Author: Guest Author (Page 1 of 8)

Author Q & A (Telling Our Stories)

Interview by Jana Hoops. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (February 11)

The recent opening of two of Mississippi’s premier museums, coinciding with the state’s Bicentennial celebration in December 2017, was a landmark event in the Magnolia State’s recognition of and salute to its history.

Like all states, Mississippi’s past includes not only its memories and accomplishments but its challenges and struggles, as well–along with a bright hope for its future. And, fortunately for those who want to actually bring home an insightful reminder of their experiences while visiting the new Museum of Mississippi History and the Mississippi Civil Right Museum in downtown Jackson–there’s a book for that!

telling our storiesThe University Press of Mississippi, working with the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, have published Telling Our Stories, a comprehensive “companion book” that highlights the people, places and dates of events (the good and the bad) that are emphasized in the museums and have shaped our culture today

Three MDAH staff members who are serving in vital roles in the museums and have been instrumental in the publication of Telling Our Stories share their thoughts below on the role that the museums and this book will play in Mississippi’s journey to a vibrant future.

AMANDA LYONS

Amanda Lyons is assistant to the MDAH director and served as managing editor of Telling Our Stories. Originally from Louisiana, she graduated from Belhaven College with a Bachelor of Arts degree in history and now lives in Jackson.

How did the Telling Our Stories book project come about, and why? What is the overall purpose of this book?

We approached University Press of Mississippi about publishing a companion book to the museums a few years ago. They loved the concept! Telling Our Stories celebrates the opening of the museums on the occasion of our state’s bicentennial. It’s also a beautiful souvenir for our visitors and is available in the Mississippi Museum Store.

In the introduction to the book, civil rights leader Myrlie Evers and former Mississippi Gov. William F. Winter remind us that “No state has more stories to tell than we do.” How does this book, and the museums, reflect that sentiment?

Mississippi is full of storytellers. The book and the museums draw on this rich tradition with quotes, oral histories, and primary sources. As much as possible, we wanted each person to tell their own story, in their own words. We also encourage visitors to record their own story before they leave.

The writers of the book’s foreword, former Gov. Haley Barbour and former attorney and judge Reuben V. Anderson, describe the museums as “the largest classrooms in the state,” and they reflect positively on the statewide impact they will have in Mississippi and beyond. What do you expect that impact to be?    

School buses filled with children pull up at the museums every day! We want every child in Mississippi to visit the museums at least once during their K–12 years, and we are raising funds for an endowment for school visits. People of all ages will learn more about where they come from–and where they are going–at the museums. One man was amazed to see his grandfather, a civil rights activist, featured in the exhibits. Here, we can discover new facets about ourselves and how our stories fit into the complex tapestry that is Mississippi.

Museum of Mississippi History

Museum of Mississippi History

PAMELA JUNIOR

Pamela Junior is director of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum. A resident of Jackson, she is a graduate of Jackson State University with a degree in education.

Mississippi’s civil rights story has been long and complicated. While it may have a way to go, much progress has been made. How does the museum reflect that story, and what do you think (or hope) remains to be accomplished in Mississippi on the civil rights front?

The stories of the Civil Rights Era are complex, but Mississippi has done something that people thought couldn’t be done. Mississippi has reconciled its differences by making sure that all content in this museum is truthful!

What I know will happen is conversation–conversation about race relations. What I hope for is that people will be honest enough to share their inner thoughts, to tell the truth and face the problems regarding race so that we can get to the next level of making Mississippi the best it can be. Right now, we have done the spectacular, and that is building the civil rights museum in Mississippi–ground zero during the Movement.

Could you share an overview of the contents of the museum (its layout, major exhibits, etc.)? What have been some of the most popular displays?

The Museum is laid out chronologically and forms a circle that can be approached from either side.

There are eight galleries in total. The first, “Mississippi’s Freedom Struggle,” gives the history of Africans coming here through slavery and includes the Civil War. Gallery two covers Reconstruction and explores the flowering of African American communities and the passage of Jim Crow Laws. This gallery also contains the first of the monoliths that appear throughout the museum and lists the names of all the people known to have been lynched in Mississippi.

“This Little Light of Mine” is a large central space to stop, reflect on what you’ve seen, and to rest as the music of the Civil Rights Movement plays. An interactive sculpture hangs from the ceiling surrounded by pictures of the heroic women and men of the Movement.

The “Closed Society” gallery highlights the return of African American soldiers from World War II, the “separate but equal” doctrine, and the murder of Emmett Till. “A Tremor in the Iceberg” tells of the young people joining the Movement and the assassination of Medgar Evers. The “I Question America” gallery focuses on the work of Fannie Lou Hamer, Bob Moses, Aaron Henry, Ed King, and others, and contains an original film on the murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Mickey Schwerner.

Mississippi Civil Rights Museum

Mississippi Civil Rights Museum

“Black Empowerment” tells the story of the marches, sit-ins, and other protests that were continuing, changes in public education, and the murder of Vernon Dahmer. The final gallery–“Where do We Go from Here?”–examines the election of African Americans to political office across the state and gives visitors a chance to reflect on the courage of the many people who died for a cause greater cause than themselves–and what they might do to make things better today.

Why is this museum and its message so important to Mississippi?

Our message is of hope and racial healing. Out state has some of the greatest people and the greatest minds. We must put our heads together and fight the demon of racism. We have more in common than we have differences.

RACHEL MYERS

Rachel Myers, director of the Museum of Mississippi History, has lived in Jackson for 10 years. She earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in religious studies from Brandeis University and her Master of Arts in museum studies from Johns Hopkins.

The opening of these museums came as Mississippi marked its bicentennial–a history that the Museum of Mississippi History and this book examine through, among other things, our state’s role in conflicts and wars, survival during the Great Depression, its economic swings, racial strife and progress, and its accomplishments in sports, music, storytelling, writing, crafts, and the arts. How does the Museum of Mississippi History play an important role, as historian Dennis Mitchell puts it, in “sharing our stories, clearing away myths, and inspiring and children and grandchildren’?

Our role is to inspire the exploration and appreciation of our state’s history by presenting an honest representation of Mississippi. Visitors will find stories that resonate with their experiences, but we hope they’ll also find new and surprising ways of looking at our state and its many stories.

This museum is a place that elicits stories. I’ve enjoyed watching families reflecting on the history of their communities and sharing stories passed down over generations. The experience of seeing an artifact or a film or standing in a recreated historic site can facilitate conversations that strengthen our identity and challenge perspectives.

Some students find it hard to engage with lessons about history. What would you say are some of the exhibits/displays at the museum that may win them over? Are there some things that patrons may be surprised to see?

With four original films, dozens of digital interactives and immersive scenes, and more than 1,600 artifacts, the museum is designed to capture the attention of a wide range of visitors.

Students have been excited to walk through time and peek into the different living spaces of Mississippians throughout history, investigate their artifacts, and hear their stories. Visitors are often surprised by the size and scale of this museum, the amount of history we are presenting, and the range of voices that are highlighted and uplifted in the exhibits.

