Martina McBride at home in her kitchen
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Martina McBride

is a multiple Grammy© country music artist who has sold more than 18 million albums to date, earning her 14 Gold, nine Platinum, and three Double Platinum certifications. Stimulating sales were six #1 hits and 20 Top 10 singles. A native of Kansas, she began her music career selling Garth Brooks concert souvenirs. Martina lives in Nashville with her husband, John, and their three daughters.

Q&A

Q: Tell us about your new cookbook, Martina’s Kitchen Mix? What made you want to write this book and share these recipes with your fans?

A: Martina: I love cooking and I’m always looking for new recipes to make for my family and friends. I think writing a cookbook and making an album are similar. I’m looking for the best songs I can find when I make an album and I put them on the album so I can share them with the fans. The same is true of a cookbook.

Q: You write that you’re more comfortable with your cooking skills now, tweaking recipes and revisiting ones that didn’t work the first time around. What did you do to feel more relaxed and confident?

A: Martina: Cooking is like anything else in life. It takes practice. The more you cook, the more relaxed and confident you get in the kitchen. Then it’s easier to use your imagination and cook intuitively rather than just being stiff and sticking to a recipe. You start to question why a recipe didn’t work or what spice, herb or change in cooking steps would make it better. One of my favorite things about Martina’s Kitchen Mix is that there are so many variations and ideas on how to make the recipes your own. My goal is for cooks, even if they are on the inexperienced side, to tweak the recipes to their liking.

Q: You compare cooking to singing, explaining that both are an expression of caring and sharing. Why do you feel cooking is an act of giving and love?

A: Martina: Most people love good food and sitting down to a meal or something that has been prepared with care. I feel like the time you put into making a dish or a meal for someone shows that you care. It’s a nurturing thing for me. I always wanted my kids to eat healthy, delicious foods, and making that happen for them by cooking for them was a way for me to nurture them and show them that I care.

Q: Do you always have music playing when you are in the kitchen? What are your go-to tunes right now?

A: Martina: Honestly it depends. If I’m cooking something I’m really comfortable with and have made it many times, it’s easier for me to have music playing. If I’m trying a new recipe and need to concentrate, not so much. The playlist I’ve put in the book has some of my favorite jams to play in the kitchen while I’m cooking. I think I especially enjoy music if it’s the weekend and I’m making a big breakfast or brunch. Then Aretha and Ray Charles come out!

Q: When did you start cooking? What’s your earliest memory of being in the kitchen?

A: Martina: I started cooking in 4-H when I was about 10. One of my earliest memories is making dinner for my family…I was probably 11…and I had this HUGE menu. And I just kept adding things I wanted to make. It was like it was the only meal I was ever going to get to cook and I wanted to cook everything! It was pretty overwhelming to be honest. I still have a tendency to put too much on the menu if I’m giving a dinner party. I’m learning how to simplify. Three dishes done well are better than 6 that you weren’t able to pay enough attention to.

Q: What are five ingredients you always have stocked in your kitchen?

A: Martina: Fresh garlic, good quality olive oil, high quality sea salt (I like Maldon flakes for finishing a dish), onions, and canned tomatoes. With these ingredients you can make a great sauce for pasta in the spur of the moment.

Q: What are your favorite kitchen gadgets/tools? What are your kitchen must-haves?

A: Martina: Whisk, rubber spatula, wooden spoons, good chef’s knife, good paring knife, cutting board, fish turner, cheese grater, good cookie/baking sheets, skillet, saucepan with lid, and a citrus squeezer.

Left to right: Don Nix, Klaus Voorman, and George Harrison
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Don Nix

is a legendary Memphis-born musician, songwriter, producer and recording artist who played sax in a 1960s instrumental band, the Mar-Keys, that scored one of Stax Records’ first Top 10 hits, “Last Night.” His now classic blues song, “Going Down,” has been recorded by Pearl Jam, Led Zeppelin, Sammy Hagar, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Deep Purple, The Who and many others. As a producer and musician Nix worked with Freddie King, Furry Lewis, Lonnie Mack, Leon Russell, Joe Cocker, Albert King, the Staple Singers, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton and many others. He was asked by Beatle George Harrison to organize the 1971 Bangladesh Concert at Madison Square Garden. For a time he lived at George Harrison’s mansion in England. His book, Memphis Man, was published in 2015. The Stax Museum of American Soul Music in Memphis is offering a month long exhibit of his photographs, beginning March 1.

Q&A

Q: Explain the title “Memphis Man.”

