Author: Guest Author (Page 2 of 8)

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.

Author Q & A with Paul Lacoste

Interview by Jana Hoops. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (December 17)

lacoste coverPaul Lacoste has spent his career coaching others into top physical form, and he’ll be the first to admit that when it comes to getting his clients in shape, he’s not known for taking a subtle approach.

But he’s learned the hard way that motivating people to reach their fitness goals is about more than changing their physical appearance–it’s all about inspiring mental and spiritual changes, as well.

In his newly released book, Lacoste: Living Life at the Next Level, he shares his own story of how the many life challenges he’s faced eventually led to a realization that only his faith in God could turn things around.

Today Lacoste, who holds a master’s degree in Sports Administration from Mississippi State University, enthusiastically brings that commitment to his coaching style, as he tells clients: “I want your F.A.T.”–or Fears Affecting Transformation. His goal these days is to go beyond their physical needs as he acknowledges that they, like him, may be facing inner challenges that could hold them back from reaching fitness objectives.

A lifelong athlete who was named an All SEC football player at MSU and played for the National Football League, the Canadian Football League, and the XFL, Lacoste found that it was adversity–not athleticism–that would lead him to the next level.

His growing series of nationally recognized fitness programs for adults, students and pro athletes has brought him scores of awards, including the White House Champions of Change award and several designations as best trainer in the Jackson Metro area.

Mike Frascogna III, who competed against him in high school sports and played college football at Notre Dame while Lacoste played at Mississippi State, is an intellectual property lawyer and  co-author of five previous sports-related books. Lacoste: Living Life at the Next Level, he says, is a result of his 30-year friendship with Lacoste.

As the youngest of four competitive, athletic, and smart brothers and the son of a very driven father, you grew up in Jackson in a home you’ve described as loving, supportive, and extremely competitive. Briefly explain the values that were instilled in you through those years.

Growing up in a home that demonstrated tremendous love, support, and extreme competition fortunately taught me the values of what true love, protection, and lifelong commitment is for family, friends, and loved ones. More specifically, I learned by observation and watching my parents’ actions towards each other and towards each of their children. We were all taught we could achieve and do anything we wanted if we stayed focused, worked hard, and never gave up on the goals and dreams life set before us.

Encouraging health and wellness at a local elementary school

Encouraging health and wellness at a local elementary school

Along with this, I was taught to not grow up and find “any job” just to bring home a paycheck, but to truly find something I was passionate about–and that success was sure to follow. This is something I have personally carried on and try to instill in my two sons, Cannon and Cole, on a daily basis.

As you grew, you realized you were blessed with athletic talent and, thanks to your mother, you also excelled academically despite the challenges of hyperactivity and dyslexia. How have these realities shaped you?

Growing up with ADHD and dyslexia combined, I had to quickly learn the importance of a serious work ethic at a young age. I treated my football days as my job from junior high forward. With this, I had to choose to overcome obstacles, never back down, and know hard work was sure to pay off.

Looking back, I am forever thankful for my mother’s consistency in working with me every day, and for choosing to not let my “fits” as a kid cause her to give in and not make me complete what she knew was best for me.

Those realities have brought me through so many obstacles and so many stages in my life, including my brother’s death at a very young age, accepting the highs and lows of my football career, overcoming West Nile, and facing a terrible divorce, to name a few.

After being named an All-SEC player at Mississippi State and participating in brief associations with the NFL, the CFL and the XFL, you earned your master’s degree in Sports Administration, began to reconsider your dream of playing pro ball, and planned to begin a career in coaching. It turned out that you found your niche in fitness training for mostly non-athletes. How and why did this turn out to be your most passionate career pursuit?

I consider my niche to be more of a “coaching” style rather than a fitness training approach. Whether I am working with a pro athlete getting ready for the combine or a local business man or woman, my goal is to help that person achieve his or her dreams and to never give up.

Early morning training at Madison Central High School

Early morning training at Madison Central High School

I give a lot of credit for the way I coach today to my mother and the way she worked with me as a young boy, and to my coaches in football, basketball, soccer, and other sports, throughout life.

My passion lies in helping people take life to the next level. Yes, my clients come to me to get in shape. However, I have learned that getting in shape is not just physical. I tell my clients, “I want your F.A.T.!”

“FAT” stands for fears affecting transformation. These fears can be physical, spiritual, and mental–anything that holds an individual back from being his or her best.

It seems the word most associated with your training style (and everything else you do) is “intense,” and you developed a reputation as a somewhat ruthless trainer who produced results for clients, but often with a rather “rough around the edges” persona. You’ve lightened up in recent years. Explain the change.

I have definitely not “lightened up.” I am still just as intense, if not even more passionate now than ever. But through the trials and tribulations previously mentioned it became clearer to me in recent years what “F.A.T.” consisted of. Through the valleys and mountains in my own life, I can better relate to my clients and what is holding them back. Getting baptized on my 40th birthday started a new beginning for me.

You still demand a lot of your clients when they sign up for your training programs. Tell me about the programs you offer, and what clients can expect.

Currently, I have three 12-week programs a year; three four-week programs; and the Fit 4 Series, consisting of Fit 4 Change, Fit 4 Preaching, Fit 4 Teaching, and Fit 4 Healthcare. The 12-week programs and Fit 4 programs are four days a week for an hour each day. The four-week programs take place on the “off months” of the 12-week programs, meeting twice a week for an hour each day.

I make it clear to all participants on day one of each program that I have them for one hour a day and there are 23 more hours in the day, leaving it up to each of them to have discipline and stay focused. During this one hour it is very important that the participants don’t waste their time or my time by stepping onto the training field if they are not ready to give it their all.

All in all, clients can expect results through a training program that is recognized and has been recognized for years as not only as intense, but as the best throughout the country. Paul Lacoste Sports has been contacted by the Oprah Winfrey Network, presented with the award for excellence in wellness promotion by the Mississippi State Medical Association, nominated for the Magnolia award and for the White House Champions of Change award featured in Men’s Health Magazine, and voted as best boot camp and trainer in the Greater Jackson area, to name a few.

Why did you decide to put your story into book form?   

My longtime life friend Mike Frascogna has encouraged me for years to consider a book that would offer inspiration and motivation to anyone who is wanting to know he or she is not alone in overcoming the obstacles, trials and tribulations that life has to offer at all stages. Mike has been by my side for over 20 years, and has lived through challenging personal life events with me. Through his persistent encouragement, Mike made it clear to me that if I shared my life struggles with others, the story would be worth it 100 times over and over again if it saved one person from giving up on life’s dreams, passions, and the unique talents and abilities God has blessed each of us with.

