Pages of notes stick out of the tops and sides of books stacked on shelves. Walls are covered with the words of Kurt Vonnegut and John Updike, and Shakespeare and Springsteen are always close by in the office of award-winning Fairhope author Joe Formichella. Wearing black sheep pajama pants, a denim shirt over a t-shirt, Chuck Taylor Converse shoes and holding a cigarette in his left hand, Formichella talks about reading and writing in the house he shares with wife and writer Suzanne Hudson on Waterhole Branch.
When he was in the Air Force, Formichella turned to reading books and writing bad science fiction as a way to kill the time. He was a bad student with a bad attitude and his English teacher punched him in the nose his senior year of high school. Reading Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin showed him what happens when thoughts find the right words. “It was such a beautiful book,” says Formichella. “I didn’t know you could do that with words.”
Writing now helps Formichechella makes sense of life as he gets up at 3AM to work on a few pages before he goes to his day job as a medical technologist at Thomas Hospital. “I don’t know what’s going to happen during the day, but something always does and I don’t want to miss it,” he says. “I become attune to the point of anticipation and there is always a great line to be heard standing in the grocery story or a great sight on the way to work that can grow into a character, a story, or a line of dialog.”
“Joe and I once shared a hotel in New York City and at three in the morning Joe got up from his bed and turned on the light because it was time to work,” says Fairhope author Sonny Brewer. “He is a methodical thinker with papers spread on his desk with circles, lines and notations connecting one thing to another. He has talked about this Waffle House Rules book for a long time with its intertwining story lines.”
Formichella builds his stories from observation and research and his note files are often two or three times larger than the manuscript. He writes on receipts and scraps of paper and there are four unopened boxes of notes under his house that he can’t throw away. “There is a note on my bedside table with ‘he licks his lips a lot’,” says Formichella. “There is a character right there in that line. He is probably heavyset, probably sweating, in a pressure position, overdressed, uncomfortable, and self-conscious. Great lines like that give you a voyeuristic vision. They become a character waiting for the story and you plug the two together.”
For over twenty years, he has written other people’s stories. Stories about Jackie Robinson and the legend of the Prichard Mohawks in Here’s to You Jackie Robinson, the stories of 47 people killed when an Amtrak train that plunged off a bridge deep in the Alabama bayou on September 22, 1993 in The Wreck of the Twilight Limited, and the story of Annie Jean Barnes murdered in Brewton, Alabama in Murder Creek, the Unfortunate Incident of Annie Jean Barnes. He recently edited the The Shoe Burnin’: Stories of Southern Soul.
His new book Waffle House Rules, published by Rivers’ Edge Media, comes out on April 12. “I consider Waffle House Rules my first book because it is my story and my characters,” says Formichella. “The books before this like the Jackie Robinson story were given to me, but my heart was always with fiction. This book is mine from beginning to end but it is also frightening because I’m on my own. I waited this long to write a fiction book because it is so frustratingly hard to write fiction and it is difficult to deal with critics.”
“From the beginning, Joe stood out in class as one who would succeed as a writer, “ says Sue Walker, Stokes Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at the University of South Alabama. “He always lived in a world of words and made that world his own. I could pick up a manuscript and know it was his.”
Formichella is devoted to the John Irving idea of writing that all books should start out with the question what if? “The underlying question of Waffle House Rules is what if there was a kid who knew nothing but tragedy in his life? What would have to happen for him to reach a point where people stopped acknowledging the tragedy? What if it were old news?”
The accident. For the rest of his life Jimmy would get stuck on that word whenever he encountered it. He’d stare at it, or after it, like it wasn’t quite spelled or used correctly. Later he would learn from his Uncle Al the word’s origin, from the Latin for chance.
People didn’t always cry when they looked at him now, but they still looked at him like they were waiting for him to break and die.
Waffle House Rules
The stories and characters in Waffle House Rules are tied together by death, and Formichella calls the book a collision of stories and events he has seen or read about—the death of a family in a car, the untimely deaths of almost every member of one school class, and the death of the utopic ideal of the creation of Fairhope.
“I had just started by job at a hospital in Mobile in October 1981, and there was a horrible accident where everyone in the family was killed and there was chaos in the hospital,” says Formichella. “There was an obituary notice that ran every year for almost 20 years after the accident. It stopped 10 years ago and we wondered what happened. Why did someone stop running it? I brought those two stories together.”
The book’s main character, Jimmy Ryan, is orphaned by the crash. He is also a member of the last best class where almost every member has died in a variety of accidents. The name “last best class” came from a story Formichella read about women test pilots flying on airfields around the South during World War II. The tragedy of the class is also a true story. “One of the members was interviewed by the local paper. The reporter asked how he deals with the deaths. The boy, only a teenager, said ‘We get together, we eat, and we cry.’ That quote was it. How did they know how to carry on? How did they not suspect what’s next? “
Waffle House Rules is set on the Eastern Shore in Fairhope and Penelope (Daphne) and the final chapter is Founder’s Folly about the founding of Fairhope. Formichella disguised Daphne but didn’t disguise Fairhope because the book shares truths about the founding of Fairhope. “This history of Fairhope is not utopia and flowers. It is sad,” says Formichella. “Settlers leveraged black homesteads and there is still a demarcation between back and white neighborhoods. That is disturbing as a utopian goal. I allow a character say that it failed from the beginning. Their intention was good–economic equality and community ownership would one day lead to social equality. They had a good idea and they had a fair hope, but they messed it up and it turned into social stratification. People need to know the truth and ask questions.”
There was a quantum difference between dying and getting killed. The single-tax experiment, as far as it went, worked. At the very least, it was workable. The educational experiment that was the Organic School most definitely worked. But they were both effectively killed, for no more reason than parochial selfishness and alpha infighting. There was a difference, Jimmy knew, a huge difference between death and murder.
Waffle House Rules
“Fairhope can be falsely proud of itself, but what I say about Fairhope is all in public record,” he says. “I think there is a lot of truth that people need to look at and question. That is what reading and writing is, proposing questions, finding answers, and expanding the world beyond the page.”
“Founders’ Folly” is a hard-hitting ending for a book with Waffle House in the title. “I put the book in the Waffle House because there is a dedicated, corporate dialog that happens there,” says Formichella. “They have their own song in the jukebox and a mandated greeting and dialog as soon as you walk it. It is a great place to sit and listen.”
Formichella has built a writing career on listening and paying attention. “The observation and research is art imitating life,” says Formichella. “I want writing to have detailed substance but it’s a tradeoff because I would love to be a Tolkein and create an entire world from my imagination, but I’m probably never going to do that. I use the world as it is and I populate it with my characters and move them through the world to see what could have been and the consequences.”
A former competitive athlete in marathons and triathlons, Formichella still loves deadlines and competition and pushing himself to finish. “By the time I start on a project, it has already percolated enough that I think it is worth it,” he says. “Once I start taking notes and thinking about it, then I have to go through with it and tell the story. The reward of writing is sharing the stories and showing that the people in these stories mean something.”