Tag: Author Interview (Page 1 of 2)

Author Q & A with Jennifer Egan

Interview by Jana Hoops. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (October 8)

manhattan beachPulitzer Prize-winning author Jennifer Egan’s newest release Manhattan Beach (Scribner) combines historical fiction with all the elements of a thriller-mystery and a touch of humor as she successfully tackles a World War II tale whose home base is Manhattan Beach in New York.

It’s a wide-spanning story of a family’s struggle to make ends meet as they attempt to make sense of the culture shift of a country at war and the realities of  the long-time disappearance of a husband and father who has vanished for reasons unknown. Well-researched and overflowing with a theme of water that runs throughout, Manhattan Beach is a satisfying and more traditional story from a writer whose trademark has become keeping readers wondering just what she can and will do next.

Along with her Pulitzer-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad, she is the author of four other books of fiction. Her work has also appeared in The New YorkerHaper’s Magazine, and The New York Times Magazine, among others.

Please tell me about your roots in Chicago, where you spent your earliest years.

Jennifer Egan

Jennifer Egan

On my father’s side, my family is proudly Irish-American, and has been in Chicago for generations. My grandfather, Edward Egan, was a police commander on the South Side, and also President Truman’s bodyguard when he came to town. Edward Egan had three sons, the second of whom was my father. The eldest, Eddie Egan, was killed in a motorcycle accident as a teenager–a tragedy that, of course, marked the family thereafter.

As a little girl, I used to talk with my father a lot about lost Uncle Eddie. It was a great pleasure to use his name in this book, and to dig deeper into my Irish-American heritage–the closest thing I’ve ever felt to an ethnic identity.

Manhattan Beach portrays a father/daughter relationship that plays out against the backdrop of World War II. Does it reflect anything personally about your own family, or can you elaborate about what inspired this story?

My mother and father divorced when I was 2, and I don’t have any memories of them together. As a little girl, I spent every Sunday with my father, but at 7, I moved to San Francisco with my mother and stepfather. I saw him only in the summers after that, and I feel like I stopped knowing him, and he stopped knowing me.

I have two sons, now teenagers, whom I’ve been very reluctant to let go of as they begin to move more deeply into their own lives. A lot of that personal experience–dealing with loss, as a child and as a parent–is in here, somehow. In my books, the personal is always scrambled.; it’s only as  finish a book that I begin to sense its connections to my real life.

How closely do the lives of characters in Manhattan Beach mirror that of the correspondence you found between the couple who worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard during the war?

The young couple whose correspondence I read, Lucille and Alfred Kolkin, had many things in common with my characters int eh context of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Lucy was a shipfitter, meaning that she helped to create the metal parts of ships; my character, Anna, becomes a civilian diver. Jobs like those would have been unthinkable for women before the war. Lucy and Al’s social world would have been somewhat different from Anna’s, though; Lucy and Al were Jewish, for one thing, whereas Anna’s family is Catholic. Anna’s father’s involvement with the Irish waterfront gave him a proximity to organized crime that would likely have alienated Lucy and Al, although they were strongly involved in union organizing.

And finally, Lucy seems to have been what was known as a “good girl”–she quipped in a letter to Al that the story their courtship could have been summarized: “From Maidenhood to Marriage in Three Easy Months.” Even at 19, Anna’s sexuality is more developed, and therefore a secret.

Anna, a main character in Manhattan Beach, fought the male-dominated era in which she lived, and became a diver helping repair ships from underneath. What does that show about her, and was there a message there for readers?

I’m not a big fan of messages in fiction. As a reader, I dislike being preached to, but I suppose one could probably take away from the novel what much of America learned during World War II: women can do just about anything, and do it well. That is a threatening notion to some.

Manhattan Beach is one of two October selections for Lemuria’s First Editions Club. Jennifer Egan will be appearing at the Eudora Welty House to sign books at 5:00 p.m., on Tuesday, October 10. The reading will begin at 5:30 p.m.

Author Q & A with Nathan Englander

Interview by Jana Hoops. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (October 1).

Brooklyn resident and Long Island native Nathan Englander packs love, violence, allegory, and political intrigue into his second novel, Dinner at the Center of the Earth (Knopf), as he presents readers with a plot-driven literary tale that examines the current state of of the peace process-or lack thereof–between the Israelis and Palestinians.

A thought-provoking read to say the least, the book reveals Englander’s own take on the ongoing political battle–and it’s a personal one. Growing up Jewish in New York, his angst over the lack of progress between the two camps led to his own five-year retreat to Israel, which he spent examining first-hand the seeming futility of any effort to bring the two sides together.

Nathan Englander

Nathan Englander

His previous works include What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank (winner of the Frank O’Connor International Short Story and finalist for the Pulitzer Prize); and the novel The Ministry of Special Cases. His short fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies.

Englander is Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at New York University and lives in Brooklyn with his wife and daughter.

In the ackowledgements at the end of your book, you thanked the city of Zomba, Malowi, where some of the writing process of Dinner at the Center of the Earth took place. Please explain why that was important to you.

Zomba played a part in the rewriting of this book. I lived there last year with my family, and I found that composing in a place so radically different from the one in which I live helped me to see my own life–my reality–with fresh eyes, which, I deeply believe, helped me to do the same inside the book’s world, where I was spending most of my time.

In what ways did your four–or what it five?–years living in Jerusalem before the intifada in 2000 prepare you to write Dinner at the Center of the Earth?

It was five years. And a year of college long before that, and some stretches here and there in between. That time was less what prepared me to write the book, and more what drove me to do it. I’ve really wanted to tell this story for near 20 years.

But, I hear the question (why?), and I have an answer. And that is, when I was living in Israel, I came to understand that solving the conflict between Israel and Palestine wasn’t just about bridging the gap between two peoples who hold two different positions of some argument. A real solution would mean bridging the space between two different worlds. That is, I was a Jewish person living in Jerusalem, and my Palestinian neighbors in the exact same place were living in al-Quds. We’re dealing with multiple realities, not differing opinions.

I read that you wanted to write a book that “weaved time and threads.” Describe how the complexity of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and its seemingly unsolvable issues, prompted you to bring that approach to life through this book.

Central to that conflict, and central to my heartbreak over the failure of the peace process, are the endless cycles of violence, the buildup, the warring, the truces and quiet times–which both sides then use to build up and ready themselves for when the fighting starts all over again. I really wanted to write a novel whose structure captured that spiral, and reflected those rhythms.

This seems to be a book that would be good to read over again in order to understand the timeline and grasp its full meaning. Was that your intention?

dinner at the centerIt’s nice of you to ask. And, I promise you, I’m truly thankful for the people who invest in reading this novel once–that’s already a gift for a writer, and I ask no more. I can tell you that I worked hard to build a book you could just sit down and read, a linear novel that also happens to wrestle with age-old conflict and has many different plot lines, all running concurrently.

I think of your question in terms of a certain kind of reader–of which, in asking, I assume you are one–and I think, if this book has a certain life, and some nice graduate student somewhere wants to take it apart with a screwdriver and see how it ticks, I hope he or she will find something in the mechanics of it. I sure spent a lot of my time trying to make the thriller-historical-love-story-allegorical elements all jibe.

I loved what you did with the dream sequences of the General, whom we assume to be Ariel Sharon. Were there actual events for his life that led you to imagine these dream events? The endless falling with his radio operator after the explosion was especially intriguing.

Am I allowed to say that I love your questions? I love your questions! For one, it was imperative to me that my character, the General, be read as the General, not Ariel Sharon. As for parallels to Israeli-Palestinians history, I drew off many events for the reality the general is living in his mind. But you’re asking about the radio operator and the flying. This novel, unlike my last, is set in places I’ve lived, and addresses parts of history that are woven into my own memory, and central to my education, and have shaped my worldview.

What I’m trying to stress is that I bought a lot of books to study, but ended up doing very little research, and never opened most. I’d read a paragraph, and my mind would start spinning, and I’d start typing. Anyway, a doctor friend I’d called to ask about comas and minimally conscious state either shared this fact with me, or it appeared in the first couple of paragraphs of some scientific paper somewhere that I clicked on, but I fell in love with the idea that people who come out of comas often remember that they had dreams of flying. It just changed me, as soon as I learned that.

Were prisoner Z and the guard based on actual people, or were they fictional characters to move the plot and tell the story?

The guard popped into my head in the same way that Ruthi did–which is, out of nowhere. Speaking of consciousness, I literally have no awareness of how they suddenly came to be.

