How better to kick off the new Turnrow Book Discussion Group than with a novel born out of this very land and told by a compelling new voice in Mississippi letters? Jonathan Odell, a Mississippi native whose novel The Healing was a surprise bestseller in 2012, will be here this Wednesday, May 20, to sign and read from his new novel, Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League. We'll be discussing the novel at our inaugural book club meeting on June 4, but we encourage you to come out this Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. to meet the author and hear him speak about the book.
Much of the novel's action takes place in Greenwood and the surrounding area, so we asked Jonathan to illuminate us on his inspiration for the setting. He generously delivered this account:
Even though I'm from the piney barrens of South Mississippi, when decided to write a novel about my home state, my fascination lay up north in the Delta, the place James Cobb calls "the most southern place on earth." I began by taking off several weeks a year to drive from Minnesota down the Memphis, and then enter the most mystical, magical and historic region of the entire country. I never used a map. I would spend days just driving mile after mile, taking thousands of photos and purposely getting lost so I could drive up to a complete stranger's house, black or white, ask for directions and then strike up a conversation about this land they inhabited. And believe me, Delta residents, whether planter or sharecropper, love to tell stories about home. Many of the people as well as their stories went into the book. (To view a few of the photographs I took, here's the link. I had this special background music composed to match my own experience of driving the land.)
As for finding a specific town in which to place my characters, it wasn't until later, quite by accident, that I turned off Highway 82 and found myself in one of the most enchanting, picturesque towns in Mississippi. I had never even heard of Carrollton and figured it had to be one of Mississippi's best-kept secrets. It was such a contrast to the flattened out places I had been exploring! Splendid homes, filled with history from the earliest days of Mississippi statehood were nestled like gems in the winding lanes. I knew this had to be my literary town and has served as such in all three novels, and will in the fourth as well. When I read the lovely memoir, Landscapes of the Heart, by Carrollton's illustrious literary citizen Elizabeth Spencer, I was sold.
I rechristened Carrollton "Delphi," for the site on Mount Parnassus home to the ancient oracles sought out by travelers the world over for a glimpse into their futures. It fit, because each of my major characters arrive in Delphi, Mississippi, for the same reason, to seek out a new future.
My fictional county, Hopalachie, is actually the combined counties of Leflore and Carroll. It roughly translates from Choctaw as "to calm the waters."
I'm eternally grateful to the proud Mississippians for providing me the most interesting array of characters with whom any author has been blessed. I only hope that through my imperfect prose, they can sense the love I have for their home.