Creative Careers in the Arts

[an error occurred while processing this directive]

Spirited Woman Q & A

Interview with 'Fried Green Tomatoes' Author and Actress Fannie Flagg

By Nancy Mills | Posted June 1, 2005 | Updated May 12, 2019

The first time I met actress and author Fannie Flagg was about two years ago in Santa Barbara, CA where she lives when she is not residing in her home state of Alabama. I was on a writing assignment for MORE magazine and Fannie was my subject. Real tough assignment — I got a chance to interview one of my idols! When I was young, I used to watch Fannie on the TV show, Candid Camera, and scream with laughter. But, it wasn't until later, when I started reading her books, that I was addicted to her talent.

Actually, she'll probably be embarrassed when I say this, but I find her to be one of the greatest voices of our time. So when we met, I was as excited as a schoolgirl. That first interview went very well, and from that point in time we have remained in contact. Fannie's read Spirited Woman, in its original manuscript form, as well as a few other things that I have written. Always supportive, she has become a cheerleader in my court. And, I am forever grateful for that.

Born 61 years ago in a small town outside of Birmingham, Fannie's life has been an amazing adventure of guts, determination, and vision. Yes, her books have been on the New York Times best seller list; she has starred on Broadway; been nominated for both the Academy and Writers Guild of America Awards; and won the Scripters Award — but she has also had to battle many demons in her life — from dyslexia to depression to hypochondria. And she's done it with the fortitude of a prizefighter, ready to go the distance.

I love this Q&A with Fannie. Not only was I so pleased that she agreed to do another interview with me, but I am also truly proud of the role model she is and the honesty in which she gave her answers. She was genuinely thinking of spirited women everywhere, and she was willing to share, how in life, no matter how successful you are, it usually takes a lot of forks in the road to get on the right path. Thank you, Fannie! And, now, read on…

Q: Fannie, did you ever think that as a young girl growing up in Birmingham, Alabama that you'd end up with a successful career in New York and Hollywood?

A: That is a great question. When I was a little girl my father was a motion picture operator so I would go to the movies and fantasize about seeing myself on television. So when I actually did it, it wasn't much of a surprise. And what I found is that I was doing that visualization and didn't even know it. I would think of myself as being in New York and when I was in the fifth grade I wrote a play called the "Whoopee Girls," in which I starred myself, and I played the role of a bachelorette career woman who lived in an apartment above the Copacabana Nightclub. In the play (I was in Catholic school, which was hilarious), I had a little cocktail party and there was something like 32 martinis and the nuns called my mother, and said, is there a problem with your daughter, and my mother said, no sister, I'm afraid she's just seen too many movies. But the truth is, I wasn't as surprised then, however, at this point, l go, dear God in heaven, I would never had imagined had I not been some crazy person that I could have come from what I came from — with the lack of a real good education because of my dyslexia — that I could have come this far having written five books, because in actuality the only thing that I was suited for other than doing what I did was probably being a hostess at a pancake house or something like that because I couldn't even spell well enough to be a waitress. I tried it one summer and I was fired because I just don't have those skills.

Q: You lost your parents when you were thirty — how has that influenced your life?

A: It's a very funny thing. It has made me very lonely in life, but it has made me reach out and grab extended family and look at my friends more as family. Also, being an only child and having almost no relatives left in the world, when you lose both your parents all of a sudden, the universe says "you're next" and my own mortality sort of hit me. I developed a real serious case of hypochondria, which I still have, which I'm embarrassed to tell you. But, it's like the slightest thing that goes wrong with me I go oh-my-god. I think I over react because it was so catastrophic both of them died within three months of one another, that it stunned me so, that up until that point nothing really bad had ever happened in my life, I was not aware of how really tenuous life is. So I grew up really fast and when you're young you say, oh nothing can happen to me and then when you have that really serious dose of reality, you go, ooh, wait a minute, life is too precious to waste. So the positive side of it was, that I became aware I didn't have as much time as I thought. Before I just said, nothing will ever happen to me. I'll live 'til I'm 90. Well, maybe not. It gave me a tremendous appreciation of life and of putting my priorities in order and as a matter of fact, around that time I started saying, I don't like what I'm doing and I think I will do what I kept on saying I will do someday — which is writing. It really put everything into perspective.

Q: You could of stayed on the course of a successful actress and just done that. Why didn't you?

A: You know I wasn't happy in it. I didn't like it. It began to make me very unhappy and I was feeling guilty about it. I remember I was in New York doing Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, and I sat there one night and I looked in the mirror and I was getting ready to go on stage and I was crying because I was so miserable. I had to fix my hair, put on the make-up, put on the dresses, and I'm going I hate this. I thought what are you doing? There is something wrong here. You're on Broadway, starring in a show and you're miserable and you're taking a job away from somebody who would just love to have this job. I was doing it at that point for the money and I thought this is not right. This is not my passion anymore and it's not feeding me. So I just stopped and took a chance. I had lean years. I lived on very little money and made very little money writing in the beginning, but it absolutely made me happy and it fed me. I could have continued as an actress, made good money, but I was not happy. When I really started writing, it was like I had finally walked into the right room. I had been in the wrong place all my life and I never understood it because I didn't get the joy out of performing that other people seem to. I didn't seem to fit in. I thought what's the matter with me because I was so shy it was painful. I wanted to go stand in the corner and watch people, I didn't want anyone to look at me. So I was in the wrong profession and because I was dyslexic and couldn't spell I had assumed that I could never write. When I finally just did it, it was like here is where I am supposed to be. I was so lucky to have a second career.

