Photo credit: Stephanie Rocha
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is one of America’s most successful songwriters and record producers, winning a Grammy for her work with Natalie Cole and nominated for a Grammy for her work with Patti LaBelle. She has also worked with Leann Rimes, Dionne Warwick, and Aretha Franklin, to name a few. In addition, she has contributed to soundtracks for movies such as “Hope Floats” and “Where the Heart Is,” and for television shows such as “Desperate Housewives.” Her just released memoir, “Southern Discomfort,” is about growing up in Waynesboro, Mississippi, where she was a member of the county’s wealthiest family.
Q: We last spoke in 1997 for a book I wrote titled Women on Top. It was a history of women in music. You were living in LA at the time writing songs and producing records with Patti Labelle, Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick and others. Now you live in Atlanta and you have written an incredible memoir about growing up in Waynesboro, Mississippi. Have you seen as much progress in the music industry as you would have liked since our last conversation?
A: Oh, my God, no. No one has ever asked me that question so poignantly. It is interesting because I am on the newly formed board of the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, part of the University of California School for Communication and Journalism. They originally did a study on women in film and television. That study has had a huge impact. Now we are doing the same thing in the music business. It is pretty compelling.
Q: Where are changes most needed in the entertainment business ?
A: In the music business, you were accepted as a songwriter or a singer, but as a producer—no way. As a music director—no way. Anything that puts you in a place of more power at the record labels has been off limits. In film and television, you have the same thing. As long as you are being an actress, that’s fine. But directors, producers, people behind the camera, people in the studios; it has been a long struggle for women to get into those positions. I won’t do a knee-jerk reaction that it hasn’t changed at all in the music business—it has changed after “Women on Top” and conversations through the years—but now you have a lot of women who produce themselves. That piece is different. What is not different, though, not that I want to wear this crown, but I don’t know any women like myself who get called to write and produce a major commercial, a song for film or television, or to write and produce a record. It is very rare. If I am an artist and controlling my fate, I have more power to say, “I am going to produce myself.” They may say, “No, you will co-produce.” It still goes back to power. If I am a male and the head of a label I am the one telling you “yes, you can do that” and “no, you can’t.” It is the same thing in film. It is really about where the power lies. Mostly it is not with women … when I produced Aretha’s album, the only Christmas record she ever did, she said to me straight up in the beginning, “I want to co-produce three songs,” and I said, “of course.” I didn’t have an issue with that. She had originally called and asked me to produce the record. I can’t tell you if that request would have flown if the producer had been a male. Maybe.
Q: In your memoir, you write about your childhood and coming of age in Waynesboro living in an antebellum house that had the only swimming pool in town. Despite that façade you had one of the most dysfunctional families imaginable. Tell us about your father.
A: My dad was an incredible businessman. When I look at my life, people say to me, you never see a creative with both sides of the brain. But I say half of my brain is my dad’s and half is my mom’s. He really was a scrapper. He started out with nothing. He was a self-made man. He was short in stature. He always had a Napoleon complex. There are a lot of people who do. But he carried that through business, through his personal relationships, and with women and everything else. There were two things that seemed to be important to him. That was making money in business—and women. It is so complicated. That is one word that resonates with the South—and with my book also. It is a windy road. It is not a straight road. I talk about the way I feel about Mississippi. I loved my father greatly, but at the same time I hated so many things about what he did or did not do. There is a twist at the end. So there always seems to be some sort of redemption for all of this. When I would ask my mom, “Why can’t my dad just say he loves me?”—her answer would be, “He is complicated, honey. He is a complicated man.” He has been gone now twenty years or so. I still miss him, especially on Sundays because I would call him every Sunday, but I still have this in my head. I struggle with it. I struggle with my feelings for him.
Q: Some of your exchanges with him are very memorable. I will never forget what he said to you on his death bed. How do you ever forget something like that?
