Interview with Fannie Flagg

November, 2010
Fannie Flagg An irresistible combination of charm and true grit, Birmingham, Alabama-born comedian and novelist Fannie Flagg never lets a little adversity get in her way. As a young woman, she entered the Miss Alabama pageant six times, year after year, before finally winning a scholarship to acting school. After years writing for and cohosting Candid Camera, and starring in Broadway musicals and on The New Dick Van Dyke Show, she began to focus on writing fiction.

The success of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, which turned into a blockbuster movie starring Kathy Bates and earned Flagg an Oscar nomination for screenwriting, boosted Flagg's profile as an author. She has since written several more best-sellers full of Southern folks, spunky women, and heartfelt comedy. In her newest book, I Still Dream About You, a 60-year-old former Miss Alabama contemplates giving up on life. Flagg chatted with Goodreads about her diverse career and reveals whether the particularly Southern tradition of minding your manners helps you get ahead.

Goodreads: Your new book is set where you grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, and your heroine is a struggling real estate agent named Maggie Fortenberry. Has Birmingham been especially hard hit by the global economic downturn?

Fannie Flagg: Yes, it has. But when I started this book, the downturn really hadn't started yet! I had no idea how timely it would be. I wish I could say that I was so brilliant that I saw it coming, but I didn't. I'm absolutely obsessed with real estate. There's not a single open house I won't go in. A lot of my friends are real estate agents in Birmingham and in Montecito, California, and they are really hurting. They are ladies of a certain age, as is Maggie, the main character in my book, who just can't compete with young computer whizzes.

GR: Instead of selling to someone who will bulldoze a home and rebuild, Maggie always wants to find a family to move in. Do you share a similar love for a house's history?

FF: Yes, I get emotionally attached to houses. I bought a house and then I sold it, but I just pined away for it like I had lost someone I loved. Embarrassingly, I bought it back two years later. Of course, it had gone up in price. But I had to have it.

GR: Maggie is a former Miss Alabama. Is it true that you are a six-time Miss Alabama contestant?

FF: Sometimes people think I've made that up as a joke, but it's true! When I was growing up in Alabama, honey, they didn't have an opportunity for girls to get scholarships to school. Boys could get it through athletics, and blah blah blah. Well, I entered the Miss Alabama pageant to get a scholarship. That's why I kept entering, and I eventually won a scholarship for two years to the Pittsburgh Playhouse. So obviously I know a lot of Miss Alabamas. As they say, you need to write about something you know.

GR: What was your talent?

FF: You had to ask! [laughs] My talent was always comedy. I wrote these little two- to three-minute comedy sketches. One year I did a piece where I played a 90-year-old woman who was meeting a train and looking for her fiancé. We realize that she lost her fiancé in World War I. I always got picked to perform on the big stage at the Alabama Theatre, because I was one of very few girls to have a comedy number.

GR: There is a long-standing debate about whether pageants objectify or empower women. Maggie is proud to represent Alabama, but would you say the pressure of her title also held her back in many ways?

FF: Exactly right. No matter how old she is, she is always introduced as former Miss Alabama. You represent your state, so you have an obligation to be a good example to the girls who are coming up. I think that women of that era had that on them anyhow. They had to behave a certain way. Maggie, like so many people I know, was too old for the women's movement to have taken hold. They were caught between two worlds. I felt that, too. You're caught between being told that a lady doesn't do this and a lady doesn't do that, but the reality of the world is that you've go to go out there and make a living. You can't always be the perfect lady. You have to slug it out with the rest of the world. So it's a double-edged sword.

GR: Maggie looks to her boss, Hazel Whisenknott, for guidance. At three feet, four inches tall, Hazel is a bundle of enthusiasm who would never care whether something was ladylike or not. What was your inspiration for Hazel?

FF: I love Hazel. Strangely enough, Hazel was based on my mentor, who was a guy and the director of my theater I had known since I was 15. He was just an absolute dynamo, go-getter, optimistic, and would get up in the morning and do 25,000 appointments. He brought so many people together—there was a whole cult around him. Just by knowing him, my whole life changed.

I also decided to make Hazel a little person. When I was a child, there was a little woman who lived in our neighborhood. I don't know if she considered herself a dwarf, but she was a teeny-tiny thing. She worked downtown at one of the big department stores and every morning would go stand on the Elm Street corner and wait for the bus. At Christmas she would dress up as an elf as Santa's helper. I was just fascinated with her, because she didn't let her handicap bother her at all. She lived a full life, and I so admired it. I combined these two people [into the character of Hazel]. She's the combo plate of people who just have that spirit in them. They don't feel sorry for themselves, and they just keep going. I don't have that, unfortunately. I'm not that kind of person. I wish I were. That's what I admire in others.

