When Beverly Norris was looking for a way the Columbus Arts Council could celebrate Mississippi’s bicentennial last year, she remembered some of the people for which the state is most well-known.
William Faulkner. Eudora Welty. Tennessee Williams. John Grisham.
“Mississippi writers are some of the best writers in the entire world,” Norris said. “They’re respected and honored by folks all over the country.”
The CAC program manager asked local author Deborah Johnson, author of the award-winning historical novel “The Secret of Magic,” to begin reaching out to friends and fellow writers and asking them to visit Columbus as part of a grant-funded Mississippi’s Writers’ Series.
“There are a lot of Mississippi writers,” Johnson said. “… I thought this was a perfect match, a perfect venue to get more writers to come to Columbus.”
The result was a year-long series of visits to Columbus by writers from all over Mississippi, interspersed with other events celebrating the state’s culture and history. The series began January 2017 with Columbus author Michael Farris Smith, author of “Rivers” and “Desperation Road.” Following him were a journalist, multiple novelists, a poet, a songwriter and even the author of the plaques on the Mississippi Blues Trail that dots the state.
“All those people are writers,” Norris said. “…Most of them include, whether specifically or intrinsically in their work, … information about the South and Mississippi and its personalities, characters and way of life.”
The series comes to an end this week with two events. On Thursday, Johnson will make an appearance along with her friend, Oxford novelist Lisa Howorth, author of “Flying Shoes.” Friday, poet Beth Ann Fenelly, who both Johnson and Norris described as the poet laureate of Mississippi, and musician and song writer Claire Holly will wrap up the series with spoken word and music performances.
Johnson and Howorth’s talk is free and will begin at 7 p.m. Thursday at Rosenzweig Arts Center. Fenelly and Holly’s appearance will be Friday at 7 p.m. for $15 in advance and $17 at the door.
The top of the literary list
At Johnson and Howorth’s talk Thursday, the two women will interview each other about their upcoming books.
“I’m really looking forward to it,” Howorth said. “Deborah’s so fun and so interesting. And it just so happens that we’re both working on these new novels that deal (with the 1950s). Mine’s totally set in 1959, and Deborah’s is set in the 50s too. So it was kind of a coincidence and we were having fun talking about it, and we’re going to talk about it more.”
Johnson described her upcoming book as a “ghost story” featuring rock and roll — a departure from her award-winning historical novel “The Secret of Magic,” about the murder of an African-American World War II veteran. Howorth’s story, meanwhile, takes place in a Washington, D.C. neighborhood full of war refugees, diplomats and Cold War-era spies. Both authors will read from passages of their manuscripts, neither of which have publication dates yet — which Howorth called “exciting for both of us.”
The two authors also spoke about writing and Mississippi’s literary history.
“Mississippi has this illustrious history of wonderful writers,” Howorth said. “That’s its reputation … I think what’s happened now is there’s a new generation. It’s interesting because there are so many younger writers now who have been attracted here to Mississippi because of that tradition and because lit was considered so important here that they wanted it be a part of that. I think that brings a fresh perspective and fresh ideas … a new perspective of Mississippi and what goes on here.”
Howorth said she’s optimistic those fresh perspectives will help guide Mississippi’s literary tradition while also helping recognize and cope with the state’s issues such as race relations and poverty.
Johnson, too, said she’s proud of the state’s reputation of supporting writers, both past and present.
“We’re many times at the bottom of many lists,” Johnson said. “But at this one — and the music, which my book is about — I think we’re right up there at the top.”
‘Another new take’
While the authors were a highlight, CAC, along with Mississippi University for Women and Main Street Columbus, put on other events as part of the series as well, including movie showings and a songwriting contest in October.
One of Norris’ favorite events was Mississippi Characters, in which local middle and high school students picked a figure from Mississippi’s history, wrote a monologue by that character and performed it over the summer.
Norris was particularly impressed to see many of the students chose historical figures they didn’t know in order to learn more about them.
For Johnson, though, it was an experience just to see audiences interact with authors she already knew. Even though she had read all the books the authors had written, she learned something new about them at the talks thanks the multitude of questions readers and audience members had for the writers.
“In every single one of them, there was something that I hadn’t thought about even though I think I’ve read all the books,” she said. “But there was something I hadn’t thought about, another new take.”