JK: For starters, kudos on writing a modern-day novel set in the Mississippi Delta. You don't see that very often. But you grew up in Jackson, right? I'm not from here either, but it's interesting to try and explain to people who don't live here that the Delta is so different from the rest of Mississippi. What was your experience like in the Delta and how do you see it as being different from the rest of the state?
TQT: Yes, I grew up in Jackson. It wasn’t until college that I made my way to the Delta. After I graduated from Delta State, I landed a job as a newspaper reporter for the Greenwood Commonwealth. I worked there for about a year before moving away from Mississippi. So, all told, I spent about four years in the Delta. I do think the Delta is different from other parts of Mississippi. And I agree with you that it’s a tough thing to explain. Some of it has to do with the traditions, I think. The past just seems more present in the Delta. When I lived there in the late 80s and early 90s, it seemed much more segregated than other parts of the state, and it’s not like Jackson was so progressive. Also, during my time at the Commonwealth, I covered a capital murder trial, the circuit clerk was arrested for voter fraud, a block of houses burned down, several children drowned, they reopened the case against Byron De La Beckwith, and there was a pretty destructive flood. I only worked there for a year. That’s a lot of big news for a town that size, but no one seemed to think it was particularly unusual. I moved to Austin, Texas when I left Greenwood and everyone was rallying to “Keep Austin Weird.” As far as I could tell, Austin wasn’t half as weird as the Delta. It’s a strange place, but wonderful in its way. Some of the best people I know are people I met during that time in my life. I learned a lot about myself. I guess that’s why it looms so large for me and why I chose to set the story there.
JK: I too have a background in journalism, and I found it really helped my writing. It taught me to shut up and listen, to let people talk, and it taught how to write on a deadline. It also put me into contact with a lot of strange, interesting people whose paths I might never have crossed otherwise. Did you find that sort of work useful for your fiction?
TQT: Definitely. Frankly, the ability to meet deadlines is the most valuable professional skill I possess. That’s true not only for writing, but for my working life as a whole. Working in news also taught me the value of building trust. No one will tell you their story unless they trust you. Like you, I learned to “shut up and listen.” I also learned how to think through both sides of an issue. No matter my opinions on a subject, I work hard to understand the people who feel differently. With the fragmented news streams we have now it would be easy to just plug in to media that reflects my own views, but I push hard against that. I want to understand all sides of a story. I want to understand why people feel the way they do. That search for balance and opposing viewpoints is definitely a product of my news background.
JK: I loved the opening scene at the Christian rock concert. The main character, Melody, seems very put out with the church culture in which she has been raised. Is that a familiar tension for you? Were you raised in this environment?
TQT: I was raised, as most southerners are, with a good deal of exposure to the church, though we were less religious than most. We were Baptists. My mother often went to church; my father rarely did. I was able to opt out and stay home with my father whenever I wanted. Still, I went to church a lot. My friends were there; it was a place where I could be part of something social. I went to vacation bible school and I was active in the youth group. I sang in the youth choir. But as I grew older, I grew away from the church. By high school, I began to question the culture. There were so many examples of hypocrisy. It seemed to me that the people who were most religious were also the ones making racist jokes or saying offensive things about women. By college, I’d mostly given up on church. I took some philosophy classes and began reading and learning about different religions, different myths and cultural beliefs. I came to believe that religion was a deeply flawed, man-made concept, and not some divine prescription handed down by God. So, yes, I do think Melody’s struggle with the church culture grows out of my own questioning and disillusionment with organized religion.
Melody's involvement with the Christian rock band grew out of my imagination. I worked for a while as the publicist for a music program and met lots of musicians on tour. I’ve been to a few music festivals. Driving around the country in a bus with a bunch of bandmates sounds absolutely terrible to me. I’m fascinated by people who find that lifestyle romantic and appealing. I don’t know where the idea to have Melody in that environment came from, but it seemed like a good start for her journey.
JK: Tell me about the character of Pisa, a medicine woman/fortune teller. How did she come about? Do you know people like this?
