Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Q and A with Quentin Whitwell author of If by Whiskey.

1.What is the backstory behind If By Whiskey?

If By Whiskey’s backstory has several components. The primary driving force behind the book being written was personal. Many of the scenes and issues addressed in section two, genuinely occurred in some form or another when I served as Student Body President at Ole Miss. Some of the intense rivalries existed, along with some of the racial rhetoric. For me, I needed healing, but also wanted to explore and push myself to uncover what being Southern is all about, both for black and white people. Another backstory that some folks may not recall is that the Presidential debate actually did take place at the University of Mississippi, or Ole Miss as its alumni and students affectionately call their alma mater. Encapsulating a true story around a fictional one required more research and accurate outlining; however, I think it draws the reader in even more, to the point where one reading the book stops and asks herself, “Is this for real or just made up?” Of course, following this pattern enabled me to make some broader social points about tolerance, stereotyping, heritage, progress and race relations. Finally, there is a story behind the title but I see that I will answer that separately!

The novel is described as "Old South Meets New South." Can you elaborate?

I am not trying to sound like John Edwards in his “Two America’s” speech here, but in some ways there are two “Souths”. There are those who live in the old one and those who live in the new one. And watching the two collide in If By Whiskey is like being an eyewitness to a train wreck - - you know it is going to be bad! I wanted to ask and possibly answer, but at least add to the discussion, this question, “Who are Southerners (regardless of race) perceived as, and are those perceptions reality?” Ultimately, I found myself creating characters that fit the mold one would expect. Sometimes, I would break them down and recreate them to unimagined expectations. Other times I would play them out just like the girl next door with a few twists here and there, of course! Ultimately, to answer the question, Oxford, Mississippi is a microcosm of the South. Known for guarding the entry to its gates of an African-American seeking an education, now it serves as one of the South’s most progressive towns. From a race relations perspective, Ole Miss is known today for hosting Barack Obama, who received a warm reception in Oxford and for the story of Michael Oher recently released as a film with Sandra Bullock entitled The Blind Side. So, the South has changed but some of the ghosts from our tumultuous past reappear from time to time.

What was your journey to publication?

Whew! That was the worst part. I had written five chapters and outlined the majority of the book when I realized that even if I wrote an entire manuscript, I had no idea how to get a novel to print. Turns out, as small as this world is, that my neighbor is an entertainment attorney and wrote a couple of sports books. So I called him. He introduced me to one of his partners and she guided me in. She gave me a deadline to have the draft complete, edited it, had it proofread (there are still a couple of errors that drive me crazy!), got printing quotes, designed the cover art, and 4000 copies showed up at my front door one day. That day scared me to death! I self-published my first one for several reasons. First, I had a timely story that did not need to sit on a potential publisher’s shelf for an extensive period of time. Also, I felt like I had enough of a built in constituency in Ole Miss alumni to get the book off the ground. From there, I knew it could get its own legs. Plus, we turned out a great product. And finally, I have another book in mind that should have a broader appeal. That one, I want to have nationally published and a track record of good sales should help my efforts.

Who are your literary influences?

Ha! Great question. I may throw you off a bit with this one, but I bet many of the readers can identify. It’s not that I don’t read, I do. I have read and been influenced by some awesome writers - - Kafka and Hemingway the most. The Trial and The Sun Also Rises, respectively are my two favorites. When I was accepted to Yale’s summer school program, The Trial was in my reading assignment. Before I went, I had the chance to sit down with one of my English Professors at Ole Miss. The discussions that flowed from that conversation as it pertained to that book, influenced my thinking greatly. I never viewed government or our justice system the same again. Previously, I had been too Pollyanna, let’s say. Other writings I love include Siddhartha as a simple read but pure, Francis Schaeffer from a religious standpoint, Jeffery Archer is a contemporary favorite, and Faulkner although he is brutal. But, ultimately I see writing as an art. When I wrote If By Whiskey, I tuned in to the Blues music and some Appalachian Folk songs on my iPod and really got in a groove. I also found that it was much easier to listen to the Gin Blossoms and write about the nineties for some reason! But, in all sincerity, I would argue that being a writer is no different than being a musician or a painter or a sculptor. We all have a story to tell. The question is, can you channel your energies, focus on the task, and deliver a punch line? Thankfully, I did. For a while there as I was writing, I was scared the ending would be a bust!

