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Susan Miles Gulbransen: Fannie Flagg Talks About What Makes a Good Story

“Let me tell you a story.” How old must that sentence be? It probably goes back to the dawn of language, drawing people like a magnet.

The tough question is, “What makes a good story?” Writers often discuss this with no single answer. Conflict? Beginning, middle and end? Show, don’t tell? Make characters come alive? The list goes on.

Perhaps William Somerset Maugham said it best: “There are three rules to writing a novel, and nobody knows what they are.”

No matter your method of storytelling, it can be the most intimate of conversations, revealing that inner person and inviting the other person to share experiences, fears, pleasures and even humor. While storytelling entertains, it also helps us make sense of our lives while we bond and understand others.

Storytelling is the core of writing, whether fiction or nonfiction. Its success makes best-sellers, fills the shelves of libraries and stores, and provides best buddies for a reader.

With that question in mind, I talked to one of our country’s best storytellers, local author Fannie Flagg. Her 10th book, The Whole Town’s Talking: A Novel (Random House), came out last month.

The story begins with farmer Lordor Nordstrom from Sweden in 1889 when he has started up a new town and needs a wife. The saga continues with everyone in Elmwood Springs, Mo., including those in Still Meadows cemetery, becoming engaged with odd, mysterious incidents happening.

Flagg’s soft Alabama accent gives the first clue that she is part of an extraordinary group of unique and superb storytellers: Southern writers. The region has its own literary history.

Flagg was raised in the Birmingham and Fairhope areas of Alabama. At age 19, she headed north to become a well-known actress and writer in television, eventually living in New York City.

Her first book, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, came out in 1987. She has continued putting out fiction ever since.

Like so many writers, Flagg associates storytelling with her childhood.

“My father was a great storyteller,” she told Noozhawk. “So was my grandmother. I grew up going to movies because my dad was a motion picture machine operator. He read books like Heidi to me. How I loved them.

“When I went into school, I already loved stories and seemed to come by telling them naturally. I even wrote a play in fifth grade, although I have no idea now why.”

As she grew up, her reading expanded.

“Early on I was impressed with the Nancy Drew series. Then I started reading Southern authors like Eudora Welty and Truman Capote. Other Southern writers also inspired me. After the Civil War, all they had left was their pride so they would tell stories.”

Over the years, Flagg became friends with Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird).

“I wrote a piece on her for Time Life books,” she said. “She was a big inspiration to me, and I was lucky to get to know her. When writing Green Tomatoes, I wasn’t sure if it was any good. Harper said, ‘Don’t give up!’ She even gave me a blurb for the book.”

On an added note, Flagg was named the 2012 recipient of the Harper Lee Award for Alabama’s Distinguished Writer of the Year. Lee herself presented the award, the only recipient to receive it from her personally.

Another inspiration was the theater, a career “home” for Flagg.

“I was always hearing family stories but was also inspired by playwrights like Tennessee Williams,” she said. “I loved the theater.”

Our conversation turned to what makes a good story. Flagg has her own take on it.

“The first thing needed is to have your audience care about the person they’ll be following,” she explained. “They must have some affection for that character or they won’t be willing to read on.

“I try to create characters, sympathetic ones, so the audience will identify with them. That’s why I think so many films and books fail. Hollywood creates nonsympathetic characters. The audience doesn’t feel sympathy and affection, so they’re not willing to go along with story.”

Her characters fit the role of helping the reader identify them on deeper levels.

“Even though I’m not considered a mystery writer, you have to have mystery and suspense in stories,” she said. “The reader needs to ask, ‘What’s going to happen?’ We don’t know in life what’s coming next.

“I try to use that kind of suspense in humorous ways but also keep the reader engaged. Sometimes I don’t know how the novel is going to be solved. Sympathetic characters and getting the audience to care is my goal.”

Writers are often told to “know your audience.” Flagg does a fine job of that and writes to them.

“My No. 1 goal is entertainment,” she said. “I’m not writing with an agenda to get across or try to make people feel badly. I want to take situations and make them entertaining because we’re human and often funny.

“My main feature is the middle-class American. I want to show the best in human nature and write of the good side of people, not always the dark side.”

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.

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