TQT: Pisa is definitely a product of my imagination. She isn’t based on a particular person. I don’t know any fortune tellers, but I’ve had my tarot cards read. I’ve thrown the I Ching. I’ve had my palm read. It’s just a parlor game. I don’t really put much stock in the predictions, but it’s fun. Nowadays there’s this big Christian backlash against anything that smacks of magic, but I knew lots of people in college who were both deeply religious and interested in the mystical. The same instinct that drives someone to traditional religion will drive another person to astrology or voodoo. Pisa knows that, I think. She knows the people who come to see her are searching for answers and meaning. She gives them what they want. Maybe she actually sets things in motion, or maybe she’s just running a good con. Either way, she gives people an option. Geneva can’t go back to the church, but she can go to Pisa. She gets to believe in something. I think most people just want to believe in something.
JK: It's heartening to see a rising group of young Mississippi writers contributing to the great tradition of literature here, from Faulkner and Welty to John Grisham and Donna Tartt. Were you aware of that tradition growing up, and did it inspire you to write? Any native authors who particularly informed your work?
TQT: I was very aware of the strong tradition of southern writers when I was growing up, and it certainly inspired me. I had a wonderful librarian at my high school who turned me on to Ellen Gilchrist. In college I read Ellen Douglas and Elizabeth Spencer and, of course, Welty and Faulkner. I adore Donna Tartt. When I finished reading The Goldfinch, I turned to my husband and said, “I think she’ll win the Pulitzer for this.” I was right. I also love Beth Henley. I played Babe in a college production of Crimes of the Heart. It was such a great role. Henley really manages to get the cadence and pacing of southern speech on the page without ever devolving into parody. I admire that so much.
JK: It's interesting that you mention Beth Henley. I was reminded of another Mississippi playwright as I read this. The story builds into a tempestuous Tennessee Williams-style drama; tightly set, characters caught up in the emotions as their pasts come to a head. It could definitely work on the stage. Any theater/drama background?
TQT: Oh, gosh, now I’m so tempted to go back and add Tennessee Williams to my previous answer, but I won’t! Of course I do admire Williams and I’m completely flattered that you were reminded of his work while reading mine. And, yes, I do have some stage experience. I love live theater and go to see plays and musicals as often as I can. I was very involved in my college drama group. I acted in a half-dozen plays. I also appeared in a production of Steel Magnolias at Greenwood Little Theatre when I lived there, which was so much fun. More recently, I’ve written a draft of a play. It’s a family drama set in modern-day Mississippi. I call it Borrowing Trouble. I’ve set it aside for a while to work on a new novel, but I’ll go back to it when I need a change of pace.
JK: I'm interested in your work promoting literacy. What sort of projects are you working on, and what is your approach to generating interest in reading?
TQT: As writers, I think it behooves us to do everything we can to support and encourage the next generation of readers and writers. For a time I worked for a nonprofit called Reach Out and Read Colorado. I don’t work there anymore, though I certainly still support the mission. It’s a great organization that works with pediatric care providers throughout Colorado to give books and prescribe regular reading to children from birth to age 5. Research shows that reading to very young children actually promotes brain development at a critical stage. Children who aren’t read to before they start school never catch up to their peers who had the benefit of regular reading time. So Reach Out and Read actually provides an intervention at regular check-ups, with an emphasis on reaching people in lower income communities. It’s a worthy cause, and I’d encourage everyone to learn more about it and support the Reach Out and Read programs in their communities.
I am also deeply involved with Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver, another worthy nonprofit. I teach occasionally for the young writers program there. I mostly work with upper-elementary aged children in after-school programs. That’s less about literacy than it is about getting kids to explore creative writing. Of course, in doing that we talk a lot about the books they are reading. This year I had one student who would read any book I mentioned before we met again the next week. She had strong opinions about what she liked and what she didn’t like, and she loved to have a spirited discussion about it. It was wonderful to see such enthusiasm. I love reading the fiction produced by children. It makes me confident that our literary future is very bright.
Tiffany Quay Tyson is a writer living in Denver, Colorado. She was born and raised in Mississippi.Three Rivers, her debut novel, is available in book stores everywhere.
Jamie Kornegay lives in the Mississippi Delta, where he moved in 2006 to establish an independent bookstore, Turnrow Book Co. Before that he was a bookseller, events coordinator, and radio show producer at the famous Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi. He studied creative fiction under Barry Hannah at the University of Mississippi. Soil is his first novel.