Can't Wait to Get to Heaven (Flagg)

Can't Wait to Get to Heaven
Fannie Flagg, 2006
Random House
375 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780345494887

Combining southern warmth with unabashed emotion and side-splitting hilarity, Fannie Flagg takes readers back to Elmwood Springs, Missouri, where the most unlikely and surprising experiences of a high-spirited octogenarian inspire a town to ponder the age-old question: Why are we here?

Life is the strangest thing. One minute, Mrs. Elner Shimfissle is up in her tree, picking figs, and the next thing she knows, she is off on an adventure she never dreamed of, running into people she never in a million years expected to meet. Meanwhile, back home, Elner’s nervous, high-strung niece Norma faints and winds up in bed with a cold rag on her head; Elner’s neighbor Verbena rushes immediately to the Bible; her truck driver friend, Luther Griggs, runs his eighteen-wheeler into a ditch–and the entire town is thrown for a loop and left wondering, “What is life all about, anyway?” Except for Tot Whooten, who owns Tot’s Tell It Like It Is Beauty Shop. Her main concern is that the end of the world might come before she can collect her social security.

In this comedy-mystery, those near and dear to Elner discover something wonderful: Heaven is actually right here, right now, with people you love, neighbors you help, friendships you keep. Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven is proof once more that Fannie Flagg “was put on this earth to write” (Southern Living), spinning tales as sweet and refreshing as iced tea on a summer day, with a little extra kick thrown in. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio 
Real Name—Patricia Neal
Birth—September 21, 1944
Where—Birmingham, Alabama, USA
Education—University of Alabama
Currently—lives in Montecito, California

Fannie Flagg began writing and producing television specials at age nineteen and went on to distinguish herself as an actress and writer in television, films, and the theater. She is the author of the New York Times bestsellers Daisy Fay and the Miracle Man, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe (which was produced by Universal Pictures as Fried Green Tomatoes), Welcome to the World, Baby Girl!, Standing in the Rainbow, and A Redbird Christmas. Flagg’s script for Fried Green Tomatoes was nominated for both the Academy and Writers Guild of America awards and won the highly regarded Scripters Award. Flagg lives in California and in Alabama.

Before her career as a novelist, Flagg was known principally for her on-screen television and film work. She was second banana to Allen Funt on the long-running Candid Camera, perhaps the trailblazer for the current crop of so-called reality television. (Her favorite segment, she told Entertainment Weekly in 1992, was driving a car through the wall of a drive-thru bank.) She appeared as the school nurse in the 1978 film version of Grease, and on Broadway in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. And she was a staple of the Match Game television game shows in the '70s.

Quite early on in her writing career, Fannie Flagg stumbled onto the holy grail of secrets in the publishing world: what editors are actually good for.

Attending the Santa Barbara Writer's Conference in 1978 to see her idol, Eudora Welty, Flagg won first prize in the writing contest for a short story told from the perspective of a 11-year-old girl, spelling mistakes and all—a literary device that she figured was ingenious because it disguised her own pitiful spelling, later determined to be an outgrowth of dyslexia. But when a Harper & Row editor approached her about expanding the story into a full-length novel, she realized the jig was up. In 1994 she told the New York Times:

I just burst into tears and said, 'I can't write a novel. I can't spell. I can't diagram a sentence.' He took my hand and said the most wonderful thing I've ever heard. He said, 'Oh, honey, what do you think editors are for?'

And so Fannie Flagg—television personality, Broadway star, film actress and six-time Miss Alabama contestant—became a novelist, delving into the Southern-fried, small-town fiction of the sort populated by colorful characters with homespun, no-nonsense observations. Characters that are known to say things like, "That catfish was so big the photograph alone weighed 40 pounds."

Her first novel, an expanded take on that prize-winning short story, was Coming Attractions: A Wonderful Novel, the story of a spunky yet hapless girl growing up in the South, helping her alcoholic father run the local bijou. But it was with her second novel where it all came together. Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe—a novel, for all its light humor, that infuses its story with serious threads on racism, feminism, spousal abuse and hints at Sapphic love -- follows two pairs of women: a couple running a hometown café in the Depression-era South and an elderly nursing home resident in the late 1980s who strikes up an impromptu friendship with a middle-aged housewife unhappy with her life.

The result was not only a smash novel, but a hit movie as well, one that garnered Flagg an Academy Award nomination for adapting the screenplay. She won praise from the likes of Erma Bombeck, Harper Lee and idol Eudora Welty, and the Los Angeles Times critic compared it to The Last Picture Show. The New York Times called it, simply, "a real novel and a good one."

As a writer, though, this Birmingham, Alabama native found her voice as a chronicler of Southern Americana and life in its self-contained hamlets. "Fannie Flagg is the most shamelessly sentimental writer in America," The Christian Science Monitor wrote in a 1998 review of her third novel. "She's also the most entertaining. You'd have to be a stone to read Welcome to the World, Baby Girl! without laughing and crying. The cliches in this novel are deep-fat fried: not particularly nutritious, but entirely delicious."

The New York Times, also reviewing Baby Girl, took note of the spinning-yarns-on-the-front-porch quality to her work: "Even when she prattles—and she prattles a great deal during this book—you are always aware that a star is at work. She has that gift that certain people from the theater have, of never boring the audience. She keeps it simple, she keeps it bright, she keeps it moving right along—and, most of all, she keeps it beloved."

