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Fannie Flagg Interview: Southern Author on "The Whole Town's Talking" and Chance Meeting with Harper Lee

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Image attributed to Fannie Flagg

Fannie Flagg

Fannie Flagg is The New York Times bestselling author of Daisy Fay and the Miracle Man, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, Welcome to the World, Baby Girl!A Redbird Christmas, The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion, and several other novels. Flagg wrote a screenplay based on the 1987 book, Fried Green Tomatoes, and the film garnered her a nomination for an Academy Award.

The Birmingham, Alabama, native is also known for being a semi-regular panelist on the 1973-81 versions of Match Game, and her acting credits include the original Broadway production of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and the films Some of My Best Friends Are…, Five Easy Pieces, Stay Hungry, Grease and Crazy in Alabama.

“I always wanted to be a writer so much, and I’m glad I did. Basically, I have much more of a writer’s personality than a performer’s personality. Yet, I was performing, and I never felt quite right about it. I didn’t seem to have that fire in the belly. It was like I was just making a living.”

The Whole Town’s Talking, released November 29, 2016, is Flagg’s latest endeavor, a novel in the tradition of Wilder’s Our Town and Flagg’s own Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven. The book tells the story of Lordor Nordstrom, his Swedish mail-order bride, Katrina, and their neighbors and descendants as they live, love, die and carry on in mysterious and surprising ways.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Fannie, I’ve heard rumors this is your last book. Is that true?

Fannie Flagg: I hope so. But, I can’t trust myself. I’ve said it before (laughs).

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I know. So, why is this time different?

Fannie Flagg: Well, it’s because it’s such a long book, and I just thought, “This will be my last huge one.” If I write something else, I’m hoping it will be a smaller book more on the size of A Redbird Christmas. This just took too long. I’m going to write shorter books. This will be the last long novel. It’s over 400 pages!

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You’ve said it took two years to complete. Is that about average for a long novel?

Fannie Flagg: Yeah. Actually, it takes a little longer because you’ll be thinking about something a long time before you write it, you know what I mean? I had my ideas maybe five years ago. It takes quite a while.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Your last novel, The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion, was based on a true story. Where did the idea come from for The Whole Town’s Talking?

Fannie Flagg: I was interested in writing a history of a small town in America, a typical small town. I used Elmwood Springs, Missouri, because I know that town pretty well and wanted to do a history of its founding all the way to the future, like what happened to the progression of a small town in America.

I was also interested in how people got to this country and started their families, their traditions and brought their work ethics and traditions over from where they came from.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Elmwood Springs was actually founded by Swedish immigrants as you write in the book?

Fannie Flagg: Yes. There’s a little town in Baldwin County, Alabama, honey, called Silverhill that was founded by Swedes. It’s so funny. There’s a little town right next to it called Elberta. It was founded by Germans. Then, there’s another little town not more than 10 miles away called Loxley, and it was founded by Greeks. We all sort of bunch up together, and then spread out.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I loved the first part of the book where Lordor Nordstrom allowed the women in the town to view the photo of his mail-order bride (laughs).

Fannie Flagg: Thank you (laughs).

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Where did you get the inspiration for Lordor?

Fannie Flagg: The Nordstroms were characters in the other books about Elmwood Springs. There was a character called Gene Nordstrom, which was his grandson. So, I thought that instead of doing a sequel, I would go back and do a prequel to some of the other books I’ve written on Elmwood Springs, but it’s a different time frame. I just thought, “I’m going to go back and see how it all started.”

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What makes Southerners so interesting that people want to read about them?

Fannie Flagg: To me, the thing that is most interesting about Southerners is that everybody’s a character. There’s just no dull people. They’re hilarious. I love the way they use the language. They love to talk. You just don’t find that in other parts of the country. When I go home, I can talk for two hours with a total stranger. They’ll just tell you everything you want to know. They just love to talk, love to visit with one another, and love their neighbors and community. It’s just a whole different part of the country.

We all speak English, but we have different cultures everywhere, and the Southern culture is just different from the culture in New Hampshire or New England or California. Of course, being a Southerner, I relate to southerners.

Being a Southerner has been one of the joys of my life because no matter where I go, if I hear that accent, I’ve got a friend. I can walk up to them and say, “Where are you from?” They’d tell me and ask where I’m from. I’d say, “I’m from Birmingham, Alabama.” Then, you’ve got a conversation because we relate to one another.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You haven’t lost that accent!

