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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Good news! Fannie’s back in town--and the town is among the leading characters in her new novel.

Along with Neighbor Dorothy, the lady with the smile in her voice, whose daily radio broadcasts keep us delightfully informed on all the local news, we also meet Bobby, her ten-year-old son, destined to live a thousand lives, most of them in his imagination; Norma and Macky Warren and their ninety-eight-year-old Aunt Elner; the oddly sexy and charismatic Hamm Sparks, who starts off in life as a tractor salesman and ends up selling himself to the whole state and almost the entire country; and the two women who love him as differently as night and day. Then there is Tot Whooten, the beautician whose luck is as bad as her hairdressing skills; Beatrice Woods, the Little Blind Songbird; Cecil Figgs, the Funeral King; and the fabulous Minnie Oatman, lead vocalist of the Oatman Family Gospel Singers.

The time is 1946 until the present. The town is Elmwood Springs, Missouri, right in the middle of the country, in the midst of the mostly joyous transition from war to peace, aiming toward a dizzyingly bright future.

Once again, Fannie Flagg gives us a story of richly human characters, the saving graces of the once-maligned middle classes and small-town life, and the daily contest between laughter and tears. Fannie truly writes from the heartland, and her storytelling is, to quote Time, "utterly irresistible."


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt

Elmwood Springs

Almost everyone in town that had an extra room took in a boarder. There were no apartment buildings or hotels as of yet. The Howard Johnson was built a few years later but in the meantime bachelors needed to be looked after and single women certainly had to have a respectable place to live. Most people considered it their Christian duty to take them in whether they needed the few extra dollars a week or not, and some of the boarders stayed on for years. Mr. Pruiet, a bachelor from Kentucky with long thin feet, boarded with the Haygoods so long that they eventually forgot he was not family. Whenever they moved, he moved. When he finally did die at seventy-eight, he was buried in the Haygood family plot with a headstone that read:

MR. PRUIET

STILL WITH US

PAID IN FULL

The homes on First Avenue North were located within walking distance of town and school and were where most of the town’s boarders lived.

At present the Smith family’s boarder is Jimmy Head, the short-order cook at the Trolley Car Diner; the Robinsons next door have Beatrice Woods, the Little Blind Songbird; the Whatleys up the street have Miss Tuttle, the high school English teacher. Ernest Koonitz, the school’s band director and tuba soloist, boards with Miss Alma, who, as luck would have it, has a hearing problem. But soon the Smith family will take in a new boarder who will set in action a chain of events that should eventually wind up in the pages of history books. Of course they won’t know it at the time, especially their ten-year-old son, Bobby. He is at the moment downtown standing outside the barbershop with his friend Monroe Newberry, staring at the revolving red and white stripes on the electric barber’s pole. The game is to stare at it until they are cross-eyed, which seemed to them to be some sort of grand achievement. As far as amusements go, it is on a par with holding your breath until you pass out or dropping from a rope into the freezing swimming hole outside of town named the Blue Devil, so cold that even on a hot day when you hit the water the first shock jolts you to your eyeballs, stops your heart, and makes you see stars before your eyes. By the time you come out your body is so numb you can’t feel where your legs are and your lips have turned blue, hence the name. But boys, being the insane creatures they are, cannot wait to come crawling out covered with goose bumps and do it all over again.

These were some of the activities that thrilled Bobby to the core. However, for Bobby just life itself was exciting. And really at that time and that place what red-blooded American boy would not wake up every morning jumping for joy and ready to go? He was living smack-dab in the middle of the greatest country in the world—some said the greatest country that ever was or ever would be. We had just beaten the Germans and the Japanese in a fair fight. We had saved Europe and everyone liked us that year, even the French. Our girls were the prettiest, our boys the handsomest, our soldiers the bravest, and our flag the most beautiful. That year it seemed like everyone in the world wanted to be an American. People from all over the world were having a fit trying to come here. And who could blame them? We had John Wayne, Betty Grable, Mickey Mouse, Roy Rogers, Superman, Dagwood and Blondie, the Andrews Sisters, and Captain Marvel. Buck Rogers and Red Ryder, BB guns, the Hardy Boys, G-men, Miss America, cotton candy. Plus Charlie McCarthy and Edgar Bergen, Amos ’n’ Andy, Fibber McGee and Molly, and anybody could grow up and become the president of the United States.

