As I await the June, 2018 publication of my third novel, Mourning Dove, which is a Southern family saga set in 1970’s and 1980’s Memphis, a sins-of-the-father, cause and effect story that took me two years to write, I’m spending my time doing what any writer would do to stop themselves from climbing the walls: I’m writing another novel.
This novel began as a story about female friendships, yet fifteen pages into it, I began to write the narrator’s back-story, as it seemed important to the development of the story, whose theme concerns the ramifications of displacement. And as the setting begins in Memphis then takes the reader to the lake at Heber Springs, Arkansas, I wanted the narrator to be from somewhere outside of, but close enough to Memphis to make the story plausible. And so I chose Como, Mississippi to set the narrator’s backstory, which is 45 miles south of Memphis, in The Delta of Mississippi’s Panola County. For many months, as the story took on a life of its own and the narrator’s back story evolved into the main focus, I realized the problem was that I’d never been to Como, Mississippi, but now I will report that I have.
Three weeks ago, I had cause to go to Memphis. I have a childhood friend named Louise who demanded I come for her birthday party. Louise is a real Southern belle, and if you’ve ever had the good fortune of knowing one, you’ll know there’s no refusing their iron-fisted way of dealing with the world. Most of the Southern belles I know could run a country through the power of suggestion, and Louise is no exception. After I booked my plane ticket, I figured I’d make the trip to Como, as long as I was in the South.
Let me digress by saying that although I now live in California, I grew up in Memphis, in the type of climate where everybody knows everyone, and if they don’t, they know someone that does. When I told a Memphis friend that I planned on going to Como to research the book I’m writing, her immediate reply was, “You should call Denise Taylor, you know her, right? She’s married to a fifth generation, Como farmer, they live down there.” So, I called Denise Taylor, and although it had been twenty years since I’d seen her face, it was as if we’d talked the day before. Southerners are refreshing this way. What you have to understand is if you’re born to any part of the South, you’re in it for life because Southerners have a tribal mentality and will never let you go.
And so it was that I set up a meeting with Sledge Taylor. If I could come up with a name that suggests a more prominent tie to the history of The Delta, I would, but I’m not convinced one exists. Let’s just say that within twenty minutes of meeting Sledge Taylor, at the Windy City Grill on Como’s Main Street, it came to me that his family all but put the railroad ties in the ground of the train tracks that run though the center of town. After lunch at the Windy City Grill and an introductory conversation that seemed to acclimate us, we took to the sidewalk of Main Street, where I received a tutorial on the history of every building standing in a shot-gun row, along the way to Holy Innocents Episcopal Church, which sits A-framed at the edge of town, beneath a flourishing oak tree, its red-painted double doors graced with two gold crosses, below a porte-cochere. Holy Innocents Church, built in 1872, has a feeling inside its venerable walls that speaks of the town’s history, and many of its’ ten, cathedral stain glass windows memorialize a prominent local dating back as far as 1892. Its pine pews grace either side of its smooth, oak floors, covered down the center aisle with red carpeting leading to a raised altar, which the sun illuminates through a magenta and cobalt stain glass window. Because a writer’s job is to place the reader in each scene, I spent much time taking notes in the church, covering every visual detail, for I’d already written a scene in my book that takes place in a Como church, and the more specific detail I could add when I returned to my manuscript, the better. I wrote down every facet that caught my eye: the names and colors of the books in the slat of each pew; the height of the cistern holding the holy water; the number of windows on each side, and the pitch and height of the roof.
