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A Conversation with Lisa Patton

Lisa Patton is a Memphis, Tennessee native who spent three years as a Vermont innkeeper—until three sub-zero winters forced her back to the South. She's used her experience to pen Whistlin' Dixie in a Nor'easter (Thomas Dunne Books; October 1, 2009; $23.99), a hilarious and heartwarming debut novel about a Southern belle thrown into the wilds of rural Vermont. More than just a funny fish-out-of-water story, this novel shows how one woman learns to stand up for herself and triumph against difficult circumstances.

What was the inspiration for Whistlin’ Dixie in a Nor’Easter?

I really was an innkeeper in Vermont. Even better, a Southern innkeeper in Vermont! After surviving three sub-zero winters and discovering Vermonters don’t bury their dead in the winter, suffering from vampire bugs bites on the back of my neck, and enduring a four-week summer where I still had to wear a coat at night, I knew I had a story to write.

How has your personal life experience influenced this book? What similarities do you have with Leelee Satterfield?

The first thing that comes to my mind is the way southern girls are brought up, at least in my era. We were taught to be agreeable and polite. I’ve heard people criticize southern women for not saying what’s on their mind. That’s because we are taught from a young age to be great hostesses and make everyone feel comfortable. It might not be the best way, but it’s what we’ve learned. Sure, there’s a bit of me in Leelee. I get caught up in the same trap of sacrificing my needs for everyone else’s and wanting people to like me. Like Leelee, I’m a work in progress. Then again, so are most of my closest friends.

The best thing about Leelee is her fun side. Leelee gets herself into all kinds of messes – largely because of the choices she makes. She’s Lucy Ricardoish. I’m the same way and while that sometimes makes for a crazy personal life, it sure produces some rich scenarios for writing.

Are any of those crazy characters (such as Helga) based on people you know?

No doubt the characters in Whistlin’ Dixie are an amalgam of all kinds of people I’ve known - Leelee’s three best friends from Memphis in particular. I named all of them, Leelee included, after sorority sisters of mine from Kappa Delta at the University of Alabama. Helga is fashioned a little bit after an old spinster piano teacher I had in grammar school. She’s also part Wicked Witch from Wizard of Oz and a lot Cruella de Vil from 101 Dalmations. I just love a villain, especially a funny villain. Glen Close is my dream choice to someday play Helga.

What other strange things happen in Yankee territory, and how is that different from life in the South?

Oh my. To be Southern and living in Yankee territory is quite an ordeal. Not only does one experience culture shock but the thermal shock is brutal. Southerners have this idyllic image of the Currier and Ives picture of winter up North. We have no idea what it’s like to actually exist in it. We see heaps of snow and think, “how perfectly beautiful!” Actually, shoveling snow and rearranging your life to exist in it is another thing all together – for a Dixie chick anyway.

I remember having to see a counselor four months into living in Vermont. He sympathized with my inability to connect right away and explained how the subtle cultural differences would make it hard for me. He was right. Southern women are generally bubbly and very friendly. Certainly, the people up North are more direct and they take longer to get to know, but once a friendship is formed it’s there for life - without pretense.

What are some of the positive things that Leelee experiences in the North?

Leelee is forced way out of her comfort zone. Nor’easter is a metaphor for the storm in Leelee’s life. While living in Vermont, she learns that she can survive any storm physical or mental. Leelee develops self-confidence in her ability to earn her own living (without the help of her husband.) Several real friendships develop for Leelee in Vermont - unlikely ones at that. I don’t want to give away too much here, but Leelee gets to experience some Northern wildlife that she’s only dreamed about in the South.

Can you explain the significance of the song “Into the Mystic” in your book?

First of all, it’s my favorite Van Morrison song, bar none. Romance oozes from each note. Leelee declares it’s her favorite song, too, so there’s another similarity between the two of us. When romance finally touches Leelee again, I thought it would be the perfect song to set the mood for this climactic moment in the story.

