Though her debut as an author is an intimate, first-person revelation about her divorce, her ex-husband and her precocious, brown dog, Judy Conner insists that it is, in fact, a love story.
"Well, it's at least a love story for today," she says in a Mississippi accent that has survived years of living in New Orleans. "These days, two out of five people might know people who aren't happily ever after."
Conner's poke at holy matrimony -- an institution so sacred, so discussed and so maligned in our society -- comes with no trace of malice. It's an even-keeled emotional response filled with humor, not hate or melancholy. That ethos shines through in Southern Fried Divorce (Light of New Orleans), a book written "to entertain people, to make them laugh," Conner, 57, says. "If you tell this story like you're on Divorce Court, then it's not going to be funny."
Indeed, Kramer vs. Kramer this ain't. With the quirky qualities of New Orleans as backdrop, Conner's chronicling of her own failed marriage is a time-warped trip down her own memory lane, delivering absurd, touching and hilarious scenarios in rapid, readable succession. Southern Fried Divorce weaves itself through neighborhood bars, egregious infidelity, the drinking class of New Orleans, recipes, the 1984 World's Fair, ornate urinals at the New Orleans Athletic Club and post-divorce sex -- all led by that classic literary coupling, a man and his dog.
The duo is introduced in the book's opening scene, with Conner employing "that ex-husband" in the first line, an anonymity used throughout that's an intentional literary device. "Calling him 'that ex-husband,' it's a good tool for putting some distance between us," explains Conner. "It's like that boss that fired you, call him 'that ol' boss' instead of his name. It takes them down several pegs; it makes things easier."
In the first chapter, that ex-husband (Jed Palmer, a man "well known and notorious around town," Conner says) delivers -- late in the spring, buzzed on bourbon -- her Christmas presents, a .38 revolver and a puppy. The dog and ex-husband soon become inseparable, and Conner in the book revels in their parallel.
After describing the day in which that ex-husband shows up, dog riding shotgun, to drive Conner to court for their divorce hearing, she writes, "That ex-husband had recently begun this goofy business of trying to smuggle the brown dog in everywhere he went. There had been a bru-ha-ha or two and they'd been bounced. For instance, the Superdome. ... Man and dog also made an attempt to breach one of the Inaugural Balls for either the mayor or the governor."
With a professional background that includes owning a cafe plus a stint at the Barq's root beer corporate office, Conner's writing experience before she began (unintentionally) Southern Fried Divorce was "not a lot," she jokes. Her previous stint was writing a column for a weekly newspaper in her hometown of Jackson, Miss., titled "Diddy Wah Diddy," which she wrote from New Orleans about attractions and adventures in the Big Easy. What ultimately became her book started innocently enough as vignettes loosely titled "Brown Dog Tales," which became a hit at the Sunday salons held in the French Quarter by writer-editor Marda Burton.
"I did that first salon eight years ago; it was about three or four years ago that I started pretending and calling myself a writer, which I thought would make me sound more interesting," Conner jokes.
Writing -- and, more difficult, writing for laughs -- runs in Conner's family. She's the older sister of Jill Conner Browne, the best-selling author of The Sweet Potato Queens series. The humor that is the trademark of both writers, however, comes from their father, John, who spent his life in the insurance business, Conner says. "He was very funny and real; he viewed the whole word with amusement," she remembers.
Despite the seeming relative ease and success Conner has had in slipping into the role of writer, she admits it's strange having her life naked on the printed page, though she describes the process of writing Southern Fried Divorce as "really fun." Her main concern, she says, was "not hurting anyone's feelings." A few names and identities -- including that of her son -- have been changed, though she says her late ex-husband wouldn't mind his, and their, story being told. "He would look down on this and be real, real proud," Conner says.
This unique and comforting notion -- that she and her husband shared something so special that it could embrace her revelations of his penchant for "trashy women" -- cuts to the heart of Southern Fried Divorce. "Our marriage was so flawed, with so many insurmountable obstacles," Conner admits. "But now I do believe that eventually you do learn that there is always a reward in love, even if it is a one-sided affair. To somebody that's young, that's an anathema. And you do have some chasing of the moon, no matter how old you are. But what this is is true. And it is love."
- "If you tell this story like you're on Divorce Court, then it's not going to be funny," author Judy Conner says of her hilarious debut, Southern Fried Divorce.