The Florabama Ladies' Auxiliary and Sewing Circle

A Novel

Lois Battle - Author

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ISBN 9780143119326 | 384 pages | 26 Apr 2011 | Penguin | 8.26 x 5.23in | 18 - AND UP
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Come back to Florabama, Alabama, in this heartwarming New York Times bestseller for "a magical and surprising tour of [the] Deep South" (Pat Conroy)

"We've been screwed blue and tattooed," quips Hilly Pruitt, upon hearing the news of Cherished Lady Lingerie's closing. Now unemployed, Hilly and the rest of the ex-bra seamstresses land in the Displaced Homemakers Program at Florabama's podunk community college. There they unexpectedly join forces with Bonnie Duke Cullman, an Atlanta society wife who's been downsized out of her marriage, and together they embark on a midlife survival course that will transform them all. Beautifully repackaged, Lois Battle's funny, heartfelt, and poignant novel will utterly enchant readers with its rich tapestry of unforgettable female friendships.

At one point in the novel, Bonnie reprimands herself: "She shouldn't and couldn't blame Devoe. She was responsible. She'd brought herself to this. By not being prepared, by not being brave enough to test herself in the workplace, by not having the sense to protect herself financially." Are these factors that every woman should consider? Do you think Bonnie's situation is a common one?

I understand the confusing pushes and pulls women feel about being financially responsible for themselves. Bonnie's situation is a common one, especially for women of a certain age. Her husband, Devoe, has betrayed her trust and left her in the lurch financially. But the harsh reality is that blaming him isn't going to help her. The fact that she is willing to take personal responsibility at least puts her on the right track to independence.

When I was growing up, my parents always taught me to assume moral responsibility, but because of the time in which they lived, they gave me a mixed message about financial independence. While they wanted me to have an education, they talked about my earning ability as "something to fall back on"—the assumption being that I would marry, and that my husband would provide for me. It didn't work out that way. Certainly, my personal choice to be in the arts meant that I didn't have a reliable income until I was well into middle age. Nevertheless, I hope that parents, especially mothers, now prepare their daughters to be self-supporting, but assuming that responsibility seems to me to be a well-spring of independence and strength.

Bonnie's father speaks of divorce as a "disabling" experience. Do you think it's more disabling for women than for men?

At the beginning of Anna Karenina, Tolstoy says, "All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." So, every divorce is unhappy in its own way, and there are instances in which the husband is the injured party, but, in general, I think that women find divorce more disabling. Even if a woman has an independent spirit, her social identity is more likely to be bound up in her husband's identity—after the divorce he's still Mr. Jones, but she's no longer Mrs. Jones, so who is she? She's much more likely to be dependent on his financial support. If children are involved she's more likely to get custody. Dads may flee the coup; Mamas are still responsible. The dating pool—in terms of age, education, and economics—is invariably larger for divorced men. Men still have the social prerogative of asking a woman to go out. Hostesses always seem to be looking for an "extra" man but may be reluctant to include an unattached woman. On the up-side, women can turn to their women friends for networking, comfort, and emotional support.

There is a lovely passage near the end of the novel, when Ruth sits on her front steps: "Looking up at the full moon and the starry skies, she gave way to the wonder of it. It was a mystery. She wasn't just an unemployed, middle-aged grandmother in a small Alabama town. She was a conscious part of God's universe. Anything was possible." What does being a "conscious part of God's universe" mean to you? How does this consciousness lead to the powerful feeling that anything is possible?

So often people, especially women, are so weighed down by family responsibilities that they don't have the time to think of themselves as individuals in a larger context—or they just get out of the habit. Ruth's ability to think of herself as a unique part of God's universe gives her a sense of worth and importance, in a spiritual rather than egotistical way. Being part of something larger than oneself is always an expansive and healing experience. Ruth finds strength and community in religion and, though Hilly is not a believer, her life is immeasurably improved by reaching outside of herself, loving and caring for others.

Bonnie's move from Atlanta to the small town of Florabama takes her to a world that is vastly different from her own. But besides their respective sizes, how do these two communities differ from each other? People who are not from the South tend to think the area is the same throughout, rather than as a cluster of distinct cultures and landscapes. Can you comment on the differences among various parts of the South, and how a woman like Bonnie might find herself more at home in certain communities than others?