The book tells us that Mississippi’s story has evolved as history has recorded the presence of its first native peoples, followed by Europeans, Africans, and later people from Germany, Russia, Poland, Slavonia, Italy, Lebanon, China, and others. How do we see the impact and the accomplishments of such diversity of our people reflected in our state today?

To me, the story of Mississippi is one of the most fascinating in our country. We see here on the local scale our national themes of people from different groups and places coming together to form something greater than themselves.

Our theme of One Mississippi, Many Stories celebrates all those who have shaped and defined our state–and continue to do so today.

The hours and admission for the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum can be found here. The hours and admission for the Museum of Mississippi History can be found hereTelling Our Stories can be purchased at the museums’ store, or from Lemuria Books and its online store.

Author Q & A with Ann Fisher-Wirth

Interview by Jana Hoops. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (February 4)

As an Army brat who swore in her teen years that she’d never live in Mississippi, poet and University of Mississippi professor Ann Fisher-Wirth has, after nearly 30 years as an Oxford resident, decided that Mississippi (along with parts of California) now feels like home.

Not only has she felt moved to compose poetry honoring Mississippi’s culture, history, and people, but she is devoted to preserving its land, which she believes has suffered “severe environmental degradation that cannot be separated from its history of poverty and racial oppression.”

mississippiHer newest book, titled Mississippi, is a collaboration with acclaimed photographer and Delta native Maude Schuyler Clay, offering a different perspective  on her current home state–one that is both visual and literary. The volumes includes 47 sets of Clay’s striking–and sometimes haunting–photos, each paired with one of Fisher-Wirth’s reflective poems.

Photographs and letterpress poems from this project are on exhibit throughout Mississippi, and a performance piece involving six actors has been created from two dozen of the poems.

Fisher-Wirth’s other poetry books include Dream CabinetCarta MarinaFive Terraces, and Blue Window. She has alos published an academic book on William Carlos Williams and four poetry chapbooks. With Laura-Gray Street, she co-edited the groundbreaking Ecopoetry Anthology.

She has been the recipient of several residencies, is a Fellow of the Black Earth Institute, and received a senior Fulbright to Switzerland and a Fulbright Distinguished Chair award to Sweden. She is also a past president of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment. Fisher-Wirth teaches American literature and poetry workshops and directs the Environmental Studies program at Ole Miss. She has recently completed a sixth poetry book manuscript, Because Here We Are.

There was a time when you swore you’d never live here. Tell me about your Mississippi experience, and why you’ve stayed.

I was an Army brat; when I was 10, my father retired and my family moved to Berkeley, California, where I spent my teenage years. Living in Berkeley in the 1960s, I paid careful attention to the civil rights movement; that’s why I swore I’d never live in Mississippi. I lived in southern California, Belgium, and Virginia.

Ann Fisher-Wirth

Ann Fisher-Wirth

But in the late 1980s, we cam here (to Ole Miss), lured by the terrific English department, the literary community centered in Square Books, and the fact that Mississippi seemed to be a very complicated, culturally fascinating, beautiful and troubled place. We came in a spirit of adventure, and a feeling that we could do good work here. We’ve stayed because we want to. The English department has just gotten better and better–it’s a friendly and increasingly heterogeneous department. I love working with our MFA poets as well as with the undergraduates who study American literature and creative nonfiction with me. I also love directing and teaching for the minor in Environmental Studies, and ahve had some fantastic, dynamic students over the years.

Our children are all grown–our three daughters live elsewhere, but our two sons are here, as are two of our grandchildren–a major attraction. I’m attached to our house, old and drafty as it is. And Oxford is just plain an incredible place to be a writer.

How did you and Maude come up with the idea to create a book together? Were the poems written to go with the photographs, or were the photographs taken to go with the poems?

Maude Schuyler Clay

Maude Schuyler Clay

Maude and I have known each other socially for decades and have known each other’s work. At one point or the other of us casually remarked, “We should do something sometime.” She thinks I was the one; I think she was the one.

A few years ago she started sending me photographs she had taken but never published. I had recently published Dream Cabinet and The Ecopoetry Anthology and was looking for a new project. I was moved by her photo of a tree in water–this has turned out to be the cover image for the book–and I wrote the poem based on the yoga pose Vrksasana that begins “You stand in Tree…” A little later, she sent me a hauntingly beautiful image of a boat in greenish water. I knew I wanted to write a poem based on this photo, but had no idea what it could say until Made mentioned that the boat had belonged to her close friend who had just died. Immediately, the poem “Between two worlds / the soul floats…” came to me, and eventually that became the opening poem of the book. Others followed as Maude continued to send me photographs over the next couple of years.

Nearly all the poems were written to go with photographs; in only on or two cases, we found photos to go with poems I had already written. But as you know, the poems don’t just describe the photographs, and, with one exception, the photographs don’t have people in them.

Instead, the poems are spoken in voices of fictive characters that the photographs somehow suggested to me. Creating this book was, for me, very much an act of channeling voices, scraps of lives that I have encountered since living in Mississippi, sometimes combined with scraps of memory from my own life–exploring the incredible richness of this region’s spoken language.

What is the message of the blending of this poetry with the sometimes bare, sometimes harsh images of the state’s landscape, that you want to leave with your readers?

Poems are more about experiences than messages, so I don’t really have a message per se. I wanted the poems to reflect the variety of voices, and hence the variety of people, in Mississippi: old, young; wise, foolish; poor, middle-class, wealthy; loving, hateful; male, female; lettered, unlettered; black, white, Native American. Some of the poems are harsh and bleak, and speak to the realities of racism, poverty, violence, and environmental damage that are part of Mississippi. Others are lush and beautiful, as befits the beauty and gentler aspects of the people and places.

How did you develop an interest in writing poetry–and then realize that you were so good at it?

I come from a family of English teachers and readers, and I’ve always wanted to write poetry. I wrote a little bit in high school, then stopped, then wrote a little bit more while writing my dissertation, then stopped. Until I got tenure at the University of Mississippi, my writing was academic–a book on William Carlos Williams, a numbers of essays on Williams, Willa Cather, Anita Brookner, Robert Haas, and others.

Then just for fun I audited a poetry workshop that my friend Aleda Shirley was teaching, and after the first day, I said to myself, “This is it. I’m writing poems from now on, and never looking back.” Some time later, I attended a week-long workshop in California called The Art of the Wild, and wrote a poem called, “What Is There to Do in Mississippi?” It became my first published poem, in the magazine The Wilderness Society, and it even paid–so I took my whole family out to dinner to celebrate at City Grocery (in Oxford). After that, it took a while to get my first book, Blue Window, published, and the rest has followed. It’s always a a lot of work, always an adventure.

Thank you for saying I am “so good at it.” I sure love it. I’ve always loved writing, but my confidence about it is never a steady-state thing.

Your poetry style here is at once stark and powerful–there are no titles, no punctuation, no apparent patter of wordplay–and grammatical rules are cast aside. Tell me how this design contributes to the interpretation of the poetry.

I wanted to get rid of the conventional accouterments of poetry and just let the voices be heard. I also wanted the eye to be alive on the page–to treat the page as a field of composition and make use of negative space in order to capture the way we actually speak, which is never a steady march forward, and never completely grammatically. One of the strongest elements of Southern literature is its orality, and I wanted to honor the living voices in every way.

