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Alabama’s Fannie Flagg returns to Whistle Stop in new novel

In 1987, Fannie Flagg first introduced us to Idgie, Evelyn, Ninny and the other inhabitants of the fictional and oh-so-Southern Whistle Stop, Alabama.

The best-selling book was “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café,” and it spawned a cookbook and a hit movie starring Kathy Bates, Jessica Tandy and Mary Stuart Masterson.

It’s as a writer that Flagg has found her greatest success, with books including “The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion,” “A Redbird Christmas,” “Welcome to the World, Baby Girl!” and “Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven.”

Now, 33 years later, Flagg, who grew up in Woodlawn and still calls Alabama home, is revisiting Whistle Stop in a big way. A sequel, “The Wonder Boy of Whistle Stop,” comes out next week, and an NBC series based on the original book, starring country superstar Reba McEntire, is in the works.

“It all happened at once,” Flagg said from her home in Montecito, California. “I didn’t plan this at all. It never occurred to me.”

Flagg grew up in Birmingham, working with Town and Gown Theatre and on Tom York’s “Morning Show.” She came to national prominence working with Allen Funt on “Candid Camera” and was a constant game-show guest in the 1970s. Flagg appeared on Broadway in “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” and “Patio/Porch” and had small roles in the movies “Five Easy Pieces” and “Grease.”

Her most well-known book, though, is “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café,” which tells the story of Idgie and Ruth, owners of the small-town Alabama cafe; Evelyn Couch, a middle-aged housewife; and Ninny Threadgoode, an elderly woman in a nursing home.

“The Wonder Boy of Whistle Stop” focuses on Buddy Jr., Ruth’s son, who lost an arm in an accident.

“He winds up in a retirement home in Atlanta, and he wants to go home, so he escapes from the nursing home,” Flagg said. “The town of Whistle Stop is closed down and he can’t find it, but he reconnects with Evelyn Couch and they bring the town back.”

For Flagg, revisiting Whistle Stop was welcome, particularly in 2020.

“The world is so depressing right now, so it was a real pleasure for me to get away and go back to a time like this,” she said. “It was a real escape for me. There are so many political books out there, so much angry stuff out there, and I just said I’m going to write a book that’s not about politics. It’s just the story of happy people, has a happy ending and is positive.”

Flagg is an executive producer of the proposed NBC series, which she said is “somewhat of a sequel.”

“It’s about the original Idgie’s niece, who is named Idgie, and she comes back to the café,” Flagg said. “I really wasn’t interested in doing it, but I had lunch with Reba, and she’s just so adorable. If there’s anybody in the world I’d want to play her, it would be Reba. She’s so positive and so up.”

The series is on hold because of the pandemic, which has kept Flagg in California, mostly at her Montecito home.

“I have been really sequestered because I have underlying health things and am of a certain age where I’ve got to be careful,” she said. “The hardest thing about this COVID for me is that I usually get to come home to Alabama two or three times a year, and I haven’t been able to get back. So it was kind of fun for me to go back in my mind to Alabama and visit, because I couldn’t do it in real time.”

She also can’t do her normal book tour, which would take her to Birmingham, Fairhope and other Alabama cities for signings. Instead, she’ll be doing a virtual event via Zoom with Books-A-Million on Oct. 27 at 7 p.m. A virtual event with Fairhope’s Page & Palette is on Nov. 12.

For the past five or 10 years, Flagg has always thought her new book would be her last, and this one is no exception.

“I think if I do anything else, I’ll do short stories,” she said. “A novel is just getting harder and harder to write.”

And if “The Wonder Boy of Whistle Stop” is her last novel, it’s fine with her.

“Alabama is my home, always has been and always will be,” she said. “If it’s my last book, I’m glad it’s set back home.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)