Photo by Jay E. Nolan
In a relatively short time, Ace Atkins has settled into the comfortable lifestyle of a full-time writer. He makes his home on a century-old farm outside Oxford, Mississippi, which he shares with his faithful mutts – Elvis and Polk Salad Annie. Atkins teaches an Advanced Reporting class at the University of Mississippi. He spends a good part of his time exploring Memphis, the Delta, the north Mississippi hills, and New Orleans – all sources of his writing inspiration.
An Alabama native, Ace Atkins is a former crime-writer for The Tampa Tribune, where he earned a Pulitzer Prize nomination and Livingston Award nomination for his “Tampa Confidential," a seven-part series about an unsolved murder of a Tampa socialite in 1956.
Still in his early 30’s, Ace Atkins has gained national praise for his first three novels, with a fourth novel, Dirty South, coming out in spring 2004. He also contributed to a local anthology that just came out – They Write Among Us: New Stories and Essays from the Best of Oxford Writers.
When I spoke to Ace over the telephone, I was struck at once by his youthful exuberance and the immediacy/honesty of his answers. Perhaps it comes from his training in communications or his investigative reporting background. But regardless, it was great fun and an insightful conversation.
Ace, the other day I was listening in on a chatroom and your name came up. One of the women posted a message that said she had seen your photo and wouldn’t it be nice if we could get that ‘hunky’ Ace Atkins in the chatroom to talk to? I don’t interview very many writers who are also ‘sex symbols’ like yourself. And I hear comments like the last one from a lot of women about you. What do you say about that?
I have never heard that before, but I appreciate it. I guess it’s always good to take a shower and shave before you leave the house.
Can you give me a brief rundown of what you are working on right now?
Number four is a book that will be coming out March of 2004 and it’s coming out from Harper Collins/William Morrow, called Dirty South. That is my current project that is getting out there. The promotion on it actually, that I was talking about to some people about this morning, is just getting going. Hopefully it will be picking up steam by the time it is released early next year.
Now, your previous novels were with whom?
The first two novels were published with St. Martin’s. My last two are published by HarperCollins.
What intrigues me is that you are from Alabama, and were on the Auburn football team, and lived down in Florida for a time. Why move to Mississippi?
I’ve always liked Mississippi. The subject matter of my books is books about Mississippi and Louisiana…I had always been intrigued with part of the South because all my books tend to involve music. Of course, you have the great music scene in New Orleans and Mississippi, so I used to come back here a lot to do research when I was working as a newspaper reporter, and was also working on my novels. I would inevitably stop at Oxford as kind of a homebase for any of the research or travels I was making. I had a friend here in town, teaching at the journalism department, so that when I retired from the newspaper reporter job, (he) said, “Why don’t you move up here and we’ll get you teaching some classes?” And so, I ended up coming over here so I could teach at the university.
This is the delta country. So what has the flavor of the delta country lent to your books?
Of course, we are not in the Delta here. But, I do a lot of travel in the Delta. My books are usually set in the Delta. It’s so funny, living in Mississippi that the Delta is like another country. The Delta is just a whole other place. Where I am living now—in the north Mississippi hill country—is just a whole different kind of terrain and whole different kind of culture. But, of course, the Delta is the heart of the blues, wonderful food, barbecue, gorgeous scenery with the river, and with the agriculture and the cotton and the cypress swamps. It’s just a very rich place to write about.
Again, you’re from Alabama. It’s sort of hard to imagine someone from over there to become so big a blue’s aficionado and become so expert at it.
It’s much easier for someone who comes from Alabama to write about Mississippi or Memphis than someone from New York. Culturally, it’s not that much removed from the state. And, of course, I used to come over here all the time. We have an Alabama blues scene too.
Well, Muscle Shoals…
Oh, sure, with the rhythm and blues, and the soul and rock-and-roll connections in Muscle Shoals. And, of course, we had a lot of Memphis touring bands coming through Auburn where I went to school, and there were blues acts. But, I mean, I had been into blues pretty much my whole life, since I was a kid. I was always fascinated with stories about the blues and with the liner notes you would read on Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson. Those stories were sometimes as fascinating as the novels that I was reading—the lives that they led and interesting background of Clarksdale or a Tutwiler, Mississippi and down on Beale Street, back when Beale Street was something interesting and not what it has become today.
You know, those were places I wanted to write about…places I wanted to visit.
The first book you wrote was the Johnson book.
It is a book about Robert Johnson, and you cannot create or fictionalize a better or more mythic character in music than Robert Johnson.
Isn’t he the one who supposedly made a deal with the devil, saying if Satan would make him a better musician, he would give his soul to him in return?
Right. You can’t make that type of thing up. There was really no reason to fictionalize him. I wanted Robert Johnson to come in and exist kind of as a ghost in the story. And I wanted people who read my books to get a piece of history. So that if you read Crossroad Blues, there’s a thriller story on the outside, but I think that when you get away from it, you have a pretty good understanding about Robert Johnson.
So, it’s about 60/40?
There’s a good split. I don’t know exactly sure how it shakes out, but there’s a lot of truth in my fiction. I come from a background of a journalist, so that if I write about a restaurant, if I’m going to write about a location, if I am going to write about a city, or a musician or music, I’m going to see that I get it right.
Your book project right now…tell me about it.
The book is completely set in New Orleans and it involves con artists and it involves the underworld of the music industry that exists today. All my previous books have dealt with the past and have dealt with the ghosts of history. I wanted to write something wholly modern. This book is dealing a lot with the modern music industry in New Orleans.
Are you basing your characters on compilations or true people?
