(An essay as originally published on SouthernLiving.com)
Even after writing eight novels, I am still mystified at the process of writing. Where do the ideas for books really come from? Do writers come up with the ideas on their own? Or are they sent to us from somewhere, or someone, else?
I do know that the idea for Fried Green Tomatoes was literally handed to me in a shoebox. My grandmother’s youngest sister, Bess, ran a little railroad cafe in Irondale, Alabama, a small town on the outskirts of Birmingham. I was raised in the city, and when I was a child I used to love to go out and visit the cafe. At the time, the cafe seemed to be one of the happiest places in the world. Not only was Aunt Bess hilariously funny, but the fried green tomatoes were delicious!
When I was eleven, we moved away from Birmingham, and I only saw Aunt Bess a few more times, but I had grown up hearing stories about her that I would never forget—stories of how her humor and generous spirit had helped everyone in the town get through the Great Depression.
After high school and one year of acting school, I headed to New York and got caught up in my own life, as we do. Years later, somewhere along the way, I remember hearing from my mother that Aunt Bess had sold the cafe. Then one day came the sad news that she had passed away.
Over a decade later, on a nostalgic trip back home to Alabama, I decided to drive out and see the old cafe and say hello to the McMichael family, who had bought the little cafe from Aunt Bess. After I visited the cafe, I thought I might drive by the old family home across the railroad tracks, where Bess had lived.
When I knocked on the door, a lady answered. I introduced myself as Bess’s niece. She knew who I was and said, “Oh, Fannie, I’m so glad you stopped by. Before she died, your Aunt Bess left you something and she asked me to make sure it got into your hands. I’ve been keeping it for you for all these years.” I was dumbfounded. I couldn’t imagine what it could be.
As it turned out, what Aunt Bess had left me was a shoebox full of memorabilia from her life—old photos, her birth certificate, recipes, a child lock of hair, and programs from the funerals of her cooks who had worked for her for over forty years. At the time, I was struck that a small box of papers was all that was left of a life that had been so full and had meant so much to so many people. I thanked the lady and left, but I was still baffled why Aunt Bess wanted me to have these things. She had so many other nieces and nephews that she was much closer to. Why had she left those things to me? I can’t say for sure, but from that shoebox came the book Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe.
Cut to 1999. I was living in California, and one day quite out of the blue, I called Mrs. McMichael in Alabama, the new owner of the cafe, to ask her a question. By then, because of the success of the movie, the cafe had become somewhat of a tourist attraction. When we were talking, Mrs. McMichael said, “Oh, by the way, we have quite an interesting group coming in for lunch today. They are the last living members of the WASPs, who are in town for a reunion.”
Intrigued, I asked, “Who are the WASPs?”
It’s a bunch of gals that used to fly military planes during the Second World War.”
I had never heard of the WASPs before, but being a white-knuckle flyer, I was very impressed and decided to buy the gals lunch. They earned it!
I had completely forgotten all about it until a year later when I was sent a book about the WASPs written by Nancy Batson Crews. Nancy had been at the reunion lunch at the cafe that previous year. At this time, I was in the middle of writing a book and didn’t have time to sit down and read it, but I did look at the photographs and was fascinated about the idea of maybe writing about the WASPs one day.
Almost twelve years later, I had finished I Still Dream About You and, as usual, I was wandering around the house, trying to come up with an idea for a new book. I suddenly found myself staring at my bookcase, and I spotted the book about the women service pilots. I opened it and saw a handwritten message to me that was written by Nancy Batson Crews’s co-writer.
Nancy Batson Crews’s final instructions to me when I left her for the last time were to put an autographed copy of The Originals in your hands. She so appreciated the reunion luncheon at the cafe! I will sign both our names on the title page, as she would have done had she lived long enough.
Thank you from the surviving WASPs.
Sarah Byrn Rickman and Nancy Batson Crews
Needless to say, when I read that note, my hair stood up. Why had I not seen this before? Was it a coincidence that I happened to call the cafe on that particular day in 1999? Was it a coincidence that years later, I happened to pick up that particular book? And if Aunt Bess had not left me that shoebox, would the WASPs have been at that cafe for lunch? Would I ever have known about these brave women if they hadn’t been there the day I called? What is fate and what is simply luck?
Of course, I can’t know anything for sure, but sometimes I wonder if some stories just want to be written and they go out looking for someone to write them. I believe this one did, and I hope you think so too.
Send Fannie a note on her Facebook page!
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