There are several recurring themes in your poetry in this book: racism, sexual desire, death, family, tragedy, memories, and nature’s beauty and fury. Why these topics?

Is there anything else? I’m partly kidding. But a writer doesn’t exactly get to choose his or her themes; these are topics that have greatly concerned me my whole life. They’re central to human experience, no matter where or when. By the way, I love the phrase “nature’s beauty and fury.” That “fury” is so important.

Do you have plans for future writing projects?

Well, I have a lot of uncollected poems and a desire to create another book, but as yet it has no shape. I’m writing new poems all the time, some of which are worth keeping. For the pas two fall semesters, I have team-taught with my colleague Patrick Alexander in the Prison to College Pipeline program for pre-release prisoners at Parchman. This has been an intensely rich experience for me and I’ve been writing about that. And there are a couple of editing projects I’ll be working on–but it’s too early to talk about them.

Ann Fisher-Wirth and Maude Schuyler Clay will be at Lemuria on Friday, February 9, at 5:00 to sign and discuss their new book, Missisippi.

‘King Zeno’ is a mesmerizing novel of historic NOLA crime

By Jim Ewing. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (January 28)

King Zeno by Nathaniel Rich is a crime novel that transcends the genre to suck the reader into a world long gone.

king zenoIt’s a “crime” novel because it swirls around the notorious, real life crimes of an ax murder spree and wave of street robberies that struck 1918 New Orleans.

But it rises above the set piece of police procedurals by enlivening the characters beyond a simple whodunit. Rather, it is an absorbing novel spiced with rich, deep characters in a sweeping foray where the crimes serve as a framework.

The main characters include:

  • Beatrice Vizzini, the widow of a “Black Hand” (read: mafia) crime figure, who masterminds the “protection” racket of small Italian grocers, while trying to turn legitimate;
  •  Giorgio, her flawed son, a menacing figure she hopes will take over the family business;
  •  Isadore “King” Zero, a talented trumpeter, struggling to survive on the mean streets, including resorting to robbery, to provide for his pregnant wife and disapproving mother-in-law, while pioneering the then-new musical form of jazz;
  • Police Det. Bill Bastrop, a World War I veteran, who suffers from what today would be called PTSD, tasked with solving a wave of street robberies and a string of ax murders terrorizing the city.

Rising above this miasma of passions, fears and chicanery, the deadly 1918 flu pandemic (that infected 500 million people worldwide, killing up to 40 million) stalks the Crescent City, stirring a rising tide of the sick and the dead.

An allure of Zeno is its ability to act as a time machine, carrying people who love the flavor and lore of NOLA to another time, fleshing out areas of the city such as Storyville, the Garden District, the Irish Channel.

Taking place as the Industrial Channel is being dug, linking Lake Pontchartrain to the Mississippi River, Zeno is filled with descriptions of a city that still lives under the surface of modernity. The characters are believable, well-crafted, and even with its heft of nearly 400 pages, the book carries the reader briskly forward.

Rich is masterful in mapping the characters’ motivations, often not fully understood by the characters themselves, deftly teasing out a believable plot through their interactions.

His language is, at times, made obscure by the vernacular of the period, but at times crystalline. For example, in explaining Isadore’s attraction to music, he writes that he “had always understood music as a conversation with the Dark Unknown—the dimension of the world that was hidden to the world …. When you played, the conversation went both ways.”

Zeno is a mesmerizing walk through time into a New Orleans that still subtly exists, with prostitution, gambling, street crime, wretched social inequality, and stark racism, overlaid by exquisite music, mindless excess, and licentious celebration. It all adds up to a tantalizing read with astute insights into the human condition.

Jim Ewing, a former writer and editor at The Clarion-Ledger, is the author of seven books including his latest, Redefining Manhood: A Guide for Men and Those Who Love Them.

Author Q & A with Nathaniel Rich

Interview by Jana Hoops. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (January 14)

New York native Nathaniel Rich has made his home in New Orleans for nearly a decade, drawn, he said, by the city’s strong sense of its own identity, and its proud “indifference” to what is going on elsewhere–not to mention, as he puts it, “all the usual things” New Orleans is known for–unrivaled food, music, culture, and landscape.

But it was the history of the city that sparked Rich’s inspiration for his newest novel, King Zeno (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) an engaging tale that incorporates true events from early 20th-century New Orleans and weaves together the stories of the lives of three unlikely characters in a surprise ending that is both chilling and redemptive.

A contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, Rich’s essays have appeared in The New York Review of BooksThe AtlanticRolling Stone, and The Daily Beast, among others. He is also the author of two previous novels, Odds Against Tomorrow and The Mayor’s Tongue.

You come from a literary family–your brother Simon Rich is a humorist, novelist, short story author, and screenwriter; your dad Frank Rich has enjoyed a career as a columnist, essayist, and TV producer; your mom Gail Winston is an executive editor for a major publisher and, and your step-mother is a magazine writer. What’s it like to be in a family with so much writing talent, and what have you learned from each other?

Nathaniel Rich

Nathaniel Rich

Many writers at some point have to overcome their parents’ disapproval, if not outraged incomprehension, at their choice of profession. I was fortunate to have to face down only thinly veiled discouragement and queasily suppressed anxiety.

My brother is a brilliant writer of fiction and I learn tremendously from his example, his work, and his counsel.

Coming after your first two novels, The Mayor’s Tongue (an imaginative sand telling story of shared miscommunications in everyday relationships) and Odds Against Tomorrow (a catastrophic look at the effects of a major hurricane that hits Manhattan)–it seems that King Zeno is in many ways a departure from their style in that it is a historical novel based in part on real-life events (including the still unsolved “Axeman murders”) in New Orleans as World War I was drawing to a close in 1918. Did you feel like you were in some ways “switching gears” with King Zeno?

In a number of superficial ways King Zeno is unlike the earlier two–just as the first two novels are unlike each other. They are set in very different periods with characters who wouldn’t know what to make of each other if they showed up in the same room together (something like this happens at the end of The Mayor’s Tongue). But all of the novels came about the same way, from an initial suggestion–in this case, a historical article in the New Orleans Times-Picayune–that attracted other ideas and stories and subconscious embellishments until it had achieved the weight and requisite spookiness of a novel.

The are commonalities that go deeper than questions of plot and setting. Each of the novels contends with a desire to examine a problem without an easy resolution: the limits of language (The Mayor’s Tongue); the fear of the future (Odds Against Tomorrow); the desire for immortality (King Zeno). Each novel also balances on a knife’s edge between a plausible, lifelike reality and a fantasy realm, so in that way they all seem to me to occupy the same world. And the sensibility, or the voice, is the same–an inevitability, since they were written by the same person.

With in-depth stories of each of the three main characters that converge at the end, set in New Orleans during a severe Spanish Flu epidemic, the Axeman murders, the growing popularity of jazz, and the construction of the industrial canal connecting the Mississippi River with Lake Pontchartrain, there is a lot going on in King Zeno. With so much historical detail to cover, how did you conduct the research for this book, and how long did it take?

king zenoThe initial idea grew out of my fascination with two historical events: the series of unsolved ax murders that reached its culmination with a bizarre letter to the Times-Picayune; and the excavation of the Industrial Canal, a hubristic manhandling of the local terrain that has haunted New Orleans ever since.

