Claire Hamner Matturro Interviews Celeste Fletcher McHale, Author of “The Secret to Hummingbird Cake”

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CHMThe Secret to Hummingbird Cake rings with authenticity. I know you are Southern, so your ability in capturing the charm and culture of Louisiana makes good sense to me. But aside from the setting, the emotions and plot line are so vivid and evocative, I have to ask: Is the story based upon something in your own life?

CFM: It is. The eighteen months the book was inspired by changed my life.

CHM: Before Thomas Nelson, an imprint of mega publishing house HarperCollins, bought the rights to Hummingbird Cake, you had published it independently. Can you tell us about the journey between deciding to write a novel and the ultimate publication by Thomas Nelson?

CFM: I truly believe in divine intervention, and I can say without a doubt this book would not exist without it. I went from sitting on my front porch one day, remembering something, missing someone, to a two-book deal with a major publisher. When the indie version of Hummingbird Cake sold so well regionally, everyone encouraged me to try to get traditionally published. So I did. The path wasn’t supposed to be easy, but it was. And I say that with an abundance of gratitude, not in an arrogant way. I found an agent easily. She found a publisher within six weeks. My editor at Thomas Nelson is an angel. I have zero complaints. This has been great fun!

CHM: Has your life changed much since writing Hummingbird Cake?

CFM: Let’s see. This morning, I was running goats out of my mother’s flower bed and just a few minutes ago, several cows out of my yard. I’m pretty much still a redhead in a pecan orchard, cow pasture. And I assure you, anytime I start acting too big for my britches around here, there will be somebody on the place to explain the facts of life to me real quick. And hand me a shovel or a hoe or whatever the day’s chores look like.

CHM: A good deal of the story in Hummingbird Cake takes place on a farm. You describe the fictional farm with such affection, and you live on a farm now. Is the fictional farm like your family farm? Please share a bit about your family farm. How long has it been in the family?

CFM: The family farm was the inspiration for the book. It’s about 900 acres, total, on Red River and directly across the highway from it. We raise commercial cattle. It’s in my blood. I love cows and the smell of freshly cut hay (I love Claratin, too. I sneeze from March to May every year.)  My family has owned the property since the mid 1800’s. And most of us live on it somewhere. It’s a wonderful way of life. Wouldn’t trade it for anything.

CHM: When I was growing up with my Alabama kin, I don’t recall hummingbird cake, this despite the fact the women in my family were and are awesome bakers and cooks. We were more of a red velvet cake family. Which makes me wonder if hummingbird cake is more particular to Louisiana?

CFM: You know, I’m just not sure. My family always called it the “wake cake.” You can walk in my mother’s house and if she’s baking and you see pineapple, bananas and the other ingredients, somebody is gonna ask “Who passed?” I have never been to a wake where I didn’t see a Hummingbird cake or two.

CHM: Without giving away the “secret” to the cake, please tell us briefly what the key ingredients are in hummingbird cake. And do you bake it yourself?

CFM: Pineapples, bananas, crème cheese, cinnamon, pecans….you can’t miss with those ingredients! And no…I am not a baker. I am the gumbo, chili, homemade soup queen around here. My cakes are laughable, wop-sided and the icing is usually a puddle. I didn’t get the baking gene.

CHM: You were a history major in college. You write beautifully, with direct and clean sentences and vivid imagery—which makes me wonder: Did you take creative writing courses in college or along the way? Have you written other fiction? Do you have a writing background? Perhaps journalistic?

CFM: I do not have any kind of writing background. But I tell you what I did have: the best English teacher in the history of high school. Her name is Fern Land. As the class clown and an athlete, I hated English with a passion. I wanted to crack jokes or play basketball. The academic side of school was ridiculous to me.  But every time we had to write an essay or a paper, I would make the best grade in the class. And she would hand me my paper, shake her head and say, “so much talent and you only want to bounce a ball.” I was just laughing with her about it the other day.

CHM: Parts of Hummingbird Cake are sad. Yet you write with grace and often with humor. Can you speak about the use of humor in your novel?

CFM: I really think it was just because of how I was raised. My daddy is probably the wittiest and quickest guy I know. And both of my parents taught us the importance of being able to laugh at yourself. I remember when my grandfather passed—my dad’s dad—and I was standing next to the coffin with Daddy. A lady walked up, looked at Paw and then told Daddy, “He sure does look natural.” She walked away and my Daddy turned to me and said, “He looks like he’s dead in a box to me. Ain’t nothing natural about that.” And it may seem insensitive, or whatever, but it helped me to laugh. It helped him to laugh. And had Paw been able, he would’ve laughed, too. No matter what was going on in our lives, humor was a part of it and I really do credit my father for that. Death, disease, disaster—it was no match for you if you could look it in the face and laugh.

CHM: Between being a history major in college, and your present role as an emerging Southern Author, what has your journey been like?

CFM: Busy! I worked in the oil and gas industry for many years. When the Haynesville Shale came in, it was unlike anything we had ever seen and will likely not see again. My family really is my number one priority and most everything I do revolves around them. That’s brother, sister, nieces, nephews, all of us. And I have a daughter who is grown with two kids of her own now, a boy and a girl and I absolutely understand why they are called grand. So much of my time is spent with them.

CHM: Small-town southern life is often the stuff of jokes and ridicule. Yet you write so positively about it, which makes me ask if there are any important qualities of small-town Southern life that you especially wanted to capture?

CFM: There are. Particularly the gentleness of a little southern town. And I say gentle because for me it’s the opposite of frantic. I like the slow pace, the easygoingness, riding down the road with your windows rolled down, waving at everybody who passes ’cause you know them all, stoping on the side of the road and bringing Mr. Tommy’s poodle home because he escaped again—that kind of gentleness of where I live. I hope people see that in Bon Dieu Falls when they read the book.

CHM: A creative writing teacher I had at The University of Alabama said all southern writers want to be William Faulkner. I think more of my generation wanted to be Harper Lee myself, but regardless, there are shelves and shelves of books about The South. Yet your characters seem fresh and original, not recasts of Faulkner’s Compson family, Scout or Boo Radley, or even Scarlett O’Hara. Heck, you don’t even have a crazy aunt in the attic. How did you ever manage to escape the Southern stereotypes?

CFM: Oh, honey, I got a crazy aunt. She just didn’t make it into the book. I understand what you are asking, but truthfully, everywhere I look around this town, I see unique people.  Not Boo or Scout or Scarlett. I know some chicks that would give Miss Scarlett all the fits she could handle! We are all unique people, you just sometimes have to look below the surface to find it.

CHM: Are you busy at work on a sequel to Hummingbird Cake? Or another book? Please share what you can about it if you will.

CFM: I am working on a book about another character that lives in Bon Dieu Falls. It isn’t a sequel, but some of my characters from Hummingbird Cake will pop up in the next one from time to time.

CHM: What advice might you give to aspiring author?

CFM: Be who you are. Write what you know. Authenticity goes a long way.

CHM: Thank you, Celeste. 

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