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Standing in the Rainbowby Fannie Flagg
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
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
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
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
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
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
SV: Your work has taken you to many places. Are you a
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
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
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
SV: Speaking of that, how important is an editor to
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
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.
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