A: It seemed like every time I picked up the local newspaper there was a headline about Memphis Man Jumps from Bridge, or Memphis Man Hit by Train. So, to me, Memphis Man was every man. Plus, my publisher thought it would be a good idea to have the word Memphis in the title.

Q: At what point did you realize you might could make a living playing music.

A: Oh, I never did (laughs). You have to love it. I will say that I was encouraged by Dewey Phillips [Memphis radio personality in the 1950s] and my mother. My daddy didn’t want me anywhere near a guitar, but my mom would go behind his back and co-sign for me to buy instruments—first a guitar, then saxophones. I would pay it off every month. Dewey Phillips is who got me interested in music. I started listening about the eighth or nineth grade. He was what you might call “high energy.”

Q: Did you think that when “Last Night” became a hit you probably had a future in music?

A: Not really. I have always lived for the moment. I have never planned anything. I can’t believe I’ve lived my whole life making a living doing something I would have done for nothing. When the people at Stax Museum complimented me on my photographs, I explained that I never set out to display photographs in a museum. I was just doing what was fun.

Q: You have lost a lot of friends in the music business in recent years. Who do you miss the most?

A: Well, my buddy Swain Schaefer [keyboardist with The Box Tops and other groups] just died and that was a shock. He was one of my favorite people. When I lived in Nashville, we would get together 3 times a week. When he moved to Nashville he got into playing at the old people’s homes.

Q: What about producing blues legend Albert King?

A: He couldn’t read, so I fed him the words to songs through his earphones. I had never tried anything like that before, neither had anyone else. You could tell him a sentence and he would sing it, and then he would forget it. I went out into the studio and sat down below the window, out of sight from the control room, and read him his lines. At one point, there were some musicians walking around the studio, so he said to me, “Can you get me some paper?” I said sure. I got a music stand and put some manuscript paper on the stand so it would look like he was reading it. What a treat that was. When we went out to eat in restaurants, I knew he couldn’t read the menu, so I would say something like, “That meat loaf sure looks good. I gonna get that with some greens and butterbeans.”

Q: Do you have any idea how many songs you have written?

A:  Oh, gosh. I don’t know. Maybe 300 have been released. I have 12 albums and each of them has 10 or 12 songs that I wrote. It adds up.

Q: If you could go back to a certain memory of your friend George Harrison, what would it be?

A: There was a little room in his house on the second floor that overlooked his gardens. Whenever I went there we sat around in that room in these overstuffed chairs and talked. It was him and Klaus and me and George’s wife Patty. That is a great memory.

Q: Any particular memory of Elvis Presley?

A:  I went out to his house one day with the Mar-Keys, and the whole time we were there the bodyguards called Elvis simply “E.” I remember we were in the kitchen one time and Steve Cropper [guitarist for the Mar-Keys and later Booker T. and the MGs] went up to him and said, “E……” Well, Elvis grabbed Cropper under the arms and picked him up off the floor and said, “You don’t know me well enough to call me E!”

Glennray Tutor’s painting UNION drawn on a linen canvas
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Glennray Tutor

is a still life artist from Oxford, Mississippi, whose work is often described as “photorealism.” His paintings have appeared in galleries in New York City, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Jackson, Mississippi, and Santa Fe, New Mexico, to name a few.  His beautifully published book “Portals,” a collection of his paintings, has attracted considerable attention. He is interviewed in this excerpt from the book by his son Zach Tutor.

Q&A

Q: How is an artist different from other people?

A: An artist is born with heightened sensibilities. Please keep in mind that whenever I use the word artist I’m only speaking for myself. I can’t speak for other artists. Perhaps I shouldn’t have used the phrase an artist is different from other people, because I am speaking only for myself. Let’s just say I am different.

Q: What is it that makes you different?

A: I was born an artist. Maybe it would be more accurate to say being born with heightened sensitivities combined with being born an artist.

Q: …which made your childhood not normal?

A: As well as the rest of my life.

Q: Will you talk more about that early part of your life? Much has been written about your artwork, and it has been seen by a great number of people around the world, but the general public knows very little about you as a person. Were you rich? Poor? Were there any traumatic experiences for you as you were growing up? Surely there were.

A: You’re making me laugh.

Q: I’m serious.

A: Actually there is a large amount of knowledge that a viewer can gain about me from simply looking at my artwork. How far back would you like to go?

Q: All the way. At this point in the story, you have just been born and you are aware of yourself as an entity, right?

A:  Very aware. Very born.

