Thursday, May 27, 2010

Interview with Oxford's Ace Atkins: 5/27/10

Ace Atkins, is the author of the Nick Travers blues mystery series which includes "Crossroad Blues", "Leavin Trunk Blues", "Dark End of the Street", and "Dirty South". He is also the author of stand alones "White Shadow", "Wicked City", "Devil's Garden" and the recently released "INFAMOUS", on Machine Gun Kelly & his wife Kathryn. He was also nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for his investigative work on a 1950 murder which led to the novel "White Shadow". He makes his home in Oxford, Ms.

Ace is also one of the nicest guys you could ever meet and is the best tour guide anyone heading to the Delta could ever hope to find. It was a sincere pleasure to do this interview with Mt. Atkins, and I'm now in his debt. ENJOY !!

1) I want to get right into your love for the Blues which is a huge part of your Nick Travers novels. Who are some of your all-time favorites & who’s out there playing today that we can still go see?

Ace: Most of my favorites are long gone but I was fortunate to see Junior Wells, Albert King and Robert Lockwood when they were alive. I guess if I had to pick my top, it would be Muddy Waters. I have yet to find a musician who had that kind of charisma and wonderful voice. Right now, I love to see some of the folks playing music here in north Mississippi . R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough are dead but they have family keeping that tradition alive.

2) Are there any new musicians who've caught your eye lately?

ACE: I’m fortunate to have several friends who are music journalist and they continue to turn me onto new stuff. I just stumbled onto a southern rock band out of Austin called the Happen-ins who are just terrific. I’m also really into the Detroit Cobras and The Heartless Bastards right now.

3)If a person finds themselves in Mississippi & wants to hear the Blues, in the right way in the right atmosphere, are there any places you can point us to?

ACE: We have a great club right here in Oxford called Rooster’s. Any tourist would be lucky to find themselves listening to Kenny Brown on a week night. There’s also a new juke in Holly Springs I’ve yet to visit.

4)Do you listen to music while you writing ,and do you use it to set a feel for a time and place for that particular novel? For example while you were writing,"The Devils Garden" did you listen to music from the 20's era?

ACE: Music is a huge component of what I do. Although I’m not writing about music now, I always have it in mind as I work. For Devil’s Garden, I had a soundtrack of early jazz – folks like Marion Harris and James Reese Europe – his version of St. Louis Blues became kind of a theme for Devil’s Garden.

5)We know it's wrong to drink & drive, what about to drink & write? What kinda beverage is your choice for those hours at the computer?

ACE: Pretty much coffee in the morning and bourbon at night. But without coffee, nothing is possible.

6) I know we share a mutual love & appreciation for the writing of William Gay. I would put him in a class with Daniel Woodrell & Cormac McCarthy as the finest southern gothic writers alive today. How is it that his work has remained so overlooked by mainstream America ? And.. do you think that's even important to him?

ACE: William is a tremendous talent, much loved and respected by other writers and by all critics. He’s a Southern treasure who continues to grow his audience. He is also a big fan of crime fiction. I would put his knowledge of John D. MacDonald and Travis McGee against anyone. He can quote entire passages!

7) For anyone who doesn't know, you played college football for Auburn University & your character Nick Travers is an ex- pro football player with the New Orleans Saints. How did your experiences as an athlete help to prepare you for a career as a writer? What did athletics instill in you?

ACE: The older I get, the more I appreciate my time as a college athlete. It’s really about discipline and work ethic and after four years at Auburn , you take a lot of that with you. But I learned most of that from my father who was a college and pro coach. His lessons on work and attention to detail guide me to this day.

8) Oxford , Ms. is a magical place to live around.We can only imagine what it must be like to live & work in an area that has been called home by literary greats such as (William Faulkner, Larry Brown, Willie Morris, Barry Hannah, Tom Franklin, John Grisham, Jack Pendarvis, Beth Ann Fennelly, etc..). However, that is the life you live . What's it been like for you as a writer & how has it influenced or affected you personally?

ACE: We certainly have had our share of legends – Faulkner, Willie, Larry and Barry. We’re really down to four working fiction writers now. Jack Pendarvis, Tom Franklin and Lee Durkee and me. We all had dinner the other night and joked we should take a photo taken of us as they did in The Untouchables. We all miss Larry Brown and Barry a lot. Both of them were wonderful friends.

9) Oxford is also home to one of the best Independent book stores in the south in "Square Books" . What kind of support have you received from Rich & Cody and the others at Square Books?

ACE:I wouldn’t be here without Square Books. Of course, most of the folks there are my best friends in town. But it is one of the best bookstores – arguably the best – in the country. Living in Oxford is like being in Paris – eventually all great writers pay them a visit.

10) Did you have a tough time getting that first book published or were you one of the lucky ones? You hear horror stories of fifty and sometimes hundreds of rejections before breaking through.

ACE: I wrote one novel – rejected several times when I was in my early 20s. Crossroad Blues – my second – was never rejected, picked up immediately. But that much said, I wrote constantly for nearly nine years before that first book was published.

11) I never really had an idea of what Nick Travers looked like until I recently saw John Hammond perform. Is there anyone you can picture as him or is he just a combination of people to you?

