Tag Archives: Mississippi authors

Interview with Michael Farris Smith, Author of Rivers

Rivers by Michael Farris Smith (Simon & Schuster; 352 pages; $25).

It had been raining for weeks. Maybe months. He had forgotten the last day that it hadn’t rained, when the storms gave way to the pale blue of the Gulf sky, when the birds flew and the clouds were white and sunshine glistened across the drenched land.

michael farris smith 1

Thank you, Michael, for letting me ask you these questions.  Rivers left me chilled, gasping, and shaken to the core.  Did you always want to be a writer?

Not really. For a long time I didn’t know what I wanted to do so I was kind of a drifter. Change of scenery was something I really desired and needed so I didn’t stay in one place very long. But this restlessness took me to Europe for a few years and that’s when I began to read and that led me to the desire to write. I will say, though, that when it hit me at age 29, that’s all I wanted to do. Still is.

 

How would you describe Rivers?

Wow. That’s a tough one for the second question. I think RIVERS is about redemption, survival both emotionally and physically. I think RIVERS is about the odyssey of not only Cohen but of all the characters. There is so much to overcome. I wanted it to be more complex than simply good versus evil, and I hope it comes across that way.

What made you decide on the title?  Did you ever have any others in mind?

RIVERS wasn’t the original title. The original title had been used recently to my chagrin, but my agent and I were knocking around other ideas and when RIVERS was suggested, I thought it was perfect. It works on several different levels in the story. It’s strong, straightforward, Southern. Exactly what I wanted.

Michael, what was the impetus behind this novel?  How did you come up with the story?rivers1.jpg

There was no one thing, but several things came into play when I had the idea for RIVERS. Mississippi was still feeling, and is still feeling, the pangs of Katrina and something in me wanted to write a post-Katrina novel. But it wasn’t working and I was frustrated. At the same time I was also very much wanting to break from writing stories to writing novels and I wanted an idea that would, at the very least, picque interest. So I decided to quit banging my head against the wall with a Katrina story, and take the notion of hurricane destruction and the place and people that take the punishment and ramp it way, way up. What if a stream of hurricanes went on and on? What would it look like? What would we do? And then I started to work.

I want to talk more about Cohen.  He’s such an interesting man.  He’s a pragmatist, yet he stays in his home with the world practically coming apart around him.  He’s got a dog, a horse, and a whole lot of memories.  He’s haunted by the past.  Cohen’s a realist yet he also seems to be an idealist.  How did you come up with this character?  How easy or how difficult was it to make him so multi-layered and complex?  Is there any of you in Cohen?

I had an image of a man waking up in the middle of the night, on family land, on the Gulf Coast, after a big storm, and then he goes out to look around. And that’s really all I had. I just started to follow him, to see what he saw, to feel what he felt about what he was seeing. The layers eventually came, but I didn’t have a real game plan for Cohen other than I wanted to lay as much trouble on him as I possibly could and see how he would react. Turns out, he took a lot, and kept fighting.

I think there’s some of me in Cohen, like I guess there is in most all of my characters, but I don’t think there is much overlap. And least not consciously. He’s kind of a South Mississippi guy who grew up playing ball and riding around with a cooler of beer with his buddies and working with his hands, and that’s a pretty decent description of me.

Are there any plans on making a movie of this book?  I would love to see Matthew McConaughey as Cohen.

That’s a good suggestion. I’ll see if we can get him a copy.

Mariposa is another intriguing character and she also lets you talk about New Orleans and what happened there.  She’s also haunted.  How did you come up with the character of Mariposa?

Mariposa was so much fun to create because, like you said, she gave me the chance to use New Orleans and all the ghost stories and dark alleys of the French Quarter. I wanted some of the characters to be displaced, to have ended up in this situation by straight-up bad luck, and that’s how she came to be. I didn’t know when she was introduced limping along the side of the road that she would grow into the character that she grew into, but I’m glad she did.

How did Hurricane Katrina affect you and your friends and family?  Do you think Rivers would have ever been possible without Katrina?

I’m certain that there would have never been RIVERS without Katrina. It’s the first hurricane in my lifetime to have struck Mississippi and it had such an impact on so many people. I felt that impact and those emotions drove me through the writing of RIVERS.

rivers 1In Rivers, Cohen recalls a vacation he and his wife took to Venice.  It’s so interesting that they vacationed in the “floating city” given that New Orleans features so prominently in your story.  The low elevation of New Orleans means it’s like a bowl and this means it’s vulnerable to flooding.  Is there a reason why you had Cohen and Elisa tour Venice?