But, lest she be pegged as simply a champion of the good ol’ days, it's worth noting that her writing can be something of a clarion call for social change. In Fried Green Tomatoes, Flagg comments not only on the racial divisions of the South but also on the minimization of women in both the 1930s and contemporary life. Just as Idgie Threadgoode and Ruth Jamison commit to a life together—without menfolk—in the Depression-era days of Whistle Stop, Alabama, middle-aged Evelyn Couch in modern-day Birmingham discovers the joys of working outside the home and defining her life outside meeting the every whim of her husband.

On top of her writing, Flagg has also stumped for the Equal Rights Amendment.

I think it's time that women have to stand up and say we do not want to be seen in a demeaning manner," Flagg told a Premiere magazine reporter in an interview about the film adaptation of Fried Green Tomatoes.

• Flagg approximated the length of her first novel by weight. Her editor told her a novel should be around 400 pages. "So I weighed 400 pages and it came to two pounds and something," she told the Los Angeles Times in 1987. " I wrote until I had two pounds and something, and, as it happened, the novel was just about done."

• She landed the Candid Camera gig while a writer at a New York comedy club. When one of the performers couldn't go on, Flagg acted as understudy, and the show's host, Allen Funt, was in the audience.

• Flagg went undiagnosed for years as a dyslexic until a viewer casually mentioned it to her in a fan letter. (Author bio from Barnes & Noble.)

Book Reviews
You can't help but love this book. It's warm, funny, and at times a real belly-guffaw.....Eighty-something Elner Shimfissle falls off a ladder and lands in an emergency room, vascillating between this world and the next. Her death, or near death (which is it?), leads to a meditation for the living, what constitutes a good life? 
A LitLovers LitPick (Oct '07)

What saves this book from being more sugary than Neighbor Dorothy's Heavenly Caramel Cake is Flagg's unerring eye for human foibles.
Charlotte Hays - The Washington Post

(Audio version.) The only thing more enjoyable than reading a Fannie Flagg novel is having Flagg read it aloud herself. A born storyteller, Flagg is a marvelous reader with a warm, welcoming Alabama accent. She immediately puts listeners at ease, priming them for an engrossing yarn that will mix laugh-out-loud hilarity with unabashed sentiment in a novel as thoughtful as it is delightful. Returning to Elmwood Springs, Miss. (the setting of two previous novels), Flagg focuses on a handful of days following octogenarian Elner Shimfissle's fatal fall from a tree. As listeners check in on various residents in town to see how they're reacting to the news and remembering how their lives were touched by the old woman, Flagg alternates bite-size chapters detailing Elner's journey to the afterlife. Flagg completely embodies her delightful characters, adapting a slight vocal scratch for eternally optimistic Elner, a flatter drawl for the ever-complaining hairdresser Tot and a sweet innocence as Elner's hilariously nervous niece, Norma. An uplifting delight.
Publishers Weekly

Discussion Questions 
1. When Aunt Elner falls out of her fig tree, she embarks upon a journey she never could have anticipated. Describe Elner's surprising view of heaven. How does it compare with your own idea of the afterlife, or theconceptions held by various world cultures and religions? On a personal note, what do you hope is waiting for you on the other side of the pearly gates?

2. Elmwood Springs is a tightly knit community in which everyone seems to know his neighbor's business. For the Warrens, what are some of the benefits of living in a small town? On the other hand, what are some of the drawbacks? How does your own hometown compare with Elmood Springs? Would you ever wish to move into Elner's quirky neighborhood? Why or why not?

3. Describe Norma and Macky's relationship, and how their marriage grows throughout the course of the novel. What bumps in the road have the Warrens endured? What keeps their marriage strong?

4. On her ascent to heaven, Elner climbs a crystal staircase; meanwhile, Ernest Koontz drives up to destiny in a brand new Cadillac convertible with heated seats. Consider your own wildest fantasy about heaven; how would you choose to arrive in style?

5. Norma and Tot's long-standing friendship is challenged by Tot's persistent negativity. Do you, like Aunt Elner, naturally embrace a positive outlook on life? Or, like Norma, do you strive, day by day, to "replace a negative thought with a positive"? Or, like Tot, do you prefer to "tell it like it is"? How does Norma choose to handle her differences with Tot? And how do the two friends manage to reconcile in the end?

6. For Elner, meeting her hero, Thomas Edison, is a dream come true. Which figures from history would top your own list of people you'd like to meet in heaven?

7. What message does Raymond impart to Elner about the meaning of life, and how does this view compare with your own beliefs?

8. If heaven allowed you to re-experience an episode, a place, or a time from your past, like Aunt Elner's trip fifty years back in time to Neighbor Dorothy's on First Avenue North, what scene or event would you choose to revisit, and why?

9. Can't Wait to Get to Heaven is as much a mystery as a comedy. Do you think Elner truly died and went to heaven? What do members of Elner's family believe? Next, just what is the truth behind the strange golf shoe? And what about Ida's hidden family Bible? Finally, discuss the mystery of Elner's loaded gun; were you surprised at the truth behind the mystery?

10. Reading Can't Wait to Get to Heaven is like taking an antidote to the almost constant stream of bad news that surrounds us in our modern world. Tot voices something we all feel: "I always try to put on a happy face, but it's getting harder and harder to keep up a good attitude.....Nostradamus, CNN, all the papers, according to them, we are on the brink of total annihilation at any second." How did this novel make you feel about the state of the world today?

11. Elner touched the lives of many people in her community, from the ambitious journalist Cathy Calvert, to the troubled, misunderstood Luther Griggs, to the reformed lawyer Winston Sprague. How does Elner relate to so many different personalities? Describe Elner's character and attitude toward people, problems, and life. Do you know anyone who shares Elner's sensibility and talents for reaching out to others?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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