Lauretta Hannon celebrates dive bars, fishin' holes and other prime pieces of real estate on the wrong side of the tracks in The Cracker Queen: A Memoir of a Jagged, Joyful Life. Hannon's book combines family stories from the gritty, quirky corners of Savannah, Atlanta and Warner Robins, along with tongue-in-cheek motivational passages about the "Way of the Cracker Queen." A National Public Radio commentator and, in the late 1990s, a biweekly Creative Loafing Savannah columnist, Hannon reads from The Cracker Queen May 4 at the Georgia Center for the Book. On May 2, the First Annual Observance of the Day of the Cracker Queen takes place at Savannah's Blowin' Smoke BBQ.
In preparing this book, how much did you go back and research family stories, and how much did you simply remember them?
You know what, I heard so many family stories from the time when I was a little kid that I didn't feel the need to retrace them. About two years ago, I did go back to my hometown of Warner Robins to check some of the facts at the library. In the book, I talk about my hippie half-brother who had a head shop in Warner Robins. I found two front-page headlines that had to do with him: "Pot Found in Field" and "Baby Found in Box."
What was his connection to those news stories?
For the first — and he wouldn't mind me saying this — he was hitchhiking with a bag of pot, and a police car began driving in his direction, so he threw it in the field. In the other one, he was in a house with other hippies, and they had a baby who was less than a year old but didn't have a crib crib, so they made one with a big box. He said, "It was a really nice box."
In the book, you describe being a little girl and seeing someone dressed as the Easter Bunny leaving eggs in your back yard, but years after the fact, your mother said that never happened. Did anyone else contradict your memories?
My mom was the first person to read the book, and she said that everything in it was completely true, except for the Easter Bunny part. With that story, I was trying to think of what I could have seen. Somebody in our back yard, in pink from head to toe — it could've been my crazy Aunt Carrie.
Isn't she the one who was arrested for assaulting a police dog? What are the details of that story?
Aunt Carrie, who had many, many encounters with the police, but never, ever won any of them, was antagonistic to authority figures. She was arrested for being out of her mind on pills and booze, and an officer had a canine-in-training, so she lunged at it just to make the officer mad. She pretended she was going to hit it, and the officer intervened. Given how attached police officers are to their dogs, that takes some serious gumption. She died earlier this year — of natural causes. For Mother, it was a real point of pride that Aunt Carrie didn't die of an overdose.
In the book, you describe parts of Atlanta that make it sound like a crime-ridden hellhole. You also talk about the conformity of the suburbs and your brutal commute from your home in Powder Springs. Where do you currently live, and how much do you generally like Atlanta?
We're still in Powder Springs. In the book, it wasn't Powder Springs I wanted to leave as much as the commuting life, which is definitely not healthy. And I've done it — I quit my day job two weeks ago. I worked in southwest Atlanta for almost eight years, at Atlanta Technical College. I loved the people and the whole area. I worked with people who were trying to turn their lives around, which was very inspiring. Wherever I've lived, I've always been more interested in the grittier side of town, the people on the margins. I was more at home in southwest Atlanta than I'd be in Buckhead. When I wrote about having a crackhead on the hood of my car, I was afraid that people might mistake me for Hollis Gillespie — but it's good company to be in.
The book's broken up into short vignettes, and you clearly craft their opening sentences to be grabbers. Did anyone teach you that?
No one taught me that, but I like to bring on the bear. I want people to keep reading. I think that training came from doing stories on public radio. You have to grab them fast before they change the channel.
Is there overlap between the Cracker Queens and Jill Conner Browne's Sweet Potato Queens, or is there a rivalry between the two groups?
Wouldn't that be a good wrestling match? I'd be afraid of getting all tangled up in her wig. I'd say my book is a little more serious. Years ago, when I named this thing I did the Cracker Queen, I didn't know about her being the Sweet Potato Queen. When I found out, I said, "Damn, I wouldn't have picked [that name] if I'd known about her!" But then I had my own website and everything.
It's funny, I wouldn't normally put the words "cracker" and "website" together like that.
You know a cracker will definitely have a flat-screen TV and Internet access, but maybe not a car or enough food in the house.