Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Welcome to Mississippi

Coming to Mississippi IS coming home. I spent my childhood summers in Jasper County, Mississippi, with my grandmother (the real Miss Eula of LOVE, RUBY LAVENDER) and a cast of characters who couldn't wait to see me. I'll will see some of them before the day is out.

I was up at 4am Tuesday morning and to the Atlanta airport early, only to sit for an hour with flight delays. Still, got to Jackson, Mississippi in good time. Jim Allen was waiting for me. Jim toted me around Mississippi two years ago on the LITTLE BIRD tour. When he heard I was going to high tea at the Brandon library one afternoon, he commissioned his friend Barry to pick me up at the hotel in his 1959 Silver Cloud Rolls Royce. You can read more about it here (where you'll find the LITTLE BIRD tour journal archived).

I didn't ride in the Rolls today, but I was in good hands. I hopped inside Jim's red Ford Explorer for the trip to nearby Clinton, where I was scheduled to spend some time with third-graders at Northside Elementary School, a grade two-three school.

Librarian Tammy King had contacted Harcourt about having me visit at the same time we were wrestling with a last-minute schedule change in the tour, so here we came -- Tammy got busy preparing her students, and I seized this opportunity to read from my Mississippi stories with a Mississippi audience.

I'm setting up my slides. Here come the third graders. What a great group of kids -- totally attentive and eager to hear stories... "Put your hands in the yoga of writing," I say. They do. "Every one of you has a story to tell. So many stories. What are they?" And I read about my grandmother, about a little girl who has been to 247 funerals, about a big shaggy black dog who loves everyone, and about two boys who want to play baseball... all stories from my life, and yet all made up. Personal narrative turned into fiction. Something like that. We laughed a lot.

Saying goodbye: Parent Coordinator Jimmie Sue Stringer, Tammy King, me, Assistant Principal Joy Tyner, and Principal Stacy Adcock who has a gracious heart and a younger brother named Casey ("I think my mother wanted twin girls."). Thank you all so much!

Here are Tammy and Stacy again on the right. On the far left is student teacher Amanda Eldridge Helmintoller, standing next to her mentor, Janet Medders. Janet teaches at the local middle school. Amanda is doing her student teaching at Northside and is a student at the University of Southern Misssissippi. Heads up, Ellen Ruffin! Amanda confirms that you are a stellar teacher yourself, in addition to being the curator of the de Grummond collection.

Jim Allen and I grab lunch with his mother -- fried green tomato sandwiches. (Welcome to the land of Fried Everything.) We make a quick stop at Pentimento, a lovely independent bookstore in Clinton that Jim thinks I would love to see. He's right.

Each bookstore has its own personality. Look at this one! VERY Southron. Lots of southern writers and southern charm. Squint hard and you'll see a poster of Eudora Welty in the background.

Here, I'll bring it closer. I'm going to the Welty Home on Friday -- stick around for a tour of the house and gardens.

Here's Jim Allen with Marilyn Poindexter of Pentimento. Owner Toni Wall was out when we stopped in.

Back in Jackson, I checked into my hotel and spent two hours lying across the bed in my pajamas. Then I was ready for the legendary Lemuria Books.

When I visited Lemuria in 2005, children's buyer Yvonne Rogers had me at a little table in the front of the store, where she tenaciously introduced me to every person who walked by. This time I occupy the golden, lamp-lighted signing area in the back of the store and we have a lovely crowd of parents, kids, librarians and teachers who come in looking for me. How very nice.

This is the enthusiastic Emily Hardin (Yvonne and teacher Sherry McWhorter are watching), whose guided reading group is reading LOVE, RUBY LAVENDER. She's taking this photo of her stellar students Anne Carrie, Marlee, and Sarah (hmmm... Sarah might be wrong -- correct me!)

Readers brought their copies of RUBY and LITTLE BIRD to be signed. Payton (not pictured) told me she's going to be a writer. I believe her. She already is.

There was a fair amount of mayhem, actually (sorry, Yvonne!), and my family was there in all their gorgeous glory... just look at how collected we seem here, when it's all over! I feel about these folks the way that Eudora Welty describes family in her novel DELTA WEDDING: "These cousins were the sensations of life."

Here's the fabulous staff at Lemuria: Sarah Ryburn Stainton, Jennifer Meador, Mark Regan, moi, and Yvonne Rogers.

I asked for good books. Yvonne sold me INDIAN SUMMER: The Secret History of The End of an Empire by Alex Von Tunzelmann (can't wait to read this) and, for my grandgirls, IF I WERE A TREE (Brown Dog Books) by Dar Hosta, and SWING! (College of DuPage Press) by Pamela Klein, both of which I adore. "You're not going to find these in just any bookstore," said Yvonne. "We take the time to find books that are special, that not everyone will have..."

Yes, they do. Hand selling is such an art. I love being hand sold. :>

Then -- can you stand it? One more picture of one more event.

Supper with the Brandon librarians who made the tea party possible during the LITTLE BIRD tour, and who have tirelessly promoted Deborah Wiles books, and who are beloved by me. Cousin Carol is in the white blouse at the head of the table. Jo McDivitt, editor of "Today's Mississippi Woman," is wearing the straw hat. These are the women who put books into the hands of young Mississippi readers. Namaste! (Just for the record, I did eat the pimento cheese fritters and the eggplant fries.)

It's early Wednesday morning as I write this. Jim Allen picks me up in two hours. We're going to travel highway 49 to Greenwood. I want to ride through the country I'm about to write about in my next novel for Harcourt. By lunchtime we'll be at Turnrow Books, a new bookstore, smack in the middle of the Delta. I'll tell you all about it.

First things first, though. I ordered breakfast delivered to my room this morning -- I'm a genius for thinking of this last night. And, I'll ask Jim to make a stop at the nearest Walgreens for water, Ricola lozenges, and some Throat Coat tea. Gotta fortify myself for the days ahead. I'm already pretty pruned up. I hope you'll come along with a puffy prune on the next day's adventure.