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THE ROCK ORCHARD IN BLOOM
HUMORIST PAULA WALL TAKES A CHANCE WITH A STEAMY, SOUTHERN FICTION DEBUT
Life couldn't have been better for Paula Wall.
The former environmental scientist from Tennessee who wrote "snippets" to deal with her frustrations at work had become a bona fide humor writer. "Off the Wall," her column about contemporary life, was syndicated in 21 newspapers. Two collections of her work, My Love Is Free… But the Rest of Me Don't Come Cheap ('97, Rutledge Hill) and
If I Were a Man, I'd Marry Me ('99, Ballantine), had been released to popular and critical acclaim. And she was nominated for the prestigious Thurber Prize for American Humor.
But the woman described as "Erma Bombeck with attitude"
decided to risk it all after a conversation with the husband of her idol.
"I was speaking at Erma Bombeck's memorial service," she remembers, "where I met her husband Bill for the first time. I asked him why Erma had never written a novel, and he told me that she had always wanted to and had worked on one for years but could never finish it because of her column. I knew that if I kept writing the column, I would never finish writing my book. So I quit, even though my friends all thought I should be committed, and focused on writing my novel."
Fortunately for Wall, she did finish The Rock Orchard (Feb.) and quickly secured a publishing deal with Atria.
Fortunately for readers, all of Wall's saucy, sexy Southern humor is intact and in service of her rare gift for storytelling.
The Rock Orchard is the history of the Belle women, who for generations have lived in a haunted Civil War-era mansion and recklessly pursued men and sex, shocking and entertaining the people of Leaper's Fork, Tennessee, in the process. The bulk of the novel is set during the Depression and concerns wealthy fiftysomething Charlotte Belle—whose love-'em-and-leave-'em ways are challenged by an inappropriate man—and her twentysomething niece Angela, a single mother whose sensuality and straightforward approach to life intrigue the repressed Northern doctor next door. A host of well-drawn characters, a moody, broody atmosphere and a healthy dose of wry Southern wisdom add up to a witty and moving tale with the conversational tone of a story told on a porch swing by moonlight.
That tone isn't accidental. "I love good storytellers," Wall explains. "Southerners are good storytellers. You grow up sitting on your porch listening to your grandparents, your aunts and uncles. The South is full of stories."
However, the South inspired more than just Wall's writing style. "Angela Belle was based on my mother, who was a haunting beauty. I come from a long line of strong and beautiful women. If you think [Southern] women are submissive, boy, are you wrong. They're just as strong, it's just a matter of style. There's a strength without a sacrifice of sensuality. They never apologize for being women—that's where they get their power. That's what drew me to the women in my family. They were strong but sexy as hell."
The same could be said of The Rock Orchard, a sexy book with charm, strength and
a dry sense of humor that's all Southern and all Paula Wall.—Colleen Cusick
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