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.
Fannie Flagg's new book, I Still Dream About You, is set in a place she knows better than any other, her hometown. Birmingham is not just the setting—it's a supporting character, with the city's glamorous past and sometimes complicated present helping to shape a group of women who share a strong bond of friendship. Maggie Fortenberry, Fannie's latest protagonist, longs for Birmingham's glory days, with its beautiful train station, grand theaters, and bustling downtown streets. A 60-year-old former Miss Alabama, Maggie is beautiful and sweet, loved and admired—and so out of sorts with the way her life has turned out that she's busy with a suicide plan involving an egg timer, the Warrior River, and some mighty powerful glue. Classic Fannie.
Millions of readers have been lured by her quirky, dead-on Southern characters and hilarious plot twists, only to get a serious tug at the heartstrings when they least expect it. Whether her setting is Birmingham or Whistle Stop, what Fannie writes about, time and again, are the touching, terrifying, heartbreaking, hysterical, extraordinary, everyday things that make us human, the things that make us seek friendship and love and compassion and community. Here's what she has to say about the city that started her on that journey.
Where in Birmingham did you grow up?
My parents started out in an apartment on Southside, and when my father came home after the Second World War, we moved to Woodlawn, on First Avenue North. So I was raised there and went to a little grammar school called St. Clements. From there, we moved over to Highland Avenue, about two blocks from the Virginia Samford Theatre.
Why did you choose the city for your setting this time?
I was trying to write a Valentine to my hometown. I love where I grew up. Even though I set several books in a town named Elmwood Springs, Missouri, it was really Woodlawn I was writing about and the home my grandmother lived in. Birmingham has always been my muse.
But your Maggie would've been crowned in the 1960s, when Birmingham wasn't so popular.
I went to New York during that time, and it was very hurtful to me for people not to realize what Birmingham was really like. I was so saddened by the press and people's opinion of my hometown.
There's a heartbreaking scene in the book when Maggie remembers Atlantic City, where she was targeted by protesters because she was from Alabama. What inspired that scene?
That was sort of the feeling at the time. And it's also showing that everybody suffered from the problems we had then. Everybody got hurt. Maggie was innocent. She'd never done a mean thing in her life, but she gets tarred and feathered because of the actions of other people. It's very hurtful. People don't think about the consequences of their actions. They might be protesting from a good place, but you have to think about the consequences of what you say and do.
The Miss Alabama Pageant is central to I Still Dream About You. How did you get involved, and what were those days like?
My father was a motion picture machine operator, and so was his father. Back then, they worked a lot of different theaters, including the Alabama. James Hatcher was the director of the Alabama—and the Miss Alabama Pageant—and he was my mentor. I was so shy that I could hardly stand to talk to anybody, so he would push me to do things out of character. When I was 16 or 17, I started out in Junior Miss Alabama, which they had back then, and then I'd enter every year after that and get a scholarship to go to school. The closest I ever got, I think, was in the top five. Miss Alabama was the second largest pageant in the country. We had more moneyed scholarships than anything other than Miss America. To be Miss Alabama, you had to be smart and have good grades. The stereotype that beauty queens are dumb is not true.
What was your talent? I'm guessing it involved laughter.
Always comedy, which was good because there were very few girls doing it. So I'd always end up getting to perform onstage at the Alabama because they needed at least one comedy act. I'd write my little sketches and do them. That's how I started writing.
You gave Maggie a family name—Fortenberry. Do you feel a kinship with her?
Oh, honey, Maggie's a lot prettier and thinner and sweeter than I am. But I have known a lot of those gals in my life, and everybody has their insecurities. Everybody is a little frightened and insecure about something, no matter how beautiful they are. We're all just struggling to get through this life. I think Southern women have a particular problem in that they were trained never to show their emotions and always to be ladylike. I won a scholarship in the Miss Alabama Pageant to study at the Pittsburgh Playhouse. At the end of the year, they called me into the office and said, "You're a nice girl, a sweet girl, but you should go home and get married because you're not tough enough for this business, and you've got that Southern accent so you'll never get work."
In the book, Maggie spends a significant afternoon at Caldwell Park. Why is Caldwell special?
I grew up at that park. When I was 15 or 16, I walked to what was then the Clark Memorial Theatre (now Virginia Samford), which is in the park. My grandmother had given me $25 for my birthday, and I went over there to buy a season ticket. While I was there, two men came through the lobby, and they were yelling "What are we gonna do?!" and "Who will we get to work the spotlight?!" And I walked over and said, "I can work a spotlight—my father's a motion picture operator!" Then I ran outside and jumped on a bus to the Melba theater or the Lyric or wherever my father was working and said, "Daddy, you've got to teach me how to work the spotlight!" It's not that hard—all you gotta do is aim it. So that's how I got to work the spotlight for Kiss Me, Kate.
Maggie's desire for that house on the hill—is it autobiographical?
I always longed for a house because we always lived in dinky apartments, and I just thought if I could only have a house. I am obsessed with real estate. [Laughs.] When I'm not out looking at houses, I'm watching House Hunters on HGTV, and I'm sure it comes from being an only child living in an apartment, always passing by the big house and seeing the big family through the windows. But, of course, we know that even if we had that house, it wouldn't necessarily make us happy.
Of all the women working with Maggie at the fictional Red Mountain Realty, which one would you like to be?
Probably Brenda [Maggie's African American real estate partner, who goes on to become mayor of Birmingham]. Brenda is a gal of the future. Brenda moves on. She's a little younger than Maggie, so she doesn't have a lot of the "women can't do this" and "women can't do that" hang-ups. She's a little tougher. And I could use some of that.
Click to the next page to read an excerpt from I Still Dream About You.
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. …