Just as important, my dear friend and mentor Ron Aldridge with the Mississippi Beverage Association has stood by my side through thick and thin since the first Fit 4 Change program in 2009. It was with his shared passion for the health and wellness for the state of Mississippi that he has not only encouraged me, but made the book become a reality through our business partnership.

Through the years, you’ve endured the crushing weight of adversity through the death of your oldest brother when he was only 28, financial setbacks, divorce, a life-threatening case of West Nile virus, cancer, depression, and the threat of losing your two young sons. What has transformed your outlook into a more positive attitude?

Once my ex-wife moved my sons away from me from Madison to the Gulf Coast, making it nearly impossible for me to have a daily relationship with Cannon and Cole, I was quickly knocked down and felt I had nowhere else to go.

At that point, I opened my hands and asked God to take full control of my life and lead the way. I learned the hard way we all have “our” plans for our lives, but God’s plan is much better, even though it may be a different plan than what we expected. We must choose to trust in Him.  Our minister at Pinelake [Church] told us that “If we give our future to God, we get a future.” Wow, now that’s powerful!

A new approach to training

A new approach to training

What does your future hold?

Just around the corner, Fit 4 Change and Fit 4 Preaching will take place in January, February, and March. I am looking forward to Fit 4 Healthcare and Fit 4 Teaching during the summer months. I continue to strive in looking for new opportunities and programs that will positively impact the health and well-being not only for our local community but throughout the state of Mississippi.

Paul Lacoste and Mike Frascogna III will sign copies of Lacoste: Living Life at the Next Level at 5 p.m. Dec. 20 at Lemuria Books in Jackson.

Author Q & A with Robert St. John & Wyatt Waters

Interview by Jana Hoops. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (December 10)

Mississippi natives Robert St. John and Wyatt Waters have teamed up once again to create yet another “coffee table cookbook” worthy of the attention of good cooks and art admirers far beyond the boundaries of their home state.

ms palateIn A Mississippi Palate: Heritage Cuisine and Watercolors of Home, St. John and Waters serve up another full plate of exceptional recipes and watercolor scenes–and this time it’s all about the Magnolia State. Included are 105 recipes and 66 watercolors, all representing the Delta and Hill Country, the Central Region, and south to the Gulf Coast.

A syndicated weekly food columnist, St. John has authored 10 books (three with Waters) and is the owner of four noted eateries in his hometown of Hattiesburg. He has been named the state’s top chef three consecutive years and has been honored with the title of Mississippi Restauranteur of the Year.

Waters grew up in Florence, began art lessons as a first-grader, and is now widely recognized for his “Southern culture” watercolors and plein air paintings. He has received the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Award for Art, the Mississippi Library Association Special Award for Art and the Mississippi Arts Commission Governor’s Award for Excellence in Arts. In addition to his collaborations with St. John, he has released five other books, and his work has been featured in numerous regional and national publications. Today, he lives in Clinton, where he owns an art gallery.

How did you two meet and begin creating books together?

St. John: It all started as a suggestion by one of our restaurant customers. She had been bugging me for months about writing a cookbook. I had no interest in writing a book, but she persisted. One day, she was sitting in the restaurant with a man and called me over to the table. She said, “Robert, this is so-and-so with so-and-so publishing company. Tell him about your cookbook.”

I had no cookbook, and, seriously, had never ever thought about doing a cookbook before that moment. So, trying to think quickly on my feet, I said, “If I were to do a cookbook, I would have recipes I have developed here at the restaurant over the years, stories like in my newspaper column about the South, growing up in the South, and food in the South, and watercolors by Wyatt Waters.”

Without missing a beat, the publisher said, “Well, if you get Wyatt Waters, you’ve got a deal.” The problem was that I didn’t know Wyatt. I was a big fan of his work and the two books he had released at that time. So, the next day, I hopped in my car, drove to Clinton to his gallery, introduced myself, and told him that I had an idea for a book that would be like a coffee table cookbook, and a publisher willing to publish it. We hit it off, and here we are.

Waters: Robert and his wife Jill came to my gallery. He had this idea for a book that used stories, food, and heart to describe Southern culture. The idea intrigued me. I went to visit and meet with him further at his restaurant in Hattiesburg. I was impressed at how everything was done in an excellent way. Robert relates everything to food. I knew he was someone I wanted to work with and know better. Right before we met, my father had a stroke, and during the work on the book, he passed away. Putting the book together was a bonding experience, and I knew this was someone who would be a friend for life. I think Robert invented the coffee table cookbook genre. Most of the time, I don’t know if we’re working or just having a good time.

Tell me about the collaboration process.

St. John: This is our fourth collaboration. The process for each one has been different. When we worked together on our first book, A Southern Palate, we had just met each other. We had a lot in common–musical interests, family backgrounds, childhood memories, and the like–but we were two guys without a work history.

Today, we are best friends who have been collaborating for over 17 years. It’s way, way better. I love collaborative projects. There is a point where you reach when you’re working in a type of shorthand and a lot goes unsaid and unspoken. It’s familiar in a good way.

We have a blast hanging out with each other and working together. We have driven all over Mississippi for years, with the radio turned up way too loud, and we still encounter people, places, and things we have never seen before.

Waters: First of all, Robert has what I would call generosity of spirit. It’s not always clear whose idea it is. The project always take more importance than who came up with it. Another thing that helps is that i don’t pretend to know the food part. Robert has been a very good guide in that world.

The word most associated with artist is “starving.” Not something I have to worry about with Robert. When we get together and talk about ideas, I frequently grab a pencil and an envelope or a napkin and draw out ideas. When we are making final decisions about the book, another thing we do is spread out all of the paintings in consideration and begin culling the ones we don’t think fit. We also try to figure out what gaps need to be filled. There are several versions before we land on a final draft. It’s mostly based on intuition.

(L) Robert St. John and (R) Wyatt Waters

(L) Robert St. John and (R) Wyatt Waters

A Mississippi Palate is your fourth book together, but it’s your first that is strictly about Mississippi. Tell me how you approached this book.

St. John: In all of my–and our–other books, I have known going in what the structure would be like and how the recipes would be listed by chapter. I didn’t know on this project until we got into the recipe-testing phase of the thing. I wanted to have heritage recipes that reminded me of my childhood, but I also wanted up-to-date preparations. Ultimately, I chose things that were “Mississippi to me.” I’m happy with the end result.