GR: Goodreads member Tiffany writes, "Her characters are so colorful and full of life, I wonder if they're figments of her imagination or inspired by friends and/or family members?"

FF: Not only do I base my characters on people I know, I use people's names. In Standing in the Rainbow, Can't Wait to Get to Heaven and Welcome to the World, Baby Girl!, there's this couple, Norma and Macky Warren. Those two people are based on my best friends who live in Birmingham. After I wrote the book, I called Norma and said, "Honey, I've got these two characters. Help me think of some great names to call them." There was this silence and she said, "Well, you may as well call them Macky and Norma because everyone's gonna know who we are anyhow." So I said, "OK!" Well, Norma has become a local celebrity. She goes out and signs books, does speeches, and is having a wonderful time!

Often it's not just one person but a combination. Maggie is a combo plate of so many gals I know: Miss Americas, former Miss Alabamas, girls I knew in business in Birmingham. I think a lot of Maggie [came from] my mother. My mother was very much, "We don't do certain things" and "A lady doesn't go downtown without her gloves." She put great stock in being a lady, having charm, and putting herself second. One day she had some people over at the house. I was sitting in the kitchen, and I heard [the guests] say, "I think we'd better go." My mother stood up and said, "Oh honey, don't go. Why don't you stay and have another piece of cake or some more coffee? Please don't go." They said, "Well, alright." I'll never forget this: Then she came into the kitchen and said, "If they don't leave soon, I'm going to have a nervous breakdown!" I thought that's the epitome. Instead of saying, "Well, thank you for coming," she had to go the extra mile and paid for it.

GR: Southern hospitality is famous.

FF: Yes, and it will turn on you, too. When I first went to New York at a pretty early age, I realized after about a year working as a writer at Candid Camera that people would mistake manners for weakness. I started speaking up, because in a room full of other writers I would try to be polite and wait my turn. Well, that didn't work. You are forced to jump in whether you want to or not for survival. I realized that manners didn't really help a lot.

GR: Candid Camera was a trailblazer for what we now call reality television. Do you watch reality TV today? Any favorite shows?

FF: I don't like those shows that are mean-spirited; I like the documentaries. There was one series [Family Plots] about a family down in San Diego who ran this funeral parlor, and it just cracked me up. Then there was another one about little people [Little People, Big World]. It was just fascinating. So I watch that kind of reality television. I don't know any of that other stuff. Housewives of this or that.

People don't realize that Allen Funt [the creator and host of Candid Camera] was the pioneer of reality television. He doesn't get much credit, but he started this whole thing. Candid Camera wasn't mean-spirited. A lot of [reality TV] goes out of its way to make fools of people. That's upsetting to me. It's harder to do comedy that's funny and doesn't humiliate people. I enjoy shows that bring out the best in people. I'm sort of a Pollyanna.

GR: Goodreads member Tammie would like to know more about your upbringing. She says you "write like someone who grew up with their grandparents, [with the] influences of an older generation."

FF: That's very perceptive. I lived with my grandmother, my mother's mother. My parents were separated, and then my father was in the army, so from the time I was born I lived with my grandmother and grandfather. I didn't even know my father until I was four or five. My grandmother was the closest thing to me—more like my mother. I just adored her. I have always been fond of older people. They seem so wise and so smart. When I wrote Fried Green Tomatoes, Mrs. Threadgoode was based on a woman I used to visit and sit with in the nursing home. Older people are just wonderful. And, oh lord, now I'm one of them! Not quite, but I'm teetering on the edge!

GR: Fried Green Tomatoes was a huge hit, in both book and movie form. What kind of influence did that success have on your career?

FF: It's kind of like the Harper Lee syndrome. How do you top it? "Oh my God, do I have another book in me?" I was terrified because up until that time I didn't really write books thinking that people were actually going to read them. It just never occurred to me! It took me about three years to come up with the next book.

The success of Fried Green Tomatoes changed the way I write, the way I think, everything. I made a decision that I don't want to put out anything negative. I want to put out something that will help someone. That's why every book I write has a happy ending. Somebody called me up and said, "So-and-so said that you only write feel-good books." I said, "Really? Fabulous!" [The caller] said, "No, no. They didn't mean it in a good way." [laughs] I thought it was a compliment! I'm just trying to balance out the world. There's an awful lot of darkness out there.

GR: Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits?

FF: I wake up in the morning and immediately before anything, I walk to my office, put on my coffee, and read my little positive affirmations. Sometimes. I can't be honest and say I do it every day. Then I sit down and start working. I stay there until 2 or 2:30 p.m., then I leave. I can't say hello to anyone, I can't talk to anyone on the phone, or deal with mail or television because I am severely dyslexic, and with that comes ADD. I am so easily distracted that if I see a leaf fall off a tree, I'm gone. I have friends who are writers and can sit there and answer the phone. I wish I could, but I can't do it.

