Real people don't have names like Ace Atkins. Real people haven't lived this life. Atkins is the hunk writer with his own Web site (www.aceatkins.com), the one in the T-shirt and denim and looking for all the world like he just jumped off a steer and sat on a craggy rock in the middle of nowhere.
Atkins will be coming to Memphis this weekend to help kick off the Southeast Booksellers Association trade show. He'll be signing his novels and participating in a panel (along with Rene Nevils and Deborah Hardy, authors of the bio Ignatius Rising: The Life of John Kennedy Toole, and Gerald Duff, author of Memphis Ribs) on "Writer's Cramp: The Ins and Outs of Writing." The panel discussion is on Thursday and the book signing is on Friday. Both events will be held at the Deliberate Literate.
Atkins has written a series of mysteries that follows protagonist Nick Travers. Travers is an ex-Saints football player turned blues historian who ends up stumbling on and cracking some of the toughest cases in the history of the blues.
Crossroad Blues, on the legend of Robert Johnson, and Leavin' Trunk Blues, which centers around the migration of African Americans north to Chicago in the '40s and '50s, were both published by St. Martin's Press. They were received with enough acclaim to land Atkins a book deal with HarperCollins for Dark End of the Street, the third in the series and set entirely in Memphis, and a fourth book, still in the works.
The 30-ish Atkins was born in Alabama and played defensive end for the 1993 Auburn football team, which went undefeated and was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated. He then worked part-time for the St. Petersburg Times and part-time on his first novel. Tired of living the proverbial writer's life -- "digging change out of my ashtray for the 99-cent Whopper special" -- he took a full-time crime-reporting job at the The Tampa Tribune.
It was while at the Tribune that Atkins was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for a seven-part series titled "Tampa Confidential," in which he reconstructed the 1956 murder of a local woman from the memories of investigators and witnesses, depositions and trial records. "It is the work I'm most proud of," says Atkins.
Then came the book contract and a request from the publisher that he devote his full attention to writing. "I quit the Tribune within the hour," he says.
(If you believe everything so far, listen to this: Atkins actually met his current girlfriend, then a reporter for the rival St. Petersburg Times, "over a dead body" at a crime scene. "We saw each other again at a kidnapping and an abduction," he says, "before I got the nerve to ask her out.")
Atkins says it's just coincidence that his protagonist, Travers, is also involved with a reporter. Is it also a coincidence that Travers is a blues historian (Atkins is a blues buff) and former football player? He denies that Nick (he refers to him by his first name) is any kind of alter ego or more exciting version of himself. According to Atkins, "He is more like a big brother to me."
Atkins is now teaching an advanced reporting class at the University of Mississippi and at work on the fourth novel in the series. "I'm thinking seriously about going back to New Orleans for this one -- back to Nick's roots."
You can visit Atkins' Web site and learn more about his books, his pets, his favorite beer, and the music he keeps in his Bronco. You can even send him an e-mail, if only to ask him if he's for real. n
Atkins discusses writer's block Thurday and signs books Friday at the Deliberate Literate. The Southeast Booksellers Association trade show runs Thursday-Sunday at the Cook Convention Center. Among those authors joining Atkins at the conference and for booksignings: Rick Bragg (signing Friday at Burke's Book Store); Ken Davis (Friday, Davis-Kidd); Lorraine Johnson-Coleman (Saturday, Deliberate Literate); and Bobbie Ann Mason (Monday, Burke's and Tuesday, Square Books in Oxford).
This should be on the videotape I send to the Survivor producers: me fighting my way through a seemingly endless jungle of cornstalks. With no compass or food. Miles of corn and every step closer (or farther) from my destination.
It's opening day at the Mid-South MAiZE, a five-acre cornfield in Crittenden County that boasts three miles of twists and turns and the more-than-occasional dead end. Chris Taylor and Justin Taylor, the men behind the maze, sit in a booth, waiting for the crowds, but the sky rumbles threats of rain and the air is hot and sticky.
Part of a MAiZE franchise started in 1995 by Brett Herbst, the maze near Memphis was mostly the brainchild of Chris. He had worked at one of the corn mazes in California and wanted to do his own, so he called up his college buddy and asked him if he was interested.
"He convinced me it was a cool thing," says Justin.
They leased a field from a farmer, designed a maze in the shape of the Memphis skyline, and then, using a grid, cut the design into a field of foot-high corn.
"It was like, go over eight rows and up six and come at me with the weedeater," says Justin of the process. "We just thought the landmarks of The Pyramid and the Memphis bridge would be neat."
In coming days, clumps of schoolchildren -- staggered in groups of 10 -- will be running through the maze, trying to beat their teachers, but today it's fairly quiet. It's possible to walk the maze in about 15 minutes if you know where you're going. For most folks, though, it takes about 45 minutes to an hour.
I'm about to ask Chris and Justin for a hint -- I heard once that a surefire way to solve a maze is to run your right hand along the wall; it might take you a week or two, but eventually you'll get out -- but then the Taylors, who are not related, tell us about the signs.
As with any navigation, you have to use guides: stars, landmarks, brightly colored flags. In this case, it's the 10 yellow signposts with corn trivia questions and multiple-choice answers. Pick the right answer, go the right direction. Simple enough.
At 2:15:07, my companion and I begin. We walk at a leisurely pace, enjoying the sound of wind rustling through the corn stalks.
Roughly 15 minutes later -- and after figuring that corn was first cultivated 4,000 years ago and taking a turn to the right -- we are completely lost. (Turns out cultivated corn made its first appearance about 8,000 years ago.) We've run into one dead end, doubled back, taken the other path, made another turn, and another, and we're lost. We could double back again, but we have no idea where exactly we came from. At this point, we barely know up from down, right from left. The only thing we're keeping track of is how many frogs we've seen (64). We continue walking aimlessly.
I'm beginning to be reminded of my life, frogs and all.
Up ahead, we see Justin sitting on top a wooden bridge. If this were Survivor, Justin would be host Jeff Probst, waiting to give us an update.
When we finally mount the bridge, Justin says he saw us get lost. Stuck in the "2001" of "Mid-South Maze 2001."
There will be "corn cops" stationed on this bridge later on, making sure that no one gets too lost. During weekend nights in October, the maze will be haunted; glow sticks will be on sale to help maze-goers navigate.
As we set off again, Justin tells us, "The second half is a little trickier." That's reassuring, since we did so well on the first half. He even keeps his mouth shut -- a pointed silence -- as we begin to take a wrong turn off the bridge. We quickly correct ourselves.
Then we journey along, much as we did before. At one point, we even take out the ol' trusty quarter and give it a flip. Then we go the opposite way.
After a little while, we see the bridge up ahead and assume the maze will take a turn and that we'll go under it. We get closer, only to realize that the path takes us right back onto the bridge.
Grrrrr, how did we get back here?
We climb the bridge in an attempt to get our bearings and see where we went wrong. But as we get to the top and look around, we realize it's not the same bridge. Not only that, but there's a signpost on the other side. We're on the right path! If only out of sheer luck.
From here, the maze is a breeze. Suddenly we'd gotten smarter or faster or just luckier. We finish with a record time of 43 minutes and 31 seconds. (I didn't say it was anyone else's record, only ours.)
"It's been an adventure so far," Justin says of the project.
Too true. Now if only I'd had my video camera.
Get more information about the Mid-South MAiZE at www.cornfieldmaze.com.