Waters: This was like the most difficult of all art forms: the self-portrait. You never really can say exactly who you are. The best you can do is say at that moment what you believe you see. I’ve tried to be honest with my eyes and honest with my heart. This is the most personal of the books we have done together.

What is life like when you’re on the road for a book tour?

St. John: I love going to book signings and speaking events. I get to meet people who have read my newspaper column for almost two decades who remember stuff about my family and me that I had forgotten years ago.

But what I really enjoy is hanging out with my best friend. I drive. He rides. We listen to a lot of music. There’s a lot of me laughing at Wyatt. He cracks me up. He is one of the most clever and witty people I’ve ever known. I speak in “quantity,” he speaks in “quality.”

Waters: Music. Yes, lots of music. After we finished putting the book together, we went to Muscle Shoals and hung out with musicians Mac MacAnally and Norbert Putnam. I didn’t paint, and Robert didn’t cook. But we had a really good time. We cut up and goofed around.

There are some people who we only know from the book tours. They tell us what they’ve been doing since the last time we saw them. It’s a sort of a distant family member that you can’t exactly remember the name of.

Tell me about your new TV show, Palate to Palatte, on Mississippi Public Broadcasting. What can viewers expect, and what do you like most about doing it?

St. John: Palate to Palette  has been a blast. It has been well-received–actually, way better than we could have ever imagined. Our friend Anthony Thaxton wears many hats, and is the director/editor/goat wrangler. It’s Wyatt and me having fun, eating too much, listening to music too loud. He’s painting. I’m cooking and eating, we are visiting off-the-beaten-path places and unique people. I think people are going to enjoy it, but there’s no way anyone will have as much fun watching it as we have had during the filming (in Mississippi and northern Italy).

Someone asked me what the TV show was about the other day, and I said, “It’s really kind of cheating, because it’s the same thing we’ve been doing for the past 17 years, except now we have cameras with us.”

Waters: The idea is for people to see what we do when we are working together. After a few minutes, we forget the cameras are there. WE’re just being ourselves and it’s very unscripted. Anthony Thaxton is the videographer and edits this into a story. Anthony is an old student of mine and an excellent painter himself.

Do you have another book or project that you’re eyeing now?

St. John: I’ll be opening four new restaurants in the next two years. Wyatt and I have a couple of projects we have been talking about. This TV thing has a lot of possibilities. We will definitely keep taking people to Europe on food/art tours, and we have talked about a potential New Orleans book sometime in the future. I have no interest in slowing down anytime soon. In a way, we’re just getting started.

Waters: We’ve already done a lot more than I though I would ever do. Yes, the tours and TV shows are good to do and I like the ideas of a New Orleans book very much. New Orleans is close enough to where we have a lot of experience and feel its influence.

Anything else you’d like to include here?

St. John: One of the unexpected joys that has come with being a Mississippi writer is getting to know the independent bookstore owners throughout the South, and especially in Mississippi. They are on the front lines of a very challenging business model these days. We do everything we can to support them. We are their biggest cheerleaders, but it’s a two-way street. They’ve been there for us over the years, too.

Waters: We are both sons of Mississippi, so we’re kind of like brothers. It’s a real honor to work on something that we believe in as much as these projects we do. All the things that I’ve done all my life feel like preparation for where I am right now. I want to tell those future sons and daughters of Mississippi that they can do more than they think they can. You can live your dream and you can do it in a place you love around people you love.

Robert St. John and Wyatt Waters will be at Lemuria signing copies of A Mississippi Palate on Saturday, December 16 at 11:00 a.m.

Ms. Cook reviews ‘How to Set a Table’ (with Paella Bowl recipe)

How to Set a Table

Special Post by Guest Blogger Roben Mounger

One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.
– Virginia Woolf

What in the name of Sam Hill’s grandmama’s silver is needed by the generations to come? One insurance executive commented that “technology is developing so fast that autonomous vehicles could be available by 2032, meaning babies born today may never have to take a driving test.”

If that’s what’s in store, what will become of the competitive edge for things like buying fancy schmancy cars? Self sufficient endeavors like growing the best garden might be an answer and a possible leap forward in the culture. What goes around comes around.

My grandparents taught me about growing vegetables and maintaining a chicken coop in the backyard. They schooled me in how to sew on a button and put in a hem; how to iron a shirt and make boiled custard; how to mop a hard-to-clean checkered kitchen floor; how to use the public library and behave in the company of others.

They also required that I set the table for each meal, a job that I failed to appreciate. For me, rules that never wavered were a drag. Things today have gone a bit slack in this, yet another, category of…. “why bother?” Behold, rules for household management are now of a refreshingly reliable nature.

And considering the never ending river of paper and plastic products streaming across the world table and into the landfill, we should think again. In the face of such despair, there is a growing recognition that a daily diet of beauty is not only enjoyable, but as The New York Times reported, “can speed patient recovery, aid learning in the classroom and spur productivity in the workplace.”

To that, as humble as it seems, a prepared table set and ready for a meal may revitalize life with its inestimable beauty. Somehow I believe that the erudite publisher Clarkson Potter has mystical awareness. They have, after all, been in the lifestyle book business since 1959. Their books are instructional as they are visually stunning.

From bloggingforbooks.com, I chose one of the publisher’s creations, a linen-like text, How to Set A Table, for its alluring cover design and simple statement of intent. Believe it or not, it’s a real page turner with exquisite zen-like photos prompting ease in the daily routine of setting a table.

Inside the tiny book are decrees to be treasured. With the new world of specialty cocktails, who doesn’t need a tutorial in the different kinds of glassware? A generation or two of instruction has been bypassed, so a succinct primer in flatware types and their placement is elementary yet necessary.

How to successfully iron a tablecloth is weirdly helpful. Also, useful and proper table manners for a relaxed and happy meal are scattered throughout like the mothering voice for which you long.

But what is mandatory for continued use is how occasions are broken into their own chapters with advice on how to set the dining table, the breakfast bar, the coffee table, the picnic blanket, the bistro table, the console and the serving tray.

With appreciation you’ll note that How to Set A Table counsels, “personality is always the most important ingredient.” I will give tribute to this notion when I joyfully make the book a gift, from Lemuria to my grandchildren .

And they will know that it is essential for home because they’ll see that it stands next to my beloved copy of Dinner by Melissa Clark. But that is another story.

*I received this book free from Blogging for Books, but was in no way required to provide anything but an honest review.

Paella Bowl

My mother had an elegant flair for entertaining. Her primary guests were family members. Pre national food obsession, she took a class in Spanish cooking and derived a family heirloom – a recipe for paella.

