One of fiction's cardinal rules is to write what you know, and from her rich depiction of Elmwood Springs, Missouri, the setting for her new novel Standing in the Rainbow, you'd bet Fannie Flagg was born in a small town where everyone knows each other, part of a boisterous middle-class family like that of her 10-year old character Bobby Smith. And you'd be wrong.
"I wanted to be in that town," says a wistful Flagg, speaking from her home in Birmingham, Alabama. The actress, comedienne and author of the 1987 beloved bestseller Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café "grew up in an apartment in Birmingham, which was a big city. I would have loved to have been raised in a small town," she says. "I'm an only child. I write about families because it's what I longed for. I'm trying to rewrite my childhood."
You could find reasons for her melancholy—an alcoholic father, the isolation that comes of being an only child—but Flagg wonders "if some children aren't born sort of sad. I was always that way. It doesn't matter why. What matters is talking your way out of it." Or in Flagg's case, writing your way out.
Standing in the Rainbow spans the 1940s through the 1980s and at no time is Elmwood Springs a hotbed for tabloid scandal. Instead, it's a cozy place with real, textured characters striving to live and love even when the going gets tough. There's poor Tot Whooten, the hapless hairdresser, Missouri's gladhanding Governor Hamm Sparks and his terminally shy wife Betty Ray, but the soul of Standing in the Rainbow is Bobby's mother, known to all of southern Missouri as Neighbor Dorothy.
Chatty Neighbor Dorothy hosts a local radio show in which she dispenses cookie recipes and crucial community news. "Well, everybody, I guess we can say summer is officially here. Bobby has just informed me that the pool is open. . . .Well, go on, but for heaven's sake, don't hit your head on the diving board!"
Neighbor Dorothy got her start back in Flagg's performing days. "I had a little television show in Birmingham in the early '60s, a local show with local news. It always made me laugh. I started reading these small-town newspapers around the South." Life had an easier rhythm then. Sometimes, it was downright slow. "One year was bad. We didn't have many people coming to town," she recalls. "We interviewed the cameraman's mother. Five times. I know about those local shows."
Fans will recognize Neighbor Dorothy from Flagg's previous novel Welcome to the World, Baby Girl! Although Dorothy was a minor character there, the author knew right away that she deserved more. "I fell in love with her," says Flagg. "I knew I was going to introduce her in that book and devote myself to her family in the next book, so it wasn't a sequel but a prequel. I do things backward."
She laughs, but she's only half-joking. A born storyteller, she struggles with severe dyslexia. "I had to work a little harder. I still do."
Shamed by her poor spelling, Flagg didn't show her writing to anyone for years. She began as a performer by acting out her own stories and starring in movies like Grease and Five Easy Pieces, but when at last she summoned the courage to go from actress to author, "It was like I walked into the right room. I walked in very late, didn't start writing my first novel until 1980. I was in my 30s, but it was such a pleasure to find it," says Flagg. "I was so lucky to have that second career I liked even better than my first."
Of her previous three novels, Flagg is best known for Fried Green Tomatoes. Not only did the story of Idgie and Ruth resonate with readers, but also Flagg found writing about them to be good for the soul. She had given up acting to write full-time and was in tough financial straits.
Writing Standing in the Rainbow, "I was in a better frame of mind," says Flagg. "The world is getting so crazy, I needed to remind myself and others that most of these people still exist. We shouldn't let go of that wonderful heritage we have—middle class America is the heroic class. They're not complaining. They carry the rest of the world on their back. They don't get written about much, and they never got much credit or appreciation. They're laughed at or thought of as sort of sappy."
Sappy is hardly an insult for the woman the Christian Science Monitor once called the most sentimental writer in America. "I thought, isn't that fabulous?" Flagg laughs. "And my friends said, 'No, Fannie, that's not good.' But it is. The easiest thing in the world is to be smart-alecky and cynical and snide and jaded. It's hard to keep your heart open."
It's hard because it means being vulnerable, which Flagg thinks is imperative to writing. "To be a writer, you have to remain a child in some areas and not grow up. And keep your imagination open. A part of me has remained a child," says the author whose wild imagination is very close to Bobby's in Standing in the Rainbow. "I'm constantly surprised at things and don't seem to get tougher with age, which is a disadvantage."
It does, however, make her a beautiful writer.
In the morning, Flagg stumbles out of bed and goes right to her desk. "If a leaf falls, I'm lost. I can't have any noise. When I get sort of stuck, I go somewhere for four or five days with no phone, no fax and go on a binge. I get some of my best writing done on my binges."
Though she lives part-time in California, Flagg is always glad to return to the South. "Honestly that's where my characters come from. There's a real Southern culture, a way of thinking and looking at things. In the South, if you move into a neighborhood, all the neighbors will walk in the door and never call first. 'We just dropped by for a visit,' " says Flagg, thickening her drawl. "People from the North are horrified."
She lets loose with another laugh, but the joy, the lightness that comes through when she talks and writes about small towns and big families stems from "a sadness." Part of her remains the little girl who would look through the windows of other families' homes and yearn to belong.
"People fascinate me. I don't understand them as well as I'd like. They surprise me all the time," says Flagg. "I grew up so alone."
Ellen Kanner is a freelance writer in Miami.