Prisoner Z is a character I can trace through my imagination. I was in Israel on a book tour, and on the last day, I picked up the morning paper and there was this story of an Israeli prisoner called, only, X. He was found dead in his cell. The extremely complicating factor was that he was a secret prisoner so, prior to his death, he had not existed. And prior to there being a cell with a ceiling from which to hang himself, there was no cell at all. That is, it was only with his death that he’d lived, only with his hanging that there was a cell to hang himself from.

When I read that X was a Mossad spy who’d become a traitor, I began thinking of all the reasons that spies become traitors: blackmail, failures of character, hunger for power, etc., etc. And I thought, what about a spy who becomes a traitor through empathy? Someone who flips because of his feelings for the other side. And that’s how, in that moment, a character is born. How, for me, an X becomes a Z.

Prisoner Z states in one his letters to the General that the only way for Israel to end the conflict was to lose and cede ground to the Palestinians. Is this an actual idea shared by some in Israel?

I’m sure, if folks think it, they don’t use the term “losing,” and it’s not about a notion of surrender. A novel delivers a pressurized form of reality–a world as real as the one we’re in, that manifests in a heightened way. Even as far off as it seems today, I bet there are plenty of people who still believe that pulling out of enough territory for there to be viable states, side by side, is the best way to achieve peace.

Tell me about the title of the book. Did it come to you as the story unfolded, or did you have it from the start?

Firstly, I’d like to note that the titles of my books are always extraordinarily long. And maybe I should pick shorter ones, since I’m so shy when folks ask me what the names of my books are called. I think, in every case, I’ve found the title of the book inside the story itself.

Do you have plans in the works yet that you can share about your next writing project?

Sure. Yes. I think the early part of one’s writing life is extra stressful because you haven’t yet fallen permanently behind. Once you’re drowning in projects you’re dying to pursue, what-comes-next is always right there.

So, as much as Dinner at the Center of the Earth is a book that took me far from the imagined worlds where I started, the next novel swings me back to where I began. I wanted to return to that space, where I explore the boundary between sacred and profane, religious and secular. Also, I’ve got another play in the works, and a non-fiction book, and some other things cooking.

Author Q & A with Rosemary Wells

Interview with Rosemary Wells by Clara Martin.

In the world of children’s books, there is a duo named Max and Ruby. They are bunny siblings: Ruby is the older sister who is very bossy, and Max is her little brother who is always up to mischief. The Max & Ruby series spans over forty books and now have their own television show on Nick Jr.

rosemary wellsTheir creator, Rosemary Wells, has been writing and illustrating books for over 45 years. She began working in publishing as a book designer for seven years. All through her writing and illustrating career, from her picture books to her young adult novels, Rosemary Wells advocates for children’s literacy wherever she goes. Born in New York City and raised in rural New Jersey, she now resides in Connecticut.

Lemuria Books is thrilled to welcome ROSEMARY WELLS, the author of MAX & RUBY for a story time and signing on MONDAY, OCTOBER 2ND from 3:30 – 4:30 pm. This story time is free and open to the public!

A presentation given by Rosemary Wells that is geared towards adults & educators will run from 5 pm to 6 pm, and a RSVP is necessary. To RSVP, please call Lemuria Books at 601-366-7619.

In an interview below, Rosemary Wells talks about her own characters, her illustration process, and the importance of reading books aloud to children.

What drew you to stories about toddlers and young children?

I can’t really tell you why. Perhaps because I had young children around me, and still do. I find them hilarious. My own childhood–I was as a tomboy, a very dedicated artist, and utterly non-compliant with what I didn’t like in school–also added to this. It always does in authors. We go back over our own lives and see, in the new lives around us, many of the same traits and predicaments.

However, I have also written 4 books for middle grade readers and 7 novels for YA!

Tell me a little bit about Max & Ruby (and your other characters).

What I really love is the sibling dynamic. It is so real. Max and Ruby are my own two children. This is how they constantly behaved with each other when they thought I wasn’t present or listening to them. Ruby never stopped guiding Max in all the ways of the world that Max had to learn. Max never took anything she said seriously. Never listened to a single word she said. This is a story dynamic which never ran out on me. It is a universal sister/brother routine in all countries in the world. That’s the reason the parents aren’t in the stories. None of the funny stuff would happy with Mom or Dad there. So where are they? In the next room, listening!

felix stands tallMy equally favorite character is Yoko. My next book is another Felix and Fiona melodrama friendship book from Candlewick. And next year, I have a book from Macmillan that introduces new characters, Kit and Kaboodle, twin pussycats and their little nemesis, Spinka, the mouse.

Why are you drawn to drawing animals to represent your children?

I draw animals better. People love animals, particularly young ones. That’s why we take stuffed animals too bed—not so much stuffed people!

Children depicted in illustration cannot do what animals can do on a page. Nor do they engender as much humor or sympathy unless drawn by Garth Williams! Kids are more serious to draw and elicit more reader questioning.

Can you tell me about your illustration style & process?

I wish I could answer this better. I draw. I’ve put in my 30,000 hours! I use mostly watercolor but have branched out to pastel. I copy. What I can’t draw well, I copy out of books. When I need inspiration, I look to the great illustrators and commercial artists of the early twentieth century. Trademarks, advertising, etc.  I encourage all my young artists in my workshops to concentrate, copy, and revise. Revise everything, because each time you do it again, the work gets better.

What do you love about writing and illustrating books for children?

It has endless possibilities. It’s what I do really well. It has been and continues to be a very successful career for me. I never tire of it because each book I do is alive. When they stop being alive, then I will stop. Not until then.

What were some books that made an impact on you as a child, and what do you hope your books do for children today?

We had very few books in the 1940s and 50s compared to today. Robert Lawson, Beatrix Potter, Garth Williams, who else? I don’t know. I copied them all. Lavishly illustrated fairy tales. We read them again and again. As a writer, I think that made me realize I better write books to be read over and over.

This is why I know for a fact, that although I had a golden childhood, safe from want, harm, and discord, that my great escape was books. No matter where we are on life’s scale, we need escape. Kids eat it up and they get it best from books. (worst, I have to add from video games, which are toxic and free of any moral compass or other good outcome.)

We need to read real books (not tablets) to our babies, starting very early in the first year of life.

The one great privilege that fortunate, advanced kids have over the less the fortunate is reading-aloud parents and regular visits to the library.

So, if we read to our children twenty minutes every day, they will listen to us, learn from their many books more than we can ever imagine.

When they reach kindergarten, no matter how underserved their childhoods, those children who are read to all the time will be the level equal of any privileged child in their school. They will be prepared to learn and advance in school. If you read every day aloud, you can almost guarantee your child’s bright future.

There are very recent live MRI scans of children’s brains while being read to. The critical development of the brain takes place in the first five years of life and apparently nothing stimulates it into permanent growth like read aloud stories in the parents’ voices. This treasure of childhood, reading aloud requires only a library card.

Books taught me to think in ways neither my parents not my teachers ever taught me. This is why it is so important that we encourage the next generation to be readers. We are in a national crisis in our country today. My two cents is this: We don’t need any more followers in America today. We need leaders. Real leaders are critical thinkers. They become critical thinkers from reading everything, things they agree with and things they don’t. Our kids need this cognitive training in order to become good citizens. Good citizens are independent. Good leaders understand the difference between facts/science and made up fairy tales that are narrow opinions and lead nowhere. If our country as we know and love it is to survive, the leaders of our next generation need generosity of spirit. While very young, the leaders of tomorrow have to learn to be patient, inclusive of those unlike them, kind to the less fortunate, courteous, curious, and able to dream a better world for all of us, not just for self.

Much of this comes from good parenting and educating. The rest comes from books.

Meet Rosemary Wells at Lemuria Books on Monday, October 2nd!

3:30 – 4:30 p.m. Story Time & Signing

5:00 – 6:00 p.m. Rosemary Wells Presentation on Literacy*

*Adults Only, Please RSVP at 601-366-7619

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Author Q & A with Panny Mayfield

Interview by Jana Hoops. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (September 3)

Panny Flautt Mayfield

Panny Flautt Mayfield

As an award-winning journalist and lifelong Mississippi Delta native, Panny Mayfield of Tutwiler has captured decades of blues and gospel music history through her camera lens–and her debut book, Live From the Mississippi Delta (University Press of Mississippi), tells that unique story through her unique, up-close perspective.

