Thursday, October 7, 2004
What's pink and green and read all over? The answer, of course, is the Boss Queen herself. Best-selling author and Jacksonian Jill Conner Browne, 51, has done it again with her latest Sweet Potato Queen tome, "The Sweet Potato Queens' Field Guide to Men: Every Man I Love Is Either Married, Gay, or Dead" (Three Rivers Press, 2004, $13.95).
From "Getting Started," the story her daddy told about a visit to a bootlegger in Attala County where he encountered a flying monkey to "The Last Word," Browne has concocted—with her Southern spices—the perfect guide for women. You'll want to take it along as you make your way through the fields of life, searching for that multi-facet gem, the truth. And you'll be so sorry if you skip that flying monkey story because Browne metaphorically applies it to her life and loves perfectly, like lip-liner on Beyoncé.
In the book, Browne writes that "the real truth is you are enough—just the way you are, just who you are." That's her ultimate message.
Recently I sat down with Browne as she pre-signed books for Lemuria at Banner Hall. It was last Saturday morning, four days and counting until her book tour began its back-and-forth crossing of the country, starting at Lemuriabooks.com and continuing until Thanksgiving when she'll come home to the Cutest Boy in the World, her mother, her daughter, three cats and her three-legged dog Sostie (that rhymes with toasty).
JFP: How does it feel to you personally to tell all when you write these books?
Jill Conner Browne: I've always been a big blabbermouth. My thinking has always been that if you put it out there, put yourself out there, people can't talk about you. … You can't talk behind my back if I've told it. What fun is that?
Has that ever come back to bite you on the butt?
Umm, no, not so far.
And you make it a practice to keep telling-all strictly to yourself?
Well, yeah, if I'm telling somebody else's stuff, I'll change their name.
Your daughter Bailey is 16 now. How different do you think your life would have been if you'd have had a son instead?
Since I grew up with a bunch of boys, I always thought that I was better prepared to have a son, but I was old when I had her, so I had in vitro, so I knew I was having a girl. It was real to me from the beginning. I have just loved every second of her.
How old were you?
Thirty-five, and I was always glad that I waited because there wasn't anything else that I wanted to be doing. I had done more than my share. I was happy to be there, being somebody's mama.
What do you think Jackson needs more of to make it an even better place for everybody who wants to stay here or who wants to come here?
More time—we're just getting better all the time. I think it's not fashionable [for some] to like it here if you're from here, but I have yet to meet the person who moved here that didn't love it. I think we take a lot of things for granted if we're from here.
I remember when Frank Melton first moved here and was at [W]LBT. He was interviewing a young African-American reporter moving here from Chicago, and he asked Frank, "What is your experience with racism?" Frank said, "You know what, you can leave that crap at the door. The only thing I regret about moving to Mississippi is that I didn't do it any sooner." You're going to find what you're looking for.
We reported in the last JFP that you were outraged by Richard Barrett's announcement that he was going to appear at the fair. Has his cancellation of his booth at the State Fair surprised you?
I'm stunned that they're not coming—and thrilled. I was glad to see that Sheriff McMillin is going ahead with his petition (calling for the prosecution of Edgar Ray Killen).
Since you moved here when you were 2 years old, what changes have you seen in the way the races react with each other in Jackson?
In my lifetime, I think the baby boomers have handled it beautifully. … I get so sick of people that live here and from other places bemoaning the South [and] racial problems of the past. We don't own that. My mother grew up in an ultra-segregated neighborhood—a suburb of Detroit—Grosse Pointe, Mich. The signs in her neighborhood grocery store said, "No dogs, no Jews," in that order. Signs in the window, in the 1920s, so we did not invent this. But I think the South has been more honest about our past, that we've stepped up to the plate to address it and that we've made more progress than other parts of the country. That poor Haitian man, Abner Louima, in New York City, (abused by the police) when was that, in the '90s? If that had happened in Mississippi, we'd still be under martial law. I mean sweep around your own back door before you come looking around ours. I think we have more African-American elected officials than any place else in the country, including New York. It's an old soapbox for me. I am as ashamed as anybody of our past, but I am damn proud of the progress we've made, and I think we are way ahead of other places in that score. … [W]e don't own the problem, but I think we are ahead on the solution.
