Me And John Grisham


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One of my favorite brush-with-fame stories over the years has been the time I got invited to John Grisham’s private screening of his first movie, The Firm.

The story goes like this: I was in school during the summer semester at Ole Miss, way back in ’93. Grisham, who has a house in Oxford, was a favorite son, and was riding high after the release of his fourth book, The Client. So the release of an actual movie based on an actual bestseller by a local guy was a Big Deal locally of the type we’d not seen since the Faulkner days (which, lets face it, most of us couldn’t remember anyways).

In fact, it was so exciting that I’d gone to the matinee show during the day on the Wednesday it came out at the theater in the local mall. I went back to the newspaper office afterwards, to discover I had an invitation waiting for me: Would I like to come that night to watch the movie at Grisham’s private screening at the other local theater, The Hoka?

Um, yes.

(I wrote a lot of stories about The Hoka and movies playing there, and the owner figured it would be good publicity to have us cover the event. I was certainly willing to do so.)

And so there I am, at the theater, with John Grisham and various local notables, watching The Firm. Which, to be sure, was kind of cool.

But you know what would be cooler?

So this was during a period when Grisham didn’t do interviews. Like I said, he was at a pretty high point with four huge bestsellers behind him and now a movie, and he decided that interviews just weren’t worth the trouble.

To the best of my knowledge, he only did two interviews during a half-year period.

One, for Parade Magazine, was with himself. He agreed to the article, but got to ask and answer his own questions.

The other —

I approached John that night, and told him I knew he didn’t do interviews, but told him who I was and that I was with the Ole Miss paper, and asked him, if he’d be willing to answer just one question.

He said he’d never met a reporter that could ask just one question, so if I could do it, he would answer it.

So I did.

I can’t tell the story without being asked what the question was, and really, the story demands a question that lives up to that situation. My question wasn’t that epic, but it worked. “When you watch the movie, can you detach from the process of writing the book and enjoy it like any other movie, or are the two too tied together?” Again, not brilliant, but I figured it would require him to talk a bit about the book and the movie and the writing process, etc., so I could cover a lot of ground with one question.

And that’s how I became the only person in the summer of 1993 to interview John Grisham.

The End.

Except …

I hadn’t seen the story in probably 20 years. If I still have a copy, it buried in a box buried in a closet with countless other newspapers. The story of what happened and the story that came from it, for me, both existed only in my head.

Until Lain came across it randomly recently and sent me a picture of the story, which ran exactly 23 years ago today.

It’s interesting to note that the story ran a week after the screening, which I don’t understand, unless it was around the school holiday schedule. (Which might also explain why I didn’t try to submit what seems like a decent exclusive to the AP.)

But every time I’ve told the story, I’ve never been able to share what he said. Here, then, is the printed answer to The One Question.

From Oxford to Oxford


So while almost all of our England/France trip was vacation, a really neat opportunity popped up during the planning that I had to take advantage of — a conference about deep-space CubeSats at the University of Oxford.
 
For those that don’t know (and Facebook was really insistent that instead of CubeSats, I probably meant cubists, which would have been an entirely different thing), CubeSats are small satellites ranging from a little larger than a softball to a couple of lunch boxes put together. There’s a lot of exciting stuff going on with CubeSats in Earth orbit now, but this conference was focused on using them for interplanetary missions. Huge potential, but the trick is getting them there. Conveniently, we’re building a rocket that’s going to be launching 13 deep-space CubeSats the first time it flies. (No planned cubist launches at this time, though.) So the folks at work agreed that it would be worthwhile to go and build some relationships with people in this relatively new field.
 
And, yes, it was professionally very gratifying to help build those bridges, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t also very very cool on a personal level. I mean, I went to college in Oxford, just not that one. The opportunity to give a presentation at a 350-year-old theater in “the other Oxford”? Yeah, that’s kind of awesome.
 
I put on my Oxford shoes, because that’s the sort of nerd I am. (I realized that I left an Oxford comma out of my presentation. #APforLife!) We spent the night in the converted prison of a thousand year old castle. We ate lunch were Tolkien and CS Lewis hung out with their writer friends. I saw where the OED is edited. We saw the lamppost and faun decoration that supposedly inspired Narnia. (Rebecca got to see some cool Alice in Wonderland and Harry Potter stuff while I was NASA-ing.) I saw posters for a talk Buzz Aldrin was giving in the same theater the next week. (He often shows up places after I’m there. I guess he’s comfortable being second.) I bought some Oxford gear to wear the next time I’m in Oxford. I randomly told Rebecca “Hotty Toddy” from time to time.
 
