Jamie Kornegay blends the rural and the urban, the organic and the inorganic, the rustic past and the technological future. Kornegay is a writer, a bookstore owner, and a trained journalist. But, like most writers, his interests expand beyond the page. A recent encounter with chef Alice Waters sparked Kornegay’s interest in farming, growing food for oneself, and sustainability. Kornegay got so fired up about farming that he helped set up a farmers market in Greenwood, Mississippi, where he currently lives. He also decided to write his first novel, Soil, around a protagonist who is infatuated with organic farming, composting, and living wholly off his own land.
Soil begins when Jay, the broke and jobless protagonist, finds a corpse on his rural, hillside property in Mississippi. Rather than asking for help or calling the cops, Jay decides to convert the found corpse into compost for his garden. Meanwhile, a deputy in the local police force is pursuing Jay’s recently separated wife, and is eager to get Jay out of the picture however possible. From there, Kornegay takes readers on a journey of accidental murder, love, broken relationships, crooked policemen, and organic farming.
After finishing this gritty, heartbreaking, humorous, and nourishing novel, readers might find themselves carrying their leftover peelings to the compost pile and actually digging the garden they’ve put off for years, wondering what really happens behind the fences of farmlands, and questioning whether that dark figure along the side of the road is a log or a corpse. Kornegay asks us to view soil not just as dirt, but as the foundation for life, growth, and death. He utilizes soil as a means to illustrate how frequently soil becomes a part of our bodies and, likewise, how our bodies inevitably become soil.
The Rumpus: Your most recent novel, Soil, seems to have some characteristics of Southern Gothic literature. There’s Jay, who’s troubled by the state of the world and seems to slowly disintegrate throughout the story. There are dead bodies and predatory policemen and lots of wry, gritty humor. Would you call Soil contemporary fiction or Southern Gothic or something else? Who were some of your literary influences?
Jamie Kornegay: Southern Gothic is probably accurate since it is set in the South and has a darkly comic tone. I often think of Flannery O’Connor when I hear the term Southern Gothic, so it’s a label I’m happy to share with her. Contemporary fiction is good too because it deals with people and situations in the modern world. Actually, my chief inspiration for this was Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. I read it at an impressionable age and it has always stuck with me. I also like the psychological suspense of Patricia Highsmith, the surreal language of Barry Hannah, and the character-driven humor of Charles Portis. These were all in my mind while I wrote Soil.
Rumpus: The Mississippi Delta is prevalent in your novel, as are the floodwaters and fertile soil. I’m curious about isolation. Can you tell me a bit more about the nature of isolation in your novel, and the relationship between isolation and the landscape?
Kornegay: I should make a distinction about geography in Mississippi. Though I live in the Delta, the novel actually takes place in the north Mississippi hills. I imagine to an outsider it seems nitpicking because it’s not like we’re a huge state, but these two places are even more distinct in their culture than they are in physical distance. The Delta is a place like no other, and I plan to explore that area in future work, but I was raised in the hill country and began writing the novel there, outside of Oxford, Mississippi, and it seemed fitting to me because of that isolation. It’s easier to hide in the hills than the Delta, which is flat and wide and known for its agriculture. It’s more difficult to scrape a living out of the land in the hills, and this is one of Jay’s problems. Like any remote rural place, you run into people who are hiding out.
Rumpus: The Delta is the perfect place for such bizarreness and such quirky, complex characters. I’m from Southeastern Arkansas, so I’m familiar with this setting. How much of the novel was based off of stories from people you know? I can easily imagine such eccentric characters living down the street from me.
Kornegay: I take great inspiration from the landscape here. When I get stuck in a story, I just hop in the truck and ride around, looking at the features of the land, or the people hanging out in small towns or outside houses or in fields. From this, the ideas are jostled loose. The details come from everyday observation. The characters are surely pieces of people I know. Only a few definitive people turn up, and usually just as cameos, a fleeting character they’d never recognize as themselves. You rarely know people as well as you know your characters, so they’re all invention, taken from subconscious scraps. The physical places are based on real places. I could ride around all day and show you where this and that happened. But the story and the main characters just come from prolonged daydreaming, quite honestly. You imagine one scene, and over the years you imagine more and more until you find you have a whole event that never really happened. At least, that’s how it happened with Soil.