Bobby even felt sorry for anyone who was not lucky enough to have been born here. After all, we had invented everything in the world that really mattered. Hot dogs, hamburgers, roller coasters, roller skates, ice-cream cones, electricity, milk shakes, the jitterbug, baseball, football, basketball, barbecue, cap pistols, hot-fudge sundaes, and banana splits. We had Coca-Cola, chocolate-covered peanuts, jukeboxes, Oxydol, Ivory Snow, oleomargarine, and the atomic bomb!

We were bigger, better, richer, and stronger than anybody but we still played by the rules and were always good sports. We even reached out and helped pick up and dust off Japan and Germany after we had beaten them . . . and if that wasn’t being a good sport, what was? Bobby’s own state of Missouri had given the world Mark Twain, Walt Disney, Ginger Rogers, and the great St. Louis World’s Fair, and aboard the battleship Missouri the Japanese had surrendered to General Douglas MacArthur. Not only that, Bobby’s Cub Scout troop (Bobwhite Patrol) had personally gone all over town collecting old rubber tires, scrap paper, and aluminum pots and pans. That had helped win the war. And if that wasn’t enough to make a boy proud, the president of the entire United States, Mr. Harry S. Truman, was a true-blue dyed-in-the-wool Missourian, and St. Louis had won the World Series. Even the trees stood a little straighter this year, or so it seemed to Bobby.

He had a mother, a father, and a grandmother and had never known anyone who had died. He had seen only photographs in store windows of the boys who had been killed in the war. He and his best friend, Monroe, were now official blood brothers, an act so solemn that neither one spoke on the way home. His big sister, Anna Lee, a pretty blue-eyed blond girl, was quite popular with all the older boys, who would sometimes hang around the house and play catch or throw the football with him. Sometimes he was able to make a quarter off the guys just to leave them alone on the front porch with Anna Lee. In 1946 a quarter meant popcorn, candy, a movie, a cartoon, and a serial, plus a trip to the projection booth to visit Snooky, who read Mickey Spillane books. And after the movie he could go next door to the Trolley Car Diner, where Jimmy, their boarder, would fry him a burger if he was not too busy.

Or he might stop by the drugstore on the corner and read a few of the newest comic books. His father was the pharmacist so he was allowed to look at them for free as long as he did not wrinkle or spill any food on them. Thelma and Bertha Ann, the girls who worked behind the soda fountain, thought he was cute and might slip him a cherry Coke or, if he was lucky, a root-beer float. Downtown Elmwood Springs was only one long block so there was never any danger of getting lost, and the year-round weather couldn’t have been more perfect if he had ordered it off a menu. Each October a nice big round orange harvest moon appeared just in time for Halloween. Thanksgiving Day was always crisp and cool enough to go outside and play tag after a big turkey dinner and snow fell once or twice a year, just when he needed a day off from school.

And then came spring, with crickets, frogs, and little green leaves on the trees again, followed by summer, sleeping out on the screened porch, fishing, hot bright sunny days at Cascade Plunge, the town’s swimming pool, and so far every Fourth of July, after all the firecrackers, whirligigs, and sparklers were gone, lightning bugs and large iridescent blue-and-green June bugs showed up in time to make the night last a little longer.

On hot muggy August afternoons, just when you thought you would die of the heat, clouds would begin to gather and distant thunder boomed so deep you would feel it in your chest. Suddenly a cool breeze would come from out of nowhere and turn the sky a dark gunmetal gray, so dark that all the streetlights in town got confused and started coming on. Seconds later an honest-to-God Missouri gully washer would come crashing down hard and fast and then without warning pick up and run to the next town, leaving behind enough cool water to fill the gutters so Bobby could run out and feel it rushing over his bare feet.

