I AM SO PLEASED to get have Mindy Friddle here talking about her debut novel, THE GARDEN ANGEL which came out in hardback last year and is poppin' fresh delicious now out in paperback. You know how I can't read good southern fiction when I am working? I've mentioned it before---it can screw with my voice, and if it is both exceptional and dealing thematically with the sorts of things that interest me, I find myself wondering why I even bother to TRY to write when ____ already exists. I call it Haven Kimmel syndrome. Well.
Friddle's book gave me this complex in spades.
I found THE GARDEN ANGEL because my agent is a friend of Mindy's editor, and my agent asked her editor to ask her to read my upcoming debut novel, and, if she liked it, to say a few kind words about it. Finding blurbers sometimes feels like MIDDLE SCHOOL, it's all very, "This girl asked her friend to ask me to ask you if you like her? DO YOU? Please check one! ___ yes ___ no ___maybe but (circle one) a) I am too busy and important to find out just now so BACK OFF I HAVE A DEADLINE for the love of God, foam foam, B) I am currently not doing blurbs because it said on the bathroom wall I was a blurb whore and my agent said I had to stop putting out blurbs this year, or C) I don't do blurbs because it is a terrible system of author oppression and I hate the very thought of them and PS I think less of you for asking, or D) My mental illness number is very high just now. Outlook Not good. Try Again later."
Anyway, she did agree to read the book and she did like it, and she wrote a fantastic blurb for it. My agent sent me the blurb and said some VERY admiring things about Friddle's work, and that's how THE GARDEN ANGEL got on my radar.
My immediate response was to go out and try to buy it because if someone is going to be kind enough to read me and blurb me, the least I can do is read her back. I had a hard time finding it. The first two stores I went to had sold out (the book went into 4 printings so demand exceeded supply). I finally clued in that I should call The Alabama Booksmith (Jake has stores and hidden pockets of the very best EVERYTHING southern) and sure enough they came through for me. (HUZZAH!) SO I got it home. I KNEW it was southern, and I was working to deadline, but I started to read it ANYWAY, like a moron. I was maybe 30 pages in when I threw it across the room. I was SO DEVASTATED by its perfect pitch. BUT it was so GOOD and ENGAGING I kept going back and picking it UP again. LIKE A MORON. THREE TIMES I started this book, once getting as far as 75 pages in before I would hurl it away and go chew the carpet, stiffening into a rictus of agony because it was so. very. perfect.
It was the first book I read the MOMENT the draft of Beween, Georgia was finished, and it's one of the best books I read last year. Gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous. These people, these funny quirky hapless adorable real people...Especially Elizabeth. I WEPT three times reading this book and giggled out loud more times than I can count, and when I finished it the first time, I immediately went back and reread the last three chapters just for the grace notes and the way Friddle doesn't let everything work out all glossy and plastic, but how the end leaves you bouyant and hopeful ANYWAY, and it's perched right now on my REREAD shelf, sandwiched by THE BITCH POSSE and TRUTH AND BEAUTY (a very nice seat indeed) and it's on my list of books I give as gifts because if you do not like this book you very possibly have NO soul and are, in fact, a golem.
In SHORT, I highly recommend it. I ended up getting to meet her while on tour (I had a stop in Greenville) and she's ALSO a nice person, which always makes me happy. You so want the writers you admire to turn out to be decent human beings, you know?
So I have said all this without saying what the book is about, but...honestly the book itself is MUCH better than a quick flap perusal would lead you to believe. I think this is NOT the jacket copy writer's fault---it's a hard book to sum up in a few sentences. It is pitched like this: "In Sans Souci, South Carolina, talk is cheap, real estate even more so. No one knows this better than Cutter Johanson, a gruff tomboy who waits tables, writes obits, and makes every effort, however comical and in the face of her mercenary relatives, to avert the sale of the dilapidated ancestral home. And despite her plucky resolve, all appears to be lost---until she strikes up an unlikely friendship with Elizabeth, a shy and fragile academic who puts both their fates on the mend." Only 5,000 times better and funnier and huge-souled and engaging than that little blip of whats-it-all-about would indicate. And if you waded through all this adoration-filled babbling, you WIN, because now Mindy Friddle gets to talk;
JJ: To whom did you dedicate the book, and, if we may be so bold and intrusive, why?
MF: I dedicated my book to my parents. They're both huge readers...my dad still reads, like, three books a week. As a family, we used to hit to bookstore every Sunday after a big lunch. It was part of our family ritual. They spent a fortune in books for us. I figured they earned the dedication.
JJ: One of the book's many strengths is it's strong sense of place---your characters are intimately connected with it and the writing itself is grounded in place. This reads as...personal. Can you talk a little about your own "sense of place?"
MF: Well, that's a great question. I'm fascinated with how cities gradually swallow towns and communities. It happens everywhere, of course, not just the South. But there's something elegaic and melancholy about an abandoned once-grand homestead, especially when it's betweeen a Hot Spot and a Wal-Mart. You wonder, hey, what happened? That family, that community, used to have high hopes. And is there anything more forlorn than a shuttered textile mill? Or the burned remnants of one?
As for my own "sense of place"-- I'm an Army Brat whose also a South Carolina native. Both my grandmothers stll live on the same street in Sans Souci, South Carolina ( a milltown where I set the Garden Angel).
So I had the advantage, as a child, of being steeped in southern tradition and also seeing a bit of the world. I now live in a historic neighborhood in Greenville, South Carolina--in a bungalow with squeeky floorboards and glass door knobs.
JJ: The publication of THE GARDEN ANGEL is a bit of a Cinderella story in that it launched quietly and became a true word-of-mouth success. I believe you went into four printings in hardback? You told me "It's good to be under-estimated." There are a lot of writers who read this blog ---can you talk a little bit about the value of being underestimated in this indistry?
MF: Hmmm. I must have slipped some burbon in my iced tea that time we were having lunch. Seriously, though, yep, there is value in being under-estimated in this publishing business. And, okay, I've got on my rose-colored glasses on here, but here goes: It's been my understanding that when your novel is published, when it launches out of the starting gate, there will be those who will believe in its success (the
shortlist: your mother, your editor, and your agent). And if you're lucky, there will be others as well: publicist(s), bloggers, booksellers (Booksense, B&N Discover, Borders New Voices, etc.), reviewers, librarians. Some authors will have huge advertising budgets behind them, many won't. But it's important to remember that as an author there's a LOT you can do to reach more and more readers (which is the point, after
all) and to give your book "legs" to help it gallop around the track.
You can expand or plan your own tour, send out press kits and postcards, start your own blog, tap into the book club circuit, build relationships with booksellers. And speaking from experience here, I rarely turn down a gig. From the business side, hopefully the book will go into more printings and you will earn out your advance quickly and even receive some royalty checks. That means you are not only meeting but exceeding your publisher's expectations, and that's a great feeling, certainly, and hopefully good for your writing career, as well.