The recipient of more than 30 awards granted by the Mississippi Press Association, the Associated Press, the Mississippi Film Commission, and the College Public Relations Association of Mississippi, Mayfield’s work has been exhibited in museums across the U.S. and in Europe.

In Live from the Mississippi Delta, she shares more than 200 photos of Delta performers and their musicians, fans, friends, and families, taken at churches, clubs, festivals, and iconic juke joints, alongside her own detailed accounts of the lives and fortunes of dozens of familiar blues and gospel performers–including those who were Delta natives as well as international superstars who traveled from around the world to pay homage to the legends who influenced their own music.

Tell me about your childhood in Tutwiler and how you came to be a noted Mississippi Delta photographer.

Growing up in Tutwiler, a busy railroad town south of Clarksdale, I enjoyed small town life watching Randolph Scott movies at the Tutrovansum Theatre (a [portmanteau] for the Mississippi communities it served: Tutwiler, Rome, Vance, and Sumner), playing kick the can, and catching lightning bugs in Mason jars. I was aware of places like Lula Mae’s Sunrise Cafe where infectious music spilled out on the street, but it was totally off limits to me until I became an adult.

Photography fascinated me at about the age of 12. I began taking pictures and writing about cross-country family trips, became newspaper editor in high school and at Ole Miss, and began a lifelong career as a journalist and photographer.

I began taking blues photographs in the late 70s when Sid Graves founded Clarksdale’s Delta Blues Museum. Bluesman Wesley Jefferson needed a portfolio and asked me to photograph his Southern Soul Band playing at Margaret’s Blue Diamond Blues Club on the railroad tracks in Clarksdale’s New World District. I organized a folder for James “Super Chikan” Johnson who needed to get serious booking gigs.

It was Mae, Michael James’ lady, who began teaching me to dance to blues music in her kitchen. Decades later, I’m still working on my dancing and sharing the drama of the passionate music that is the Mississippi Delta blues.

After a career as a newspaper journalist and a public relations director for a community college, Live from the Mississippi Delta is your first book. How did this book come about?

My careers with newspapers, magazines, and Coahoma Community College were incredibly busy. Although I considered a book somwhere down the line, I was busy making a living and meeting ever-present deadlines until I retired in 2013. I was encouraged to put a book together by Molly Porter of Vermont, who scanned many of my photographs. Initially it was a book of photographs until Craig Gill, University Press of Mississippi’s director, urged me to include stories and text about many of the images, musicians, and events. The book itself is half text, half photos.

Explain what the blues, as a music genre, means to the Mississippi Delta.

I’m not sure if I can explain how much blues means to the Mississippi Delta. They are inseparable, conjoined. When the eminent folklorist and musician Alan Lomax returned to Clarksdale in 1994, he emphasized the similar, unique qualities of Coahoma County blues to the original rhythmic music of Senegal in Africa, and he encouraged a cultural revival in the Delta.

You helped launch Clarksdale’s Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival in 1988. Are you still involved in it?

Jim O’Neal, co-founder of Living Blues magazine, and research director of Mississippi’s Blues Trail, co-founded the Sunflower River Blues Association, and he was here last month for the festival’s 30th anniversary. In 1988, we were considered an avant-garde bunch, but we followed Jim’s lead, staging a free music festival showcasing local musicians as well as well-known artists.

I asked Jim at that time what he thought of today’s Sunflower (festival), and he said he was glad it continued to be a unique, grassroots event where people felt comfortable and at home. This year, we had people from New Zealand, Italy, Germany, Paris, and Bangkok, Thailand.

I’m still publicist for the festival and I love our multiracial, diverse membership. I believe this contributes to the success of our festival.

Your book includes sections on Delta landscapes, “homegrown” and international blues musicians, Delta festivals, juke joints, and more, and your career as a photographer has given you front-row access to scores of musically influential events and people. What have you enjoyed the most and what have you found to be the most challenging?

My book begins with my own beginning in Tutwiler–also the birthplace of blues. it’s where W.C. Handy first head a guitar being played with a kitchen knife in 1903, and where the charismatic Robert Plant paid tribute in 2009 to the music that influenced his own phenomenal career.

I have been one incredibly person to have this background and to fine-tune it in Clarksdale, center of the blues universe. My books “homegrown icons”–radio broadcaster Early Wright, who invited me to his birthday dinners every February 10; and barber Wade Walton with his stuffed monkey Flukie–are just as important to me as international celebrities ZZ Top, James Brown, and Garth Brooks.

Describe Clarksdale’s association with its “sister city,” Notodden, Norway.

Clarksdale’s sister city relationship with Notodden, Norway, began in 1996 with initial visits by Norwegian journalists, musicians, and then city offiicials interested in researching blues history to enhance their own international festival and its connection with the Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival.

Norwegian officials dined on catfish; were entertained at the Rivermount Lounge, a local club favored by Little Milton, Ike Turner, and Bobby Rush; and were taken to a Marvin Sease blues show at the City Auditorium that went on until 2 a.m. The next morning, they attended a service at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church at Friar’s Point, where members lined up to shake every Norwegian’s hand. Overnight, we became “cousins,” and exchanges between the two cities have flourished.

Tell me about the cover of your book.

live from the mississippi deltaI get emotional about the cover of my book. The musician–Arthneice Jones–is one of the most talented and articulate bluesmen I have known. A harmonica master and singer/songwriter, Arthneice was leader of The Stone Gas Band–a talented and popular bunch who played all over north Mississippi and Memphis before his untimely death. A musician who worked in concrete, Arthneice intrigued, charmed, and connected intimately with Sunflower acoustic audiences each summer with sidewalk philosophy mixed with music.

My initial choice for the book cover was a juke joint scene from Shelby’s Dew Drop Inn. But when University Press of Mississippi emailed, unannounced, the image of Arthneice imposed on raw Delta cotton fields, i cried. It was so perfect.

Do you have any plans for more books?

As a journalist trained to condense news and feature articles into brief, interesting opening lines with zero personal commentary, writing a book was a new experience. Fortunately, Craig Gill and the UPM staff were patient and encouraging. Helpful also were remembrances of my mother’s storytelling traditions.

A future book about 25 years of celebrating America’s great playwright with the Mississippi Delta Tennessee Williams Festival is a possibility.

Author Q & A with Jack Spencer

Interview by Jana Hoops. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (August 20)

Kosciusko native Jack Spencer’s new book, This Land: An American Portrait (University of Texas Press) is a sweeping portraiture of the nation’s landscape, created over 13 years and 80,000 unforgettable car miles.

this landAn artist at heart, Spencer set out in 2003 on a quest to capture a post-9/11 America–to grasp a glimpse of a country of contrasts, fears, and hopes. The resulting book, he says, is “not a documentary or dogmatic statement, but rather an expression of the perception of the ideal.” The images are rendered in what he calls a “stream-of-consciousness perspective,” not “perfect pictures.”

A self-taught photographer known for his fine art work and his penchant to modify his images through artistic techniques, Spencer’s rich talent has been on display in major collections around the country, including Houston, Santa Barbara, New Orleans, Nashville, and, in Jackson, at the Mississippi Museum of Art.

Spencer’s first book, Native Soil, reveals his gift for artistry in the faces and places of his native South, and his work has been published in a wide variety of print media. Today, he lives and works in Nashville.

How did you develop your interest in photography?

As a child, I was always fascinated by boxes and boxes of old family photographs and tinytypes and would spend hours and hours going through them. I majored in art in college and played around with photography during that time and thereafter, though not seriously. I began to get deep into it in the mid-1980s and then began the work that was to become Native Soil.

Your new book, This Land: An American Portrait, was begun in 2003. It became a 13-year project and took you on a 80,000-mile road trip through the “lower 48” states, to find “sketches” of a country still sorting through 9/11. Tell me about your motivation to take on this massive project.

I was against the war in Iraq and thought that the United States was premature in their conclusion that there were weapons of mass destruction and not allowing Hans Blix to finish his inspections. The fervor that had been created was overwhelming. I decided to make a portrait of America. Not the people, but the land where we live.

You describe yourself as “a pictorialist at heart.” Please explain how that is interpreted throughout This Land, and describe some of the techniques used to accomplish that in these images.

As an artist, I do not care for the purely literal and have little patience with purists of any ilk. I think there is an underlying truth in interpretation. That is the basis of artistic expression. One must get outside of oneself to–ironically–express oneself. Otherwise, I would have been a photojournalist.