Although Mr. Bobby Smith had only been on this earth for a very short time and at present occupied only four feet eight inches of it, he was already a man of considerable property. Most of which he kept in his room on the floor, on the walls, on the bed, under the bed, hanging from the ceiling, or anywhere there was an empty space. As the decorators would say, he was going in for that casual, devil-may-care, cluttered look that his mother had the nerve to say looked like a Salvation Army junk store. It was only an average-sized bedroom with a small closet, but to Bobby, it was his personal and private magical kingdom full of priceless treasures. A place where he was the master of all he surveyed, rich as a sultan. Although in truth there was nothing in the room that a sultan or anybody else, for that matter, would want unless they were in the market for a box of painted turtles or an assortment of rocks, a flattened-out penny he and Monroe had put on the streetcar tracks, or a life-sized cardboard stand-up of Sunset Carson, his favorite cowboy, that Snooky had given him from the Elmwood Theater. Or maybe two silver dollars or an artificial yellow fish eye he had found behind the VFW or a small glass jeep that once had candy in it, for about five seconds. Among his possessions that year was a homemade slingshot, a bag of marbles, one little Orphan Annie decoder pin, one glow-in-the-dark ring, one compass, one Erector set, three yo-yos, a model airplane, a boy’s hairbrush with a decal of the Lone Ranger on it (a birthday present from Monroe that Monroe’s mother had bought), a cardboard Firestone filling station complete with pumps, a bookshelf full of ten-cent Terry and the Pirates, Joe Palooka, and Red Ryder books. Under the bed were several Spider Man, Porky the Pig, Little Audrey, and Casper the Friendly Ghost comic books, plus an L&N train set, his plastic braided Indian bracelet a girl gave him that he thought he had lost, and one white rubber handlebar cover from an old bicycle.

But Bobby’s world was not limited to just what he could see or touch or to the space inside the four walls of his bedroom. He had traveled a million miles in the L&N train under his bed, ridden up treacherous mountains through long black tunnels over raging rivers, and in the little plane hanging from the ceiling he had flown around the world, often over Amazon jungles teeming with alligators. Even the streetlight on the corner provided Bobby with a wonderful show. As he was lying in bed on breezy summer evenings, watching the shadows made by the leaves of the poplar tree dancing on the side of the house next door, they soon became palm trees, swaying back and forth in the warm trade winds of the nearest tropical island. Some nights he could hear the faint strains of Hawaiian music and see rows of hula girls dancing right above the Robinsons’ bedroom window. So enthralled was Bobby with this image that he had sent off for a ukulele. Nobody was more disappointed. He had expected it to play a song when strummed but it had not. The sound it made was a far cry from music, Hawaiian or otherwise, so he quickly moved on to the harmonica and was convinced he was really playing a song when he wasn’t. So great was his imagination that when he rode a broomstick handle around the backyard he could see the dust and hear the sound of the thundering hoofs as he galloped across the dry western desert. That year he went to sleep each night with his eyes full of cowboys and Indians and his head filled with voices. “Tom Mix and the Ralston Straight Shooters are on the air!” “From out of the West comes America’s fighting cowboy!” “Quaker Oats . . . delicious, nutritious, makes you ambitious!” “You bet ’um, Red Ryder.” “I’m back in the saddle again.” “Well, I’ll be a lop-eared kangaroo if it isn’t roundup time.” “Me Tonto, you Kemo Sabe.” And his favorite, “Hi-yo, Silver, away!”