Q: You've had all these bestselling books, yet you experienced a long stretch where you had writer's block. Tell us about that time.

A: I wrote the first book, Daisy Fay and the Miracle Man, and did okay. Not great. People were not knocking the doors down for me to write another, but I wanted to write one, so I had the idea for Fried Green Tomatoes. By the way, this should help people who get discouraged — something like 16 publishers turned it down. Finally, Sam Vaughan at Random House picked it up and said, oh I like this and got it published. Right after that it sold to the movies. The movie was such a huge hit it overwhelmed me. So all of a sudden, the next book, which would have been my third book — people say the first novel is easy but the second one is terrorizing — well, the third novel for me became terrorizing, because I thought I'll never top the last one. And I realized that people were actually reading my books — it never occurred to me when I was sitting down and writing. Then they started teaching Fried Green Tomatoes in school and I'm hyperventilating. The so-called "literary establishment" is going: deep meaning. And I'm going oh-my-god, I'm just trying to tell a story. I just panicked and I thought they're going to find out that I really can't write and they're going to kill me. So I got myself all wigged out and couldn't write for four or five years. God bless Random House, they just sat there with me. I think I had the record of being five years late on my contract. Finally, I just struggled through and it was horrible and I wrote Welcome to the World Baby Girl, then the next one came fairly easy because I became totally fascinated with one of the characters, Neighbor Dorothy, who I just adored. And I did do something I recommend all writers do. I made a little sign for myself and put it on my word processor and it said, it's not cancer, it's just a book. Because it became so important that it scared me. The hard part of writing as you know, is getting yourself out of the way.

Q: What advice would you give any woman setting out to write her first novel?

A: My advice would be to just write from your heart and don't care what people think and don't try to copy anybody. Just write what it is you have to say. And this is always my advice to writers, if you don't have to do it, don't, because it is a painful life and unless you are absolutely passionate and cannot not do it don't do it.

Q: Many of your books, such as Fried Green Tomatoes, have been made into movies that have really empowered middle-aged/older women. Have you always been a woman's advocate?

A: Yes, I have. My mother was a product of the 40's and the 50's, and she was so handicapped because she could not make a decent living. Women could not make a decent living in the south or almost anywhere. Her mother was a college graduate and did very well, but when she was in high school it was the depression so she did not get a college education and she really didn't have any training and when she was in her 30's and had a child and would like to have a life of her own she couldn't. She would say to me, always make sure you're independent because I'm not and I can't do anything. And I just saw how women were treated then as a teenager growing up, I realized that women's roles were very limited. In Birmingham I can remember going by bus stops and I would see 15 or 20 of these black women who were working as maids working so hard and it just broke my heart. Yes, to answer your question, I always was very sympathetic to the unfairness of how women were treated and my grandmother was quite independent so I think she sort of inspired me and my father was extremely supportive of me and he would say, don't ever think of yourself as a second class citizen. So I was lucky in that way.

Q: Do you have a personal philosophy that you'd like to share with us?

A: I think the reason that I have been successful is that I, and not so much with money or whatever, I really follow my heart. I listen to how I feel and if something makes me feel bad I'm very sensitive to that. It's like I only do things that are positive. If I can't put something positive out in the world then I don't feel right about it. I could make a lot of money doing a lot of things that are negative, but I don't choose to do that because I have to live with myself. I only want to see the best in everything and that's hard to do. Unlike most people think, they say, oh that's easy. Well it isn't. It's very hard because there are a lot of sad things in the world and a lot of negative things. I try to reflect the best in life, rather than reflect the negative.

Q: How do you think your philosophy can benefit other women?

A: I think that we are creatures of emotion, and I know that women are very prone to depression and the best thing that you can do for depression is to make a gratitude list. This helps me — it's like the old saying, count your blessings, it's so silly, but it is true. Whenever I get depressed, which is a lot, I go okay, but… I am living in a free country. I am not in pain. I just go down the list, and nature feeds me. I just go outside and I look at trees or the mountains or the ocean, just try to connect with nature. I just go things are bad, but good lord, look what I have.

Q: Fannie, why do you feel that you are a spirited woman?

A: Well, I think that really every woman is, but I feel that I was lucky enough to get in touch with it. That's what I feel. I had to go through a lot of sadness and depression and I got in touch with it. I got in touch with it through nature — I am now able to see beauty in a lot of things that I didn't use to. When I was younger, I was a night person. I didn't get up in the morning. But I have changed my whole way of thinking and I'm able to see beauty in almost everything and when you do that you change your vision and all of a sudden everything around you becomes art. I use to think that art is on a canvas or in a sculpture, but it really isn't. It's life. Looking at life as art.

©2005 Nancy Mills. All rights reserved.

Next: Interview with Writer Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey