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Whatever Works

Writing About Plain People, Her Real Heroes

Whatever Works is a weekly column about working. In it, we will feature a well-known person discussing a little-known aspect of his or her career, early working life or special project. Today's columnist is comedian and author Fannie Flagg.

November 16, 1998|FANNIE FLAGG

Question: What is the worst job you have ever had?

Answer: I was a dresser on Broadway for "The Sound of Music" when I first went to New York at age 17. I had so many quick changes that I had to make, and I was so nervous that sometimes the poor nuns in the chorus went on stage with their habits on backward or missing something. This job did not last long.

Q: What is your fantasy job?

A: I would love to have a job where I could travel all over the country, going to small towns, and interview people for a show . . . like "Sunday Morning" on CBS, or like Charles Kuralt's "On the Road." There are so many wonderfully funny and smart people living out there between New York and L.A. who never get any attention and have so much to say and to tell us about how really great this country is. Some of the funniest people I have ever met are not stand-up comedians but just ordinary people, like the town barber or the waitress at the town cafe.

Q: Who was the worst boss you ever had?

A: I'm not sure if they were the worst bosses, or if I was not right for the job, but I was hired as a writer for a sitcom, and the two producers from New York used to wad up my jokes and throw them in the trash can and announce to a room full of other writers that they were too white-bread, small-town, not funny. They may have been right.

Q: What's the most fun you've had at work?

A: The seven or so years I worked for "Candid Camera." I got to go out on the streets of New York City and across the country catching people and putting them on "Candid Camera." Every day was fun. I found, as a rule, most people have a great sense of humor and were tickled to death to be caught on camera doing the most outrageous things.

Q: What was your first job? How old were you?

A: I was a baby-sitter for one night when I was about 12. I say one night, because it was a disaster. I tried to put a diaper on this little boy who immediately ran out of them and ran naked all over the neighborhood for hours until I finally caught him. It was my first and last baby-sitter job.

Q: Most people probably don't know you once worked as a . . .

A: Nose model for a Downey fabric softener commercial! I just happened to be in the studio doing another commercial when the real nose model who was supposed to work that day called in sick. All at once 10 people surrounded me and started staring at my nose, and before I knew it, my nose was a star for a day!

Q: What do you love about your current work?

A: I love the fact that I can stay at home and work in my pajamas . . . but most of all I love the fact that what I write is my own work, my own words, whereas movie or TV writing is often by committee, which can be fun, but at the end of the day the novel is entirely your voice and your voice alone.

Q: What do you hate about your current work?

A: Being alone in a room all day, sometimes five or six years each book. I enjoy people and get very lonely and depressed at times, but it is the only way I can write, being completely quiet and alone.

Q: What is the hardest part of your work?

A: I think the hardest part of my work and the hardest part for any creative person, such as a painter, an actor, a composer, is that after you spent years putting your heart and soul into creating something you want to put out into the world, we find ourselves at risk and at the mercy of a barrage of critics who make a living by not being creative themselves but by judging your work. I do not read reviews, but I have had friends of mine's work ripped to shreds--and cruelly and unnecessarily so by critics trying to be cute at the author's expense.

I have one writer friend, a very talented man, who received one such review after working seven years on a book, who never wrote another thing. People must understand that artists are, by nature, sensitive and do not have the thick skins that are needed to survive those kinds of mean-spirited attacks. I review for the New York Times Book Review, and if a book does not appeal to me, I send it back and let them find another reviewer who might see something from another point of view.

Q: What is your current project?

A: I am in the middle of a book tour [for "Welcome to the World, Baby Girl!"] and plan to start my next book, "Neighbor Dorothy, the Last of the Really Great Radio Homemakers," after Christmas.

Q: What drives you to keep working?

A: The need to communicate, I suppose, the desire to stop time, the real passion I have to try and write about people--ordinary middle-class people who never get much attention by Hollywood or the press because they are quietly going about their lives, working, raising kids, paying taxes and not complaining much. I think these are the real heroes of the world, and I think they are great and need to read about themselves and know they are important and are appreciated.

Q: What's something most people don't know about you?

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