An outside observer might think his life was just about perfect. However, to be fair, there were two distinctive and troublesome drawbacks to being Bobby Smith. One was his appearance. He was a nice-enough-looking boy with brown eyes and brown hair. His teeth were straight. His ears stuck out slightly but nothing out of the ordinary. One problem was that his mouth turned up a bit at both corners, making him look like he knew a secret and was pleased about it. This expression caused his mother and his teachers to ask constantly, “What are you up to?” even when he wasn’t up to anything. No matter how much he professed his innocence, they always replied, “Don’t lie to me, Bobby Smith, I can tell you’re up to something by the look on your face.”

The other drawback was his parents. Everybody knew who they were and would tell on him the minute he did something wrong. His father, the town’s only pharmacist, a Mason, a Rotarian, an Elk, and a senior elder at the First Methodist Church, was just naturally on a first-name basis with the entire town. But to make matters even worse, his mother was a local radio personality known as Neighbor Dorothy, who five days a week broadcast her show from their living room. And each year she would send her listening audience Christmas cards with the family’s picture on them, so that people for miles around knew who he was and what he looked like, and sometimes when a guest did not show up his mother would grab Bobby and make him be the guest and ask him all kinds of questions as if he were a complete stranger. On holidays his mother would put him on the radio to recite some stupid poem. And to add insult to injury, his personal and private business was often discussed on his mother’s radio show and everything he did, good or bad, was talked about for all the world to hear.

His only consolation was that this was a cross both the Smith children had to bear. This was of little consolation to Anna Lee. Last year his sister had gotten hysterical when their mother happened to mention that Anna Lee did not have a date as of yet for the prom because she was holding out, hoping the boy she thought looked just like Glenn Ford—her major movie-star crush at the time—would ask her. Dorothy had always shared things about her family with her audience before but when Anna Lee heard that piece of information going out over the airwaves she ran through the house screaming as if someone had shot her and flung herself on the bed sobbing, “Oh, Mother, how could you? You’ve ruined my life. I’ll never get another date as long as I live. I might as well just kill myself.” She stayed in bed wailing with a cold cloth on her head for two days while her mother, who felt terrible about it, tried to make it up to her by bringing her homemade peach ice cream and promising never to mention her name over the air again.

At the time Bobby thought it was pretty funny but Bobby was not yet at the sensitive stage where what other people thought about you was a matter of life and death. So for the moment, other than not being able to get away with much, he didn’t have a care in the world and, like most ten-year-old boys, believed that something wonderful was always just about to happen.


From the Hardcover edition.
Fannie Flagg|Author Q&A

About Fannie Flagg

Fannie Flagg - Standing in the Rainbow

Photo © Suze Lanier

Fannie Flagg’s career started in the fifth grade when she wrote, directed, and starred in her first play, titled The Whoopee Girls, and she has not stopped since. At age nineteen she began writing and producing television specials, and later wrote for and appeared on Candid Camera. She then went on to distinguish herself as an actress and a writer in television, films, and the theater. She is the bestselling author of Daisy Fay and the Miracle Man; Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe; Welcome to the World, Baby Girl!; Standing in the Rainbow; A Redbird Christmas; Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven; I Still Dream About You; and The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion. Flagg’s script for the movie Fried Green Tomatoes was nominated for an Academy Award and the Writers Guild of America Award and won the highly regarded Scripter Award for best screenplay of the year. Flagg is the winner of the Harper Lee Prize. Flagg lives happily in California and Alabama.

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
your imagination?

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
by rainbow?

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
baggage.

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
laundry line.

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
know it.

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
on television.

SV: Your work has taken you to many places. Are you a
good traveler?

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
train.

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
be alone!

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
next book.

SV: Speaking of that, how important is an editor to
your work?

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
stuff.

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.

