Jason Kingry Interviews Helen Ellis, Author of “Southern Lady Code”

JK:  My wife enjoys when I read to her, and due to the subject matter, I guessed (correctly) that Southern Lady Code would be right up her alley. She was so amused with your dark sense of humor that she asked me to clarify whether these stories were fictional or non-fictional. How did you become inspired to use your real-life experiences and friends to create a strikingly hilarious novel? 

HE: I too have a husband who reads to me and that is one of many secrets to a happy marriage. He only reads David Sedaris to me in bed, which is another secret. A secret to writing is to plant your secrets like seeds. For example, the secret is: my book club uses aliases for fun. That seed grows in into a story: my book club uses aliases because we run a surrogacy ring.

In my novel, Eating the Chesire Cat, I used my experiences growing up in Tuscaloosa to write about what drives two women to want to murder the University of Alabama homecoming queen. In my short story collection, American Housewife, I used my experiences of being a housewife to dive into darker territory that lands somewhere between I Love Lucy and The Twilight Zone. In my essay collection, Southern Lady Code, I just told the truth. And you know what, telling true stories is easier!

JK: “I don’t belong.” You used this phrase several times in the book. Does it correlate at all with your experiences moving from south of the Mason-Dixon Line to New York, where you had to develop a new life and new friends?

HE: There are many times when I felt I did not fit in, but being a middle-aged woman, I can live with that. The beauty of New York City is that everyone can find people who like us for being ourselves.

JK:  What type of correlation might a reader properly draw, if at all, between your ability to create a true bond as a serious friend, and Meredith’s tapping to recover the information she desired from her witness?

HE: Sometimes the secret to being a good friend is showing up. When you knock gently and long enough on a door, that door may open.

JK:  “Southern accents are disarming.” This fact surely goes unrecognized by most southerners. Did you passively realize it over time, or was it part of the Code you utilize in order to benefit those you are close to (as you did for Meredith during a season of trial)?

HE: My code is: Be funny, be honest, be kind. It works. In friendship and in writing.

JK:  It seems, from your writing, that it bothered you, as it sometimes bothers me, that the younger attorneys were clutching their cell-phones “like pacifiers” instead of mingling in the hallways on a recess. I grew up in Alabama myself, and I’ve always understood part of the “southern charm” to be open politeness toward strangers. It wasn’t until recently that I realized that most of my college graduate-aged friends lack an ability for open, face-to-face conversation with people they’ve never met. How might the younger generation’s social dependence on technology, and reluctance toward new interpersonal relationships, bode for future southerners?

HE: You can’t hear a Southern accent in a text. Or can you? Tech is an iffy area of communication for a generation whose parents and grandparents perfected the art of conversation and storytelling. When it comes to an iPhone, I prefer a front porch.

JK:  Have you had to overcome the “I’m doing something obviously important on my cell phone” cold-shoulder to foster new relationships while living in New York?

Helen Ellis

HE: When someone talking to me pulls out a cellphone, I say: “Do you mind if I get my paint-by-numbers?”

JK:  The first time you attempted to tidy was for your marriage, but the second and most successful time, it was for you. Do you feel as if you saved your marriage, or simply tidied it up?

HE: Oh, my tidiness saved my marriage. And my own darn self.

JK:  You said your sister is your favorite reader. Has her relationship with your writing helped develop your career?

HE: My sister is my favorite reader because she reads my work fast (usually within a few hours), calls me, and always tells me the truth. I trust her. And we definitely share the same sense of humor.

JK:  In playing tournament poker, you probably often get exposed to people from vastly different cultures to that which appears in The Code. Are there any specific instances you would care to share?

HE: Once a gentleman said to me, “Ma’am, do you always smile at people when you screw ‘em?”

I said, “Don’t you like to be smiled at while you’re being screwed?” And scooped the pot.

JK:  You’re a novelist and an essayist.  Which genre do you prefer writing?

HE: Essays are new to me, and I just finished a new collection due out in 2021. I never thought I’d write nonfiction, so I’m still newly in love with the experience. For me, it really is easier because the story has already happened. I don’t have to make anything up. Telling true funny stories is what I’ve done over supper with friends my whole life. So, I just write for friends I don’t know yet – as if they’re already my very best friends.

JK:  It must have been some transition moving from Alabama to the seemingly different world of New York. What would you say to Southerners about their presuppositions regarding the Empire State?

HE: New Yorkers are friendly. Come on up for a visit. Or as Mama always told me: “Jump up and down and be sweet!”

JK:  Thank you for the interview!

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