Category: Southern Fiction (Page 1 of 18)

Author Q & A with Beth Ann Fennelly

Interview by Jana Hoops. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (October 15)

Beth Ann Fennelly, poet laureate of Mississippi, once again stretches her literary abilities with a new release she calls “a true hybrid.”

The Oxford author who has netted a considerable number of writing awards and accolades as a poet and novelist captures the attention of readers in a fresh, new approach with Heating and Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs, with entries that range from one sentence to five pages.

heating & coolingThe micro-memoir, she has said, “combines the extreme abbreviation of poetry, the narrative tension of fiction, and the truth-telling of creative nonfiction,” in works that include “memories, quirky observations, tiny scenes, (and) bits of overheard conversations that, with the surrounding noise edited out, reverberate.”

Writing micro-memoirs, she said, was “liberating” after she had co-authored The Tilted World, a novel that required extensive research, with her husband Tom Franklin. “After living in the heads of characters, now my own thoughts, my own experiences, seemed newly fresh,” she said.

Additionally, Fennelly has published three poetry books: Open HouseTender Hooks, and Unmentionables, and a book of nonfiction Great with Child. She’s won grants from the Mississippi Arts Commission (three times), the National Endowment for the Arts, the United States Artists, and a Fulbright to Brazil. Her work has won a Pushcart Prize and was included three times in The Best American Poetry Series. She was also the first woman to claim the University of Notre Dame Alumni Association’s Griffin Award for Outstanding Accomplishments in Writing.

Growing up in a suburb of Chicago, Fennelly said her first love was poetry, which she studied at the University of Notre Dame, earning first a bachelor’s degree magna cum laude in 1993; and a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Arkansas in 1998.

An English professor in the MFA program at the University of Mississippi, Fennelly has been named Outstanding Teacher of the Year. She and Franklin, also an English professor at Ole Miss, are the parents of three children.

At what point in your life did you discover that you were a writer?

I was always an artistic kid, loving the theater and music and reading and writing, but I didn’t know I wanted to be a writer until I got to college. That’s where I experienced my first truly great teachers and was exposed to contemporary poetry. In my high school, we only read the classics. I think that’s one reason why I take my job as a college professor so seriously–I know how an engaged teacher can turn a student’s life around.

Poetry is a different kind of writer’s challenge. How were you drawn to poetry?

Beth Ann Fennelly

Beth Ann Fennelly

I was drawn to the dynamic compression of poetry, almost like a chemical reaction–how can so few words trigger such a big response? Also, I was, and still am, in love with the sound of words, their mouth-feel, as wine enthusiasts say. It’s a huge pleasure to take a poem into your body through memorization and release it back into the world with the air that rises from your windpipe.

Your newest book is a nonfiction collection of brief personal thoughts, idea, and memories, along with several short essays. They deal with family, marriage, fears, triumphs, nostalgia, and hopes. Was this a collection you have gathered through the years, or did you write these specifically to be published as a book?

Before I published this book, my husband and I wrote a collaborative novel. Called The Tilted World (HarperCollins, 2013), it was set in the flood of the Mississippi River in 1927, and it ended up being a big project. Although we’d each published four books, we’d never written one together. In addition to teaching ourselves how to collaborate, we had to do a lot of research. And it was high stakes: We spent four years writing the novel. Imagine, if it failed, how costly that would have been for our marriage.

Luckily, it didn’t fail. After we returned from our book tour, tuckered, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to write next. There followed a long, frustrating, fallow period in which I wasn’t writing. I mean, sure, I was scribbling little thoughts and ideas in my notebook, but nothing was adding up to anything. Many of my scribbles were just sentences, or a paragraph, the longest just a few pages. I kept complaining to my patient husband that I was “not writing.”

Eventually, however, it occurred to me that I was enjoying this scribbling in my notebook. After the high stakes, research-heavy, character-embedded-thinking of the novel, my own life seemed rich material again. The little memories or quirky thoughts or miniature scenes I was creating seemed refreshing.

So, strangely, I identified the feeling of writing before I identified the activity. I thought, “What if this ‘not writing’ I’m doing actually is writing, and I just don’t recognize it because it doesn’t look like other writing I’ve done? What if I need to stop waiting for these things to add up to something, and realize maybe they already are somethings, just small? Once I’d recognized the form and gave it a name, the micro-memoir, I realized I was almost done with a book.

Today, you and Tom are professors in the English department at Ole Miss, where you teach poetry and nonfiction writing–and where you have been named Humanities Teacher of the Year and College of Liberal Arts Teacher of the Year. What do you enjoy most about being a teacher?

I really like working with young adults–I think they keep me young in certain ways, because I’m always getting exposed to new ideas. I love the feeling of being in love with a book or an author, and not just conveying my own passion, but kindling that same passion in my students.

Books have been such important companions to me, and reading has schooled me in empathy and reflection. These are skills the world isn’t encouraging in our young people. I’m honored that I get the chance to share the transformative power of literature with them.

In 2016, you were named poet laureate for the state of Mississippi. What are your duties that go along with that?