I visited the New Orleans Historical Collection and the Louisiana Research Collection at Tulane, devouring newspapers and other publications from the period. The newspaper crime journalism, written in a breathless, panicky, Gothic style, gave me an element of the novel’s tone.

Louis Armstrong would have been about 18 during the action of the novel, about the same age as Isadore Zeno. His memoir about growing up in New Orleans, Satchmo, has novelistic detail about life in the part of the city then known as Battleground, explaining, for instance, the differences between a third-rate and second-rate honky-tonk; which railroad tracks grew the best medicinal herbs; where to buy fish heads cheap. Jelly Roll Morton’s conversations about the period with Alan Lomax, Mister Jelly Roll, taught me how to “shoot the agate” and how to pass as a “sweetback man.” There are a few other fascinating books about jazz in the period: Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans by Thomas Brothers; Donald M. Marquis’s In Search of Buddy Bolden, and John McCusker’s Creole Trombone.

My most valuable source, however, was an oral history project conducted by the Friends of the Cabildo historical society. Beginning in the 1970s, these amateur historian set out to interview elderly New Orleanians about their pasts. There are roughly 200 interviews in total, most of them conducted about 40 to 30 years ago. They are only available on cassette tape at the New Orleans Public Library’s Louisiana Division. I was able to find about tow dozen interviews in which the subjects recalled life in New Orleans between 1910 and 1920. From those conversations, I learned that the great merchant ships from Buenos Aires brought to the wharves sacks of coffee, bones, and dried blood; that riding the ferry back and forth across the Mississippi was through to be a cure for whooping cough; that the chimney man used a palmetto frond for a brush.

The storyline of King Zeno revolves around the ambitions, fears, and hopes of its three main characters: police detective Bill Bastrop; business executive and Mafia widow Beatrice Vizzini; and struggling jazz musician Izzy Zeno. Tell me how you approach character development, and what you find to be the most rewarding and challenging aspects of this skill in ficiton writing–especially in this book.

There were a number of technical challenges in making sure the dramatic narratives of the three characters lined up, to avoid allowing one storyline’s revelations from interfering with another’s. It’s not the most exciting part of the writing process, but I find it satisfying to make the trains run on time.

When it comes to writing characters, however, the only reward is when you feel that a character has come to life. Until then, it is torture.

You have written one non-fiction book, San Francisco Noir: The City in Film Noir from 1940 to the Present, and  you are known for your magazine work of short stories and essays. Between these and  your novels, what kinds of writing would you say you enjoy the most?

Fiction is the most pleasurable, since it grant the greatest freedom; it’s the form that occupies most of my time. But getting out into the world for the journalist pieces–getting out physically as well as mentally–keeps me sane. It also allows for a more immediate response to an idea or a subject than the fiction; my novels have taken about five years to write. As for the critical essays; among other advantages, studying other writers’ work helps me to clarify my thinking about my own writing.

Each of the three forms–fiction, journalism, criticism–informs the others. I am a better novelist for spending as much time as I do thinking critically about literature, and for forcing myself into uncomfortable situations as a reporter. But the forms are not as different as they might seem. The y each require a similar puzzling with a narrative logic, dramatic structure, tone, argument, description, precision.

After growing up in Manhattan, why did you eventually choose to make your home in New Orleans, and are you a jazz music fan yourself?

Like a lot of people who leave the places they’re from, I was ready for something different. The city began to seem stale to me, as crazy as that might sound when applied to a metropolis of that size. But I was getting the sense, about 10 years ago, that New York–or at least, my New York–was shrinking. I’d wanted to live in New Orleans since I was a teenager. It seemed like a city that knew itself, sores and all, and was largely indifferent to what was going on elsewhere. I loved that. The last thing I’d want is to move to a city that saw itself as a junior New York, a lesser rival with a chip on its shoulder.

I was also drawn to the lushness of the city’s culture, its difficult relationship with its landscape, the food, the music, the enchantment, the feverish energies–all the usual things that bring people here. After nearly 10 years, the city continues to surprise me, for better and worse. I don’t think you could say that about most places in America.

I do love jazz, and especially love the early New Orleans music, before it became self-conscious, when it was considered dangerous.

Are there future writing projects on the horizon for you that you can tell me about at this time? Any plans for more nonfiction?

I have a (long) short story in the new issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review called “Blue Rock” about three bad men trapped together in a lighthouse far out in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s based on a true story, and takes place around the same time as King Zeno.

Nathaniel Rich will be at Lemuria tonight (Tuesday, January 30) at 5:00 p.m. to sign and read from King Zeno.

Author Q & A with Steve Yarbrough

Interview by Jana Hoops. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (January 28)

Indianola native and longtime author Steve Yarbrough once again branches out into new territory (geographically speaking) with his newest novel The Unmade World, set in both Fresno, California, and Krakow, Poland, as he spins a tale of tragedy, remorse, grief, and, finally, redemption.

Steve Yarbrough

Steve Yarbrough

After living in Fresno himself for two decades even while becoming intimately familiar with his wife’s native country of Poland, Yarbrough weaves these two sites together seamlessly as his main characters are fatefully bound together by unimaginable pain. The story chronicles their decade-long struggle, 6,000 miles apart, to make sense of a life-changing tragedy.

The author of 10 previous books, Yarbrough has received numerous awards for his novels and short stories, including the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Awards for Fiction, among others.

An “aficionado” and instrumentalist of jazz and bluegrass music, he teaches in the Department of Writing, Literature, and Publishing at Emerson College and lives in Stoneham, Massachusetts, with his wife Ewa.

How did the Poland and California locations and your familiarity  with them drive the plot that forever ties an American journalist with a working-class, financially strapped Polish man who had come to the end of his rope?

Well, as you said, I lived in Fresno for two decades got to know it pretty well. It’s a city with some complexes, chief among them, the awareness that it’s ridiculed by people in the Bay Area and Los Angeles, and though I seldom felt moved to write about it when we lived there, the day finally came.

As for Krakow, we lived there, too, having bought an apartment there in 2002. I know it better than I know any American city. We don’t own a car in Poland, and so I walk everywhere. I came to love the city. Many of my best friends live there, and though we sold our apartment last year for reasons I won’t delve into, I fully expect to buy another one there one day, maybe even to retire there. It’s a magical city.

You have said that, in your writing, you’ve found that not boxing yourself into an outline is key to character development. Please explain how this works for you.

If I never surprise myself, how can I hope to surprise a reader? And if I sit down to do only what’s already planned out, when do I experience the joy of discovery, that galvanizing moment when the story takes a turn I didn’t foresee? Those are the moments I prize above all others. Not just in writing, but in life as well.

