When a mutual friend told me about Young Adult novelist Crickett Rumley‘s 2011 book, Never Sit Down in a Hoopskirt and Other Things I Learned in Southern Belle Hell, I immediately decided I had to email interview the author. Here’s the official scoop on the book: “Expelled from thirteen boarding schools in the past five years, seventeen-year-old Jane Fontaine Ventouras is returning to her Southern roots, and the small town of Bienville, Alabama, where ladies always wear pearls, nothing says hospitality like sweet tea and pimento cheese sandwiches, and competing in the annual Magnolia Maid Pageant is every girl’s dream.
“But Jane is what you might call an anti-belle, more fishnets and tattoos than sugar and spice. The last thing on her mind is joining the Magnolia Maid brigade and parading around town in a dress so big she can’t fit through a door. So when she finds herself up to her ears in ruffles and etiquette lessons, she’s got one mission: ESCAPE.”
This interview was conducted in late 2011. My thanks to Rumley for her time and humor.
Tim O’Shea: When did you first realize you derived creative satisfaction from writing teen comedy?
Crickett Rumley: Being a teenager is one of the most terrifying states of existence on earth. At least it was for me. On some level, everybody feels awkward and is searching for who they are, whether they are the most popular girl in school or the computer geek who hides in the corner and only comes out to answer calculus questions. Under those conditions, emotions run at full velocity – the highs are stratospheric, the lows are deeper than the sea. Everything means everything. So I’ve always felt that period in a character’s life is ripe for story-picking.
But discovering that I could write comedy? That’s a funny story! It was my third year of film school (I got my MFA in Film from Columbia University), and I was taking a class in writing television movies. At that point, I was known for writing earnest, angst-filled, twenty-something dramas, but I was not truly satisfied with anything I had written. It didn’t feel right. So we had this assignment to write ten pages of scenes based on a newspaper article. I chose a piece about a family of women who married old men and killed them for money. I thought I had written another earnest, angst-ridden drama, but when we read the scenes out loud in class, people were laughing. I don’t mean a little chuckle here and there. I mean, full-on, falling on the floor, can’t-catch-your-breath-laughing.
Cut to me, petrified. Eyes wider than the Grand Canyon. Turning redder than Rudolph the Reindeer’s nose. I couldn’t believe what was happening! My words had had that effect on my fellow classmates? What!? I started giggling, too, but not a charming, amused little laugh, noooooooo. Mine was a very high-pitched squeal of a giggle. Kinda like a pig. A stuck pig. A very nervous, freaked out stuck pig. But when the reading was over and the laughing died down, and all the tears had been wiped away, I felt amazing. I knew I had found my writing home, my writer’s voice, and I have never turned back.
O’Shea: Were you involved with the development of the trailer for the book? How enjoyable was that to develop?
Rumley: Yes, indeed! I wrote, co-directed and produced it. With my background in film, making a trailer was a natural extension of the book. Matt Kohnen and Nick Sivakumaran, my fellow instructors at the New York Film Academy in Los Angeles, got on board early to co-direct and shoot it for me. They were such a joy to work with. Lake Sharp, who played the Belle, is a dancer as well as an actress, and such a funny woman, that I knew that she would be able to rock that hoopskirt. And boy, did she! We laughed our butts off watching Lake move around in that dress, and the expressions on her face, well, I could never KEEP a straight face during filming! I would have to shove my hand in my mouth so that I didn’t laugh and ruin the moment. I especially love when she tries to play soccer in the dress. The kids in the trailer, my young friends Ruby and Hart, had a blast chasing each other around the dress. And Marcello, my dashingly handsome actor, was totally game for anything. He actually fell out of that tree again and again trying to kiss Lake!
Everyone on the shoot was a superstar, and I am very grateful that they shared their talents with me.
O’Shea: What was the biggest challenge in terms of writing Never Sit Down in a Hoopskirt?
Rumley: Learning to write prose. After so many years of focusing on screenplays, I was accustomed to writing short bursts of dialogue and very sparse paragraphs of scene description. Everything has to be externalized in film, but in prose, there is a tremendous amount of internal monologue. It was quite challenging – overwhelming, in fact – to shift gears. I had to convince myself to just get it in on the page, that no matter how bad it was, I could fix it later. The first draft was over 450 pages long. 450 messy, disorganized pages. It took me a long time to figure out how to construct a chapter that was entertaining and funny. But I really felt like I had something, and I am a big fan of the revision process, so I just kept chipping away at it until I was happy.
O’Shea: In addition to writing, you also teach screenwriting. What’s the most enjoyable aspect of teaching for you?
Rumley: Getting to hear stories from my students! I have a very interactive teaching style, and I encourage writers to draw from their personal experiences to create characters and dramatic conflict. Because our students range in age (18-80) and nationality (often there are only two or three Americans in a class of 12), the stories they tell, the characters they talk about in class, are incredibly diverse. Yet we are all humans traveling under the sun, and emotions are powerfully universal, even if culture isn’t. Every day in the classroom, I find myself inspired, whether it’s a story that a South African television presenter tells us about a surprise birthday party that her family threw her at dawn in the African bush, or it’s a character portrait that an American vet creates based on an insurgent he shot in Iraq. Never a dull moment, believe me.