ACE: I love John Hammond. I definitely see Nick as a John Hammond type trapped in the body of a pro wrestler. If I had to cast Nick for a film, it would be Dwayne Johnson – but I would insist he listened to lot of Hammond and of course, Muddy Waters.

12) How important are libraries and independent book stores in an authors success in the early going and getting established?

ACE: Without the support of the indies, I would not be working right now. They continue to be the backbone of my reading base. Stores like Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale and Murder By the Book in Houston helped establish me nationally.

13)Lets talk film for a minute, what are some of your all-time favorite southern films?

ACE: Smokey and the Bandit, Deliverance, Gator,. . . Intruder in the Dust. Anything that’s isn’t Steel Magnolias. Most all of ‘em with the great Burt Reynolds.

14) Can you name a film that you thought truly captured the spirit & or feel of the South as you know it?

ACE: You may laugh, but it would be Smokey and the Bandit. It’s a trip back to the South I knew as a kid.

15) What is your favorite William Faulkner novel?

ACE: Absalom, Absalom. As a crime writer, I also love Intruder, and Sanctuary.

16) The musician Jim White once said of the south, "that if you want to truly understand the south, you gotta get it in your blood, and you can't get it from a transfusion." What are your thoughts on that?

ACE: I completely agree. I was born in Alabama and raised by parents born and raised in Alabama . It’s a sense of place and perspective that’s hard for an outsider. When I was in Chicago researching a few years ago, I found myself having a real kinship with the folks on the South side and realized it was all very Southern. Everyone migrating from Southern states and bringing that with them.

17) Harry Crews, has always presented the south in a pretty eccentric & unique view. Have you read Harry Crews and whats your impression of his writing? Did you ever get to meet him when he made it to Square Books several years ago?

ACE: I certainly know and love Harry Crews work but don’t know him personally.

18) Flannery O'Conner or Edora Welty?

That’s really hard. A man can love two women at the same time. Right?

19) Do you consider yourself a mystery writer or simply a writer. Does their have to be a distinction or is that simply something the critics & the chain stores like to do to jumble everyone into something they can easily label?

ACE: The good critics will recognize a good story without a label. A label/genre can really limit your audience and the reason I hate them. I definitely am a crime writer but that doesn’t mean I write a mystery. I never set out to write a genre book . . . only the best story I can tell.

20) For Devil's Garden, did you spend any time out on the west coast doing research of Fatty Arbuckles haunts?

ACE: As a kid I lived for a while I San Francisco – my father had taken a job with the 49ers coaching. So I know that city very well and continued to visit during the writing of the novel. The great thing about The City is that it hasn’t changed much since Hammett’s time. You can follow locations in that novel to this day.

21) Are you a fan of the silent era & the giants of that period like Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin & Harold Lloyd?

ACE: Of course! And I watched every surviving Arbuckle film before I began to write.

22) The new books coming out in April correct? Whats the title and can you give us a little info? Megan Abbott's already read it & says it's terrific. Is it a Nick Travers or a stand alone?

ACE: The new novel is INFAMOUS – about the kidnapping of oil tycoon Charlie Urschel in 1933 by George “Machine Gun” Kelly – the South’s only Public Enemy. It’s a very dark comedy that I had a ball writing.

23) Your Nick Travers blues series is great stuff, but you've also written several wonderful stand alones like, " Wicked City ", "White Shadow" and "Devil's Garden". Do you enjoy the variation, bouncing back and forth between the series & something totally new to you?

ACE: When I finished Dirty South six years ago, I had no intention of revisiting Nick Travers but with the reissues I could certainly see a new story in NOLA for a novella or short story. I continue to get letters about Nick, people wondering what happened to him after Katrina. And I have an answer. But in the meantime, I’ve decided to wipe the slate and start a new series of stories based here in north Mississippi – that debut novel in the series will be out in 2011.

24) The early books are getting a new home with Busted Flush Press. I've seen the cover art for the book jackets and I thought they looked amazing. What was your reaction when you first saw them?

ACE: I am exceptionally fortunate to have one of my best friends – Mark Francis -- work as a graphic artist. We talked in depth about the look/feel of the Travers’ novels and for the first time, they are actually published in a format that’s true.

25) You gave me some great tips last summer on Greenwood ,Ms., Lusco's Restraunt, Turn Row Books and The Alluvian Hotel....what other jewels are out there in Mississippi just waiting for us to discover?

ACE: Too many to name here. But I would recommend everyone to tour around the Delta a bit. Check out the Hopson Plantation in Clarksdale and the Resthaven diner. So many great joints in Memphis like Payne’s BBQ and Gus’s Fried Chicken. Maybe my favorite is Annie’s soul food in Holly Springs , Mississippi – best fried chicken anywhere.

26) Can you tell us your favorite concert you've attended? Who, where, when?

ACE: Probably when I saw Prince in 1984 during his Purple Rain tour. He is a great blues man.

Final Question: Your writing habits, hours a day, a.m. or p.m & the length of time for the typical book for you?

ACE: I usually work from 9 until 4 every day while on schedule. I’ll take a short break for lunch and then return to my office. I think most people believe writing is relaxing and easy going. But do this for a living, it’s a true job. A great job. But a job none the less.