Montecito author Fannie Flagg revisits ‘Fried Green Tomatoes’ characters
Fannie Flagg laughed when she talked about how she got on “The New Dick Van Dyke Show” (1971-74 on CBS).
“I happened to be in New York City at my agent’s office,” the Montecito author and actress told the News-Press. “The producers, Carl Reiner and Sheldon Leonard, were walking down the hall. They kept looking at me. They said, ‘Can you come into the office?’ I said, ‘OK.’
“They said, ‘You know, we’re looking for someone to play Dick Van Dyke’s sister, and your nose is just like his,’ ” Ms. Flagg said, chuckling. “I said, ‘OK, I’ll take it.’
“Isn’t that hilarious?” she said.
“I won by a nose.”
Quick to joke and chuckle, Ms. Flagg has made countless readers laugh with her novels about down-to-Earth characters who have no clue just how funny they are.
The author and queen of movie cameos is probably best known for “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe,” her 1987 book that was adapted into a 1991 movie starring Kathy Bates, Jessica Tandy, Mary Stuart Masterson and Mary Louise-Parker. Ms. Flagg had her cameo as the romance teacher.
Now there’s a sequel.
Ms. Flagg has written “The Wonder Boy of Whistle Stop” (Random House, $28.)
The book will be released Oct. 27, and it will be available at Chaucer’s Books on upper State Street, Tecolote Book Shop in Montecito and on amazon.com.
Now seemed like the right time for a sequel, Ms. Flagg said.
“This year, as you know, I have not been able to travel,” the Birmingham native said in her Southern accent. She was referring to complications rising from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I have not been able to go anywhere. I have not been able to go back home, and I think, ‘I miss home. I miss those characters,’” she said.
“And I wanted to write a book that had a happy ending and didn’t have politics because I’m tired of it,” Ms. Flagg said, referring to the Nov. 3 election and chuckling.
“It’s just something that would be fun and make people laugh and maybe bring back some memories of their childhood,” she said.
Ms. Flagg said she saw the “Fried Green Tomatoes” sequel as a way she could revisit fictional characters who were inspired by real-life people she knew in Alabama.
And the fictional cafe in “Fried Green Tomatoes” is based on a real-life one from Ms. Flagg’s childhood in Irondale, a railroad town just outside Birmingham.
And yes, Ms. Flagg said, the cafe did serve fried green tomatoes.
“You know how that came about?” she said. “In the Depression, when people were so hungry and a lot of people couldn’t get meat, they would fry green tomatoes, and it would be like a substitute for meat.”
She explained the new book, “The Wonder Boy of Whistle Stop,” is a way to bring the characters into the present and see what they’re doing.
The book spans various eras and locations, everything from Whistle Stop, Ala., in 1933, to Birmingham in 1982 to Christmas 1997 in Fairhope, Ala to Kissimmee, Fla., in 1989. There’s even a stop at Walt Disney World.
In the sequel, Whistle Stop has become a ghost town, but the sense of community continues in the lives of Ninny Threadgoode, Bud, Ruthie and others.
“It’s all these people serendipitously meeting back up, and the whole community that fell apart comes back together,” Ms. Flagg said.
“I’m also interested in writing about people who think their life is over, and all of sudden, they get a second chance,” she said.
The characters in both the new book and “Fried Green Tomatoes” include one who makes Ms. Flagg chuckle: Aunt Idgie. She was inspired by the author’s great aunt, Bess Fortenberry.
“My grandmother’s younger sister — she was hilarious,” Ms. Flagg said.
“When the first book ended, we didn’t know what happened to her (Aunt Idgie) and her brother and how she created a brand new life for herself down in Florida,” the author said.
Ms. Flagg talked about another character close to her heart.
“Ninny Threadgoode is based on one lady I knew down in Irondale. This big, tall country woman. She was an innocent, sweet person.
“She had a son who was mentally challenged, and she took care of him all of her life. She never complained. It would never occur to her to complain. She was a pure soul.
“I was so impressed with her that I based the character on her,” Ms. Flagg said.
The author has a knack for creating characters as colorful as their names, and among them is Dot Wheems. Ms. Flagg described her as “the glue that holds everybody together.”
After the town of Whistle Stop shuts down and everyone leaves, Dot keeps in touch with all of them and gives everyone reports on each other.
Ms. Flagg discussed another memorable character.
“Ruthie, I think is a very typical Southern gal who tries to please everybody and wants to do the right thing and gets pushed around a little bit because she is so nice,” Ms. Flagg said. “She’s at a crossroad because her children are getting married. She’s lost her husband.”
She said Ruthie is now dealing with the questions, “Who am I? What do I do next?”
“By a set of circumstances, all of the sudden, she has an answer,” Ms. Flagg said.
For readers and Ms. Flagg, the characters seem very real. The author said she feels the grief when one of them dies and genuine laughter at their hilarious moments.
She considers her characters to be her friends and said she lets the characters guide her.
“I think I love that I can create a world that I would like to live in,” the author said.
The author picked up a lot of details about human nature for her books from her time writing for “Candid Camera” (1960-75 on CBS), TV’s first major hidden camera show. She said she learned people are funny when they don’t realize they’re funny.
And to this day, fans remember her as one of the frequent panelists on the 1970s show “Match Game.”
“All of the sudden, honey, about four months ago, I went to the mailbox, and I had all this fan mail,” Ms. Flagg said.
“It’s all from men, and they’re all watching reruns of ‘Match Game,’ ” she said, laughing.
Ms. Flagg recalled traveling to CBS Television City in Hollywood and doing five shows in one day, back to back. She and the other panelists, who were all seated, changed their tops because each episode was for a different day of the week. (This is how game shows are still filmed today.)
“I had a lot of pals out there with me: Brett Somers, who was a dear friend of mine; Richard Dawson, Charles Nelson Reilly, and Gene Rayburn was the moderator,” Ms. Flagg said. “He (Mr. Rayburn) and his wife were good friends of mine, so it was like a party, and there was no script.
“It was just like being silly for money,” she said. “It was great.
“And it financed my writing career,” Ms. Flagg said. “I was just starting to try to write novels. It was a great way to pay the bills while I was struggling.”
She said “Match Game” also helped her to understand her lifelong problem with spelling. The celebrity panelists wrote down their answers, and the audience laughed when they saw her spelling.
“I would laugh with them because I did not know what else to do, and they thought I was doing it on purpose,” Ms. Flagg said.
“I got a letter from a teacher in Ohio, who said to me, ‘Oh, Fanny, I see that you’re dyslexic,’” she said.
Ms. Flagg proceeded to take a test and found out she did, in fact, have dyslexia.
“It made me realize I’m not that dumb,” she said. “I’m dyslexic.”
Later in the 1970s, Ms. Flagg had a role on Paradise Island in the pilot of “The New Original Wonder Woman,” the CBS series starring the iconic Lynda Carter. The pilot guest-starred Cloris Leachman as Hippolyta, Wonder Woman’s mother, and the episode was filmed at Warner Bros. in Burbank.
“Lynda was just wonderful. She’s 6 feet tall; she’s amazing,” Ms. Flagg said. “Cloris is hilarious. It was grand fun to work with her.
“I remember Cloris walked off a stage and fell into a bunch of artificial bushes,” Ms. Flagg said. “I remember the director said, ‘Lunch!’ ”
The author laughed.