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Standing in the Rainbow

by

Standing in the Rainbow Cover

 

 

Author Q & A

Interviewer Sam Vaughan was publisher, president, and

editor-in-chief at Doubleday, then senior vice president,

and is now an independent editor-at-large for the Random

House imprints, including Ballantine Books. In addition

to Fannie Flagg, he is currently editing Margaret

Truman, Dave Barry, Elizabeth Spencer, and William F.

Buckley Jr., among others.

Sam Vaughan: There are continuities of characters

and plot that link Welcome to the World, Baby Girl! with

Standing in the Rainbow. Some of the people carry over,

some grow up, some die. Did this come to you as inspiration

or did it just seem the natural thing to do? Was

there something of unfinished business at the end of

Baby Girl? Or did you simply want to visit with some of

those people once more?

Fannie Flagg: Well, as usual I seem to do things in a

backward way. As it turns out, Standing in the Rainbow

is the prequel to Welcome to the World, Baby Girl! It

really should have been written first but I did not know

it at the time. The character of Neighbor Dorothy was

always meant to be my main character in the first book

but the story line of Dena Nordstrom just took over the

book and as you know, I tend to write too much rather

than too little. Had I written it all at once, Welcome to

the World, Baby Girl! would have been 800 pages long.

I had done so much research and still had so much more

to tell about Neighbor Dorothy and her family that I de-

cided to just introduce her in the first one and then write

about her almost exclusively as I began the next.

SV: How did you come up with the character of Neighbor

Dorothy? Was she a real person or just a figment of

your imagination?

FF: Both. By that I mean I did make her up but she

was based on the true lives of many different women

who were real “Radio Homemakers.” Something I

never knew existed. I first discovered them when, one

day as I was browsing through the cookbook section

of my hometown book store in Fairhope, Alabama, I

picked up a small cookbook published by the University

of Iowa Press, written by Evelyn Birkby, a Radio Homemaker

in Shenandoah, Iowa. In the book were photographs

and histories of some of the Radio Homemakers.

I was fascinated to learn that since the 1920s scores of

women had radio shows that were broadcast from their

homes, offering recipes, homemaking tips, etc. I am always

interested in history and as I read on, I realized

that these gals were the real pioneer women in broadcasting.

Long before Martha Stewart was born, they

were offering housewives tips on cooking and entertaining.

I called Evelyn Birkby in Iowa and to my surprise

she picked up the phone. She is a delightful lady and we

became fast friends. I told her I wanted to write about

the Radio Homemakers in my next book and she was

kind enough to help me with my research. I found out

that the broadcasters were also known as “Radio Neighbors”

because listeners considered their shows as a visit

with a neighbor. From that research the character of

Neighbor Dorothy was born.

SV: What about the rather colorful and lovely title,

Standing in the Rainbow?

FF: The title did not come until after I finished the

book. A friend told me of her true experience. It had

happened to her and her family, how they wound up actually

standing in a rainbow. I put the experience as it

was told to me in the book as a letter to Dorothy from

Mrs. Anne Carter (her real name). When I finished the

book I realized that the time period I had been writing

about was from 1946 to the early ’60s when we were, as

a country certainly, standing in the rainbow. I suppose it

is just another way of saying we were looking at the

world through rose-colored glasses.

SV: The Oatman Family Singers are a real treat. Given

the obvious gifts of black gospel singers, the world of

white gospel music is a new one to many of us. What

got you interested?

FF: I was always very aware of gospel groups. I remember

seeing a white group on television in Birmingham,

Alabama, and they always seemed so happy. As a

matter of fact there was one group I especially liked

called The Happy Goodman Family. But then white

gospel music has always been around in the South and

the Midwest. Its roots go all the way back to the 1800s

and started with the Shape Note Singers. It was sung

in most rural Protestant churches and continues to this

day. Many famous country, western, and rock ’n’ roll

singers started with gospel. Elvis Presley was a huge

fan of the Statesman Quartet and used to attend all

their concerts. Some say this is where he got his wiggle.

Gospel singers were moving and jumping around on

stage long before Elvis. Now, thanks to Bill and Gloria

Gather, the wonderful white gospel groups are bigger

than ever and are appearing all over the country in concert

and sell out everywhere they go. Not only in the

United States but all over the world. I attended a Gather

Gospel concert in Anaheim, California, and an entire

basketball arena was packed to the rafters.

SV: This story opens in the 1940s. Do you feel especially

nostalgic for that time? Do you believe that the

end of World II produced in many people a childish optimism? A foolish euphoria that all would be well? Or do you find yourself yearning for an era with just a little

more room for cheer, or with a little less carping and

sniping, one with less fear of the future?