After the death of his wife and daughter in an automobile accident, main character Richard Brennan blames himself each day for having had too much to drink at dinner that night. He is convinced that, if he had been behind the wheel, instead of his wife, “everything that did happen wouldn’t have.” He begins to think of himself as a “lost man,” eventually realizing that he’s lost his motivation to work as a reporter. Meanwhile, life for Bogdan Baranowski, the driver of the other car, has become even more frayed as he deals with his guilt. What keeps them going as they begin to slowly carve out the roles that are left for them?

unmade worldI believe each of them is stronger than he initially thinks is the aftermath of that tragedy. Richard is a naturally skilled writer, and those abilities, along with a lifetime of trying to do an honest job as a reporter, eventually re-involve him in life.

Baranowski’s problem is that he had a hard time handling the transition from a state-controlled economy to the free market model and his business failures left him desperate. They’ve both got some resilience, and I think both of them are ultimately decent people.

Baranowski comes to realize that, as he puts it, his companion Elena’s world had become “unmade” in respect to the mysteries of how people come together in meaningful relationships. Describe the notion of the “unmade world.”

Elena is from that part of the Ukraine that was devastated by the recent conflict. Like Richard, she’s lost most of those who matter. Yet she’s tough. She’s a survivor, and ultimately all of the people at the heart of this novel–Richard, the female reporter named Maria who helps him investigate a gruesome murder, Baranowski, his criminal partner Marek–they’re survivors.

The world is coming unmade all around us. Wars all over the lobe, people being run down on the street in New York, subjected to acid attacks in London, to drone attacks in Iraq. There’s not a lot of stability anywhere. We need to find it in ourselves.

There is a scene in the story in which Baranowski is challenged by the idea that telling his story, and not walking away from it, could bring redemption. What can we learn from this?

In the era of alternative facts? I think we could adhere to what my grandmother used to tell me: “Don’t try to make folks think you’re something you’re not.” As Americans, we cling to the myth of our own innocence. Poles, in my experience, are a lot more likely to own up. As you know, having read the novel, Baranowski finally meets someone whom he trusts enough to tell her what he did. And she helps him begin to live a better life.

For several characters, there is a thread throughout the story that suggests the relevance of a belief in God, i.e., how just being in church by yourself can build courage, and how faith can help soothe the inevitable pains of the human experience. Why did you include this as an important element in the story?

Well, I’m a believer. Always have been. But I’m not a churchgoer. Or to say this more precisely, I don’t go to church services.

But I go to church frequently, especially in Poland, where churches are open pretty much all the time and you can go in and sit down and meditate or say prayers of whatever. I find comfort there.

I think about those who have sat there before me, in a country that suffered so brutally in the Second World War and then survived another 45 years with the Soviet boot on its neck.

I have faith in the triumph of the human spirit, even now, and I have faith in those who seek to help people in need.

Throughout the story, the continuing description of Baranowski includes an unsightly facial mole that seems to define his appearance. Is it in any way a metaphor of his life situation and the hurts he has endured?

I’d say it could represent both the hurts he has endured and those he has inflicted on others. At the same time, I’m not an overtly symbolic writer. As Flannery O’Connor told us, the wooden leg in “Good Country People” is first and foremost a wooden leg. That mole is first and foremost a mole.

Are there future writing projects you can us about?

I just started a novel about a pair of sisters. It begins in the Delta in the mid-70s. Right now, that’s about all I know. I’m waiting for the story to tell me where it wants to go.

Steve Yarbrough will be at Lemuria tonight (Monday, January 29, at 5:00 to sign and read from The Unmade World.

Steve Yarbrough’s ‘The Unmade World’ masters the literary thriller

By Tom Williams. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (January 21)

unmade worldJust about midway through The Unmade World (Unbridled Books), Steve Yarbrough’s seventh novel, the central character, Richard Brennan, reflects upon his writing process as a reporter.

“Something always happened to him when he knew he’d found his story. A moment came when it seemed as if it would write itself as long as he kept putting one foot in front of the other and didn’t complain about lack of sleep, difficulties that threw themselves before him, people who either lied or paid out the truth like fishing line.”

I don’t doubt Yarbrough’s own writing process parallel’s Richard’s. In the now 10 books he’s published, dealing with such thorny subjects as race relations, redemption, and infidelity, rendering settings from the South, the Northeast, the 19th, 20th, and now 21st centuries, Yabrough makes it look easy to compose lucid prose that gets out of the way of characters as real as your reflection and involved in complex, suspenseful plots. Faithful Yarbrough readers won’t be suprised to see that he has once again “found his story” in The Unmade World.

Concerned principally with Richard and Bogdan Baranowski–two characters yoked together by a set of fateful events on a wintry Polish night–The Unmade World unfolds in three sections, alternating between Poland and Fresno, California, from 2006 to 2016.

And while the political, cultural, economic upheavals of this period are never far from the character’s lives, what’s equally significant are the personal crises faced by Richard and Bogdan. Richard is “trying hard but mostly failing to overcome his loss,” while Bogdan believes he is “missing some essential element. What is was, he didn’t know.”

Yarbrough surrounds these characters with other vividly rendered, wounded souls: Richard’s brother-in-law, Stefan, a novelist who races to finish a novel before cancer finishes him; Marek, a colleague of Bogdan’s, physically scarred by their doomed escapades; Maria, a fellow journalist, driven by the unresolved murder of her own father to uncover and remedy current injustices.

Electing to tell the story in third person omniscient, Yarbrough provides the readers the motives and mindset of this diverse cast of characters (we glimpse the thoughts of at least a dozen: male, female, middle-aged, teenaged, Pole, American), yet his expertly wrought dialogue keeps Richard and Bogdan true to themselves as men who stoically attempt to deal with what life has thrown at them.

In one of the novel’s many stunning moments–and there are many–Bogdan refuses to share with the police the complicity of Marek and others in a scheme to get older tenants to vacate an apartment building. When asked his motive, he replies, “I’m a shell of a person, and I’m drawn to old buildings that remind me of myself.”

One certainty throughout is Yarbrough’s absolute mastery. Too often, a thriller skips by breezily, and a more literary novel gets bogged down by intellectual concerns. In The Unmade World, Yarbrough neatly negotiates between Richard and Bogdan’s narratives, building suspense so effortlessly, you’re often tempted to skip a chapter, only to get wrapped up in the tantalizing clues.

And through the third section of the book at first moved at too swift a pace for me, the finale is tautly rendered it left me breathless. And hopeful–a destination you might not imagine upon finishing the relentless first section.

After reading Yarbrough’s first novel, The Oxygen Man, nearly 20 years ago, I became a convert, and with every book I kept expecting this would be theone that elevated his fiction to a much-deserved place in the highest ranks.

What’s obvious, though, is that Yarbrough is at the top of his game. The Unmade World is a marvel. It’s the kind of book that would equally impress readers of John Grisham and of Jesmyn Ward. Throughtful, entertaining, rich with detail, each page entrances.

Tom Williams lives in Kentucky. His publications include the novel Don’t Start Me Talkin’, and the entrance on Steve Yarbrough in The Mississippi Encyclopedia.

Steve Yarbrough will be at Lemuria Books on Monday, January 29, at 5:00 p.m. to sign and read from The Unmade World.

