Author Richard Grant shares his experiences, signs books at Holmes
Author Richard Grant, who wrote "Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta," discussed his New York Times Bestseller during a presentation at the Holmes Community College Ridgeland Campus on April 10. A reception and book signing followed his lecture.
"I came to Pluto to listen and learn," Grant said. "I'd like to start out by addressing the question I am often asked: How does a guy from London, England end up in Mississippi? I usually say something like well I guess I must have taken a wrong turn somewhere.
"The first time I heard the word Mississippi was in a high school English class in London in the winter of probably 1979. Suddenly we had this new assignment: to read William Faulkner. We were pretty impressed by Faulkner, with his language and his skill in invoking this alien world to us that seemed kind of deep and dark and spooky.
"My first impression [of Mississippi] was Faulkner followed soon after by the blues. Me and my friends were music heads; we were into hip-hop, funk and soul music and then we started tracing that back through R&B and found our way back to the blues; in particular that raw, 1930s blues. We didn't really understand what they were singing about, but we liked the raw power of that music. Delta blues plus Faulkner creates a pretty powerful evocation of a place. I certainly never imagined I'd end up living here."
Grant is truly a citizen of the world: he was born in Malaysia, lived in Kuwait as a young child, then moved to London, where he spent his pre-teen through college years. Upon graduation from University College London with a degree in history, he worked odds and ends jobs before relocating to America in the early 1990s. He first moved to Tuscon, Arizona, where he met his wife Mariah while working on stories as a freelance journalist.
"One day, it was about 1994, I was driving through Tuscon listening to the radio when this song came on by Junior Kimbrough from Chulahoma, Mississippi. It was this hill country blues that I'd never heard before; this kind of hypnotic, one-chord music. I really liked it, and went out and bought the album. I found out that two white college kids in Oxford, Mississippi, had managed to get a million dollars in debt recording hill country artists for their record label Fat Possum Records. I thought to myself, I could get a magazine story out of that!"
Grant convinced a British magazine to send him to Oxford to write his story. He made friends on that visit, including musicians such as Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside, and he continued coming back to Oxford about twice a year to enjoy the music, food, storytelling and overall ambience.
"Fast forward to when I was living in New York City, where I was after Tuscon before I moved to Mississippi," Grant said. "As a freelance journalist the kind of overriding theme of my life has been lack of funds; it's not a high-paid profession. You have a lot of freedom, you get to travel and learn all about the world…but the pay, it has always been a struggle. In 2011, I made a documentary for BBC and for the first time in my life, I had some money. I said to my girlfriend, let's move to New York City, just to do it. We have friends there and it's kind of the capitol of the world. I had another documentary in the works, I had a commission from the New Yorker magazine and I had another book idea, so we bought a tiny little apartment and moved to the city.
"As soon as we did, however, everything went to hell. The New Yorker rejected the article, my publisher rejected the book idea and the documentary fell through. For the first time ever, in a long time, I could not get any work. Not good, since it costs $25 an hour to live in New York, even when you're asleep. Mariah was having trouble landing a job as well. The city just chewed us up and spit us out."
Grant's stream of bad luck turned around, however, when he received an invitation to the Mississippi Book Festival in Oxford. It was there that his friend Martha invited him to come to a picnic at her family farm in Pluto.
"I went down there on a perfect April day and realized that I felt relaxed and happy for the first time in months. She drove me down to this beautiful old farmhouse surrounded by fruit trees, ponds, vegetable gardens and a view of the Yazoo River. She said it's for sale and you can have it for $130,000. I told her you can barely park in New York for that!
"I thought, wow maybe this is what our life needs, maybe we should buy this old house; I always kind of liked Mississippi!"
It didn't take nearly the convincing Grant thought it would to get Mariah to Pluto. She too fell in love with the house and they decided to take the plunge and move.
"Then began the incredible culture shock that produced the book," Grant said.
He proceeded to share some stories from his first year and a half in the Mississippi Delta; the very stories that he elaborates on in "Dispatches from Pluto," plus some other humorous moments.
"One of my strongest memories is going to the grocery store and opening up a newspaper…there on the cover of the paper was a woman in pink camouflage holding up the deer she shot by its antlers… where I come from, women don't kill deer with pink bows for breast cancer awareness, it's just not something British women do. I remember staring at this and thinking, 'Where have we landed?'"
Grant also detailed a time when he heard on the radio that motorists should not stop for police because bandits in the Delta were impersonating police in order to rob motorists.
"They never rescinded this warning, never made it clear that it was safe to stop for police. So about a month later, I was driving by and what looked to be a normal police officer standing outside his car was trying to stop me, but I just swerved around him, not knowing if I should stop."
Today, Grant and his wife live in Jackson with their daughter Isobel. He is working on another book about Mississippi, this time about Natchez, while his wife works as a librarian at Millsaps College.
The presentation, which was sponsored by the Mississippi Humanities Council, was the culmination of the "Exploring the Mississippi Delta" series that the Holmes Ridgeland Campus English Department hosted this spring. The series sought to celebrate the Delta's rich heritage as English Composition II classes read and discussed "Dispatches from Pluto."
To learn more about Grant, visit http://www.richardgrant.us/. He can be reached directly at email@example.com.