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.


  1. Coming home to the place you grew up, to the memories, to family, is a particular joy.
    I'd lived elsewhere for about twenty-five years before we came home; yes, much has changed. But it still feels like home.

    Dean, I'm looking forward to reading Arsenic and Old Books . . . .

  2. Salem is always Salem. The bits that change don't change the town. Same with Marblehead at one time part of Salem. Salem where I was born and Marblehead where I lived. I just now re-watched a video of the most recent storm. It was my old neighborhood on the harbor. It looked the same. The Warwick. My first night out with a boy, Sheldon. It was still there. We saw an old children's movie with Haley Mills, because that's what was playing. Couldn't be picky at a second-run theater so far from Boston. The stores looked the same. The new Y was there, but the green with the war memorial. Same. Some thing was missing. Then another. And another. I went online to take a drive-through courtesy of google map street view. Our first house there. It was still there but apartments. Down the hill and around the corner my mother's diner was gone. A skinny parking lot now that didn't look like there was room for a booth to sit in. Or a counter. Or a kitchen. Or my mother. I "drove" on through old town toward the harbor. Our house there was gone. Someone's garden was there instead. Sheldon's bedroom window looked down on the grocery store parking lot and the garden where my house used to be. I was erased. I had to find myself somewhere there. I drove. I saw the beach where I learned to swim. The hill where the old fort overlooked the harbor entrance. Where Old Ironsides hid from the British. The hill where Sheldon and I first kissed. And held hands. Solid though. Where was something solid that said I belonged. The old graveyard up the hill. The place where we cut through to get to the pond. Or the little candy store where the woman lived on top of the rock and made fudge. Maple Walnut fudge. The way beyond to Salem Harbor. Walking. Running. Rolling. When I could. I knew the way. The Old Burial Ground. And there were the graves of Dixeys. I was still there and yet to be in my ancestors. I belong.

  3. Welcome Dean! And huge congratulations.

    Moving to a new place is always difficult..bug it's lovely to know you're sort of moving "back"--which is different.

    When I go back to Indiana--its completely and totally different. Except for the family relationships!

    GREAT idea about the short story..hmmm.


  4. So lovely to have you here Dean--we all admire your success and prolific writing! I have good family friends who've lived in Jackson for years and teach at Milsaps so I can picture the place well.

  5. Hi Dean and congrats! It was so great to meet you at Murder By the Book this past summer! Love your Miranda James novels and great essay on Mississippi.

  6. There have been a fair number of changes to the old hometown (Hamburg, NY, just south of Buffalo). Main St. has been spruced up and there are a ton of roundabouts now (my dad hates them). But the wall of the high school is still covered in ivy and it looks no different from the outside than when I graduated in 1991. So changes - but a lot is still very much the same.

  7. Welcome, Dean! And congratulations on "Arsenic"!

    I've been in Mississippi once and it was at a floating casino - now I'm guessing those haven't been there forever!

    I grew up in Beverly Hills and these days it looks like a different city from the one I grew up in. The very occasional spots that haven't changed are more noteworthy than the one that have.

  8. What a wonderful interview. I could hear the cadences of the South in the voice. Yes, I recently had the experience of going back to Miami, a place I lived for a long time, but left after Hurricane Wilma. The changes are dramatic. So many high rises, areas that were single family residential are now strip malls. All that in ten years.

    My husband had an even more dramatic experience when we moved from Maine to Cudjoe Key. He had lived in Key West in the 1970s. The Keys are an entirely different world now.

  9. I am so far behind on this series. I need to get reading!

  10. These books are so delightful. They make you feel as if you've gone home, even if you've never been in the South!

  11. Reine, thanks for the lovely essay. You have such a strong identification with Boston. It is the home of your heart...

  12. Dean, this post feels like a field trip home. I have cousins by marriage in Natchez. They had a big family Thanksgiving this year. 175 people. They had to rent out a hotel.

    I grew up in Louisiana (and spend several years in Baton Rouge), but I could not write about home until I moved to Pennsylvania. Now, when I visit, it feels as if time has stood still. I take a lot of notes.

    One of my cousins now lives in my grandmother's house. My other grandparents' home has been sold. It looks TINY. That's the only real change I have noticed. It is shocking every time I see it.

  13. Thank you all for sharing your memories of "home." Reine, that is truly a beautiful essay on the subject.
    To answer Deborah's question about my grandparents' house--it was built around 1931/2, because their house burned down. I don't know if any pictures exist of the original house (which was up the hill from where this one sits), but I would love to know what it looked like. My two aunts were toddlers when it burned and have little memory of it. My dad and my uncle were older, but they have been gone a long time now and I never thought to ask them.

  14. My mother-in-law and sister-in-law live next door to the house I grew up in. My parents built it in 1947, then sold off the surrounding acres for development around 1960. It always feels a little odd going there, although the current owners have given the house a facelift--it's gorgeous. Our old street hasn't changed much, except the live oaks that many people planted in the early 60s are huge now.

  15. Dean, thanks for opening up the floodgate to hometown roots. Even though I have now live most of my life where my husband grew up, 38 years, my heart is bound and connected to the place of my youth, the small town that I left at 22 years of age. I still have family there and friends. At my 40th high school reunion in 2012, I reconnected with quite a few classmates, who have become a wonderful part of my current life. We met up in Key West last September for a girls trip. I have lived in Kentucky my whole life, but I started at one end of the state and ended up at the opposite end. This March, I'm taking my daughter and granddaughters on a spring break trip back to my hometown where we will walk the streets of my youth and visit with family. Like Reine, the place where you saw your first movies, had your first kiss, were loved as only a child is, learned to ride a bike and swim. All these experiences are the heart and soul of you. And, I happen to believe that you can go home again. Yes, it will be different but the connection is always there.

    I can't wait to read your Cat in the Stacks series. The first place I ever heard of a Maine coon cat was from Reine, and I find them fascinating.

  16. Welcome, Dean! I love the Cat books but I just realized I've fallen behind in reading them. Actually, I guess that's not bad, because it means I have some great reading ahead of me!

    Whenever I see the house my grandparents owned when I was growing up (not often, as I moved away from that town many years ago) I am impressed by how small the yard is. My siblings and I grew up in a housing project. ANY kind of yard seemed like ACREAGE to us! My grandparents crammed their yard with all sorts of kid-friendly apparatus, and we felt like we entered Paradise whenever we were there. But the lot is so small that you can practically reach out the living room window to the neighbor's living room! For us, it will always be a land of gardens and playground!

  17. The emphasis on the unexpected syllable is intriguing, isn't it?
    IN-sur-ance, rather than in-SUR-ance
    I've wondered about that for years.

  18. The small Wisconsin towns I lived in are still there and so are many of my friends and family. I live across the country now and interestingly I keep up via sports groups on the Internet. It is definitely true, as Dean states, that manner of speaking can take you right back to that area. And I certainly have a comfort level with my hometown friends that is hard to find elsewhere.
    ps - Arsenic was brilliant. My favorite so far.

  19. Again, thank you all for sharing your wonderful memories of hometowns. Perhaps it's a function of aging, but I feel the connections to "home" much more than I did growing up. In our youth we no doubt take things for granted, but with adulthood, we sometimes end up far away from the beginnings of our lives. Coming back to Mississippi, even though it meant leaving wonderful friends in Texas, has been such a happy thing for me.