GR: What authors, books, or ideas have influenced you?

FF: William Kennedy's Ironweed influenced me greatly. When people in the grave started talking, I just went wild. Also, Alan Ayckbourn—he's a playwright, not a novelist. I saw a series of three plays called The Norman Conquests. He plays with time. One night you'll go to the play, and you'll see everybody seated in the dining room, and you'll see what's going on. If someone left the dining room, you had no idea what happened. But then the next night you get to see what happened in the living room. Then the next night you'll see what's happening in the garden. This whole idea of playing with time just fascinated me. I think that that gave me the idea of going back and forth in time.

My all-time favorite book that I sit down and reread before I start a book is Travels with Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck. I just love that book because he has such affection for people. Its theme haunts me a little bit. It's about changing, what we're losing. It's sad to me that we're losing these little towns because of the big malls outside the city. The little community that is fading away.

GR: What are you reading now?

FF: I just finished a book that is just delightful. Her name is Lisa Patton, and it's called Whistlin' Dixie in a Nor'easter. It's very funny. Another book I'm reading: The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. It's the epic story of America's great migration.

GR: Are you already working on a new book?

FF: No, ma'am. If you have an idea, I'll buy it. [laughs]


Comments Showing 1-14 of 14 (14 new)

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message 1: by Nancy (new)

Nancy Carty Lepri I just LOVE Fannie's books. They are so nostalgic and cozy. Keep up the great writing, Ms. Flagg!


message 2: by Kim (new)

Kim I love Fannie's books as well. They remind me of the way I grew up. Especially Standing in the Rainbow and Welcome to the World Baby Girl. It really takes me back in time. I hold my breath waiting for another book from Frannie....keep writing...I so look forward to reading your books!


message 3: by Sharon (new)

Sharon Can't wait to get Fannie's new book...she seems like a friend. I grew up in Louisiana, among people just like the characters she writes about. Fried Green Tomatoes is one of my favorite books, and the movie did not disappoint. Good luck, Fannie, on the new book!


message 4: by Shay (new)

Shay My family is Alabama...her books take me there...I always look forward to a new book from her.


message 5: by John (new)

John  Harris I love this woman ! I had the pleasure & honor of meeting her at a book reading/signing back in 2001 in Birmingham, AL. I told her that watching her on Candid Camera was one of my most favorite childhood memories, and she thanked me & said "Bless your heart, aren't you the sweetest thing!" She was so warm & personable. I'll never forget it.


message 6: by Grandma (new)

Grandma Weaver i love fannie flagg's books. i've read all of them. i didnt know she had a christmas book until i happened on it in a book store. all of her characters are really nice people. i'm so glad she has a new book and i'll be getting it very soon.


message 7: by Jo (new)

Jo I've been waiting anxiously for a new Fannie Flagg book. I've read every book twice. Thank you.Thank you. I'm so excited. My favorite is "can't wait to get to Heaven". Well, I loved "Red Bird Christmas", too. But then I loved them all.

Jo-An


message 8: by Mark (new)

Mark Have only ever read one book of Fannie |Flagg's which was called, I think, ' A| Redbird Christmas '. It was scmaltzy and feel good and had a totally ridiculous happy ending. I loved every cotton-pickin minute i spent reading it. Its fantastic to encounter happy endings. They seem so rare in novels


message 9: by Ruth (new)

Ruth I have enjoyed all of Fannie Flagg's books. My favorite is probably Standing in the Rainbow, but I re-read Redbird Christmas every year. I grew up in Birmingham (although I'm a Mississippi "girl" now)and have memories of many of the places like the Alabama Theater that she mentions. I can't wait to read her new book!


message 10: by Kristin (new)

Kristin Masters I read and listen to Fannie Flagg's books - over and over. There is nothing so guaranteed to calm my soul as listening to her tell the story of Neighbor Dorothy, Elner Shimfissle or the Oatmans. Her love and respect for her characters is pure heart-balm.


message 11: by Perrin (new)

Perrin Kreidler I remember listening to Fannie Flagg on the radio when I was growing up. My mother would laugh hysterically at her routines, which the local radio host played from time to time. Wish we could listen to them now. I wonder if there is a way to purchase her old recordings? They are gems!


message 12: by Hayley (new)

Hayley Great interview. She reminds me of one of my best girlfriends! Love her!


message 13: by Bernie (new)

Bernie Corless Favourite book of all time is Fried green tomatoes, these books are so uplifting they put me in a good mood for days.


message 14: by Vinson (new)

Vinson I had the pleasure of meeting Ms. Flagg at the writing symposium in Monroeville, AL. She autographed my copy of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, and it is now one of my prized possessions.


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