‘Cause, you know, my Oxford may not be that Oxford, and that Oxford is probably a bit more prestigious, maybe. But I wouldn’t have been at that Oxford if it weren’t for my Oxford and folks like Joe Atkins and Robin Street and Samir Husni and Judy Crump. So, yeah, you know what, Hotty Toddy.
 
There was a neat bit of serendipity around the talk, too. Boeing’s Above and Beyond exhibit is at the Greenwich Maritime Museum, and the first time we went into London after we got back from France, we saw a poster for it in Fenchurch Street Station. A poster featuring NASA’s Space Launch System. When we went to Oxford, we were seeing that poster everywhere — the train stations, tube stations, newspapers. It was incredibly, incredibly encouraging to be seeing the rocket randomly and ubiquitously on the other side of the pond. Maybe the word is getting out. But the timing was nice, too. Here I was, over in England, getting ready to go talk about the rocket at a conference in Oxford, and the rocket had come to London to wish me luck.
 

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.

We Have Met The Enemy


From the beginning, they were the enemy.

I firmly believe, that in Alabama, you must be either an Alabama person or an Auburn person. Even if you move in from out of state, even if you have your own team back home, if you live in Alabama, you must have a preference between the two.

I grew up an Alabama person. There was no reason, no connection. My family was Alabama people, and so, so was I. Which, meant, by extension, that I had to be an anti-Auburn person. No reason for that, either, but it didn’t matter. Boo, hiss!

But, then, they gave me reason.

When I was at Ole Miss, we had a coach that was doing fairly well for us, our first new coach in forever, Tommy Tuberville. And we loved him dearly, and put up billboards about him, and gave him a nickname, and just all around thought the world of him.

And Auburn stole him, and he betrayed us to go there, and broke our hearts.

So then I had both completely unfounded traditional reason, and new concrete reason to dislike Auburn, and so I did.

Over the years, having been an Ole Miss student for over half my life, I’ve become less passionate about my identification as an Alabama person, since, really, I’m actually an Ole Miss person, even if I’ve kept my required “Alabama resident preference” for the Tide.

Over the years, as I’ve become friends with Auburn people, who had actual reason to be Auburn people, like, you know, having actually gone there, I’ve become less passionate about my identification as an anti-Auburn person, a transition made easier by the aforementioned Alabama shift and the fact that Ole Miss has now gone through several more coaches and Tuberville, whom I’ve been told is actually a pretty decent human being, is no longer at Auburn.

That said, it was still weird to actually wear orange and blue.

I went down last weekend to the A Day scrimmage game with Rebecca. I wore an orange shirt. We sat in rather good seats in Jordan Hare, and waved orange and blue shakers. We — or at least she — cheered Auburn cheers. I went to Toomer’s Corner and Tiger Rags.

Before the day was over, at dinner in Birmingham, for the first time in my life, I told someone “War Eagle.”

It was weird.

I don’t know that I’m converted yet.

But at least I didn’t burst into flame or anything.

“… We Never Lose A Party”


Photo via Parade magazine.

This is why I love Ole Miss football, this is why I’m proud to be a Rebel, and this is what it means to me to be an Ole Miss fan.

For those that don’t follow such things, this is not exactly the best year ever for Ole Miss football. In fact, it’s what those in the know might call “bad.”

We’ve lost every game we could possibly lose, including some that took work. People are calling for the firing of the athletic director, the coach, the coordinators and the mascot. And, yes, I’m serious about that last one.

And in this midst of all of that, there’s a great piece by Rick Bragg in Parade magazine this past Sunday, which says things like this:

In the hours before dawn and leading up to kickoff, this small parcel of grass will become the scene of an elaborate banquet, with silver winking in the strong sunlight and fresh flowers perfuming the air. A feast will be served on real china, with mimosas poured into real glass flutes—an enormous buffet dinner, not a quick bite grabbed from aluminum foil and plastic everything. Elegant women in sundresses and even black cocktail dresses will gather with men in honest-to-God neckties, even in the unrelenting late-summer heat, because that’s just the way it’s done in these parts. Polo shirts are about as dressed-down as it gets.

It’s called “tailgating,” but really, that’s like referring to a Mardi Gras ball as a backyard weenie roast. …

Ole Miss won a share of the national title in 1959, 1960, and 1962, but the tailgating tradition was less elaborate in its beginnings, just a card table and a cooler for most people. “But it just kind of grew,” he says.