From the people that have moved here, have you heard any negative comments about the climate?
People complain, but I personally like even the humidity because it's good for our skin. Look at people that have lived for a long time in Colorado—they look like shoes. Humidity is our friend.
What in your background do you think made you and your sister, Judy Conner—author of "Southern Fried Divorce" to be published in hardback in January by Penguin—such good writers of Southern humor for women?
We write Southern because we are Southern. I mean, that's our voice, we don't have any choice. The subject matter is universal, it just sounds Southern … because we are. Our mother taught us to love to read. Our father was hilarious, and that's how we dealt with everything in our family—with humor. We just lived and breathed it … Daddy always taught us there really are very few things in life that you cannot change, that you really, really cannot have any impact on whatsoever. Most things you really can do something about, even if you don't want to or you don't like what the choices are. When you come up on the things that you really have no power over, you've either got to figure out how to make fun out of it or make fun of it, in order to survive.
Is there anything else you're interested in writing, any other kind of writing you'd like to do?
I'm working on a fiction series. It's gonna be funny and is about the Sweet Potato Queens, but fictionalized stuff from our lives.
What's it been like going from hoping this would be a success to being a best-selling author?
I've been so lucky. I am so blessed because I didn't realize when I started this—nobody told me and I'm glad they didn't—that most books never sell more than 5,000 copies. Most books have like a 90-day shelf life. That's it, and I didn't know that. It's kinda like the bumblebee can't fly—you don't want to tell the bumblebee. If I had known that, I would've been too scared to try. … I didn't know what to expect, but I didn't know anything bad, so I didn't know to be afraid.
The older I get, the less I believe in coincidence. When I look back I see every door opened another one—if you're willing to walk through. It started with Malcolm White. I wrote for the Diddy Wah Diddy, and then, as a result of that, unbeknownst to me, Roy Blount got the Diddy Wah Diddy and so he called me up one day and said he was publishing an anthology of Southern humor and wanted to use something I'd written in that. If you're a humor writer, having Roy Blount call is the equivalent of God calling … it was just so validating.
That really gave me the courage to go see JoAnne [Prichard Morris]—she was at University Press at the time—and then she remembered the idea of the "Book of Love" and presented it to Random House. … They loved it. … [S]he would work on it in the daytime, and Willie [Morris] would work on it at night. Sometimes he would change one page, one word on a page—it made all the difference. I had easily the two best editors in the country working on my book … I just owe them so much.
You've brought many people to Jackson with your books. Has that surprised you, being that this is the Bible Belt?
I have never thought that Jesus and fun were mutually exclusive. I wasn't brought up that way, so it doesn't surprise me in the least that there are other people that know you don't have to be an atheist to have a good time.
You've said that you're a feminist. What does being a feminist mean to you?
When my daughter was first learning to read, in the first grade, they were studying about Martin Luther King and how he was treated … I said [to her], slow down, black men got the vote in this country before women of any color. In my mother's lifetime, women could not vote. In my lifetime, women could not serve on juries. When I was working at Sears when I was 19, a woman could not get a credit card in her own name. You had to have a father, a husband, a brother, a cousin—someone with a penis—to sign for you. … I wanted her to get it, that discrimination goes across the board … that only when all people are empowered will all people be free. … You are a minority, I told her. I think that just like a lot of young black people don't appreciate the struggle that came before them, young women her age have no idea … It's a good thing that they can [take it for granted], but at the same time, we don't want them to take it for granted.
