Interview with Lolis Eric Elie

The writer discusses his new book, a project inspired by HBO's "Treme."

GREG MILES PHOTOGRAPH

When you’re a writer, and read another writer’s biography,   there’s often a moment when you’re impressed – accompanied by a twinge of jealousy – with what that person has accomplished. That is exactly what happened when I read about Lolis Eric Elie. Now, of course, the moment passed, but with the realization I was probably intimidated because Elie has accomplished a lot – and not just as a writer.

But, let’s start with the writing: his most recent book is Treme: Stories and Recipes from the Heart of New Orleans, which is an interesting blend of fiction and nonfiction, just like the HBO television show that inspired it, and for which he was one of its writers. The nonfiction is obviously the recipes, while the fiction is the background profiles he created for the show’s characters, primarily chef Janette Desautel. Various characters have “contributed” recipes – including Aunt Mimi’s libation concoctions.

Elie is no stranger to books about food, as he’s the author of Smokestack Lightning: Adventures in the Heart of Barbecue Country and his pieces are in a number of anthologies, including Cornbread Nation 2: The United States of Barbecue.

Elie isn’t just a cultural attaché and proponent for Southern food, as he was also a columnist for 13 years for The Times-Picayune, and a contributor for Oxford American and other publications discussing the state of affairs for New Orleans, the South, blacks and other subjects. In addition to his work on HBO’s “Treme,” he’s currently a writer on “Hell on Wheels,” which now makes him bi-coastal, traveling between New Orleans and the show’s production base in Los Angeles.

And, there are the documentaries: With award-winning director Dawn Logsdon he co-produced and wrote the PBS documentary, "Faubourg Tremé: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans" and was co-producer and writer of Smokestack Lightning: A Day in the Life of Barbecue.

See what I mean – intimidating with accomplishments. Yet, interviewing Elie was an enlightening experience. Elie answered my questions thoughtfully and with a subtle sense of humor. With that said, I look forward to: 1) Reading more of Elie’s books; 2) Trying some of the recipes from the “Treme” cookbook; 3) Ordering AMC to watch “Hell on Wheels” and 4) Seeing what else he’s going to do in the coming years – because it will be ever changing, but continuously fascinating.

Did the actors have a say on what recipes were in the “Treme” cookbook? No, they didn’t. On a TV show, what happens is we write the scripts, send them to the actors, directors and other people on the crew who need to make adjustments based on the script, and at that point the actors will give back feedback. But in this case, the book was sort of parallel with production, and a big part of what I was trying to do was script backstories that didn’t interfere with what was on screen. I was writing about things with which the actors wouldn’t have been familiar.
 
So, are all the profiles in the book written by you? Yes. And that’s what you’re doing when you are writing for a TV show anyway.

What is your favorite recipe in the “Treme” cookbook? Probably the fried chicken. Or the Clemenceau shrimp.

In addition to testing the food recipes in the book, did you test Aunt Mimi’s cocktail recipes? I did, I did, I did. It was a cocktail education for me.

“Hell on Wheels”: What’s your title on the show? Script supervisor – but basically I’m a writer.

Because “Hell on Wheels” is set just after the Civil War, do you now have to do more historical research? On “Treme” we boned up on our recent history, but tried as best we could to be faithful.

With “Hell on Wheels,” we’re taking a few liberties with what happened back then.

Your favorite book is Ishmael Reed’s Flight to Canada, which is a type of historical fiction that blends past and present. How is “Hell on Wheels” like that? I would say to you that if you don’t read the book, at least read the opening poem. It is absolutely hilarious.

Anytime you’re dealing with historical fiction, you’re taking a mix of the present and the past, and the challenge is to figure out how to make historical characters believable and sympathetic to modern viewers. It’s always as a mix of past and present. But I really hadn’t connected these two [book and TV show], even though there are parallels.

What I like about the book is the language and the way in which modern language is being used to comment on a historical situation, which therefore means you’re also commenting on a contemporary situation.

When we use language on “Hell on Wheels,” I’m certain there are times it isn’t of the historical period, but we never do that intentionally.

True Confession: I have a weakness for sales. When I was young, my mother was quite a shopper, so I guess I learned from her. I would rather wait and not get something, if I think I can get it for less.


Author’s Note: Though the “Persona” column will continue, this is my final time writing it, as I’m now the Social Scene Editor at NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune. My first New Orleans Magazine “Persona” was February 2006, in which I profiled actor and radio personality Spud McConnell. Subsequent “Personas” have included athletes, writers, musicians, a DJ, actors, artists, TV and movie producers, chefs, restaurant entrepreneurs, a burlesque producer and performer, comedians, politicians, businessmen, TV anchors, businessmen, New Orleans Saints coaches and players, educators, the Captain of Rex and multiple King Zulus. It has been an amazingly educational and fun ride. Many thanks go to the following people for allowing me to do this column, and for their infinite patience: Editor Errol Laborde, Managing Editor Morgan Packard, former Managing Editor Faith Dawson, Art Directors Eric Gernhauser and Tiffani Reding Amedeo, Assistant Editor Sarah Ravits, Kristi Ferrante and Bev Church. And of course, thank you to all of those who I profiled – what an amazing group of people!


At a Glance
Age: 50 Profession: Writer Resides: Faubourg Tremé Born/raised: New Orleans Education: New Orleans Center for Creative Arts; Ben Franklin High School; University of Pennsylvania, MA from Columbia Journalism School; MFA in creative writing, University of Virginia. Favorite book: Flight to Canada by Ishmael Reed Favorite movie: My Life as a Dog Favorite TV show: “Deadwood” Favorite food: Gumbo Favorite restaurant: Dooky Chase’s Favorite music: Jazz Favorite musician: Miles Davis Hobby: Wine. My first big wine experience was tasting an Opus One at the winery. Favorite vacation spot: Brazil
 

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