A: As painful as it was, as hurtful as it was, what I left with, after the whole thing, was “son of a bitch. You really had to say that on your death bed?” Is it really all about competition? My dad wanted me to be successful. He wanted me to make money, but he didn’t want me to make more money than he did. I also think it bothered him that I dated a lot of beautiful women. Obviously that bothered him. There was some sort of competition. I have other friends who have competitive parents. That is the most screwed up thing you can do to a kid. I know with my daughter, who is a veterinarian in New Orleans, the last thing I would feel about my daughter is competition. I want her to do better than me. But to say what he said on his death bed, it was pretty bad. It was like Lazarus had raised from the dead and said that. Then he came back around and called me before he passed away … I was in Nashville when he actually died.
Q: How did your mother react to your father’s excesses?
A: You know there has always been a debate about that in my family. It is why my mother became an alcoholic. Because she had to medicate herself to deal with it. One of the takeaways that is important in this book is that if you are settling for something that you know is not ok, not the life you want, then you are settling for money or because you are afraid that you can’t take care of yourself. That was my mother’s problem. Because she only had an 8th grade education, with him being so powerful, how in the world could she ever leave him? To deal with infidelity, she drank. She did not start drinking until her mid-30s, and then she started socially drinking. I think she found that was the way to medicate herself. And feel better about her situation. I know so many artists who have done the same thing. If you are not living your truth, it will come out some way and it won’t be pretty. It will come out through addiction, drugs, obesity, you use eating as your emotional crutch, depression—it is going to come out. I feel like with my mom, even though it was so difficult when she left her family, she showed how strong and brave she was. How she, in her own way, said that “if I have to live like a pauper, I can’t live like this anymore.” It took her a while to get her life together, but she was an amazing woman, and I miss her greatly.
Q: The family’s black maid Virgie provided you with your only sense of stability and opportunity for personal growth. How important was she to you?
A: There were two people who gave me anchors. One was Virgie and the other was my middle sister. I had three much older sisters. My middle sister was always there to help sweep up the pieces. She was always the one who asked, “Have you studied for your test?” She had her life, too. All my sisters were married and gone by the time I was six. Virgie represented calmness to me. She was the buoy in the storm. She didn’t live with us. She wasn’t like a nanny today that drives the kids wherever they need to go. She was the one who was there every day who validated the craziness, even though she never would say so out loud. I knew by the way she took me by the hand, saying, “Let’s go out and look at the cows.” She always tried to distract me. It is hard to be distracted when a hurricane is coming through the house. I would go to her house, her shack, it was a pink shack, another planet from where I lived. But it was like a big old warm, buttered biscuit. The smell. The love. The sweetness. The simplicity. I think I was searching for simplicity because at home everything was so complicated, so much drama.
Virgie gave me unconditional love. There was not a bone in her body that would have thought, “Does she like women or does she like men?” She didn’t care. She never said a word to me. All she cared about was that she loved me. I lost her before Mom or Dad. I wrote a song about her at the time. It was titled “I Have to Find a Star” and it is about Virgie. It was on an album. It was just simple and I felt safe. With my sister I felt protected. I felt she cared about me and my future. Also I knew she had her own life and her own husband and her own child. It was very limited as to who I felt safe with. I had to depend on myself mainly.
My birthday was on December 19. That was the day my mom left. On December 23 my dad dropped me off on a corner and gave me a hundred dollar bill and told me to go buy Christmas presents for my sisters and whoever else I needed to buy presents for. Then he pulled off and I remember thinking, “ OK. I think I’m on my own now.” It was like, “Buck up buttercup. This is the way it’s going to be.” That is when I became, in my own way, a scrapper. I knew I had to take care of myself.
Q: Later on, the two issues with your father—that you could make as much money as he did and the realization that you preferred women to men—were those things of equal value in his calculations?
A: He would have never said either one of those things. In my mind, knowing my father, those were of equal value.
Q: If you had not been interested in women would your life been different with your father?
