Like William Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha County, contemporary novelist Steve Yarbrough keeps coming back to his fictionalized Mississippi setting of Loring for his books. His most recent novel “Stay Gone Days” opens in this familiar terrain.
While Yarbrough’s Loring is a reference to his Delta hometown of Indianola, he is no stranger to the Golden Triangle.
Yarbrough returns to Columbus this week as the keynote speaker at the Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium at Mississippi University for Women. This will be Yarbrough’s fourth appearance at the annual gathering, which is celebrating its 24th year.
Yarbrough’s ties to the area, however, date back to his youth. In an interview with The Dispatch, Yarbrough recalled having a grandparent from Eupora, as well as traveling to Macon in his teenage years to play high school football games.
For Yarbrough, who now lives in Boston, connection to a place is key to his writing.
“I’ve got to feel an attachment to geography to set anything there,” Yarbrough said, which he described as “a peculiarly southern trait” exemplified by one of his own favorite writers, the legendary Mississippian Elizabeth Spencer.
Yarbrough’s presentation, which is open to the public, will take place on Thursday at 7:30 p.m. in Poindexter Hall on the MUW campus.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
You have been to the Welty Symposium several times before. Do you have any favorite memories from your previous visits?
This probably would have been ’98 or ’99. The novelist Nanci Kincaid was the opening night reader. I had heard her name, but I really didn’t know her work, and it was just an immediate connection that turned into a long friendship and introduced me to the work of a writer who was operating up my alley.
Then the last time I was there, I heard the poet Angela Ball read. And again, I didn’t know her work that well, but man, it just hit me in the heart and turned into another good literary friendship. So those are a couple of great memories, for sure.
Have you thought about what you’re going to say for your keynote?
My favorite Eudora Welty story is providing one of the themes for this year’s symposium — and it’s such a great story — “No Place for You, My Love.”
The Welty stories that have spoken most insistently to me are not always the ones like “Why I Live at the P.O.” or “A Worn Path,” that are fine stories that deal with Mississippi and someone who’s spent their life in Mississippi. But my favorite stories of hers have always been Southerners outside the South, or non-Southerners inside the South. That’s what just blows me away about this story: The unlikely meeting that occurs between an insider and an outsider.
As somebody who really has not lived in Mississippi, as such, since he was 21 or 22 years old, on the one hand, I’m an outsider. There’s no question about that. But I’m what I think of as a peculiar species of outsider. You could put me down in my hometown, where I last lived 44 years ago, and I’m convinced I could walk all over the place with my eyes closed, because to a large extent, I live in it in my head all the time.
So I’m going to do a little bit of reading from the novel, but I do think I will be talking about the notion of the insider who becomes an outsider, and vice versa, because you can go the other way just as easily.
You set several books in Loring. Can you talk about this universe and how this book fits into it?
After my first novel “The Oxygen Man” came out, I got tired of people saying, “I know who that was in the book,” because I had named the town Indianola. And many things were different, so people would tell me that it’s not that, you didn’t get this right, and I thought you know, “Enough of that, I’m writing fiction, so I’ll just make up a name.” That gave me a certain degree of freedom.
So it has some things in common with my hometown, and it’s different from my hometown, too. It’s a place I know well, but it’s an imagined place. There’s not a one-to-one relationship between it and any place, except someplace in my mind.
What drove you to write this book?
A grad student the other day asked me, “How do you sustain joy over the writing of 12 books?”
I told him that I had reaped more joy from these last two books than anything I had written earlier. That might seem paradoxical because they’re both dark books. And they’re both in some sense, driven by my greatest fear, which is losing my wife or my daughters.
I think the previous book, “The Unmade World,” dealt with loss in one way. And then I would say, this book deals with my awareness — you know, I’m getting on up there. I’m 66. My wife is going to turn 70 in May. And our two daughters, who are 17 months apart, are both in their mid 30s.
Do the sisters in the book bear any resemblance to your daughters?
They have a few things in common with the sisters in this book. But what they don’t have in common is estrangement. They talk to each other almost every day. One of them lives in Boston; one of them lives in New York. So they’re very much in touch with each other. But I am profoundly aware that one day the people in the world who have known them the longest will no longer be their mother. It’ll be the sisters themselves.
And so, on the one hand, I’m thankful that what happens to the sisters in the novel has not happened to my daughters. I can’t stop thinking about, well, what if you were a pair of sisters? And what if you came from a really troubled household? And what if you lost touch with each other? So that’s kind of what the book grew out of, that awareness.
Emily Liner is the owner and founder of Friendly City Books, an independent bookstore and press in Columbus, Mississippi.
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