What's the story behind the title?

Well, as I am told, the phrase If By Whiskey has been out there for years with a number of meanings. Although I have not uncovered all the sources, I am told Mark Twain may have used it a time or two. But for me, a boy from north Mississippi, the phrase “if by whiskey” alludes to the famous “Whiskey Speech” delivered at the old King Edward hotel in 1952 in Jackson, Mississippi when a debate erupted in the Mississippi legislature about whether or not the prohibition of whiskey should be repealed. Understand at this point in time, the state taxed it, the people poured it, there was even a division in the tax commission with employees to oversee it, but it was illegal nonetheless! Soggy Sweat was a young man then and he was both for and against whiskey in the same speech. Absolutely hysterical - - both the speech and his delivery. All the readers should check it out. For me, Anna Neimus, the main character, finds herself in a whiskey moment. She is torn by the Old South traditions and the modern progressive appeals of the New South. So, like Soggy Sweat, she chooses both!

You're traveling extensively throughout the South for book signings. Any interesting experiences you'd like to share?

Oh yes. I have been to a lot of places and going to many more. But my favorite story so far is from Gulfport, Mississippi. I was invited to sign at a wine bar. And that was just my kind of book signing. But on my way, I received a call from a local who asked if I could join him at the home of Dr. Bobby Little. I did not even know who Dr. Little was. But it turns out that Soggy Sweat was his fraternity big brother in Sigma Chi at Ole Miss many years ago. I got some great stories on Soggy from him. But the best story was about William Faulkner. Apparently, Dr. Little grew up around the corner from Faulkner. He had the pictures to prove it too. Dr. Little said that when he was about 14, Faulkner showed up to his home in the rain wearing a trench coat and knocked on the front door. When Bobby appeared, Mr. Faulkner, who was very proper and formal in his approach to everything as I am told, asked if Bobby would go downstairs and retrieve a bottle of whiskey for him. When Bobby returns, Mr. Faulkner thanks him and turns to leave. As he does, the slit of his coat in the back begins to open. Dr. Little said he had no idea what that man was doing but apparently he wrote and drank all night in the nude!

The novel is flying off the shelves. Why is the book resonating so much with readers?

Well, first of all, let me say that I am humbled by the response. I have had people say the book took them down memory lane. There are the non-Southerners who feel enlightened to see a book that walks through the progress of the South. Some guys just want to meet the college sorority girls I described! The female readers have complimented the fact that I took on and accurately portrayed a female. Some have called me brave for writing about subjects like sexual promiscuity and race relations that many southerners want to turn a blind eye too. Even the very few that don’t like my book have further reinforced for me the need to write this book. It is time we grow up and face our demons. If we don’t they will destroy us. I know I grew as a person by writing this book, and I hope many more people read it.

Quentin Whitwell holds two degrees from the University of Mississippi, a Bachelor of Arts and a Juris Doctorate. While at Ole Miss, he served as the Associated Student Body President and was inducted into the Hall of Fame. Growing up in Oxford, Mississippi, he walked the path of William Faulkner learning that the legend of Yoknapatawpha still lives today with eccentric characters and folksy ways. An attorney and lobbyist in Jackson, Mississippi, Quentin draws from his life experiences to write this comedic fictional novel. Quentin is married to the former Ginger Gordon. They have two children, Davis and Gordon, and an English springer spaniel, Churchill. Visit his web site at www.ifbywhiskeynovel.com.

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