|Richard Grant, photo by Michael Crook|
Richard Grant is the author of the new book Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta. He also has written Crazy River, God's Middle Finger, and American Nomads. His work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and Smithsonian. He grew up in London, and lives in Jackson, Mississippi.
Q: You write of Mississippi that "no state is more synonymous in the rest of the country with racism, ignorance, and cultural backwardness." How did living in Mississippi affect your views on that image of the state?
A: Most everything here leads into what looks like a contradiction or a paradox, and is better described as layered complexity. Parts of Mississippi are indeed terribly racist, ignorant and mired in a kind of self-protective lie that you might call backwardness — a fear that change will bring terrible disaster.
But Mississippi also understands racism on a deeper, more nuanced level than most of the country. It has thought about it more, and come further, if only because it had so far to go. Not until you live here is it possible to untangle and understand these things, because they don't conform to standard-issue Northern/liberal/Yankee protocols of logic.
Q: You also state, "Mississippi is the best-kept secret in America." Why is that?
A: There's a genuine love of life here that I don't see in most places, and a talent for enjoying it under difficult circumstances. It is a place of many talents, actually — wonderful storytellers and musicians in particular. I've had more fun here than anywhere. Usually it involves whiskey, explosions, outlandish storytelling, live music, barbecued meat.
Q: In the book, you note the poverty in Mississippi compared with its rich tradition of writing. What accounts for this situation?
A: The poverty and racial inequality is so dramatic here. And it's combined with decency, honor and eccentricity in a way that makes you scratch your head, or if you're a writer, to write about in order to explain and understand it.
The place generates such extraordinary stories. Faulkner just kept his ears open and that was all the material he ever needed. What he did with that material is another question -- that's where genius comes in.
Q: What do you see looking ahead for Mississippi?
A: The state will continue walking backwards into its future, as it always has done. The hold of religious conservatism — equally strong on blacks and whites - will continue to encourage prayer and faith-based solutions that will continue to be ineffective. White Republicans will continue to deliberately hold the poor down, and convince the white poor that it's in their best interest.
Slowly but meaningfully, the progress on race relations will continue. Already, even in the most conservative, racist areas of the state, blacks and whites are dating together in high school and college, and don't think it's a big deal. That represents huge progress in a place like Mississippi, where so many fought and died to keep the races separate.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Magazine stories for Smithsonian, The New York Times, Aeon, Al Jazeera America, and other publications. I'm just started to contemplate a memoirish book idea about the demons that drove me into wild adventures in foreign lands, and other unusual behavior patterns.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Vole urine is iridescent to a kestrel. When peeling a hard-boiled egg, always begin at the broad end….Bats have milk also. Good ideas for writing come on long walks, long drives, and when wallowing in the bathtub with a tumbler of iced whiskey.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb