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Mississippi’s literary legacy is legendary. But how well does contemporary writing stack up? We asked authors who will appear at the Mississippi Book Festival to suggest works by current writers that evoke our particular sense of place.
More than 150 authors will participate in interviews, panel discussions, book readings, signings and other activities from 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Saturday on the grounds of the State Capitol. The festival is free and open to the public.
Beverly Lowry, Who Killed These Girls?
Between 1978 and 2008, Beverly Lowry published six novels and three books of nonfiction. Her fourth nonfiction book, Who Killed These Girls? Cold Case; the Yogurt Shop Murders, will be published in October.
Her first two novels — Come Back, Lolly Ray, and Emma Blue — were set in the fictional town of Eunola. “Although the state was not specifically named, it didn’t take an archaeological dig to figure out which one it was or that Eunola was, in fact, based on the town I grew up in: Greenville, Miss.,” Lowry says. “Some 15 years later, my sixth novel, The Track of Real Desires, which was also set in Eunola, followed up on some of the characters from the earlier novels and this time explicitly named Mississippi as its home state.” She also has written essays and feature articles about Mississippi.
Lowry, who attended the University of Mississippi and received a bachelor’s degree from Memphis State University, has received awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation and the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters.
She has lived all over the country — New York City; Houston; Los Angeles; Missoula, Mont.; Washington, D.C.; Buffalo, N.Y.; among others. She was an English professor for many years at George Mason University in Virginia and now teaches fiction writing at the University of Houston at Victoria and lives in Austin.
“I’d certainly suggest Jesmyn Ward’s novel, Salvage the Bones, for its tautness and emotional intensity, as well as its thunderous prose, and also both of Brad Watson’s story collections,” says Lowry.
“I haven’t yet read Miss Jane, his new novel, but greatly look forward to it. He is a mighty talent who is willing to take risks and focus high and long. There are others I’d recommend, of course, but the works of these two resonate especially.”
Jeff Zentner, The Serpent King
Singer-songwriter, guitarist and now author, Jeff Zentner, published his first novel, Serpent King, this year.
He works with young musicians at Tennessee Teen Rock Camp, which inspired him to write for young adults.
He has recorded with Iggy Pop, Nick Cave and Debbie Harry. In addition to writing and recording his own music, Zentner performed at the Juke Joint Festival in 2008 in Clarksdale.
He currently lives in Nashville with his wife and son.
“To Mississippi readers, I would recommend one of my greatest literary idols and favorite authors, Jesmyn Ward and her National Book Award-winning novel, Salvage the Bones. It’s the rarest combination of beautiful and brutal in a perfect balance I’ve only seen in one other novel, The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Salvage the Bones is Mississippi through and through — sweat, air thick with humidity, blood red clay, and tall pines,” says Zentner.
Angela Thomas, The Hate U Give
Angela Thomas’s debut novel, The Hate U Give, won’t be published by Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins until 2017, but the film rights already have been optioned by Fox 2000 studio with Hunger Games actress Amandla Stenberg set to star.
Although a location isn’t given in the novel, Jackson and the metro area greatly influenced the setting, from the people and the culture to the racial and economic separations that still remain, says Thomas, who is a Jackson native.
Thomas is an inaugural winner of the Walter Dean Meyers Grant 2015, awarded by We Need Diverse Books.
She holds a bachelor’s degree in creative writing from Belhaven University, and she was a teen rapper.
“I recommend Jeff Zentner and his young adult novel, The Serpent King. Although the book is set in Tennessee, the setting, atmosphere, language and the heart of The Serpent King will remind Mississippians of home. The characters could very well be found in rural Mississippi. It’s a modern-day Faulkner novel for the young adult audience.” says Thomas.
W. Ralph Eubanks, The House at the End of the Road: The Story of Three Generations of an Interracial Family in the American South
W. Ralph Eubanks’ essays and criticism have appeared in The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The American Scholar, WIRED and The New Yorker. He was the director of publishing at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., for 18 years and the editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review at the University of Virginia.
In 2007, Eubanks received a Guggenheim Fellowship for his memoir, Ever Is a Long Time: A Journey Into Mississippi’s Dark Past. He currently is the Eudora Welty Visiting Scholar in Southern Studies at Millsaps College.
Eubanks received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Mississippi and his master’s in English language and literature at the University of Michigan.
Eubanks was born in Mount Olive, Miss. and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife and three children.
