“The Lisa Howorth event was grand. Good crowd, good reading. She won me over,” said Corey Mesler, co-owner (with his wife, Cheryl) of Burke’s Book Store. Mesler was referring to Howorth’s appearance at Burke’s on July 10th to read from and sign her debut novel, Flying Shoes (Bloomsbury).
Just so happens, Howorth herself is the book-store co-founder (with her husband, Richard) of Square Books in Oxford, and that's where Howorth began her publicity tour in mid-June. Her Memphis visit came at the tail end of a month-long tour, which took Howorth across the South, to Washington, D.C. (where she grew up), to Seattle, and to San Francisco before returning to Mississippi, where, in Tupelo, she recently had yet another signing. But for someone who’s watched more than her share of authors on tour, Howorth’s own has been something of an eye-opener.
Howorth didn’t sound played out during our interview. What she was was candid. Asked about reader response as she traveled the country, she responded: “I got complimentary things. What else are they going to say? You’re usually dealing with an audience that hasn’t yet read the book. You don’t get a lot of feedback.”
For feedback from the Flyer, see my favorable notes on Flying Shoes in the July 10th summer book issue. Howorth’s mother, the author said, has been supportive from the beginning. This despite the fact that the novel revisits, though in sometimes slightly fictionalized form, the murder of Howorth’s stepbrother when the boy was only 9. As for Howorth’s three surviving brothers, they’ve been equally supportive, with one of them critical to Howorth's writing process.
“He took it upon himself to go back and do all the research,” Howorth said of that brother and the murder case, which has gone unsolved. “He went through police files. He interviewed people who were actively working on the crime. He analyzed all that information and was instrumental in helping with my treatment of the case in Flying Shoes.
“But the case has not been reopened," Howorth added. "I hope maybe that will happen. But it’s been 48 years now. The suspect — they know who he is — is free. There was a lot of mishandling of the case, including the loss of physical evidence, which would make prosecution and conviction harder. But I still think it could be done.”
Howorth wants it known, however, that Flying Shoes is not, strictly speaking, a crime story or police procedural.
“Some readers, I think, have been disappointed that it’s not a true-crime or mystery book. It’s not something where the crime gets solved and everybody lives happily ever after. I had other things I wanted to write about. I wanted to make it a bigger novel, more complex. I wanted to document Oxford, Mississippi, in the 1990s, before it started to change so radically. I wanted to look at bigger issues — crime, for instance, and the inequalities in sentencing. I wanted to talk about race, about Southern history.
“I’d started out thinking it would be a memoir, but I realized quickly that that wasn’t going to work for me. It was very unpleasant to spend time back in that time … the murder, thinking about it. I didn’t want to put it in Washington, D.C., which is where the murder happened. I moved it to Richmond to give my family a little privacy, some distance.”
Doesn’t mean there aren’t residents of Oxford, where Flying Shoes is largely set, wondering if the novel is a roman a clef. Howorth maintains it is not.
Howorth began Flying Shoes back in the early '90s. But with three children to look after, a business to run, and teaching to do — art history; Southern studies — at the University of Mississippi, she was short on time. A fellowship in 2007 at the McDowell Colony in New Hampshire helped her find the time, and she finished the novel — Howorth's debut novel — in 2012. Was the fact that Howorth is in the book business make it any easier to find an agent and publisher?
“I’d say it was probably easier, because I knew some people,” Howorth admitted. “But I ended up with an agent and editor I didn’t know at all — had never even heard of.
"I probably did nothing that you’re supposed to do: I finished the manuscript. I didn’t want anybody to see it. I just sent it out to a couple of editors I knew, one agent I didn’t know and one agent I did know. Both agents wanted it. Maybe they were thinking, ‘Hot damn! Book-seller’s wife. This is bound to go well.’
“But I also have lots working against me: I’m not coming out of an MFA program. I’m not 25, 35 years old. My publisher, though — Bloomsbury — has been wonderful. They did Robert Gordon’s book on Stax, Respect Yourself.”
Bloomsbury will also be publishing the Memphis-set Bluff City Pawn by Stephen Schottenfeld in a few weeks, but what’s on tap for Lisa Howorth now?
She said she has a group of stories to get back to (though she knows that in today’s publishing climate short-story collections are a hard-sell), and one or two of those stories could maybe be developed into at least one novel. But she has an idea for a nonfiction book as well and two children’s books that are finished, but she hasn’t shopped them to publishers.
“If I can just live that long,” Howorth said of her publishing plans in general. “Because I am so slow as a writer. I wrote Flying Shoes by hand on legal pads. That’s how sort of sad it is — and lame.” •
For more on Lisa Howorth and Flying Shoes, there's a well-produced introduction to the author and the novel on YouTube. That's where you'll find Howorth reminding readers of what I haven't mentioned here: the book's humor. And the photo of the author that appears above? It was taken by Maude Schuyler Clay of Sumner, Mississippi, and she'll be at Burke's Book Store on Thursday, July 17th, from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. The occasion: to sign copies of her book of photographs, Delta Dogs (University Press of Mississippi). As with Flying Shoes, read more about Delta Dogs in the Flyer's July 10th issue.