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JACK WEATHERLY — Book Festival cancellation won’t stop the flow

JACK WEATHERLY

In case you missed the news, the sixth annual Mississippi Book Festival, scheduled for Aug. 15, will not be held due to the coronavirus.

Such is the way in the Year of the Plague, no or not yet.

But that doesn’t mean that writing in the Magnolia State and elsewhere has stopped.

The Mississippi pipeline for the “literary lawn party” in and around the state Capitol, which has set attendance record after record,  is being loaded for next year, to be sure.

Michael Farris Smith is taking an intriguing detour with his next novel.

“Nick” will be a prequel to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s immortal “The Great Gatsby.”

That’s possible now because the Fitzgerald novel’s copyright will expire on Jan. 1, and the work will become part of he public domain, meaning it’s fair game for creative efforts based on the famous novel.

Smith’s novel, to be released Jan. 5 by Little Brown, will center on Nick Carraway, the narrator of “Gatsby.”

“The prequel takes place a few years before Carraway rents a house in the West Egg district of Long Island and encounters the enigmatic multimillionaire Jay Gatsby,” according to a release.

Smith, an Oxford resident, has established himself as an inheritor of the Southern literary mantle.

His books of fiction are gothic, save for one.

That was his first, “The Hands of Strangers,” a novella set in Paris and written with a Hemingwayesque style.

Smith won’t necessarily emulate Fitzgerald’s elegant style, though he has the chops to do it.

He has made a career of primarily writing about down-and-outers.

Interestingly, with Carraway “[embarking] on ‘a transcontinental redemptive journey’ to escape the horrors he witnessed during the trench warfare of the First World War,” that sounds like it should play into Smith’s wheelhouse.

It’s enough to say that he believes it does.

Whether we will see or hear about Gatsby in “Nick” is an intriguing notion.

Smith said in an email to a question about that: “The novel leads up to Nick’s first moments in West Egg but I’d like to leave it at that for now.”

•••

In the on-deck circle is Lawrence Wells’ “In the Shadow of William Faulkner: a Memoir.”

That will be out Sept. 1 under the University Press of Mississippi imprimatur.

Wells was founder, along with his wife, Dean Faulkner Wells, of the Yoknapatapha Press in Oxford.

Dean Faulkner Wells, of course, was William Faulkner’s niece.

Larry Wells befriended Barry Hannah, Willie Morris, Larry Brown and many other writers who adopted Oxford as a home.

“He became both participant and observer to the deeds and misdeeds of a rowdy collection of talented authors living in Faulkner’s shadow,” the University Press said.

Coincidentally, yours truly suggested to another Oxford-based writer not long ago, before news of Wells’ book was made public, that he could be the right man to delve into the skinny of that culture.

Industries thrive on such things — Hannah’s troubled genius and the nurturing Morris, a truth-telling Mr. Mississippi, both tragically fueled by whiskey, made for a volatile mix.

* * *

Another imminent book by a Mississippian, British expatriate Richard Grant, takes a look at another institution.

Just when you thought you knew everything about the fabled city of Natchez.

Grant’s “Dispatches from Pluto,” published in 2015, perhaps opened the eyes of readers in the state that has historically resisted “outsider” criticism – and strangely endeared himself in doing so.

His view from an anchorage in the Delta for a year was unblinking but not condescending. (He and his wife and daughter now live in Jackson.)

Now another deep dive.

“The Deepest South of All: True Stories From Natchez, Mississippi” takes a look at the eccentricities of the contemporary version of this town all to itself on the big river and recalls its status as the richest town in the country in its doomed antebellum glory that still thrives for tourists as a shop window version of the past.

Note how the full subtitle of the book, which is also due out on Sept. 1, includes the name of the state. That’s for Yankees and other foreigners, who are very welcome in this vestige of the Old South.

One wonders, contrarily perhaps, how a recent decision to change the state flag will affect tourism.

Could someone from Columbus, Ohio, say, or London be disappointed from a historical perspective to no longer see the Confederate symbol flying over government buildings?

After a majority of state legislators voted to change the state’s 126-year-old flag (91-23 in the House and 37-14 in the Senate), Gov. Tate Reeves signed it on June 30 into public-property oblivion, save for  museums.

On Nov. 3, Mississippi voters will decide on the exactly which new symbol will fly over the state.

All we know right now is that it will not have the Confederate battle flag in its design.

How much that will change or reflect the hearts and minds of Mississippians – two-thirds of whom cast ballots in 2001 to keep the old flag — remains to be seen, though a lot of muddy water has passed beneath the state’s creaky bridges since then.

» JACK WEATHERLY is a reporter at the Mississippi Business Journal. He can be reached at jack.weatherly@msbusiness.com.

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About Jack Weatherly