In an age when many novelists take a decidedly cynical approach to reporting on the human condition, novelist Fannie Flagg sticks resolutely to her sanguine style. “If I’m going to report on life, I want to be a happy reporter. Everybody already knows the bad stuff,” she says.
As a writer, Flagg, 62, is best known for her beloved novel Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Café, for which she also wrote an award-winning screenplay. Her other novels include Daisy Fay and the Miracle Man; Welcome to the World, Baby Girl; Standing in the Rainbow; and her latest offering, A Redbird Christmas (all by Random House).
Flagg’s probably at least as well known as an actress who appeared on ’70s-era TV game shows such as “Candid Camera” and “Match Game ’76.” She launched her writing career when she entered a short-story contest 30 years ago.
On a breather from her recent book tour, she spoke openly about the stigma of writing about small, Southern towns and offered some good advice on painting a scene with words.
How did you get your start as a novelist?
In 1975, I went to the Santa Barbara Writers Conference. I went there to see my idol, Eudora Welty. As part of the conference, I had to write a story about my childhood, and I thought everybody had to enter. I wrote the story Daisy Fay and the Miracle Man and signed it Pearl Buck. Well, I ended up winning, and Eudora Welty congratulated Pearl Buck when she handed me the prize. That short story turned into my first novel.
Your characters in A Redbird Christmas and in your other novels are so richly drawn. Do you base them on real people?
I do. Most of my characters are combinations of people I know. I take a little bit of something from one person and something from another. But with Oswald Campbell [from A Redbird Christmas], I was thinking, How can I introduce this town to readers? It had to be someone unknown to the area to come down and discover the place, so that’s where Oswald came from.
You’ve said that the town of Lost River, from A Redbird Christmas, is based on the small town in Alabama where you grew up. How do you go about creating these scenic details that create such a strong mental picture? Do you take notes or photos or rely solely on memory?
For this particular book, last year I went down to the place I’m writing about at the same time that my character Oswald would have been getting there. I sat on the river and watched like I’d never seen it before. I was literally writing as a painter would paint. My father was a visual artist, and I so admire that in people. I can’t even draw a stick figure. The only thing I can do to re-create a setting is to describe it in words. Oswald has a strong visual sense that he discovers in himself. When I’m writing, I always have a place in mind. The setting to me is the main character.
You’ve been criticized for being overly sentimental in your writing. How would you respond to these critics?
I’d be thrilled to be called overly sentimental. To me, that’s a good thing. I think there’s a tendency to be cute and glib. You can be cute and smart and clever—that’s easy. But I want to touch people and have them feel something on an emotional level. Negativity gets a lot of attention. I could do that really well if I wanted, but I choose not to.
I think part of it’s because I write about small towns, and I’m Southern. People tend to think that’s cute and homey. Sometimes reviewers will dismiss people from the South or small towns as being unsophisticated, but if they really read my books—they have murder, death and heartbreak. I report on real life. I don’t gloss over that. I write about middle-class and small-town people with great admiration.
Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Café is the novel that put you in the spotlight as a writer. Did having a big success help or hinder your writing?
At first it scared me to death because I didn’t expect anyone to read the book, much less make a movie about it. I got writer’s block after that book and didn’t write for four or five years after that.
You also wrote the award-winning screenplay for Fried Green Tomatoes . How is the process of writing a novel different from writing a screenplay?
The novel is yours and yours alone. When you’re writing a screenplay, you’re a hired writer, and it’s write-by-committee. You’re in a room with three or four other people—writers and directors—and they all have input, and that’s very hard. All of a sudden, your characters are no longer yours; they belong to the studio. You have to fight when they say that a character would or wouldn’t do something. But it’s a different medium. Those movie people know what they’re talking about. They know what works on screen.
How did your early life experiences prepare you for your life as a writer?
My father and grandfather were motion-picture workers, so when I was small, I saw every movie that came around. I started out in theater at 14. We had a really good community theater in Birmingham, and I worked behind the scenes.
Then I went to Pittsburgh Playschool. I always wanted to be a writer, and a lot of times I ended up performing my work because I couldn’t find anyone to perform it. Acting gave me a good ear for dialogue. I think it also taught me to write visually. Being an actress also helped teach me to write natural dialogue, and it taught me timing. Comedy and drama timing have almost the same beat.
Then I went to work for “Candid Camera.” I started as a writer, then I fell into acting when an actress called in sick one day.
What did you learn from your “Candid Camera” stint?
There’s nothing funnier than real life. Real life is truly hysterical. You can’t make up the funny things that happen to people. On “Candid Camera,” the minute people knew they were on camera, they started trying to be funny, and they weren’t funny anymore.
There always seems to be a strong sense of justice in your stories—of characters getting what they deserve.
As a writer, I get the pleasure of giving characters what they deserve. I believe you reap what you sow.
Do you have a favorite character? Is there one who sticks with you?
I seem to have a running character in each book, which is almost the same person and is the closest to me. In every book, I have a Dorothy or Dot or Dottie who’s observing and reporting. Fried Green Tomatoes had Dot Wen reporting in the weekly paper. Neighbor Dorothy reports in Standing in the Rainbow. In A Redbird Christmas, it’s Dottie Nivens.
Is it true that you organize scenes by hanging them on a clothesline in your house?
This is true. I’m dyslexic. I write the end, then middle, then some of the beginning. I write scenes, then hang them on the clothesline down my great-big, long hall. It just helps me to see the story visually in sequence. The hardest part is putting it all together at the end. It’s like piecing together a quilt. And if I drop it, I have a totally different book. I flip through time passages easily in my head. In fact, I think A Redbird Christmas is the first book that has a beginning, a middle and an end.
What’s your writing process? Do you write every day?
I take notes with paper and pencil, then when I actually start to write, I’m a binge writer. I wake up in the morning and write on my word processor. I write until three or four in the afternoon, then start again the next day. But I don’t write every day. As a matter of fact, I’m wont to write a postcard when I’m not writing a book. I’ve written a few articles and essays but really, I’m not smart enough to write nonfiction. [laughs]
Any advice for aspiring novelists?
If you do everything in your power to avoid writing and still can’t, then you must be a writer. When it’s going well, there’s nothing better and when it’s not, there’s nothing worse. If you can live your life where you don’t have to write, then don’t. It’s a calling. It’s the hardest work in the world.