When Mississippi-based author Jamie Kornegay was working on his debut novel, Soil, he did what a lot of working novelists do: He wrote when he could. Aside from running a bookstore, Greenwood’s Turnrow Book Co., and having three children, there wasn’t a lot of time to write. Mainly he’d get up and work before 8 a.m.
But Kornegay also took weeklong writing trips to a friend’s isolated cabin outside Black Mountain. He was inspired but lonely; he missed his family. During one retreat in early 2010, when news of the devastating Haiti earthquake reached him, he found he couldn’t take it. He drove into Asheville to catch a movie. The Road, based on Cormac McCarthy’s cheerless, apocalyptic novel, was playing. “The earthquake was so soul-crushing, and the movie was so depressing,” he says. “That was the frame of mind a lot of this was written in.”
Yet Kornegay’s love of darkly philosophical literature goes back further, to the seventh grade, when he first read Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. He reread it in college and understood it better, and then revisited it recently and realized its humor. Like his relationship with Dostoevsky’s work, Kornegay’s ability has grown, too. Today, at 40, he finally feels he’s written a book worth publishing. He’ll present Soil at Malaprop’s on Sunday, March 22.
“Being a bookseller, you kind of see how many misses there are — even really good books, you don’t hear from the writer again,” Kornegay says. “Once I got in, I wanted to stay there.” So he wrote for years but didn’t publish, biding his time until he had a worthy tale to tell. At his work, at Square Books in the literary town of Oxford and then at Turnrow, he’d made contacts aplenty in the publishing industry. He didn’t want to lean on these connections just to release a flash-in-the-pan novel, though.
“I wanted it to be something that was worth expending that goodwill and capital on,” he says. Soil, a Southern Gothic tragedy set in the Mississippi hill country, is the result. It follows organic farmer Jay Mize’s descent into paranoid delusion, which wrecks his family and brings him into conflict with a host of locals — including a womanizing deputy with a muscle car. The ease with which the narrative unfolds, the depth of even the secondary characters and the humor that punctuates the often harrowing tale indicate a practiced, mature writer.
“I wanted to show a more true vision of the South, how people really are here,” Kornegay says. Much of what’s commonly known about Mississippi comes from its often unpleasant history or its elected officials’ political rhetoric, he says. Neither speaks to how everyday Mississippians think, talk and behave.
The landscape, too, is prominent in Kornegay’s book. The river is either just out of sight, lurking beyond Jay’s trees or flooding across his land, destroying his experimental farm. “Nature doesn’t care how good your intentions are,” Kornegay says. “It’s gonna do what it wants. In fact, we are sort of an affront to nature.”
Though Kornegay’s organic farmer character is frequently at odds with traditional farmers, the author says there’s little head-butting in Mississippi. In fact, the local environment makes it hard to even try modern sustainable methods: it’s buggy and wet, things are too prone to rot. Kornegay doesn’t see a hard binary between organic methods and traditional farming, either — large-scale farmers love the land, too, he’s learned. He’s gotten to know some through his writing. He’s even tried organic farming in his yard. It wasn’t easy
“It takes a lot of guts to strike out on your own,” the author says. “Often it ends up as it did with Jay — you bottom out.” Yet Kornegay’s done with his novel what Jay didn’t in his farming: He’s been patient and he’s put in the work. And, with this debut, he’s succeeded.
WHO: Jamie Kornegay
WHERE: Malaprop’s, malaprops.com
WHEN: Sunday, March 22, 3 p.m.