Q: And then…

A: Not poor, not rich. No traumas—unless you want to call being born a traumatic experience. Upon reflection, it was. But I recovered from it almost immediately. And became very interested in my new life. As I mentioned, my parents adored me. When they weren’t working they were interacting with me. I always had an abundance of toys. I had the perfect situation for learning about the world around me.

Q: You started in a grocery store…

A: I started in a hospital room. But, yes, I became visually interested with the products I saw in our grocery store. At the same time I also became interested in the outside world.

Q: Your parents provided an environment in which you felt protected from menace?

A: Yes.

Q: It’s unusual for a child to be brought up without any negative factors affecting him.

A: You seem determined to find something inauspicious in my early life.  Should I ask about your childhood?

Q: I’m interviewing you, Dad.

A: I hate to disappoint you, but I had a wonderful childhood. There were the usual splinters and bruised knees. My grandmother told hair-raising ghost stories. A couple of times I saw her twist the head off a hen. The hen flopping around, blood spurting from the neck. I watched her pluck the feathers, cut the chicken up, then put it in a pot on the kitchen stove. Difficult to eat chicken for a while after that. Especially when I thought of the chickens as my friends. Tornadoes were not infrequent in that part of the country. I saw several of them. My grandmother was frightened of them to the point of frenzy. I suppose all these things were disturbing to me to a certain degree. But no, I was not overly distracted by any of these things, probably because my parents and I had a close, loving relationship. I was the only child. I felt safe. I was free to concentrate on what I most enjoyed doing from day to day.

Q: Which was?

A: Looking.

Q: What were you looking at?

A: Everything.

Q: I want to learn more about your early life so that the reader might better understand your art.

A: So you think the key lies in my childhood?

Q: Very often what defines an adult is a result to a great extent of that person’s childhood experience.

A: In my case I think you are absolutely correct. I have a couple of comments about my looking at things. Then I’ll discuss a topic you hit on earlier—danger, strife, and when and how these things entered my life.

Q: So you didn’t have an ideal childhood after all?

A: I do feel I had an ideal childhood—up to a certain point. So do you want to skip my looking at things and get on to the contention?

Q: You’ve stirred my curiosity. But go ahead about looking.

A: When I look, what I see, for me is the same thing that you might experience if you found a treasure, and it was unclaimed and now belongs to you. I have always been intrigued with looking at distance. The terrain of my childhood was flat and open. During the day I could look into it infinitely deep. At night I could do the same with the sky. I also like to look at things closely. My grandmother’s driveway was gravel. Some days I would search for particularly interesting rocks. My pockets would be full by the time my mom picked me up. To keep my pants from falling down from the weight of the rocks, she made me empty my pockets and only let me keep a few to bring home. I still have some of those rocks. The way I closely examined those rocks and the way I looked at the stars at night and the distance in the day I would later apply to the way I examine objects for use in my paintings. To me, physical objects are portals to a fuller, deeper realization of the world around me.

Q: I should ask now: do you think you can see better than the average person?

A: Yes, in all senses of the word.

Q: Will you tell me now about the contention that you mentioned?

A: I had a wonderful life as a young child. I had everything I wanted. Toys, picture books, comic books, the security from a peaceful and loving family, good health, freedom to play, and the opportunity to do what I most desired: to look at things. This began to change after we moved from the country back into town. Just before I turned six years old, my parents received word that I was to start school. Mom and I went downtown and acquired items on a list: a satchel, crayons, pencils, pencil sharpener, and a notepad. I was so happy with these new things! I had no idea what school was going to be like, but these items suggested to me that it would be something I would enjoy. On the first day of school I immediately suspected I was wrong. Why were all the desks arranged in rows? And all facing in the same direction? Like the other students I was assigned a desk. This was done alphabetically according by name. We were told rules we must follow. After a while I observed that two boys got up from their desks and left the room. Where are they going? I wondered. (They were going for cartons of milk for us, but I didn’t know this yet.) I ran to the door and looked into the hallway. Suddenly I was being scolded by the teacher and led back to my desk. I had never felt such castigation. I realized that I was supposed to do what the teacher wanted and not what I wanted. At mid-morning a bell rang and the students and I went out to the playground. They called it recess. The children began running in a single wave over the playground. I was invited to join them, but to become part of the wave I was told that I had to whistle to join. I didn’t know how to whistle. A girl showed me how to squeal. Squealing with all my might I ran with the pack while thinking, this is absurd. I wanted to be doing things that I wanted to do. Not running with a bunch of deranged kids doing what they wanted. This was my first experience of what lay in store for me. I learned that if I were not constantly on guard, society would absorb me. My individual identity would be lost, and I would become a component of an enormous and powerful machine. Succinctly put, society would direct me instead of I directing myself. I was in for a battle. Fortunately I became aware of this situation early on and learned how to outwardly appear to go along with society’s rules—while at the same time—keep my self. You have to fool Society. You have to let it believe it has you. It’s quite a balancing act, to say the least.

