On shelves today, Oxford author Lisa Howorth’s debut novel Flying Shoes is described as a gimlet-eyed snapshot of the South.
Scroll down for giveaway and signing details.
“Lisa Howorth’s dazzling verbal wit almost stops you in your tracks while you are flying along in this delicious prose,” writes Kentucky author Bobbie Ann Mason in a cover blurb for Flying Shoes. Praise for Howorth’s first novel continues from Ann Patchett and Jayne Anne Phillips, and with the book’s release today, readers finally have the chance to fall in love with this provocative story and kooky main character Mary Byrd.
Howorth is co-founder of Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, and she sets her book in 1996 in a town very similar to the state’s literary mecca. Flying Shoes features a colorful array of characters that blend into and electrify the landscape of the South and showcase the idiosyncrasies of a small town. Mary Byrd Thornton lives in Howorth’s fictional Oxford with her husband, two children and a variety of pets and quirky acquaintances. Thirty years after her younger stepbrother is sexually molested and murdered, the case is re-opened and she must travel back to the center of her childhood grief: Virginia.
Flying Shoes tells a story that is twofold. On one hand, there’s a horrific crime tale candidly recounted by Mary Byrd, and on the other a charming depiction of the South and all its wonderful and troubling complexities involving race, family love, and the day-to-day struggles of humanity. Loosely based on the still-unsolved 1966 murder of Howorth’s 9-year-old stepbrother — a crime that made the front page of The Washington Post at the time — Flying Shoes hits very close to home in more ways than one for the author.
It is both a delightful and sad read, but most of all, a love letter to a past heartbreak and a beloved town. Flying Shoes is the type of stay-up-late novel that’s hard to put down once you’ve begun it. The story unfolds over a series of days, so the reader feels as if they’re actually with these characters, enmeshed in their business, their thoughts. The story seems so vital and alive, as if Mary Byrd, her surrogate husband and local chicken broker Mann and disapproving housekeeper Evagreen are all real people, formerly met in another life. They were incredibly easy to meet — and very hard to part with.
Oxford writer Mary Sellers interviewed Lisa Howorth at Square Books earlier this spring about writing such a personal story, crafting her quirky cast of characters and what it feels like to sell her own book.
MS: What was the creative process like when you decided to choose an event from your own life to write about? Was this a story that you’ve always wanted to eventually tell?
LH: For one thing, I never felt like it was a matter of choosing this story. It chose me, ever since I was 15 years old and this thing happened in my family. The story was just part of my life and I needed to write about it. Once I was ready to really think about it, it just sort of took over. The thing that I did do differently was that I started it thinking it was going to be a memoir. But, to me, it was too depressing. I couldn’t stay in the tragedy, and I had so many other things I wanted to say when I was writing the book.
I wanted to talk about issues of race, I wanted to talk a little bit about religion, the idea of how things may have changed in the South, and I wanted to set it in a world that I knew, that I could write about and make interesting. And I had the idea of attracting as many people as I possibly could to the story, which meant putting it in a novel and making it a much bigger picture and a much bigger world. And, in fact, the crime, the tragedy, it drives the story, but it’s really in the background until toward the end.
Mary Byrd Thornton knew that breaking things was not a good, adult response to getting sudden, scary news about a terrible thing in the past, a thing buried with the dead and kicked to the curb of consciousness; but that was what she’d done anyway.” – Chapter 1
MS: Was it difficult to balance fact from fiction in that sense?
LH: I just wrote. And I had no idea what I had when I finished. I thought ‘this could be really terrible,’ because it wasn’t structured in a way that many other books that I could think of were structured. I felt like I knew what I was doing, but was anybody else going to know what I was doing and want to read the thing.
MS: How long have you been working on this novel?
LH: Well, it sounds ridiculous to say, but I’ve been working on it since the early ’90s. That’s really when I started it. I was trying to do the thing where you get up at 4:00 in the morning and write before all the children get up for school. And I was working full time and kind of trying to follow John Grisham’s example at that point. It didn’t work for me [laughs]. And I’m also a night owl, so I couldn’t make it work. A lot was going on — three kids and so much going on all the time at the bookstore. I was teaching at Ole Miss.