Author Q & A with Jamie Quatro

Interview by Jana Hoops. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (January 21)

fire sermonJamie Quatro’s debut novel, Fire Sermon (Grove Atlantic), weaves a pensive tale of lust and desire that comes as an unexpected but surprisingly desirable consequence of an innocent exchange of digital messages between main characters Maggie (a writer) and James (a published poet whose work she admires).

The twist on the Nashville author’s story is that both parties are devoted spouses and parents who had no intention of ever finding themselves drawn into the daring–but undoubtedly pleasurable–relationship. And then there’s the matter of Maggie’s faith, which clearly disallows such behavior, and quickly adds tension to an already questionable turn of events.

As a fiction writer, Quatro said she doesn’t remember a time in her life when she wasn’t creating stories.

“In fact, I wrote my first story in second grade,” she said. “I only member this because my mom saved it. It was called ‘The Sad Day and the Happy Day.’ The sad day was when Sally’s mother told her it never snowed in teh desert on the border of Mexico, where they lived; happy day was when Sally woke to see snow covering the cacti. I suspect the story was heavily influenced by Ezra Jack Keats’s The Snowy Day.”

Today, Quatro’s fiction, poetry, and essays have been published in The New York Times Book Review, Ploughshares, McSweeney’s, and others. Her stories have also appeared in teh 2017 Pushcart Prize Anthology, Ann Charters’s The Story and Its Writer, and in O. Henry Prize Stories 2013.

Her debut collection, I Want to Show You More (Grove Press), was a New York Times Notable Book, NPR Best Book of 2013, and a New York Times Editors’ Choice. I twas also chosen as a New York Times Top Ten Book of 2013; a New Yorker Favorite Book of 2013 and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction, the Georgia Townsend Fiction Prize, and the National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Prize.

A contributing editor for the Oxford American, Quatro teaches in the Sewanee School of Letters MFA program. She lives with her husband and four children in Lookout Mountain, Georgia.

An accomplished author, you are already known for your fiction, poetry, and essays. Fire Sermon is your debut novel. In what ways was it different from previous writing projects?

Jamie Quatro

Jamie Quatro

I was under contract for a different novel and kept sneaking away to write sections of Fire Sermon. It was a delicious form of procrastination. I was sure I would never show anyone the pages. Once I reached page 100 or so, I told my agent about the cheating. She loved the pages and urged me to finish the book. I wrote the rest of it quickly, in a couple of months.

Fire Sermon is your first novel–one that’s sure to catch the attention of many readers. You’ve taken an age-old plot–two happily married people are drawn to other loves, and find themselves caught between their dual loves and their faith in God. Why this topic?

In my first book, there were six or seven stories about an almost-affair. I felt I’d only begun to scratch the surface of the infidelity theme. I hadn’t pushed as far as I’d wanted to, into the physical and spiritual. A professor in graduate school told me, once, that I needed to let my characters be messier–to do things on the hpage I would never do.

The main characters, Maggie and James, are unquestionably drawn to each other, and are amazed to discover their similarities…both are middle-aged writers, happily married for the same number of years, with the same number of children, and they even have 96-year-old grandmothers. How did this make the story more powerful?

The fact that James and Maggie have so much in common–even as Maggie has increasingly less in common with her husband–is in many ways the very appeal of the affair. The superficial commonalities mirror the much more significant intellectual, spiritual, and sexual bonds.

Your writing style is varied, to say the least–no quotation marks, no particular chronological order, conversations with an unnamed therapist, random journal entries, sometimes a stream of consciousness style of quickly firing strings of facts. Characters are referred to as “the husband,” “the wife,” “the daughter,” etc. How did you develop this approach?

The structure of the novel evolved over time, draft after draft. I think it has something to do with the desire to tell a story from multiple angles and time frames. Maybe a wish to escape the confines of linear time altogether. So rather than stringing beads along a thread, drafting felt more like rotating a cut diamond in the light, to watch the light reflect and refract from various facets.

What are the messages Maggie shares in her attempts at poetry?

The first time she sends poems (to James) she’s hoping for feedback–hoping, too, that James won’t think the poems are bunk. The second time the poems are more erotic. I suppose you could say she’s using them to draw James in.

After a few businesslike e-mail exchanges that begin when Maggie contacts James to praise his new book of poetry, the flirtations in their messages soon grow bolder and bolder, encouraged initially by him, but with Maggie’s immediate complicity. It becomes a relationship that will haunt them forever, as it tries Maggie’s Christian faith. Why did you choose to include the element of faith into this story?

When an act is forbidden, it often becomes more enticing. In this case, the religious rules against adultery heightens the thrill of breaking that rule. It also magnifies the subsequent guilt Maggie feels. How to lose the guilt but keep the erotic thrill alive somewhere inside–this becomes Maggie’s psychological and spiritual struggle.

As Maggie watches her 21-year-old daughter growing into an accomplished young woman, she realizes that her children are “the reason for [her] existence.” Is this a reflection on the state of her marriage and her split loyalties, or one you believe is shared by most mothers at this stage of life?

I can’t speak for other mothers, but I certainly don’t see my children as the reason for my existence. As they’ve grown, I’ve felt more and more like the person I was before having children. There’s something sad and lonely about Maggie’s statement. It’s probably more a reflection of the state of her mind and marriage than it is a universal feeling.

Please explain the title “Fire Sermon.” Certainly, it was a “sermon” Maggie had needed to say out loud for a long time.

The title comes from the Adittapariyaya Sutta–the Fire Sermon–in the Buddhist Pali Canon. It was one of the first sermons the Buddha gave after his enlightenment. T.S. Eliot, of course, also used it as a section title in “The Waste Land,” in which he references St. Augustine’s Confessions, and links the Buddhist Fire Sermon to Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. So, the title references two ways of dealing with yearning and desire, Eastern and Western: confession and repentance, or recognition that burning is the result of attachment and illusion. The dialogue between Eastern and Western modes of thought is a thread throughout the novel.

Do you have other writing projects in the works?

I’m working on another novel and have almost finished a new story collection.

Jamie Quatro will be at Lemuria on Thursday, January 25, at 5:00 p.m. to sign copies of Fire Sermon and read from the book at 5:30 p.m. Fire Sermon is Lemuria’s January 2018 selection for its First Editions Club for Fiction.

Mrs. Cooks reviews ‘You are the Beloved’

By Roben Mounger. Originally published on her website, Ms. Cook’s Table (along with an excellent Hoppin’ John recipe)

The day after Christmas, my granddaughter Elodie and I cooked a menu of her design for the family. When tucked into bed that night, she said to her mother, “I am so happy and alive.”

Understanding that happiness is ever elusive, spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle instructs, “don’t seek happiness.” The dearest of third graders nailed the specifics: happiness sneaks up when we are doing that thing that makes us feel the electricity of life. No doubt Elo will manifest this elevator ride to the rooftop by preparing good things to eat for others her whole life through.

Meanwhile at the other end of the timeline, I watch the unbridled joy of her whirling dervish-ness which brings me gratitude and gets me jumping. Such observations are over there in the corner of my mind, along with a blooming fondness for vegetable gardening, documentaries on nature, and spiritual reading.