A: I never thought about that. I think it would have been somewhat different because he would have only been competing on the money issue, but he always wanted to control everything in our lives. If there had been a man involved in my life, I don’t think that would have stopped him from trying to control everything. After the time I came out to him in the truck, it was never mentioned again by him … not until he was on his deathbed. I guess he had held that one in for quite a while.
Q: When was the last time you visited Waynesboro?
A: Probably about 5 months ago.
Q: This book would make a great movie. Who would you like to see play you?
A: You are the 50th person to ask me that. Until it happens, I haven’t let my head go there. There was a little girl I was impressed with. Did you see the “Florida Project” that came out last year? It is really good. A small film, but it won awards, but the little girl who played the lead, Brooklynn Prince, I think she would be perfect. I have had so many people say, “You remind me of Scout and Iggie.” But I haven’t really let myself go there. A person that I think would be perfect for Beulah Mae would be the black woman on Saturday Night Live, Leslie Jones. She would be perfect.
Q: How long did it take you to write “Southern Discomfort?”
A: This book was years in the making. I would start it and put it down. Start it and put it down. Mother read 100 pages before she died. She told me, “I want you to do this baby. But would you mind waiting until I pass?” I put it up and didn’t think about it again until she passed away in 2001. I picked it up again three years ago.
Debbie Allen and I were flying from L.A. to Atlanta. We had worked together forever. I was telling her a story. She was laughing so hard that I wondered if everyone on the plane probably wondered what Kool-Aid we were drinking. She looked at me and she was like, “Girl, you have got to write a book. You can’t make this stuff up.” I knew she was right. I originally wrote it as a screenplay and showed it to Norman Lear. He told me it needed to be a book before it was a movie. I never did it to hurt anybody or to defame my parents. I love both my parents. I still love them. They both had redemption I feel like. Yeah, it has been a journey.
Dawn Dugle, center, with Dan Blumenthal, left, and Jeff Good
Photo by Abe Draper Photography
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lives in Jackson, Mississippi, where she is employed as the creative director at SuperTalk Mississippi, a talk radio network that covers the entire state of Mississippi. She has spent more than two decades working as a broadcast and digital journalist. “The BRAVO! Way” is her first book.
Q: Most business biographies are about founders of major companies. What was there about Jeff Good and Dan Blumenthal, the owners of three well-known Jackson, Mississippi restaurants—BRAVO!, Broad Street and Sal & Mookie’s—that inspired you to write a book?
A: Jeff and Dan have this incredible passion for their business that is infectious. Their drive, determination and attention to detail isn’t just at the executive level, it’s found throughout their restaurants. I wanted to know how they taught their teams this amazing customer service that was unparalleled. When I got to understand the “secret sauce” to that success, I thought that might be a story that others would like to learn about.
Q: What would you say is special about the book?
A: At the heart of The BRAVO! Way is this story of friendship between Jeff and Dan that has lasted three decades, longer than many marriages! They are so different in many respects, but it’s that difference that I think has led to the long-term success of their business.
They were very transparent and forthcoming about their lives and their business during the interviews and research for the book. I think the readers will appreciate that level of frankness.
The book contains eight signature BRAVO! recipes from Executive Chef Dan Blumenthal! He thought it would be a great idea to add a recipe into every chapter of the book. We had to arm-wrestle over the world-famous focaccia bread because at first, he was reluctant to share that recipe that is the backbone of BRAVO! table service and a staple of many sandwiches at the other restaurants. In the end, he realized sharing that recipe with fans of BRAVO! was a special touch. The recipe has been “home sized” – meaning it’s the right size for home kitchens.
It’s really a great holiday gift for the foodie on your list, whether they’ve visited BRAVO! or not. And with the full-color photographs in the hard cover version of the book, you’ll be planning your first, or next, visit to BRAVO! before you’re done reading!
Q: Did you make a special effort to gather tips for the book on how to build a successful business?