It’s really about the rap music industry. It’s the biggest moneymaker in the nation right now. Rap music is at the top of the charts everywhere. And the current trend in rap music is Southern rap music. It’s very interesting to me that the most popular music in the country right now once again has its roots in the South. The current style of rap that is being performed by everybody had its roots in New Orleans. And I find that really intriguing considering the other great music that has come out of the South: jazz and blues and soul. Now, even rap music is finding its greatest kick coming out of the South once again. These are all very Southern stories and dealing with the subculture of the South.
Is it a murder mystery?
No. You know, I don’t really write murder mysteries. I always hate when I get that tag. To me, a murder mystery is when someone’s dead and there’s a set of clues and you have an investigator hunting around…and that’s not really what my books are. I would say that my books are really crime novels. It is a crime novel and it is dealing with underworld figures and a major con artist scheme, much in the same tradition as The Sting. Only, it’s not a murder mystery.
I know your books are a little rough or edgy sometimes.
I think my books are just real. If you read a lot, I would say my books are pretty much PG. I really don’t use that much bad language. The only thing I set out to do is make sure that my characters talk the way they do in real life. You want your characters to sound the way they really talk. And you can’t write crime novels with somebody saying, “Hey, gee whiz, guys, let’s go out and raise some heck!” I mean, that doesn’t really work out that way. I covered the criminal justice system for several years with The Tampa Tribune. I’ve gone to jails. I’ve gone to the courthouses. I’ve gone to the murder scenes. I’ve interviewed criminals and I’ve interviewed killers and con artists. I know how they talk. And for me to soften that is inaccurate and not true-to-life. And you want the books to as true-to-life as possible. Do I have a foul mouth in real life or whatever? No. I mean, if some characters I write about…that's the way that character is. It’s just like life, you know?
Now, your degree was in what?
I have a degree in mass communications. I was more interested at the time in writing for movies. And I got into journalism…right when I got out of school. It just ended up being the career I fell into and was very fortunate to have that background, because I really don’t think I would have ever become a published writer if I had not worked as a professional journalist for several years. That was an immense training ground to become a novelist.
That leads to my next question. You were in communications, then journalism, then a novelist. How did one thing lead to the other and gel, so that you wound up writing full-time?
Oh, I’ve been writing fiction since I’ve been in high school. I would be writing fiction now, even if I weren’t paid for it. I just…it’s just something I enjoy immensely. I hate when I talk to writers that tell me, “I hate sitting down and being at the computer, because it’s just a pain for me. It takes all the energy I have just to write. But, I can’t wait to have a published book and have my picture on the back and go out on a book tour.”
To me that’s a bunch of crap. You know, going out on a book tour and getting your picture on a book—who cares? I mean, for me, the act of writing…that’s the fun part of it. If you don’t enjoy writing and you only want to get accolades, or whatever the trappings of being an author, you know? That’s fine…but you should enjoy the act of writing. I always do. You know, even when I was always working all the time as a newspaper reporter, I spent my weekends drinking coffee and working on my books. I didn’t know if they were going to get published or where they were going to go. It was just something that I loved to do. I had been a professional writer for four or five years (at the newspaper) and so-- that was certainly a big help.
How did you break into the book thing first?
The worst thing you can have, I think, is a bad agent. I had a worthless agent for about a year. And a worthless agent can do you more bad than good.
I had an editor at St. Martins who had read my first novel, which never has been published. I don’t think it will ever be published, but it was a good writing experience. He had written me a letter telling me how much he had enjoyed it, but he was not in a position to buy it right now. But, he said he wanted to stay in touch with me.
So, I finished my second novel and sent him a letter, expecting a long delay in hearing back from him. I had not even finished the book. I was still without an ending to the book, but I expected that it would take so long to hear back from him that the ending would be written by that time. But, much to my surprise, I got a phone call in the middle of the newsroom, saying, “Is this what your book about? Is it about Robert Johnson?” I said, “Yes, it is about Robert Johnson.”
He said, “Can you have it on my desk in two weeks?” I said, “Sure.” In two weeks I finished up the ending of it and I sent it to New York. He called me two days later and said, “I want to buy your book.”
Do you have something you would like to share about your work?
Let me say this: I completely believe in the artwork of the crime novel. I think some of the best social commentary and true-to-life writing is not being done necessarily by the literary community. I am sick of reading coming-of-age stories; books about college professors who are sleeping with their students. Many of them are the same story over and over again.
Writers like James Lee Burke; guys like Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos… those guys are writing what I think is some of the best fiction that is being written today, and they are writing in the crime novel genre. Unfortunately, you get really kind of bastardized anytime you take on a crime novel, because you get labeled as a mystery author or murder mystery writer.
You know, I don’t read murder mysteries. I don’t like murder mysteries. I have never read them. I worked as a crime reporter. I know that murder mysteries are not accurate portrayals of violence in America. So, within a book, when you are writing a crime novel there is a lot you can say. The overall theme, when you look at my four book in this series—which my fourth novel will be the completion of this series I am working on right now…this Mississippi/Louisiana series that I am doing now, is about the rich cultural diversity of the South. It shows the South’s cultural heritage is white and it’s black and it’s shared experience, and that’s really the theme throughout the series. It’s about a character whose story weaves throughout these four books and his adopted family that happens to be black. Their shared experience as Southerners is a much stronger bond than skin color. That’s the theme that stretches across from the first book to the last book to the conclusion.
What’s your next project?
It’s top secret!
I won’t ask again.
I will say it’s a radical departure from what I’m writing now.
May I tell our readers that at least?
It is…it is a radical departure.
So, I can tell them that you are ‘radically departing’?
It’s a radical departure from what I’m writing now. It is a book that involves a tremendous amount of nonfiction writing. It is fiction, but there’s a lot based on true events.
© 2003, Robert L. Hall, All Rights Reserved