Wednesday, February 11, 2015
Mississippi Memories--Miranda James
DEBORAH CROMBIE: Dean James, who writes as Miranda James, is one of my oldest and dearest
friends in the mystery world. Dean, a professional librarian who fed his love of mysteries by working part time at Murder By the Book in Houston (one of my very favorite bookstores) championed my books from day one. Since then, Dean has published twenty novels! (Boy, do I feel like a slacker!) and won readers' hearts with his Cat in the Stacks books featuring widower Charlie Harris and his Maine Coon cat, Diesel, set in the fictional small town of Athena, Mississippi. Charlie's world is so appealing (murders aside) that you want to go and live in Athena, and adopt Diesel--at least if Charlie hadn't gotten to him first...
I always looked forward to seeing Dean when I passed through Houston on book tours, so it was with mixed feelings that I heard he was leaving Houston to return to his native Mississippi. When we chatted, I asked him how he thought living again in the landscape of his youth would affect his writing. And this is what he said:
MIRANDA (DEAN) JAMES: Since 2000 I have published twenty novels, thirteen of which are set in Mississippi where I was born and reared. During the writing of those novels I lived in Texas, and the
Mississippi that I was writing about was a Mississippi of memories. Memories refreshed by periodic visits with family who still live here, of course.
One of the thirteen books, Cruel as the Grave, is set in Jackson where I'm now living. The rest are set in north Mississippi where I grew up, in fictionalized versions of towns. I didn't use the real towns because I didn't want to be tied to exact geography and having to worry about what was on a particular corner and other such details. Besides, the Mississippi I have been writing about is as much impressionistic as it is real.
Mississippi is a state of mostly small towns and lots of rural areas still. The small-town aspect of my home state is what I want to capture, because that's what I grew up with. Now that I'm back and living here in the state's largest city, I wonder how what I observe and experience in Jackson might color my writing going forward.
For one thing, I hear more often than I have in three decades that soft and slow Mississippi cadence, with emphasis on syllables one doesn't except. Case in point, DEE-cem-ber, rather than De-CEM-ber. I heard that several times at the public library when I checked out books that were due in that month. Hearing these speech patterns makes me realize how different my own became over the years I lived in Texas. I also know how easy it is to slip back to that earlier cadence, the one so familiar from childhood.
The best thing about being home again is that I am able to spend time with family members more frequently. Thanksgiving Day was a wonderful experience this year, because I gathered with family on the paternal side at the home where my father and his siblings grew up. My grandparents have been gone for four decades, and getting together again in the house that holds so many memories of love, laughter, and holidays was truly special. It was also bittersweet as I looked around the room and noted the absences -- of my parents and grandparents, particularly. But I also felt a deep connection to the house and the land on which it stands because my roots grow deep there.
Now that I am "on the spot," so to speak, will it affect my writing? Interesting to speculate, to me at least, how -- and if -- my writing might change. At a recent virtual meeting with my critique group in Houston, one of my critique partners made an interesting comment on the chapter I’d read of the work-in-progress. She thought my chapter seemed even more steeped in the Deep South than the previous book, written when I was in Houston. Perhaps I’ve been subliminally affected by the less hectic pace of life in Jackson, the general politeness and friendliness of people, and the language I hear around me. Or it might be because the book I’m writing is set on a Louisiana plantation near the Mississippi River north of Baton Rouge…
DEBS: Dean, do you know how much your grandparents' house looks like ours? Do you know when
it was built? Ours was built in 1905, and must have looked almost as rural in its early days.
I am fascinated by your family connections, and because I have really never left home, in a way I envy you going back to yours with a fresh perspective. And I can't wait to read the Louisiana plantation book! You are such a tease. Hopefully you will tell us more in the comments.
Readers, have you ever gone home to a place you thought well-remembered and found it changed?
ARSENIC AND OLD BOOKS, the 6th Cat in the Stacks mystery, debuted on national hardcover bestseller lists! Huge congrats, Dean!
PS: There is a bonus short story in ARSENIC AND OLD BOOKS! You'll learn just exactly how Diesel came to live with Charlie.