A: I knew they had a great story, but wasn’t exactly sure what I would get when I set out to research and interview for the book. Five months later, the ‘how to build a successful business’ tips emerged. It didn’t just make for a great story, their advice has helped me with my own business!
Q: How would you summarize the secrets to the owners’ success?
A: Be willing to try something no one else is doing.
Be willing to fall on your face, and pick yourself back up.
When you know you’re on the right track, take critical feedback with a grain of salt. Sometimes it takes a while for something to catch on.
Find a business partner who has the skill set you don’t have. Something to compliment yours.
Stop thinking small and figure out what “big success” looks like – and go after that.
Q: What is the biggest mistake you think business owners make when they start a new business?
A: Not doing the research. Thinking it’s going to be easier than it actually is.
When you’re starting out, you need to really get a handle on what it is you’re trying to do. The actual costs associated with it. The time investment.
Dan and Jeff spent months creating an extensive business plan that covered everything from labor costs and the price of forks to the length of time it would take them to pay back the investors. That research on the front end has saved them countless headaches later.
Q: We understand this is your first book. What is the biggest lesson you learned writing it?
A: After 23 years as a journalist, I love a good deadline and am deadline-driven. Having a deadline for the manuscript was incredibly helpful. I would say to anyone who is considering writing a book, you just have to sit down and write – every day. Even when you don’t feel like it. Even when binge-watching Netflix would be easier. Get the work done. Answer the muse. At the height of writing this book, I was getting anywhere from 3,000 – 7,000 words down a day – because I was sitting at the laptop ready to write.
Q: If you were on death row, what meal from BRAVO! would you select for your last meal?
A: I would probably order everything on the menu, with double the flourless chocolate torte (a recipe featured in the book!)
Q: Where are you originally from and how did you end up in Mississippi?
A: I was born and raised in Indiana. My television career took me all around the world—living in six different states and another country. Originally, I came to Mississippi in 2008 to be the Assistant News Director of WAPT and then I was promoted and sent off to Arkansas.
In 2014, I realized I was done with news—done with telling all of the terrible stories of humanity. I wanted to spend the rest of my life telling the good stories in the world, and I could think of no better place to do that than Mississippi, where I own a home.
So, I became a Mississippian by choice a second time.
Photo credit Paul Costello
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originally from Greenville, Mississippi, but currently living in New Orleans and Greenville, is a columnist for “Garden & Gun,” and author of several books, including “But Mama Always Put Vodka in Her Sangria!” and “Ham Biscuits, Hostess Gowns, and Other Southern Specialties.”
Q: You grew up in Greenville, the heart of liberalism in Mississippi—and your father is the founding father of the modern Republican Party in Mississippi—how did that not lead to any deep therapy sessions?
A: What it did was get me into journalism. [laughs]. Daddy’s mission and the mission of his close friend Hodding Carter were pretty much the same. The Mississippi I was born into was so isolated politically and economically. There was only one party and that was the bad one—the old racist Democratic Party. It was not the best time in our dark history. Greenville was a hotbed of racial tolerance. When Richard Nixon was elected president the justice department set up shop in an apartment above my father’s office. And they “de-seged” the schools.
So it was fun to watch all that happening, the creation of a two party system in my backyard. Hodding had all these cool reporters coming to work there for the newspaper [Delta Democrat-Times] and I thought that was a cool way to make a living. All these national reporters were coming down to report on what was going on. At that time Greenville was a place you could go to without being shot, so all the reporters camped out in Greenville before going out to the more divisive areas of the state. I saw these guys when I was a kid. It was fun watching that. That was what gave me my taste of what journalism could be. My next door neighbor Bern and Frankie Keating worked for National Geographic. They would go to, like, Africa, and he would bring me back stuff. I thought I’ll give that life a try.
Q: I am still confused about whether you live in New Orleans or Greenville—or both.