Rumpus: How much is this fictional town, Madrid, Mississippi, based on Mississippi towns that you know or have lived in?
Kornegay: Madrid is based on a hill town, Oxford, where I attended university and lived for many years after graduating. For the first 30 years of my life, I moved around but essentially lived in a forty-five mile tri-county area there around Oxford, and each town had its own distinct vibe. There are parts of these places in the locales of Soil.
Rumpus: I really loved the dark, wry humor in Soil. It’s funny and grotesque and heartbreaking at the same time. I find it hard to write such humor in my own stories without seeming over the top. Can you offer any advice on how to write such effective humor?
Kornegay: Humor is tricky. First, I think it requires a humorous worldview. If you can see the humor in things, then that doesn’t really end, even when tragedy and horror are afoot. To put this into your craft, I think less is more. You can’t force jokes but just observe people and bring that humor to your characters. Do it with a straight face. Let their actions provide the comedy, not your opinion of their actions. Also through dialogue—the original expression of uncommon ideas, the language, non sequiturs. All of these things contribute to humor in a story. I think Charles Portis is a genius at it, and I studied his writing. Even True Grit, where nothing overtly funny is happening, there’s humor in the narrator’s tone, her colloquialisms, her diction. The great Delta satirist Lewis Nordan said humor thrives on opposing forces, especially when either are oblivious of the other.
Rumpus: I love that Jay is an organic farmer, and the line, “What more were your truffles and mushrooms but ambitious mud?” is excellent. Are you an organic farmer yourself? How much research on organic farming did you have to do to enter into this character’s mind? Research is such an important part of creating believable characters, and it’s clear that a lot of thought went into developing the characters in Soil.
Kornegay: You’re right. Research gave this book its flavor. It’s in the details that I would have never imagined if I hadn’t done it myself. The book started off with one image. I was driving by a flooded field and saw a rotten stump which looked like a corpse. Leading to the questions: What if it was? How did it get there? What would you do with it if it was? Given my passion for Crime and Punishment, I conceived it as a story in which the protagonist would attempt to cover it up, which led to all the more questions—how? Why? And thus a novel is born out of boredom and curiosity. Imagining why my character would have a body in his field, I made him a farmer, and thus began my interest in farming, which has evolved over the years. As I began to delve into Jay’s character, I started a home garden, and not long after that, Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma came out and really got me fired up. I consulted another book, The Vertical Farm, which provided the idea for Jay’s tower farm. In order to get into his head, I began building compost, planting strange vegetables, trying alternative methods, and this act of planting really grounded me in the way that reading or music does.
Rumpus: The ending of Soil is melancholy and beautiful. Did you have this ending in mind since you first started writing the novel? Or did the ending change a lot during your drafts and revisions?
Kornegay: Among early readers, it’s a divisive and controversial ending. Some love it, some don’t. I tried a couple of variations. The first one left you with a pleasant smile. It wasn’t right. Then I tried to obscure the ending, and my editor, Marysue Rucci, told me to make it decisive, one way or the other. That was the right move. I think it was the ending that was there all along. Sometimes you fight it, but you really have to coax it out. The right choice is there for you to find.
Rumpus: I noticed that you studied with Barry Hannah at the University of Mississippi—how much did Hannah’s writing style influence your own?