I’ve just finished the first year of my four-year term, and I’ve had a blast. I’m interested in getting poetry in front of as many Mississippians as possible, especially children. The position is honorary in that there’s no salary involved, and therefore my “duties” are probably more “suggestions,” but I’m traveling to a lot of libraries and schools, and I’m deeply involved in our state’s Poetry Out Loud program, which I think every high schooler should be a part of.

Beth Ann Fennelly will be at Lemuria on Thursday, November 9, to sign and read from Heating and Cooling. The signing will begin at 5:00 p.m. and the reading will begin at 5:30.

Jamie sings the praises of ‘Sing, Unburied, Sing’

Since I’ve been working at Lemuria, I’ve self-imposed a  rule of not writing about a book till I’ve finished it.

I am currently breaking that rule. Demolishing it. Splintering it without a shadow of hesitation or guilt.

sing unburied singJesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing is lots of things:  brilliant, gorgeous, haunting, raw, tender, honest. Much like her National Book Award winner Salvage the Bones (a personal favorite of mine­), Sing takes place in an impoverished area of the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Both books’ characters find themselves in a mix of relationships—familial, internal, romantic—yet Sing is in no way a cookie-cutter redux of SalvageSing shifts through various first-person narrators, and does so in a way that’s easy to follow.  If you’re having nightmarish flashbacks of Faulkner, don’t: these leaps between characters (mostly the 13-year-old, endearing Jojo and his difficult mother Leonie) aren’t pretentious displays of cleverness for its own sake. One of Ward’s gifts as a writer is a conspicuous wedge of human empathy. By getting into the mind of Jojo, we see his desire for toughness and tenderness, his need to be protector for his younger sister Kayla, and his longing to be a surrogate father for Kayla the way his own grandfather is for him. While Jojo lends us his frustration at his absent mother, the chapters from Leonie’s perspective help round her character. Her drug use isn’t entirely selfish—it’s her way of self-medicating the hurt of the violent death of her older brother. We see her doubting her own abilities as a mother, cursing herself, but trapped in her own self-doubt so as to prevent her from risking connection with her kids. Ward isn’t necessarily excusing Leonie’s behavior so much as she is explaining it, and showing us the complexity of the human heart in conflict with itself, to steal a phrase from Faulkner.

Ward’s fiction and nonfiction shows us the importance of personal, familial history, and how things from previous generations aren’t really all that previous. Her memoir Men We Reaped illustrates the struggle of generational poverty and quiet, systemic racism perfectly. The notion of inheritance manifests itself in Sing in a fascinating way: ghosts. I would never classify this novel as a fantasy/supernatural genre piece, nor do I think that is Ward’s intent. Leonie sees her dead brother, Given, but can’t hear him speak; Jojo meets his grandfather’s dead friend Richie, who tells him about their days in Parchman. The past isn’t past—another Faulkner phrase I’ll paraphrase—and the ghosts in Sing show us that.  The myriad difficulties of poverty, compounded with the burdens of racism, are hard to get away from.  They haunt their victims, float constantly over their shoulders, peek in-and-out of their vision, or sometimes present themselves in full view.

There’s probably more about the novel that this piece is missing. I’m halfway through the book, and as soon as I finish this post, I’ll open Sing, Unburied, Sing back up and skip sleep.  The book’s that good.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll get back to it.

Ace Atkin’s Quinn Colson is back as sheriff in ‘The Fallen’

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

Fans of Oxford novelist Ace Atkins will savor the butt-kickin’ return of protagonist Quinn Colson as sheriff in The Fallen (G.P. Putnam).

atkins fallenAll the familiar denizens of the fictional town of Jericho, Mississippi, (faintly like the Oxford we all know, perhaps stripped to its roots) are there–if not in person, then in memory.

Loyal, tough-as-nails, and sharpshooter deputy Lillie Virgil is there–but for how long? The loyal one-armed mechanic, Boom, is there; this time, sleuthing out the mystery of two missing teens as the behest of Colson’s sister, Caddy, behind the sheriff’s back.

His Elvis-worshipping momma Jean is there, still dishing out heaping helpings of Southern food and sound advice.

The major clash is a trio of ex-Marines who, having returned from war, want excitement, cash, and blood through heists while brandishing weapons and wearing Donald Trump masks (complete with R-rated quotes from the president while robbing banks).

In many ways, book 7 in the Colson series is like many of the others: Colson, a former U.S. Army Ranger, enjoys tooling around in a big pickup (the Green Machine), smoking cigars (now Drew Estate Undercrowns over his previously preferred La Gloria Cubana), and finding himself in binds caused by the local good ol’ boy power structure while dealing with deadly scofflaws.

His love life is still hopelessly conflicted , with the rekindled romance of his high school sweetheart now a hurtful memory, the fling with the coroner Ophelia Bundren cut short after she threw a steak knife at him, and the continuing unresolved tension with Virgil.

But there’s a new woman in town, Maggie Powers, who it turns out, used to run with Colson when they were kids.

She’s grown up nicely–but has conflicts and dangers of her own.

This time around, there’s a new owner of the strip club/rent-by-the-hour motel on the interstate: Fannie, a striking redhead who oozes reserved sensuality, hiding her brutal upbringing with fine cars and clothes, but knows how to hurt and even kill with indifferent calculation.