I treasured that recipe for special events, but over time prepared it less and less as it was heavy in exotic proteins. Later I adopted a quickie paella from the pages of Real Simple which made use of pre-prepared ingredients.

With the following recipe, however; I feel that I have graduated to a contemporary and divinely inspired paella.

Here it is:

broth
3 1/2 cup vegetable broth
2 teaspoons smoked paprika
1 teaspoons sea salt
1/4 teaspoon saffron threads

saute
3 tablespoons olive oil
5 artichoke hearts, quartered
1 medium yellow squash or zucchini, halved lengthwise and cut into 1/4 inch slices
1 small red bell pepper, coarsely chopped
1 small roma tomato, coarsely chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced
4 ounces green beans, trimmed and cut into 2 inch pieces
2 cup frozen lima beans or edamame
1 cup paella or arborio rice

garnish
1/3 cup green peas, thawed if frozen
1 jar roasted red pepper, cut into 1/3-inch strips
1/4 cup minced parsley
lemon slices

broth
heat the broth, paprika, salt and saffron in a saucepan over high heat, bring to boil, reduce to simmer. cover and keep warm over low heat.

saute
heat the oil in a 13 inch skillet over medium high heat. add the artichoke and squash and cook until golden brown, about 4 minutes. transfer to a medium bowl. add the bell pepper, tomato and garlic. cook, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes break down. add the green beans and lima or edamame beans. add the rice, spreading it evenly over the vegetables. add the broth, taking care not to disturb the rice too much, but ensuring that the rice is submerged in the broth. reduce the heat to medium and cook until the rice is al dente, about 14 minutes. arrange the squash and artichoke hearts on the paella and continue to cook until the rice is tender and the broth is absorbed, about 4 minutes longer.

garnish
scatter the peas over the paella, arrange the strips of pepper on top of the paella and sprinkle with the parsley. remove from the heat, cover and set aside for 5 minutes before serving. serve in bowls with lemon slices.

Pioneering conservationist Fannye Cook was truly a Mississippi hero

By Jim Ewing. Special to the Clarion Ledger Sunday print edition (November 27)

fannye cookFor many outdoors enthusiasts in Mississippi, Dorothy Shawhan’s book Fannye Cook might be described as one about the most influential person you never met.

The term “hero” is often overused, but in this case, Cook lives up to the label, as Shawan details.

Approximately 150,000 people (mostly children) annually stream through the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science, says former director Libby Hartfield, who contributed to the book. And that is directly due to Cook, who founded it and served as its director until her retirement in 1958.

Of import to hunters, fisherfolk, birders, conservationists, and others, however, Cook was instrumental in creating what is now the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks.

Her impact goes even beyond that.

As Shawhan describes, Cook, a graduate of what is now Mississippi University for Women, began her lifelong study and promotion of Mississippi’s natural resources in 1926. The wildlife population in Mississippi—including its most popular game species—was threatened by lack of habitat, overhunting, and overfishing.

“The forest resources that had covered 95 percent of the state in 1800 were practically gone by 1930,” Shawan reports.

Cook, with the help of the federal Depression-era Works Progress Administration, conducted a comprehensive plant and animal survey in Mississippi that she designed. Traveling across the state speaking to local groups and schools, she spearheaded a successful effort for public education and scientific research of wildlife resources.

The results of her efforts were twofold:

  • After her pushing for seven years, the state Legislature approved creation of a state game and fish commission in 1932 to regulate and conserve natural resources;
  • To house the enormous data she amassed, she was instrumental in opening the state’s first natural science museum in 1939 for the survey’s “28,732 fish, reptiles, birds, plants, amphibians, and mammals collected.”

It was an incredible turnaround in the public’s appreciation and support for habitat that lives on today.

Subtitled “Mississippi’s Pioneering Conservationist,” the book delves into the obstacles that stood in Cook’s path both personal and professional, as a woman in a “man’s” field, as well as her achievements and friendships along the way.

It’s full of recognizable names, including author Eudora Welty, with whom she lived as a boarder in Welty’s Jackson home, and Aldo Leopold, considered by many the father of wildlife ecology in the United States, with whom she collaborated.

Cook serves as a role model not only for women, but for all who have a dream and are willing to work tirelessly to achieve it.

Cook’s work and memory live on with the museum, the state’s largest, that now houses more than 1 million scientific specimens, along with creation of the 2,600-acre Fannye Cook Natural Area in Rankin County soon slated to open to the public. It’s the brainchild of Wildlife Mississippi, which also helped underwrite this book.

Shawhan, a Delta State University professor, died during course of writing the book and the manuscript was completed by Marion Barnwell, professor emerita at Delta State, and Hartfield. It’s a fascinating account of a most extraordinary Mississippian.

Jim Ewing, a former writer and editor at the Clarion-Ledger, is the author of seven books, and serves or has served on numerous state, regional and national boards involving wildlife conservation, forests, agriculture and food.

Marion Barnwell and Libby Hartfield will be at Lemuria to sign and read from Fanny Cooke on Sunday, December 3, at 11:30 a.m.

Author Q & A with Carter Dalton Lyon (Sanctuaries of Segregation)

Interview by Jana Hoops. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (November 26)

A strategic program that was begun to awaken Jackson’s segregated white churches to the idea of opening their doors to their African-American Christian counterparts in the 1960s will be commemorated with several public events next weekend that will honor that struggle.

More than 50 years later, that effort has been documented in Carter Dalton Lyon’s Sanctuaries of Segregation: The Story of the Jackson Church Visit Campaign, published by University Press of Mississippi.

sanctuaries of segregationWhat began for Lyon as a doctoral dissertation while he was a history student at Ole Miss more than a decade ago eventually resulted in his debut book, which unfolds in meticulous detail why activists and students at Tougaloo College acted on what they believed was a necessary element in advancing their goal of racial integration in the capital city.

A native of Lexington, Kentucky, Lyon now teaches and chairs the History Department at St. Mary’s Epsicopal School in Memphis. He and wife Sally Cassaday are the parents of two daughters.

Your new book, Sanctuaries of Segregation: The Story of the Jackson Church Visit Campaign closely examines a 10-month effort by Tougaloo College students and activists who set out to integrate what you called “the last sanctuaries for segregationists” in the city–white churches. Why was this an important goal of the civil rights movement in Jackson in the early 60s?

One thing that I found early in my research was that segregationists throughout the South had been worrying about the potential desegregation of their churches for many years and that organized groups of students had been testing the attendance policies of white churches as they were challenging other segregated spaces. They would, in effect, conduct a sit-in at lunch counters on Saturday and try to attend white churches on Sunday. This had been done in other cities in 1960, but not in Jackson until 1963.

