We all have unique and life-stamping beginnings that stay with us forever, but it’s our life experiences that shape who we are. With any luck we both enhance and challenge ourselves with every new day.
In this week’s Killer Nashville blog, author Ellen Byron shares her journey to becoming a writer and reminds us of the ultimate two tenets of writing: know what you write and write what you love.
Read like they are burning books!
North and South: A Writer’s Journey
By Ellen Byron
Why does a native Noo Yawkuh who lives in the City of Angels always seem to write about the South? It’s a question I’ve often asked myself. And after giving it much thought, I’ve come up with two answers. One is obvious, the other less so.
My initial fascination began as a teenage obsession with Tennessee Williams. I was overwhelmed by the poetry of The Glass Menagerie, the sensual brutality of A Streetcar Named Desire, and the passion and heartbreak of Orpheus Descending.
Eventually it hit this Williams fangirl, what better place to pay homage to my idol than New Orleans? I transferred from a gritty New York state college to the lush, almost tropical campus of Tulane University, and embraced everything about the magical Crescent City. I reveled in its sultry humidity and guested at Mardi Gras balls. I people-watched on the streetcars, wondering if one of the white-gloved society matrons making her way to the French Quarter might have been the inspiration for Blanche DuBois. I wanted to be accepted so badly that I tried to hide my New York accent, and while no one ever mistook me for a Southerner, I did have a customer at the sandwich shop where I worked part-time ask if I was British.
When my parents came to visit, we’d rent a car and explore southern Louisiana. I learned that if you saw an alley of trees that dead-ended in an empty field, odds were that’s where a plantation once stood. I met proud and marvelous Cajuns, people whose ancestors were forced out of Canada in the mid-eighteenth century by Le Grand Derangement, their roots in America pre-dating the Declaration of Independence. People who still spoke French as their native tongue and English as their second language over two hundred years after their diaspora. And gradually this gal from Queens fell utterly in love with a way of life that couldn’t seem more different from her own background.
But was it so different? While mulling this over, I came up with the second answer to the question of why I feel so connected to a part of the country where I only spent a few years of my life.
My mother was born in Italy. She came to America with her parents at the age of three. During the decades that followed, a parade of relatives and pisanes (fellow countrymen) from the little village of Orsogna joined her in the migration. I spent much of my childhood at family functions where the air was thick with the scent of homemade sauces, pastas, and meats. Uncles, aunts and cousins spent the meal laughing and arguing in Italian. I could spend an entire day at a family event and never hear a word of English. It was a world unto itself.
So why do I feel drawn to the South? Because, like my family’s small enclave, it’s a world unto itself— a rich, unique culture within the larger culture of the United States. This is particularly true of southern Louisiana,
where I’ve set my debut novel, Plantation Shudders: A Cajun Country Mystery The food, the music, and the language all come together in this part of the world to create a singular environment. (By the way, my fascination with the South isn’t limited to Louisiana. In my play Old Sins, Long Shadows, I trade the Pelican State for Kentucky as a family battles for the mineral rights to their land.)
I sometimes worry that this East Coast/West Coast girl might be viewed as some kind of carpetbagger. Then I remind myself of two writing tenets I’ve always adhered to: know about what you write, and write about what you love. Which is exactly what I’m doing. So I hope Southerners see my preoccupation as a form of flattery, and forgive any errors I might make as a wannabe rather than a native. To quote a favorite playwright of mine, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” Or, as my late Nonna might have put it, “Ho sempre dipendeva dalla benevolenza di strainer.”
Ellen’s debut novel, Plantation Shudders: A Cajun Country Mystery, launches in August. Her TV credits include Wings, Just Shoot Me, and network pilots. She’s written over 200 articles for national magazines, and her plays, published by the Dramatists Play Service, have been performed around the world. She’s the recipient of a William F. Deeck-Malice Domestic Grant, presented by the Malice Domestic Conference.
(To be a part of the Killer Nashville Guest Blog, send a query to firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d love to hear from you. Thanks to Tom Wood, Maria Giordano, Will Chessor, Clay Janeway, and publisher/editorial director Clay Stafford for their assistance in putting together this week’s blog. And for more writer resources, visit us at www.KillerNashville.com, www.KillerNashvilleMagazine.com, and www.KillerNashvilleBookCon.com.)
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