“As for novels I would recommend that will be featured at the festival, that is a hard one. I love Tom Piazza’s A Free State, since it is a book about race and identity, two topics that are a big part of my work as a nonfiction writer. A Free State is a book based on the history of American mistrelry, and I like the way it weaves history into its narrative,” says Eubanks.
“Brad Watson’s Miss Jane is a fictionalized rendering of the life of Watson’s aunt, but I was also very much taken by the amount of research he did on the medical condition of his central character, Jane Chisholm. And since it is set in the fictional town of Mercury — a stand-in for Meridian and same setting as his first novel — the book has a real sense of place as well as a well told and well researched story.”
Tom Piazza, A Free State
Tom Piazza is the author of 12 books of fiction and nonfiction, including the novels A Free State and City Of Refuge, the post-Katrina manifesto Why New Orleans Matters, and the essay collection Devil Sent The Rain, which contains a number pieces of interest to fans of Mississippi music, including articles on Mississippi blues patriarch Charley Patton and the legendary Singing Brakeman Jimmie Rodgers. He was a principal writer for the HBO drama series TREME, and the winner of a Grammy Award for his album notes to Martin Scorsese Presents The Blues: A Musical Journey. He lives in New Orleans.
“I recommend Lee Clay Johnson and his wild debut novel, Nitro Mountain. It is full of surprises, a broad range of characters, a love of music and an understanding of the dark places people can pass through as they try to find something like peace and redemption. It’s a great debut, and Lee Johnson is definitely a writer to watch,” says Piazza.
Michael Farris Smith, Rivers
Michael Farris Smith’s Rivers received the Mississippi Library Association’s 2014 Mississippi Author Award for Fiction. Two novels are forthcoming, Desperation Road (2017) and The Fighter (2018).
Smith received his bachelor’s degree from Mississippi State University. He attended William Carey University for his master’s degree and the University of Southern Mississippi for his doctorate. He is an associate professor of English at Mississippi University for Women. He teaches fiction writing, modernism and Southern literature. Before teaching at MUW, Smith lived in France and Switzerland.
He was born in Mississippi and currently lives in Columbus with his wife and two daughters.
“I actually recommend many authors, all found in one place. The Mississippi Noir anthology by Akashic Books is a super collection of dark, sultry, gritty Mississippi stories. Which is just the way we like them,” says Smith.
RaShell R. Smith-Spears, Losing Her Religion
RaShell R. Smith-Spears has published creative works in various journals and anthologies, including short stories A Story of Hunger and Robert Greenfield: A Vampire Story in the Mississippi-based Black Magnolias: A Literary Journal. Her most recent publication is the short story Losing Her Religion in the collection Mississippi Noir, edited by Tom Franklin.
She received her bachelor’s degree at Spelman College, master’s in English and her master’s of fine arts in creative writing from the University of Memphis. She received her doctoral degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia in 19th Century American Literature and African-American Literature.
She currently lectures at Jackson State University in the Department of English and Modern Foreign Languages.
Smith-Spears is married and has two children.
“Carolyn J. Brown, author of Song of My Life: A Biography of Margaret Walker, is doing important work by bringing Margaret Walker to the forefront of our literary attention. Walker is a significant literary figure in Mississippi culture and we need to acknowledge her contributions. I believe Carolyn J. Brown is doing that,” says Smith-Spears.
Jay McInerney, Bright, Precious Days
Jay McInerney is the author of 12 books – nine of which are works of fiction and the most recent being Bright, Precious Days. Time Magazine cited his first best-selling novel, Bright Lights, Big City (1984), as one of nine generation-defining novels of the twentieth century.
McInerney’s novel The Good Life also received the Grand Prix Literaire at the Deauville Film Festival in 2007. How It Ended (2009), a collection of short stories spanning his entire career, was named one of the 10 best books of the year by The New York Times.
McInerney currently writes a monthly wine column for Town & Country Magazine, and from 2010 to 2014 he wrote one for The Wall Street Journal. From 1996 to 2007 he wrote a monthly wine column for Condé Nast’s House and Garden. Many of those columns were collected in Bacchus and Me (2000) and A Hedonist in the Cellar (2006). In 2006 McInerney won the James Beard MFK Fisher Award for Distinguished Writing for his food and wine work.
McInerney is the father of two children, Barrett and Maisie, is married to Anne Randolph Hearst and divides his time between Bridgehampton, N.Y., Nashville and New York City.
“I would recommend Robert Olen Butler’s Perfume River to Mississippi readers,” McInerney says. “Butler is one of our greatest novelists, and his work is haunting and lyrical.”