And just as I drifted off to sleep, I heard her words float in with the breeze, “It’s how we survive the hurts in life that brings us strength and gives us our beauty.”
Twelve-year-old CeeCee Honeycutt knows about hurts all too well. She lives in a home where shocking events and misery are daily occurrences. CeeCee’s mother, Camille, is lost in a psychotic fantasy world where she’s still a young beauty queen in search of the parade to fame. With a father who purposefully spends very little time at home, it falls to CeeCee to take on the exhausting role of caregiver for her mother, who has become the laughingstock of the entire town.
Then one day Camille is struck and killed by an ice cream truck. What will CeeCee do? Who will take care of her? Certainly not her father, whom she blames for allowing the situation to spin so wildly out of control. Her only friend, an elderly neighbor, is in no position to help. So where is CeeCee to go? The answer arrives when a vintage automobile roars into the driveway. The driver is Tootie Caldwell, a great-aunt from Savannah, who CeeCee’s never even heard of. Upon entering the house, Tootie instantly senses that something is terribly wrong. She volunteers to take CeeCee back to Georgia, and CeeCee’s father eagerly agrees. As unthinkable as the relinquishment of his daughter seems, it just might prove to be the greatest gift he could give her. With nothing but a few meager possessions, CeeCee climbs into her aunt’s car. As they head south, CeeCee observes:I had no idea where we were, and to be honest, I don’t think Aunt Tootie did, either. All I knew was that I was flying through the night in a fancy car with a woman who showed up out of nowhere and offered to take me, messed-up life and all, to a place called Savannah.
The beautiful world Aunt Tootie has created in Savannah leaves CeeCee wonderstruck, as does Tootie’s coterie of eccentric friends—including Oletta, the housekeeper famous for her wise reflections on life and her gooey-sweet homemade cinnamon rolls, and Miz Thelma Rae Goodpepper, the stunning nextdoor neighbor with a taste for the exotic. A summer filled with adventure ensues, and the lessons learned from these fascinating and diverse women help CeeCee take her first timid steps toward becoming a normal little girl.
With lots of love and laughter and some good old-fashioned fun (sometimes at the expense of a local busybody and her curiously missing brassiere), CeeCee begins to heal. Just when her life opens like the promise of a brand-new day, a visit to a peach farm unleashes locked-away memories, and the truth of her mother’s final hours sends CeeCee spiraling into a crisis. But Aunt Tootie and Oletta know all about pain and unresolved grief, and with their loving guidance, CeeCee begins sorting through the events of her childhood. Little by little she discovers a few good memories of her mother hiding in the ruins. Those memories help CeeCee come to terms with her past, and finally she’s free to begin a new life where she can bloom.
Beth Hoffman was the president and co-owner of a major interior design studio in Cincinnati, Ohio. She sold her portion of the business to pursue writing full time. She lives in a quaint historic district in northern Kentucky, with her husband and three very smart cats. This is her first novel.
Q. In another writer’s hands, the depiction of Camille’s mental illness might come across as humorous or even callous. But you portray her illness with respect. How did you keep that balance? Was that aspect of the book difficult to write?
As ill as Camille was, I saw her as a woman who still possessed threads of a likable personality. Beneath her wild escapades and psychotic interludes was a young woman with a wounded soul. Honoring Camille’s fragile humanness allowed me to write about her with empathy and respect. Was Camille a difficult character to write about? Surprisingly, no. From the moment she first entered my imagination, there was an undeniable humor in her pain, and, conversely, there was heartbreaking sadness in her fleeting moments of joy. I took those diametrically opposed elements to the edge by creating the sense of bittersweet release in Camille’s death.
Q. Do you, like CeeCee, have an appetite for reading? What are some of your favorite books and authors? Are there books you read again and again?
Yes, words are to me what a steak is to a hungry dog. I cannot go to sleep at night without reading for at least an hour. My taste is eclectic, but I’m most drawn to character-driven fiction. I have too many favorite authors to list, but a few of them are Pat Conroy, Carol Shields, Kim Edwards, Bailey White, Arturo Pérez-Reverte, and Amy Tan.
The books I’ve read more than once are The Prince of Tides, Mama Makes Up Her Mind, Roxanna Slade, Cider with Rosie, Illusions, and The Hundred Secret Senses. I suspect I’ll read The Help by Kathryn Stockett again, too.
Q. As we get to Savannah, the setting of your book springs to vivid life. Why did you choose to set your book in the South? Why did you choose to set it in the late 1960s?
The characters actually chose the era of my story. They lived in a time when life was simpler—there were no computers or cell phones and certainly no reality TV shows! Not only did I want my book to have believably eccentric characters, but I wanted it to have multicultural characters, too. And where other than the American South could a little Northern girl so profoundly connect with an African American housekeeper?
My admiration for Southern architecture and gardens, combined with my background in interior design, made the setting of Savannah a natural choice. Most important, without the beauty and graciousness of Aunt Tootie’s world, CeeCee’s story could have run the risk of becoming somber. It’s the contrast of light to dark, joy to sorrow, and humor to sadness that gives the story its balance.