The idea for these “kneel-ins” was to tug at the conscience of white Christians, especially those moderates who favored a more voluntary approach to desegregation or who didn’t really appreciate the immorality of segregation. Being barred from church would make visible the reality of racial discrimination in the house of God. Activists in Jackson in 1963 had a more specific reason as well: they had tried mass marches and sit-ins, but the local movement had fractured a bit, and there were those, like Rev. Ed King, who wanted to give the Jackson community another chance to shift course–and appealing to white Christians seemed like a logical approach.

Although the participants in this movement faced a great deal of resistance from congregants and church leaders, the effort slowly began to gain some ground with white ministers and members. What was the trigger that finally broke through the resistance?

For the churches that were “open” to black visitors during the campaign, it took a combination of ministerial and lay leadership to sustain that. Even if the minister had ordered the doors to be open or favored open doors, the extent to which they would in fact be open really had to do with logistics–who was at the door and who was organizing them. The minister really needed the backing of a majority of lay leaders to make this work.

For those who began to change or who opened the doors in the years after the campaign ended, it would be nice if I could say that i was because of a change of heart, but there’s really little evidence to that effect. The Jackson church visit campaign forced their regional or national denominational bodies to clarify the open-door policies of the denomination, and so these churches needed to consent to this, especially if they wanted to call a new pastor. Some church members didn’t and formed break-away churches and, in the case of the Methodists, formed a new denomination.

Ultimately, what did this movement accomplish?

The Jackson church visit campaign made the reality of racial discrimination visible in these sacred spaces and forced white church people to confront the essential question of these activists: was racial exclusion following the will of God? These visits sparked internal debates within congregations throughout the city and certainly led to turmoil and division in many churches. But I see the church visitors as exposing a fatal flaw in these churches. They had retreated into these sanctuaries of segregation, but their practices contradicted their faith and were in defiance of the stated beliefs and policies of their own denominations. As a result of this campaign, you see denominations moving to clarify their attendance policies and become more deliberate in examining segregation within their bodies.

You write that many ministers secretly agreed with the students and activists who attempted to join in worship services in their churches, but believed they could not share their feelings with their congregations for fear of losing their jobs and/or causing a split in the church. From your research, how did these ministers ultimately deal with their mixed feelings?

Each minister dealt with it differently and there really isn’t a general way of answering this, but I can say that all of the ministers who fit this description certainly battled with the feeling that they had been called by God to this particular church and they were determined to remain. Some had been at their churches for at least a decade and even when their lay boards voted to bar African-Americans, the real moment of truth came when black visitors were in fact blocked at the church doors. For those who held onto their positions as activists were being rejected outside, I see a real sense of exasperation on the part of these ministers, that their message, and the Gospel’s message of inclusion and brotherhood over the years, had not gotten through to their congregations.

As a Kentucky native, why did you decide to bring this topic to light about Jackson’s past now, and how is it relevant in today’s social, spiritual, and/or political climate?

Carter Dalton Lyon

Carter Dalton Lyon

This book has been germinating for a while, but when I began researching this, I frankly noticed a dearth of analysis on the white church response to the civil rights movement on a local level. In the last decade and a half, historians and theologians have been doing great work filling in that gap, and I hope my book adds to that body of scholarship. The great Mississippian Ida B. Wells once wrote that “the way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth on them,” and my hope is that this book helps in some of the truth-telling that is happening in Jackson.

Your research for this book is extensive–with 65 pages of notes and bibliography. How did you go about your research, and how long did it take to put this book together?

This book grew out of my thesis and dissertation work in graduate school at the University of Mississippi, so the bulk of the research was conducted during those six years, and I’ve spent the last six years of so refining and getting it into book form. I should say that it was very important to me to try to capture all sides of this struggle and to track down as many people who were a part of this effort as I could. I realized early on that there were folks who wanted to sweep this story under the rug or deny it outright, so I aimed to be as careful and extensive as I could in documenting this and getting the story right.

Although you mention several Catholic and Protestant houses of worship, much of the book is devoted to how the “closed door” policy was carried out by Methodists. Why was that?

In the early months of the campaign, the visitors cast a pretty wide net and attempted to attend churches from a variety of denominations: Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran, Disciples of Christ, Episcopal, Unitarian, Church of Christ, and Catholic. For those that routinely barred their entry, such as First Presbyterian and the Baptist churches, they reasoned that they would have little hope of cracking open those doors, so they began to focus more on the churches with regional or denominational bodies that they could use as a potential wedge against these churches.

Then about midway through the campaign, the police arrested three students outside the Capitol Street Methodist Church, and made a total of 40 arrests on subsequent Sundays, and that suddenly brought national attention on the problem of segregation within the Methodist Church ahead of the 1964 General Conference. Methodist ministers and, later, two bishops from across the country began joining students on their weekly visits for their own reasons, but certainly to expose a problem that they hoped (the conference) would solve.

Carter Dalton Lyon will appear at Lemuria to sign and read from Sanctuaries of Segregation on Thursday, November 30, at 5:00 p.m.

Author Q & A with Mark Helprin

“Mark Helprin’s Lifetime of Writing” 

Interview by Jana Hoops. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (November 12)

Bestselling author Mark Helprin’s fluid, lyrical writing spills forth again in his newest novel, “Paris in the Present Tense,” a grand tale of music, regret, passion, and family love that finds its writer once again borrowing from the people, places and circumstances of his own experiences to flesh out a solid and relatable plot that, in essence, draws the reader into his own world.

A New York City native who grew up in a nearby suburb of the city, Helprin earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Harvard University, and completed post-graduate work at Princeton University and Magdalen College, Oxford. A prolific writer, he has authored five novels, three children’s books, three short story collections, and many essays. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker, the National Review and many other periodicals.

mark helprinYou’ve enjoyed a full life — world traveler, family man, would-be farm hand and at times you’ve turned your attention to politics (mostly through your deep interest in policy), journalism, the military, and your own formal education, not to mention an amazing career as a writer. How have you managed to fit so many interests into your seven decades?

Seven decades is a long time, and I started early. My first job was manufacturing sealing-wax-and-ribbon medallions for a women’s clothing store. It was an assembly-line process to which I devoted part of my weekends, piece work at 25 cents per medallion. I would earn about $500 per annum then, or, in today’s dollars, $5,000. I was eight. I used to dictate stories to my third-grade teacher, and Simon & Schuster wanted to publish them, but my father didn’t allow it, because my mother had been a child star and he thought that it had near ruined her.

