Tuesday, September 18, 2001

Fact & Fiction

Is writer Ace Atkins for real?

Posted By on Tue, Sep 18, 2001 at 4:00 AM

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).

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