My reason for visiting Como had little to do with historical facts and dates, it was essentially for the purposes of creating a strong sense of place. Its one thing to write a scene where a character runs through a field to a pond, and another to lift the event up by describing the low sky as the character trips through winter’s faded tangle of kudzu and ochre rye grass. Although I had no set agenda, I gathered most of what I wanted by looking through the window of Sledge Taylor’s truck, as we drove for hours through the countryside on the outskirts of Como’s town proper. There, all manner of indigenous foliage set the scene on both sides of the narrow, unmarked roads: oak, elm, hickory and cherry create dappled canopies over Johnson grass, Bermuda grass, crab grass and Virginia creeper, creating a fecund mulch of forest litter on the earth’s sodden floor. In my notebook, I wrote down Taylor’s answer to all of my questions. I wanted to know the exact name of every endemic tree, shrub, and blade of grass; what changes were vested upon the area seasonally, and what was planted in the fertile fields in which month. All of this I planned on working into my story, which is decidedly character driven, yet I’d heard it said by one of my favorite authors that land is destiny, and it hit me as a salient truth. One’s environment effects one’s consciousness, shapes one’s attitude, and cyclically influences one’s life. And rather than spend my time with my guide as if I were conducting an interview, I simply let him do the talking. I wanted to learn what he deemed worth telling, and I paid rapt attention to the manner in which he spoke, for there’s little more telling of a region than its accent and turn of phrase. And further, because I’d never been to Como and knew little of its hallmarks, I thought it best to sit back and let Sledge Taylor do the driving to wherever he thought it important to go. When one is a stranger in a strange land being shown around by a local, it’s best to keep one’s mouth shut, lest they squelch the spontaneity of the moment by boxing their host in with the inconsequential. Had I done otherwise, it may have diverted my guide from turning up a particular driveway. Would that I could write the name of the historic plantation I saw in Como, but because it is currently a private residence, it is bad form to do so. If I were writing nonfiction for a Southern magazine, that’d be one thing, after being granted permission. But as it was, I was simply along for the ride, when Sledge Taylor drove to his friend’s house.
The house was massive. Red-roofed, two storied, and four pillared; it loomed on hundreds of acres of manicured, velvet land replete with mature oaks and elms, rolling down to a screened cabin’s porch, facing the edge of a pond. It was a family seat, built in 1902, passed down through generations. As we scratched up the gravel driveway, its caretaker met us as if by divine timing, for our visit was unplanned. Employed by the family for thirty nine years, he greeted my guide by addressing him as Mr. Sledge, and I was suddenly reminded of the formal courtesies of the South, which included an immediate hospitable offer to come in and tour the house, as its occupants were in residence elsewhere.
We circled round back and entered the house through the kitchen, whose entrance rose from a series of weathered brick steps, beneath a heavy, twisted muscadine trellis positioned just so, to abate the sweltering, Mississippi summer heat. Every spacious room downstairs had a crown molded ceiling that towered at nine feet. Beneath area rugs, the wood floors flowed through the dining room and living room, straight to a screened front porch, furnished with leather club chairs beneath a ceiling fan. In the central, catacomb of the entrance hall, two bedrooms opened at the left, adjoined by a dressing area and attendant, ivory-tiled bathroom. In the center, a wooden staircase rose to a second floor landing with a view of the grounds as far as the eye could see. Upstairs, three more bedrooms, one with a series of avian prints on the walls, a white mantled fireplace, and two mahogany framed, matelassé covered beds. All the bedrooms were furnished with antiques. Some had four-poster beds, tall chests of drawers, and porcelain artifacts tucked in nooks and crannies, besides built-in book shelving, housing family photographs, giving the overall impression that the house’s interior was geared towards the preservation of history. Mounted on some of the walls were portraits painted in oil: austere, looming facsimiles, with eyes that followed you everywhere, bordered in muted gold frames. And it’s fascinating what you can learn, when being given a tour of an old house in Mississippi: I learned there’s a problem in the area with ladybug infestation, that the insects swarm the window screens by the millions, and lay their eggs to the point where the light can’t get through the windows. It was not a glittering, ostentatious plantation house, boasting in pomposity, rather, it was a shop-worn, elegant house, pitched to a functional practicality that gave it a warm, sophisticated edge in a way that lived and breathed and spoke of safe haven.
All told, I spent five and a half hours touring Como, Mississippi with Sledge Taylor, and I can tell you now I got the gist, but am fully aware that there is much more to the story of this historic, Delta region. I was so enamored of what I saw, that I’m already thinking there’s another novel to be set in the area, so sylvan and inspiring is it, for all its rural, earthy, authenticity.
What I learned from my trip to Como is that it’s best for a writer to approach research for a book with a very loose agenda. With regard to my experience, the wisest thing I could have done was just as I did: shut my mouth and let my guide take the lead.