Friday, August 15, 2008

SEPTEMBER SONG by Carolyn Haines

The whirlwind summer is coming to a close. It’s been a busy time for me, with WISHBONES out on the bookshelves and the travel and speaking engagements that are part of book promotion.
This summer I’ve driven over 3,000 miles, visiting bookstores, libraries and doing research for the next book. While these travels are a lot of fun, they’re also a lot of work, as any writer will confess.

As I most recently drove around the Mississippi Delta, the setting for the Sarah Booth Delaney mystery series, I never fail to learn new things about this land that I love so deeply. Although I’m from Lucedale, Mississippi, down in the Southeast corner of the state, I’ve been captivated by the Delta since my first visit. This rich region, with such a complicated past, has a special magic. It is the home of great wealth and great poverty. It’s the home of the state penitentiary, Parchman, and also the home of the blues. In fact the two are so intertwined it’s hard to determine what role the state prison played in the development of this music but for anyone interested, I’m reading a great book by a most extraordinary and interesting man, Alan Lomax. The book is THE LAND WHERE THE BLUES BEGAN. Like Sarah Booth, I feel the blues at a deep level.

In WISHBONES, Sarah Booth goes to Hollywood to pursue her dream of becoming an actress. The previous books have all been set in the fictional town of Zinnia, Mississippi, except for HALLOWED BONES, where Sarah Booth works a New Orleans case.

In talking with people who read my books, I was surprised at the depth of feeling about this new location—they wanted Sarah Booth back in Zinnia. Hollywood, while interesting on another level, held no appeal for them as a place for Sarah Booth to hang out. These were readers from all over the country, not just Southerners. But no matter where their roots were, they wanted Sarah Booth back home.

Driving across the state, I had a lot of time to think about the vital role that setting plays in my life, in my books and with my audience. Sarah Booth is part and parcel of Dahlia House, the Delta, and Mississippi. It is her roots and her love of the land and her heritage—even when those things are a ball and chain--that make her who she is.

On my travels, I started in the Black Prairie area of West Point and then moved on to the hills of Oxford and later to the flat land of the Delta and the broad flow of the Mississippi River. Because I’ve visited these stores and libraries over the years, I’ve made some strong friendships. These annual trips have been part of the fabric of my life, and as a writer, they’re invaluable. I reconnect to this magical place where life sometimes seems unchanged from the 1970s and sometimes even the 1940s.
Sarah Booth, much like this remarkable land, is haunted by her past. In the Bones books, Jitty is the entity that guides, prods and devils Sarah Booth. She links Sarah Booth to Dahlia House, her family, and the past. She is the keeper of Sarah Booth’s secrets.

In one leg of my journey, I drove from Greenville north to Helena, Arkansas, where I’d booked a room in a bed and breakfast. Several of my fabulous friends had met me in Greenwood and they’d traveled on to Helena while I went to Greenville for a luncheon signing at McCormick Book Inn.

As I drove to join my friends, I took Highway 1 at the suggestion of a gentleman in the bookstore. The road follows the Mississippi River, and often in the distance I could see the levee that was built to protect the rich Delta land from the flood waters. Most of the highways have been built up three feet or so—but not Highway 1. I drove through cotton fields so close I could almost reach out and touch the dark green foliage. The corn grew so tall that at times, I felt I was in a tunnel. And yes, I did think of CHILDREN OF THE CORN because my mind just works that way.

The road was almost deserted on this Saturday afternoon, and while I drove I listened to some blues. Most of the old juke joints are gone. The landscape is constantly changing, some for the better and some not. It was on Highway 1 that I found the agricultural feel of the Delta that spoke to me. This is what the road north to Memphis might have felt like in an earlier time.

Some Delta towns have seen an influx of money. Greenwood has the Viking cooking schools and the Alluvian Hotel; Clarksdale has Ground Zero blues club and renovation of the downtown. The crossroads of Highway 61 and 49 in Clarksdale, that place where Robert Johnson was said to have sold his soul to Satan for musical talent, is a busy intersection and not isolated country roads.

The modern world has caught up with the Delta, but there are moments when I as able to touch the past, even briefly, like the one in Rosedale, where I saw several musicians sitting on a front porch playing guitars and singing. That scene could have been 2008 or 1948.

Later that evening, my friends and I went to Clarksdale to the Sunflower Blues Festival. We lugged chairs and coolers and swatted mosquitoes as the different performers played. There is nothing better than good music and good friends.

The next morning I returned home, back to the farm life and an unfinished novel with a deadline approaching. School starts next week, and I’m excited by the prospect of seeing my returning students and meeting the new ones.

I teach fiction writing at the University of South Alabama in Mobile.
While my summer has been busy with traveling and writing and tending the animals, one of my students, Jeannie Holmes, has also had a roller coaster summer. She sold her first novel, CRIMSON SWAN, in a two-book deal to Random House. Her new career is just beginning as she concludes her masters degree this December.

The seasons change. New opportunities come, and part of the past is left behind. But sometimes, on a rare drive across a magical part of Mississippi, the past can be found again, if just for a moment.

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