Back in 1980, Virginia-born author Sherryl Woods decided she’d had enough of cynicism. Trained as a journalist and working toward a career as a television critic, she’d always promised herself she’d never boast the “edge” she saw in her fellow reporters. “I had always said that if I got to the point where all I was doing was complaining, I would do something else,” she says.
So she pivoted into the world of romance writing—her favorite genre to read—where happy endings seemed, at minimum, a charming possibility. At first intimidated by life without a recorder, she found herself remarkably adept at churning out hits, and by 1986, she was writing fiction full-time. She’s now published well over 100 books, and as her prolific Chesapeake Shores series was snatched up by Hallmark, she turned to producer Dan Paulson and her TV agent Jody Hotchkiss to get her beloved Sweet Magnolias series on the screen, too.
Netflix eventually laid claim to the story of Maddie (JoAnna Garcia Swisher), Helen (Heather Headley) and Dana Sue (Brooke Elliot), three women in South Carolina who make up the Sweet Magnolias crew. In May, the show debuted to a wildly enthusiastic audience in quarantine, which launched the series to the No. 1 slot in Netflix’s Top 10 in the U.S. Now, as viewers await news of a season 2, ELLE.com connected with Woods to hear her thoughts on the series—and why she’s already dreaming up plot points for years down the road.
How did the Sweet Magnolias books come to be?
Sweet Magnolias started because I wanted to write several books about three friends, who’d each known one another from the time they were kids, and were now at turning points in their lives. I wanted to see how they shepherded each other through these particularly difficult times. The first book focuses on Maddie, the second on Dana Sue, and the third on Helen. In the TV series, all three are blended together with threads from each book.
But I feel like, as somebody who has not married and does not have kids, friends are really important in my life. And that’s one of the things I think is so timely about this series on Netflix: We are going through uncharted territory every single day now with our families. We need people we can make contact with, who can tell us what they’re doing and share resources. I also wanted the series to deal with issues that really resonated with women today.
What was your involvement with the Netflix series in particular?
I’m an executive producer on the show, in the sense that I do see scripts and dailies. I can give notes. And if anything raised a red flag to me in the scripts or anywhere along the way, [producer Dan Paulson] and I would have a discussion or [showrunner Sheryl Anderson] and I would have a discussion.
And so I came at this much more pragmatically than I think a lot of authors might, because I understand why changes from the books have to be made. They’re making good television. I made hopefully good books. So it’s different. Somebody asked me the other day if I embraced [changes between the books and the show] with open arms, and I said, “Well, maybe not open arms, but certainly with pragmatic understanding of why things needed to be a certain way.” I think the casting is just wonderful. JoAnna Garcia Swisher and Heather Headley and Brooke Elliot have certainly captured those three Magnolias.
Sweet Magnolias hit No. 1 on Netflix, and it was in the top 10 for weeks. What has it been like to witness that fan reaction?
Having been a television critic, I feel like this and Chesapeake Shores have brought my career full-circle. It’s been wonderful to see how people have related to this show—the ones who get it. Now, I still see the comments from people, and you can have 5 million positive reviews and the one that’ll stick is the one that’s negative. But it’s more people who feel the show’s not exactly like the books. And I’m so flattered they care that much about the books! But on the other hand, I want to say, “Come on, it’s really good TV. It’s okay.” The short answer is it’s very rewarding to see how well people are relating to it. They’re really getting it.
Who was the most interesting character for you to watch become flesh and blood?
Dion Johnstone, who plays Erik, popped off the screen for me—because there’s a chemistry that is so subtle but unmistakable between him and Helen. And to watch how they convey that without obviously conveying it? There’s a twinkle in his eye or a little remark that is so much like the smart banter I like to write in my books.
Each of these women—Maddie, Dana Sue, and Helen—are at transitional points in their lives. They’re each on the cusp of major personal and professional change. Why was that where you wanted each to start?
I think it’s something that’s very real for a lot of women who’ve had their careers and have done well, but there’s something else they want. Trying to figure out that balance is something we’ve all struggled with at one time or another and found different solutions for. And no one solution is wrong or right. It’s what works for you and what works for your family. Sometimes it’s hard to accept that you can do something that’s not charted and still be just fine.
We don’t have a confirmed Season 2 yet, but I don’t think it’s too early to predict we’ll get one. If you could have your way with the scripts, what do you want to see next?
I think season 2 will continue to show us, for example, what’s happening between Maddie and Cal. Is that moving forward or not? Is Dana Sue going to be with Ronnie, or is she going to be with Jeremy? And is Helen going to move forward in a new way? I do have some clues about where season 2 is going to go, but I think a lot of it is going to be further exploration of what’s been started this season. We’re going to see where Isaac fits in, in the community. And we’re going to see other sides of people’s personalities, and we’re going to see what happens with Erik and Helen.
But longer term—because I’d like to believe it’s going to go longer, even longer-term than season 2—one of the things the books do is introduce a lot of characters who bring in other issues. Maddie, Helen, and Dana Sue can’t have every issue known to every woman in the country. Their lives would be a mess if that happened. So I would like to see some character arcs where we explore other things women can relate to.
If there is one thing from your books you could snap have appear in the show, what would it be?
I’ve not talked to Sheryl Anderson about when or if, but there are two stories that are very important from the teen perspective. One is anorexia. The other one, in a much later book called Catching Fireflies, dealt with teen bullying and school bullying. There are certain topics that are really sensitive to me, and teen bullying is one of them. And having the opportunity within this series to explore that in a book mattered to me. So I would like to see them get [into the show] at some point.
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