The old guard–despite the old crime boss Johnny Stagg now in prison–is still quite virulent, though keeping in the shadows. And, in a foreshadowing of Colson books to come, it seems intent on regaining full power, with the help of the Southern mafia from the Coast.

All in all, The Fallen is a worthy contender in the series and the type of fast-paced mystery Atkin’s readers have come to expect.

There is one jarring issue that stands out in this book, a plethora of foul language. In previous novels, there was plenty of cussing, and, it’s perhaps to be expected among some of the characters, including military types and hardcore criminals. That’s easily shrugged off. But The Fallen abounds in profanity, even from children.

Atkins, a master craftsman with 21 novels, including the deftly written Spenser books, seems to have fallen into a trap of substituting cursing for dialogue. And there’s no difference in the spewing of it by the various characters, as if all were merely one person speaking out of several mouths. It flattens their texture, destroys any nuance, robs them of their individuality, and (the ultimate sin of the writer) distracts from the narrative.

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.

Read, Lead, and Succeed: ‘The Talented Ribkins’ by Ladee Hubbard

talented ribkinsThe Talented Ribkins by Ladee Hubbard is an amazing book to read, and yet the meaning can be evasive until the main character, Johnny Ribkins, can be fully understood. Johnny is a 72 year-old member of an extraordinary African-American family: the Ribkins, descendants of the Rib King™ (“said to have invented the best barbecue sauce recipe in the entire southeast”).  Each member has an extraordinary talent, or power, whose value can be initially dubious, and, in isolation, maybe useless. Johnny can make maps of places he has never been nor seen, his brother Franklin can climb anything (even flat walls), his cousin Bertrand can spit fire, and his niece Eloise can catch anything that is thrown at her.

Initially, during the Civil Rights movement, Johnny organized his family (and some similarly-gifted friends) to form the Justice Committee, dedicated to helping Civil Rights heroes through their Freedom of Movement Movement, allowing them to move safely about the country. But when the Justice Committee falls apart due to interpersonal conflict, money issues, and Johnny’s escalating paranoia and flights of fancy, Johnny feels lost. Later, after he discovers the existence of his half-brother Franklin, and his wall-climbing capability, he turns to a life of crime as thieves-for-hire.

His partnership with Franklin eventually sours, too, leaving him freelancing his maps for slick gangster Melvin Meeks, from whom Johnny has been embezzling money for years. Now, Johnny has one week to pay off his $100,000 debt to Meeks. His plan is to raid his squirrel-holes from his past all up and down Florida, having burying money like a paranoid pirate, in places that are almost designed to bring back memories. It should be a relatively easy job, what with the amount of money he has stashed away. But he keeps running into people who need a hand-up, and ends up paying for two mortgages. Also, he finds the nature of his mission radically altered: his discovers, for the first time, his deceased brother Franklin’s 13 year-old daughter, Eloise (of catching ability). Soon, he finds her escorting her all over Florida, introducing her to her people, the talented Ribkins, and what it means to live life when you’re just a little bit…different.

The name of this novel and its themes are inspired by W.E.B. DuBois’s concept of the Talented Tenth. Basically, DuBois argued that a well-educated aristocracy of African-Americans would, if educated and equipped, rise up and lead the race of their race into prosperity and success. While this idea might sound elitist, context is critical. He was countering Booker T. Washington’s “Atlanta compromise“: that the races could be separate as the fingers, but work together as one hand economically. While Washington accomplished much and was interested in black advancement, his ideas appealed to pragmatic white supremacists, who wanted to keep black people not only humble but subservient. DuBois’s arguments were for black dignity, and full personhood, although not every black person would benefit initially.

The Ribkins are literally talented, standing in (in many ways) for the Talented Tenth. Eloise is talented and smart, but young and the product of a single-parent home. Can the examples of the elder Ribkins be emulated? Should they be? Do all the Ribkins(and Flash and the Hammer, the friends from the Justice Committee) use their talents the same way, and for the same purpose? This is important background information for a novel that is neither parable nor allegory, but definitely infused with important ideas.

But this isn’t a book with just ideas, it is filled with artistry and craft. The setting and history is immersive, and the characters are unique and memorable. Johnny himself is a cipher whose nature seems to shift through the paradigm of whatever old acquaintance he is interacting with. He is an interesting foil for Eloise, who is in the youthful process of discovering herself and her potential. The journey they make is an odd odyssey, filled with hosts with their own complicated motivations. Personally, one of my very parts is the “pie scene,” filled with some of the most delicious dramatic tension I have ever read.

Ultimately, though, you can’t fully appreciate the book until you finish it, when the story comes back home to Leigh Acres, when you find out what Johnny really is (and, for that matter, the true nature of Eloise is capable of). It is then that you see the way forward, and you will understand what DuBois says later when looking back at his Talented Tenth idea:

My own panacea of earlier days was flight of class from mass through the development of a TalentedTenth; but the power of this aristocracy of talent was to lie in its knowledge and character and not in its wealth.