A: I live in New Orleans and I have lived there off and on since 1991. I was living in New York when I got a contract to write a book about the South. Edwin Edwards was running for his third term as governor of Louisiana and it was too juicy a story not to come down and cover. I followed him around a while and realized how much I missed the South and I got a little place in New Orleans. Philip Carter [Hodding Carter’s son] found it for me. He was my neighbor. I was finding myself spending more time in New Orleans than New York, so I ended up selling my apartment in New York. It was right before Katrina, so it was bad timing. I have been living fulltime in New Orleans since 2005. Just this year I started building a little house in Greenville and it is just about done.
Q: What are your favorite places in New Orleans? If you had to describe it to a Martian how would you describe it?
A: I think people think of it as an exotic American city. You are likely to either fall into a pothole or get shot on the street [laughs]. It has its share of crime and all that stuff. One of the things that happened post Katrina I think is a good thing. People got a little bit of a wake-up call. You are responsible for where you live. So I am seeing more civic involvement. The food scene has never been better. One description is that it is one of the great food capitals of the world, but the cuisine has more depth and breadth to it now. You have incredibly talented new chefs. There is a lot of Cuban food now. New Orleans has always been cosmopolitan because of its mix of cultures.
I think one of the reasons I was drawn to New Orleans was that mix of cultures. Greenville had that, too. I always shock people when I remind them that white people have been a minority there since the turn of the century. We had a large Chinese population there, and a large Lebanese and Syrian population. The first mayor after the Civil War was Jewish. That melting pot really spoiled me. I did not grow up in a homogenous Southern town.
In New Orleans, Donald Link is one of the great chefs in America. He owns Butcher, Peche, Herbsaint and Cochon (and others). All of his restaurants are superlative. If someone comes in from out of town I always take them to one of his restaurants. I take pretty sophisticated foodies there and they all go crazy. There is also a fun place called Turkey and the Wolf. It looks like a dive. It is a dive. It is basically a sandwich shop but “Food & Wine” chose it as the best new restaurant in the country last year. I was on a Netflicks show recently . . . and we did a segment on Turkey and the Wolf.
Q: Your new book, “South Toward Home,” covers a lot of ground. What is the one story you can’t stop thinking about?
A: The one that always cracks people up the most is “A Tasteful Send-off.” The good thing about writing about the South is that you don’t have to look very far to find good stories. All you have to do is look out the window or read the local paper. There was a woman in New Orleans named Mickey Easterling, kind of a socialite, the kind of person who had a carrying case that had Waterford crystal champagne flutes in it because she wouldn’t drink it out of anything else. Everybody has to go to their own funeral, but she went to her own funeral in style. Before rigor mortis set in they put her in a seated position and she sat on stage at the Saenger Theatre on Canal Street, embalmed with a glass of champagne in one hand and a cigarette in a holder in the other hand. Here was this dead woman at her own funeral while people milled around and sometimes went up on stage to ogle her corpse. If I wrote that in a short story, people would say it was a little over the top, but that is the kind of thing that happens in New Orleans.
I write a lot about making your own fun, which people in the Delta become rather adept at. We know how to get to no good down here and we do it well. When I bring people to the Delta it is like taking them to another solar system. I was lucky to grow up here.
Q: I don’t think there is a chance in hell that New Orleans will ever embrace Russia the way Mississippi is doing? How do you feel about that?
A: God help us is all I can say. The Delta is a little bit of an oasis. Mississippi’s politics, like the politics everywhere else are kind of alarming to me right now. I am just going to try to take care of my tiny postage stamp and hope for the best. All I can do is try to improve Greenville and bring it back to its heyday, culturally and literary-wise. I can’t even wrap my head around what is happing nationally.
Q: I think your story, “A Delta Original,” is brilliant and captures the diversity of the Delta in a fun way. Tell us about the moment the Hot Tamale Festival made sense to you.
