A More Interesting Answer: An Interview with Jamie Kornegay

Article by Jeremy

As a bookseller, I meet authors on book tours every week. They arrive at the store early enough to get situated, have a drink of water, and present their books to whomever has gathered. The next morning, they’re off to another store to do it again. Jamie Kornegay owns and operates the TurnRow Book Company in Greenwood, Mississippi and has, for years, been in the same position as me. But this spring  he published his debut novel, SOIL and hit the road to see book tours from the other side.

The plot of SOIL is this: An idealistic family man risks it all to live off the land in rural Mississippi. But when floods wipe everything out, his family leaves him alone to sort out the mess. When a body washes up on the land, paranoia and isolation drive the man to unthinkable lengths to protect his dreams. The novel is ostensibly a Southern Gothic thriller, but it delivers much more than that genre label implies.

I spoke with Kornegay in advance of his book signing at Brazos on Tuesday, May 5. 


Brazos Bookstore: How did your book tour go?

Jamie Kornegay: One thing I really enjoyed was seeing all the other stores. It was a two-pronged mission: both to promote the book and to see some of these stores that I’d never gotten a chance to see.

BB: Any shop in particular that impressed you?

JK: I’ve always had a soft spot for some of the smaller stores that I feel in league with. They’re doing the same kinds of things I’m trying to do. Some I was surprised by were Hub City Books in Spartanburg; McIntyre’s in Pittsboro, North Carolina; and City Lights Bookstore in Sylva, North Carolina. It was great to see these small stores thriving in these smaller markets.

BB: That’s the trick of it, right? Be the community center.

JK: Totally. They’re doing it right. They’re fortunate to be in smaller communities where people are into the arts and reading.

BB: So tell me about your store, TurnRow Book Co.

JK: We’ve been there for almost nine years. It’s a fairly large store to be in a pretty small town. Things like the national recession tend to hit places like Greenwood pretty hard. On paper, you wouldn’t think that this would be the ideal spot for an independent bookstore, but I think it works as the community hub. We do have a café there, so we get a lot of mid-day traffic. It’s a nice place where locals and visitors interact. More and more we’ve been focused on hand-selling the books we love, fiction and creative non-fiction. We’ve started a signed first edition book club for kids that’s going really well.

BB: You came out of Oxford, Mississippi, right? You worked at Square Books?

JK: Yeah. I was at Square Books for seven or eight years out of college. I worked every job in the bookstore. Buying, events—I even produced a radio show for the bookstore.

BB: Did you get into the bookstore job because you wanted to write books? Was that the ultimate dream?

JK: I was a writer first. I went to Richard [Howarth] at Square Books because I had failed in my summer-long attempt to be the impoverished writer hashing out my novel. Little did I know just how much an apprenticeship involved. But thank God for Square Books because it was such an overwhelmingly great education—not only being around all the great writers, but it was a constant source of free books.

BB: That’s the thing. I know of lots of writers who don’t read enough. They don’t see enough of what other people are doing. The reading is just as important as the writing.

JK: Totally. I see it all the time with self-published authors. They’ll bring their collection of poems in and I’ll ask, “Who are the poets you like?” And they’ll stare back and say, “Ummm…” That’s all you have to say to expose the quality of the work. They give themselves away by not knowing anyone other than the things they learned in high school. A lot of writers maybe don’t see what readers are interested in now. The styles evolve and change. You’ve got to read new books.

BB: To that end, talk to me about the style of your book. It was pitched to me as a thriller, but I didn’t think it was a thriller in the classic sense. It certainly has elements of that, but it was more literary than that label implies.

JK: It’s got a thriller hook: man finds dead body in his field and tries to cover it up. But that’s all taken care of fairly early in the book. And then what’s left is exploring how a man comes undone by by his own thoughts and guilt and his response to how other people see him in the wake of this misdeed. That’s what interested me. What happens to someone once they’ve done something they’re not proud of? And I think that may be where the literary elements come into play.

If you get into a situation where you can identify with or at the very least start to feel for the characters, then whatever they’re going to do as you see them hurtling towards the next mistake, you want to stay with them. There are certain ways you can help that process as a writer, like giving them small chapters (this is one of those things you see in contemporary fiction: shorter chapters). I tried to make my prose leaner, with the literary side of it being driven by the internal monologues, but I’m always trying to make it move. I was very conscious of that: trying to get on to the next scene.

BB: I kept comparing SOIL to HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG by Andre Dubus III, because you have these characters all on a path to doom, driven by their own madness. They’re all on a collision course that seems inevitable. SOIL succeeds by building a similar tension.

JK: It’s fun to run off the cliff with a character.

BB: Absolutely. We’d rather they did it than us. I’m sure you’ve heard the adage that all writers are always telling their personal stories. We’ve met a few times, and I can see aspects of your personality in the key characters.

JK: The first chapter where it lays out how Jay’s interest in composting began is the most autobiographical moment in the book. I knew my character had to be a farmer, and I had just gotten into gardening a little bit. I wanted to take it up a notch and make my own compost, and I became really interested in that process. And then someone actually did take a shit in my compost pile and it affected me in a weird way. On the one hand, it was funny. But on the other hand, the thought of someone committing that offense against me really upset me. I took that moment and that confusion to extrapolate from there. I knew this guy was going to have to go to certain lengths and I wanted to see how far I could take him and still make us root for him.

There’s a part of me that’s a bit of a conspiracist, which I think of as playing Devil’s advocate: “Maybe this would be a more interesting answer to why things are the way they are.” There’s always a more interesting answer. To me, that’s what fiction is about, exploring the more interesting answers.

That’s why I ran [Jay] way out past the goal line—to see how crazy we could get. It got pretty dark, so as a way for me to have more fun with the story as a writer, I brought the deputy in. He’s more representative of the rascally side of me. I love playing jokes on people and making fun of everything. And I think making him more of a sexual deviant keeps your attention on him.

BB: A little sex goes a long way.

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