It started as a way to give some more information about Cohen and Elisa and their life before, so I sent them to Venice on a vacation for the sheer irony of the water. It was only about 4 pages, but my agent really liked it and suggested I write their entire trip. So I created about 20 pages of what their Venice experience was like and then sliced it up and put it here and there throughout RIVERS. It helped that I’ve been to Venice a few times and that is a place, much like New Orleans, with its own strange feeling. It’s so old, so beautiful and ancient one minute, then you turn a street and it’s decrepit and smelly. But it also has a haunting feel, and it seemed to be a good parallel to what was to come for Cohen and Elisa.

What kind of research did you do for Rivers?

None. I looked at a map once or twice to make sure I had the distance between places correct, but that’s it. I didn’t want to look at any footage of natural disasters or study hurricane patterns because I had a pretty strong vision of the place I was trying to create and I didn’t want it tainted.

Although this is speculative fiction, it is so powerful given our extreme weather this century.  If something similar happened in the United States, irrevocably altering the landscape of the Gulf South and the way we live, do you think things would progress as they do in Rivers?  Or would they be worse?

That’s a really good question and I’ve had this come up with other readers. About all I can say is I hope this isn’t a Gulf Coast that we ever see because there are many people in this world anxious to try and take advantage of calamity.

A great deal of loss permeates Rivers yet there is also a great deal of hope.  Was that an aim of yours when you set out to write the

michael farris smith 2story?

I think almost every story has to be about hope in some way. The novels and stories that I love center around hope and survival, whether it be emotional, spiritual, physical, psychological, whatever. The late, great Barry Hannah said all stories have to be about life and death and hope is in the middle of life and death.

I love Barry Hannah, another fellow Mississippian.  Did you have an ending in mind when you began writing Rivers or did the conclusion come to you over time?

I never have an ending in mind until I get there. I think planning too far ahead robs my characters of free will and that’s the last thing I want to do.

Which writers have influenced you the most? Who are some of your favorite authors?  What are some of your favorite books?

So many favorites: Larry Brown, Daniel Woodrell, Cormac McCarthy, Harry Crews, Jean Rhys, Ernest Hemingway, Albert Camus, Carson McCullers, Truman Capote. Some of my favorite books are The Stranger, Joe, The Crossing, Death in Venice, Old Man and the Sea, Ballad of the Sad Café, Good Morning Midnight, Feast of Snakes, The Iliad, [and] No Country for Old Men.

What do you like to do when you aren’t writing?

I like to be outside, chasing around my daughters, cooking out in the backyard, playing guitar, tailgating.

Our home state has produced truly magnificent writers—William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Richard Ford, and Jesmyn Ward—just to name a few.  How does it feel to join their illustrious ranks?

It feels pretty good. There are so many great writers from this state, writers that you read and admire and aspire to be like, and then when you finally find your name mentioned alongside them, it’s surreal and satisfying and humbling.

What do you hope readers take with them after reading Rivers?

I hope that readers travel the same journey as Cohen and the others. I hope they are emotionally spent, that they feel the struggle, that they hope, that it’s an adventure.

What’s next for you, Michael?  Are you working on anything new?

I’m working on something but as always, you just wait and see how it goes. I’m excited about working again. There’s been a lot lately to keep me away from the healthy exercise of writing fiction and I’m ready to be back to it more consistently.

Thanks so much, Michael, for a wonderful interview.  Good luck with the book!

Thanks to you and so glad for your enthusiasm for RIVERS.

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Meet Michael!

Friday, October 4 – Book Mart & Café, Starkville, MS: Signing from 3:00-5:00 pm

Saturday, October 5 – Barnes & Noble, Tupelo, MS: 2:00 pm

Tuesday, October 8 – Lemuria Books, Part II, Jackson, MS: Signing at 5:00. Click here to reserve a First Edition signed copy.