And then there’s also that frequent kick I get from channeling my grandparents, not in their roles as grandparents, but as the people they were. All of these current favorite things give me access to alive-ness through the subtle feelings of gratefulness.

And I know without doubt: where I put my attention, so goeth my life. Each morning this coming year, I will set my sites on gratitude with a daily reading from a new collection drawn by the talks, writings and letters of Henri J. M. Nouwen. The meditations therein were compiled by Gabrielle Earnshaw, the curator of the Henri Nouwen Archives and Research Center.

Nouwen was a Dutch-Catholic priest who was engaged in social justice and community. For many years, he lived in a community of intellectually disabled men and women at L’Arch Daybreak. His documented experiences call us to see that even the pain and suffering in life can provide simple thresholds to fullness of being and an added appreciation for living.

I plan each morning to open my copy of You Are the Beloved and stream a roadmap to the essentials of being alive. Nouwen reflects on such thought provokers as: letting go, a new vision of maturity, what we’re looking for is already here and passages to new life. I can use some extra doorknobs on those topics and the hundreds of others that the book offers for introspection.

rm you are the beloved

This hardback book is downright friendly in the way it rests in the hand. Each page is numbered by date in the top corner and contains plenty of free space to aid in your quiet approach to the day.

To get the lay of the land, I started by reading the last meditation, noting that I will read it again on December 31, 2018. And with a promise from Nouwen: “You are in communion with God and with those whom God has sent you. What is of God will last, ‘I will undertake the year’s commitment.'”

In gratitude, I open my arms to 2018 with a deep bow to my three year old grandson Robert. He showed the pathway with an essential prayer when, after a recent big sneeze he said, “Bless you, Me.”

Author’s note: I received You Are the Beloved free from Blogging for Books, but was in no way required to provide anything but an honest review.

Author Q & A with Karen L. Cox

Interview by Jana Hoops. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (January 7)

Goat Castle: A True Story of Murder, Race, and the Gothic South (University of North Carolina Press) uncovers the details of what came to be the highly sensationalized case of the 1932 murder of Jennie Merrill, a wealthy white Natchez woman who was killed during an attempted robbery of her antebellum home.

goat castleThe book, which documents the obvious racial injustice with which the case was handled by local officials, gained national attention because of the eccentric lifestyle of initial suspects Richard Dana and Octavia Dockery, who lived in a decaying antebellum home overrun with crumbling furnishings, pervasive filth–and a pen of goats, among many other animals.

Emily Burns, an African-American domestic worker and Natchez resident who unwillingly found herself at the scene of the crime, was unjustly tried and convicted of the murder, and sentenced to life imprisonment at Parchman Penitentiary.

It was award-winning author Karen L. Cox, a history professor at University of North Carolina at Charlotte, who came across the story when she was conducting research for another book at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History in Jackson.

Karen L. Cox

Karen L. Cox

A native of West Virginia, Cox said her ties to Mississippi go back to when she first arrived in Hattiesburg to pursue her doctorate degree at the University of Southern Mississippi in 1991.

“There’s hardly been a year that I haven’t been back to the state to work on a research project,” she said. “After writing Goat Castle, I fell in love with Natchez and made good friends there.”

Cox, who teaches courses in American history and culture, also authored Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture, which won the Southern Association for Women Historians’ Julia Cherry Spruhill Prize; and Dreaming of Dixie: How the South Was Created in American Popular Culture. She is also editor of Destination Dixie: Tourism and Southern History.

As a distinguished historian widely recognized for her knowledge of the American South, Cox has written op-eds for The New York TimesThe Washington Post, CNN, and The Huffington Post, and she has been interviewed by the Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, The Daily Beast, The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, and numerous other American newspapers, as well as papers in Germany, Denmark, Ireland, and Japan. She has also appeared on numerous television news outlets around the country, as well as the BBC.

How did you learn about this case, and why did you decide to write  this book about it?

I learned about this case while working in the State Archives in Jackson. I was researching a previous book, which included the tourism generated by the Natchez Pilgrimage, when Clinton Bagley–a longtime historian/librarian at the Archives–told me that I should be looking at Goat Castle. As soon as I learned the barest of information on the story, I instinctively knew I’d write this book. It has so many layers to it and the “characters” are real. The truth is really stranger than fiction.

The investigation after the crime revealed that Dana and Dockery, white neighbors of Merrill’s, had plotted with George Pearls, an African-American, to rob Merrill’s home. But things wen terribly wrong, and Merrill was shot during the attempted robbery. After Pears was soon killed by an Arkansas policeman for an unrelated incident, an innocent black woman, Emily Burns, would ultimately be charged with the murder and imprisoned. The book states that the murder had become national news within less than 48 hours. Why was this?

Why it became national headlines so swiftly had to do with Jennie Merrill’s status as a descendant of planter aristocracy and being the daughter of Ayres Merrill, Jr., who was the former Belgian ambassador. Yet, within a week the story became less about her death and more about her eccentric neighbors, Dick Dana and Octavia Dockery. They, too, were from elite Southern families, but in 1932 lived in absolute squalor at their home Glenwood, which the press nicknamed “Goat Castle” since the pair kept a pen of goats inside the house.

The news coverage after the murder seems to have focused much more on the strange, eccentric lifestyle of Dockery and Dana than it did on the fact that a murder had been committed and Burns’ future was at stake. Please describe the public’s obsession with “Goat Woman” and “Wild Man,” and the press’s fascination with keeping the story focused on their “Old South” heritage–even as Burns remained in prison.

In addition to the squalor, the press nicknamed Dick Dana the “Wild Man” and, it seems, needed to give one to Octavia Dockery as well. She became the “Goat Woman.” The press was obsessed with what it saw as the decline of the Old South as seen in the lives of Dana and Dockery–the shocking contrast between the grandeur of the Old South and what appeared to be a Gothic novel come to life. This obsession resulted in a tourist trade to go to Natchez to see the house and the odd couple who lived there. It should be no surprise that little attention was paid to Emily Burns, a black domestic. Jim Crow justice meant that she was assumed to be guilty.

This book is well-documented, with 20 pages of notes. It seems that the research must have been painstaking, as you include a great deal of description about the city of Natchez, its crumbling antebellum homes at that time–and, just 70 years after the Civil War had ended, the mindset of the descendants of those who had fought in the Civil War and those who had been enslaved. How did you approach the research for this material, and how long did it take?

The timeline of the research looks like it took me five years (2012-2017), but it’s important to note that as a professor of history, I am also teaching classes, grading papers, going to meetings, etc. So, I’d have to plan research trips to Jackson, Natchez, and even Baton Rouge–a week here and a week there. Fortunately, I had a sabbatical that allowed me to write full time beginning in the fall of 2015. I wrote the book in about seven months. It went through a few months of editing and then was submitted in 2016. It takes about a year after submission for a book to come out.

Please describe the run and filth that Dockery and Dana lived in–along with ducks, geese, chickens, cats, dogs, and of course, the goats–and explain how they actually profited off of their eccentric lifestyle.

