helped aspiring writers coming along behind her. But, you see, that wouldn’t get to the heart of the matter . . . to Gin’s heart.

Occasionally there comes a writer who is exceptional in many ways. Gin Ellis was one of those. Not just her talent as a writer, but as an exceptional woman.

Gin came to GRW in the early 90s. She was a little shy at first, but came in and made herself an integral part of the organization. She never missed a meeting if she could help it. She had a ready and willing smile for everyone. Looking back at my friendship with her, I realize how quickly we became friends. I realize now what a treasure that friendship was.

Writers like Gin Ellis are rare. Her talent was of the purest kind, both in fiction and in art. If you didn’t know, Gin was a very talented artist. She made jewelry, painted and was an amazing photographer. In fact, she was the very first female NFL (yes, National Football League) photographer. She brought an artist’s eye to her writing—and to her friendships.

She was a writer who never turned down anybody who asked for help. And the help she gave was always right on target. I’ve heard many aspiring writers say that Gin’s critique at the March Workshop (Now the Virginia Ellis Memorial Critique Workshop) was the most helpful critique they’d ever received. She had a way of spotting a problem and solving it. Several writers have actually said her critiques helped them to get published.

Later on, Gin and several friends (Debra Dixon, Deborah Smith, Sandra Chastain, Donna Ball and me) developed a concept for a publishing company. BelleBooks…Actually, BelleBooks was born at DragonCon. The rest is history…or is it? Gin’s job at BelleBooks was the production department and the art department. (Note: Gin was The Production Department and The Art Department.) She did all the typesetting and book design for the first few books. Her job was monumental . . . and she did it well, exceptionally well. The learning curve for book production is unbelievably complex, and she did it with aplomb. But, more than the technical part of her job at BelleBooks, Gin also contributed “heart” to the projects in her writing, her ideas and her charm.

So, why is the March Workshop named after her? I think the workshop itself is a symbol of what Gin really was all about. Her tenacity, her forthrightness and her ability to stand up and demand attention to a worthy cause. And, conversely, Gin’s life and career represent the workshop. She worked as hard or harder than anyone I’ve ever known. She refused to give up. She plowed ahead, determined to succeed in a business known for failure. And she did it with good humor, patience and grace.

There is a saying, “The brightest stars burn out the fastest.” Gin’s star was bright and beautiful. And, her star was on the rise.

Nancy Knight is the award-winning author of twelve novels, numerous short stories, seven plays produced in professional theatres and a screenplay. She is a founding member of GRW, served on the board of directors of RWA and has given writing workshops across the country. She is a BelleBooks partner and also editor at Soundhole Publishing.