Q: You were determined to keep your self, as you call it. Wouldn’t letting society lead the way have been a lot easier?

A: That’s the way most people go. But I resisted. Later when I learned what the word artist meant, I realized why I had chosen the hard way. Why I had to be true to myself, regardless of what society wanted of me. Otherwise an artist cannot do the things an artist does.

Q: And these things are…

A: To observe the world from the uncompromising viewpoint with which the artist is born. And to create art from what one has seen and felt.

Q: I’ve talked with many artists, Dad, but there is something different about you.

A: Should I take this as a compliment?

Q: You spoke of tornadoes.

A: I often dream of tornadoes. These dreams are among my favorite dreams. The tornadoes in my dreams are beautiful and elegant. I welcome these dreams.

Q: No fear?

A: None at all. I see tornadoes as objects. The way they move, the power they possess, the effect they have on the world… A tornado is like an artist. If you want to understand an artist… interview a tornado.

Mardi Allen with her beloved Allie, right, and Mattie

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Mardi Allen

is the author or co-author of several books, including Mojo Triangle Travel Guide, How to Screen Adoptive and Foster Parents, and the recently published Dog Stories for the Soul. A nationally known psychologist, she lives outside Jackson, Mississippi.

Q&A

Q: What sparked your interest in compiling a book of dog stories?

A: For years I loved telling stories about my cocker spaniels, Mattie and Allie.  They were very important in my life and it seemed natural for me to want to write about them.  I have thought many times about writing a book or maybe a short story for kids about their many exciting adventures. Over time I started thinking about different ways to share stories about dogs. It seemed it might be more appealing to readers to have a collection of stories about a number of different dogs since I have always loved to read dog stories. I wanted to include a variety of stories, some I had read and loved and others gathered from writers with ties to the South.

Q: We see you have stories from several prominent writers such as Nobel Prize winning author John Steinbeck, Mark Twain, and Willie Morris. Was it difficult to obtain permissions for their stories?

A: It was somewhat difficult finding the individuals who owned the copyright to those stories. Then it was a matter of asking permission and negotiating the terms of the permission. Each agreement had specific restrictions associated with reprinting the story.  It was well worth the cost effort and cost. James L. Dickerson of Sartoris Literary Group, my publisher was very helpful in securing the permissions.

Q: What has been your personal experience with dogs?

A: In 2002 I got two cocker spaniel puppies, Mattie and Allie. They became my family.  Everything I did involved them, from making sure they were happy and safe while I was at work, to taking them with me whenever possible. They brought me such joy.

As a child we had dogs but they were never allowed in the house unless it was extremely cold.  My relationship was different with Mattie and Allie.  They never went outside unless I was with them.  They belonged in my house and they slept beside my bed every night. I always knew where they were, who they were with and what they were doing for well over a decade. I was very particular about who they stayed with everyday while I worked.  I wanted to make sure they liked their vet and groomer. I never wanted them to be afraid of the people in their lives.

Q:  As a psychologist, what behavioral traits do you see that dogs share with humans?

A: Dogs understand much more than most humans think they do. I’d never consider a dog dumb.  Many have not had guardians that take the time to form a close relationship with them, so it’s the guardian’s fault they may appear to be unintelligent.  They are intuitive and empathetic with their guardian. They are extremely good behaviorists.  They learn from reinforcement and they clearly train us through reinforcement, probably better than we train them.

Dogs are resilient as are humans.  Many of them have suffered severe conditions and sometimes abuse but they can overcome it and learn to love and trust again. 

These are not true behavioral traits but our dogs exhibit behaviors that evidence that they are so loving, forgiving and loyal. Their behaviors such as wagging their tails when you approach, licking, cuddling and jumping with joy shows how they feel about their guardian.  They don’t hold a grudge when they’ve been in a kennel all day, or when their meal is late or when bathroom breaks aren’t offered as often as they prefer.

