Known for her memorable comic prose, Tupelo native Jill Conner Browne is most famous for her Sweet Potato Queens series, which has garnered national attention and brought new interest into the genre of wry, coquettish southern humor. Though Browne has no formal training or postsecondary education, she has always had a knack for writing that has been instrumental in building the Sweet Potato Queens into a multimedia franchise.
Browne first pursued her writing career through the underground paper Diddy Wah Diddy, founded by Jackson locals Malcolm White and Paul Canzoneri. Using the pen name Betty Fulton, she wrote a variety of humorous articles for both Diddy Wah Diddy and the Mississippi Business Journal. Browne expanded her career when she began a fitness and humor column in the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, writing under the byline J. C. Browne. Browne’s work was also published in Roy Blount’s Book of Southern Humor (1994). When the Mississippi Business Journal changed editorial direction, Browne’s column was not considered suitable for the new image. As a single mother with a young daughter, she started looking for a new avenue of income “out of utter desperation.” That desperation led to the Sweet Potato Queens series.
Browne approached editor JoAnne Prichard Morris with the idea of publishing a collection of short stories. Though she later abandoned that project, Browne had also suggested the idea of the Sweet Potato Queens Book of Love during their initial meeting. Browne’s idea was to provide romantic “advice” from the perspective of the Sweet Potato Queens, the alter egos she and her friends assumed for Mal’s St. Paddy’s Day Parade in downtown Jackson. Nine months later, Morris was working with the Crown Division of Random House and pitched the idea of Browne’s book. “When people ask me ‘How do you get a book published?’” Browne said, “I can only speak from my own personal experience, which is that you go home and wait for them to call you.”
Morris and her husband, writer Willie Morris, helped craft the prose and character of Browne’s first book. Browne said her most memorable advice from Willie Morris was to “be as raucous and funny and wild as you want to be, but the essence of your writing is sweetness—you have to bring them back to that.”
The Sweet Potato Queens’ Book of Love (1999) met instant success across the United States. Because the New York Times classified it as a “self-help” book, determining how the book ranked among other releases proved difficult, but more than 250,000 copies were sold in the first months after publication, and multiple editions were printed to satisfy market demand. The follow-up release, God Save the Sweet Potato Queens (2001), also classified as “self-help,” met a similar fate. Browne titled the third book of the series The Sweet Potato Queens’ Big-Ass Cookbook and Financial Planner (2003) so that it could be classified only as nonfiction and not part of any specific genre. As a result, it reached the top of the New York Times Best Seller List. The franchise has continued to grow with the successful releases of The Sweet Potato Queens’ Field Guide to Men: Every Man I Love Is Either Married, Gay, or Dead (2004), The Sweet Potato Queens’ Wedding Planner/Divorce Guide (2005), The Sweet Potato Queens’ First Big-Ass Novel (2007), American Thighs: The Sweet Potato Queens’ Guide to Preserving Your Assets (2008), and Fat Is the New 30: The Sweet Potato Queens’ Guide to Coping with (the Crappy Parts of) Life (2012) as well as music releases and associated merchandise.
The Sweet Potato Queens’ Book of Love has been translated into Japanese and German. Browne has appeared on ABC’s Good Morning America and National Public Radio’s Michael Feldman’s Whad’Ya Know. When she is not writing, she tours the country for book signings and meets some of the legions of fans who have formed their own “queenly” clubs. For them, Mal’s St. Paddy’s Day Parade is an annual pilgrimage to revel in all things feminine, coquettish, and hilarious.
- Jill Clark, interview with Jill Conner Browne (28 October 2003)
- Sweet Potato Queens website, http://www.sweetpotatoqueens.com