Fannie Flagg's Birmingham

One of the South’s best-loved storytellers shares an inside look at how the Magic City inspires her work—and why it plays a starring role in her latest novel.

Valerie Fraser Luesse
Fannie Flagg
Fannie Flagg, photographed recently near her California home
Andrew Southam

Book Excerpt: I Still Dream About You by Fannie Flagg

Fannie Flagg’s seventh novel is, she says, a Valentine to her hometown. With a former Miss Alabama as her heroine and Birmingham, Alabama, as her setting, she tells a story of friendship, love, and acceptance—with a few hilarious escapades along the way. In this excerpt from I Still Dream About You, Maggie reminisces about the magic of Fannie’s fair city.

If Maggie had lived most of her life under the spell of her childhood, she wasn’t alone. A lot of people still had a few stars left in their eyes, and no wonder, growing up in a place called the Magic City, with all of its lofty aspirations and illusions of grandeur. You could see it everywhere you looked, from the towering smokestacks of the iron, coal, and steel mills to the grand mansions atop Red Mountain to the sparkle in the cement in the downtown sidewalks. The city was bustling and alive, with block after block of elegant stores, where mannequins stood in haughty poses, dressed in the latest fashions and furs from New York and Paris; blocks of showrooms filled with fine rugs, lamps, and furniture, displayed so beautifully you wanted to walk in and live there forever (or at least Maggie had). There had always been an excitement in the air. A feeling that Birmingham, the Fastest-Growing City in the South, was right on the verge of exploding into the biggest city in the world. Even the streets had been laid out extra wide and stood waiting, as if expecting a tremendous rush of traffic at any moment. From the beginning, Birmingham had been bursting with ambition and hated being second to Pittsburgh in steel production and having the second-largest city transit system in the country. Even the towering iron statue of Vulcan, the Greek god of fire and iron, that stood on the top of Red Mountain was only the second-largest iron statue in the country, and during the war, when headlines announced that Birmingham, Alabama, had been named the number two target city in America to be bombed by Germany and Japan, everybody was terribly disappointed; they would have loved to have been first! Their only consolation: they did have the largest electrical sign in the world, which greeted all visitors as they came out of the train station. It blazed with ten thousand golden light bulbs that spelled out WELCOME TO MAGIC CITY. Birmingham was a city with a pulse that you could hear beating, working, and sweating, striving to become number one. The giant iron and steel mills clanked and banged and spewed out pink steam and billowed thick smoke all hours of the day and night. Coal miners worked in shifts around the clock. Streetcars and buses ran twenty-four hours a day, packed full of people either going to or coming home from work.

In the afternoon, parents used to drive their children up the mountain to Vulcan Park to watch the sun set over the city, when the sky would come alive with layers of iridescent green, purple, aqua, red, and orange that streaked across the horizon as far as you could see. Everyone thought it was a special show the city put on just for them. …