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Author Q & A with Steve Yarbrough

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

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

Steve Yarbrough

Steve Yarbrough

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are there future writing projects you can us about?

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

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

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Cut to the ‘Bone’ by Yrsa Daley-Ward

Hello, readers of the Lemuria Blog. I have become known as “the poetry reader” by my coworkers, which I am proud of, as I do love reading and writing about poetry. boneFor the last year and a half, I have loved being able to share different collections from new voices in the poetry world with my coworkers, and with all of you. Unfortunately, this is my last blog for the store, as I have decided to give my full attention to getting my master’s degree and to working as a teaching assistant at my university. So, naturally, I had to make my last blog one of a new collection of poetry, Bone, by one of the most powerful female voices I have read so far: Yrsa Daley-Ward.

Daley-Ward’s poems are raw and emotional, which, as anyone who I have ever talked to about reading poetry knows, is just how I like them. A sharp stab to the feelings, these poems are an outpouring of love and, often at the exact same time, hatred. They explore her complicated relationships with her mother, brother, father, and grandmother. They explore the effects of a staunchly religious upbringing on how she navigates romantic relationships. They explore different identities that often conflict. A few great ones discuss what many are afraid to talk about: mental health. when they askMost importantly, though, the most powerful poems explore the way she coped with abuse and how she grew up thinking that was what love was supposed to be like, because that’s what she endured and what she watched her mother endure. And just to let you know this book isn’t all poems about abuse and mental illness and gloomy subjects, there are poems, toward the end of the collection, about working through the events of her childhood, about healing, and about learning how to love healthily.

My first reaction to this book is one of sadness. As a literature major and huge appreciator of the craft of writing poetry, my second reaction was one of awe (and just a tinge of jealousy). Daley-Ward deftly tells stories through verse that makes you feel for her, and, as I said in my last poetry blog on Cassie Pruyn, made me want to jump into the book and give her a hug, cry with her, and tell her everything would be okay. If you like poetry that is honest, poetry that tells a story without sugarcoating anything, you will like this collection.

Staff Pick: ‘Fire Sermon’ by Jamie Quatro

Jamie Quatro comes to Lemuria tomorrow (Thursday, January 25) to sign and talk about her new novel, Fire Sermon. We’ve already posted Jana Hoops’s interview with the author, and Lemuria’s own Kelly Pickerill’s review from the Clarion-Ledger. We’ve already selected it as our January selection for our First Editions Club, but so many of our booksellers loved the book so much, we wanted to tell you how this book’s reading experience moved us personally. We’re so excited about this book that we wanted to get you excited, too! We hope to see everybody tomorrow at 5:00.

Aimee:

When I first heard what the plot of Fire Sermon was, I was little hesitant. However, most of my coworkers that had read it were raving about it, so I decided to give it a shot. Boy, am I glad I did! I took this home with me for Christmas, and it was the perfect book to curl up with in front of the fire (no pun intended).

Trianne:

I loved Fire Sermon because the way the story is told–through thoughts and memories, making the story feel familiar. Those things comprise the inner monologue we all have when contemplating our lives, the way we retell our history to ourselves to make sure we know who we are.

Guy:

Fire Sermon reminds us how easily desire can be set alight by anticipation, and, on my favorite pages, how desire remembered is just as combustible. Quatro’s powerful writing stitches together letters and narration seamlessly to yield a dynamic and moving portrait of a life combed through. With surety, she drives home the notion that the truth unfolded and untangled looks a little different every time we find it.

Dorian:

Jamie Quatro brilliantly captures the relationship between spirituality and desire, the eternal and the carnal. The language was so lush, but at the same intimate, as if it were reaching into my own ideas about faith and fidelity. Thank you, Jamie Quatro, for sharing a story of humanity, even when it’s unfaithful to itself.

Austen:

Quatro’s first novel is fire. She deftly flows through God and poetry here to explore the many wires that frame a life. A sensuous and heady cocktail of a book. Everyone should read this.

Hillary:

I loved Quatro’s lyrical writing style, how the story didn’t have a linear timeline and how thoughts varied throughout the book. I think this style of writing really gives the reader insight into the narrator’s mind and adds humanity to the novel. Even if you haven’t personally experienced some of the situations or circumstances that Quatro’s narrator has, you will still feel a connection of empathy, love, and desire to this book like you have not experienced before.

Kelly:

In Fire Sermon, Quatro plumbs truths about the gratification and restraint of desire, about the intimacy and estrangement of marriage, and about the steadfastness and inconsistency of faith…This is a novel that is more than the sum of its parts. Maggie is a real human being, and Quatro’s prose never judges her, so the reader can’t either… In anyone else’s hands, the level of empathy might not be as strong; Quatro adeptly depicts a messy situation with flawed people in a way that connects us with our own shortcomings.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Author Q & A with Jamie Quatro

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jamie Quatro

Jamie Quatro

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you have other writing projects in the works?

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

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

Jamie Quatro’s ‘Fire Sermon’ explores desire

By Kelly Pickerill. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (January 14)

Jamie Quatro’s second book and first novel seems, by the summary, as through it may be an expanded version of one of her stories.

Her first book, a collection of short stories called I Want to Show You More, was populated with characters whose predilections included  running, infidelity, and theology, though not necessarily in that order.

fire sermonWith Fire Sermon (Grove Press), Quatro has proven that she can successfully make something new out of the same materials, and do so in ways that are fearless, boundary-pushing, and exhilarating to read. As she did in More, Quatro plumbs truths about the gratification and restraint of desire, about the intimacy and estrangement of marriage, and about the steadfastness and inconsistency of faith.