Also, if you keep busy, you can do several things at once. When I was in college I wrote my first stories for the New Yorker, continuing to do so in graduate school and during military service. If you live on a farm, the farm tells you what to do, not vice versa.

The irony is that I hate to be busy, and have been too busy all my life in the hope that it would enable me not to be busy. And please don’t call me a world traveler. I hate to travel, and it reminds me of the magnificent line of Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny, when she says to Vinny, “So whata you, a _____ world travelah?”

Your fiction is known for its robust, adventurous plots and its lyrical syntax, always with a bit of romanticism, fantasy and autobiographical hints. Reading your work, it’s obvious that you not only enjoy writing, but you love your characters and your storylines. Tell me how you developed your literary writing style – and what drove you to become a writer in the first place.

This question requires a book-length answer, but I’ll be brief. I do love my characters, most of them. What’s the point otherwise? From my very first book, my motto has been taken from Dante, “Amor mi mosse, che mi fa parlare, (Love moved me, and made me speak)”. If I may paint with a very broad brush, what ails so much of modern fiction is its detachment from and hostility toward that which it depicts. If a writer wants to be a prosecutor, he should go to law school and apply to the Bronx DA.

paris in the present tenseYour newest book, “Paris in the Present Tense,” is another fictional work presented on a grand scale. In this story of an aging man consumed with worry about his grandson’s serious illness, main character Jules Lacour is keenly aware of his own inability to offer much in the way of financial support. A deep thinker with strong convictions, he looks back on his own life with his share of regrets and fears. In many ways, most of us have a lot in common with Lacour. Can you share your reflections on him? 

Ah! My reflection on him runs to 400 pages, and I can share all of it with your readers if they buy the book, or get it from the library. So many contemporary novels are politicized, sexualized, and sensationalized. And although this tends to result in narrow treatments of one subject – kind of like an expanded magazine article – as a means to deliver a single message, I think a novel should be about many things, with many themes running along and across many strata, so that in the end the book becomes more than just the sum of its parts, as are a man or a woman, as is Jules Lacour. Like all of us, he is so complex that I hesitate to dwell on one or another of his characteristics. The object is to portray as much in full what God has made not fully portrayable.

As usual, your characters are intensely developed, tying their perspectives together in the end. You’ve spent your career creating these “people” and their far-reaching (and often far-flung) circumstances. How do you stumble upon these characters and their situations?

Though they may think they do, writers and painters don’t create anything, they rearrange elements of the creation of which they are part. That’s why Leonardo, Raphael, Rembrandt, and even the French Impressionists had models, whether people or nature. The entire structure of Western – indeed, universal – art, is based on observation and interpretation of reality, and even the most abstract painters can only use colors that are a gift of creation. ‘So with writers, who must use models as a basis of their characters. As a newborn, even Shakespeare, had he magically been able to write, could not have written before he had observed the world.

All the characters to which you refer are based, even if loosely, on real people. For example, in “Paris in the Present Tense,” Louis Mignon, the French baker in Rheims, his wife, and son, and what they did during the war, are based on Louis Mignon, a French baker in Rheims, and his wife Marie, who did in the war exactly that, and with whom I lived (their son Jacques had grown up and left) for four years. In (my book), Winter’s Tale,” Peter Lake was based on Peter Lake, aka Grand Central Pete, a thief who lived in New York at the turn of the 19th century. Of course, one is wonderfully free to exaggerate, play down, add, subtract, and imagine characteristics and situations per need.

You’ve also written several children’s books. Is it difficult to switch to a different mindset and writing style to create authentic stories for children?

Not at all, in that one should never talk down to children. In fact, if any adjustment need be made, it is in simplifying language and thus purifying it rather than making it cute-sy. The best children’s books are just as attractive, meaningful, and beautiful to adults as they are to children. If you can reach the soul of a child, you will also reach the soul of an adult. As Wordsworth wrote, “the child is father of the man.” If one cannot, even in the darkest hours, retrieve or at least remember the innocence and goodness of childhood, then, really, what’s the point?

Making another shift, you’ve long filled a role as being somewhat of a statesman, and have advised politicians at the highest level on matters of policy. Tell me about your experience in that role, and how it came to be.

Quite simply, I knew from the second grade that I was a writer, but being a practical sort – and having a very practical sort of father – I understood that I’d have to have another way to support a family. So, I studied what might be called war and diplomacy. This led to many adventures, and, somehow, to being a newspaper columnist, a defense analyst, and occasionally – when the muckamucks I was advising realized I could put a sentence together – an always unpaid speech writer. That’s mostly frustrating, and I try not to do that whenever I can, which these days I hope is forever.

Being a person of your many talents, is there anything you want to accomplish in life that you haven’t attempted yet? And what did you do before writing became your job title?)

I was a kid. I had a dog, a 22., skates, and a hockey stick. There were a thousand acres around my house on the Hudson, and when I wasn’t doing homework I disappeared in them and was perfectly content. At 70, what I want to accomplish most is to remain alive, write some more books, and sit in the garden. I have no more ambition. Nor at my age would it be seemly. That’s astoundingly liberating and the cause of great happiness.

Can you share any info about your next book or other writing projects?

I’ve been thinking about it, making notes, and studying the milieu in which it takes place, for about a year. When this book tour is over I’ll have to spend about two weeks repairing fences, cutting up fallen trees, hogging down fields, and fixing stuff. Then, with winter, I’ll enter the paradise of writing every day in – I hope – wonderful tranquility.

Mark Helprin will sign and read from Paris in the Present Tense Thursday, November 16, at 5:00 p.m. at Lemuria.

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‘Paris in the Present Tense’ is an ode to love, remorse, and hope

By Jim Ewing. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (November 5).

If you love language, as most book readers do, and thrill at the precise delineation of thought, emotion, and the paradoxes and challenges of the human condition as expressed in the saga of a single life, you’ll love Mark Helprin’s Paris in the Present Tense.

paris in the present tenseIt helps if you’re a hopeless romantic who thrives on the razor’s edge of hope and despair, not caring if ultimately successful in the target of your desires, for having experienced the compounding joys of the attempt, even if it’s dashed.

A tall order, yes. But Helprin has produced a symphony of a novel that provides any sensitive, thoughtful reader great joy and sorrow, often in the same page.

The plot revolves around Jules Lacour, 74, a cellist who teaches music at the Sorbonne. A Jew, he survived the Nazis in World War II as a child, but his parents did not. That epochal event rules his life, with grief, survivor’s guilt, and an appreciation of the small miracles of daily life.