Q. Aunt Tootie is very active in preserving historic Savannah houses, even saving them from demolition. Why did you choose to make this a major part of her character? Is this subject near and dear to you?
Aunt Tootie is a woman in her midsixties who sparkles with joie de vivre—it was imperative that she never come across as a lamenting widow. She needed to possess an inner fire—a cause that was for the betterment of the community and the city that she so dearly loved. By making her an active member of the Historic Savannah Foundation, it gave me the opportunity to weave details of beautiful old homes into the story. Plus it was important for CeeCee to experience her aunt’s zest and to recognize that there are more important things in life than wallowing in past injustices and self-pity.
Like Tootie, I’ve always loved old homes—especially those Southern beauties built from 1780 to 1910. When I enter a grand old home, I get the chills just thinking about all the mysteries and family histories that took place within those thickly plastered walls. Many years ago I read the story of how seven women banded together and founded the Historic Savannah Foundation. I joined their spirit of historic preservation, purchased a big old Southern home, and rehabbed it top to bottom. I’m also a member of several historic preservation organizations, including the Historic Savannah Foundation, the Historic Charleston Foundation, the Kentucky Historical Society, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. As I began writing about Tootie’s life in Savannah, it seemed fitting that she would be an active member of such an important foundation.
Q. How did the idea for Saving CeeCee Honeycutt come about? How long did it take you to write it?
From the day I typed chapter one to the day I completed my query letter to literary agents, it was almost exactly four years—more than three years to write the book and a solid nine months of editing.
The core of my novel was inspired by the summer I visited my great-aunt Mildred in Danville, Kentucky, when I was a little girl. Her home was a gorgeous old Greek Revival, and when I first saw it, I literally gasped—I had just entered a world I never knew existed. I was awed by the lush gardens and the genteel lifestyle. But what struck me most were the lovely manners that Southerners possessed. People on the street would nod and say, “How-de-do,” and, “Isn’t this a lovely day?” whenever they’d pass by. It was so different from how people behaved in my Northern hometown.
The world my aunt created was magic—extraordinary antiques were used and enjoyed instead of protected, her Scottish terriers chased freely across spectacular Oriental rugs, and laughter was the song at the supper table. Her home was a place of beauty and joy. She was a true Southern lady. She not only possessed charm and grace, but she was also an accomplished, highly educated woman who gave freely of herself to her family, friends, and community. And, oh, was she ever witty! Each night of my visit I’d lie in bed and dream that I lived with my great-aunt. And though that dream never materialized, it inspired the writing of Saving CeeCee Honeycutt.
Q. Are any of the characters based on people you’ve known?
Aunt Tootie is based to an extent on my great-aunt Mildred, but all the other characters are products of my imagination combined with snippets of people I’ve known or observed throughout my life.
Q. What do you think the heart of this book is? What’s the one thing you want people to take away from reading it?
What I’m most touched by is how everyone who reads CeeCee’s story comes away with a different feeling. Though I didn’t realize it at the time of writing my novel, there seems to be something universal in the story that appeals to a wide audience from varied cultures—from Italy to Israel to France and beyond. I believe the heart of the book is threefold: It’s about the capacity for forgiveness, being awake to the magic in everyday life, and embracing a childlike spirit whether you’re twelve or ninety-two.
Q. What’s your writing process? Is there a particular place you like to go or a time of day when you find yourself best able to write? Do you have any words of advice for aspiring novelists?
I have a library/writing studio in my home. It’s a wonderful room, with a fireplace, bookshelves, and lots of natural light. I’m very disciplined—I write six days a week. When the muse is with me, I’ll write from morning late into the night.
Do I have words of advice for aspiring novelists? Yes. Read! Gobble up the written word until you’re stuffed. Observe the subtleties in the world around you. Write from your heart, and always remain open to possibilities. How your story wants to evolve might be quite different from what you originally intended. Imagination is the life force of a writer. Don’t get in its way, but don’t let it take you from the sublime to the ridiculous, either.
When you’ve typed “The End” and think you’ve got a bona fide novel in your hands, I can guarantee that you don’t. Not yet. So don’t lay rubber on the road to get your masterpiece to the post office. Instead, take a week off, then go back with fresh eyes and edit your entire manuscript with a ruthless hand. I highly recommend editing a manuscript no fewer than four times. When you finally believe you’ve created something special, it’s time to write a killer query letter—and I mean killer! If you can’t make the hairs on a literary agent’s arms stand up with your one-page query, then she/he will never read your sample pages. “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” Nowhere is that old adage truer than in the publishing business.
Q. What are you working on now?
I’m delighted to say that more eccentric characters are demanding that I hear their stories. This is the process I love—when out of nowhere an idea for a story begins to take form, followed by the distinct voices of the characters. My next work will certainly be a Southern novel, and I believe the primary setting will be in Charleston, South Carolina.