I have been something of a mad scientist both in the darkroom and on the computer, trying things that are quite unorthodox and perhaps a bit insane, just to see what happens. In turn, some of my techniques have been born of those experiments.

The photos are, for the most part, devoid of people. Explain why that was a priority for this work.

This Land was about the place we inhabit. This is the view that few ever see and, for the most part, do not appreciate and take for granted. A book about the people would have been an entirely different project and one that I have little interest in, as that would have been far too literal for me and I am quite fond of ambiguity in my works.

You note in your introduction that America is a land of contradictions. Tell me about the state of “irony” in which you find this country to be.

Literally every adjective and its antonym can describe this country: ugly/beautiful, loved/hated, sublime/obnoxious, rich/poor, wise/ignorant, new/crumbling, crowded/desolate, and so and so forth. At some point, one is simply left with an abstract notion of America.

You state that images of animals and “decrepit, once proud structures” become “symbols and metaphors of the country’s past” in this book. Explain how that is so.

With the idea in mind that “past is prologue,” I think it is a good idea to review the past in order to have a clear idea of where we are heading and how far we have come. This country likes to leave behind anything and anyone that has lost its usefulness. Little is preserved, let alone revered. The buffalo were slaughtered by the millions so that Sherman could end the Indian Wars. Buildings are left to rot or are torn down to make way for subdivisions or shopping malls and condo units.

You make the case that Americans have not been good stewards of this incredible land. Explain–and how can we do better?

Ask someone in Montana, Colorado, or other Western states about the acid runoff from mining that has turned streams and rivers into, essentially battery acid. Or people in Appalachia about coal runoff that kills water supplies. Or fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico why there are enormous dead zones where nothing lives. Or take a trip to Detroit.

As for a solution, well, it is not because no one knows about all this. It sis just that big money talks big and politicians like big talk.

Ultimately, what did you learn from this journey you referred to as both a “pilgrimage” and an “odyssey”?

I suppose that my overall takeaway from this odyssey, is that this is a fascinating land–astounding, really. It is vast and almost incomprehensible in its scope. Mostly, I loved the out-of-the-way, unseen, quiet spaces that few ever see, rather than the dramatic, obvious places. America is mostly made up of these places out on tiny little backroads and hidden from view.

In Jon Meacham’s foreword to This Land, he point sout that impages in this book capture a country he says many of us would believe has disappeared–scenes like “the fading churches, the roaming bison, the running horses”–a world he says is real, and is now, and is ours. Did it surprise you to realize that images like these are still part of America?

Yes, it did. People do not see this land when they are flying over it or taking the interstates.

What about this whole incredible journey has given your the most satisfaction?

Jack Spencer

Jack Spencer

I would have to say that the most satisfaction I got was the realization that it started as one thing and ended as another. I had no real idea what I was up against 14 years ago when I started out, and really had no clear idea bout what I was undertaking. I am a fan of Homer’s The Odyssey and Odysseus’s 10-year journey home to Ithaca. Like him, I was thrown off course many times, yet somehow was able to right myself onward.

I am privately quite proud of the fact that it was accomplished. No one except me knows what I went through to finish the task. And, it is right that only I should know.

Author Q & A with Mark Bowden

Interview by Jana Hoops. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (August 13).

hue 1968Author and journalist Mark Bowden challenges a new generation of readers to question America’s involvement in Vietnam as he examines, with laser precision, the bloody battle for the city of Hue (pronounced “whey”) in his newest release Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam (Grove Atlantic).

Nearly 50 years later, the man who is perhaps best known for his blockbuster Black Hawk Downexposes in detail the sense of betrayal Americans felt when the war they had been told the country was handily winning suddenly became the war they could, at best, withdraw from “with honor.”

The author of 13 books, Bowden now writes for The Atlanticand Vanity Fair, among other magazines. He was a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer for 25 years. A native of St. Louis, he now lives in Pennsylvania.

Bowden will participate in the History Makers panel during the Mississippi Book Festival August 19 in Jackson. The event will be at noon in the Old Supreme Court Room of the Mississippi State Capitol Building.

What spurred your interest in writing this detailed historical account of the 1968 Tet Offensive during the Vietnam conflict?

Vietnam has been for me a subject of tremendous interest throughout my life. I was 16 years old when Tet, this battle, happened. Myd ad and I battled about Vietnam then, with me against (the war), him for it, with neither of us having a whole lot of knowledge about it.

So, at a fairly young age, I started reading the newspaper; and, on my own, I subscribed to Time magazine. I would go the library and grab books (about it) at random off the shelf. I started reading sytematically in order to bone up for arguments with my dad about Vietnam. These habits I developed of researching and writing led me to becoming a journalist and writer.

I had never written about Vietnam before. In the epilogue, I talk about how this battle for Hue in the Tet Offensive was a turning point for the American battle in Vietnam–and (Gen. William Westmoreland’s) refusal to fact facts about this, the single most important event in the war.

The more I thought about it, this battle was the sort of dramatic episode that, if I could dig deep into this moment, it could become a lens into the war itself. Hue had all the features of the war–heroism and fears of both the American and Vietnamese soldiers, and politics in Washington that shaped military strategies. It gives a pretty good glimpse of the bigger war.

Explain the historical significance of this event.

The U.S. began investing really heavily in Vietnam in 1964-65. There had been advisers before that who had been helping the Vietnamese government, but it was then that LBJ (President Lyndon Baines Johnson) made the decision to send large numbers of troops.

In 1967, there were half a million American soldiers in Vietnam. The president and Westmoreland were assuring the American people this would be an easy war in this rag-tag little country. Westie had come back to Washington and he gave a speech to the National Press Corps (in November 1967) saying that the war was well in hand and that they were entering the “third phase,” where troops would start returning home.

In January 1968, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong launched surprise attacks and took Hue, the third largest city in South Vietnam–hardly an offensive by a depleted foe. Hue was a tremendously significant place, as Vietnam’s ancient capital and center of culture and religion.

Clearly, Hue had a n impact on the U.S. and South Vietnam. The South Vietnamese people were caught between communists and the Viet Cong of North Vietnam. Their government and their lives depended on how this war went. And at home, Americans lost confidence in what their leaders were telling them, as their assurance in their own government officials was seriously eroded.

After Tet, (CBS Evening News anchorman) Walter Cronkite, who was called “the most trusted man in America,” at that time, told his viewers, “We’re not going to be able to win,” and that our best hope would be to “negotiate our way out.”

Shortly after, LBJ announced on TV that he would not seek re-election for the Presidency.

Cronkite’s comment was a remarkable thing, but he felt betrayed, like he had been used by American officials. He had been a war correspondent during World War II. He went to Vietnam and came back with his own opinion. His statement (of those opinions on air) was a real departure for a journalist back then, but he felt compelled.

The U.S. had fought in World War II and Korea, but Vietnam was a real blow to that essentially naïve belief that our sheer military strength would prevail, no matter what. Sometimes we go tto war for really bad reasons, and we’re told lies. We’re betrayed by our own government.

Westie continued to have this fixed idea, and did not waiver, in his belief that Hue was not a serious setback.

Hue 1968 is described as your “most ambitious work yet,” and the research you’ve done is amazing. How long did it take to put this book together, and how did you trace all of this history, and in such detail?

It was a very ambitious undertaking. Throughout my career, I’ve always looked for projects with bigger, harder challenges. The nature of journalism is plunging into subject about which you know nothing.

Because of the internet, I learned about finding American soldiers who had fought in Vietnam. Once I could find one or two, I would get an “interview tree” to branch out on. Finding soldiers from the Vietnamese side was different. I realized I needed to hire people who were really good at finding people, and work with them and through them…to find Vietnamese veterans…then I followed up.

I did the traditional things you have to do to be a serious historian. But I am not an academic historian and don’t pretend to be. I visited the LBJ (Presidential) Library in Austin, Texas. I studied Westmoreland’s papers.

My book is based on interviews and memories of people who were there. There are advantages and disadvantages to that–memories are not perfect, but I feel justified in relying on memory. I’ve received unsolicited e-mails of thank from people, for capturing what others did not in this story. A sweet spot for me in the timing of the book is that people are still alive who lived it.

The book took six years. The first steps toward working on this book took place years ago. I began ordering books on the subject, thinking how to go about it. The process is 99% research and reporting in the beginning, then 50/50 reporting/writing, and then 99% writing.

Who should read this book? How can young people today relate to this event, and why is it important for today’s generation to know about this?

