If there was one thing my husband's family made sure I was introduced to when I moved to the South, it was the classic tale of Ruth, Idgie, and a little place called Whistle Stop. So when I heard that best-selling, award-winning author and Southern treasure Fannie Flagg was releasing a follow-up novel, I knew I had to check it out. (Plus, there's a TV series in the works, starring Reba McEntire!) I sat down with the hilariously charming author to chat about her latest book, The Wonder Boy of Whistle Stop (available Oct. 27, 2020) and how returning to your roots is sometimes exactly what you need to feel grounded.
Do you have a favorite writing spot and routine?
You’re gonna laugh. I live in California, but I get inspiration from renting—this is a scream—this trashy little farmhouse with a big porch. It reminds me of the house where I grew up in Woodlawn, Alabama, with my grandmother. This farmhouse has a garden, so that’s where I go to write, and I don’t have internet—it's just quiet—and I look at the birds, and it reminds me of the South.
The first day I got there, I thought I was losing my mind because I swore I heard a rooster, and on the back of the property, I saw that the neighbors have chickens! I took that as a good omen. (I’m addicted to chickens. I have all these figurines!)
I always do the same thing. I always get up and have to go write first thing, because I get distracted—if I see a leaf fall off the tree, I’m gone!—so I have to write before anything is distracting. That’s why I go to a quiet place. I have to let the characters speak to me.
Have you always known you’d return to Whistle Stop and these characters?
No, I didn’t. It was a surprise to me. Here's what happened: Throughout the years, people have wanted to do different things with Whistle Stop—Broadway, a TV series, and this and that, and I kept thinking, I don’t want to redo anything.
Then all of the sudden, I wanted to come back home. I wondered, Where’s a place that’s in my heart? I wanted to go home, and Whistle Stop is a little town based on Irondale [Alabama], so I thought maybe someone else would want to go back, too. I wondered what’d happened to all those people at Whistle Stop scattered to the wind over the years. And I think—I may be wrong—but I think with COVID, people want community, and community is so important. You can get a feeling of small town anywhere, you can create a community...church, tennis pals...but I never knew just how important community was until [the pandemic] happened.
The Wonder Boy of Whistle Stop is just the kind of escapism we need right now. Was it therapeutic to return to these nostalgic roots when you sat down to write this story?
It really was. I needed a break and a return to a happier times and to write my own happy ending. I think it helped me. I was literally writing it thinking, What is a message of hope I can give people?
Were there events in your life that inspired this story?
I let the writing surprise me. I never knew what would happen. I know a lot of writers make outlines, but I don’t. I get myself out of the way and let the characters do what they will. And oh, do they step up!
I don’t know why I don’t write with a beginning, middle, and end. I’m dyslexic, so my mind isn’t organized like most people’s, so I kind of don’t know where it’s going or what characters will show up (for instance, one character who cracks me up in the book is the preacher at the Piggy Wiggly).
Somebody said a long time ago that writers never get over their childhoods, and I think that’s true. I can remember as a child running out to the garage to play and making up stories because I was an only child...Isn’t it funny that the things you thought were bad turn out to be a blessing? I always wanted a big family, so I think that’s why I write about it so much and it inspires me so.
What do you think it is about Bud, Ruth, Idgie, and Whistle Stop that has captured people’s hearts all these years?
I will tell you a story. After my dad came home after WWII, we lived in an apartment in the Southside neighborhood of Birmingham [Alabama] because Dad worked as a motion-picture operator at the theaters downtown. My grandmother had a younger sister named Bess Fortenberry who ran the railroad café in Irondale. My mom would take me out to visit, and I remember going in the café, and it was so full of fun, and Bess was hilarious, just a scream, and people adored her.
It was such a sweet, loving atmosphere out there, and it impressed me. The whole town knew each other. Then I started hearing stories about the Depression. Bess fed people, and no one went hungry. That touched me, and I was so impressed with that feeling, of people taking care of each other and accepting each other and coming together. I wanted to re-create that. After my parents died, I went home and rode around Irondale and saw that the family home was falling down, and it broke my heart. I wanted to bring that café back to life and put people back in it. That might be why I wrote Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe.
As a kind of living memory?
Exactly! And also, when I came home, I wanted comfort food and to eat the food of my childhood. I loved the fried green tomatoes and turnip greens, cornbread, black-eyed peas...all that good stuff!
Can you talk about Ruthie for a moment? I felt so drawn to her character, her struggle to care for her father and stand up for herself.
I love her. She’s so sweet and trying so hard to please everybody. And she just gets kicked around until all of a sudden she gets some strength from a total stranger. And, of course, that happens in the first book, too, that idea of people mentoring other people. You never know when all of the sudden you'll see something in someone that you didn’t see in someone else.
I think the relationship that touched me the most with Ruthie is her with her dad. I loved my dad—he was a character, and I adored him. He and I had a lot of fun together, and I think that there’s something so touching about daddies who love their daughters. And it is so important for girls to have that good relationship. Same as boys with their mamas.
How do you think your Southern heritage has shaped the themes of your books?
I have always loved where I come from. Actually, I’m one of those people who had to be kicked out of the nest. I had a little job on local TV in Birmingham, but I couldn’t make enough money because women weren’t paid enough back then, so I had to go to New York. I didn't want to, and when I was in New York, the minute you’d say you're from Alabama, well, people would react. Just, "Ugh." So I was protective of the South because, to me, the sweetest people I’ve ever known were from the South. I guess it’s how people feel when they come here from another country, maybe like being an expat.
I’ll always be a Southerner first. And I’ll never forget the support I get from Southerners. When I hear a Southern accent, I have to run right up to that person and ask where they’re from, and we’re immediately connected. It’s a cultural thing. And when I worked for Candid Camera, if I found someone on the street who was Southern, it was such a comfort. "You understand me." Being a Southerner has been a comfort to me, so I naturally write about it, too.
Are you reading anything right now?
Sermon on the Molehill. It’s about positive thinking and gratitude, and I’ve been reading it to help me start my day right. I've been thinking a lot about getting older. I have gotten to a point where I'm trying to change the way I feel about growing older, and what I'm finding is that it’s a privilege to get older. I’m so glad to be alive that I don’t want to waste a minute of it being angry! This all takes work, because I can be addicted to the internet, so that’s the reason I read about positivity in the morning.
Feeling nostalgic for Whistle Stop? Grab a copy of Fannie's latest book, The Wonder Boy of Whistle Stop (out Oct. 27, 2020) and read along with us!
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