Fannie Flagg: No. That’s okay (laughs)

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): When you first started out, did you want to pursue a career in writing or acting?

Fannie Flagg: I started out wanting to be a writer, and then I discovered, sadly, that I couldn’t spell, so that stopped me for a while. I was very, very shy. I really suffered with that. I was the kind of person that would blush because I’d get very shy, and it was very difficult for me. So, they put me in this little theatre group in Birmingham, the Town & Gown Theatre. It’s called the Virginia Samford Theatre now.

I went down there when I was 15 or 16 years old. I was working the lights or backstage, something like that. The director, James Hatcher, saw how shy I was, and he said, “I’m going to put you in a show.” I said, “Oh, don’t do that.” They kept putting me in shows and then, I started liking it. I started wanting to be a performer, but then I began writing my own material because I did comedy. I was kind of doing both.

But, there was a part of me, Melissa, that wanted to write novels, and I don’t know why. I had no background in writing novels. I didn’t have an English degree. I couldn’t spell. My grammar was terrible. But, I had the desire to be a writer. I tried to not pay attention to it, and I pushed it aside until finally, I just had to do it. I started writing fairly late. I was in my late 20s, early 30s. Most people start writing earlier than that, but my first book didn’t come out until I was in my 30s. I always wanted to write, just never had the courage.

I went to a writer’s conference and they encouraged me. I got a publisher, an editor and a book. But, I have to be honest about it, it helped me that I was on television because they said, “We could probably get you on television to sell your book.” I always wanted to be a writer so much, and I’m glad I did. Basically, I have much more of a writer’s personality than a performer’s personality. Yet, I was performing, and I never felt quite right about it. I didn’t seem to have that fire in the belly. It was like I was just making a living.

I remember I was on Broadway doing The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. I was playing the lead and I remember going to work in February. It was freezing in New York. I went to work and got to the dressing room, was putting on my false eyelashes and pulling the rollers out of my hair. I was crying because it was so cold and I was so miserable.

I looked at myself in the mirror and thought, “What are you doing? You’re not enjoying this and that is terrible. You are taking a job away from an actress that would just love to be doing this. You’re just doing this to make a living.” So, I made a decision that I wasn’t going to do that. I gave my notice and started writing full-time. And, you know what? It was the right thing to do, honey.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You don’t miss acting at all?

Fannie Flagg: No, I don’t. I miss people. But, after I finish writing, I get to go out and meet people. I can use those skills. I get to see people when I’m doing book signings, so it’s not like I’m not out there anymore.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): It must’ve been an amazing experience to work with Dick Van Dyke on The New Dick Van Dyke Show.

Fannie Flagg: Oh, it was. What a darling. Just as sweet as he could be.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): And Barbara Eden on Harper Valley PTA?

Fannie Flagg: Oh, my God! It sounds cliché, but she was a darling and one of the nicest people that ever lived. She was so cute. I was so lucky. I really worked with nice people.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): It was a struggle to get Fried Green Tomatoes published, wasn’t it?

Fannie Flagg: Yeah. It took quite a while because, at the point where I was sending out the synopsis on the book, people said that it was a nice story, but they didn’t think people were interested in an old woman in a nursing home. Finally, after about 19 or 20 rejections, I got Random House who I’m still with today.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How was Harper Lee involved with that book?

Fannie Flagg: She was very encouraging to me because just when I was about ready to give up writing that book, I fortunately, by magic, or something in the universe, went to hear a speech by Eudora Welty in New York. I walked out, and there stood this guy I knew from Monroeville, Alabama, who worked for my chiropractor, believe it or not, and he had a lady standing with him.

I assumed it was his mother or aunt, so I went over and said, “Hey Jay!” He said, “Hi. I want to introduce you to somebody.” This sweet looking little woman stuck her hand out and said, “Hey Fannie. Harper Lee. Monroeville, Alabama.” I thought to myself, “Oh, God, Fannie, don’t faint.” Then, after composing myself, I said to her, “Oh, it’s so lovely to meet you.” We stood there and talked. I noticed that she kept looking at me like she was sizing me up. About five minutes later, she said, “Fannie. We’re going to go for a drink. Would you care to join us?” I pretended I was so cool, and I looked at my watch. I said, “Yeah. I think I can do that.”

Anyhow, long story short, we went, and she was asking me what I was doing. I told her the idea of Fried Green Tomatoes, and Harper Lee said, “Don’t give up on that.” We became friends. She was just like a mentor to me and so sweet and kind. I wound up winning the Harper Lee Award in 2012, and she came. I was so happy to see her. That was the last time I saw her.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Meeting Harper Lee was one of your most memorable experiences?

