Dispatch Part 2: Rediscovering My Home

For the past couple of weeks, I've been traveling across Mississippi and into Tennessee on a regional book tour for my first novel, Three Rivers. I've learned a few things, and I've rediscovered things about the South I'd mostly forgotten.

Here's a list in no particular order:

  • People here love to talk about books and ideas. At a reading event at TurnRow Book Store in Greenwood, I was delighted to spend quite some time in conversation with an excellent book blogger (Tamara of Traveling with T), a former colleague, a couple of old college friends, and several people I'd never met before. They asked thoughtful, probing questions that led me to think about my work in new ways. They were funny and smart and generous with their observations. Even with the charming distraction of one of the world's cutest babies in the front row, the conversation was excellent. The next night at Off Square Books in Oxford, I was delighted to talk writing and reading with my first creative writing professor, some very dear friends, and a few students moving in for the semester at Ole Miss. Everyone had thoughts and ideas and questions. No one seemed bored or rushed or distracted.
  • People are not in a hurry. It is a well-worn cliché that things move a little slower down South. It isn't always true, but a good conversation requires lots of listening, lots of debate, lots of questions. That takes time. Meals are rituals of choice and pleasure. Do you want that catfish blackened or fried? Turnip greens or slaw? Sweet tea or coke? Lemon icebox pie or coconut meringue? And what fun would it be to drive straight from Point A to Point B when the back roads offer so many possibilities? There is value in slowing down.
  • Memory is long. I cannot count the number of times someone said to me, "Do you remember when...?" In one instance an old college professor insisted on speaking to me alone, in another room, just for a moment. Turns out, he wanted to remind me about a particularly crude thing I'd said long ago in an effort to be funny. "You might be able to use this," he told me. We both laughed about it. It is a testament to this man's good nature that he actually did find me amusing some 25 years ago when I was really just an annoying little twit.
  • People are kind. An old college friend who pulled me into the worlds of journalism and creative writing well before I had any real idea about either, spent the better part of a good meal telling me how he felt about my book in such laudatory terms that it nearly brought me to tears.
  • Things are the same. I can find the place I used to live pretty much by just sniffing the breeze. My cousins pop in unannounced at my parents' home and stick around to share a meal with us. They tell wild stories and joke about how they'll let me use their tales in my next book. I'm happy to steal their adventures and grateful for permission.  Churches are everywhere. We drive deep into the woods at one point and the only sign of life for miles is a Baptist church. Who attends a church so completely removed from civilization? And, on the news, they talk about the flag. It's an old debate and a rancorous one. The Mississippi flag still contains the Confederate emblem and people are still arguing about it.
  • Things have changed. Small towns from Oxford to Vicksburg to Columbus and others have removed the state flag from government buildings and public squares, and have called for other cities and towns to do the same. Mississippi authors, actors, musicians, and more submit a full-page letter to the Clarion-Ledger, the state's largest newspaper, asking for the flag to be redesigned. Even the college football coaches call for the removal of the Confederate emblem, which might be the thing that tips the scales. Football matters here. If the coaches say the flag inhibits their ability to recruit, people may listen.
  • Life is never easy. Several close friends I'd planned to see during my visit have unexpected crises that call them away. One friend experiences an unimaginable tragedy. I think of her constantly. So many of the places I visit are places we spent time together. We talk on the phone, but the connection keeps dropping. We text back and forth at all hours of the day. "Does this mean I won't get my signed, first-edition copies," she asks. "I'll bring them to you," I promise. I plan a trip to see her in the next few weeks.
  • Faulkner was right. "To understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi." There is some dispute about whether Faulkner actually said these words, or whether another author merely paraphrased him. Nonetheless, it rings true. At every event I attend, someone asks me why I write about Mississippi. After all, I haven't lived here in more than 25 years. I've struggled to answer that question, but no more. I write about Mississippi because I am trying to understand it. That's reason enough.