Celeste Fletcher McHale got a lot of help from family and friends on her journey to getting published.
When she knocked out the book’s first chapter while sitting on her porch one day, she sent it to a best friend who read it and said, “Write more. I want more.”
McHale, the friend, and another bestie who passed away in 2009, are the inspiration for “The Secret to Hummingbird Cake.”
After the 54-year-old aspiring author finished the novel, her son-in-law offered her a gift, another book, “Getting Published for Dummies.”
Living all her life in the small town of Aloha, between Natchitoches and Alexandria, McHale knew little about becoming an author. She just knew writing had always come easily for her, and she wanted to capture this story of a trio of friends, and especially the character of Laine, who loses her 18-month fight with ovarian cancer.
“I just didn’t want to forget anything about her,” McHale said Wednesday from a book event in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
The third friend, called Ella Rae in the book, agreed.
Initially calling her novel “Save Us a Seat,” McHale had copies printed herself, set up a booth at the local Bon Dieu Falls Festival, and sold 300 books. Other festival sales followed.
“It became a decent little regional hit,” McHale said. “People kept telling me I needed to get it traditionally published.”
The “Dummies” book recommends joining an online writing group, so McHale did, getting advice from fellow would-be authors, who directed her to send out query letters, but to expect rejections.
“I don’t know what I’m doing;s I just told them the truth,” she said.
“I’m a chunky red-headed chick from a cow pasture in the middle of Louisiana,” the wife, mother and grandmother’s letter explained.
She mailed them out to about 50 publishers and agents. Within two weeks, five answered. Signing on with the Liza Royce Agency in New York, she landed a two-book deal with big-name publisher HarperCollins in six weeks’ time.
“This was crazy, I know.”
There was much back-and-forth during the process of revamping “Save Us a Seat” for publication, McHale said, starting with a new title.
“That (the title) was because the Ella Rae character and I were always late — late for everything — and she (Laine) was always having to lay down across seats and it annoyed her,” the author said.
In discussions with HarperCollins in Nashville, the subject of the traditional Southern dessert, hummingbird cake, came up, as McHale told of her family’s always calling it “wake cake,” as when a loved one died, the cake usually turned up at services.
As far as the real story, McHale said she fought to keep that intact.
“Things happen, and there’s an affair in it, there’s drinking in it, excessive drinking, I mean, why am I going to sugarcoat anything if it’s the truth?”
“Hummingbird” has been compared to the also-central Louisiana-set story of family and friendship “Steel Magnolias,” McHale said.
“It’s funny, it’s sad, it’s funny, it’s sad, but it’s not depressing.”
McHale said her second book, untitled and going in a totally different direction, is almost complete and due out in February 2017.
She’s now touring the South promoting the book, and hopes those who don’t know how to be a friend will learn how after reading “Hummingbird.”
“I never realized how fortunate I was to be part of a friendship like that, and really honestly, I thought everybody had best friends like that, and everybody doesn’t. I really don’t know how people function without the abiding friendships.
“They’ll never be another one (like Laine) that close,” she said. “She grew up with me. You can’t replace those kind of things.”