Have you ever corresponded with someone, and just knew that you were meant to be friends? Beth Hoffman and I have that kind of friendship. We "met" when I reviewed her debut novel, Saving CeeCee Honeycutt, for Library Journal. Beth tried to send me a thank you note, since she was so pleased to receive a starred review in Library Journal. That note went a little astray, to our Main Library first, but I emailed her when I received it. We've been writing to each other ever since, following each other on Twitter, and Beth vowed that even though her book tour didn't bring her to Arizona, we would meet sometime this year.
Beth and I finally met on Saturday. She had a horrid flight, delays in Kentucky, delays in Atlanta, but she arrived in Phoenix, and I picked her up at her hotel. We sat and talked, couldn't stop talking, for an hour before we went to the Velma Teague Library for her appearance at the library. When Beth told me she was coming in to see me, I asked if she'd speak at the library for Authors @ The Teague.
I can't say enough about Beth's generosity in giving up time to be at the library. And, she began her program by saying that she loves libraries. They matter to her, and they should matter to everyone even more now.
Beth told us nobody was more surprised to be standing in front of us than she was. Why was she shocked? She was born on a farm in rural Ohio. Her older brother didn't want to play with her. But, she had a chicken. There's even a picture of her on Beth's website. She called her "Chickie." And, there were garden toads that she hauled around.
Like other children, Beth had imaginary friends from an early age. She kept them in a shoebox under her bed. And, she glued rooms for them in those boxes, so she was destined for interior design at an early age. She had dreams of being a writer, but those weren't dreams to purse. The family didn't have much, and her mother told her to get a career so she could make a living. So, she studied art and design, and finally opened her own studies. She had employees! She talked a bank into giving her buckets of money! And, she realized she had to pay for it. So, Beth worked long hours, 60-70 hours a week, and then up to 75. Then, she knew she wasn't feeling right, and she didn't look right. And, one Friday night she went to bed, feeling like she had the flu. She got out of bed the next morning, and went down, and couldn't move. She felt as if she'd been poisoned. But, she lived in an historic house that had been made into apartments. She had the second and third floor, and two cats, Willie and Pringle. She knew she should be in the hospital, but she didn't want to call 911 because she could just see her cats getting out when the ambulance arrived, and the cats would get hit. And, she didn't want the EMTs to let the cats out.
Beth ended up calling her secretary, and all she could say was, "I need help." Her secretary lived forty minutes away, but could tell it was serious, and arrived in about half that time. But, she still refused to call the ambulance. She was nearly dead by the time she arrived at the hospital. Beth had the same disease Jim Henson died of, organ failure caused by Streptococcus pyogenes. She had kidney failure, and renal heart failure. The doctors knew on Saturday that Sunday should be her last day. But, she made it.
Beth went home, but she was quarantined in her apartment since her immune system was so bad. And, one day she noticed how the light came in the sheer curtains, and the way it hit her colored perfume bottles. And, she thought, I've been working and killing myself, and I've never seen this beauty.
So, she thought of five words that have become her mantra. These are Beth's five words, "Thank you for this day." I have this day, even though I almost didn't have yesterday.
And, while she was quarantined, she found a box with the stories she had written when she was little. Now, she loved interior design. In fact, she was blessed with it. But, it no longer had the same fascination to her. It was as if a part of her died when she almost died in the hospital.
Beth went back to work, but she knew she wanted to pursue her writing in some fashion. So, she began writing story ads for the furniture pieces she wanted to sell, and ran them in the newspaper. Those ads were a hit. The ads ran on Saturday, and she'd be flooded at the store because people loved the people Beth created and wrote about in the ads.
Then, a desk came in that she had ordered. She loved it. It was so elaborate and beautiful. Beth said it was mahogany, over-the-top, and priced to match. And, she knew she needed to write a very special ad, or she would end up owning that desk. And, she wrote that ad, which she saved to read to us later. A doctor bought it.
Now, people and other businesses had called saying they liked the ads, and wanted to know who Beth's advertising agency was. But, at times, she was a little depressed. She thought nothing's wrong. She had a successful business to run. Then, a man called. He said his wife was too shy to call and tell her they loved the ads. Their refrigerator was covered with the ads. They wanted to know those people. And, then he said, "If you can write stories that make us want to know these people, you should write." It's why Beth now says, "Be mindful of the words of strangers."
Beth said she was standing in her shop in January 2004, watching it snow. And, they were beautiful, big snowflakes. And, watching them, she just knew she was going to leave the business to write a book. She wanted out. She was never dreaming what if it doesn't sell. So, ninety days later, she had done all the paperwork, sold the business, and left.
And, Beth started to write. Her story came from one summer when she went to visit her Great-Aunt Mildred Caldwell. Then she had that writer's alchemy. She heard a young girl's voice, CeeCee Honeycutt. Hoffman stopped what she was writing; deleted it, and opened a new document. It took her three years and three months to write the book that became Saving CeeCee Honeycutt, and nine months to edit it.