Kornegay: Hannah is an intimidating presence, whether it was in person or on the page. He always said that it was difficult to write in Mississippi under the shadow of William Faulkner. I think for the new generation of Mississippi writers, his is the shadow we’re all writing under. There’s no one else who can write like him. He sings on the page. But I can’t say that I understood what he was doing until I got to know him and learned from him. Now, I pick up his work and dip into it like Scripture. I’m very inspired by the energy of his prose, and I’m constantly surprised reading his sentences, even re-reading them. With him it’s not only the bold choice of words but the perspective, the choice of details, the cadence. It’s very easy to ape him and certain to end in failure. But I think I’ve definitely tried to mooch off that spirit and rhythm.
Rumpus: The prose in Soil is so rich, the characters are so memorable, and the narrative voice feels so comfortable in this setting. How long did it take you to discover that you had a talent for Southern fiction? What other genres did you study and experiment with when you were a student?
Kornegay: I don’t think I set out to write Southern fiction. I think my book is regional in the sense that these characters grew up and live in Mississippi, but they’re still a part of the wider world. Perhaps more than Southern fiction, I see a greater distinction between rural and urban fiction. We all deal with people and how they get along in their environment. One thing distinctive about modern rural fiction is how the old ways—which are often more preserved in a rural setting, where life turns at a slower pace—and the new ways interact. That interested me about Soil, but I tried to steer clear of the tropes you find in much Southern fiction. I just tried to be realistic and took mannerisms, details, traditions, etc. as I found them in daily life. When I was a student, I tried writing scripts and plays, short stories. I even wrote for an early Internet drama. I was very intrigued by different ways to tell a story. I still am, but as I get older, I have less patience for pointless experimentation. It still has to tell a story to hold my interest.
Rumpus: You graduated with a degree in journalism—do you still do journalistic work?
Kornegay: I learned to write via journalism. When I was in eighth grade, I started working for the local weekly newspaper in my hometown, writing movie and music and book reviews. I learned how to write on deadline, and I learned how to interview people, how to get to the point. It was a wonderful education, and it lasted until my first year out of college. I haven’t done it since, but I owe it everything.
Rumpus: You’re running Turnrow Books, a bookstore in Greenwood, Mississippi, as well as writing novels and short stories. What is it like to run a bookstore? Would you recommend that writers have a second occupation, outside of writing, to bring in extra income?
Kornegay: Definitely. I think most writers will tell you, it’s one in a thousand who make big money writing books. But it all depends on how much money you need, what sort of life you want to live. For me, I’d go nuts sitting at home every day. I like being out in the public, talking to people. Some of the best ideas come from chatting people up. And working in a bookstore is great because you’re talking to readers and writers all the time. Instead of going to grad school after college, I took a job at the famous Square Books in Oxford. It was my MFA. I was surrounded by great books, met so many generous writers, and I learned the craft first-hand from many of them. Having said that, it’s tough running an independent bookstore these days, especially in a tiny market like Greenwood. We have less than 20,000 people here, record illiteracy and poverty. And yet it’s a goldmine for interesting stories and characters. And I feel like having Turnrow is a cherished gift for readers who live here. In this time of painful sameness, we’ve managed to create a unique space where people can come and hang out, to interact and swap ideas. I’ve had a blast living and writing here.
Rumpus: According to the website, Turnrow Books carries mostly novels and cookbooks by Southern writers. Can you talk a bit about why you’re drawn to Southern literature?
Kornegay: The Southern literature I like has a distinctive sense of place, something I’m familiar with and care about, and also speaks to the specific issues we deal with here. It’s very complex, bound up in ugly history and epic history. The contradictions continue to amaze me. As far as the bookstore goes, we play up Southern literature because that’s what people hope to find when they come to Turnrow. Often they are people who are unfamiliar with Mississippi and the South, and they want to learn more, so we try to give them the best. And while some of my favorite writers are Southern, I also love world literature and non-fiction. For fun, some of the other booksellers and I recently compiled a list of our 50 favorite novels, and on my list, only a dozen are Southern.
Rumpus: What writing projects are you currently working on?
Kornegay: I’m working on a novel about one hell-raising week on a large-scale farm in the Mississippi Delta, which has been a lot of fun to write.
Author photo © Matt Eich.