Praise

Praise

“ANOTHER SURE-FIRE WINNER . . . A PLEASURE TO READ FROM BEGINNING TO END.”
–The Washington Post

“[A] BIG, JUICY MIDDLE-AMERICAN APPLE PIE OF A BOOK, SOMETIMES TART BUT MOSTLY SWEET.”
–Los Angeles Times

“FLAGG WRITES PAGE-TURNERS AND THIS IS ONE, IN SPADES. . . . The characters come at you thick and fast . . . Dorothy, prodigious pie-baker, supremely likeable and conscientious neighbor, [and] hostess of a wildly popular daily radio program; Minnie Oatman, the generously fleshed and bighearted lead singer (baritone) of the Oatman Family Gospel Singers; Beatrice, the Little Blind Songbird, who appears regularly on the Neighbor Dorothy program until she is swept away by the Oatmans; prickly Aunt Elner, who owns a series of orange cats, all named Sonny. Flagg’s inventiveness never loses its energy.”
Newsday

“RIVETING FROM BEGINNING TO END . . . A sweeping story that runs from 1946 to 2000. Elmwood Springs [Missouri] grows from a post—World War II town surrounded by farmland to a twenty-first-century enclave near the highway but never loses its sense of utopia.”
–Rocky Mountain News

“GOOD NEWS FOR FANS OF FRIED GREEN TOMATOES . . . The action does not let up for a minute.”
–The New York Times Book Review

“FULL OF HOPE AND OPTIMISM . . . A book that will make you cry a little but laugh a lot.”
–The Washington Post

“As delicious a serving of Southern comfort as her Fried Green Tomatoes . . . Fannie invites her readers to make friends with a host of colorful Midwestern characters, who sneak into your heart and force you to live through all their joys and tribulations following World War II right up
to yesterday. In this stormy world of ‘now,’ Fannie Flagg offers escape,
at least momentarily, into the rainbow of her imagination.”
–LIZ SMITH
The New York Post

“A fast-paced, humorous, and lighthearted read, peopled with [Flagg’s] signature quirky and captivating characters. Standing in the Rainbow spans more than half a century, but Flagg is masterful at showing how small-town life in America evolves through the decades. . . . The reader [is] propelled by the infectious momentum of Flagg’s storytelling.”
–Birmingham News

“There’s a real celebration of life here, an affirmation that success and happiness are the results of simple kindness, gratitude, and courage.”
–The Christian Science Monitor

“ENDEARING . . . The charm lies in Flagg’s simple yet expressive tone.”
People

“What is so appealing about Elmwood Springs? It’s Fannie Flagg’s unswerving devotion to folksy, sly humor and her uncanny ability to make a small town a big character in her sweetly engaging fourth novel. . . . Flagg ushers you into the residents’ hearts and minds with a flourish. She sits you right down in Neighbor Dorothy’s home during her radio broadcast, hands you a plate of homemade cookies, and assures you that putting up your feet and staying a bit is the right thing to do.”
–Miami Herald

“Like Rebecca Wells’s Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Flagg’s book tells the story not just of the town’s residents, but also of the changes in a community and a nation. . . . As Tot Whooten says at the outset, ‘I could go on and on, but I won’t. I hate when somebody tells me how something ends.’ Let’s just say that there’s a pot of gold at the end of Standing in the Rainbow.”
–Providence Journal

“A warm, witty, refreshing journey through fifty years with the residents of Elmwood Springs, Missouri . . . As time rolls along until the year 2000, we watch an assortment of lovable characters adapt to a changing America. And we thank Fannie Flagg for a look at those years before ‘the world had flipped over like a giant pancake.’ ”
–The Dallas Morning News

“A SPRAWLING, FEEL-GOOD NOVEL . . . The effects of changing social mores are handled deftly; historical events as they impact little Elmwood Springs are duly noted, and everything is infused with good humor and joie de vivre that are Flagg’s stock-in-trade.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“[Flagg] is an engaging storyteller with a gift for creating compelling female characters and comic set pieces. . . . Elmwood Springs is populated with an endless supply of eccentric characters and comic visitors who push the story along.”
–The Baltimore Sun

“Flagg is a storyteller with a big heart, an engaging sense of humor and plenty of ambition. From those hopeful post-World War II days, she tracks the comedies and setbacks of the folks of Elmwood Springs right up to the turn of the century.”
–Houston Chronicle

“As the decades unfold, each character flowers in unexpected ways. . . . Hilarious, charming, authentic–a winner all the way.”
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. The novel starts in the immediate aftermath of World War II. How does the period compare with the times following more modern wars—Vietnam, Gulf War, Desert Storm, etc.?