It goes to the question of “Why study history?” It has a lot to tell us about successes and failures and how things happen they way they do. I can’t imagine anything more important. It delves into motivation–and mistakes made. As a society, not as individuals, we see how Vietnam has reverberations still today, in its effects on society. It’s a way to continue that good hard look at how we fit in that coherent flow of history.

I would hope that everyone should read this book. It’s not just for a military audience or academic historians. And for all those reasons, it’s a compelling story.

Do you have family or other connections to Vietnam and to this war?

No connections. None of my brothers served in Vietnam. I had some uncles who served in Korea and World War II. No cousins. I knew people in high school and college and throughout my life who served in Vietnam. I grew up living with the Vietnam war in my house and arguing with my dad about it.

Is it true that Hue 1968 will be produced as a television mini-series?

It’s already in the works. It’s set to be a 10-part mini-series on FX, with Michael Mann as the producer/director. That work is just beginning. I’m excited about it!

Mark Bowden

Mark Bowden

What’s your next writing project/book?

I have the cover story on The Atlantic this month (on what to do about North Korea). A Vanity Fair story. I kind of deliberately don’t have a book project now. I like to have time in between books. But ask me again at the end of the year!

Hue 1968 is Lemuria’s August selection for its First Editions Club. Mark Bowden will appear at the Mississippi Book Festival first at 12:00 in the Old Supreme Court Room with Howard Bahr, author and Vietnam veteran. He will also be interviewed with U.S. Representative Trent Kelly at 4:00 in State Capitol Room 201H about the Vietnam War.

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Author Q & A with Stanley Nelson

Interview by Jana Hoops. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (July 23)

As the editor of his hometown’s weekly newspaper–the Concordia Sentinel in Ferriday, La.–Stanley Nelson didn’t set out to become a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in Local Reporting. He didn’t plan on his investigative journalism becoming the basis of a blockbuster fictional trilogy by New York Times bestselling author Greg Iles. And he never dreamed his efforts would build a crusade for justice that would draw dozens of willing supporters from around the country.

devils walkingBut it was Nelson’s tough investigative reporting that led to his book, Devils Walking: Klan Murders along the Mississippi in the 1960s (LSU Press), in which he describes not only the difficulties of pursuing decades-old cold cases of racial injustice, but the remarkable successes that he and his collaborators were able to achieve–even when the FBI could not.

As a testament to Nelson’s tenacity and courage to take on this topic, Iles dedicated Natchez Burning, the first installment of his fictional trilogy, to the Ferriday reporter who, with the help of a large team, stopped at nothing to find answers to so many questions that had lingered for 50 years. Inspired by Nelson’s work, Iles used pieces of the massive puzzle that was unraveled as a basis for some plot material for his trilogy that included The Bone Tree and Mississippi Blood. In fact, it was Iles who wrote the forward to Nelson’s book, offering high praise for the journalist’s accomplishments.

At the heart of Nelson’s book is the story of one man–Frank Morris of Ferriday–whose tragic fiery death at the hands of the notorious Klan cell known as the Silver Dollar Group in 1964 would eventually lead to further investigations, and, in one case, even a grand jury hearing.

From his first awareness of the Morris case in 2007, prompted by the FBI’s initiative to reopen Civil Rights-era cold cases, Nelson would write nearly 200 news stories about the murder, over a seven-year time period. In addition to the Sentinel in Ferriday, his award-winning investigative writing would appear in the New York TimesWashington PostLos Angeles Times, and on CNN and National Public Radio.

A discussion about the events in both Iles’ and Nelson’s books will be led by Clarion-Ledger investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell at the Mississippi Book Festival on Aug. 19.  The event will begin at 1:30 p.m. in the Galloway United Methodist Church sanctuary in Jackson.

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Devils Walking, a detailed examination of Klan murders committed by the Silver Dollar Group in Mississippi and Louisiana during the 1960s, revolves around the story of the brutal killing of Frank Morris in Ferriday, La. in December 1964. As a reporter for Ferriday’s newspaper, the Concordia Sentinel, what sparked your interest in this case in 2007?

Frank Morris in front of his shoe shop (wearing visor, near center)

Frank Morris in front of his shoe shop (wearing visor, near center)

In late February 2007, the FBI and Justice Department announced they were taking a second look at approximately 100 unsolved civil rights-era murders. Frank Morris’ name was on the list. Morris died from burns he received when Klansmen torched his Ferriday shoe shop and deliberately incinerated him as well.

I initially wrote a couple of stories. Then I got a phone call from Frank Morris’ granddaughter, Rosa Williams. She thanked me for the coverage and said that she had learned more about her grandfather’s death in the first article than she had in the previous decades. Of all of the questions she had about the murder, the biggest was “Why?”

When I was young, I witnessed the aftermath of a horrible traffic accident in which a young family, including a 7-year-old girl, died in flames. Considering that and the murder of Frank Morris, I wondered how someone could purposely set a human being on fire? It was a question that would not go away. I talked to the Sentinel‘s publishers. They agreed that we should try to find out what happened.

Explain how and why this case grew into such a large investigation–with the help of, among others, 25 students at the Syracuse University School of Law–in such a short time.

Race is a polarizing topic. So, could I get readers to open their minds and hearts to the Morris story? I figured that if they got to know Frank Morris, they would care about him. Then justice would seem important. So, week after week we tried to bring Frank Morris back to life so that our readers would see him as a living, breathing human being–not a ghost from the past.

A lot of people lent me a hand–some included Syracuse University College of Law professors Janis McDonald and Paula Johnson; the Center for Investigative Reporting; the LSU Manship School of Mass Communication; Teach for America; and summer interns from universities in the South. Canadian filmmaker David Ridgen was a constant help. But nothing would have happened without the Sentinel’s publishers–Lesley Hanna Capdepon and Sam Hanna Jr.–who supported the work through thick and thin.

By 2007, as the FBI, the Department of Justice and a contingent of government investigators were becoming involved with this case, there was urgency to move the investigation forward. Why was this?

In the 1960s, dangerous Klansmen at the height of their power menaced anyone who questioned the terror they engendered. But by the 2000s, those men were dead or dying. The new enemy to justice became “time.” Witnesses were dying, too. So, urgency was mandated.

Explain the assistance that Jerry Mitchell, investigative reporter for the Clarion-Ledger, was able to lend to your own investigation of Klan murders in Mississippi.

Jerry is considered a legend in the world of cold case investigations. I often seek his advice and he always helps.

When did Louisiana State University get on board to join the investigation, and what contributions did they make?

Jay Shelledy of the LSU Manship School invited me to talk to his journalism students. Later, then dean of the Manship School Jack Hamilton asked, “How can we help you?” I answered that I needed FBI Klan files from the National Archives.

Since then, Jay and his students have amassed tens of thousands of pages of FBI documents, approaching 200,000 pages, all now on line on their website (http://lsucoldcaseproject.com/). Their amazing work continues with new students every year and the full support of Dean Jerry Ceppos. Former Interim Dean Ralph Izard was fully behind the project as well.

In the end, you have a theory of who was actually responsible for Frank Morris’s murder–but has it been proven, or can it be proven?

A Concordia Parish deputy, Frank DeLaughter, wanted Morris’ shop burned following a verbal confrontation with him. DeLaughter considered Morris an uppity black man and he wasn’t going to stand for that.

FBI agents in the field were convinced DeLaughter was the mastermind of the arson. A retired agent recently deceased–John Pfeifer–spent 10 years in Concordia Parish back then. Pfeifer said the one thing FBI agents couldn’t do in the 1960s was directly link DeLaughter to the arson. Fortunately, we were able to do that in 2010.

Relatives of admitted Klansman Arthur Leonard Spencer of Rayville, La., including his son, said Spencer had discussed his involvement in the Ferriday arson through the years. They also said a family friend–Coonie Poissot–told them he was involved as well.

Described by the FBI as a drifter, Klansman, thug, and speed addict, Poissot revealed to agents in 1967 that he was with DeLaughter the night before the arson and that as they passed the shoe shop in DeLaughter’s patrol car, the deputy said he planned to teach Morris a lesson. The following night, Morris watched his two attackers as they torched the building. He didn’t know them.

DeLaughter and Poissot died in the 1990s. Following our story on Spencer in January 2011, three separate Concordia Parish grand juries heard from witnesses in the case, but took no action and issued no reports. After Spencer died in 2013, the Justice Department said it didn’t believe Spencer had been involved. Yet the U.S. Attorney’s office in Louisiana considered him a prime suspect.