Jules falls in love easily and with virtually every attractive woman he sees. Pages are devoted to their walk, perfume, the line of neck and jaw, the easy, carefree way they comport themselves on the streets of Paris—the city of love.

But his one true love, Jacqueline, whom he met immediately after the war, has left him a widower in the beginning of Paris. The world is different, and all too much the same. Angry crowds march the streets chanting “Death to Jews,” oblivious to the city’s past.

In this strange world, he becomes party to a crime, then hatches another of his own devising in hopes of saving his young grandson from a life-threatening disease.

But, then, he meets Elodi de Challant, a beautiful, young student, and they fall in love—immediately, longingly, through the touch of a hand and the meeting of eyes.

The fear, desire, anticipation, hesitation and forthrightness between them is delicious, enthralling, ticklish and agonizing—like the initial unfolding of love itself. For a man of many summers, it offers hope, remembrance and remorse

Doomed, he believes, by the separation of their ages, she offers him a question that is searing in its simplicity: “What if you’re loved in such a way that it doesn’t matter how old you are, or if or when you die?”

Paris is a book of paradoxes, like the city, like life itself, as the title suggests, of past and present tense. “Half of humanity’s troubles arise from the inability to see that contradictory propositions can be valid simultaneously,” Jules notes. It’s a fact that makes him not afraid or bitter over the killing of his parents and the Holocaust.

“We have what was denied to them,” he explains. “We would betray them were we not happy to be alive.”

Age itself has beauty, he notes, for “you learn to see with your emotions and feel with your reason,” even if you can’t find your reading glasses.

Each page of Paris is a philosophy lesson on how to live, see, love, from someone who lives “in the present tense.” It is a world where capricious fate causes hopes to rise, which may turn to naught, creating new realities.

Enjoy this article? Let the Clarion-Ledger know by sending them an email, so we can keep providing you great locally-written content.

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.

Mark Helprin will be at Lemuria on Thursday, November 16, at 5:00 p.m. to sign and read from Paris in the Present Tense.

‘Goat Castle’ revisits Natchez murder

By Jim Ewing. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (November 12)

In fiction, it’s not uncommon for an author to go back in time to solve a mystery, often with shocking results. Less common is for a nonfiction book to do the same, but with a searingly honest view that’s sadly revealing today.

Karen L. Cox does so with her book Goat Castle (University of North Carolina Press).

LogoAddressing the Aug. 4, 1932, murder of Natchez heiress Jennie Merrill at her antebellum home Glenburnie, Cox peels back the layers of sensationalism surrounding the case to reveal the hard truths of racism and Jim Crow justice of the time.

Subtitling the book “A True Story of Murder, Race, and the Gothic South,” Cox details the lurid aspects of the case that transfixed the nation with its depiction of a South in ruins and the remnants of Southern aristocracy in squalor in the decades following the Civil War.

The headlines of the time focused on Merrill, called an aging recluse, allegedly killed by a black man and her black housekeeper, with her white neighbors as possible accomplices.

The neighbors lived in a falling down mansion they shared with goats and other livestock wandering the halls (hence, the name “Goat Castle”).

“Murder, aristocracy, recluses, and goats,” Cox notes, “these were the subjects more likely to be found in a Southern Gothic novel, and in fact journalists immediately drew parallels to the fiction of Edgar Allan Poe, and later, William Faulkner’s novels about the social decay of old Southern families.”

It was the type of news story that kept Depression-era Americans grossly entertained.

But Cox dives deeper than the headlines, through excellent historical and journalistic investigation, to bring to light a horrible injustice.

Whereas, Merrill’s white neighbors, Dick Dana and Octavia Dockery (she, the daughter of a Confederate general; he, of a family of a famous authors and journalists) got off scot-free, the two black suspects were either killed or imprisoned.

Cox details the lives of Merrill and her alleged paramour and cousin, Duncan Minor, who discovered her body. And she recounts the often bitter and ongoing disputes of the aristocratic Merrill with Dana, called the “Wild Man” who was known to wear only a burlap sack while living in the trees on his property, and Dockery, called the “Goat Woman,” who was glib, clever, and vengeful, albeit living hand to mouth.

The new knowledge of the case is Cox’s painstaking research into the lives of the two black suspects, Lawrence Williams, the alleged triggerman who was gunned down in Arkansas while making his way home to Chicago, and Emily Burns, who received a life sentence at the notorious Parchman Prison farm at Camp 13–the Women’s Camp.

Burns’ sentence was indefinitely suspended after eight years because even in the Jim Crow South that saw black men imprisoned or killed for allegedly improperly looking at a white woman, Gov. Paul B. Johnson Sr. said he was “thoroughly convinced of (her) innocence” and that she was convicted solely upon “circumstantial evidence.”

As Cox details, Burns’ treatment was based on a coerced “confession” and included the belief that unless someone was held accountable for the crime in a court of law, white citizens might have taken matters into their own hands and she might be lynched.

“Emily was presumed guilty because of her race.”

Filled with astonishing photographs and copious notes, Goat Castle is sure to invite attention anew to an old crime in the Bluff City and reinvigorate current debates about racial justice.

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

Karen L. Cox will appear Wednesday, November 15 for the History is Lunch series at the Old Capitol Museum at 12:00 p.m. She will appear at Lemuria at 5:00 p.m. on Wednesday to sign and discuss her book, Goat Castle.

Author Q & A with Gene Dattel

Interview by Jana Hoops. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (November 5)

reckoning with raceCultural and economic historian Gene Dattel, who grew up in the small Mississippi Delta town of Ruleville, tackles questions about what he calls “America’s most intractable problem–race”–up close and in depth in his newest book, Reckoning with Race: America’s Failure (Encounter Books).

The biggest and most necessary part of bridging the racial divide, he said, is “economics–which means jobs,” a goal he believes is possible with what he calls “the right kind of assimilation.” To Dattel, that means avoiding what he believes is a harmful separatism while at the same time allowing for full expression of one’s cultural heritage.

Dattel’s lifelong interest in racial history, and its ties to economic history and colonial nationalism, was launched in the early 60s when he was entering Yale University at the same time James Meredith was entering Ole Miss.

After his early years in Ruleville, located in what he calls “the heart of the majority-black cotton country of the Mississippi Delta,” he graduated from Yale, and then Vanderbilt University Law School. Of his 21-year career in finance as a managing director at Salomon Brothers and Morgan Stanley, 15 were spent in London, Hong Kong, and Tokyo. He has done advisory work for the Pentagon, major financial institutions, and cultural organizations from the New York Historical Society to the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum.

