February 9, 2016
The Land of 10,000 Writers
by Michael Bible
I spent seven years in the Southern literary mecca and William Faulkner’s hometown, Oxford, Mississippi. Three as a grad student at Ole Miss. Two as an adjunct. Two as a bookseller and all seven as a struggling writer. It’s been more than a few years since I quit my job at Oxford’s famed bookstore, Square Books, and drove a beat-up Saab convertible to California.
I live in New York City now and to celebrate my first novel SOPHIA, I made the pilgrimage back to Mississippi to read at the store where I used to work. My tour guide and host all week was the photographer Jane Rule Burdine who has been called the Gertrude Stein of the South. Born in the Delta, she’s lived on a farm in Taylor, Mississippi (pop. 200) eight miles south of Oxford, since the 1980’s. She was once even mayor. Besides creating darkly comic photographs, Jane Rule is also known widely for her guidance for generations of writers, musicians and weirdos of every stripe.
The prevalence of writers in Mississippi has long been one of the great mysteries of American letters. How could a state so backwards produce so many geniuses? Is it the state’s wretched history that makes for great drama? Or is it an oral storytelling tradition passed down through families and sprinkled with diction from the King James Bible that accounts for so many fine sentence makers from the Magnolia state? Or something far more ethereal and untouchable, an indescribable quality of life that is more in abundance down there—something dizzying and tragic about the light and air itself? Far more serious thinkers have tackled that problem better than I would be able to in this short space but what was clear from my trip was that Mississippi’s literary dynasty nor the states deep mysteries were in any way diminishing. Quite the opposite.
The blizzard in NYC forced me to cancel my first reading at TurnRow Books set for Monday in Greenwood, Mississippi (we postponed till Saturday) so my first stop was instead to Lemuria Books, Eudora Welty’s home bookstore in Jackson. At the reading I met up with the filmmaker Will Goss, who is one of America’s great undiscovered geniuses. His films are made on micro-budgets with his friends and family as crew and actors. His stories seem to come from another world and somehow manage to be both deeply intelligent and gut-bustingly funny. He had just learned that he’d secured a job teaching English in St. Petersburg, Russia and planned to make a movie in Russian, a language he barely spoke. After the reading at Lemuria, I bought Richard Grant’s new book Dispatches from Pluto. Richard, originally from London, spent decades as a nomadic journalist in Africa and the American West. A few years ago Richard bought a house in the Mississippi Delta and his latest book beautifully chronicles his ups and downs. Jane Rule and I agreed he was a 21st century Alexis de Tocqueville.
The next day Jane Rule drove me to Memphis for a radio interview. My girlfriend Kelsey was flying in from New York later that evening so Jane Rule and I had some time to kill. As we drove around she told me a story about being in Memphis during the ten-year anniversary of Elvis’ death. She and a friend thought it might be wild to drive up from Mississippi to Graceland and see the thousands of fans in mourning. When they arrived, a man was handing out small candles to light in honor the anniversary of Presley’s passing. Jane Rule took some and made a small shrine on the street as they watched the throngs in grief. They got a few beers and took in the spectacle. A while later they were a bit tipsy when a Japanese TV crew asked to interview them. Why did Jane Rule have 7 candles, they asked. What the candles mean? Without skipping a beat she looked into the camera, deadpan, her eyes full of tears and whimpered, “These 7 candles here, they represent the 7 blowjobs I gave the King.” Somewhere in Japan this footage exists.
But I digress.
In 1962, a few months after William Faulkner died, James Meredith‘s entrance into the University of Mississippi caused a three day riot that left three dead. The racist episode decimated the town and university’s reputation, for almost a decade no scholar worth a lick wanted to teach there. A cultural dark ages ensued. Then around the early 80’s things began to change. Richard Howorth, an Oxford native, and his wife Lisa opened Square Books. Former Harper’s editor and Mississippian Willie Morris came on as writer-in-residence. He hired Barry Hannah, who had been previously let go from the University of Alabama for pulling a gun on a class.
In a few short years Oxford became a destination for writers. And soon enough it began to create writers organically. Larry Brown, Donna Tartt, and John Grisham were all publishing during those decades and and all had lived in Oxford. The Oxford American magazine was founded by a former Square Books employee and later the Ole Miss MFA program was established with Barry Hannah as its director. The Hoka, an art house theater and cafe founded by Ron “Ronzo” Shapiro was artistic hub throughout the 1980’s and into the late 90’s. By the time I moved to Oxford in 2006, these wild early years were spoken of in tones of hushed reverence and were often referred to as the Southern Literary Renaissance. Oxford and Square Books were cemented as destinations where writers must pay their respects. But in their time, each of early those writers left. The Hoka closed. Larry Brown died suddenly at a young age. Grishman moved to Virginia (but still gives generously to the writing program.) By the time I got to town, Barry was the last remaining writer from those early days. In 2010 when he passed away the New York Times wrote that the town’s literary future seemed uncertain.