Ladee Hubbard will serve as a panelist on the “First Fiction: The Discovery of the Debut” discussion at the Mississippi Book Festival on Saturday, August 19 at 4 p.m. at the State Capitol in Room 113.

ms book fest

Thirteen Ways of Looking at Kim Church’s ‘Byrd’

(With sincerest apologies to Wallace Stevens)

byrd (2)

I

The title character of Kim Church’s Byrd is Byrd, a boy born in North Carolina in 1989 who is given up for adoption by his mother, Addie Lockwood. He is almost a McGuffin, almost completely absent from the narrative, except that the story follows the lives of people important to him in his birth family, especially his birth mother Addie, and to a lesser extent, his birth father, Roland Rhodes. This book is a long shadow cast by the boy Byrd.

II

I stumbled across this book while receiving inventory for the store in the backroom. For technical reasons I won’t bore you with, I thought Byrd was a new release. It is not; it was published in 2014 by Dzanc Books (a small publisher), and only in paperback. Lemuria has only ever ordered two copies, three years late, and the only one it has ever sold (as of this writing) has been to me. This book is criminally underappreciated.

III

Besides Ron Rash telling me this was a good book in a blurb, I was sold on it by the first sentence of the summary on the back: “Addie Lockwood believes in books.” I know what that means. Addie shares my opinion, or perhaps I share hers, that The Brothers K by David James Duncan is an “Unheard-Of Masterpiece.” Addie seems a little bit more ambivalent about the process of bookselling than I am, but to each her own.

IV

A man and a woman
Are one.
A man and a woman and a blackbird
Are one.

V

I was almost overwhelmed by the beauty of this book. I had to put it down the first time, because I was reading something else and didn’t want to crowd it. First of all, it handles the old verities of hope, of loss, and of human folly with a deft, humanistic touch. Second, Church handles the use of time exceedingly well. The story covers a huge stretch of time, about forty-odd years of Addie’s life. Even though the progression is linear, it is still an accomplishment to make it feel so smooth. Church reminds of another female North Carolina writer, Anne Tyler, in this way.

VI

Look, what I’m about to share does not convey, exactly, the main thematic thrust of the book, but it’s my favorite passage because I’m kind of a romantic, and I’m always detained and delighted when I find a new way of thinking about love. Also, the passage is beautiful and poetic. Here it is:

Neither of them thinks of love the way they used to, as something to be fallen into, like a bed or a pit. It isn’t big or deep or abstract. Love is particulate. It’s fine. It accumulates like dust.

VII

Not one character is this book is wasted, or less than human. Not Addie, not Roland, not Addie’s mother Claree nor her father Bryce, not Addie’s astrologer Warren, not Roland’s wife Elle. I am convinced Church could have plucked any random background figure out of the book, made them fascinatingly human, and made their story cohere to the whole.

VIII

As a coincidence, this article from The Atlantic, written two years ago in response to Pope Francis’s remarks about declining Western birthrates and a then-newly published anthology about chosen childlessness, came up in my Facebook feed. Byrd, in this book, is an accident. His conception, yes, of course, but also his birth itself. Addie’s attitude about her decision, and her subsequent gnawing curiosity about the life she created, is one of the subtlest motifs in an already subtle book. Setting aside the raging inferno surrounding the abortion debate in our culture, the discussion of a birth in our society is only easy when everything goes right and everyone is wanted, shunting miscarriage, infertility, chosen childlessness, and sometimes adoption into a silence that I am grateful that fiction can sometimes have the ability to fill.

IX

And speaking of accidents, I can’t help but thinking about the book I previously talked about in this spaceCareless People (a bibliographical biography of The Great Gatsby). It refers to a forgotten meaning of the word accident: “Catholic theologians used the word ‘accidental’ to describe the inessential bread and wine left behind after the ritual of communion had turn them into mystical symbols…accidentals [are] the inessential objects that once glittered…disenchanted things made ordinary again….the accidental is all that we are left with once we have lost our illusions.” This is what Byrd, or the knowledge of Byrd, is for Addie after she loses her illusions about Roland.

X

Not that I guess this has much to do with anything, but would it surprise you to know that Church, the author, used to be a high-powered lawyer? That choice speaks to an ambition exceeded by anybody in this novel, including Addie. That Church chose to write this book instead of a legal thriller is to me (who enjoys a good legal thriller now and again) a minor miracle.

XI

Byrd does have an interesting surrogate in this novel, his half-brother Dusty. His existence doesn’t seem to answer any questions about Addie, but it does offer a lot of insight about Roland, and in general people’s capacities to change or to love. So I guess it does tell about Addie, in a suggestive rather than definitive way. That this is the way the whole book operates might drive some people crazy, but it’s part of why I love it so.

XII

Addie’s greatest secret, besides withholding Byrd’s existence from Roland the second time, is that her affair with Roland in the first place. Not that she had an affair, not that it produced a child, not that she gave her child up, but because it was with Roland, whom she supposed she should be over. This book could be a coming-of-age novel, but it lasts so long in Addie’s life that it is also an age-passing-by novel. It is not only about the making of a person, but the consideration, evaluation, and self-doubt about who that person becomes.

