No one is more surprised by Miss Julia’s success than the woman who created her.
With the release this month of “Miss Julia Lays Down the Law” (Viking), what Hendersonville author Ann B. Ross expected to be a single, stand-alone story has matured into a popular 14-book series. (The previous installment, “Miss Julia’s Marvelous Makeover,” debuted at No. 10 on the New York Times best-seller list.)
The character Miss Julia, a refined Southern woman whose late husband’s secrets disrupt her life, quietly debuted in 1999. “It was not an immediate hit,” Ross said. “I was amazed when the editor said, “We want three more.’ I was just so thrilled that the first one was accepted.”
Ross embarked on her writing career later in life. Having raised her children, she enrolled in college when they left home, going on to earn a doctorate in English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. A love of writing surfaced and she published three books, none of which are still in print.
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Her greatest success appeared when she wasn’t looking.
Letting Miss Julia out
Ross says Miss Julia invaded her thoughts until she simply had to sit down and get her on paper.
“She had been brewing since I finished the Ph.D., but I didn’t recognize the symptoms,” Ross said. “I had all these sharp remarks and comments running around in my head – some that I wished I had said sometimes. I realized I was seeing a mental picture of an elderly woman dressed in a suit with a pocketbook dangling from her wrist and holding the hand of a little boy. It took me awhile to realize this voice I was hearing could be coming from this woman.”
Readers often tell Ross that they want to be Miss Julia when they grow up.
“I promise you I am not Miss Julia,” she says. “She has more money than I have, and I have more children than she does. I think part of the appeal is the fact that she had a long, unhappy marriage. She was the kind of woman I have known that put on a good front. You go to church, do the things you are supposed to do in town, keep a clean house and that’s life. Then she found out she had been betrayed and had all this money coming to her, and she just cut loose. That appeals to a lot of women.”
Ross will keep going
Ross insists she doesn’t stick to a plan when writing, instead allowing ideas to pop up unbidden.
“If it makes me laugh, it’s good,” she said. “I fall out of my chair sometimes. It’s really interesting because I’m not a funny person. I didn’t plan to write funny stories. I thought with that first book that I was writing a deep, dark literary work.”
Ross, who will be in the Triangle this week, writes every day when not on tour.
“I think I’d rather have this than a great big wonderful success,” she said. “I’m going to keep going until they tell me to quit. By now my children are grown and I have grandchildren and I don’t want to spend the rest of my life playing bridge. It’s wonderful having something to get up for every day.”
Meet the author
Ann B. Ross will make two appearances in the Triangle this week.
▪ 6:30 p.m. Thursday at McIntyre’s Fine Books at Fearrington Village, 220 Market St., Pittsboro. fearrington.com
▪ Noon Friday at Quail Ridge Books, 3522 Wade Ave., Raleigh. quailridgebooks.com
More info on Ross’ books at missjulia.com.
An excerpt from “Miss Julia Lays Down the Law” by Ann B. Ross
Holding my coat against the wind, I walked across the brittle grass of the Clayborns’ sloping yard to my car, paying no attention to the other women coming out of the house behind me. No one spoke – all the pleasantries and other closing remarks had been said inside, and everyone was anxious to leave, no one more so than I. I bent against the wind as I hurried toward the cars parked in the drive and along the street. The strong November breeze with a nip in it swirled off the mountain-another reason not to linger.
I slid into my car and closed the door, then, with shaking hands, rammed the key into the ignition.
Why hadn’t I said something?
Driving a little less carefully than was my wont, I hurried home, shivering occasionally as remnants of the startling lecture flashed in my mind-rural blight, complacent people, unsustainable economy, ugly mismatched storefronts, and on and on, until I’d thought I’d explode with outrage at the tongue lashing.
I hadn’t wanted to go to Connie Clayborn’s house for coffee, had thought of half a dozen reasons not to go, had almost called that morning to offer my apologies.
