Ring Out the Belles

updated 09/16/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/16/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

SIPPING ICED TEA ON THE TERRACE OF her rambling Atlanta home, Anne Rivers Siddons is reminiscing about her genteel Southern-belle upbringing. "Oh, it's true," she says. "I was all those things that Southern girls long to be: homecoming queen in the white formal, then Centennial Queen of Fairburn, Ga., riding on a float in an organdy dress....And of course I was a cheerleader; I was captain of the cheerleaders. I was best all-around in high school, 'Loveliest of the Plains' at Auburn University."

But for all the tulle and tiaras, Siddons couldn't help feeling there was something missing. "The South is hard on women, partly because of the emphasis put on looks and charm," she says. "No matter what I did, I always ended up with this hollow feeling. It finally hit me that that's why I write: I am writing about the journey we all take to find out what lives in that hole. The trip is the same for everyone, but for Southern women of my generation, it started from a narrower, darker place."

These days, though, Siddons, 55, seems to have come into the light. The author of six popular, well-reviewed novels about the new and rapidly changing South, including the best-selling Peachtree Road, which looked at integration in the 1960s, she has just seen her seventh effort, a novel called Outer Banks, land at No. 5 on the New York Times best-seller list. The story of the reunion of four Alabama sorority sisters who shared what Siddons calls "those devouring early friendships," the book is "Anne's breakthrough," says Siddons's editor, Larry Ashmead. "She has always had a strong regional following, but this book is selling well all over the country."

That's as it should be, says her friend Pat (Prince of Tides) Conroy. "Anne is simply one of the best writers writing about the South today," Conroy says. "Gone with the Wind comparisons drive Anne crazy, but the truth is she is covering the territory Margaret Mitchell would have covered if she'd lived. The difference is that Anne is a much better writer."

Siddons knows that comparisons with Mitchell are inevitable—"because I write big, long stories and live in Atlanta"—but she hopes her novels present a true-to-life portrait of today's South. "I want to write about it as it really is; I don't want to romanticize it," she says.

To that end, she draws on her adult life as well as on her childhood in the small railroad town of Fairburn (pop. 2,000). The only child of an Atlanta lawyer and his wife, Siddons was raised within the confines of "this thing called ladyhood," she says. "You just didn't see many women going to college with the idea that they would have a profession. My mother's main concern for me was safety, which meant being married and running a perfect house."

Anne studied illustration at Auburn, joined the Tri-Delt sorority (Outer Banks is based on her 1988 pledge-class reunion) and, she says, "did the things I thought I should. I dated the right guys, I did the right activities."

Her favorite was writing a column for the student newspaper. (One column that supported desegregation in 1957 stirred local controversy and eventually led to her first novel, Heartbreak Hotel (1976), and to the 1989 film Heart of Dixie, starring Ally Sheedy.) After graduation Siddons did not, to her mother's chagrin, pursue marriage. Instead, she had a career in advertising and later, in 1963, began writing for Atlanta magazine.

"For the first time," she says, "I saw that my writing was a gift and not just a twitch." She tried her hand at fiction in 1975, at the suggestion of Ashmead, who had admired her magazine pieces. "The minute I started, I loved it," she says.

Now each morning, Siddons dresses, puts on her makeup, then heads out to the backyard cottage that serves as her office. ("If I ever once got up and wrote in my bathrobe," she says, "I'm afraid I'd be in my bathrobe for the rest of my life.") Married since 1966 ("I was 30, and my mother was convinced I'd wind up the town librarian"), she spends her evenings with husband Heyward, 66, a retired printing executive, who helps her edit each day's work by reading it aloud over their evening cocktails.

Those sessions, too, symbolize a major step on Siddons's journey. Just about a decade ago, Heyward was feeling somewhat threatened by being married to the woman the Atlanta Constitution has called the Jane Austen of modern Atlanta. "But we got some counseling," says Heyward, "and it made me grow up, and the jealousy turned to admiration and greater love."

Their life together has banished much of the emptiness Siddons felt in her youth. Though she has no children of her own, she delights in Heyward's four grown sons from his first marriage, which ended in divorce in 1964. And she is happily at work on her next novel, the first of three she has agreed to write for HarperCollins for a total of $3.25 million. "People say I've broken the mold, and in a sense I have," she says. And yet...

"Sometimes, I can feel in my bones a woman who's been dead 100 years wagging her finger at me, telling me that a lady doesn't make waves, a lady doesn't confront. Sometimes I find myself deferring to some old gentleman with no sense at all. It's not easy," Siddons says, "to escape."

CYNTHIA SANZ
GAIL CAMERON WESCOTT in Atlanta

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