A: I write about the history of the tamale and its roots. People got together one day and said, let’s put on a festival. The first year, I happened to be home, my friend Roy Blunt had never been to the Delta and he wanted to come. Ten thousand people showed up in downtown Greenville. That’s when I wrote that piece in “Garden and Gun.” I was trying to show the flag, so to speak . . . we have about 20,000 people come every year now. All my friends come from all over. The tamale is a symbol of our melting pot nature.
Q: Your story “Songs of the South” is my favorite because it pushes all the buttons, even though the songs you write about were recorded 50 or 60 years ago. I was especially glad to see you listed “Turn on Your Love Light” and “Ode to Billie Joe.” Do you think the best music of today will be remembered 50 years from now?
A: Sure. There are still people putting out some great music. I spend a lot of time in a car listening to music. That playlist was highly selective and written on a deadline. I grew up with Bobbie Blue Bland. One of my great friends in Greenville is Eden Brent. She’s making some incredible music. What makes all these songs I love so great is that they are so soulful. Eden was at Doe’s last night, picked up a guitar and my friend Jimmy Phillips, another great songwriter from Greenville, played a song called “Panther Burn” that he wrote about his best friend’s farm. Jimmy learned to play the guitar with the help of Son Thomas. Eden was taught by Boogaloo Ames. Eden got a MEA grant to apprentice herself to him and they travelled all over the Deep South making music.
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Michael Farris Smith
has written four novels, “Desperation Road,” “Rivers,” “The Hands of Strangers,” and the recently published Southern noir literary work, “The Fighters,” reviewed on the Books page of this issue. He lives in Oxford, Mississippi.
Q: I keep reading that you are a Mississippi native, but never is a specific town mentioned in your bios. Exactly where are you from?
A: Maybe it’s because I’ve moved all over the place. I kinda’ call McComb my hometown. That’s where I ended up going to high school. My dad is a Southern Baptist preacher and we bounced around to a lot of small towns. I moved to Magnolia when I was 11 or 12 and I was there a few years before we moved up the road to McComb. I’ve lived in Hattiesburg and Starkville, and now Oxford.
Q: What were the big events in the state that have influenced you the most?
A: Growing up I don’t think there were that many things I paid attention to. I was interested in having a good time and playing whatever ball was in season. Then I left when I graduated from Mississippi State and lived abroad for several years. Honestly I didn’t think I was ever going to come back to Mississippi. I was bored with it . . . a father now, some of the things in the state have bothered me. I don’t understand why we can’t get the confederate flag off our state flag. We live in one of the most diverse states in the country and we have these people who still support this thing and somehow have the power to keep it there. It drives me crazy. I don’t know anyone personally who supports that flag. I think our governor, some of the things he does, perpetuates the status quo and I think to perpetuate the Mississippi stereotype is very negative for our state.
Q: As we speak Mississippi has a governor, two senators and the entire white congressional delegation pledging allegiance to President Trump and Russia. Did you ever think something like that would happen?
A: It is completely predictable. They are all such clichés. Upper class white people in Mississippi who are making the rules, make sure everything stays just like it is in Mississippi. As a whole, they are for the very few, they always have been. Until we get out and change it, that’s how it is going to be.
Q: How long were you overseas?
A: I was there about three years and then returned a few more times. I was about 25 and 28 and trying to figure out who I was. I wasn’t watching TV, so I started reading a lot to fill the hours. I enjoyed being outdoors in the cafes and riding the trains. I finally got to the point where I started to write.
Q: What is the first thing you ever published?
A: A little short story called “The Way Things Are.” It was published in a small literary journal, something in Michigan or Pennsylvania . . . I had started writing short stories and when I got to the point where I thought mine were worth submitting I opened up Writers Market and started submitting them. My rejection letters came in, little by little, then finally one was not a rejection letter. I remember that day. You would think I had won the Pulitzer Prize. It was a good feeling to finally get one accepted.
Q: What was the germ of the idea that resulted in “The Fighter?”