O’Shea: How important/beneficial was social media (such as FB) in terms of marketing the book?
Rumley: I am not quite sure yet, Tim. Of course I developed a website and a Facebook fan page and a Twitter account and I try to keep up with them on a regular basis. To be honest, though, I think my live, in-person interactions with people have had a lot of impact, as well. I LOVE talking to people!
That being said, look for more action on my website come the new year . I’m excited about upcoming blog posts, including interviews with bona fide Southern belles and anti-belles, and some contests featuring Smashbox Cosmetics as prizes!
O’Shea: Who was your favorite character to write in the book?
Rumley: That’s like asking who is my favorite child! Heehee, luckily, I have no children. I love all my characters, but Brandi Lyn was the most fun to write. She is incredibly thoughtful and sweet, yet she has strong beliefs and is not afraid to express them. She comes from a modest background, yet has a work ethic that would blow many of us out of the sky. She’s a fish out of water, but she doesn’t let that stop her from pursuing lofty dreams. One of my favorite scenes in the book is when she lovingly gives her daddy a hard time for using the Lord’s name in vain, and he responds by saying “Sorry, baby” and tossing a quarter into an overflowing jar. Brandi Lyn’s so sweet, everybody just wants to love her and make her happy! Talk about catching more flies with honey…
O’Shea: In terms of the book reviews, were you pleasantly surprised that the Booklist reviewer noticed that you worked “in nice points about shaking up the status quo while still keeping things light and bright”?
Rumley: Thrilled, actually. In fact, I am still grinning from ear to ear. In all seriousness, the fact that readers can laugh and have fun with the characters, yet still respond to the serious points that matter the most to me as a storyteller, well, that is exactly what’s it’s all about for me.
O’Shea: Is it hard for you to read reviews, or do you enjoy reading them?
Rumley: I count myself lucky that most of my reviews have been good, so I’ve been enjoying them!
O’Shea: In doing book signings, did you ever have some fun encounters with recovering and/or active Southern Belles?
Rumley: Women of a certain age LOVE telling me about their hoopskirt stories from back in the days when hoopskirts were commonly worn to proms, debutante balls, cotillions, et.al. And the stories ALWAYS involve the skirt flying over their heads, often with a cute date present, which always leads to maximum awkwardness! I love it!
The truth of the matter is, though, people have strong reactions to the “Southern Belle Hell” part of the title. They either love it and immediately start telling me about the time they committed (or had to suffer through) some horrible Southern belle faux pas, or they hate it and think I am going straight to hell. Okay, that’s a slight exaggeration, but the head of the Historic Mobile Preservation Society did write me that as a bona fide Southern belle, she took issue with my title. Being the cheeky gal that I am, I immediately sent her a copy of the book. That was in May. Wonder if she’s read it yet?
O’Shea: Sorry, but I would kick myself if I did not ask–what was it like to work for John Sayles? Did working for him have some influence on your approach to writing?
Rumley: Working for John Sayles and his producer/partner Maggie Renzi was the best gig ever! They were incredibly supportive of their assistants and interns, and I learned a tremendous amount about how a film is made when I worked as their post-production assistant on the Secret of Roan Inish.
In terms of lasting influence, that would have to be in the realm of social commentary. This touches back on that question you asked about the review in Booklist. John’s work always contains an element of social commentary, and I also believe that it’s important that artists and writers not only express themselves, but express something of value to society. Of course, my take on life is a lot more comedic than John’s, but his influence is definitely present in my core belief system.
O’Shea: As writers go, you’re nothing if not ambitious. When most folks mention their next project, they have one or two items in the hopper. You had a list, that included:
— a TV pilot called Irreverent
— a screenplay about a bunch of crazy Southern women titled Fruitcake
– the stirrings of an idea for a musical for which I have named my father Head of Music Research
— And of course, I would love to write another Southern Belle Hell book!
Which of these on your list is closest to completion?
Rumley: You’re talking about a curse of blessings here, Tim! I always have a lot going on, but I don’t have a lot of time to devote to my own projects since I teach full-time. The good news is that I have drafts of the pilot and the screenplay written. They just need to be fixed. I am tossing around various ideas for my next novel, and I think I am going to draft a TV series version of Hoopskirt for my film and TV agent to shop around. I am SO looking forward to winter break – I am going to check myself into a hotel in Palm Springs (two hours east of my home in LA) for a few days and write me up a storm!
O’Shea: Is there anything you’d like to discuss that I neglected to ask you about?
Rumley: I am thrilled that this book got published and that people are responding warmly to it. Hands down, the best thing about publishing a novel, though, has been that I’ve had the chance to reconnect with people from all stages of my life! Friends from college, high school, of my mother, of my father, of my sister, long-lost relatives – they have come out of the woodwork with a tremendous amount of support and interest. I am so grateful! It’s been such a fun year and I can’t wait to get the next book out into the world!