You have also investigated the cold case deaths of other African Americans at the hands of the Silver Dollar Group, described as the most secretive and dangerous in the nation at the time. What has driven you to pursue these injustices in such depth?  How many stories did you ultimately write?

I’ve written approximately 200 stories. Like Frank Morris, all of these cases are compelling. The victims are ordinary folks who have suffered extraordinary pain.

Additionally, discovering the inner workings of the Silver Dollar Group was a fascinating journey. These men, including Frank DeLaughter, were incredibly successful terrorists for two reasons. One, in small numbers, typically three or four men, they committed these crimes. Two, they kept their mouths shut.

The group’s leader–Red Glover–who may have acted alone in the 1967 bombing of NAACP Treasurer Wharlest Jackson in Natchez, was interviewed several times by FBI agents after Jackson’s murder. On one occasion, Glover told the agents he hoped they caught the murderer because, according to Glover, the killer obviously was “a maniac.”

Natchez author Greg Iles’ blockbuster trilogy of Natchez BurningThe Bone Tree, and Mississippi Blood was based on you and your work to solve these cold cases. Please comment on the significance of that honor.

Stanley Nelson

Stanley Nelson

In 2013 (Greg) handed me a galley of Natchez Burning. He signed the title page: “To Stanley Nelson: The Real Henry Sexton.” I’ll never forget it. Greg was born with a gift for writing, and he continues to become better at it. But, in my opinion, his genius is his research.

You were named a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in Local Reporting in 2011, as a result of your investigation of these cases. How has that impacted you personally and professionally?

It was totally unexpected. I never thought the Sentinel would emerge at the top of the list against stories such as WikiLeaks and the BP Oil Spill. It also means that the stories of Frank Morris and the other victims may live on.

Is there anything else you’d like to include?       

The book covers the emergence of the Silver Dollar Group (SDG) from the three traditional Klans. The SDG’s goal was simple–go underground and fight integration with deadly force. Red Glover hand-picked the members and as a symbol of unity gave many a silver dollar minted in the year of the Klansman’s birth. Southwest Mississippi and Concordia Parish, Louisiana, (across the river from Natchez) had seen at least four SDG murders by July 1964, three occurring before the Neshoba murders and the fourth occurring just days afterward. Eight SDG murders are covered in the book as well as the killing of Johnny Queen in 1965 in Fayette.

Additionally, the book questions the FBI and Justice Department’s new probes into the murders. Since the initiative was announced in February 2007, only one re-opened case moved forward–the grand jury probe into the Frank Morris arson. For the most part, the government’s initiative was a failure and we discuss why.

Author Q & A with Curtis Wilkie

Interview by Jana Hoops. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (July 9).

Curtis Wilkie

Curtis Wilkie

Mississippi’s iconic journalist and author Curtis Wilkie teams up with his long-time friend and former Boston Globe colleague, Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Thomas Oliphant, to bring a new generation of readers–as well as those who still remember the Kennedy/Nixon race of 1960–a wealth of new insights and behind-the-scenes information about one of the closest presidential contests in American history.

Their deeply-detailed account of how the Kennedy machine built and sustained the well-organized long game that carried JFK to victory in 1960 is carefully outlined in The Road to Camelot: Inside JFK’s Five-Year Campaign (Simon & Schuster).

Beginning on page 1 with a blunt explanation of how the timing of the heart attacks of sitting President Dwight Eisenhower and then-Texas Senator Lyndon B. Johnson affected the 1956 race before it even started, Wilkie and Oliphant set a quick pace that covers a lot of political ground in 360-plus pages. As “one of the most vigorous campaign stories of all time,” it helps put today’s political climate in historical context.

Wilkie, a Greenville native and award-winning journalist who spent nearly four decades covering national and international news (including eight presidential elections and the South’s  Civil Rights struggles), now teaches journalism at his alma mater, Ole Miss.

He authored four other books, including Assassins, Eccentrics, Politicians and Other Persons of Interest and The Fall of the House of Zeus.

Oliphant wrote for the Boston Globe as a political reporter for 40 years, and has authored four previous books, including Baseball as a Road to God and Utter Incompetents: Ego and Ideology in the Age of Bush.

Wilkie will appear at the Mississippi Book Festival Aug. 19 as a participant in the U.S. Presidents panel at 1:30 p.m. in the Old Supreme Court Room in the Mississippi Capitol Building in Jackson.

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Your new book The Road to Camelot: Inside JFK’s Five-Year Campaign revisits the 1960 presidential campaign that ultimately landed John F. Kennedy in the White House. Why did you two decide to return once more to this story that played out more than half a century ago?

road to camelotIn 2003, I had an idea to write a book about one dramatic afternoon at the 1956 Democratic convention when Kennedy challenged the party establishment and nearly became the vice presidential nominee after Adlai Stevenson asked the delegates to choose his running mate. Even though he lost, Kennedy emerged as a new political star. As a teenager watching the struggle on TV, I had been fascinated. It was the last time any convention has gone past a first ballot.

But no publishing house seemed interested in resurrecting that convention. I even got an audience with Alice Mayhew, the legendary editor at Simon & Schuster, to make a pitch. “Not big enough,” she told me.

Fast forward a decade. My great pal Tom Oliphant–we were colleagues at the Boston Globe for more than 25 years–told me of conversations he had with Ted Sorensen, one of Kennedy’s closest aides, who lamented that in all of the Kennedy corpus of books no one had written an account of the long campaign for the presidency. Teddy White wrote a great book about 1960, but it only dealt with one year. Bingo. We developed a bigger, broader book proposal and a number of houses bid on it. Alice Mayhew won the auction.

Kennedy’s five-year national campaign for president started immediately following his failed attempt to secure the VP spot on the Democrats’ ticket in 1956. At that time, he was a Massachusetts senator without a lot of national recognition. Why did he begin so early?

JFK had always started his campaigns early. When he first ran for Congress in 1946 he outflanked a number of older candidates by getting a head start.

Although John F. Kennedy’s father Joseph Kennedy was one of Boston’s most powerful, wealthy, and politically savvy business tycoons, JFK seemed to have an innate understanding of how to craft his own energetic run for the presidency. Tell me about JFK’s relationship with his father, and how it influenced his life.

No question JFK loved his father. He used his money to finance his campaign. But he disregarded virtually every recommendation the old man had. Joe Kennedy believed his son could win the presidential nomination the old-fashioned way–by getting the support of a handful of power-brokers. Instead, JFK took his campaign to the people in primaries.

One example: Joe Kennedy warned him to avoid the West Virginia primary–too many Protestants lived there who would be dubious of a Catholic. JFK defied his advice, entered and won this pivotal contest. Aside from frequent disagreements over strategy, the father complained that he could no longer talk about foreign policy with his son because their thoughts were so different.

Kennedy, who had surrounded himself with a group of bright, young advisers, preferred a grassroots approach over working with party bosses. Why was this?

Again, this was an example of Kennedy’s approach to elections. He always developed his own loyal organizations and ran outside the party structure. In Massachusetts, JFK had “Kennedy clubs” in virtually every town in the state. When he went national he did the same thing, attracting energetic followers early in each state. By the time potential rivals such as Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Stuart Symington, and Adlai Stevenson decided to grab for the presidential nomination, it was too late.

The 1960 campaign was the first to fully utilize the medium of television, and Kennedy became a master of exploiting the use of TV to his advantage. This was never so obvious as when he engaged in a series of debates with his Republican opponent, Richard Nixon. Explain why television–and those debates in particular–were so pivotal in this campaign.

Because he was charismatic, Kennedy was made for TV. He was our first television candidate. Nixon, meanwhile, looked like he had been sleeping under a bridge. Kennedy understood the medium and was the first candidate to hire media advisers. Substantively, there was really little difference between Kennedy and Nixon. Despite a widespread belief that Kennedy “won” the debates, we discovered during our research at the Kennedy Presidential Library that JFK’s private polls showed that the four debates never really changed the horse race between the two men.

Tell me about the strategy Kennedy used in the campaign to reach out to voters in the South, where Civil Rights and school integration were hot button issues.

As a Southerner, I was naturally interested in this aspect of the Kennedy campaign. Remember at the time that the South was still completely Democratic, but the Southern Democrats were very conservative and most of them were segregationists. Blacks were essentially unable to vote in the South, yet they represented an important constituency in so many of the big Northern states in an arc that ran from New York to places like Illinois and Michigan.