FF: When I started the book, 9/11 had not yet taken

place and at the time one of the main reasons I wanted to

write it was that I felt our country was going through a

particularly negative period. Personally, I was saddened

and depressed by the way the media, books, movies,

TV, etc., were portraying only the dark side of our history.

I also hated it that these dark and negative images

were being seen all over the world. We seemed to have

little appreciation for our country and how lucky we

were to be Americans. It alarmed me that young people

and the world really might not know that for a lot of

people the experience of growing up in this country was

a positive one. I do think it had a lot to do with the

period after the war and the ’50s. It was a particularly

wonderful time to be an American child; at least it was

for me. I just wanted to remind myself and the world not

to get so caught up in all the negative and forget the

positive. And yes, I suppose I was nostalgic for that period

of time, and I am so grateful I was lucky enough to

have been young then, when the world seemed so much

more positive and the future looked so much brighter.

But having said that, I am also in awe of the present and

the progress we are making in medicine and technology,

etc. Not that the progress in technology is helping me

much. I am still having trouble using a fax machine and

I haven’t as yet mastered e-mail.

SV: Do you get many of your story lines or characters

from the past? Are you rewriting the past to make it

more like you wish it was, or do you try to set it down

as it was, from your vantage point here and now, surrounded

by rainbow?

FF: Yes, I do like to write about what I know and I only

know the past. And as most of my stories are based on

mostly true stories and my characters are combinations

of people I know, I do tend to write about the past. I try

to make it as real as I remember it, and in memory

things always seem better or worse than they were, but I

suspect I have a tendency to make them better.

SV: What chance does the present have against the

rosy recall of those years back then? Or is there no competition

between then and now?

FF: No, I don’t think so—every era is different. The

future will be better in some aspects, worse in others.

SV: Did children’s books or teachers or librarians contribute

to your storytelling urge?

FF: When I was very small my parents read Heidi to

me and I had a wonderful sixth-grade teacher named

Mrs. Sybil Underwood, who used to read us Nancy

Drew stories. I am sure that helped. By the way, Mrs.

Underwood still lives up the street and I had dinner with

her just the other night. We both had shrimp. But I think

going to work with my father, who was a motion picture

machine operator, and seeing as many movies as I did

as a child, really sparked my love of stories and my interest

in people and their lives.

SV: Do you come from a family of storytellers? Was

there one person who filled your memory with tales? Or

was it part of the atmosphere, not confined to your

family? Somehow, a reader might get the idea you did

not grow up surrounded by glum, laconic types.

FF: My father was a great storyteller. As a matter of

fact my mother used to get mad at him because he could

tell such sad stories so convincingly that I would sob for

hours. But he was extremely funny, as was my grandmother.

SV: You’ve had extensive experience in television, theater,

and movies, yet there is a sense that you were meant

to be writing books the whole time.

FF: I think you are right because I am the happiest

when I am writing. I did not like acting that much and

never knew why until I started writing. I was finally doing

what I was supposed to be doing. I am one of those

lucky people who got to have two careers and the best

was saved for last.

SV: Several of the female characters in your novels

start out strong and continue to be so, while others

gradually emerge into their full strength. Do you feel

that a characteristic of some notable women is to start

slowly and then come on full tilt? Is there a touch of the

meek inheriting the earth in that?

FF: Well, yes. I think the women I write about tend to

be late bloomers, but then women my age and older

were socialized differently from men. Men were encouraged

to achieve and succeed early in life. I think it

took a woman longer to figure out on her own, usually

without much encouragement, what she really wanted

to do. I think the young women of today have a better

handle on what they can do and do it sooner. As far as

the meek inheriting the earth, I don’t know if that is true

as a concept. I think the meek may inherit a happier and

calmer life somehow. Ambition comes with a lot of excess

baggage.

SV: Didn’t your mother once demand that you never be

seen with a frying pan in your hand, as if you knew

what to do with it? Was that loving law laid down the

reason why you grew up eating in restaurants? And did

you do your first writing in them?

FF: When my mother noticed I was signing up for

Home Economics in high school she said with alarm,

“Oh no, darling, don’t ever learn to cook or they will

expect you to do it!” My mother discovered cafeterias

very early on in my life and so I had very few homecooked

meals. I was an only child and my father worked

at night and so my mother and I did eat out a lot. I enjoyed

it. I still do. I write in restaurants and many chapters

have started on a napkin.

SV: I somehow suspect that organization is not your

strong suit. Characters, yes. Sheer storytelling, dialogue,

subtle everyday poetry, comic timing, yes. But

chapters, outlines, transitions, that sort of thing doesn’t

hold out much appeal for you. Care to organize an answer?