I was working for Michael McDonald around the time I wrote the scene with “Into The Mystic” and when he read it he was inspired to record the song on his next CD. He covered it on his 2007 Soul Speak record in honor of Leelee’s romantic dance. Michael’s version is quite dreamy, by the way.

How did you find the time to write this novel, as a single mom of two boys? Is there any message you’d like to give to the single mothers out there who may read this book?

Single motherhood is an enormous job and it leaves very little free time. Stolen moments are responsible for the writing of this book. Late at night, early in the morning before work, halftime on the soccer field, and waiting in the carpool line for the boys - I grabbed all the spare time I could find. That’s why it took me years and years to finish. I dedicate the book to my sons but I also have a dedication to single mothers. They need encouragement and it’s crucial to have hope in difficult situations. My message is to find your heart’s desire and never give up, no matter how impossible it might seem. I know because it happened to me. I have a testimony.

How does Leelee grow and change in your novel? Is she a “Southern Belle”—and is that a positive or negative thing?

When someone first reads Whistlin’ Dixie, they might be perplexed at Leelee’s inability to consider her own needs. As the book develops, though, Leelee’s metamorphosis is becoming evident to everyone. Her girlfriends from home are shocked by her newfound ability to say no and stand up for what she needs. Even Roberta, her housekeeper in Vermont, has been secretly watching Leelee’s inner strength and true grit develop.

Leelee is a Southern Belle but that’s a good thing. The definition of a Southern Belle is a beautiful and charming woman from the southern US. Leelee is beautiful, inside and out, and her charm is the most endearing thing about her.

Can you discuss the role of friendship in Whistlin’ Dixie?

Friendship equals family to Leelee. Having lost her parents at an early age, and as an only child, Leelee relies on her friends to be a substitute for that sense of belonging and love. Despite her insistence to the contrary Leelee is definitely naïve. Her entire life, prior to Vermont, has been spent inside a reinforced bubble. Her friends from home, including her childhood nanny, are not only her family but also her advisors. Much to her surprise, Leelee’s time in Vermont produces three more dear friends who become her Vermont kinfolk.

Where did you get the ideas for the new menu at the Peach Blossom Inn? Do you have a recipe for any of those dishes?

I’m a sucker for fine gourmet food and I get many of my recipes and ideas from the Fine Cooking Magazine. Most of the menu items in the book were taken from my own restaurant in Vermont. One of the appetizers, Crabmeat Henry, came from an old historic restaurant in Memphis called Justine’s. I do have many of the recipes and they’ll be available on my website, White chocolate mousse is available now.

Whistlin’ Dixie in a Nor’easter is a fish out of water story. One can’t help but think of another fish out of water - Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. Helga and Leelee are obvious parallels to the classic tale, are there others?

Many. If you are an “Ozzy” the likenesses are easy to spot. If not, they might be subtler. Instead of a tornado, Leelee gets caught up in a Nor’easter. Leelee befriends three unlikely characters in her own Land of Oz. There are even a couple of lines of dialogue very similar to the movie. Of course there's Leelee’s beloved dog, Gracie. The only thing missing from Whistlin’ Dixie in a Nor’easter is an actual wizard. But Leelee’s survival symbolizes the wizard inside her. I wasn’t intentional with the major similarities, it just happened that way.

**Posted with permission from St. Martins.**
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  1. I love Lisa Patton's story! Once upon a time, we were Hawaii folks who relocated to Baltimore so I can totally relate to Whistlin’ Dixie in a Nor’Easter.

  2. Reading this makes me want to read this book. How intriging. You know, where I live, it gets to -40 -45 in the winters. brrr. I should move to.

    dorcontest at gmail dot com

  3. I from Mississippi not to far from Memphis, so I'd love to win this book. It sounds wonderful. I really enjoyed the interview..

    mlawson17 at hotmail dot com

  4. Wow! good post, nice blog. Thanks for share useful information.


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