On TibbehahVoted Best Local Writer in this year's Best of Oxford contest, author Ace Atkins shares how he constructed fictional Tibbehah County - a place that's more familiar than you might realize.
BY ACE ATKINS
I moved to Oxford nearly 20 years ago, a recent escapee of a big-city newsroom and only two books into my career, seeking some inspiration, new direction and a new Southern home.
I had just turned 30 and was a bit restless, thrilled to be in the town of two of my living heroes, Larry Brown and Barry Hannah. Not to mention the late Mr. Faulkner, whose presence would visit me through my friendship with Dean Faulkner Wells, his niece. I was a long student of noir and crime and sought new and inventive ways of combining dark stories with Southern lit.
All three of those men had blended noir with a distinct Southern edge. It was grit lit, noir, mystery. From Faulkner’s “Sanctuary” to Brown’s “Father and Son” and Hannah’s “Yonder Stands Your Orphan,” I recognized Oxford wasn’t a genteel Southern town but one with a real heart of darkness.
It didn’t take long before I started to feel the influence of these masters, turning to write four true crime novels based heavily on fact, three of them set deep down South. I wrote about a sweltering 1950s Florida in “White Shadow,” the most crime-ridden city in 1950s Alabama and America in “Wicked City,” and “Infamous” about the exploits of Memphis’ own “Machine Gun” Kelly and his run from justice in 1933. But what had evaded me, and my first love, was to write about the deepest of the deep South in one continuing story with a continuing cast of characters.
I was raised on the series novel—from John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee to Robert B. Parker’s Spenser (a Boston series I now write for the estate as they haven’t figured out I’m an Alabama native)—and sought ways to find a character and a setting that represented the modern Mid-South, Mississippi and the Deep South in general. I have no doubt the crime novel is the very place to explore a region, local culture, its people and society. Sociology through a murder story. A history lesson in a meth dealer.
It’s not something I could do straight away. I wasn’t prepped and ready until I’d been in Oxford for nearly 10 years. My longtime editor at G.P. Putnam’s Sons encouraged me to move away from the past and look to the present. At the time, my attention had turned to the landscape of series television. I saw so much potential in writing about a town, perhaps “a postage stamp” of a county, as on HBO’s Deadwood. I also felt like I had a lot of unfinished business writing about the world of Wicked City, an Alabama town so lawless in the 1950s, it took the National Guard to restore order.
The inspiration came together quick. I won’t tell you how quick, but something so personal comes from a long gestation and a brief pen to paper with a little whiskey. I scribbled out my families. The Colsons, with Quinn and sister Caddy as a nod to the master. But these two were solely my own, with Quinn taking shape from my love of 1970s drive-in heroes like Billy Jack and Buford Pusser from Walking Tall. Quinn is an Army vet, a seasoned Ranger who soon becomes sheriff. Caddy wasn’t altogether different from Faulkner’s, only walking straight out of gritty strip clubs in South Memphis to discover a serious and real faith. The other families—the Varners, the Bundrens—would be new and unique folks, descended from people in nearby Yoknapatawpha.
I found the supporting voices at the Sonic, the nearby farm supply, the fishing aisle at Walmart.
The setting and the map of the county was inspired by worlds close to my farm in south Lafayette County, places in Yalobusha, Calhoun, and Choctaw. There was so much that I saw in these counties that reminded me of the Old West. I called the county Tibbehah, taken from the Indian chief in Faulkner’s short story “Red Leaves.” The original name was “Issatibbehah,” but my New York editor asked me to please “give us a name we can actually pronounce.”
The counties that supplied the inspiration all had a key gathering spot for breakfast. In Calhoun City, it was the now-defunct Fillin’ Station Diner, and more recently, it’s the BTC in Water Valley. A place for the young and old to talk over a plate of ham biscuits and hot coffee about the weather, politics and how the world is going to hell. I also borrowed Pap’s Place in Choctaw County as a regular stop for my cast. In my wildest, I couldn’t make up a place like Pap’s that serves as equal-part shrine to both Elvis Presley and Jesus Christ.
The glorious advertisements for Pap’s offer a restaurant where “catfish is king and Jesus Christ is Lord.”
And the fried catfish is outstanding.
Tibbehah’s seat is in Jericho, Mississippi. I wanted the town to feel like every other town I knew in north Mississippi. I always imagine a place very much like Calhoun City, with its wonderful rusted water tower, oak-shaded town square with a center gazebo, Mexican restaurant, Western wear shop, and an old nonfunctioning movie theater. The movie theater has, among its many incarnations, been a Pentecostal church. My friend, actor Johnny McPhail, a Calhoun County native, told me about a preacher who promised to raise a wealthy benefactor from the dead. According to McPhail, many of the true believers are still waiting.
I’d be remiss not to talk about the huge influence of Water Valley and Yalobusha County on these books. I wrote the first novel in the series, “The Ranger,” in an office over the BTC Grocery. I came very accustomed to the rhythms of shopping at the Piggly Wiggly, having a late cup of coffee at Turnage’s soda fountain, and visiting the tiny barber shop that is now Yalo Studio. The original barber served as the model for “Mr. Jim” in my Tibbehah novels, a man who’d been in General’s Patton’s Third Army during World War II. The real version once proudly showed me the prayer card personally handed to him by Patton, beseeching God to stop a snowstorm.
I’d like to promise all of Tibbehah’s landmarks are shopworn and time-tested. But you can’t have an authentic north Mississippi town, or county, without its cultural center being at a Sonic Drive-in. I’ve gotten a solid bit of story and character while waiting for my hamburger, and opening ears and listening to the rhythms of Water Valley, Calhoun City, or even Oxford.
I hope Tibbehah is true to form, an authentic example of everything that makes north Mississippi unique. The good, the bad, and the ugly. Even for a writer who used to cover corruption and violent crime in Florida, this world is as harsh as it is beautiful. From the Saturday meet-ups between prisoners and family in Water Valley, to the live bait store at the old Lawler’s Grocery in Yalobusha County, this world we have around Oxford continues to fascinate, frustrate, and inspire.
ACE ATKINS is a New York Times Bestselling author of twenty-one novels, including “The Fallen” and “Robert B. Parker’s Little White Lies,” both out from G.P. Putnam’s Sons in 2017.