Kennedy walked a tightrope. He had always gotten along with most of the old Southern bulls in the Senate who were chairmen of committees because of their seniority. He had a good relationship, for example, with Senator Jim Eastland of Mississippi–and there were few senators more conservative than Eastland. In that 1956 convention fight, Kennedy wound up winning the support of most of the Southern delegations and that encouraged him to think he could make inroads in the South in 1960. I think he was sophisticated enough to realize that the Southern delegates voted for him in 1956 because he was an alternative to the ultimate victor for the vice presidential nomination, Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee. Kefauvcr was despised in the South because he was a liberal who opposed segregation.

Kennedy made a memorable trip to Jackson in 1957 and went all out to win support in the region. That was right after President Eisenhower was forced to send troops to Little Rock to ensure that court orders were enforced to desegregate Central High School there. Throughout the South, Kennedy was repeatedly asked for a commitment to never back up desegregation orders with troops. Eventually, it became clear that the Southern Democratic bosses preferred Lyndon Johnson, who was then Senate majority leader.

At the same time, Kennedy began to court black leaders in the North more avidly. He understood the importance of their votes. Against the advice of most of his advisers–including his brother Robert, who ran the campaign–JFK made a sympathetic telephone call to Coretta Scott King, who feared for the life of her husband, Martin Luther King, after he had been sent to a Georgia prison on a trumped-up traffic charge. That may have been the most critical decision of the campaign, winning thousands of black votes while Nixon did nothing. Yet Kennedy wound up winning half of the Southern states.

Explain why Kennedy’s Catholicism was a potential political obstacle for a national campaign in America during this time.

Kennedy was forced to promise publicly that the Vatican would not dictate politics in America. In 1960, I was a junior at Ole Miss and I still have vivid memories of the campaign, but I had forgotten how enormous was the Catholic issue.

Billy Graham and other evangelical leaders such as Norman Vincent Peale were actually involved in a conspiracy with the Nixon campaign to prevent the election of a Catholic. Once Kennedy was elected, the issue disappeared. No one considers Catholicism a political problem today.

The last-minute selection of Texas senator Lyndon B. Johnson as Kennedy’s running mate was unexpected, and, for many Kennedy supporters, unwanted. The lengthy account in your book explaining how it came about is as complicated as it is fascinating. Can you boil it down to a brief explanation?

Boiled down, Kennedy needed the electoral votes of Texas, and LBJ’s help in other Southern states to win.

Nixon was a formidable opponent, and the election results turned out to be among the closest in history for a Presidential race. What have been the official explanations for such a close outcome?    

No real “official” explanation, but both men were smart candidates with pockets of strength across the country. Nixon, for example, managed to win California even though Kennedy felt he would carry the state.

In today’s political climate, what do you believe may be some important lessons we can all take away from this real-life story from more than 50 years ago?

Kennedy effectively invented the modern presidential campaign. Running outside the party apparatus was a model for other successful candidates: Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama. One can even make an argument that Donald Trump used this same approach. Kennedy was the first to have his own pollster to offer guidance about issues and constituencies. He mastered television. He was the first to exploit the route of the primaries, which everyone uses today.

Author Q & A with John T. Edge

Interview by Jana Hoops. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (July 16)

You could say that it was John T. Edge’s hunger for answers that led the Georgia native to move to Oxford 22 years ago and earn a master’s degree in Southern Studies from the University of Mississippi.

potlikker papers“I wanted to reconcile my profound love of the South with a deep anger that boiled in me when I confronted our peculiar history,” he writes in his newest book, The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South.

It was through recognizing “that farmers and cooks and waiters have been activists, too, fixed on forging their own newer South,” that he began to discover a path toward reconciliation.

That path led to his position as director of the Southern Foodways Alliance based at Ole Miss, where he and his staff explore the interconnected history of Southern food, philosophy, and favoritism.

The author of more than a dozen books and the winner of the James Beard Foundation’s M.F.K. Fisher Distinguished Writing Award in 2012, Edge examines the roles of politics, prejudice, and potlikker in shaping the South’s “modern history”–and why it all matters today–in The Potlikker Papers.

He is a contributing editor at Garden & Gun, writes a column for the Oxford American, and has served as the culinary curator for the weekend edition of NPR’s All Things Considered and as writer of the “United Tastes” column for the New York Times.

He lives in Oxford with his wife, Blair Hobbs, and his son Jess.

Tell me about the Southern Foodways Alliance.  

In May 1998, when I was a graduate student at the University of Mississippi, I had conceived the idea for the first symposium on Southern food (presented by the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi). It was successful and people got excited about the idea.

The SFA was founded in 1999 by 50 folks from around the region who believed the food culture of the American South was worthy of documentation and study. The group (which included a wide variety of food writers, growers, and chefs, along with academics who study or organize around Southern food) coalesced at a 1999 meeting in Birmingham, and I was hired as its director. The SFA, which employs nine staffers, now stages public symposia, documents oral histories, produces films, publishes a journal and a podcast–all telling nuanced and complicated stories about the American South and its food.

Through real-life narratives, The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South examines the history of Southern food and culture through distinct historical periods which you’ve titled Freedom Struggles (1950s-1970s); Rise of the Folk (1970s & 1980s); Gentrification (1980s & 1990s); New Respect (1990s-2010s); and Future Tenses (2010s Forward). With some overlap in the time periods, each section shares stories that help explain Southern political, cultural, and gender struggles through food. Please flesh out the concept of The Potlikker Papers in your own words.

My book charts a 60-year history of the South, beginning in 1955 with the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and closing in 2015, when a true multicultural South looms on the horizon. I chose 1955 because, by my estimate, that was when the South began to change. Rosa Parks refused to sit at the back of the bus. Black citizens rose to battle Jim Crow.

To tell that story, I focused on Georgia Gilmore, a cook from Montgomery, who raised money to literally and figuratively fuel the boycott by baking cakes and pies and frying chicken and selling them under the banner of what she called the Club from Nowhere. At around that point, the region I admire begins to come into focus. My book showcases a tragic place, reshaped by bold and radical women and people of color. This book is a people’s history of the South, a history of the farmers and cooks and waiters whose story has not been widely told.

 Please explain the title of the book, and why you found it appropriate to tell this story.

The title was inspired by the Potlikker and Cornpone debate of 1931 between Gov. Huey Long of Louisiana and Julian Harris, an editor at the Atlanta Constitution. During the Great Depression, they staged a three-week debate–about how to eat potlikker and cornpone–as a diversion from the woes of the time. Harris crumbled his cornbread into potlikker; Long dunked his.

I wrote my master’s thesis about that debate and about how a close read of the language of the day reveals insights about race, class, gender, and identity. The term “potlikker” also references my work of boiling down 60 years of Southern history to its essence.

 Why have Southerners come to develop an awareness of the food as a way of interpreting our political and cultural history and examining our current climate, and why is this important?

Food is a creative response to who we are and where we live. Southern food expresses our culture, our morals, our beliefs, our passion, and our creativity. We express ourselves through the music we play, the literature we write, through the religions we worship–and also our food. One of the promises for those of us who think and write about food is that our subject is relatable across race, ethnicity, class, and gender divides.

Only recently have Southerners embraced that idea. That is because cooks of the South were often women and people of color. Throughout our history, their work was not seen as worthy of celebration and documentation. The whole of our nation is waking up to this.

 Through this examination of our food culture, how far have we (the South) come in our efforts to right some wrongs, and what have been some of our biggest successes? (It seems that the current interest in and reputation of “Southern food” has been elevated in the past few decades.)

On the natural resource side of the equation, we’ve begun to seek out heirloom vegetables, pastured poultry and free-range hogs. That kind of curiosity is deeply important to biodiversity. On the human resource side, we have come to value the labor of cooks as we never have before. For the longest time, we paid dinting tribute to working class cooks. Especially when speaking of people of color, conservative white-controlled publications often used only their first name. That kind of omission was routinely applied not that long ago. A change has come.

To that end, what challenges lie ahead?

I think the challenge will be negotiating a future for Southern food, in which we recognize, broadly, that culture is a process, not a product. Today, some of the best po-boy shops along the Gulf Coast are owned and operated by Vietnamese families who arrived here to work as shrimpers. One of my favorite Mexican American restaurants markets its tortas as po-boys. These are future tense Southern foods. If you look at the region with clear eyes, you recognize that, by way of pure demographics, the South is changing. And rapidly. I think much is gained in embracing these changes.