Much like humans they use their body language, voices and eyes to communicate with the world. Mattie and Allie understood that the tone of my voice meant different things.  They knew how to give me a certain glance to let me know they needed to go out. Mattie often showed jealousy of Allie.  She quickly wedged herself between Allie and me if I was paying more attention to Allie. They were in so many ways “little humans” in dog clothes. However, most humans don’t have as many positive attributes. Their love is pure and truly unconditional.

Q: What are your favorite stories in the book?

A: I really like all the stories in my book, Dog Stories for the Soul. Each one has a special message to tell.  They are not all happy or funny because I wanted the book to cover all aspects of the dog-human relationship.

I’ve always loved John Steinbeck’s work so I was excited to include excerpts from one of his famous books Travels with Charley: In Search of America in mine. It is heart-warming to know that a famous writer like Steinbeck with friends all over the world valued his special relationship with his poodle Charley and chose him as his travel partner.

I was reluctant at first to include Mark Twains’ story, A Dog’s Tale because I was accustomed  to reading lighter stories from Twain about mischievous boys along the river front.  Considered one of America’s finest writers and humorists, I hesitated to have him represented by this heart wrenching, sad story.  After studying the context of the tale and understanding that Twain was a dog lover I eagerly embraced it.  A Dog’s Tale was first published in Dec. 1903 in Harper Magazine as a dramatic commentary on human complacency of that day when dogs were simply possessions of man. Twain did not approve of the plight of his main character (dog) but he wanted to expose the harsh reality of that time.  His story is written in first person, which allows the reader to better experience the emotions of the brave dog. That story may be hard to read but I definitely believe it strengthens the goal of the book. 

Several of the stories are light hearted and fun to read about the many adventures of our beloved dogs. Other writers contributed touching stories that illustrate when humans listen we can hear our dogs speaking to us. The loving bond between a dog and their guardian is a similar thread that runs through all the current stories. Mixed with the great joy our dogs bring us, some of the stories address the sad loss of our beloved canine family member.   

The story about Lucca, a German Shepard who was a war hero just fills you heart with pride.  She did her job no matter what the consequences were.  She won a purple heart for her bravery and service to our country. Although she retired from service due to her wounds, the story leaves you feeling uplifted and proud.

Q:  What advice do you give to people who have lost a pet to disease?

A: Most of us don’t think about the relatively short life expectancy of dogs when we become their guardian.  We are excited about the time we have with them, the love we shower on them and the many blessings they bring to our life. They sometimes serve to mend a broken or lonely heart.

When you lose your beloved pet it feels unfair and you are never prepared to let go. They have become a friend and a beloved family member. In time we understand how they served a purpose in our life. How you grieve the loss and honor that pet can be different for each of us. 

I totally understand and support a person that wants to get another pet quickly and share their love with another pet. As a psychologist I think it’s a healthy path to recovery.  However, some of us do not feel they are ready to quickly become a guardian of another pet. They may feel that the wound of the loss would interfere with bonding with another pet. 

No matter if you become a guardian soon afterward or neve, it’s healthy to honor your beloved pet, focus on the fun times you shared and try to move beyond grief.  To love another pet in no way diminishes the loving bond with the departed.  We are capable of loving again and again. And there are many sweet pets in need of a loving home.

Q: What do dogs know that humans don’t know?

A: This may sound silly to some, but I feel that my girls, Mattie and Allie, knew they had a mission or purpose. They entered my life when I really needed the unconditional and adoring love they gave me. They seemed to see my heart and my needs, and they touched my soul.  I know that God put us together and they rescued me probably more than I rescued them.

They helped me feel calm and happy in their presence. Dogs don’t seem to sweat the small stuff and they seem to wake up ready for a new adventure each day.  My sweet Mattie could be a bit over-anxious. But she knew I’d always take care of her and she had Allie, too. She stayed close during unfamiliar events.  My Allie pretended to have no fear.  She would do whatever it took to protect those she loved. They each had distinct personalities but each made a huge contribution to making my life better. They taught me so much about love.  In general, dogs know that unconditional love and commitment are God’s expectations.

Contact New Orleans Review of Books

editor@neworleansreviewofbooks.com

Photo credit: Stephanie Rocha

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Tena Clark

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&A

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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Dawn Dugle

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&A

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.

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Photo credit Paul Costello

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Julia Reed

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&A

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&A

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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Bill Sanders

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&A

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.

Ace Atkins

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.

