Southern Scribe Vibes: An Interview with Helen Ellis, Author of Southern Lady Code
by Rea Frey
Helen Ellis is the type of woman you immediately want as your friend. A sweet, well-mannered southerner who lives in New York, her thick drawl doesn’t hide how smart and sassy she really is. Case in point? When asked about her southern accent, she said it’s her best accessory. “It’s cheaper than Botox and breast implants.” She crosses her legs to reveal a stylish shoe. “A good southern accent never goes out of style.”
Love her yet? Thought so.
Before we met in the iconic Hermitage Hotel in Nashville for our interview, I was listening—and laughing—along with the audio version of her newest book, Southern Lady Code, and scraping my hair into its signature bun. As I secured the final bobby pin, Helen Ellis’s sweet voice vibrated through my bathroom: women with buns can’t be trusted. (Though a top knot is acceptable apparently.) In the next sentence, she also mentioned things you shouldn’t have, which included an inner arm tattoo. My eyes traveled down to my very bright, very prominent peacock quill tattoo that snaked the entire length of my right arm.
“Well, this should go well,” I said to myself. In order to distract her, I slipped on a pair of super bright hot pink heels with my flower jumpsuit and hopped out the door. It worked. She complimented me on the shoes, and I said: “Thank you.” I didn’t deflect—this is an important lesson for southern ladies; just please accept the damn compliment—and we were off to the races.
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Southern Lady Code by bestselling author @AmericanHousewife reminds us of that sweet, prim and proper southern belle that we all grew up with that had a well-hidden naughty side. This fast paced collection of very funny essays takes a look at the “up bringing” girls and women get in the South. Told with deprecating humor with a dash of brass these are the stories we tell each other and the common truths we acknowledge after we’ve had a glass of white wine, in hushed tones with a hand covering our lipsticked mouths as we try to suppress our giggles. If you love southern culture this is a book you probably didn’t know you needed. But it’s such fun and you’ll be so glad that you read it, you’ll want to share it with a girlfriend or sister. We also love that the author created a podcast, a to the book if you will. Each podcast is seven or eight minutes, voiced by the author and absolutely in keeping with the tone and spirit of the book. The podcast will make you want to buy the book, and the book will encourage you to listen to the podcast. We suggest you do both… posthaste. #SouthernLadyCode #DueSouthBooks #BookClub #bookstagram #southernsunday #Reading #DueSouthMagazine #SouthernFiction
Born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Helen grew up with a super southern mother (or “Mama” as she calls her), a father who taught her poker at the age of six (she’s still a competitive poker player), and all the confidence to leave home and go to New York on her twenty-second birthday. Her plan? Become a famous writer.
After trying and flailing for a few years, she applied to graduate school, only to be rejected by every single one. In retaliation, she wrote a novel called Eating the Cheshire Cat. Her book deal was the stuff of dreams: a sack of cash and a fully funded book tour. What came after? A pile of rejections so large, she shoved all of her subsequent books in a drawer, stopped writing, and learned the art of becoming a housewife.
As a housewife, Helen learned a new set of rules—most of which are glommed from her authentic southern roots. She started an anonymous Twitter account, @WhatIDoAllDay and taught herself to write again.
She began dropping her southern “code” into every story and created her bestselling book, American Housewife, which catapulted her back into the spotlight and gave this self-proclaimed introvert a new character to portray in the public eye: herself.
Even after twenty-five years in New York and a couple of successful books under her belt, Helen still found herself constantly having to translate what she said to New Yorkers. Things like: “She means well,” which is code for, “She’s a control freak.”
You get the picture.
Southern Lady Code is a group of essays around how Helen lives her life. It’s more than just saying something not so nice in a nice way. It’s not a passive-aggressive language. It’s just an easier way to get your point across. The motto she lives by? Be funny, be honest, and be kind. As her mama would say, “Don’t be ugly.”
One southern gift she clings to? Being a good hostess. Here are four few tips from Helen:
- Guests, please don’t clear the table.
- Guests, please don’t pour the wine.
- Guests, don’t be helpful. (No, really, don’t.)
- Guests, definitely don’t offer help to clean up.
“When you come into someone’s home, it should be an experience,” Helen explains. “Just let me take care of you for a night. Let me be nice.”
The thing she loves most about the south? The respect and the manners. Saying good morning and a wave can go a long way to make someone’s day, so next time you’re in an elevator with someone, stop staring at the phone in your hand and say hello.
Helen’s biggest advice to women in this demanding world? If you can’t say no, say no, thank you. “No, thank you is a sentence,” she says. “You don’t have to excuse yourself. You don’t have to come up with a reason why. Just say no, thank you.”
May I sit with you?
No, thank you.
Can I buy you a drink?
No, thank you.
Want to get in the back of my unmarked van?
No, thank you.
Helen once avoided a mugging on Halloween in New York by a man dressed like Jesus who pulled out something—gun, knife, salami?—and demanded she hand over her purse. She tilted her head, let go that beautiful smile, and simply said, “No, thank you.” And kept walking.
When your mugger is Jesus and manners still keep you safe, you know you’re doing something right.
To end things on a southern note, I asked Helen a few fast questions:
Rea Frey (RF): Favorite southern food?
Helen Ellis (HE): Pimento cheese.
RF: Favorite southern place?
HE: New Orleans
RF: Favorite southern tradition?
HE: (laughs): Hot rollers.
RF: (pauses): Like hair hot rollers? Like…from the 1990s? Do you have a favorite brand?
HE: Clairol. I keep one in my suitcase and one at work. That’s how I know I’m wealthy—when one breaks and I can just go out and buy another.
RF: That’s the greatest thing I’ve ever heard.
HE: You’re welcome.
RF: Favorite southern saying?
HE: I’m not in charge.
HE: You’re doing it wrong.
A resident of Nashville, Rea Frey is the author of Not Her Daughter (soon to be a motion film), and her upcoming novel, Because You’re Mine, releasing August 2019 (St. Martin’s Press). Learn more about Rea.
Photography by Preston Long.