When I first drove across the country some forty years ago, regional differences were much more pronounced: the food, customs, and common language varied greatly between, say, Alabama and Connecticut. Now, superhighways, television, and chain stores have homogenized the entire country. Most cities in the South have international business investment, an arts community, and ethnic grocery stores and restaurants. Smaller towns tend to be slower, more rooted in the past. "Leading" families still dominate local politics. Gossip and knowing your neighbor's business still prevail. People are still dependent on their religious congregation to provide support and even entertainment. People still hunt and fish and, in the coastal communities, go shrimping and crabbing.

Bonnie is certainly more cosmopolitan than the women from the factory—she's better educated, she's traveled to other cities and countries, she knows about gourmet cuisine, arts organizations, etc.

More than just a geographical relocation, Bonnie's journey is a cultural one as well, taking her from the "Old South" to the "New South." How would you describe the differences between these two cultures?

This is fundamentally an economic/class difference. The "New South" is the one of international commerce and superhighways—don't forget that CNN was founded and is based in Atlanta. The "Old South" is more rural, more rooted in "family values" and religion.

I live in Beaufort, a small town with an important history. Beaufort is the second oldest town in South Carolina (after Charleston). The first slaves liberated by the Union Army lived on nearby offshore islands where the finest cotton (Sea Island cotton) was produced. The first school for liberated slaves was established at Penn Center on St. Helena Island, about twenty minutes from my home. In part because they were separated from the mainland, African Americans from the offshore islands have a unique Gullah culture. What's called the Lowcountry is very physically beautiful—waterways, marshes, Live Oaks, and Spanish moss.

During the last twenty years or so there's been a large influx of people from the North—mostly retirees seeking a milder climate. There has been phenomenal growth, often in "gated communities."

What did your "former life" as an actress teach you about writing, telling stories, and creating characters?

I was a professional actress and sometime director well into my early forties. I believe that my acting experience has been extremely valuable to me as a writer. It has given me an ear for dialogue—I can "hear" my characters talking. Perhaps more importantly, I learned how to suspend my own moral judgement and enter into the emotional life of any character I was playing. In general, no one says, "I'm evil, or silly, or egotistical"—instead, he or she thinks in terms of feelings and objectives; what do I want? how can I get it? When being interviewed about my book Storyville I was asked about my attitudes towards prostitution. Some friends teased me because I said, "I'm a novelist not a moralist." By that I meant that even though I have attitudes, standards, and morals, when I create a character I try to suspend my individual bias and beliefs and enter into his or her life. One of the joys of reading is to be able to enter, wholeheartedly, into the experience of another person. Even if you find that person reprehensible, you're stimulated into understanding him or her.

Your novel leaves us curious about so many aspects of Bonnie's life: what her next career move will be, how her relationship with Riz will play out, and if she will embark on a new romance with Scott Mallory. Is there a sequel in the making?

I've never written a sequel, which means that my mental landscape is pretty crowded with a host of characters. Because my characters are real to me, they're like friends (or enemies) so of course I imagine what their future might be—always allowing for chance and circumstance, some twist of fate or history that may alter or disrupt their lives.

In a sense, it doesn't matter exactly what Bonnie does next. The point is that she's now more equipped to make a choice and to follow through with it. Her affair with Riz has broadened her experience and made her feel more confident. Her job at the college, her relationships with other women, and the trials of living alone have given her a greater sense of her abilities. She is certainly open and emotionally prepared to have a relationship with Scott Mallory. Her growing belief that she is capable of coping with new situations is far more important than the situations themselves.

If your readers learn only one thing through this novel, what would you want that lesson to be?

Once again, I'm a novelist not a moralist. I would never presume to "teach" my readers. I assume (in fact, I know from having met many of them) that they're intelligent and experienced. What I hope to do is to entertain and stimulate them by presenting real characters in crisis situations that they can relate to. The closest thing to a lesson would be that both friendship and education are not only necessary but wonderful. And yes, laughter is good.

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