LIANE HANSEN, host:
Writer Mark Childress has one foot firmly planted in the cornfields of the Midwest and the other tangled in the kudzu of the Deep South.
In the opening pages of Childress's new novel, One Mississippi, the teen protagonist is transplanted from Indiana to a small Mississippi town so small, its name is Minor. Daniel Musgrove finds a best friend in Tim Cousins on the school bus, and by the time they graduate from high school in 1975, they've been through horrible tragedy, hysterical comedy and high drama.
Mark Childress is an Alabama native, but has lived in Mississippi and Indiana. He currently resides in New York where he joins us from the New York bureau. Hi, Mark, welcome back to the program.
Mr. MARK CHILDRESS (Author, One Mississippi): Hi. It's great to be here.
HANSEN: The two characters in this novel, Dan and Tim, what do they have in common?
Mr. CHILDRESS: Well, they have in common that they're both outsiders, that they are strangers in that strange world of high school.
HANSEN: They share a lot of things that happened in the culture in the 1970s, not the least of which is they like to hang around and watch The Sonny and Cher Show on television.
Mr. CHILDRESS: Yeah. I think Daniel says something about, you know, they're so uncool that they're cool. You know, and I think that's sort of how they try to fit into their school too. As being uncool, defiantly so, and that's their conceit. But yeah, they are obsessed with Sonny and Cher, there's no doubt it. And they watch it over the telephone with each other every Saturday night.
HANSEN: This is the time that you grew up, right?
Mr. CHILDRESS: It is. It's the land before call waiting. You could spend two hours on the phone and nobody could get you off. It was good.
HANSEN: But you did not wear a sonic blue tuxedo to your prom?
Mr. CHILDRESS: No. I think I was actually offered that tuxedo and I think I turned it down. But I looked bad enough in the one I wore. It was confederate gray. I didn't realize that until the salesman explained. I just thought it was gray.
HANSEN: Prom night is crucial to the development of the plot. Something happens that changes the boys' lives. And I read that the book that you thought of most when you were writing One Mississippi was Crime and Punishment.
Mr. CHILDRESS: Yeah. There's something that happens after the prom. Well, there's a lot of things to feel guilty about on prom night. Everybody has that, but there's something that happens to the boys or that the boys do or don't do. And it's a little bitty offense. It's sort of a crime of omission and it only lasts a couple minutes, but that's the beginning of trouble for them, and that's the way it is a lot of times for a kid who's a little bit off the tracks.
You know, these are Nixon years too, so the more they try to cover it up, the deeper they get into it.
HANSEN: You've said before you can't write a book set in the South without dealing about race. In your first book, Crazy in Alabama, you were dealing with segregation in the '60s. Now you've got race in the '70s. What did you want to explore about it at that time?
Mr. CHILDRESS: Well, there was this huge buildup to integration. I mean, ever since we were children, Southerners were told to dread the moment of integration, that this horrible thing was going to happen to us. Then when it happened, it wasn't horrible at all. As a matter of fact, it was a great big anti-climax.
You know, and we were all told to look out for knife fights and, you know, that those kids were coming to take over the school. And none of that, of course, turned out to be true because most of the bedroom communities in the South, the whites continued to outnumber the blacks until they fled the public school system.
HANSEN: Tell the story of a band contest that happens. Both Dan and Tim are in the high school band and you, you know, have them on the football field in their full glory. But they're in this very important contest in Vicksburg, incidentally. Tell the story of what happened.
Mr. CHILDRESS: Yeah. Well, if you're in Mississippi in high school and you're not on the football team, then band is like the big thing to do. And so this contest is the climax of the year. And they've been rehearsing a medley of Stephen Foster tunes. And one of the black girls had objected during the practice that she had looked up the lyrics of the Stephen Foster tune and she didn't want to sing them because they were racist.
The whole class has dismissed her protest, and in the middle of the band contest - the most important day of the year - all the black kids just suddenly put their instruments down on the stage and stop playing. And they ruin the contest for the white kids.
HANSEN: Hmm. What effect does that have on the entire band?
Mr. CHILDRESS: It divides it in two. So this only - the most integrated institution in the high school, which was the band, the only really truly integrated club, suddenly gets split apart.
HANSEN: You've got the Midwestern outsider coming down to the South. You've got the differences between the races. Is that something for you that sort of gets that pen going?
Mr. CHILDRESS: It is. There's something about the South, we're still afflicted by it. I mean, you know, take a look at New Orleans and the aftermath of Katrina. And look at how sort of thin that veil of civilization was. Then it got pulled back and, you know, there's more racial tension in New Orleans now than there's been for 30 years.
So as I said before, I just think every Southern writer has to write about it. It would be like trying to write a book set in the 1860s and not mentioning the Civil War.
HANSEN: What about your writing? I mean, there's a - there's something very Southern about it. It's, you know, funny in peculiar ways. At times it's reminding me of, like, Carson McCullers, Shirley Jackson. And you've actually said we carry the South with us like a virus. What does that mean when you're writing?
Mr. CHILDRESS: Well, you can hear all those voices in your head and you're trying to find one that's yours, you know, that you're not borrowing from Carson or from Flannery or Truman or all the great writers that went before. But to me it has something to do with the way we tell narrative in the South, the way we tell each other information. It's like, let me tell you what happened to me today. 'Cause we have time down there, you know?
And you know, we say that the wounds of the Civil Rights Movement have been healed, but they haven't at all. There's just a thin veneer of civilization and a whole bunch of gated communities and, you know, urban (unintelligible) that have been given to the black people. And in some ways the South has segregated itself more completely than it was segregated by law.
HANSEN: Was this a chance for you to explore yourself and your own experiences too? I mean...
Mr. CHILDRESS: Yeah, absolutely.
HANSEN: Was it a place in yourself that you were reluctant to go until now?
Mr. CHILDRESS: You know, it's funny. When I look at the jacket of this book, which is a kid mowing grass - and I spent a good part of my childhood mowing the grass - and I remember being that kid and sweating and swearing to God that if I ever grew up and became a writer, I would write a book about all of this. And I think I've done it. You know, it took me 40 years - not quite 40. It took a lot of years to get to the point where I really could see how you could address high school in a serious work of fiction.
HANSEN: Mark Childress is the author of the new novel One Mississippi, published by Little Brown. He spoke with us from our New York bureau. Thanks a lot, Mark.
Mr. CHILDRESS: Thanks, Liane.
HANSEN: You can read an excerpt from One Mississippi at our website, npr.org.
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