Tag: Author Event (Page 1 of 3)

Author Q & A with Ann Fisher-Wirth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ann Fisher-Wirth

Ann Fisher-Wirth

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

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

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

Maude Schuyler Clay

Maude Schuyler Clay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you have plans for future writing projects?

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

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

Border Patrol Perspicacity: ‘The Line Becomes a River’ by Francisco Cantú

Lately, I’ve been on a nonfiction kick. There’s something about a true story that engages and connects me more than any other genre. It’s a chance to take part in a conversation that’s happening in the world, allowing the reading experience to go beyond me and the book I’m holding.

line becomes a riverOne such conversation I feel like I’m not that knowledgeable about is immigration. I hear a lot of things, but haven’t really tried reading about the topic myself. So when The Line Becomes a River fell into my hands, I knew it was a chance for me to start listening to that conversation more closely.

The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border is the true account of Arizona native Francisco Cantú, who served as an agent for the United States Border Patrol from 2008-2012. His retired park ranger mother thought he was crazy when he told her that he’s going to go work at the border, but Cantú is determined to immerse himself in a place he has spent the past few years studying.

The book is structured into three parts. The first two are comprised of vignettes about Cantú’s work with the border patrol, both out in the field and behind a desk. Taken from his journal entries during those years, he writes about rescuing stranded migrants out in the desert, tracking drug smugglers, and researching the Mexican cartels. These snapshots of life along the border paint a vivid picture of a place few really understand.

Cantú’s experience proves that things aren’t always black and white out at the border. The numerous characters he encounters cross between countries with all kinds of intentions, and Cantú often struggles to make sense of his duty to his job and his moral duty. Plagued by strange dreams, he fears losing his humanity in a profession where the line between guilty and innocent is often a thin one.

The third part of the book has the strongest narrative and was what really sealed the story as a winner for me. It follows Cantú after he leaves the Border Patrol and is working at a coffee shop. His friend, José, gets detained coming back to the U.S. after visiting his dying mother in Mexico. José, though an undocumented migrant, is a hard worker with a family and an entire community that rallies to support him during his trial. Cantú offers a realistic and heartbreaking account of what families like José’s go through.

Cantú’s writing is strong. I love how he blends in the history of the border, as well as Spanish dialect and local color to make the narrative more authentic. Cantú is anything but preachy, letting his personal encounters do most of the storytelling, hoping that his internal conflict stirs something in the reader as well.

I really enjoyed Cantú’s interactions with his mother in the book. The daughter of a Mexican immigrant, she acts as a voice of reason and great contrast to the harsh environment that Cantú is being exposed to on a daily basis.

I think we can all relate on some level to Cantú, who at first wants to ignore what happens to people once he rescues them from the desert and delivers them to detention. But, as is the case with his friend, José, it’s not so easy to ignore the outcome once you or a loved one is put in that situation.

Overall, I recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn more about what is happening on the border or anyone who thinks they know. It’s an eye-opening book that humanizes a minority in a tension-filled political climate.

Join the conversation: Francisco Cantú will be signing copies of The Line Becomes a River at Lemuria on Monday, April 9 at 5:00 pm. The Line Becomes a River has been selected for Lemuria’s First Edition Club for Nonfiction Readers.

Author Q & A with Nathaniel Rich

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

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

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

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

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

Nathaniel Rich

Nathaniel Rich

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Author Q & A with Steve Yarbrough

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

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

Steve Yarbrough

Steve Yarbrough

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are there future writing projects you can us about?

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

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

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.

Author Q & A with Paul Lacoste

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Encouraging health and wellness at a local elementary school

Encouraging health and wellness at a local elementary school

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Early morning training at Madison Central High School

Early morning training at Madison Central High School

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A new approach to training

A new approach to training

What does your future hold?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How did you two meet and begin creating books together?

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

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

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

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

Tell me about the collaboration process.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anything else you’d like to include here?

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

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

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

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