Tinseltown Storyteller

Fannie Flagg calls me in Flagstaff, Ariz., from Santa Barbara, Calif., two of the most un-Southern places imaginable, but when we connect it’s just two Alabamians talking. As anyone who knows her can attest, Flagg is an easy conversationalist and the soul of good humor and grace. She speaks of Foley, Gulf Shores and the Grand Hotel as casually as she does Broadway, Hollywood and dressing rooms. Indeed, despite her long list of impressive achievements and fame as an actress, comedienne, entertainer and writer, she reveals that she’s just a Southern girl at heart, “basically very shy, ” who’d rather be known as an author than anything else.    

Flagg was born Patricia Neal in Birmingham in 1944. She moved with her parents to Gulf Shores when she was in the fifth grade and later attended Foley High School. She often accompanied her mother to lunch at the Grand Hotel. “I fell in love with Fairhope, ” she says, “and adopted it as my favorite town in Alabama.” In fact, Flagg lived in the bayside burg for a number of years. She praises the town’s lively independent bookstore, Page & Palette, and counts retired owner Betty Joe Wolf (“she gave me my first book signing”) and current owners Karin and Kiefer Wilson as dear personal friends. She also mourns the recent passing of Bay-area wordsmith C. Terry Cline, whom she has considered a mentor along with his wife, Judith Richards.

Her theatrical career began at the tender age of 14, when she trod the boards in a Birmingham community theatre program, and steadily grew from there. At 17, she changed her name to Fannie Flagg to avoid any confusion with the Academy Award-winning actress Patricia Neal, and in the 1960s and ’70s she was a regular on television and in the movies. Her credits include working as a staff writer for and appearing on “Candid Camera, ” being a regular on television shows “The New Dick Van Dyke Show” and “Harper Valley PTA, ” and acting in movies like “Five Easy Pieces” (1971) and “Stay Hungry” (1976). By 1980, she had the lead in the Broadway production of “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” and to all appearances was living a rarefied American dream.

But Flagg says she was profoundly unhappy. “I would sit in my dressing room and cry. I had gotten away from what I really wanted to be doing, which was writing, and was only performing for the money.” Furthermore, she recalls herself thinking, “I am taking a job away from some other young actress.” That year also brought the death of her parents, a deeply shattering blow. An only child, she thought: “You’re next. May as well do what you want and be happy.”

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Shifting into a full-time writing career took courage, but Flagg already had a long personal history of working up her own material, dating back to her teenage years. Still, writing can be a struggle for her. “I have ADD and dyslexia, ” she says. “I have to go away from distractions. I have to live like a nun in a cell.” Since her dramatic course change, Flagg has authored seven novels and two cookbooks. Her first book, “Coming Attractions: A Wonderful Novel” (1981, reissued as “Daisy Fay and the Miracle Man” in 1992) was a New York Times best-seller and proof positive that she could bring real storytelling skill to the page. Her most famous book, 1987’s “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, ” was subsequently made into a 1991 movie, for which Flagg also wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay. The novel introduced an unforgettable set of female characters. When I ask her if family members inspired any of them, she replies, “‘Fried Green Tomatoes’ was written about my great-aunt who ran a café in Irondale.”

But it is her grandmother, “somewhat of a great beauty, a matriarch, a great influence and a real go-getter, ” who is foremost in Flagg’s mind these days, for it was this formidable woman who became the model for the central character in Flagg’s new novel, due in November, “The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion.” The story is set during the 1940s, when “all the guys went to war and the gals had to take over.” Flagg explains that she recently met a man who described how his mother had worked at an all-female gas station during World War II, and this struck her as the perfect topic for a novel. A bonus for local readers is that “half of it is set in Point Clear.”

When I ask if she might write a memoir, Flagg scoffs, “It’d be a pamphlet!” And as for more novels, she confesses that the idea of shutting herself off again for an extended period of time isn’t very appealing. “I’m praying that I don’t write another soon.” No doubt her writer’s fatigue will pass, however, and she’ll once again be at it. “As you know, ” she concludes, “when it’s going well, there’s nothing better, and when it’s not, there’s nothing worse.” MB

John S. Sledge is the author of “Southern Bound: A Gulf Coast Journalist on Books, Writers and Literary Pilgrimages of the Heart.”    

text by John S. Sledge • photo by Andrew Southam

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