Wednesday, October 9 – University of Southern Mississippi, Hattiesburg, MS

October 11-12 – Southern Festival of Books, Nashville

Wednesday, October 16 – “Tea with Authors” at Mississippi Library Association Conference, Biloxi, MS

October 18-19 – Auburn Writers Conference, Auburn University

Tuesday, October 22 – Mississippi State University, Starkville, MS

October 24-26 – Welty Writers Symposium, MUW, Columbus

October 29 – Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL

Friday, November 1 – Turnrow Books, Greenwood, MS

Thursday, November 7 – Texas A&M-Commerce, Dallas, TX

Wednesday, November 13 – James Madison University, Harrisonburg, VA

Friday, November 22 – Lunch with “The Literary Club” in Columbus, MS

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Filed under author interviews, Bookmagnet's Best Books of the Month, books, contemporary fiction, Debut Novels, fiction, Lemuria Books, literary fiction, Southern fiction, Southern writers

The Resurrectionist by Matthew Guinn

Book Review: The Resurrectionist by Matthew Guinn

The Resurrectionist by Matthew Guinn (W.W. Norton & Company; 304 pages; $25.95).

resurrectionist.jpgImpeccably researched and minutely detailed, Matthew Guinn’s first novel The Resurrectionist is mined from the dark and almost-forgotten pages of buried history—literally.  During renovations of one of the oldest buildings on the campus of the Medical College of Georgia in 1989, human remains were found in the structure’s cellar.  Archaeologist Robert Blakely carefully studied the bones and published his findings in a 1997 book entitled Bones in the Basement: Postmortem Racism in Nineteenth-Century Medical Training.  Blakely discovered that the remains were procured for the purposes of dissection and training for the college’s medical students.  This was nothing new.  A dearth of cadavers existed in the nineteenth century, and both American and Canadian institutions commonly hired people to bring in corpses.  But there is a strange twist to this true story.  The Medical College of Georgia bought a slave named Grandison Harris just before the Civil War to be their body snatcher, or “resurrectionist” in the jargon of that era.  For decades, Harris dug up bodies in Augusta’s African American cemetery.  This was not a job he enjoyed, but rather one he endured because he was enslaved.  Guinn loosely bases The Resurrectionist on this disconcerting aspect of our history, and it’s both effective and chilling.

Guinn begins his tale in 1995 when disgraced doctor Jacob Thacker suffers through probation for abusing Xanax.  He has been exiled to public relations at the South Carolina Medical College when workers uncover the bones of African American slaves on campus.  Jacob is determined to find out about the college’s shadowy past, even if his dogged pursuit could jeopardize his career.

Jacob is really only a small part of Guinn’s story.  In my mind, he is a much lesser character compared to the true star of The Resurrectionist: Nemo Johnston, a rich, finely-drawn, and highly nuanced personality.

Seven doctors at the South Carolina Medical College hold legal title to him.  They are his owners; he is their slave.  One of the school’s founders, Dr. Frederick Augustus Johnston, purchased Nemo because of his impressive skills with a knife.  Nemo’s main duties, though, are to provide corpses of recently-deceased African American slaves to students.

Imagine for a moment what this existence is like for Nemo.  When Dr. Johnston bought him, Nemo took on his owner’s last name, an ordinary occurrence of the period.  More significant is the fact that Nemo changed his first name.  Previously it was Cudjo, a common African name for children born on Monday.  Cudjo said good-bye to his original name to become Nemo, which interestingly means “no man.” No man could do what he is doing and live with himself.  His responsibility weighs heavily on Nemo as he internalizes the horrors of who and what he has become—a man who robs the graves of his own kind for scientific study.  This was yet another way that slaves were degraded and demoralized.  Their bodies and their spirits were broken in life only to have their bodies mutilated after death.  To put yourself in Nemo’s place is sobering and uncomfortable.

“In Africa,” Nemo knows, “he could have expected an instant death for desecrating a grave and disturbing the spirits, and after that death, an eternity of torment from the ancestors and their demons.” Guinn offers us another stunningly terrifying awareness: Nemo has no voice.  Nemo knows that a slave is “either a creature of adaptation or just another dead body.”  He has adapted simply out of necessity.

In one of Guinn’s most incredibly powerful scenes, a student is shocked to learn the corpse he is studying is that of his mother.  Instead of producing the body of a slave, Nemo had dug up the body of a recently-deceased white woman.  Not surprisingly, there is a hue and cry.  The doctors have forgotten the slaves are human; they are all oblivious to the fact these people were once wives, mothers, daughters, husbands, fathers, and sons.  Guinn turns the lens to a striking effect.