A: It began with me being in my mid-forties, waking up in the morning, thinking it was a little tougher getting out of bed. I’ve been in some pretty good car wrecks and worked a lot of blue collar jobs and slid head first as a baseball player for a number of years. Sometimes my body just feels it. I just imagined someone who would be in physical pain all the time and why. I immediately imagined a fighter. I wanted to make him an extreme fighter, bare knuckles, for decades, what his life would be like, what he would feel like physically. Then I went from his physical pain right to the opioid epidemic and then all the stuff the NFL has done with the concussion studies. Certainly he would have had concussions and certainly he would not have treated them, probably didn’t know he even had them. Think about that toll on your mind and body for twenty years, the shape you would be in. He was a guy I could not ignore. So I sat down and tried to figure out what his life was like . . . It took less than a year to write, probably seven or eight months. It just raced right through me. At the time, I was waiting for “Inspiration Road” to come out, so I had some waiting time. I started writing. I could not let it go. It was the first time I wrote a novel when I had no interrupted time in the middle.
Q: You have an interesting style of writing. You sometimes go for pages, even for a couple of chapters, without a single line of dialog. Your characters engage in problem solving with themselves, not with each other. Everyone seems to solve problems within themselves, rather than by conversation and compromise. Any comments?
A: Just thank you (laughs). It was nothing I did consciously. It’s just the way it came out.
Q: I have not read your other books, but I will—I found the “Fighter” striking. How much revision did you do on your first draft—or did you let it go essentially as you wrote it?
A: I always revise. I’m fortunate, the nuts and bolts stay the same. I don’t turn in a manuscript until I am confident in it. I don’t believe in sending a “maybe” to someone. I won’t let anyone read what I am doing until I am through with the full draft. I don’t want to be messed with or second guess myself. I just keep it to myself. When it give it to whomever, I feel like it is a yes already. In the revision process, I develop a character into a more complex character. The revision is largely about developing a character. I like feeling confident in what I am delivering. I think it allows me and the editor to talk about the novel and move forward.
Q: What is the literary problem you have been unable to resolve in your writing?
A: None that I can think of . . . The trick is not to let it sit there and fester and cause doubt. The sooner you move, the better. Things like that will resolve themselves. In the novel I am writing now, “Blackwood,” I really had one of those moments. I realized it was because the story was more about someone else in the novel than I was trying to make it be about. The novel you begin is never the novel you end with. When I realized I was trying to keep it from being about this other character, I just let it be that.
Q: How did you end up in Oxford? How much longer do you give it?
A: We lived in Columbus, Mississippi, for 10 years, but over the past few years I was spending more and more time in Oxford, slowly making more friends here. My wife and I just realized we were ready for a change in scenery. We have two daughters, thirteen and seven. We moved here a year ago.
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is an award-winning syndicated political cartoonist who has been holding those in power accountable for more than 60 years. The recipient of the Association of Editorial Cartoonists Lifetime Achievement Award, he has commented on everyone from Eisenhower to Trump.
Q: When did you first realize you had a talent for political cartoons?
A: In my speeches I say I started drawing on restroom walls at an early age (laughs). Actually, I was in about the 5th grade, in a small school in Spring Hill, Tennessee, and the teacher handed out blank paper and told us to look around the room and draw something and to remain “un-rowdy” while we did it.
I am sitting there looking around and there were flowers and all kinds of knickknacks around the room and I thought, “that’s not for me.” Then I saw on the wall a new item, a poster of a fox jumping over a log, and I thought, “ah, that’s for me.” I put pencil to paper and to my very own surprise it ended up looking like a fox jumping over a log. When I took it to the teacher, they called me Willard then, she said, “Willard this looks like a fox jumping over a log,” and I just beamed . . . I concluded that was the extent of my art career and I would move on to other things.
Q: What was your first job on a newspaper?