FF: Organization? Isn’t that like the Elks Club or something?

SV: What devices do you use, if any, to prepare for

writing, or once you are well into a book, to stay with

it? I heard once something about hanging chapters on a

laundry line.

FF: When I am preparing for writing a book I do a

tremendous amount of research. I write notes everywhere

and on anything and then when I think I have

done enough I transfer all my handwritten notes, if I can

find them, to the computer. On this last book I wasted

an entire hour trying to figure out why I thought a certain

kind of bread, eggs, and a can of floor wax should

go in the book, only to discover it was nothing but one

of my old shopping lists. And it is true that I do use a

clothesline down the hall to hang my chapters on. As I

said before, I find that I do things backward from most

writers. I tend to write a chapter at the end of the book

or in the middle before I write the beginning, and the

clothesline helps me keep them in some kind of order. I

even read magazines backwards. I suppose being dyslexic

has caused this or else I am Chinese and just don’t

know it.

SV: I know that you tend to disappear into a book and

cut off the outside world while in one of your own making.

Do you read other fiction while writing, or do you

swear off the stuff?

FF: Yes, when I am writing I do cut myself off from

everything and just live in the world of my story. I try

not to even read the newspaper or watch the news.

SV: Do your stories surprise you? Did you ever start

out to write one thing, one place, one time, and find

yourself writing about another? Do your characters tend

to run away with you?

FF: Yes, my characters never seem to do what I want

them to. They are like bad children and do not mind me

at all! In this book Hamm Sparks showed up and

wanted a bigger part than I had intended.

SV: How do you feel when you start a book?

FF: Excited, scared, wondering if I can do it.

SV: And when you finish?

FF: Great! Even better! I love book tours and I finally

get to have lunch with real live people again.

SV: You have some nice touches in Rainbow where

characters almost exchange lives. For example the little

blind songbird who yearns to see or at least travel the

world and the itinerant girl whose idea of the full life is

to stay at home. Do you think that many of us would

like to exchange lives? Or live at least two? Is this just

restlessness or envy or the potential thrill of the unknown

life never lived? We are all celebrity-struck

while maintaining stoutly that we wouldn’t trade places

for the world. Or is it just garden variety schizophrenia?

FF: The grass does always seem to be greener somewhere

else, doesn’t it? I think it is just human nature

to want something we can’t have or to wish we were

somewhere else or somebody else. I know when I was

younger I often wished I could live parallel lives. As I

recall when I was about ten I wanted to play violin in a

symphony orchestra, be a nun, a famous ice skater, play

piano and sing in some smoky little cocktail bar in

Paris, be married to an Italian and have six children, and

here’s the real stretch, be an English professor at Oxford

University. But the truth is I have barely managed the

one life I have. And I am happy to say as I have become

older I am perfectly content with who I am and where I

am. A very wise person said, “We are exactly where we

are supposed to be.” I don’t know who the wise person

was, but I tend to believe that more and more as the

years go by.

SV: You consistently show how much you care for your

characters. You may laugh at their antics but you never

really stand above them, looking down. It’s more like

standing beside them, looking on. Where does your

feeling for older people come from? And for female

friendship? And for strong, not always silent, men?

FF: I’m lucky enough to have a lot of friends, both

men and women, and enjoy them thoroughly. As it so

happens, many are older than myself. Being an only

child, I was around adults for most of my young life. It

wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I felt entirely comfortable

with my peers, not until they were grown people

I could relate to. I still tend to find older people

much more interesting. They have so much to tell about

and have lived through so much and know so much

more. I am waiting to become old and wise. So far I’m

older but seem to be none the wiser.

SV: The roles you’ve played are quite varied. You can’t

be said to have been typecast. Yet in your novels, you

have set a new standard of your own so that other writers’

books are being compared to your work. How

would you describe a Fannie Flagg novel?

FF: I don’t think I can describe my own work. I don’t

even know what my style of writing is. I don’t even

know how I do it. So I am the last person to ask. I am

still baffled by the entire process. I still don’t understand

how something that was only in my head and can’t be

seen can become a book, a solid object that you can

pick up and carry around.

SV: Your books have been printed in fifteen different

languages. How do you feel about that? How do you

think people’s reactions to your novels in Europe or

China, etc., differ from those in America?