Q: What was the seed that got you started on the book?
A: The seed was years ago—I have been writing Quinn Colson stories for eight years now—and I got an idea around 2009. My publisher, Putnam, asked if I would like to write a series. And if I would write about a recurring character. This was at a time when the war was starting to wind down and veterans were returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan. They are coming back to work at Home Depot, or whatever, and law enforcement. I had the idea of what it would be like for someone who had been at war for 10 years and then returned his hometown. Once I had that idea that was pretty much the whole series.
Q: You seem to put a lot of effort in researching your novels? What’s the best time you ever had researching a book?
A: I really enjoy doing research. Sometimes so much that I don’t get to the writing. Probably the first book I did heavy research on was titled White Shadow, my fifth novel. It was based on actual events that took place in Tampa in the 1950s. I was lucky to get there at the tail end of the story and some of the people were still alive. I talked to one of the detectives who worked the case. I knew people who knew this guy. That one was a fun one for me. I think any of the stories I was able to work on I was able to blend journalism and creative writing. It also took me to Cuba, to see the sights where some of these people lived. Pilgrimage to Hemingway’s Finca Vigia . . . for one of my Colson books I spent all day at Parchman [Mississippi’s state penitentiary]. It was informative but not necessarily a lot of fun.
Q: What is your test for deciding if the initial idea you have is worthy of a book?
A: Really, my biggest test is I run a lot of ideas past my wife, Angela. Your wife is always going to be direct and honest with you, though it might be the answer you don’t want to hear. She is a former newspaper reporter. She worked for the St. Pete Times. She’s really good at recognizing story value. Is it a good tale to tell? She’s been in the position herself of pitching a story idea to an editor, and having to write news stories herself. Is this worth a novel? this germ of an idea something we should pursue? Sometimes she says yes, sometimes no. If she likes it, then I will have a discussion about it with my editor at Putnam.
Q: You short story, “Long Last Ride of El Canejo” published in Volume 2 of the Mojo Rising anthology, is one of our favorite stories of all time. What was the genesis of that story?
A: That was based on a true story one of the guys who was a police detective in the 1950s and became one of my best sources. He also became a really good personal friend, a guy named Ellis Clifton. The last time I saw him he was living basically in hospice care at a condo at the beach in Florida. He was absolutely convinced the Russian mob was running this condo development. On the surface I think people thought he was a little bit crazy having these ideas. But the more I was around him, (laughs) I think he was right. Shadowy people were running this place. All my stories come from a place of truth. I am still a reporter looking for ideas. The truth is always stranger than fiction. In you get out in the world, you will find things you would never think of on your own. There are so many incredible stories that will lead you in the directions of a great novel or short story.
Q: Every writer seems to feel they have a “trick” to writing. What is yours?
A: If I had one I would be thrilled. I always think I will find a trick, something to make it easier, and it never lasts. Every book, every short story, every project presents its own problems. I talk to other writers about this. Especially writers who have been doing this for years and years. Every story presents its own problems. I don’t know if it is a trick, but you have to be critical of your own work.
Q: What writer has influenced you the most?
A: Going back to the crime novelists. That’s how I got into the kind of books I write. Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandlers, Robert B. Parker, Elmore Leonard. Being a journalist, I would say Hemmingway. I love the Southern writers. Livng in Oxford you really should not even be here if you don’t know something about Faulkner. I have made a concerted effort after moving her 20 years go to read as much of Faulkner as possible. Going back to college. Flannery O’Connor. Her world view had an effect on me. I liked her very critical view of the south.
Q: You have lived in San Francisco, Alabama, Tampa, and now Oxford, Mississippi. How did you end up there?
A: I came here for a few years before I moved here on book tours. There was a guy in journalism school who was going on sabbatical. He knew I had just quit the newspaper and was writing novels fulltime. He said, “Why don’t you teach during my sabbatical?” I thought it would be about a six month thing. Then it turned into two semesters. Then longer. And I ended up buying a house here. I moved to Oxford in fall of 2000.
Q: If you had to pick a theme song as a writer what would it be?
A: Maybe the theme to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. That is kind of my world view. I write about the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Q: This writing thing, how do you see it ending? Do you want to be writing novels in a nursing home? Or do you want to transition along the way, perhaps to screenwriting?
A: I talk to my friends who are in business or the military, and they are always talking about when they can retire and go on with the things they really want to do. I am very fortunate that I can make a living and have a profession that is my passion. Writing is what I love to do. I can never see a time when I am not writing. It is just something I love to do. For the last few years I have been doing two books a year. That is really a hard schedule that doesn’t leave me a lot of time to go on vacation or do book festivals. I work every day, including weekends, and I enjoy doing that, but it’s not necessarily something I want to continue at that pace.