A Work of Passion: An Interview with Fannie Flagg
BAM: You have a strong entertainment background. Why did you choose to pursue writing? And how did that happen?
When I was little, I started out wanting to be a writer, but I was so shy. In the 6th grade, my teacher was very concerned about me because I was so shy. She thought I might’ve been an abused child. But I always wanted to write.
Later, I went into theater to be a lighting technician. But while I was there, the theater director saw again that I was horribly shy. He wanted to help me get over that, and he started putting me in shows. The first shows I was in, I had a non-speaking part and was shaking all over.
He quietly continued to give me parts. At first it was non-speaking, then I would get a sentence, and finally he started putting me in roles. It really helped me get over my shyness, and I started acting. But I still wanted to write.
I moved to New York in the 1960s, and I made the move to become a writer. I had written some comedy sketches, and Upstairs Downstairs, a comedy club, bought the material. On the night of the performance, the girl who was supposed to perform the material had to drop out at the last minute, and they came to me to act it out. So I ended up acting the material I had written.
The night we opened, it just so happened that Allen Funt from Candid Camera was in the audience. He looked at the playbill, saw that I had written the material, and he wanted to hire me as a writer. So the second week I was in New York, I was hired as a writer for Candid Camera.
I wrote a piece of material, and the morning the actress was supposed to play the part, she called in sick. So Allen Funt told me to play the part since I had written the material. And that’s how I became an actress on Candid Camera.
I had wanted to be an writer all my life, but I kept falling into acting. And being terribly shy, it was hard for me.
Well, I was doing a Broadway show. I remember it so well. I was so unhappy. It was freezing cold, and I was having to fix my hair and curl my eyelashes, all the things girls have to do. I looked in the mirror and thought to myself, “Some actress would love to have this job, but you’re doing it and your heart’s not in it. You want to be a writer.”
The next day I gave my notice. I quit acting.
I moved home and took a little house in South Alabama. I started writing, and I got a book contract.
When the studio optioned the rights to Fried Green Tomatoes, they asked me to write the screenplay. I declined because I wouldn’t know which characters to include. I was too close. Instead, I recommended a friend of mine, Carol Sobieski.
She came on to write, but she became ill and couldn’t finish it. They came back to me, and asked me to finish it up. So I came back to Alabama and finished up the screenplay for Fried Green Tomatoes.
It was the luckiest thing that ever happened to me because it was a big hit. It helped me get more book contracts and continue writing.
BAM: Your character development is fantastic. They’re so vivid. Are your characters a compilation of people you already know?
I think it’s a combination of people I know and relatives. One of my characters is based on my grandmother and my aunt. It’s not exactly the same person, but they’re based on real people.
In that first book, Bess Fortenberry, who was my great aunt, made an appearance. That character cracked me up so much that I wrote Fried Green Tomatoes about her.
BAM: The dialogue is something that makes them feel so real. How do you write such powerful dialogue between characters?
When I was a child, I was dyslexic. Because I couldn’t read, I had to listen very carefully to learn a lesson. And I learned from that.
In my books, probably my strongest suit is dialogue and how real people speak. I’m really fascinated with it. The way southerners use phrases will throw me in the floor. We have the most wonderful language. I love coming home and hearing people talk.
When you leave the south, people just say sentences and it’s sort of bland. Here you can have long conversations with someone you’ve never said hello to once in your life. They’ll tell you everything you want to know and a few things you don’t.
I love it. The art of conversation hasn’t died in the south, and I’m starved for that conversation.
BAM: Your characters are real people that you’ve met, and they make it into your books. Do real stories from your family and past make it into your novels as well?
The first book that I wrote was a memoir from my childhood. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the girl was me. My dad was there, and he really was a motion picture machine operator and bought a malt shop in Gulf Shores, AL. So although it was set in Mississippi, it was really Gulf Shores, AL.
BAM: How did The Whole Town’s Talking come to be?
Sure. So I write about that little small town. I was getting ready to write another book, and I was thinking those characters I had written about in that little small town. I just loved them so much, and I hated to say goodbye to them. But in the last book I wrote, I had killed off a few.
I was having some trouble coming up with a new story after that. My agent called and I told her I was having some trouble coming up with a new idea because I had killed off so many of my characters. There was a pause, and she said, “Well, Fannie, I wouldn’t let that stop me.”
Well that cracked me up, and I thought that’s true. So I didn’t let it stop me. When people read the book, they’ll understand. They continue on.
On a serious note, when we get to a certain age, we lose people we love. We don’t know where they are or what happens. So I like to think of them as continuing. At the end of the book, it says “The End . . . or maybe not.”
That’s how I really feel. Who knows? We can hope, but we don’t know.
BAM: The industry has changed quite a bit since you began. What advice would you give to young writers trying to get published?
The very good news is you can self-publish if you have to. When I started out, you had to have a publishing company behind you to get published. Today, you don’t.
My advice to young writers is instead of trying to get a huge publisher for your first book, go to a smaller publisher in your state. Go to a publisher like the University of Alabama Press or University of Mississippi Press or someone like that. Whatever state you’re living in, go first someone in your state and get published there.
If your book is good, it will take off. Even if you have to self-publish, if it’s good, it will take off.
You don’t have to have a big publishing company to sell your book anymore. We have the internet. You can sell your own books.
You can find Fannie’s newest book, The Whole Town’s Talking, on sale now at Booksamillion.com, by clicking the button below.