XIII

Almost the very last words of the book are Addie’s “I have hopes but no expectations.” I hope I haven’t spoiled the book by telling you that, but what I really worry is that I’ve spoiled the book by telling you any of this. I have certainly implanted some sort of expectation in you, the reader, if you’ve read this far, if you’ve decided to give the book a chance. Expectations of not only the plot, which I believe are overrated, but of this book’s quality. With this handicap, I don’t think you can enjoy the total surprise Byrd was for me, but even a shadow of the surprise is still astonishing, I assure you.

blackbird rise

Ain’t No Cure for the Summertime Blues: Nick White’s ‘How to Survive a Summer’

Books about strange experiences have always been my guilty pleasure. I enjoy reading about things I have never done, events that are unlikely to ever happen to me, because I like attempting to understand the unfamiliar. But I also have a purely entertainment-based fascination with things that seem too bizarre for real life. This is why I first picked up How to Survive a Summer by Mississippi native Nick White.

ht survive a summerWhite’s debut novel is about a man who, as a teenager, went to a gay-to-straight conversion camp in Mississippi. When the story of the camp is made into a movie, the main character, Will Dillard, returns to his roots and finally reckons with his past. The story is told through memories and reads almost like a memoir, as it focuses on emotions and is told primarily through internal dialogue. But the plot–the truth of what really happened that summer–kept me turning pages.

As Will weaves down the Natchez Trace towards the old campsite, he remembers his deceased mother, his unusual childhood, his sexual realizations, and eventually the conversion camp–all in zigzags that lead to one final twist. He encounters a full spectrum of people: a transgender love interest who calls too much, a sheltered librarian whose hospitality is taken too far, and a misguided uncle who once tried to help AIDS victims.

What initially drew me to How to Survive a Summer was the strange setting of a gay conversion camp. But what pulled me in were the real emotions of relatable characters. Each one was involved with the camp for a different reason, and the ways they cope with the past are just as varied. As the narrative progressed, I realized that it is an intentionally villain-less story. Nick White compassionately gives each person reasons for their actions. He paints unique people against the backdrop of one specific tragedy. The result is a reminder that every person comes to grips with his story in his own way, and that outward appearances have nothing to do with the truth inside.

Author Q & A with John Grisham

Interview with John Grisham by Jana Hoops. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (June 18).

John Grisham’s story that took him from small-town lawyer to master of the legal thriller is a tale that even he couldn’t have imagined.

But the incredible success he’s experienced since his first novel was published in 1988–which would lead to 30 bestsellers and counting–is strictly nonfiction.

With the release of his latest work, Camino Island (Doubleday), Grisham takes a recess from the courtroom and goes beachside in what he is calling “a great beach read.”

He’s also hitting the road for the first time in 15 years with a book tour that will bring him to a dozen cities nationwide, including Square Books in Oxford and Lemuria Books in Jackson.

caminoCamino Island is a book about books, booksellers, bookstores, and the rare book business. In this fictional account of the dramatic heist of four original F. Scott Fitzgerald manuscripts from the Princeton University library, most of the story unfolds in the quiet resort town of Santa Rosa, Florida. Main characters Bruce Cable, who owns a popular book store there and Mercer Mann, a hopeful young author, square off in a high-stakes tale of espionage, betrayal, and theft–all within the mysterious world of the rare books trade.

When Grisham’s first novel, A Time to Kill, was released 29 years ago, and, in his words, “was a flop,” he decided to give it one more try before abandoning his dram of becoming a writer. With the blockbuster success of The Firm in 1991, he’s never looked back, releasing a book a year ever since.

JohnGrisham_credit Billy HuntBorn in Jonesboro, Arkansas, in 1955, Grisham spent most of his childhood in Mississippi, and went on to earn an accounting degree from Mississippi State, and then a law degree from Ole Miss. He was working as an attorney in Southaven and serving as a member of the Mississippi Legislature when he began writing full-time.

All of his books have became international bestsellers, and he now has more than 300 million in print worldwide. Nine of those, including A Time to KillThe FirmThe Pelican Brief, and A Painted House have become successful films. His writings also include the nonfiction work The Innocent Man and a collection of short stories, Ford County. He has also written a series for young readers that features 13-year-old character Theodore Boone offering legal advice to his classmates.

When he’s able to take a break from his writing desk, Grisham enjoys devoting time to charitable work (including his Rebuild the Coast Fund after Hurricane Katrina); and his lifetime passion of baseball, as both a local Little League commissioner and the developer of six Little League ball fields on his property.

Why did you decide to do another multi-city book tour after 25 years–and why did you wait that long?

grish lemuriaThe last big book tour I did was in 1992, when The Pelican Brief came out. I was living in Oxford at the time, and I knew Willie Morris, Barry Hannah, and Larry Brown. They were always hanging around the bookstore (Square Books), and they talked me into doing a big book tour that turned out to be 35 cities in 34 days. It was not fun and I didn’t think it was productive. I told my publisher I can go back to Oxford and write books or hit the road and do publicity.

So, I never did a tour like that again, but I did continue to have signings at five stores: Square Books, Lemuria, Reed’s Gum Tree Bookstore in Tupelo, a store in Memphis and one in Blytheville, Arkansas for about 10 years. those five were really helpful when A Time to Kill came out, and they really supported me. So, it’s been 15 years since I’ve done this, and this time it will be 12 cities.