Fannie Flagg: Totally, honey.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Of course, I remember you sitting next to Richard Dawson on Match Game.

Fannie Flagg: Oh, my God, yes!

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How did you become involved in the game shows in the 1970s?

Fannie Flagg: Okay. Talking about luck, I’m telling you. Being from Alabama has helped me in so many ways, you won’t even know. I’ll tell you one story, and then I’ll finish the other about how I got on Match Game. The first story is that I was writing a comedy album in New York City with some friends of mine, and it was about the first family, Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson. There was this actress that was supposed to record that day, and she was going to play Lady Bird. She got sick or something and didn’t show up. We had to record, and they turned to me and said, “Can you do Lady Bird Johnson?” I said, “I have no idea.”

I ran down to the record store, and I picked up a record she had called beautifying Washington or something like that. I listened to it and thought, “I can do that.” I figured it out. Her aunt, who was from Alabama, raised her, so Lady Bird had a combo Texas/Alabama accent. She talked very slowly with a drawl, which was very southern. I was able to do Lady Bird from that, and I got on The Tonight Show. That was a big thing.

Here’s the other hilarious thing about being from Alabama. There was a woman named Virginia McDavid who was Miss Alabama in the 50s, a beautiful girl from Birmingham. She married Mark Goodson, honey, of Goodson-Todman who produced all of the game shows. I was friends with Virginia, did a play with her. She had a little girl that I knew and was friends with. Virginia and Mark got a divorce, so the little girl was up in New York staying with her daddy. Her nurse had my number, called me and said, “Little Marjorie is lonesome. Can you come visit her at our house?” I said, “Sure.”

I went over there, and I said hello to Mark Goodson. He talked to me a little bit, and I visited with Marjorie, and he said, “Can you come to my office tomorrow?” I did, and he said, “Fannie. We’re getting ready to do this show called Match Game. I’d like for you to be on it.” I said, “I don’t know if I can do that or not.” He said, “Will you try it?” So, I did the pilot and that’s how I got into the game shows. It was my Alabama connection! Isn’t that funny? I just lucked out, didn’t I? I was at the right place at the right time, born in the right town and just did it all right.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are you living full-time in California now?

Fannie Flagg: Pretty much. I used to have a little apartment in Birmingham and a little condo down in Fairhope. You know, Melissa, it just got too hard maintenance-wise trying to take care of them long distance, so I finally, about two years ago, let those go. I figured it was cheaper for me when I went home just to stay in a nice hotel.

It’s so hard nowadays to travel. For me to get home I have to get on about three planes. It’s just hard. The older I get, the harder it is for me to travel like I used to. I’m close to Los Angeles where I do business and stuff. I’m spending more time in California than at home, but now that I’m not writing anymore, maybe that’ll change.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you still have family in Alabama?

Fannie Flagg: I don’t have family, but I have an awful lot of friends. So, when I go home, I spend a lot of time with them. I was an only child and had very few relatives. I hated being an only child, but now that I have so many friends that have brothers and sisters that drive them nuts, I think maybe I’m lucky (laughs).

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What do you enjoy doing?

Fannie Flagg: I really enjoy nature. I find I just like being with nature and taking walks, but when I’m writing, I have very little time. I like to visit with friends and enjoy nature. I lead a simple, quiet life, which I like. I live in a little golf course community, and I don’t play golf, but I like to watch them cuss and scream and carry on. I play tennis.

I know I sound dull, but that’s it. And, of course, my favorite thing in the world is to people watch. All I need to do is go sit somewhere and I’m highly amused and entertained. I don’t know why, but I am. You know how people bird watch? I people watch.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You’re definitely writing short stories next?

Fannie Flagg: I’m hoping that I’m going to write a book of short stories. I’ve got a couple of little short stories. I was laughing the other day. I’ve already got one called, “I’m Shrinking.” I went to the doctor the other day and this gal weighed me, which I hate. She did my height and told me what it was. I said, “That’s not right!” I told her I was almost 5’ 5.” She said, “Well, I’m sorry, but you’re not.”

I said, “I’ve been almost 5’ 5” all my life!” She said, “Look. You’re not.” I thought, “Well, damn, I’m shrinking.” (laughs) It made me mad. I’ve always wanted to be tall, and now I’m getting smaller. That ain’t right. I’m going to get one of those machines that stretches you.

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