No matter what Nemo does, no matter how he sees himself as inhuman, his actions do not truly reflect on him.  Instead, his

Matthew Guinn

Matthew Guinn lives in Jackson, MS

activities tell more about his slave owners and the school’s doctors than they do about him.  Here, Guinn illustrates Aimée Cesaire’s boomerang effect of colonialism: slavery dehumanizes civilized men.  Since racial slavery is based on and justified by contempt of the enslaved, anyone who engages in such an act is changed by it.  Slaveholders often viewed their slaves as animals and treated them as such, but such an attitude also turned slave owners into animals themselves.

In the end, Nemo reclaims his agency and seizes his place, his self-respect, and even his humanity.  And Jacob must decide what is important to him, especially when he learns of a connection to those bones in the basement.

This Southern Gothic tale fascinated, startled, and unsettled me.  By shedding light on real-life body snatcher Grandison Harris, Guinn is himself a resurrection man.

“But one folkway he could not discard. Always he brought along some piece of crockery to leave on the grave, following the ancient ritual of leaving a container nearby to catch the spirit of the departed if it was loosed.”

Did you know? Whites adopted many of these African burial practices from African American slaves.

Another fact–Africans believed that when you killed a snake, it didn’t actually die until the sun went down.  My grandmother used to always say this after she killed a snake.   Slaves brought their cultural traditions from Africa to America and passed them to whites, making it part of our shared heritage.

 

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Q&A with Jonathan Odell

I interviewed author Jonathan Odell for the Mobile Press-Register.  Odell has written a new book called The Healing that is getting a lot of buzz.  It’s authentic, fresh, and well-researched.  Polly Shine is unforgettable.  To read my Q&A with Odell, please go here.   If Odell is appearing at a bookstore near you, I urge you to go meet him.  He is very friendly and loves to talk to readers.

Author Jonathan Odell

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Meeting Jonathan Odell at Lemuria Books

I have conversed with author Jonathan Odell via this blog and finally had the pleasure of meeting him in person yesterday.  Mr. Odell appeared at Lemuria Books in Jackson, Mississippi, on March 7.  He signed copies of his newest novel The Healing at 5 pm and then read from the book at Lemuria’s Dot Com Building at 5:30.

Jonathan Odell

Mr. Odell arrived early.  He met Lemuria staff and then signed about 400 books.  He still had some time before the signing began so he popped downstairs to Broad Street Baking Company and Cafe for a break and a latte.

When 5:00 came, my mother and I were the first of his fans waiting in line.  My mother and Mr. Odell spent some time catching up.  They both attended R.H. Watkins High School in Laurel, MS.  My mother was a childhood friend of Mr. Odell’s twin brothers, Doug and David.  She remembered Mr. Odell being in the band.

Pam Boler and Jonathan Odell

Mr. Odell was so friendly not only to us but to everyone who attended.  There was a fair-sized crowd.  He took his time talking to us and inscribing and even lining books.  Everyone remarked on how personable he was and how much they adored The Healing.

Jonathan Odell and me (bookmagnet)

Book signings at Lemuria are a joy to attend.  It is always great to see Zita, Lisa, Maggie, and Joe.  We were sad, though, to miss Nan.  It is also wonderful to catch up with friends we first met at Kathryn Stockett’s signing of The Help in May of last year.  We love seeing Susan and Wanda!

You just never know what treasure you will find at Lemuria.  For example, in one of the rare book rooms, my mother came across a very special John Grisham book.  My mother, it has to be said, loves Mr. Grisham; he is her favorite author.  She opened a signed copy of The Runaway Jury to read “Official 5/22/96 Lemuria Signing Elbow Book.”  Puzzled, she asked what it meant.  Joe Hickman explained Mr. Grisham liked to write quirky things in a few novels to see if they would end up on the internet for sale.  This particular copy was what he rested his elbow on as he signed books.  What a find!  It took some persuasion on my part, but she bought it.  Now she has a message for Mr. Grisham: She will treasure it always and never put it on Ebay.

John Grisham's "Elbow Book"

You will not want to miss an author coming to Lemuria next week: Alex George, author of A Good American.  Mr. George is very friendly and loves to discuss his novel.  He will be at Lemuria Books in Jackson, MS, on March 14 for a signing and a reading beginning at 5 pm.

Book signings are a great way to make new friends and meet your favorite authors.  Just as we were lucky enough to meet Mr. Odell.  I urge you to pick up The Healing.  It is one of those rare novels you will cherish for years to come.

Thanks, Mr. Odell, and thanks, Lemuria!

 

 

 

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