FF: First of all I am still so amazed that anyone other

than Americans understands my books. It is so funny

to see them in strange covers and printed in so many

different languages. I asked a French friend who had

read the French version of Fried Green Tomatoes at the

Whistle Stop Cafe how he was able to understand the

story and he said France has small towns just like every

other country. I suppose no matter where you live people

can relate; language may be different but by and

large human nature remains the same the world over. As

far as their reactions, judging from the letters I receive,

they seem to be the same. Only the reviews may be different

from the ones I get here, mostly because the foreign

viewers do not know me as an ex-actress and tend

to review the book only. Most American reviews and articles

still mention that I used to be an actress and appear

on television.

SV: Your work has taken you to many places. Are you a

good traveler?

FF: I am a wonderful traveler, as long as I do not have

to get on a plane. I hate to fly. Not only am I a whiteknuckle

flyer, I always feel like I have been sucked

through a vacuum cleaner backwards and shot out the

other end. Needless to say, I love motor trips and the

train.

SV: If you weren’t writing novels like Fannie Flagg’s,

who would you most like to write like?

FF: Certainly someone who writes much faster than I,

more like my friend Sue Grafton, who pops out a book a

year. I am in awe of that! You may have noticed I am a

very slow writer.

SV: Yes, I noticed. You are working on your fifth book

at present and if you had a theme or a certain outlook in

your writing that seems consistent, what would that be?

FF: I suppose that there really is such a thing as true

love, really nice people, and good friends, and sometimes

there are happy endings. I speak from experience.

As I get older I am much happier now than I ever was as

a young person, and my life has turned out to be better

than I could have imagined in my wildest dreams, and

as you know I have a pretty good imagination!

SV: When you are at work do you talk to yourself?

FF: Not yet.

SV: So far all of your books have landed on the bestseller

list. What is your take on the idea of so-called serious

fiction versus popular fiction? In your opinion is

one more preferable to the other?

FF: I would say that I am very serious about trying to

write popular fiction. Blame it on my Southern upbringing

but my preference is to write books that as many

people as possible will enjoy.

SV: Sooner or later, every popular writer discovers the

art of the self-interview. If you were talking to Fannie

Flagg, what questions would you most like to be asked,

and have answered?

FF: Aha! I have always wanted to do this. “Miss Flagg,

does writing come easy for you?”

FF: Are you kidding? Writing is the hardest thing in

the world for me. First of all, I am easily distracted—if I

see a leaf fall off a tree, I lose my concentration—and

I am cursed with the ears of a bat. I can hear a car door

slam two miles away, so I have to be locked up in a completely quiet place and sit all by myself all day. I hate to

be alone!

SV: If writing is so hard for you, then why in the world

do you keep doing it?

FF: Believe me, I have thought about this for years and

I suppose I write for the same reason painters paint, or

photographers take pictures. I want to stop time, capture

a moment, a day, a year, and keep it forever. That, and

the fact that my editor continues to bug me about my

next book.

SV: Speaking of that, how important is an editor to

your work?

FF: Of no importance whatsoever. I really don’t need

an editor; after all, I do all the work myself. Okay, just

kidding, Sam! I have been lucky enough to have the

same editor for the last eighteen years. He knows me

very well and understands when to push me and when

not to. But mostly he helps me manage fear. It is terrifying

to write a book, particularly when you know your

publishing house is waiting on it. His guidance and patience

have been and continue to be invaluable. Besides

that, he knows grammar, spelling, and all that good

stuff.

SV: What is your next book?

FF: I am working on a small Christmas book.

SV: Have you finished it yet?

FF: (Long pause) I have to go now.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Product Details

ISBN:
9780804119351
Author:
Flagg, Fannie
Publisher:
Ballantine Books
Location:
New York
Subject:
General
Subject:
Mothers and sons
Subject:
Southern states
Subject:
Sales personnel
Subject:
Missouri
Subject:
Humorous fiction
Subject:
Gospel musicians
Subject:
Women in radio broadcasting
Subject:
Blind musicians
Subject:
General Fiction
Copyright:
Edition Number:
1st mass market ed.
Edition Description:
Mass market paperback
Series Volume:
107-16
Publication Date:
20030603
Binding:
Paperback
Grade Level:
General/trade
Language:
English
Illustrations:
Y
Pages:
544
Dimensions:
7.12x4.40x1.20 in. .58 lbs.

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Fiction and Poetry » Literature » A to Z
Fiction and Poetry » Literature » Cultural Heritage
History and Social Science » American Studies » Popular Culture

Standing in the Rainbow Used Mass Market
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Product details 544 pages Ballantine Books - English 9780804119351 Reviews:
"Synopsis" by , The author of "Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Caf" presents a "big, juicy middle-American apple pie of a book, sometimes tart but mostly sweet" ("Los Angeles Times") that chronicles the lives of a small town's colorful denizens from 1946 to the present.
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