How has your writing changed since A Time to Kill came out in 1989?How have you changed?

There have been no deliberate changes in my writing, as far as the style, procedure, and process. I write every morning for a few hours, and I write a certain number of words each day. As far as how I’ve changed–I’ve aged 30 years.

Camino Island is the story of a grand-scale heist that leaves the original manuscripts of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s four novels missing–and it weaves a fascinating behind-the-scenes tale of the world of rare books. Why did you choose the works of Fitzgerald as the target for this crime?

The fact that Fitzgerald had fewer manuscripts–he had published four novels–was a huge factor. And I’ve always been a big follower of Faulkner, Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Fitzgerald. They were all born about the same time (late 1800s-early 1900s) and were the greatest writers of that generation. Fitzgerald had the fewest manuscripts, and they were all in one place, the library at Princeton. Faulkner had at least 40. He was very meticulous about his manuscripts and took care of them, and that would be a lot to try to steal at one time.

Do you collect rare books?

I’ve been collecting rare books for probably 25 years–a lot of Faulkner, Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Fitzgerald. There have been several dealers I’ve known and worked with through the years. My wife actually bought a copy of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury from (Jackson’s Lemuria Books owner) John Evans for me.

Tell me aobut your relationship with bookstores and booksellers–have bookstores been a special place for you?

They still are special to me. When I’m traveling I usually try to sneak into a bookstore and see what all is for sale, see if my books are selling. If they have a coffee shop or cafe, that’s a nice touch. I go to bookstores and talking with booksellers is something I always enjoy doing. Bookstores are dwindling in numbers now, and many are fighting to preserve them.

What was the hardest book for you to write, for whatever reason? What was the easiest?

Easy, and fun to write and without much research–would be Calico Joe. I love baseball and really enjoyed writing that one. Camino Island was fun–the world of the murky and mysterious world of rare books and how much they’re worth now. The Chamber was probably the toughest to write. I spent a lot of time on death row in Mississippi doing research.

Is there a topic, a style, a genre, you haven’t tackled yet, but want to?

There are a couple of books based on things I might like to write about. One is a sort of fictional memoir of my childhood and life, like in (my novel) A Painted House. It would be going on in Memphis about a 15-year-old boy who thought he was going to Vietnam, after seeing his friend come home in a box. That’s something I think about–kind of personal stuff. Who knows, I still might write it.

You have another book coming out in October, another legal thriller, this one about student debt–a very topical subject now. What can you tell me about it?

Not much–I have a rule not to talk about a book while I’m writing it. It’s about law students. It’s still untitled.

Your first book was rejected by many publishers. What do you know now that you didn’t know then?

It was turned down by about 15 publishers and 15 agents. That’s not unusual for a first-time author. And what I know now that I didn’t know then: everything. I knew nothing then about writing or getting published. I was a state legislator and a small-town lawyer, barely 30 and so naïve.

Oxford’s Square Books owner Richard Howorth told me you were very persistent in getting your first book published–and that you wanted to sell “lots and lots” of books. Considering that you have a degree in accounting from Mississippi State, does that kind of determination come from your accounting side, or would you say it was strictly ambition?

I think it was ambition. I had practiced law 10 years in Southaven. I was looking fo a way out because I knew I wasn’t going to make a lot of money. After 10 years of working hard, I wrote A Time to Killin 1989 and it was a flop. I said I will do this–I will write a book–one more time and see what happens. I wrote The Firm, a book that I thought would be more commercial. The fact that movie rights for that book were sold before it was published was a fluke deal that could never be repeated–it was a lucky break that would only happen once.

Long-term, what do you see in your future?

I’m 62 years old. I’m still enjoying this immensely. I certainly have no plans for a career change, or for slowing down. I intend to write one book, maybe two, a year.

Interview with John Evans of Lemuria Books

Interview with John Evans by Jana Hoops. Special to the Clarion-LedgerSunday print edition (June 11).

Even though John Grisham was born in neighboring Arkansas 62 years ago, Mississippians will always “claim” him as a favorite son, since his family made the move to north Mississippi when he was a child–and his ties became tight, thanks to his years as a student at Mississippi State and then Ole Miss law school, and later as a young lawyer in Southaven, a member of the state legislature, and a stretch when he and his family returned to Oxford once he became one of the nation’s most successful authors.

Among his biggest fans is John Evans, who opened Lemuria Books in Jackson 42 years ago and has watched with satisfaction as Grisham’s career–and their friendship–has flourished since A Time to Kill debuted in 1989.

The memories Evans holds of Grisham’s early years as an author, and of the writer’s phenomenal career through the years, convey his obvious pride in a man he considers to be a valued ambassador for Mississippi.

With the release of Grisham’s 30th novel, Camino Island, the writer is embarking on his first book tour in 25 year–and his stops at Richard Howorth‘s Square Books in Oxford on June 20 and at Evans’s Lemuria Books on June 21 are the author’s nod to the roles these booksellers and longtime friends played in his early career.

camino islandTickets for the event have already been allotted for Grisham’s appearances at both stores.

A native Jacksonian, Evans opened Lemuria in 1975, slowly building a “community of readers” that he hopes has made his hometown a better place.