I’d rather that people read the book for those descriptions. They profited off of their notoriety by selling tickets to tour the grounds. There was a second charge to enter the house, where Dick Dana played piano. The pair also went on a tour of towns in Mississippi and Louisiana and appeared on stage as the “Wild Man” and “Goat Woman” of Goat Castle.

The city of Natchez was not fond of the publicity brought on by the trial at that time, but it was a boon for tourism.

How did the city deal with this circus of a crime story invading it on a national scale?

It’s not clear how the city of Natchez dealt with it. Certainly, local restaurants benefited. People would also tour other houses while in Natchez. On the one hand, there was profit to be made. On the other, it had become an embarrassment. So, the best way to deal with it was not to talk about it publicly.

What can we learn today from this story of criminal injustice 85 years ago–as a state and as a nation?

What is evident in this story is that the double standard of justice that sent an innocent black woman to prison still exists. Octavia Dockery’s fingerprints were found inside of Merrill’s home, not Burns’. Yet Dockery got to go home. Also, 85 years late, it’s still true that the majority of women sent to prison are women of color, especially African-American and Hispanic women.

Do you have other writing projects in mind that you can share with us?

I’m still trying to figure that out. Goat Castle only came out in October and I’ve still got book events coming up. I’ll be back in Natchez in February for the Literary and Cinema Celebration, which will be focused on Southern Gothic. I’m also going to be in New Orleans in march for the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival. My guess is that my next project will include Mississippi, as all of my books have done.

Author Q & A with Philip Stead

Interview by Jana Hoops. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (December 24)

Award-winning children’s book author and illustrator Philip Stead has the unique honor of being the only person alive today who can claim the title of “co-author” to a Mark Twain tale.

LIke most things associated with Twain, who died in 1910, the story of how that came about is, well, an interesting story.

But first things first. Before his collaboration with Twain on the newly released The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine, Stead and his artist wife Erin Stead claimed a Caldecott Medal, along with the titles of New York Times Best Illustrated Book of 2010 and a Publishers Weekly Best Children’s Book of 2010, for their book A Sick Day for Amos McGee.

Together the couple also created Bear Has a Story to Tell, an E.B. White Read-Aloud Award honor book and, among others, Lenny and Lucy. As an artist as well as author himself, Stead has written and illustrated several books, including his debut, Creamed Tuna Fish and Peas on Toast.

The husband and wife team met in a high school art class, “and from the very first days, we planned on making books together,” Stead said.

steads

Today, they live and work in northern Michigan, along with their dog, Wednesday, and their 5-month-old daughter, Adelaide.

How did the idea for this book come to be–it’s quite unusual!

The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine began as a story told by Mark Twain to his tow young daughters in the year 1879. Twain probably told countless stories to his children, but this is presumed to be the only time he committed notes for one of these stories to paper.

In 2011, the notes were discovered at the Mark Twain Archive in Berkeley, California. They were unearthed by a scholar who was doing research for a Mark Twain cookbook. He opened a folder labeled “Oleomargarine” expecting to find something food-related and instead discovered 16 pages of handwritten notes for a children’s story begun but never finished. Eureka!

How was it that you were chosen to write this book?

Honestly, I wish I knew! Probably there were others before us who were smart enough to say, “thanks, but no thanks.” But seriously, my best guess is that Erin’s artwork gave our editor confidence that maybe we could do this. Erin’s work is often described as old-fashioned. In an increasingly digital world, Erin has stuck with traditional techniques like woodblock printing and pencil drawing, both of which were around in Twain’s day. One challenge with this book was how to bridge the divide from 1879 to 2017. I think Erin’s art style helps bridge that gap.

Please give me a brief description of the story line, including the main characters. (Your technique of serving as the narrator for your own story, and holding conversations with Mark Twain, was great!)

olemargarineJohnny, a poor, kind, young boy, is forced one day by his cruel grandfather to sell his pet chicken at the market. In doing so, he unexpectedly comes into possession of some magical seeds. From the seeds grow a flower, and upon eating the flower, Johnny is granted the ability to speak with animals. Led by a skunk named Susy, Johnny and all the animals in the land set out on a quest to rescue a stolen prince, and with some luck, perhaps cross paths with a familiar chicken.

Generally, where did Twain’s notes on this book end, and where did you take up the story?

Twain’s notes end at the mouth of a dark cave where, presumably, Prince Oleomargarine is being held by giants. Twain’s final words are: “It is guarded by two mighty dragons who never sleep.” So, Twain was very close to an ending already.

What we discovered was that the ending was not really the missing piece. The missing piece was the beginning. Twain’s notes begin abruptly with: “Widow, dying, gives seeds to Johnny–got them from an old woman once to whom she had been kind.” That’s certainly a nice place to begin, but Twain left us with nothing about the character of Johnny–who he was and why we ought to love him.

Some characters in the book were created by Erin and me to address this problem. The most notable additions are probably the cruel grandfather and Johnny’s luckless pet chicken, Pestilence and Famine. The name Pestilence and Famine, by the way, comes from a piece of Clemens family history. The Clemens family had many household cats with peculiar names. There was a cat named Sour Mash, and Satan, and my personal favorite, Pestilence and Famine.

What inspired the direction you decided to take in finishing this tale?

The book became a story within a story. First, there is the story of Johnny, and Susy, and Prince Oleomargarine. But then there is the story of Mark Twain and myself, sitting together at a secluded cabin, arguing over the direction of the story itself. These conversations between Twain and me came about because of a problem I encountered early on. The problem was that every now and then I wanted to deviate from Twain’s notes. It didn’t seem right, though, to make changes without giving Twain a say in the matter. The easiest and most fun solution to this problem was to make Twain (and myself) a character in the book.

Tell me about the artwork Erin produced for this book. How does it help to convey your own “vision” for this story?

Erin’s artwork is rendered in woodblock printing and pencil drawing. The colors are muted and atmospheric. In many ways, Erin became a third author for this story. So many choices were left completely up to her. It was never just a matter of executing my, or Twain’s, vision.

For example, the setting is all Erin’s. Oleomargarine is a fairy tale, but it is not a European fairy tale. It is American through and through. Erin wanted the setting to reflect that. She also wanted the setting to exist somewhere in time between Twain’s day and our own. So, having given herself those two guidelines, she settled on a world reminiscent of the American dust bowl–a perfect setting for her naturally dusty, airy, and melancholy artwork.

For what ages is this book most appropriate?

twain1This story began as a piece of oral tradition. It was as a story told out loud, maybe over the course of several nights by an adult to children. I would hope the finished book is used in much the same way. While the language might be difficult for a child under the age of 9 or 10, I believe that children of all ages will be able to appreciate the story–its rhythm, its humor, and its message–especially when told directly to them by a parent, or grandparent, or some other important adult figure in their life.

In what ways did you find it most challenging to complete the task of finishing Twain’s story, and on the flip side, what did you enjoy most about tackling this project?

The most challenging thing about this book was also the most rewarding. For me, the real work and the real joy was in finding Twain’s voice. Twain left notes for almost every element of plot, but he left very little finished prose. Because of that, I had to really immerse myself in Twain’s other works, sometimes listening to Twain’s writing as if it were music. Because of that, there is a little bit of Twain inside of me now forever.

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