Beth knew the chances of selling her book were slim. But, she sent query letters to agents, beginning with some of the top ones. She heard from one in Australia, who asked her to send the first three chapters. When she received a follow-up email, she was afraid to open it, but, when she did, it said, "I love it. Send me the whole book." That was on a Friday night. On Sunday, she realized, "I've Got Mail." Hoffman just knew she'd been rejected. But, the message said, "This book swept me away," and it was signed Catherine.
A few minutes later, the phone rang. (I wish you could have been here to hear Beth's imitation of her agent's accent.) She said, "Hello, this is Catherine." She was calling from Australia to say she'd like to take Beth on as a client. Beth said she has the right agent. Catherine told her everyone in publishing was in Frankfurt, so she would send it on Monday.
On Tuesday, at 1:00, the phone rang. "Hello, this is Catherine. Have you ever heard of Pamela Dorman?" (Pamela Dorman is a prominent editor at VikingPenguin.) "She wants it. She wants if off the table, but five others want it." Then, she called again, saying there were more offers for Saving CeeCee Honeycutt. Beth thought the amounts offered were amazing, her agent told her they weren't accepting them. She said, "This is when it gets exciting." Then, the phone rang, and she had the final offer. It was so shocking Beth couldn't believe it. But, she took a chance for her dream.
Beth's husband calls her Queenie, and her said, "Oh, Queenie. I knew it. The book's wonderful."
Twelve days after the book came out, she received the news that Saving CeeCee Honeycutt had just hit the New York Times Best Seller list. At that point, she pulled out a copy of that ad she had written four years earlier before she sold her business. That ad for the desk was written for the Cincinnati Enquirer. It told the story of a woman who quit her job and her marriage on the same day, by fax. Then, Bunny disappeared. And, two years later a redhead surfaced, who had changed her life and become a successful writer, and bought that beautiful desk.
Beth told us that ad was the story of a woman who changed her life. And, here she is. She went on to say, it's all about finding that fire. Beth's fire was to write. She went for it, and it's been a wonderful ride.
Before taking questions, Beth said she still can't believe she was up there talking to all of us. She has an artistic personality, and she's really an introvert. But, she loves her characters so much, CeeCee and Oletta, and she can share those wonderful characters. And, she looks out at the audience, and sees the faces that came to see her. And, people read the book. When she sees the faces, she wants to thank each one for the day.
The first question was about Oletta. Was she based on someone? Beth said she was crazy about Oletta. She's sort of based on someone. When she went to visit her aunt, her Aunt Mildred had a cook named Betty. The young Beth was enamoured of her. She was the first African-American she really knew. She loved Betty's dialect, and how straightforward she was. Betty had been downtown, and someone hurt her feelings. The gardener knew that, and asked her what she was going to do about it. Betty slammed a frying pan down, and said, "I could stay mad, but it'd take too much time out of my day." Beth was nine years old, but she remembered. Even so, she was often surprised by what Oletta would say as she was writing about her. Other characters came out of her imagination. They were her shoe box children.
Beth doesn't use an outline. She said her characters dictate where they're going. The writing then flows. She doesn't know where she's going with the story.
Beth was asked if she's writing another book, and answered that she's just started one. Since Saving CeeCee Honeycutt came out, she's received thousands and thousands of emails. Many of them want a sequel. Hoffman felt pressure to write a sequel until she realized that CeeCee is magic at twelve, like a butterfly. As a teenager, CeeCee's magic would be destroyed. So, CeeCee is going to stay twelve.
Making that decision freed Beth to write another book She's started a story of a girl who spent her formative years in Kentucky, where her home backed up to Red River Gorge. She finds a chair in a ditch, and fixes it up. As an adult, she makes her living doing faux finish work on antiques in Charleston. There's are a couple little mysteries in the book. Once again, it's a character-driven story, and the sense of place is powerful. Beth said she's mad for the story, loving it. It's coming hard and fast.
Pamela Dorman kept asking if she's writing. Beth said a book tour can be grueling. You're on the move every day, doing TV and radio, book store appearances, meeting your escort. It's absolutely exhausting. And, then, she received email from her publisher saying, while you're flying, it would be a good idea to think of your next novel. She said she didn't even know where she was some days, let alone trying to think of the next novel.
A woman from Ohio asked Beth where she grew up, and she answered on Route 6, Kirtland, Ohio, northeast of Cleveland. It's in Geauga County, near Amish country.
Beth was told her themes are so Southern, they could have sworn she was from the South. She captured it perfectly. Beth said when she was nine, and went to visit her Aunt Mildred, she had culture shock of the finest sort. She asked, "Can I be a Southerner? And, her aunt told her, "Honey, you can be anything you want to be." Beth loved Savannah and Charleston. As soon as she could, she moved to Kentucky, which was as close to the south as she could get at that time.
