The debut author talks about the power of friendship upon the release of The Right Thing.
Chat with Amy on Friday, June 13, via Twitter from 1-2 CST using the hashtag #southernlit.
Amy Conner’s first book was a 700-page tome about Hurricane Katrina told from 12 different points of view. As a first-time author, she couldn’t get any publishers to look at it so she stuck it in a drawer and moved on to a second book. Coming in at 273 pages and told from the first-person point of view of character Annie Banks, The Right Thing found a home at Kensington Books and was released at the end of May. “It’s my first published novel, but I didn’t want to totally disown my first child,” says Conner.
Conner seems to have found her voice with The Right Thing, a coming of age story set in Jackson, Mississippi, in both 1963 and 1990. “It all started with a short story that I wrote about the fictionalization of an experience I had as a child,” she says. That story led to more as characters grew up and Conner became fascinated with how we learn the difference between right and wrong as we go from childhood to adulthood.
Main character Annie has a good heart but can’t seem to stay out of trouble. Her friendship with skinny, outspoken Starr Dukes doesn’t help, and soon she and Starr are sharing secrets and playing elaborate games like Queen for a Day. As suddenly as she appears in Annie’s life, Starr disappears and Annie grows up to follow the path of all well-bred Jackson women. She marries a lawyer, fills her days with shopping and charity work and lives on a diet of cigarettes and coffee to maintain her size 0.
When she and Starr meet 27 years later in the dressing room of a local boutique, Annie hardly recognizes her best friend. Starr is pregnant for one thing — and by a married man who wants her out of town. Annie is determined to do the right thing and not fail her friend, so she lies to her husband and agrees to a late-night road trip to New Orleans to help Starr pick up some money she’s owed. Of course not all goes as smoothly as planned, and Annie finds herself face-to-face with an old high school bully, falling in love with a man she just met and questioning what she really wants out of life.
Conner calls herself an “inveterate eavesdropper” and says she grew up in Jackson hearing many of the stories in the book. “If I didn’t hear these stories, it actually happened to me,” she says. “I think most little kids have a best friend at some time in their life and we never really recapture that particular kind of friendship.”
When you’re in the second grade, you don’t know what the world can do to you yet. That’s the big lie of innocence — that it’s a happy state. In childhood all of the feelings you’ll ever experience in your life come at your with the suddenness and ferocity of mudslides, burying you up to your neck in feelings so overwhelming that you can barely draw a breath from the first and greatest betrayal. Grown-ups forget that, probably because we’d all go mad if we had to experience what life throws at you every day with the same shock and wailing intensity of just-born emotions.” – Annie, Chapter 3
In Conner’s case, she befriended a little girl in her neighborhood whose family moved rather suddenly. She hesitates to compare her friend to Starr, but “she was fun, I remember that,” she says. “I remember that we could not be pried apart with a crowbar. I remember my mother thinking that she would much prefer me play with other kids, but I loved this girl.”
Conner also bases some of Starr’s experiences in the book — being picked on at school, not having clothes that fit — on those she experienced attending public school. “When Starr would go to school, she would stand out, and there were always a couple kids in my class who didn’t have the same advantages as everybody else,” she says. “They were poor and it showed. I was going to a nice little grammar school in my own neighborhood and these kids would come from different parts of the neighborhood that were not so nice and they caught hell those girls.”
While the core of the book is about friendship, Conner also weaves in a touching relationship between Annie and her mother, often comical interactions between Annie and maid Methyl Ivory and a budding friendship with the aforementioned high school bully, Buddy turned Bette.
I was seven years old and an only child, so to me, my parents, especially my mother, were still the most extraordinary people in the world. Sneaking worshipful glances at her during the course of the meal, I was almost unable to eat my chicken a la king on toast points, my throat was so backed up with inexpressible admiration. My mother, Colleen O’Shaunessy Banks, ‘Collie’ to her friends, was never anything but enviably dressed, and that night she glowed in an emerald-green, off-the-shoulder sheath, gleaming pearls about her long neck.” – Annie, Chapter 2
On the cover of The Right Thing is a blurb from Jewel author Bret Lott that reads: “Mix Fannie Flagg, Rebecca Wells, Kathryn Stockett, then add just a dash of Flannery O’Connor, and you’ll wind up with the wholly original voice that is Amy Conner’s.” While Conner did take care to make sure her book told a very different story than Stockett’s The Help, she’s not turning down any praise.
“For someone who’s a first-time author, that was incredibly flattering but gratifying as well. I feel like I ought to send him a cake,” she says. An avid reader herself, Conner remembers her mother tucking her into bed in the afternoons for “naptime.” “From the time I was 8 until about 10, I worked my way through the Bible twice, the encyclopedia. I read To Kill A Mockingbird when I was 9,” she says.
These days, Conner will still read just about anything but is looking forward to Stephen King’s latest, Wally Lamb’s We are Water and re-reading Vanity Fair this summer. She’s also completed a second book and is working on a third. It’s no surprise that her next book — which she calls a “love quadrangle” — includes more stories from her past. About a man and the three women he loves, the book is set in both Covington, Louisiana, and Paris and takes place on and around an alligator farm.
Conner and her ex-husband ran the world’s largest alligator farm in the New Orleans area for 20 years, so it’s a subject that’s both close to home and a bit unsettling for her. “It’s another book that’s kind of concerned with the great different between rich and poor, especially down here in the South,” she says. “My favorite character is a hoser at the alligator farm. We used to have a bunch of those … This girl wants more than that and she’s kind of willing to do just about anything to get out of that situation.”
Sounds a bit like Starr Dukes, who admits in Chapter 5 “It sure felt like the real thing this time.”
Join us on Twitter tomorrow when we chat with Amy about The Right Thing and also give away three copies of the book courtesy of Kensington Books. Join our chat room here and participate using the hashtag #southernlit. We’ll choose three winners to receive books during the chat.