Humor both naughty and nice
An Interview with Paula Wall
by Joyce Dixon
Photo credit: Robert Pierce
Almost a blend of Fannie Flagg and Florence King, first time novelist Paula Wall is an author worth watching. Paula Wall developed her earthy humor in a syndicated column before giving a voice to the Belle women of Leaper's Fork, Tennessee, in her debut novel The Rock Orchard.
Born in Clarksville, Tennessee, Paula Wall grew up in Anchorage, Alaska. She majored in environmental science at Austin Peay State University. She worked as an environmentalist, but eventually became a full-time humorist with a nationally syndicated column for Universal Press. She was named ďHumor Columnist of the YearĒ in 1997 by the National Society of Newspaper Columnists and was a semi-finalist for the 1999 Thurber Award.
What women in your life inspired the Belle women?
I didnít realize it while I was writing, but Angela is very much like my mother as a young woman, a haunting beauty with the gift.
Much of the action in The Rock Orchard takes place in the cemetery: a childís birthday party, loverís meeting at night, and a woman dancing buck naked. Why did you choose a place of death and peace to display so much life?
The scene where Dixie runs through lightning bugs thick as spilled glitter while playing hide-n-seek in the cemetery is right out of my childhood. I have always been drawn to old graveyards. The graveyard is my secret garden.
The descriptions of The War Between the States and Bellereve, the Belle home, are vivid. Being born in Clarksville, Tennessee, not far from the Battle of the Clouds in Chattanooga, did you have a strong personal connection to the War?
When I was a kid, my grandmother told me stories that her grandmother told her of how the Yankees burned the old home place. They locked the horses in the barns and set fire to the hay. I had nightmares of the horses screaming and trying to break down the barn doors. My grandmother is 95 and talks about the war as if it is still going on. Family legends are passed on in the blood.
Nashville was known for its hospitals and soiled doves during the War. Did that influence the Belle history?
Bellereve was based on my great-auntís house, which was used as a hospital during the Civil War. There are rusty stains on the ceiling that my cousin Earl, who was mean as a snake, told me was the blood of Yankee soldiers. Earl inherited the house. We hope those Yankee ghosts are giving him hell.
Was Leaperís Fork based on a real town?
Itís loosely based on my hometown, Clarksville, Tennessee.
What is the significance of the name? Could it be lovers having to choose a path?
Youíre one of the few people who caught this. Yes, I called the town Leaperís Fork because all the characters stand at a fork in life and must make the decision whether or not to leap. One of the characters must make the leap of faith.
The Rock Orchard has already received accolades. Barnes & Noble has named the book a "Discover a Great New Writer" title, the American Book Association has named it a Book Sense Pick, and Ingram made the novel one of its Premiere Picks. Also, foreign sales are moving at a clip. Are you overwhelmed by the book auction and early success of a debut novel?
Iím overwhelmed by the encouragement and good word of mouth people are giving the book. Kindness always takes my breath away.
Iím sure there was an uproar when you retired your humor column ďOff the Wall.Ē Did you have second thoughts? Will you do another book of essays?
I always knew I was just passing through. Writing a weekly newspaper column was good for me as a writer, but I felt like Sisyphus pushing the rock up the hill.
Monday youíre thinking Pulitzer. Tuesday youíre lining the birdcage.
You have been part of the Erma Bombeck Workshop and spoke at a tribute for her. How has Bombeck influenced you?
Mom was a disciple of Erma and taped her columns on the fridge. She says making me read Bombeck was like Mozartís mom making him play Bach.
Describe your writing day.
Iím part owner in a couple of businesses. Usually, I write between phone calls.
Though you were born in Tennessee, you grew up in Alaska. Do the states have anything in common?
They both have air, but thatís about it.
Will your writing stay in Southern settings, or do you plan to take your pen to the Great Northwest?
I love Alaska, but that muse isn't singing yet. You have to wear a lot of clothes up there. I like my characters sweaty.
"What a brave girl you are. What a strong fine woman you are going to be." Whether being said to a boy or girl, that Belle spell inspires one to greatness. Did someone say those words to you?
Mom always told me I would ďdo great things.Ē Sheís still waiting.
© 2005, Joyce Dixon, All Rights Reserved