Tell me how you started Lemuria Books, and why.

I grew up in Jackson and graduated from Murrah High School in 1968–barely. I went to Ole Miss and got a degree in general business.

I got interested in the idea of opening a shop because I had gotten tired of traveling out of town to find good records and books and bringing them here (to Jackson). BeBop (Records) opened in 1974, so there was then no need for finding the records.

Inside Lemuria's location in the Quarter

Inside Lemuria’s location in the Quarter

I got married and decided to do something. In 1975, at age 24, I formed my company and in October of that year, my wife and I opened Lemuria. I had never worked in a bookstore, so it was all trial and error. I wrote letters to publishers or called them on the phone and set up appointments. The salesmen came to our apartment to set up my first orders. When I started the company, I got a lease for a space behind Poet’s, the best bar in town. It was a second- and third- floor apartment. Ninety days later, I was working in the bar, waiting tables, to make ends meet.

I moved the store to the Plaza at Highland Village and stayed there from 1977 to 1988. On April 1–my favorite day of the year–in 1988, we moved to our current location at Banner Hall, the old Redd Pest Building.

What was, and is, your vision for Lemuria and its role in the Jackson community?

I’m very interested in giving the community of Jackson the very best bookstore I can give it–what, in my judgment, I consider to be the best. I’ve always been interested in the idea that I was not going to be penalized by being in a “poor, under-educated” market. If you want to have a good bookstore you have to have good books, and it was always my desire that Lemuria would be the very best bookstore I can provide to the community.

How do you do that? By bringing national authors to Jackson, Mississippi. That’s a very unifying experience, because, when authors come to Mississippi to sign their books, they touch the books they sign the books, and they develop friendships with the store and with the people here. They create a bond with the community, and that makes the books come alive–all of a sudden, they’re not just a product.
JXNLAMAR-2Publishing the Jackson book (published in 2014 by Evans and Lemuria Books, with photography by Ken Murphy) was the ultimate expression of that–creating the very best book about this city–a book that makes Jackson look beautiful and fun and full of good things, and making those things more tangible. That has been the driving force for everything else we do–trying to go local in a positive way. And all of our focus is on real books.

Why has Lemuria been so successful, and stood the test of time over the past 42 years?

I knew when I moved here (to Banner Hall), I had to grow because the big box stores like Barnes & Noble and Books-a-Million and Borders would come along and we had to adapt for every change. With Metrocenter and later Northpark Mall, there were half a dozen chain bookstores in malls, with very different markets. With each one, we had to be more proactive.

After we survived the (most recent) recession, a lot of bookstores went under. You have to do everything you can to revitalize your store. The biggest thing in the last 25 years that brought the most continuous change has been the internet. My retail customer started changing about 15 years ago. Like everybody else, we keep trying to find the next ace in the hole.

Let’s put it this way: we’ve been able to make money because there are people who care about our efforts. I think of myself as a bookseller, not as the boss here, and, as a group, we’ve worked hard to make Lemuria what it is today.

How has John Grisham supported the indie book business throughout his career?

John Grisham’s first book signing in Jackson in 1989, for A Time to Kill, was at Hal and Mal’s–but between A Time to Kill and The Firm (his 1991 book which was made into a movie and launched his writing career), he started making a commitment to local bookstores. I feel like he understands what each and every independent bookstore was doing for him, and the work they were doing to promote his books.

His new book (Camino Island), reflects 30 years of his relationship with booksellers and bookstores and the whole way booksellers interact with books and with authors. I think this book is his testament to what independent bookstores have done for our society.

John loves books. He loves the physical, printed books as an art form. This book is about the business of selling books. He loves bookstores. That’s how he has the understanding to write this book.

Why do you think John Grisham’s books connect with so many people?

He works at it. He thinks about it. He plans it. He comes up with these ideas and plots. He figured out how to give meaning to legal thrillers. Gray Mountaindealt with strip mining for coal. Calico Joe is about baseball. The Chamberdeals with the death penalty.

He has taken his success and tried to make people aware of topics he is passionate about, and he makes you think about something in the culture, about things that are meaningful to him. The key issues he writes about are personal to him in a way that actualizes him as an author and it activates you as a reader, and that presents an authenticity that gives him breadth and depth.

Richard (Howorth) and I can see very unique things about John, from our perspectives. There is more authenticity to him, not necessarily just commercializing his product. He’s down to earth.

What is your impression of the indie book business as Grisham presents it in Camino Island?

In this book, I think about real people who have worked in a bookstore, and customers who are going into an independent book store and have a relationship with a bookseller. Both of them have a love of books. Reading is an independent thing that touches you at the moment, and I feel like he has done a wonderful job of describing how a bookstore relates to the community and that he understands the book world and how the business of rare books and first editions operates.

John has been in a lot of bookstores. He knows a lot of booksellers. He knows about first edition books. He gets that. All of his years in the book business came out in this world he created in Camino Island. It’s an extension of years of reading books and of knowing the business. Part of what John Grisham is doing for the book business is giving it value.

What would you say John Grisham has done for Mississippi, through the success of his writing?