Maggie’s marriage to Thomas and their two children seems perfect from the outside–they married young, had two children, and enjoy a comfortable commitment. But an innocent exchange of letters between Maggie and a poet, James, who shares her spiritual acuity, sparks a desire in Maggie that she finds herself helpless to resist.

Quatro uses several storytelling devices throughout the novel–emails, therapy sessions, prayers, poetry, even a sermon. The affair unfolds in pieces that are out of order chronologically, narrated by Maggie in first person. Maggie and Thomas’s story is written in third person, where Maggie is referred to as “the bride” or “she,” but the reader senses it is really Maggie who is narrating at a distance, perhaps removing herself from the memories, from the past.

The more traditional prose sections have a dreaminess about them, as though you’re being told a story by someone close to you, but the memory they’re describing is one you lived, as well, so you have the benefit of remembering while also being reminded.

Some passages read like they happened long ago, the repercussions almost forgotten. Reading others, what’s happening is so immediate you feel like  you might be able to stop it by crying out.

Fire Sermon is a novel that is more than the sum of its parts. Maggie is a real human being, and Quatro’s prose never judges her, so the reader can’t either.

The choices she makes are not necessarily right for anyone, not for Maggie, not for James, not for Thomas. But they’re her choices.

In anyone else’s hands, the level of empathy might not be as strong; Quatro adeptly depicts a messy situation with flawed people in a way that connects us with our own shortcomings.

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

Mrs. Cooks reviews ‘You are the Beloved’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

rm you are the beloved

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

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

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

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

Author Q & A with Karen L. Cox

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

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

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

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

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

Karen L. Cox

Karen L. Cox

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cozy Books for a Cold Winter

There are a lot of reasons for which I say that I’m blessed. But the most important reason is that when Jackson’s weather reached literal freezing temperatures a few weeks ago, I was in California visiting my family. Mid -70s, people. I know: you’re jealous. Anyway, even though Jackson weather has warmed up, it’s still pretty cold outside. So I’m sharing a few of my favorite cozy, wintertime, bundle-up-with-hot chocolate-and-a-quilt books!

olaf sun

potato peel societyThe Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society
by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

I’m not usually a fan of novels told through letters, but this book was surprisingly amazing. It’s the story of Juliet Ashton, a writer in search of her next topic, and her love affair with the island of Guernsey. Set in the years just after World War II, Juliet begins by corresponding with the island’s inhabitants and eventually comes to love them so much that she decides to visit. It’s one of those books that needs to be accompanied by a fireplace and a cup of tea–just make sure you can put the cup down while you laugh!

eleanor oliphantEleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine
by Gail Honeyman

This is a more recent book, which came out in the middle of last year. Eleanor Oliphant lives a very structured, solitary life until she accidentally becomes friends with a coworker. As the book progresses, you realize Eleanor’s dry wit and attachment to routine stem from an inability to process tragedy. The sweet characters and gentle ways Honeyman deals with brokenness make this novel the perfect balance of cozy and serious.

hazel woodThe Hazel Wood
by Melissa Albert

This YA novel is coming out on January 30, but I got to read an advanced copy and loved it! A girl who cannot remember her past, a collection of twisted fairy tales authored by her grandmother, and an unpredictable adventure, this story goes a step beyond magical realism while staying grounded in a contemporary mindset. The old-world fairy tales and slightly dark storytelling style made me want to curl up in bed and just keep reading.

capture the castleI Capture the Castle
by Dodie Smith

Written in the 1940s, this YA classic came recommended by a friend a few years ago, and I was instantly in love. Cassandra is a young girl whose family lives in relative poverty in a renovated castle. There’s her unproductive–novelist father, her flamboyant and nature-loving step-mother, her romantic sister, her logical brother, and the sentimental boy who has always lived with them. Add to the mix two handsome brothers–their new landlords–and you have a novel in which anything can happen. I reread this one over Christmas break and its delightful, old-fashioned nature was perfect for nights spent reading.

Not in Our Stars, But in Ourselves: ‘The Immortalists’ by Chloe Benjamin

The year is 1969 in New York City’s Lower East Side and the Gold siblings have heard rumors of a mystical psychic living in their area. This rumored gypsy-lady claims to be able to tell anyone the exact date that they will die. The siblings, all under the age of thirteen, decide to visit the woman together and then–one at a time–learn the exact date of their death. Such is the setup for Chloe Benjamin’s new novel, The Immortalists.

immortalistsOnce they have stepped out of her door, their lives and how they live them have forever been changed. Each sibling’s story of how they manage their decisions in life knowing when they will die is then told in moving and powerful chapters.

Simon, the youngest, has his story told first– it follows him as he moves to San Francisco, young and looking for love in the 1980s. We then move on to Klara’s magical world as she becomes a preforming magician obsessed with fantasy and blurring the lines of reality. Daniel is next; he becomes an army doctor post 9/11, hoping to control fate, even if it’s not his own. Lastly, we have Varya who has completely thrown herself into her work: longevity research, testing the boundaries between science and immorality.

Each story holds your attention, even though you know the outcome. It’s almost impossible to not become emotionally invested in each sibling. Benjamin has written a rich and thought provoking novel on the nature of believing. How does learning when you will die, even if it could be untrue, determine how you live your life in the present? Is our time of death predetermined, or can we play a part in changing our destiny? This fascinating read leaves you dreaming for long afterward.

Signed first editions of The Immortalists are currently available.

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