A: I served in the U.S. Army in Korea and when I took my separation I worked for Stars and Stripes in Tokyo [an independent newspaper authorized by Congress and the U.S. Department of Defense]. They hired me as a general assignment reporter, but they also paid me for drawing sports cartoons. I did that for a while and then started writing some feature material. I did a combination of writing and drawing.
Q: What was your first paying job as a political cartoonist?
A: In 1957, when the Soviet Union launched the world’s first artificial satellite, I was inspired to draw a cartoon. The point of the cartoon was that the United States was asleep at the wheel where space exploration was concerned. I did a cartoon making that point and the Stars and Stripes turned it down. It made me a little upset, so I took it downtown in Tokyo to the Japan Times, which was an English language newspaper—and I sold it to them. They agreed to pay me $10 a cartoon if I drew one or two a week. I did it under an assumed name, but I used my middle name of Willard and signed it Willard. For a glorious couple of weeks I drew cartoons and got paid for it. My first job where I was paid a weekly salary to draw cartoons was at the Greensboro Daily News.
Q: You started your career during the Eisenhower administration. What was that like?
A: I was at the tail end of the Eisenhower administration. He was finishing up his term and John Kennedy was on the rise. I did a few cartoons of Eisenhower, but not a lot. The major change for me was when John Kennedy was elected president. I went through that campaign when he ran against Richard Nixon. Later, I was in Washington for Kennedy’s State of the Union speech, I think it was 1960, and I got a personal meeting with him inside the Oval Office. Press Secretary Pierre Salinger was very friendly to me. Evelyn Lincoln, Kennedy’s secretary, had been in contact with me because the President apparently liked the cartoons I did. They didn’t have a press room back then, so Kennedy held a press conference in the Oval Office, with everyone packed into the room shoulder to shoulder. After the press conference, I was about to leave and Salinger told me that Kennedy wanted to see me. I didn’t believe him, but it was true. I had about fifteen or twenty minutes with the President. It was interesting to see a working White House. It had a white shirt, button-down collar youthful feel it. It was very impressive. You readily sensed there was a new era with the Kennedy administration.
Q: How has American politics changed over the years since that time?
A: The main difference is that there is not the professionalism today that there was when I first started drawing in the Sixties. We have been on a path for a long time where the ethics and behavior of politicians has been a fairly low-grade effort in governing this country. The extremism of the early Sixties and the nomination of Barry Goldwater in 1964 really set us on the path where we were headed toward electing someone like Donald Trump. The real tragedy to me about the Trump Administration is that it has corrupted the national conversation of this country—facts, truth, it has all gone down the tubes. Someone is going to have to shine a light on ethics. I have a friend who is a former TWA pilot, not an unintelligent person, and I am amazed at things he will sponsor on the internet, things like Obama with a bone through his nose.
Q: What do you see for the future of political cartoonists?
A: Newspapers, sadly, are dinosaurs in the tar pits. Newspapers once were important and they had information in them. What really is sad is that the influence of bright thinkers like Walter Lippmann has disappeared from the scene, so that now the influence is with pontification on the opinion programs on TV.
I recently came across a box that has a half dozen Jackson (MS) newspapers in it from the era of Ross Barnett standing in the door and the riots [at Ole Miss]. It is amazing to read news stories absolutely suggesting that the riots we saw on television never happened. I could not believe it.
It is a really different world for political cartooning; it has really gone down the tubes. Cartoonists are not only dinosaurs in the tar pits, they have lost their jobs and you are talking about some really good cartoonists who have been relieved of their duties. Major newspapers no longer want to pay their salary . . . I don’t know where there will be a spot on the Internet for cartoonists, or writers.
Your just released book, the Quinn Colson novel, The Sinners, is out this month. If you were making a High Concept pitch to a movie company in four sentences or less, how would you describe the novel?
I would say it is like a PG-13 version of the Andy Griffith show. That’s how I would talk it up to movie executives. It is a story about a small town sheriff. It is definitely a grittier world than Mayberry. But about an honest man trying to make his way in a corrupt world.