What Keeps Fannie Flagg Writing

The actress and 'Fried Green Tomatoes' author discusses her colorful career

There’s something special about author Fannie Flagg. Through her writing, she brings to life heartwarming characters who are such down-to-earth folks that you just can’t seem to get enough of them. That’s one of the reasons why her most recent novel, The Whole Town’s Talking, shouldn’t be missed. In it, she brings back many of the characters from previous books whom her regular readers have come to think of as they would dear friends.

“One thing that keeps me writing is that the world has gotten so dark, and somebody has to continue to remind people that there are nice people living out there,” says Flagg, 73. “It seems like nobody is writing about really kind, nice, normal, ordinary, middle-class people.”

The Early Passion of Fannie Flagg

Technically, Flagg (born with the name Patricia Neal) got her start writing when she was just in grade school in Alabama. She won first prize at the county fair at age 11 for an essay called, Why I Want to be Bald-Headed.

“My mother would torture me every morning braiding my hair. She would braid it so tight that I would just cry and have a headache,” recalls Flagg. So when her sixth-grade teacher gave the class a writing assignment, Flagg knew exactly what to write about.

Before that, Flagg had written a play that got her into trouble at the Catholic school she attended. Her father worked as a motion-picture machine operator, and, from an early age, Flagg would go with him to work. As a result, she had seen a lot of movies. She wrote a play to cast her and her best friend in the lead roles. The play told of two “career girls” living in an apartment over the Copacabana nightclub in New York City. “I thought that was just so exotic,” says Flagg.

The play was a comedy in which a man named Mr. Truman called and said he was coming for tea, and the girls thought it was President Harry Truman, so they spent a ton of money and invited all their friends over. When they man arrives, the characters discover that he’s an insurance salesman named Truman. “I thought that was hilarious,” says Flagg.

A nun at her Catholic school didn’t. In fact, she called Flagg’s mom to say that they were concerned about Fannie. When her mother asked why, the nun replied that her daughter had written a play and “used the word ‘martini’ 16 times.” Flagg’s mom laughed and explained that Fannie had just seen a lot of movies. She promised the nun that the family wasn’t sitting around the house drinking martinis all the time.

Overcoming a Learning Disability

Even though she had success in writing at a young age, Flagg didn’t initially pursue this as a career because she struggled with dyslexia. She started getting horrible grades in school because she had trouble spelling. “I was discouraged for years from writing,” says Flagg.

Instead, she went into acting. Flagg appeared on shows such as The New Dick Van Dyke Show, The New Candid Camera and The Love Boat, among many others. Flagg played Nurse Wilkins in the movie Grease and was a regular on the original Match Game TV show, occupying the seat next to Richard Dawson. While she wrote comedy sketches for The New Candid Camera, she would memorize them so nobody would see her writing.

All that changed when Flagg attended the Santa Barbara Writers Conference. Before going, she had to write a short story for a contest based on one word the conference organizers had assigned. The word was “childhood.”

“I went to the grocery store, and I bought one of those spiral notebooks. I wrote a story called Daisy Fay and the Miracle Man about something had actually happened to me in childhood,” says Flagg. “I wrote it as an 11-year-old child, and I thought that if they saw any mistakes, they would think I did it on purpose.”

Flagg won the contest. “I couldn’t believe it. I was thrilled, but at the same time I felt like such a cheat and a liar,” says Flagg. An editor there said he wanted her to write a fleshed-out novel based on her story. Flagg burst into tears and said, “I’m so sorry, but I can’t write a book.” When he asked her why, she replied, “Because I can’t spell.” Flagg says the editor looked at her like she was crazy and said, “What do you think we have editors for?”

She’s been writing ever since.

Flagg’s most well-known novel is probably Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café because it was made into a movie starring Kathy Bates, Jessica Tandy, Mary Stuart Masterson and Mary-Louise Parker. Flagg co-wrote the screenplay, which garnered her an Oscar nomination.

When Flagg began writing, she says she knew, “This is where I’m supposed to be. I finally feel like myself. This is exactly what I want to do.”

Is The Whole Town’s Talking, going to be her last book? “Probably,” she says. “Although I have said that the last four books!”

We hope she keeps writing for a long, long time.

By Michele Wojciechowski
Michele "Wojo" Wojciechowski is an award-winning writer who lives in Baltimore, Md. She's the author of the humor book Next Time I Move, They'll Carry Me Out in a Box. Reach her at www.WojosWorld.com.@TheMicheleWojo

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