No author can finesse wry, homespun humor better than Fannie Flagg, the Birmingham, Ala.-born Patricia Neal, whose main claim to literary fame remains the award-winning “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Cafe.” The second of her 10 books, it dwelled for 36 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list. Fellow Southern storytellers Eudora Welty and Harper Lee lauded the novel when it published in 1987, a rare honor.
Flagg’s new novel, “The Whole Town’s Talking,” is the fourth and last (“Because I killed everybody”) in her “Elmwood Springs” series (Random House, $28, 432 pages). It begins with the founding of Elmwood Springs, Mo., in 1889 and concludes in 2025, tracing the lives, loves and losses of the eccentric characters. As they expire over the years, their spirits gather in the town cemetery, Still Meadows, where their greatest adventures will begin. “It’s my tribute to small-town America,” Flagg said.
Flagg’s life has been one of talent fueled by determination (“I suspect a lot of it was pure luck”). She won a one-year scholarship to an acting school through her participation in the Miss Alabama pageant, later launching a TV-writing, acting and comedy career in New York and Hollywood that spanned decades. For instance, she performed on Broadway, was a regular on many daytime TV panel game shows (“Match Game”), acted in hundreds of TV dramas and comedies (including a full-time role on “The New Dick Van Dyke Show”) and appeared in eight movies (“Five Easy Pieces,” “Stay Hungry,” “Crazy in Alabama”).
Flagg, 72, lives in Montecito, an exclusive enclave in Santa Barbara County. Visit her at www.fannieflaggbooks.com.
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Q: How did Patricia Neal become Fannie Flagg?
A: I was about 18 and got a stage-acting job and had to join Actors’ Equity. When I went to register, they said, “You can’t use that name because there’s already a Patricia Neal.” I had an hour to choose another name, so I called my grandfather, who had worked backstage in vaudeville. He said, “Honey, I remember a lot of comediennes named Fannie who came through the vaudeville circuit, so maybe that would be a lucky name for you.” I couldn’t come up with a last name until a friend told me, “I’ve got a friend whose grandmother’s name was Fannie Flagg.” So I went with that, never dreaming I would be stuck with it.
Q: What keeps Fannie Flagg moving?
A: Honey, I’ve tried my best to not write books, but I just can’t help myself. I get antsy and cranky if I’m not. Also, I have to keep myself involved in projects that are light-hearted, to keep myself from facing too much reality, because I can get very depressed easily. I’m much more comfortable in a fictional world than I am the real one, so I’m trying to re-create life as I would have it. Or, as my mother used to say, “You’ve just seen too many movies.”
Q: Allen Funt hired you to write for and later co-host “Candid Camera,” the practical-joke show on network TV from 1960 to 1967.
A: That show opened the doors to all the reality TV shows that came later. It made me realize that nothing is funnier than real life and people trying not to be funny. I think it’s why I write the way I do.
Q: You were nominated in 1992 for an Oscar for your screenplay of the movie “Fried Green Tomatoes,” and have been quoted as saying, “(The story’s) success changed everything and is why every book I write has a happy ending.”
A: Bless you, it has served me well. Selfishly, I have to keep myself uplifted when I’m writing a book because I’m in it for years, away from everything. But I also feel strongly that there is a need in this world for reminding people that not everyone is a criminal, and a market for readers who want to read about people like themselves.
But frankly, I’m always surprised I even have a market, because it seems like the darker something is, the more it gets touted. We live in California, and I see people who would absolutely have a heart attack if somebody handed them a piece of red meat. “Oh, I couldn’t ever put that in my body.” And then they watch the most horrible shows on TV and put that in their brains.
Q: “The Whole Town’s Talking” follows the template of your other books – a chronicle of ordinary small-town lives, lived in non-ordinary ways within a framework of human universality.
A: I like the stories of small towns, they’re where we all originally came from. On book tours, I’ve gone into small towns and there’s nothing left anymore, or they’re out on the highway in big shopping malls. (Fans) still send me small-town newspapers and I get so tickled over stories that really happened, they just throw me on the floor.
Q: Your women characters are iron-willed, much like you.
A: How I became a writer after barely getting out of high school is a mystery to me. It’s like a one-legged man deciding to be a tap dancer. My father wasn’t a typical Southern parent, he wanted me very much to succeed. I was an only child, and he always told me I could do anything I wanted. He’d say, “Don’t listen to anybody and don’t ever regret anything you do.” While my mother looked at me like I’d dropped out of a tree. Her idea for me was to get a job at the telephone company.
Q: Sounds like your dad was your inspiration.
A: My father had illusions of grandeur and always wanted to be a star, so he pushed me like a stage mother. Honey, I watched him years later spend the rest of his life regretting not going to Hollywood as a film editor because my mother wouldn’t go with him. I always thought that if I didn’t try something, I’d wind up like my dad, always thinking, “If only I had, what would life be?”
Q: California is a far cry from New York and Alabama.
A: I felt like a transient (at first), but now I’m a real Westerner. But, oh my heavens, I do miss the barbecue, fried chicken and biscuits back home. I spent a month in Provence on a house swap and thought, “This is nice, howsomever it’s not any more beautiful than the Santa Ynez Valley or Napa Valley, where they speak English and like you. Listen, I couldn’t speak a whit of French and they were so tacky about that, so I pretended I was a deaf mute. I would make signs and they would go, “Oh, the poor thing.”
Q: Here’s how art imitates life: “Fried Green Tomatoes” was based on your great-aunt’s Alabama restaurant, the Irondale Cafe, which in turn is the basis for two “Whistlestop Cafe” cookbooks.
A: Those recipes are not mine, they’re from the actual cafe. I could lie to you, but I am horrified to tell you I am not a good cook. I can cook, but because I am dyslexic and have attention deficit disorder, it looks like there’s been a home invasion when I do. I forget ingredients, I burn things, and it takes so long to clean the kitchen, so I just said, “Oh, the heck with it.”
Q: What’s next?
A: There is some talk about turning my novel “A Red Bird Christmas” (2004) into a holiday film, but you know Hollywood – talk means nothing. Having just finished “The Whole Town’s Talking,” I’m gonna give myself a little vacation and see what appeals to me.
The Whole Town’s Talking
By Fannie Flagg
Random House, $28, 432 pages