His previous books include Cotton and Race in the Making of America and The Sun That Never Rose.

What prepared you to write this book, (as in, I’m curious–what exactly is a “cultural historian,” and how did you become one?) and what do you hope your book will accomplish?

The small-town dynamic of my youth mean that I had to adjust to people–old/young, middle class/poor, black/white–regularly. Beginning at age 13, I worked in my family’s dry goods store on Saturday night when most of the customers were black. I entered Yale at the same time James Meredith integrated Ole Miss. This triggered my profound interest in racial history, economic history, and colonial nationalism.

A career in finance brought home the importance of economics in the lives of people. My 11-year stay in Japan was transformative; there, I observed the first major economic challenge to the United States by a non-white, non-Western nation. For eight years, I performed a “Parallel Lives” Program with black author (and businessman” Clifton Taulbert about my growing up Jewish and his growing up black in the Mississippi Delta in the 1950s. My book Cotton and Race in the Making of America (2009), a description of the fateful intersection of the power of cotton and the African-American experience, was the stepping stone to Reckoning with Race.

My definition of a cultural historian: one who examines the impact of a broad range of topics–literature, art, movies, music, tradition, communication, values, rhetoric, humor, and fusion in a society. It is my sincere hope that this book contributes to a frank discussion about the hardest of all hard topics in America–race. I believe our goal should be to concentrate on access for the mass of blacks into the American economic mainstream.

In your book, you present a great deal of historical research that most of us never heard in our school history classes about the open hypocrisy of Northern and Midwestern states–dating back as far as the 1700s–of extreme racist attitudes toward blacks. Instead, the history that has captured the nation’s interest has, for the most part, emphasized the racial atrocities of the South. Why has this discrepancy largely remained a well-kept “secret”?

One has only to look at the quotes at the opening of the book’s chapters to recognize how white Northern racial attitudes have frequently been overlooked:

  • White abolitionists “best love the colored man at a distance.” – Samuel R. Ward, Black Abolitionist, 1840s
  • No free Negro, or Mulatto, not residing in this state at the time of this constitution shall come, reside, or be within this state. – Oregon State Constitution, 1857
  • The New York Times, Feb. 26, 1865, in the text: “The negro race…would exist side by side with the white for centuries being constantly elevated by it, individuals of it rising to an equality with the superior white race.”

The white North has almost no exposure to its true historical racial attitudes. White Northern racial hypocrisy and self-righteousness has resulted. Historians extol the abolitionists but neglect the anti-black attitudes that doomed Reconstruction, created a containment policy of keeping blacks in the South, and trapped them in combustible urban ghettos. The drama of the civil rights movement in the 1960s was particularly visual and suited for television; millennials have seen countless clips of Birmingham hoses and dogs, etc. I have found that “going local” is effective in creating awareness for Northern audiences. When in Connecticut, include Connecticut’s past.

You state that, despite decades of political advancement, economics gains and the passage of civil rights legislation, “the practical task facing America is the economic elevation of the black community–desperately for the underclass and significantly for the fragile (but growing) middle class.” To that end, you emphasize the importance of personal responsibility and assimilation into American society. Explain why you believe this idea is so important.

America’s unique strength, its ability to foster the “right kind” of assimilation, allows its people to retain their cultural heritage. We are the only grand experiment of a multiethnic country that does not resort to tribalism. At the same time, we have seen no successful large scale self-sufficient economic group within America, able to function outside the economic mainstream. The acceptance of common values–color-blind middle-class norms–is a prerequisite for mass entrance into the economic mainstream.

In a competitive global marketplace, individuals must aspire to resiliency, a byproduct of personal responsibility.

You cover many government programs that have been implemented through the years to help African-Americans raise their standards of living, often with little progress. Why do you think it’s been so difficult to find lasting solutions toward economic progress?

Gene Dattel

Gene Dattel

Large government programs are plagued by bureaucracy, inefficiency, and most importantly, lack of accountability. I would argue, if a program is not working, change it or reduce it; if a program is working, expand it. I describe several small programs that are successful but cannot be replicated on a mass scale.

We need to understand and speak about the currently taboo topics of black culture and structure. The only way to move forward economically is to develop viable structures for family, church, and community. Education, the portable credential for employment, largely depends on these influences. Education provides the skill set and thought process for success. Or, in the words of New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker: “My mom and dad were constant mentors, my first and greatest teachers….[From my father] I learned the connection between hard work, discipline, and reward.”

Part of America’s problem in finding racial unity, you say, has been a “hypersensitivity” to real or perceived “slights” that seem to be arising more frequently, especially on college campuses. Why is this, and how can these be dealt with constructively?

Today’s iteration of multiculturalism fosters and encourages differences, to the detriment of what Americans have in common. Our inability to discuss real or perceived sensitive topics further inhibits dialogue and promotes separatism. Greater contact and discussion in a responsible, objective way is the best way to achieve trust. College is supposed to be the proper venue for challenging and preparing students for life and exposing them to a diversity of ideas. The interaction with different opinions promotes resiliency and should be pursued on an individual basis.

Despite hopes that an Obama presidency would help heal some racial divides, you state that “racial divisiveness is more evident now than it was when Obama took office.” To what do you attribute this change?

The racial divide had already been set in motion before the Obama presidency. Powerful forces–multiculturalism, frustration at the ineffectiveness of many programs, social media, separatism as expressed in identity politics, economic recession with a weak recovery, and the lack of a frank racial discussion–were at work. President Obama’s leadership could not produce the necessary unity given these factors.

You speak of a racial mindset in this country that seems to be heading more toward separatism than the defining goal of integration in the ’60s. Explain what that ultimately means, and what your hopes are for our future.

As of the end of 2016, the overall numbers for black progress in education and economic well-being were disheartening. The poverty level of blacks has remained three times that of white for the last 45 years. Also, 32.9 percent of black children under the age of 18 live in poverty. Only 38.7 percent of black children under 18 live in a two-parent family. Black Americans’ college majors, according to a 2016 Georgetown University study, “tend to be low earning.”

As we move int a stage of self-imposed, heightened racial identity, the goals of integration and assimilation become loaded terms with negative connotations. This separatism is highly detrimental in accessing a proper education, combating poverty, and attaining economic parity.

As for the future, we must remember America’s strength. Where else could a man, whose father was Kenyan and whose mother was a white American, become president?

Gene Dattel will sign copies of Reckoning with Race on Monday, November 13, at 5:00 p.m. at Lemuria.

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