I think I'll be glad when there's no need for the word feminist because it's just a matter of course that you're a person, therefore these things are afforded to you. I think for too long women had to take themselves too seriously, in order to be taken seriously, and I think we've made enough progress now that I think that's what the Sweet Potato Queen is about.
The Sweet Potato Queen seems to have a huge impact on a lot of women's lives. Does that make you feel any sense of responsibility or a sense of empowerment?
I feel a very strong sense of spiritual mission about what I do… I always wanted to be five foot two, have long red hair, green eyes, big tits, little feet and be able to sing, and I never got any of it. Growing up, I experienced I think maybe more than my share of self-loathing because … I wasn't anything that I thought I ought to be, that I wanted to be. It took me a long time to accept the gifts that I did have, that God had not ignored me.
Whatever your gifts are, and some did get more than others, but whatever you got, if you lift it up, God will honor it. When I started writing the first book, I did pray that God would use me for good. I always pray before I speak that God would let me say something that somebody needs to hear. Without exception … somebody will come up afterward, usually tears streaming, and say, "Your books changed my life." How? They left a job that was killing them. They left a marriage that was killing them, or they're dealing with cancer. My books are in many, many cancer centers all over the country.
I have a message—the humor is the vehicle by which the greater message is delivered, and I believe that God always speaks a language that can be understood. He uses all kinds of people in all kinds of ways. He uses me to talk to people who cuss like sailors 'cause I are one.
What process do you use to write?
I use a computer now 'cause they make me. I broke my typewriter. I like paper, love paper, and when I write, I write one time, don't edit … that's it, and I forget it. So, I print out everything as I go. f the printer's out of whatever it's out of, for some reason it won't print—I won't close the page until I can print it because if I don't have it on paper, it does not exist. Computers eat stuff all the time. I could write all day, and that night you could ask, "Well, what'd you write today?" and I've no idea. I can read my own books because I don't remember, and I can laugh at it. I'll read it and go, "Well, that is funny!" It's kind of like I like to cook in vats because I love leftovers; it's like somebody else cooked it, and that's how [it is with my books].
What advice would you give to someone who wants to be a writer, young or old?
You have to write something first. You can't always be fixing to write or wanting to write. Lots of people say, "I want to write a book." Well, write one. Sit down and write some every day, and you'll have a pile of paper and it'll be a book. You have to get it out of your head and onto paper. When I asked Roy Blount, after he used my piece in his book, I said, "You know, I'd like to do something else with my writing. What should I do?" And he said, "Write. Write a book." There's no trick to it, but you have to do it.
It's obvious you and your sister love words and phrases. Do you keep a notebook where you write ones you hear?
More and more I think she and I both have to make notes because we're old. I used to always remember everything. When I was writing for the Diddy, I could go to the Neshoba County Fair and go home and I would remember every single detail of the whole time I was there. Now, even when I write notes, if I don't make them clear enough, I go back and go, "What the hell's that?" I can tell it's funny but I have no idea what—it's like, gone. Getting old, it sucks.
What about the subtitle of the new book? Is the Cutest Boy in the World, your husband, the "married" in it?
No, the book was my past experience. I mean, he's in here, but I haven't told about the wedding. That'll be in the next book which is—you read it in one direction and it's a wedding planner and flip it over and read it the other way and it's a divorce guide—one-stop shopping. Hopefully, if you read both parts, you can avoid one or the other or both, whichever needs avoiding.
On the Mississippi ballot this fall is a ballot initiative prohibiting gay marriage. What do you think about that?
I have not been able to figure out or have anybody explain to me how two of my gay friends being married is a threat to my marriage. I don't understand that. How does that threaten me? It makes no sense. How does that threaten anything? How does two people who love each other being in a committed relationship, how is that bad, ever?
What would you tell about yourself that would be a surprise?
Lord, I've told everything.
Signed copies of Jill Conner Browne's book are available at Lemuria.
Great interview, Jill!! Thanks for another book!! See ya at the signing.