“I get so tickled about people’s names, and Southerners often have proud names,” she said. “I tried to give characters memorable names because our minds wander. A different name can keep a reader’s attention. When reading small-town newspapers and seeing unusual names, I write them down. Later I will use them. I also think names are so peculiar and odd that you do remember them.
“Some in the South use their mother’s name as their first name. But I can’t laugh at them because of mine. When I went into acting, my real name, Patricia Neal, had to be changed because an actress already had that name. My father suggested Fannie Flagg — a good one, he said — but also a name people will remember.”
Flagg’s choice of names helps introduce her characters as strong and distinctive personalities throughout the novels, page after page, down to finished stories. Her first bestseller, “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café,” published in 1987 with the movie in 1991, gives impressive shots of courage and ways to make life richer. Her latest book, “The Wonder Boy of Whistle Stop,” helps readers pull away from current daily stress and tensions to ease hearts and bring upbeat possibilities.
Whistle Stop is the location of both of Flagg’s novels.
“Fried Green Tomatoes” stars an older woman, Ninny Threadgoode, telling stories in 1980 about two women during the Depression in the lively town of Whistle Stop, not far from Birmingham, Alabama.
Her fun-loving but crazy sister-in-law, Imogene (Idgie) Threadgoode, and friend Ruth ran the widely popular Whistle Stop Café with outstanding cheap food, including green tomatoes.
They also raised Ruth’s active and personable little boy, Buddy Threadgoode Jr.
Characters often face crucial troubles, deal with unfairness from people with abuse and cruelty, and have ongoing conflicts. Yet, they have magical moments while sharing love, depth and humor.
“The Wonder Boy” characters are led by Bud Jr., now living in an Atlanta retirement center near his widowed daughter, Ruthie. Early in the book, Bud heads out to find Whistle Stop ruins, not easy since the railroad yards have shut down and Whistle Stop has become a ghost town. The trip brings Bud and Ruthie closer together, including past and new friends, often with hilarious relationships. Their goal becomes to eliminate the “ghost” of Whistle Stop.
Over the years, professionals have wanted Flagg to follow up with sequels to “Fried Green Tomatoes” with plays or TV series, but the COVID-19 pandemic put chances off. Her agent said, “Why don’t you just write it?” Flagg answered, “Why not? Not a bad idea.”
When re-reading the original book to prepare for a follow-up novel, she kept asking herself, “What happened to that town and people? What should I focus on?” The vision of little Buddy running along by the train, waving with his one arm at passengers, raised the question: What has happened to him? That is the opening story of “The Wonder Boy of Whistle Stop.”
Flagg described how the old and new Whistle Stop stories came together.
“I moved to our present time and asked, what has happened to Bud and others by then? He had become older (84), while his daughter, Ruthie, had lived life often made miserable with her controlling mother-in-law,” she said. “Bud and the people of Whistle Stop had scattered over the past years but kept the community together, especially through the newsletter writer named Dot Weems.
“People began coming back together into what little was left of that community, with strange things happening and people working together again to develop a new community.”
Once into writing, Flagg brought previous characters plus new ones into the novel with their own problems and wishes, not always known.
“When you just observe friends and their lives, everything looks good outside, but inside can be a dysfunctional family,” she said. “To be honest, my mother had problems with her mother-in-law. Mothers often aren’t satisfied with the women their boys marry. The relationship of Bud to his daughter is an important one to me. He adored her and is so sweet with her. I’ve observed these kinds of dads and daughters even as an older woman. Their connections tend to remain through life.”
When writing the book in this strange year, Flagg said she was unsure whether readers would be aware of it.
“I knew this fall was a bad time to have the book published and out in the reading world,” she said. “I figured no one would want to buy it or need it. Then the week it was published, it showed up on the NYT (New York Times) bestseller list! It’s been selling ever since.”
Reading an emotionally touching book can take readers away from distress, such as this year’s health issues or polarized politics, often emotional, difficult and beyond our control. A heartwarming novel like “The Wonder Boy” can delight us with characters and relationships enriching their days, and we can add hope and inspiration to ours.
What a great holiday gift, too!
— Noozhawk columnist Susan Miles Gulbransen — a Santa Barbara native, writer and book reviewer — teaches writing at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference and through the Santa Barbara City College Continuing Education Division. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.