But, while working on CeeCee, Beth walked every street in Savannah. She talked to people. One woman told her, "Honey, you should move here." Beth said part of her soul belongs in the south.
A writing instructor at Arizona State said she directs her students to Beth's text to help them develop character. What could she tell her students? Hoffman answered that she found people fascinating to watch. She watches nuances. She watches for color. Why do people do things? What is their motivation. Nobody is all good or all bad. Our quirks make us who we are. Beth said she's an artist, and she studies body language. She looks for a sense of space and place. It's an important attribute to be awake and aware. Absorb what's around us, good and bad. When she started to write, it was like opening Pandora's box. She had to open up.
Beth Hoffman will be hitting the road again in November, when the paperback of Saving CeeCee Honeycutt comes out.
The next question asked how much of Beth is in CeeCee. Beth responded that the truth is CeeCee is her own girl, but there's a big part of her in her. Hoffman had difficult things in her life as a little girl. She focused on reading, and her imaginary friends in her shoe boxes. But, CeeCee is much wiser than Beth was at that age. For instance, Beth never would have done the brassiere incident in the book. It just happened. CeeCee is real to Beth. She'll always be twelve. She's so much wiser than Beth was, but some of the things she went through made her understand CeeCee's background.
Beth said she also has a great affinity for the elderly. She had a job working at a nursing home when she was seventeen.
Then she was asked if her friends were supportive when she made that big change in her life. She said that was truth on the rocks. She thought she had a number of friends, but when you make a big transition, you find out who your friends are. Some told her she was crazy or that she'd make a fool of herself. They were people she thought of as friends, but now that she wouldn't be decorating their houses, they only had criticism. Others said, I'm so proud of you. You went for it.
Now that she's been on the NYTimes Best Seller list, she gets notes from some of those people, wanting to go to lunch or dinner. But, they couldn't invite her to dinner while she was writing. Her good friends were there for her. In fact, her neighbor, Marlane, saw her through a complete meltdown after two years of writing. She's her best friend across the street. And, she called her up, and said, "I'll never make it." And, Marlane came straight from her garden, brought wine, and said, "You're my hero." After that, Beth never looked back. But, as to the people who now send her invitations? They get notes saying, we'll have dinner on the 12th... (of never).
One audience member commented that the women were so strong. Beth said there is such beauty in the strength of the women coming together and helping each other. Women are so complex. She said she loved her grandpa and dad. They were farmers, the salt of the earth. But, she always knew what they were going to say and do. Women are unique and complex. They have energy. The women in the story are so different, but they come together for the good of a little girl. She said the elderly have so much wisdom and knowledge. She tried to get that across in the book. Except for CeeCee's early years, the book only covers ninety days, and she had to make an impact. She wanted the book to be funny, and make you cry. It's a little girl's experiences.
In the book, Beth talks about CeeCee's Life Book. How did she come up with that? Beth answered that when she was young, someone died. It was her first concept of death as permanent. Afterward, her mother was hanging clothes, and she asked her aobut death. Her mother said, well, I think when you're born, your name is written in a book, and God writes the day we die, and the pages in between are empty. Beth hated that idea, that the pages were all blank. She likes to think there's something on the pages. So, Mrs. Odell tells CeeCee about her Life Book.
Beth said she herself is still a child. She was always tender toward animals. She gets a childlike kick out of things. She's in awe of things. She observes life with awe and wonder. She stayed childlike.
The protagonist in her new book is thirty-five, but her childhood is in the book as well.
Beth ended the program by saying she's been doing programs since January to audiences as small as six, and as large as 354, with everything in between. Each event is special. But, she received a wonderful energy from the audience at Velma Teague, and could see the spirit in their eyes.
And, she said she wanted to give me a gift. That starred review in Library Journal meant a great deal to her. I just got the book. Once we "met" online, she knew we were kindred spirits. I was written on a page in her Life Book. So, she had decided that she would present to each person who hosted her a Savannah Garden hat, and, what made it even more special is that Beth made that hat herself. So, I cried and laughed when she gave me the hat. And, she told the audience she might spend 49 years in the Atlanta airport that night, but she was glad she came.
We finished the day together as friends do. We went to my place. My friend who cares so much for animals was able to play with three of my cats before we went to dinner at the Roaring Fork in Scottsdale. We had a wonderful dinner with good food, good conversation, and good friendship before she left for the airport, and home.
Thank you, Beth, for a magical day.
Beth Hoffman's website is www.bethhoffman.net
Saving CeeCee Honeycutt by Beth Hoffman. Viking, ©2010. ISBN 9780670021390 (hardcover), 320p.