2. In what ways is Bobby the typical pre-teenage son?
Does he differ in any important details? Does his active imagination hamper him, confuse him, or fuel his ambitions?

3. In what ways is Neighbor Dorothy a good neighbor? What makes her such an effective seller of her sponsors’ products or services?

4. Does Neighbor Dorothy speak through the silences surrounding some farmers’ wives—the silent or the working-all-day husband, for example. Or the limited view the nation had of housewives at that time? Or perhaps the distance between towns and cities and countryside? Was this the loneliness that can come with working alone in a house almost all the time?

5. How does Dorothy succeed in making small events into larger ones—an anniversary, the birth of a kitten, some honor bestowed in school or church, one of the ordinary
recognitions?

6. Is the humor in the novel satire—or not?

7. How does Hamm break out of the tractor salesman category?

8. How does he use his salesmanlike skills to win the young woman who becomes his wife?

9. Hamm eventually takes on a mistress and advisor. How does Vita not fit into the usual Other Woman mold? We see their relationship grow—but what of that between his wife and his mistress?

10. With all the evidence of “dysfunctional” families these days, why do some marriages in the novel work out so well?

11. Why do you think the author begins the novel with Tot, the voice of one of the minor characters?

12. The Oatman family of gospel singers: Do they reveal a “hidden” aspect of American culture (hidden, that is, unless you grew up with such entertainments and forms of worship)? What other pockets of American life are almost invisible to white, middle-class, urban Americans?

13. Hamm’s politics seem to be a bit all over the place. He’s not a true conservative or liberal; he’s not a true demagogue or, on the other hand, a true blue Boy Scout, or without endless ambition. At what point does he leave off being a populist do-gooder and let ambition take over? Is the process gradual or sudden?

14. Because of the author’s attitude toward her characters and presumably the world, some might call this a feel-good novel. In what ways does she allow some of the harsher realities to creep in?

15. Is small-town life any better per se than city life?

16. Is the Midwestern small town indistinguishable from the Southern small town in Fried Green Tomatoes, for example?

17. The decade of the ’50s occurs in the middle of the novel. It was the time of the Eisenhower presidency, the end of the war in Korea, etc. For years, much of the
intelligentsia portrayed those years as dull ones, uneventful, complacent, unremarkable. Later, there was a revision in opinion. They were special years of peace (despite the Cold War), stability, growth, etc. What is your opinion?

18. Aunt Elner, Norma, Macky . . . Can you think of counterparts in real life? Do you know a character or two who exhibit some of their characteristics?

19. Do you agree that Aunt Elner would have made a good governor? Or that Poor Tot would make a splendid Secretary of Health and Human Services?

20. If you’re a woman, don’t you wish you could find a nightgown just like the one Macky so admired on Norma? What did it do for her?

21. How would you like a two-week vacation, all expenses paid, in Elmwood Springs, “The Most Middle Town in America.” How would you spend the time?

22. Transformations occur with fair frequency in the lives of these characters. Can you name some? Do you know of similar transformations in your own life experience?

23. “You can’t go home again,” wrote Thomas Wolfe, famously. Bobby tries it with mixed results. But can you ever get away from home, no matter how far you travel?

24. Macky eases into retirement only to find that everything rubs him the wrong way. But one gift, one wonder of modern technology, changes all that. What was it? And has that invention done the same for you?

25. How would you write the next chapter, beyond the ending of the novel, to see the surviving characters through the next phase of their lives?


  • Standing in the Rainbow by Fannie Flagg
  • August 03, 2004
  • Fiction
  • Ballantine Books
  • $15.00
  • 9780345452887

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