A mentally ill mother and an absent father spell trouble for the 12-year-old heroine at the heart of Beth Hoffman’s sparkling debut, Saving CeeCee Honeycutt. In their small Ohio town, CeeCee is the outcast among her fellow sixth-graders due to her mother’s increasingly odd behavior, which includes naked nights on the lawn and daily trips to Goodwill to buy prom dresses that remind Mrs. Honeycutt of her beauty queen past in Savannah, Georgia. Books and an elderly neighbor are the only bright spots in CeeCee’s life. Then her mother dies, and everything changes.
That change arrives in the form of CeeCee’s great-aunt Tootie, a Southern dynamo with a passion for rescuing historic homes who turns out to have a talent for rescuing heartsick young girls, as well. She whisks CeeCee away to Savannah and introduces her to a wide range of remarkable women, including Tootie’s housekeeper Oletta, with whom CeeCee forms a special bond.
Told in episodic chapters, Saving CeeCee Honeycutt is something of a Cinderella story—just like the story of its publication. The debut was sold to editor Pamela Dorman (The Secret Life of Bees, The Memory Keeper’s Daughter), who selected it to launch her personal imprint, Pamela Dorman Books. During a call to her home in Kentucky, where she lives with her husband and three cats, Beth Hoffman spoke to BookPage about her rags-to-riches publication story.
Upbeat and friendly, Hoffman is modest about the success that she calls “beyond everything I could have imagined.”
“My literary agent [Catherine Drayton] . . . called me and said ‘we have five different publishers and they're crazy about CeeCee, but Pamela Dorman—have you heard of her?’ I said, YES! ‘She wants it off the table, you don't know how badly she wants that book. So hold on.’ So an hour later she calls me and says, ‘all right, sit down again. Pamela Dorman is making you a pre-emptive offer.’ And that was it.“
Upbeat and friendly, Hoffman is modest about the success that she calls “beyond everything I could have imagined.” Her family was “completely blown away,” she says, but “perhaps the most shock came from my husband, who was just momentarily speechless over how this all happened.”
Possibly that was because he hadn’t read the manuscript.
“He didn't read a word of it until it was already a done deal,” explains Hoffman. “It was actually a point of contention! He never asked, and it hurt my feelings . . . finally I asked him about it one day and he said, ‘I just don't want to get involved because what if I don't like it, or what if I think you need to edit something?’ and I'm thinking, you're an engineer—what do you mean, edit?” Once Hoffman got the galleys back, he finally asked to read the novel. “I was downstairs doing laundry. I came up and he was bawling. I said, ‘what's the matter with you?’ He said, ‘I love this.’ ” That reaction has since been echoed in early readers, who have compared the book to everything from Steel Magnolias to Driving Miss Daisy to The Help to, of course, The Secret Life of Bees.
Though Saving CeeCee sold in just “18 hours,” its creation took a little bit longer. While working as co-owner of an interior design firm, Hoffman almost died of septicemia a couple of years before deciding to make writing a career. “When that happened—it's so cliche but it's true—everything changed for me,” Hoffman says. A chance find during her convalescence put things further into perspective. “I found this box of stories that I'd been hauling around with me my whole life, and it just got me thinking: why didn't you do something with this? But I knew there was no way I could devote myself to writing something of value and still be president and co-owner of this interior design studio.”
So instead, Hoffman channeled her creative energy into writing “story ads” for her business. She’d “pick a piece of furniture, and write a story about it: who has it, who covets it, who got a divorce—that type of thing. It exploded! We would get people in the store with the ads in their hand, and it was just fun. And it was my way to feed the need to write.”
One snowy day in 2004, a call from a customer gave her that final nudge into writing for publication. He told Hoffman that he and his wife “would have their coffee and read my ads every Saturday. We talked for a while, and then he said, ‘you know, I just have a question: if you can write these great stories every day in six or seven sentences, and make us want to know what happens to these people, have you thought of writing a book?’ And I thanked him and hung up, and that did it for me: it was this seminal moment. I walked to the front window and looked at the snow, and I said, it's now or never.”
Like CeeCee, Hoffman also experienced a transformative trip down South at an impressionable age. “When I was 9, I went to Danville, Kentucky, to spend some time with my great-aunt Mildred Caldwell. I'm a farm girl from up north [Ohio], very rural, and it was culture shock in the best of ways.” Hoffman was so inspired by the trip that she started out writing about her own experience, and Kentucky, for her first novel. “However, I was halfway into what I thought I was going to write and making some notes, and that's when CeeCee Honeycutt showed up. Literally, just showed up. And she changed everything.” Well, almost everything—Hoffman decided to set CeeCee’s adventures around the time her own had taken place, the late 1960s. While the era was certainly a turbulent one in the South, aside from one memorable episode the racial upheaval is not addressed in Saving CeeCee Honeycutt. Hoffman explains, “I wanted CeeCee to experience it, but I didn't want that to be the theme of the book. When I went down there [at the age of 9], I was not really aware of any of the social/racial issues.”
She does give attention to the restoration of Savannah’s old homes that was taking place at the time, and in CeeCee’s world Aunt Tootie plays a role in saving the famous Mercer House from the wrecking ball. A passion for classic architecture, especially Southern architecture, is something Hoffman shares with Tootie. “I am crazy mad for old structures. I live in a . . . lovely Queen Anne home made of stone and brick. It's three stories tall, and I rehabbed it from top to bottom and named it Mamie. I love her! There’s nothing to me like Southern architecture.”
That’s not the only thing about the South that interests Hoffman—and the millions of readers who have made “Southern fiction” one of the most popular regional genres around. “I can't speak for anyone else,” Hoffman says, “but I don't only enjoy reading Southern fiction but also writing it because I'm so in love with the Southern culture, Southern architecture and Southern manners. . . . There's so much to write about and to think about when it comes to the South. The whole world's fascinated!”
That fascination shows in the remarkable buzz for Saving CeeCee. “It just keeps going on and on, and now [it's sold in] seven countries. Bookspan picked it up and they're making it their Main Street selection. Sam's Club picked it up to be their first book club pick. It's surprising to me that this is happening. I can't wait to see CeeCee in German, and Italian!” Hoffman says. “I feel like I've slipped into where I was supposed to be all along, and yet I know that the richness of everything I've done led me to where I am now, so I don’t have any regrets. Everything in life I believe happens for a reason, if we're just awake to it.”