Jamie Kornegay is both an independent bookseller and a debut novelist (needless to say, my new hero). His novel, Soil, has earned a ton of praise since its release last month. The story is about a foiled young farmer, who discovers a body on his property when he is checking out flood damage. His discovery of the body sends him on a paranoid spiral, both comic and tragic. Jamie will be reading at our May 4th Noir At The Bar, which gets going at 7 PM at Opal Divine’s on South Congress. He was kind enough to answer some questions about his book, his setting and how being a bookseller helped him.
MysteryPeople: What drew you to the idea of farming and the earth as a major element in the story?
Jamie Kornegay: I’ve lived most of my life in a rural setting, so the land, for me, has always held intrinsic drama. It lives and changes. It’s your friend and your enemy. So the landscape was first in my mind. Then I conceived a story about a man who finds a dead body on his land, and, since I live in a heavily agricultural region of Mississippi, I made him a farmer. In order to know just a little of what I would be writing about, I planted a garden in my backyard. This was in the late 2000s, when organic farming was becoming a thing, thanks largely to people like Michael Pollan and Alice Waters, who came to my bookstore in 2009 and really got me fired up about growing a kitchen garden. And then I became obsessed, making compost and growing uncommon vegetables and reading about biointensive methods. The first chapter of Soil is the most autobiographical, where Jay develops his ideas about a progressive agriculture. And then he and I part ways, and he goes off the deep end.
MP: Jay is a character that you can easily laugh at and look down at, but you have us hold out hope and root for him. How did you approach him as a character?
JK: My initial image was a man not unlike Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov, someone compelled to cover up a crime. In Jay’s case, he didn’t actually commit the crime, so I had to regress and uncover what kind of man would jeopardize everything he has to absolve himself of this crime, or at least the appearance of a crime. Turns out he was a man who had lost everything. And I studied this long and hard, trying to imagine what I would do if I was against the ropes like this so completely. Even given his reasoning, I would have called the police and reported the body. But that’s no fun, so I said, let’s see what would happen if he doesn’t call the police but attempts to solve this himself. It’s a story about self-sufficiency, so it made sense to me that he would do this. If a reader can’t see him or herself making that leap, then they must consider that a man bound up in nature like Jay will often take the more primal course.
MP: Obsession is a character many of the characters share. What drew you to that as a key element?
JK: It’s in tune with motivation, trying to understand who these people are. Any interesting person has a passion, a prevailing interest in something. What’s interesting to me about these characters is how they keep these obsessions to themselves, like secrets.
Little vices. Jay has many, among them marijuana, which only exacerbates his paranoia. For his wife, Sandy, it’s eating. For the deputy, Danny Shoals, it’s sex. These obsessions are their crutch, their way to escape the world and their troubles.
MP: This being your first book, did you draw from any influences?
JK: Certainly there are many influences. For this novel in particular, the primary influences were Dostoevsky and Patricia Highsmith for the dread and psychological intrigue. For the humor, it was Charles Portis and Barry Hannah, my writing teacher in college. For the intricacy of structure, the influences are as diverse as Faulkner and Tarantino. Those are the conscious influences, but there’s no telling what other writers and filmmakers are echoed in this book.
MP: How did working as a book seller influence your writing?
JK: All day I get to talk to readers about the books they love. So I was conscious of the reader as I wrote this — whether it be my wife, a bookstore employee, the loyal little old lady customer who I knew would buy my book, even if I warned her against it. I didn’t let this idea of them limit what I wrote, only to make me get to the point of the story and not belabor it with internal pontification and reams of exposition and long, digressive, paranoid rants. It was fun to try and balance the needs of the reader with honest artistic expression.
MP: Mississippi is like Texas, L.A., and New York City, in that each author has a different take on it. Describe your literary Mississippi.
JK: I think, also, that a writer’s take on a place will change with each story. You characterize Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha by taking into account his dozen-plus novels set there. Likewise, I’d hope that any stories I write set in Mississippi will reflect some different aspect of the place. But as for Soil, I see this version of Mississippi the way an outsider might experience it, without the strong sense of community that is so prevalent here. My version is almost a man against nature scenario, where Mississippi is a writhing jungle bent on destroying a man. It’s a place of easy rolling hills, verdant fields, and stoic rivers, but also tangled vines, dust-choked backroads, and swampy bottomland. A man is never really alone in this place, but he feels a thousand miles from everywhere. The book I’m working on now is also set in Mississippi, though it’s the Delta flats. This place is virtually empty of all but farmland, yet it’s bound by communities where people rely on one another. This state is a varied, layered, and complex place, and I hope to express that as diversely as I can.
Jamie Kornegay joins us for Noir at the Bar Monday, May 4, at 7 pm, at the Opal Divine’s on South Congress. Come join us for a night of booze, books and crime fiction. You can find copies of Soil via bookpeople.com. Copies will also be available for purchase at Noir at the Bar.