Yet I had gone because what else does one do when graciously invited, but graciously accept? As had a dozen or so women, many of whom were my close friends, and others, if not close, well known to me. It should have been a pleasant occasion, full of talk about the approaching holidays, the state of the weather, children, and grandchildren, as well as that of the nation. We were a fairly well-read and well-informed group.
I should’ve gotten up and left.
During the social hour, I had listened attentively to the comments of almost everyone there over the fact that Sam had lost the election for state senator a few days before. He’d lost, but not by much – he’d given Jimmy Ray Mooney a run for his money – yet a miss is as good as a mile in politics as well as in horseshoes, and we had to live with that. Hearing remarks from some who were sincerely sorry was hard enough, but I’d also had to attend to those pious souls who could hardly bring themselves to offer their regrets, but who had commiserated for the sake of politeness. That was probably why I hadn’t wanted to go in the first place, yet better to face it than to avoid it.
They were all eager to see how I was taking the loss – would I be angry, disgusted, bitter? None of the above. I had smiled, even laughed occasionally, saying, “We always deserve whomever we elect, don’t you think?” and let them interpret it as they pleased.
After pulling into my own driveway and parking, I strode into a quiet house, recalling that Lillian had said she’d be grocery shopping. With no one to talk to, but still on edge, I immediately went upstairs to change my clothes. I had worn a powder blue woolen princess-style dress with a double strand of pearls under a matching coat with my diamond brooch on the shoulder. After putting the jewelry away, I hung up the outfit and donned an everyday dress and a cardigan. Then, slipping into low-heeled shoes, I sat down in one of the easy chairs in front of a window that looked out over Polk Street, determined to compose myself after enduring a piercingly critical review of my shortcomings, as well as those of every other resident of Abbotsville, North Carolina.
Why had we put up with it?
Connie Clayborn had invited us to a coffee-the term we use for a morning social occasion in which coffee and hot tea are served along with an array of finger food. Such an occasion gave the hostess an opportunity to use her silver, her best or second-best china-depending upon whom she’d invited – and to display by the centerpiece her skill in flower arranging. And, of course, to show off her home.
I had been to hundreds of such gatherings over the years, but never to such a one as I’d been subjected to that morning. Let’s get this straight right at the beginning: it had not been a social occasion. The invitation to a coffee had been a ruse to get us to attend, and, being polite people, we had accepted even though Connie Clayborn was a newcomer to the town and barely known by most of us.
What had been the matter with us?
In hindsight, though, I realized that she had known us. She’d invited the cream of the crop, so to speak, knowing that if one of us accepted, the others would follow suit. Mildred Allen had been there, and so had LuAnne Conover, Emma Sue Ledbetter, Helen Stroud, Callie Armstrong, Sue Hargrove, and several other leading women of the town. Interestingly, though, neither Hazel Marie Pickens nor Binkie Enloe Bates had been there, perhaps because one was married to a private investigator and the other to a sheriff’s deputy-too blue collar for Connie, I supposed.
Which proved that Connie didn’t know us quite as well as she thought. Binkie, for instance, was one of the most successful lawyers in town, and Hazel Marie was the mother of Lloyd, the child of my late husband, Wesley Lloyd Springer, which meant that Lloyd and I shared the largest estate ever probated in Abbot County. Neither Binkie nor Hazel Marie would ever go hungry, so Connie Clayborn didn’t know everything about us.
As I went over in my mind the ones who had been invited, I realized that Connie had selected the most obviously wealthy and influential women in town either by virtue of their husbands, doctors, lawyers, or executives – or because of inherited wealth, plus one or two who’d made it on their own. But that didn’t explain the presence of Emma Sue Ledbetter, the wife of the minister of the First Presbyterian Church of Abbotsville, because I knew what we paid him. I now realized, however, just why Emma Sue had been invited – it was because she was so active and involved. Especially if whatever she did could be counted as another good deed to be chalked up.
From Miss Julia Lays Down the Law by Ann B. Ross, published on April 7, 2015 by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright by Ann B. Ross, 2015.