Comer may want the Rebels to prevail, but off the field, “we love to say to people walking by, ‘Come on over and have a drink, have something to eat.’ ” …

But at Ole Miss, in the football-obsessed South, the tailgating celebration isn’t just about the game; it’s about tradition, in the grandest sense. …

For many of those kids, the words to the Ole Miss cheer are the first words they learn, after “Mommy” and “Daddy.” It is inescapable in the Grove. People walk by, tip a glass, and belt it out: …

At some schools, the whole mood of fall Saturdays swings on the game’s outcome, and it is that way to some extent in the Grove.

“Daddy keeps a bottle of champagne in the cooler for when we win the Alabama game,” says Karen. “We haven’t opened it in a while,” her father admits.

Like the other faithful, he waits for a return to the days when every Saturday was a wild celebration. But in a way, he says, every Saturday at the Grove is a celebration, if not of football, then of family.

Tailgating has become a kind of antidote for when the Rebels lose. “I guess you’ve heard it said,” says Nannette, “that at Ole Miss we might lose the game, but we never lose the party.”

Sure, we’re not the best team in the country, and we haven’t been for more than a decade before I was born.

But for the Rebel faithful, that have been through many, many lean years during their life, it doesn’t matter.

Win or lose, we’re Ole Miss.

And proud of it.

Re-Pressed Memories


OK, this is another one of those posts that my sporadic blogging has caused me to be posting way too late, but I didn’t want to not.

Earlier this summer, I got to do a bit of time-traveling.

You see, this year, Ole Miss’ student newspaper, The Daily Mississippian, turned 100, and a grand reunion was held at the university’s journalism school building.

Six years ago, we’d had a mini-reunion of several of the people I worked with, a sort of surprise birthday party I threw myself when I turned 30 (I knew it was my birthday party, most of the rest of the group didn’t). We’ve talked ever since about how we should do it again, and this time possibly plan far enough ahead to involve some of the more far-flung staff members who weren’t able to make it that time. When we found out about the 100th anniversary event, it seemed like the perfect opportunity.

And, really, it was.

I saw friends that I hadn’t seen in 15 years, and, even with those I see more often, it was really great seeing everybody together.

The DM staff my first two years there was a very close-knit group, and I think we all imagined we would be friends forever. Over the years, we’ve drifted apart some from time to time, but it’s very neat seeing how, almost two decades later, we always tend to drift back together. And, as I’ve alluded to here, it’s been a rough summer for me, and it meant a huge deal for me to be surrounded by old friends who still love me. During my time at Ole Miss, far more than my dorm room, the journalism building, and the friends I shared it with, were home, and it was nice getting to be home that way again for a couple of days this summer.

Nik Dirga, who, being in New Zealand, wasn’t able to make the reunion, wrote a cool piece about the anniversary anyway, and I have to brag that The DM was named the 14th best student newspaper in the nation recently.

Bear With Me


Rebel Black Bear

I wrote once before, briefly, about the new Ole Miss mascot Rebel Black Bear, but I’ve been meaning to revisit it since.

First, I feel a certain amount of obligation to support the decision. I wrote a while back, and have ranted at length on various occasions about how much it bothers me that Ole Miss has been gradually losing any unique identity. For the first time in over a decade, since the ill-fated “M Flag,” something that was taken away has been replaced. The bear isn’t Colonel Reb, but at least we have something that’s “ours” that we can put on shirts.

Second, my generation, and those before me, aren’t going to embrace the Black Bear, at least not any time soon. I grew up with Colonel Reb. I wore shirts with him on it. He was very Ole Miss to me. He was our mascot, and we love him. No matter how good an idea they come up with, it’s not going to have the history and established affection of Colonel Reb. So I have to acknowledge to myself that I couldn’t have that be an expectation for the mascot selection.

Third, yes, I cast my vote, and, yes, I voted for the Black Bear. As I said, I didn’t love it, but I didn’t love any of the options. So I asked Heather what she thought her boys would like. Because, like I said, the new mascot isn’t for my generation, or the ones before me. It’s for the students yet to come. There are kids today in first or second grade in Mississippi that have never seen an Ole Miss mascot on the field. For them, the Black Bear will be their Ole Miss mascot, the same way Colonel Reb was mine. When they’re at Ole Miss, they’re going to love the Black Bear the same way I loved Colonel Reb. So the question I asked in casting my vote was, which choice is most likely to inspire those feelings in kids that are children now, and will grow up with whatever we vote on.

There’s some irony to the Black Bear. In tying it to Ole Miss, the mascot committee cited two bears with Mississippi connections, the one in William Faulkner’s “The Bear,” and the Teddy Bear, which has its origins in Onward, Mississippi. Scratch the surface, and not only are these both two stories of bears in Mississippi, they’re two stories of bears that got slaughtered brutally.

Perhaps it’s a decent choice for an Ole Miss mascot after all.