Interviewing The Man Who Taught Me To Interview

Joe Atkins at his Lafayette County, Mississippi home.

Joe Atkins at his Lafayette County, Mississippi home. Photo by Lauren Wood, Mud & Magnolias

Twenty years later, there aren’t a whole lot of my former professors I still keep up with. And there’s a case to be made that Joe Atkins​ might have been an unlikely candidate to be one of the few, since I failed one or two of his classes, depending on how you count.

But Joe, as much as anyone, is the person who taught me to be a reporter. Not just the technical aspects of how to be a reporter, but what it means to be one. He was tough but fair, and played a huge role in the foundation of the arc my career would follow.

So it was very interesting to get to write an article about Joe for the most recent issue of Mud & Magnolias about his first published novel, Casey’s Last Chance.

Most of my stories for Mud & Magnolias​ are assigned to me, but this is one I asked to be allowed to write. I thought it would be an interesting subject, which is was, and I wanted to be able to help promote his book, which you should read. What surprised me, however, was how interesting the interview prep was. I’ve known the man for over 20 years now, but I’d never actually researched him before. He’s even more fascinating than I realized.

The experience of the interview itself was also interesting. I was a pretty decent reporter back in my day, and even if I’m not in the newspaper business anymore, I do get opportunities to keep those skills from becoming too rusty. It’s been a long time since I’ve been nervous about conducting an interview. But I’ve also never before interviewed the person who taught me to interview someone. Going into it, I almost expected to be corrected on my technique. In reality, we had a really great conversation about the differences between journalism and fiction, the creative process, the future of the newspaper industry, and a lot more. The hardest part of the process was how much I had to leave out of the article.

Ole Miss historically has a great journalism department and produces great student journalists (I read Tuesday that The Daily Mississippian​ just won another regional best daily student paper award), and professors like Joe Atkins are a bit part of why. I was blessed to be one of his students 20 years ago, and am honored to call him a friend today.

And, in conclusion, buy his book.

Mud And Magnolias

20121209-154444.jpgWay back when, before I disappeared from the blog, I wrote a post about doing some reporting. It was still early on, so I didn’t mention yet what I was writing about or who I was writing for. Particularly since who I was writing for only sort of existed at that point.

Back in May, I was passing through Mississippi, and had lunch with my good friend Shannon Johnson, who asked me if I’d be interested in doing some freelance writing. The Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, for which she works, was going to be launching a new magazine, and they needed some contributors.

When I said I’d be interested, I had no idea just how much fun it was going to be.

During the time I’ve been offline, the magazine has gone from not-yet-published to having three issues out, so I can discuss it a bit more freely now.

Mud & Magnolias is a lifestyle magazine covering northeast Mississippi, and, in my completely unbiased view, is great reading.

For the first issue, I wrote the article I talked about in my early blog post, a feature about the rebuilding of Smithville, Miss., which was devastated last year during the April tornadoes. It was the first real journalistic writing I’d done in a decade, and putting that hat back on was quite agreeable. And, then, actually seeing the final product — this old newspaper hand has to admit that the magazine folks made my words look darned good. The M&M staff does an incredible job each month putting together a beautiful package.

My second feature, for the next issue, was about Tishomingo State Park. Research for that article involved doing a good bit of hiking, which isn’t a bad thing to get paid for at all, really.

My third story, for the current issue, is about a Christmas light display in Cotton Plant, Mississippi. You should check out both the magazine and the display.

I’m currently working on my fourth article. To be honest, it’s a bit more difficult this time due to the confluence of having a hard time getting responses from the subject and my own increased business, but, even so, I have no desire to stop. I’m incredibly flattered to be both a charter and regular contributor to the magazine, and I want to keep my run going as long as I can.

And to think I believed, after 10 years away, that my Mississippi journalism days were behind me.