ATLANTA -- Lauretta Hannon sat in a booth at The Silver Skillet on 14th Street and leaned across a plate of egg salad and a glass of sweet tea.
She talked about fame and pain, about telling stories and writing chops, about light-hearted laughter and extra-heavy baggage, and about the memoir she describes as her “jagged, joyful life.”
It was way more than she could cover while pressed against the smell of fried okra in the shadows of all those big-city skyscrapers.
But we tried our best during a long lunch, sometimes pausing to swap notes as a pair of kindred spirits in search of the perfect words.
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The waitresses at The Silver Skillet all know and love Lauretta. They dote over her, so she never has to ask for refills or extra napkins. She gets the special treatment when they tell her to come back in a few days for some homegrown tomatoes.
The Silver Skillet has served as a backdrop for movies and television shows. A long list of celebrities -- from Paul Harvey to Fran Tarkenton to Katie Couric and Rudy Giuliani -- have broken bread there.
The staff treats Lauretta like royalty, too.
She is, after all, The Cracker Queen.
Southern Living magazine once called her the “funniest woman in Georgia.” She has been a commentator for National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered,” where her honeysuckle-smacked drawl has reached the ears of more than 25 million listeners.
The Georgia Center for the Book called her best-selling memoir, “The Cracker Queen,” one of the “top 25 books all Georgians should read.”
She is the self-anointed Cracker Queen. Redneck and hillbilly didn’t fit, and Cracker Queen was available for the taking. The “anti-Southern belle’’ could be written on the inside of her lapel.
Lauretta wasn’t crowned Cracker Queen on the stage at some beauty pageant. Or at halftime of a football game on the homecoming court of her alma mater, Northside High in Warner Robins.
According to Lauretta, cracker queens are equipped with a raucous sense of humor. They don’t mind getting a little dirt under their fingernails, know how to raise a little hell and “laugh like a Pez dispenser, with head reared back and mouth wide open.”
The CQ doctrine is also about understanding loss and hurt. It is about believing in the power of resilience and forgiveness.
Lauretta is one of more than 30 professional writers who will share their mettle at the annual Crossroads Writers Conference in Macon on Saturday and Sunday. Since her book was published two years ago, she has been on a mission to help other writers.
“We are a unique tribe,’’ she said. “I could write a book on what to do and what not to do. I’ve made all the mistakes. I’ve had all those self-doubts.”
Among her frailties was not knowing if she was worthy of a spine with her name embossed on it. Sure, she could write her story. But would anybody read it?
Like others, she penned dreamy poems as a child. She would cross the street near Thomas Elementary School and roam the stacks at the Nola Brantley Memorial Library on Watson Boulevard.
Later, she was introduced to the works of William Butler Yeats by Donna Havrilla, the chairwoman of the English department at Northside High School. And she majored in comparative literature at the University of Georgia, where she fell in love with Tolstoy and Jim Kilgore, the man she eventually married.
But publish a book? “I didn’t think any place other than Kinko’s would ever print it,” she said, laughing.
“The Cracker Queen” was 11 months of wordsmithing, 20 years of simmering and a lifetime in the making. She first had to survive the “jagged” parts, learn to delight in the “joyful” overtures and then road-test the reaction to all those experiences as they came roaring back to life in bembo font.
It took talent and courage to write those rough-and-tumble chapters about growing up slap poor and baring all those dark corners of a dysfunctional family.
Like her Crazy Aunt Carrie, who “shot her first four husbands and went after the last one with a butcher knife.” Or the time her Mama and Aunt Carrie hit the town for a night of drinking and couldn’t find the house when they came home on the wrong street. (They later reported it had been stolen -- with Lauretta inside!)
There was also “deep and disorderly love” of her parents. Her father, the late John Hannon, was a band director in Warner Robins. Her mother, Sybil Hannon, had a few demons to chase down but still carried a heart of gold with her on the way.
“I was mainly concerned about my mother when the book came out,” Lauretta said. “I didn’t know if she would disown me, embrace me or a mixture of the two. But telling the story was worth the risk. I truly believe it’s a story that could help somebody.”
She gets affirmations almost every day.
Her mother is doing fine now and living in East Dublin. Lauretta calls Sybil Hannon her biggest fan, greatest inspiration and muse.
“I consider ‘The Cracker Queen’ my love letter to her,” she said.
Lauretta has a day job as director of communications and public relations at Atlanta Girls School. She holds seminars as part of her “Down Home Writing School” and is working on a book called “Carbonated Holiness: How Humor Brings Us Closer To God.”
When she was writing “The Cracker Queen,” she never began a page without a four-word prayer.
Guide Me. Use Me.
Reach Gris at 744-4275.