You’re a Georgia native, a relatively-long-time Mississippi resident, and the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi.  Do you enjoy cooking? What are some of your own Southern favorites?

John T. Edge

John T. Edge

My wife Blair Hobbs is a far better cook; she makes a great version of my mother’s catfish stew. I keep a Big Green Egg on my porch, right outside my writing shed, and I like to smoke pork shoulders. Occasionally I’ll smoke tomatoes to make a great pasta sauce with a bit of cream. And I love to cook beans. I love the way, when combined with a hunk of pork and some onions, beans transform from what looks like rocks and pebbles to a creamy, poofy, luxurious dish. I also like to make pancakes on Sunday morning and serve them with Allan Benton’s bacon, from Madisonville, Tenn.

Edge will serve as a panelist for a discussion on “A Culture of Food” at 2:45 p.m. Aug. 19 at the Mississippi Book Festival in Jackson. The panel will convene in the Galloway Fellowship Center near the Mississippi State Capitol.

ms book fest

Author Q & A with Corabel Shofner (Bel Alexander)

Interview by Jana Hoops. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (July 30).

Native Jacksonian Corabel Shofner (known as a child in Jackson as Bel with one L Alexander) has, with “great success, taken the long way when it came to navigating several important milestones in [her] life–but things have always, eventually, seemed to fall into place.”

At age 17, she decided to “interrupt” her education at Murrah High School–so she left, and hitchhiked around the world, landing in New York City. She eventually enrolled in Columbia University and graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa after studying English literature and Arabic. She and husband Martin Shofner now live in Nashville, where she received a degree from Vanderbilt University School of Law. They have three grown children.

almost paradiseNow in her mid-60s, Shofner is officially beginning her new career as a writer, releasing her debut book, Almost Paradise(Farrar Straus Giroux)–a story about love, self-sacrifice, and a family’s second chance at redemption.

Her shorter works have appeared or are forthcoming in Word RiotWillow ReviewHabersham ReviewHawai’i ReviewSou’westerSouth Carolina ReviewSouth Dakota Review, and Xavier Review.

Tell me about growing up in Jackson.

We lived in Lakeland and Old Canton Road. My first school was Duling, where I was fascinated by the principal, Mrs. or Miss Boutwell, because she had a mysterious medical crisis called a blood clot.

There were pine woods behind my house which I would walk through to see Ophelia, who was the housekeeper/caregiver for Mrs. Brown in Woodland Hills. Mrs. Brown is the first person I know who died. Ophelia’s lovely stone cottage was right out of a fairy tale. If someone left ashes in her ashtray she kept them because she loved the smell. I think of her every time I see or smell ashes.

We moved our house from Lakeland to Lelia Drive, down by what is now River Hills Country Club. Anybody who was alive at that time will remember the house that was stuck on the bridge for weeks. That would be mine. For year, when I would be drive home by a friend’s mother, she would pull up and gasp, “Wasn’t that the house…?”

I was a terrible student and not a reader at all, except when I crawled into the attic to read Black Beauty with my plastic horses. I did write. The first book was titled The Monsters Under My Bed. I dropped out of Murrah High School and hitchhiked away, but I go to all the 1971 class reunions.

I still have farm land in the Delta and we come home often. My children are all grown, now ages 24-31, and they are all very imaginative and artistic.

You are, or were, an attorney. When did you start writing, and are you giving up your legal career for writing at this time?

I love researching and writing law, but as a career, it is over. It was a great job, but I’m a bit conflict averse, which I should have thought about ahead of time. And I didn’t like measuring my life in billable hours. My family has a long history in law. My grandfather–Julian Power Alexander, who married Corabel Roberts–wrote a dissenting opinion when he was on the Mississippi Supreme Court that said that the constitution does not exact wisdom from its citizens, but ensures their right to folly. I love that so much.

He died at the Sugar Bowl (in New Orleans, in January 1953, two months before I was born. They took his body to Bultman’s funeral home and then on the train home. Bultman’s is now a Fresh Market Grocery Store. Pat Stevens told me that when I visited her in New Orleans recently. My father was a dear friend of her husband Phineaus.

Julian and Corabel had a Dutch Colonial house on Poplar Street in Belhaven, and I remember toddling up to the front door. My cousin (author Tom Sancton of New Orleans and Paris) tells me we are at least fifth-generation Mississippians-and 13th-generation Mayflower descendants–but, as he says, “that’s another story.”

In your debut novel, Almost Paradise, the main character, Ruby Clyde Henderson, had an unpredictable life for whom things eventually worked out in an unexpected way. She is a complicated character who deserves more than she often got during the first 12 years of her life. How did you conceive of this character and this story-line for your first book?

I had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and was heavily medicated, very worried about my children and our future. Ruby Clyde marched into my room and bounced on my bed, telling me about herself, in 2001. This book has been in and our of “the drawer” for years. Ruby Clyde is a healer and I believe that writing her story is why my prognosis is now quite strong.

It’s difficult to tell the time period in which the book is set, until we read that her aunt was digitizing document on her computer–but there are no mentions of cell phones, tablets, social media, or “devices.” Why is there no evidence of these modern distractions?

I wanted my story to be modern, but somewhat timeless, hence the computer in the backroom and a television that is rolled out of the closet. Sister Eleanor doesn’t have a phone–cell or land line. Phones were not necessary to Ruby Clyde and her mother socially or financially. Cell phones are certainly ubiquitous today, but once they are in a story it seems like tech takes over and clutters the relationships. So, even though mine is a contemporary story, I wanted Ruby Clyde and her mother to be connected by other means, and I wanted Paradise Ranch to be a very peaceful, nurturing, and healing place.

Some of the characters, maybe Joe Brewer and Lady Frank, might well have owned cell phones, but didn’t use them in my scenes. The Catfish probably had one somewhere. I thought of dropping in a mention of cell phones, but then that would bring more attention to cell phones and before you know it, everybody would be calling everybody.

By the way, you are not the first person to question the time period. I think there are several places where it is a bit more dreamy than realistic.

The relationship between Ruby Clyde and her mother is, for the most part, reversed. Explain the importance of their roles.

Ruby Clyde is competent and self-reliant by necessity because her mother has withdrawn. I have often seen that when a parent falls short, the child will step forward and take on the adult role. They lose their childhood. It is a tragedy that is overlooked because people are prone to praise the child for stepping in. That is hwy I call this a reverse coming-of-age story. Ruby is able to find adults she can trust and to reclaim her childhood. Of course, she has no entire clue this is what’s happening.

Tell me about the Christian references in the story…Ruby Clyde has an aunt who is a nun, she believes in the power of prayer, and she makes deals with God and lives up to them.

I am a Christian. Biblical imagery is some of the powerful stuff on earth. Much of it can be quite baffling. I have an odd way of seeing everything, religion included. Ruby Clyde believes and questions all at the same time. Also, self-sacrifice is important to me, as it is so difficult to do and keeps getting pushed down the list of virtues. Hence, the Tale of Two Cities thread. I was worried that I might offend people of faith, but I was relieved when a very conservative religious reviewer said that she “would definitely have no qualms about recommending the book to Christian families.”

What is your bigger message to readers who join Ruby Clyde on her journey in this story?

“Message” is a loaded word. It is difficult to write plain words and have them understood at face value. “Message” is in the ear of the reader. I certainly hope that Ruby Clyde’s bravery and compassion are contagious. Ruby Clyde likes to say that you have to love pieces of people because if you wait around for perfect, you will end up with nothing. Maybe that is a message from Ruby Clyde of her own self.

Corabel Shofner

Corabel Shofner

Tell me about your other publications.

Stuff. Short stories, essays, legal writing. I wrote a brief for the U.S. Supreme Court.

Why were you drawn to writing a children’s book as your debut novel?

I just wrote my story. (My publisher) Farrar, Straus, And Giroux told me it was for 10-year-olds. That said, I couldn’t be more enchanted with the people dedicated to children’s literature.

Do you plan to continue writing children’s (or middle years) books?

Yes. I will continue to write my stories and then be told what they are. That said, whatever I write I will always support teachers and librarians and all people who work in children’s books. They are my people.

Corabel Shofner will sign copies of Almost Paradise at Lemuria Books at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, August 1. She will also serve as a panelist on the Middle Grade Reader’s discussion at the Mississippi Book Festival on Saturday, August 19 at 12 p.m. at the State Capitol in Room H.

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