Grisham at the 1st Annual Mississippi Book Festival in August 2015

Grisham at the 1st Annual Mississippi Book Festival in August 2015

I think what he’s done for the state of Mississippi is he’s made people enjoy reading. Some people may read five or ten books a year. Or one. Why do people read? Because they enjoy it.

Before the 80s, the chain stores had taught people to go in bookstores mostly for the mass market paperbacks. But before the big box stores, independent bookstores came of age and created a community of readers. Grisham started publishing at the end of the 80s. His success with the movie industry was a perfect fit for what he was writing. So people started enjoying reading–for pleasure. That’s why his work took off and he became so successful–people liked his books.

He brought more people into bookstores–and he liked going to bookstores and talking to his readers. People would come in to buy more Grisham because they enjoyed reading–and they started caring about books and collecting them. There’s a community of readers in Mississippi now that he helped create, and that, really, has made Mississippi better.

First Voyage with a John Grisham Book

I’m going to be real honest here: I’ve never read a John Grisham book and I had never really thought that I would. But when I found out that Camino Island, his newest book–released today–deals with a bookstore and stolen F. Scott Fitzgerald manuscripts, I became interested and wanted to get my hands on an advance copy.

Camino Island begins with an intense moment, right in the middle of a gang of thieves staging the heist of the F. Scott Fitzgerald manuscripts from the Princeton library. In what I can only assume is Grisham’s typical thriller writing style, he is able to pull the reader in right away with this scene.

Bruce Cable, owner of an independent bookstore on Florida’s Camino Island, always has his hand in buying and selling rare first edition books in addition to his ordinary stock. Here’s where the true book nerds get hooked. There’s constant book talk, authors and book titles are dropped here and there throughout, and I’m pretty sure Bruce’s first edition rooms may or may not have come from our very own Lemuria. Grisham paints a pretty picture of Bruce Cables’ bookstore, Bay Books. As a book lover, it’s very fun to read about.

Mercer Mann, a writer who has recently been laid off from her teaching gig at UNC and hasn’t written in months, spent her summers on Camino Island with her beloved grandmother Tessa, but hasn’t returned in years since her death. Mercer is approached by a woman who is working for a very mysterious company and is offered a large sum of money to move back to Camino Island and work undercover. Mercer’s mission consists of infiltrating Bruce Cable’s inner workings of his bookstore and first editions deals, as well as working her way into his circle of literary friends. Mercer has to get close enough to make sure Bruce hasn’t started to dip into the black market of stolen books, while also keeping his trust. Things begin to get pretty intense, but Grisham wraps everything up in perfect style.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. This is not a legal thriller; it’s more of a crime novel. I think that new Grisham readers will find this book very entertaining and I think die-hard John Grisham fans will find this book refreshing. This book is going to give every book lover a new, and maybe first, look into the bookstore world. As a bookseller, I can definitely say that Grisham did a great job building this world in his writing and as a first time Grisham reader, I can definitely say he writes an entertaining and gripping novel.

If you’re going on vacation this summer, this is the beach read for you!

beach photo

Hannah Barbarians: Katie shares her love of Barry Hannah’s ‘Airships’

airshipsWhen I was a junior in high school, one of my teachers handed me a copy of Barry Hannah’s Airships and said, “Read it. Just a warning, it’s pretty messed up.” Although, he didn’t say “messed.” He said another word that ended in -ed, but started with an f. To this day, I still thank him for letting me borrow his copy of that book. There are not many books that I have bought more than once, but I have probably bought this book close to seven or eight times, simply because I cannot keep it to myself. I pass it off to friends, people from the South, people in the South, people who need a little Barry Hannah in their lives.

“Love Too Long,” which is probably my favorite story in the book, is about a man whose wife has left him for the last time. This story is full of clever, twisted, beautifully dark sentences. I remember reading the last paragraph of it and immediately searching my room for a pen because I just had to circle the entire thing. Here it is:

Nothing in the world matters but you and your woman. Friendship and politics go to hell. My friend Dan three doors down, who’s also unemployed, comes over when he can make the price of a six-pack.

It’s not the same.

I’m going to die from love.

This is, and will probably remain to be for a while, my favorite ending to a short story.

“Eating Wife and Friends,” another favorite of mine, is a sort of dystopian story about an America where food is scarce. A landlady, Mrs. Neap, has tenants in her home and she gets tired of them. They make too much noise, they contribute nothing, and they constantly break her rules. There are rumors going around that people are starting to eat humans and Mrs. Neap is not at all taken aback by the idea, nor are the tenants.

“Coming Close to Donna” is, in my opinion, the most disturbingly beautiful story in the book. At the very beginning, Hannah outlines a scene for us in which two boys are fighting over Donna in a cemetery while she and a seemingly uninterested boy watch from a Lincoln convertible. This story has more twists and turns in three pages than I have ever read in a short story before.

If you like grit lit or a good ol’ southern story, you should definitely read Airships. Barry Hannah has a way of creating a whole world in a story, a world where you probably would not want to live, but you would love to read about forever. Hannah was a southern man, a man whose life, today, is lived through stories told by his past students, past writing buddies, and people he ticked off. He had such a wonderful voice that shows through in every single sentence he formed.

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