On Thursday night Jane Rule threw me a party at her farm in Taylor. Many old friends stopped by. David Swider, an old buddy and fellow Square Books alum who now owns End of All Music the local vinyl record shop, came early with Len Clark a musician and painter. They rode with my friend Bobby Rea, a Lit professor at Ole Miss and Pete Kinkel-Schuster, the lead singer of the band Water Liars, named after a Barry Hannah short story. Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly came not long after with Ronzo, who had just opened a coffee shop and juice bar in town. Tom and Beth Ann are the husband and wife team that now head the MFA program at Ole Miss. She’s an award winning poet and he’s a bestselling novelist, and most recently they wrote a novel together. I met them at Sewanee ten years ago as a disheveled undergrad who tagged along to the writer’s parties. They were amazingly kind to me. They’ve since brought in great writers to teach at Ole Miss like the Emmy winner (and personal hero) Jack Pendarvis, National Book Award Winner Jesmyn Ward, the great Chris Offutt and most recently Mississippi native Mary Miller. The list goes on.
It feels sometimes like you can’t spit in Oxford without hitting a writer. Every bartender and shop girl is toiling their nights away on a novel. My suitcase is full of books, most of them the latest from Oxford writers. Friday night before my reading I scanned the front table at Square Books. There was Jack Pendarvis’ new book, Tom and Beth Ann’s latest was just out in paperback as was Square Books co-owner Lisa Howorth’s novel. My reading was at Off-Square Books, which doubles as the store’s used section and event space. Great crowd. Old faces and new friends. The noir writer William Boyle bought me a drink at the bar after the reading. He’d just sold the rights to his first novel to a French publisher. Writers were everywhere.
Saturday I was planning on meeting Jamie Kornegay, owner of TurnRow Books in Greenwood to sign some books, try and make up for the reading I had to cancel earlier in the week. Jamie’s debut novel Soil came out in 2015 to wide acclaim and I was looking forward to driving through the Delta but at the last minute Jamie decided pull an audible and drive to Taylor with his family and have dinner in town. He would bring the books to me, he said. We had a lovely visit with his wife Kelly and their three kids. I showed Jamie a map of literary Mississippi that I’d discovered in some old magazine from the 1960’s about the Delta. It was covered in names. He said someone should make a new one but I couldn’t imagine how many more writers the state had added in 50 some years. Mississippi truly is the land of 10,000 writers.
Later that night we met the next generation. Jane Rule has cabins on her farm that she rents out and one of her tenants, Al, a Square Books employee told us she was throwing a birthday party for Pace, one of her co-workers. Most of the younger Square Books staff would be there. Jane Rule, Kelsey and I came late but the party was still raging. As soon as we walked in the door they broke out in song. A girl did a monologue using the front porch as a stage. Then they broke out in another song. We met Sam and Currie, two more great Square Books folks and their friend Joseph. Every wanted to write. We had great conversations until the night got close to morning and we ventured home.
The next day a woman passing through Taylor named Cindy saw Jane Rule working in her yard and Jane Rule invited her in for a drink. Cindy was born in Taylor and had been visiting her relative’s graves. Kelsey and I came back from town to find them talking and drinking at Jane Rule’s kitchen table. Soon Jack Sonni, a writer Tom and Beth Ann introduced us to, came over with a bottle of tequila. Cindy told us that her father and sister had died recently and she was having trouble with her own family. Her wife’s grown son was out of control. Cindy worked for a company that made the world’s smallest artificial heart pump and without much prompting she went to her truck and produced one. It was a small piece of twisted metal attached to a long white catheter and she showed us how they stuck through your leg up into your heart. She gave her whole presentation knocking back tequila. We were all amazed and told her so. Cindy drank another shot and opened up more about her partner and her family life living up in Memphis. She missed her hometown. She missed her father. She asked what I was doing in town and I told her I read at Square Books. She said her father had known Faulkner. Then she got quiet for awhile. She held up the world’s smallest heart pump and said, “See. I see this little pump. I work on the heart. You’re writer, you work on the heartstrings. We’re not much different.” I had to agree.