But the primary focus is a contemporary tale about Buddy Jr., now 84 and living in an Atlanta retirement community near the home of his widowed daughter Ruthie. One day, in a fit of nostalgia, Buddy strikes out unannounced to see Whistle Stop one last time, setting into motion a series of hilarious events. Along the way, he and Ruthie cross paths with people connected to Buddy’s past and forge new friendships.
Credit: Universal Pictures
Credit: Universal Pictures
Speaking from her home in Santa Barbara, California, Flagg chats with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about her new book and a multitude of topics, but mostly she does what she does best: tells great stories that are equal parts funny and sweet.
Q: How are you coping with this terrible, horrible year?
Flagg: I just have to wake up every morning with a gratitude list and say thanks for everything I do have. I have to believe, although it looks terrible, there has to be some good in this, but I don’t yet know what it is. It puts everything in perspective. Who’s important in your life. What’s important. I didn’t appreciate the fact that I could see people whenever I wanted. I could go anywhere whenever I wanted. That I could hug people. Boy I tell you, I didn’t know how much I would miss people ― and travel and freedom. It’s freedom. I took my freedom for granted.
Q: Some people have used this time to pursue new interests. Is there anything you’ve done that you wouldn’t have under normal circumstances?
Flagg: I have been totally focusing on my backyard. I feed birds. And that was a mistake because I started with a little, and now the sky is black in the morning with all the birds coming. (Laughter) I’ve just gotten closer to nature. The main thing is, I’ve tried not to put any negativity in my head. I’ve tried to stay positive, to look at positive things, to read positive things.
Q: What prompted you to return to Whistle Stop to pick up Buddy Jr.'s story in your new book?
Flagg: During all this upheaval in the world, the political upheaval and all this stuff, people are feeling a little rattled. They sort of want to go back home, you know? To a time when it was different. I just thought, I want to revisit that little town and revisit those characters that I love. And it was like a comfort type thing. I don’t know about you, but when I get upset or nervous, I want comfort food. I think I wanted to put some sort of comfort out for people, so they can read a book, and it’s not political, it doesn’t have a message or agenda. It’s just a story about nice people. I wanted to revisit a place that feels safe.
Q: When you write a novel, do you know what’s going to happen or how it’s going to end?
Flagg: No. Mostly I will think I know, but the book will decide. I am dyslexic so I write chapters out of order and sometimes I’ll have something in the middle of the book first, and I’ll think I have an ending and I don’t. So, no. I’m always surprised at where it goes. That’s half the fun of it.
Q: How did the characters in “Wonder Boy” surprise you?
Flagg: Although they all at some point in their lives felt like it was all over, that there’s nothing more, they all got second chances at life. And I believe in second chances. When people get a certain age, when your kids get grown, you go, “What now? Where do I go from here?” So many women lose their husbands and they go, “Is my life over?” To get second chances is so great. We have to keep our lives open and look for things, and it comes to you, I think.
Q: “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café” is such a timeless classic. Did you realize you were on to something special when you wrote it?
Flagg: No is the honest answer. I was shocked. Talk about magical things happening. (After my parents died), I was back home in Alabama, and I was driving around looking at places where I used to live, just being nostalgic. I drove out to Irondale, a little town that Whistle Stop is based on. Idgie is based on my real great-aunt, Bess Fortenberry, who ran the little café that I used to go to when I was a child. She was hilarious, everybody adored her. She had died before my parents.
I drove by the old house my grandmother and the whole family lived in, one of those big old, two-story white frame houses. It was all falling apart and so sad.
I remembered I had this aunt. I thought, I’m just going to stop by and say hello to her. I knocked on her door and she said, “Oh, come on in. I’ve been waiting for you to come. Your Aunt Bess left you something.”
She handed me a shoe box and in it were all of these things from her life. There were photographs, her high school graduation papers, programs from funerals. Her whole life was in this shoe box. And I was like, whoa, what is that about?
I took it and was getting ready to drive back to Birmingham, and I thought, I’ll just whip around and go by the old house one more time. When I did, I turned on the headlights because it was getting dark, and the lights hit the windows of the house up on the second floor. All the sudden, it looked like there were people walking around in that old house. I stopped the car and I realized, she wants me to write about that.
That’s when I thought, I’ve got to bring this town back to life, and her life and all those stories I’d heard about that little town during the Depression. Isn’t that something? I couldn’t not write it. Even if I didn’t get a publisher, I was driven to tell this story about this town where people got along, black and white, and there was love between everybody.
Q: Your life and career is filled with so many serendipitous moments like that. Have you considered writing a memoir?
Flagg: Not about myself, but I have been so blessed and so lucky to have met some of the most fascinating people. I was thinking about a story I wanted to tell you. (In 1977) I went to New York and sublet some rathole apartment. I’m trying to write a book and I sent out (queries) to all these publishers and nobody wanted to publish it.
I was walking down the street on the Upper West Side to get to my chiropractor’s office because my back was killing me, and some man crosses the street and gets right in my face and says, “You’re ugly.” I said, “Well, thanks a lot. That’s all I need.”
I go in and sit down at my chiropractor’s office and there’s a young man that’s sitting at the reception desk. He’s new, and I say, “I’m so upset. Some man told me I’m ugly. And people from New York are so rude. And I’m from the South, and we just don’t do that.” And he looked at me and said, “Miss Flagg, I’m from Monroeville, Alabama, and I understand what you mean.”
I went in for my adjustment and when I came back out, he said, “Miss Flagg, I happen to have a free ticket to a speech tonight by Eudora Welty. I’d like to give it to you.” I said, “Thank you, I was just about ready to pack it all in.” So, I went to the thing and I went backstage to see her. She couldn’t have been sweeter.
I came back out and this young man was standing there with an older lady. And I’m thinking, OK, who is this, his mother? Because she had this little polyester suit on. And he said, “I have someone who wants to meet you.” I’m thinking it’s a “Match Game” fan, that’s how obnoxious I am. And she said, “Hey, I’m Harper Lee. We’re going for a drink. Would you like to join us?”
It was like a miracle because I told her all the trouble I’d had, and she said, “Don’t give up. No matter what, don’t give up.” I was so ready that day to give up. And I don’t know if you believe in divine intervention, but here I was in New York City, broke, and all the sudden, the Southern thing came and it was just a miracle.
Q: What are you working on next?
Flagg: They’re talking about doing a film of “The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion.” I’ll probably write the treatment. And I think you’re on to something. I think what I should do is start making notes about doing a little history of things I’ve seen.
Questions and answers were edited for clarity and length.
VIRTUAL AUTHOR EVENT
Fannie Flagg. In conversation with Lisa Patton for the launch of “The Wonder Boy of Whistle Stop.” 8 p.m. Oct. 27. $35 includes book. Register at www.randomhousebooks.com/event/evening-fannie-flagg.