So, I would pick it up and put it down, pick it up and put it down. But finally, in 2007, I got a fellowship to the McDowell colony in New Hampshire, and I had a month to go up there and do nothing. I mean they feed you, they deliver lunch to the door. It was heaven. So, I really got the book off the ground in 2007. Even then, I put it up for at least a year. It was very hard for me to stay in it all the time. Finally, I worked my way through it. It really took me about five years of pretty consistent writing to get it done.
MS: Had you always wanted to write?
LH: I always wanted to write all my life as long as I can remember. I was obsessed with books and writing, and I always wrote in school. But I don’t know, for some reason, I never thought I’d be able to be a writer. That seemed very daunting to me. And I always thought that I’d have to earn a living, so I did what I thought was the next best thing. I got a degree in library science and I became a librarian. And of course, we started the bookstore. I don’t know why I thought that was so out of reach for me, but I always did write. I was editor of the Ole Miss literary magazine when I was in school and also the editor of my high school literary magazine.
MS: Oxford is definitely recognizable in this book, and that’s part of the reason it was so much fun for me to read. Are the characters based on real people or are they a blend of personalities from around Oxford?
LH: Some of the characters are totally made up. There are a few characters that are composites of people. The photographer, for instance, is a composite of two or three photographers who I know. There are probably two characters that I drew very heavily from. But other than that, either they’re totally made up or composites.
I changed some things — I didn’t want it to be totally Oxford. The mid-’90s was just the beginning of when Oxford started to slide into this resort/condo community and started losing a lot of the character that it had. I really wanted to document the craziness, the burgeoning music scene — it was just starting up then. And it was still a really small town then; it wasn’t the way it is now. That’s one of the things I really wanted to do with the book: give people a good glimpse of the unusual place that I think Oxford was.
“Wigg’s silver hair was collar-length but combed back and high, with a wisp that fell over his forehead, so slight as to suggest nonchalance and roguery, or to mock the notion of roguery. A baronial coif. His hands were long and delicate and blue and seemed to exist solely to be set impatiently on his hips, to raise his camera to his eye, or to gracefully bring booze and Nat Shermans incessantly to his thin, often curled lips. The very picture of icy gentility, dissipation, and arrogance, he was a cross between a preppy fop and some Weimar libertine out of 1930 Berlin. Sexy, too, Mary Byrd thought, in an aging, Jeremy Irons sort way. That such a creature had ever surfaced from Freeman Bayou, like the first feathered reptile slouching out of the primordial ooze and taking flight, was astonishing to Mary Byrd; but as Charles had once said about Wiggs, the Mississippi Delta was the only place on earth where such an exotic rara avis of a man could have been hatched.” – Description of photographer Edward Wiggsby in Chapter 4
MS: In your experience with running Square Books, you’ve met countless writers over the years and have obviously been immersed in the literary scene. How does it feel now to have your own book to add to this?
LH: It’s very weird to be on this side of a book. I’ve seen readings hundreds of times, been around hundreds and hundreds of writers and have so many writer friends, but until it’s you, you don’t know what it’s like. It’s hard for me now to even talk about myself as a writer, because I think of myself as a book seller/facilitator or whatever, and I think of writers as people who make a living writing. I’ve done a lot of freelance, but it’s a very different thing to have written a book and have it out there and to think about having an audience. It’s a real adventure of self-discovery, and I’ve learned so much about myself and writing and about the book. It’s been kind of been revelatory in so many ways.
I also had this feeling that when writers finished a book, it was like WOOHOO! And I was so shocked to not feel that way. I felt sad, nervous about the book. I didn’t feel like I had done my brother and my family any favors by doing this book. Which may or may not be true. That’s dissipated a little bit as I’ve started talking about it and doing a few publicity things, and people have given it good reviews. I don’t think it’s ever going be a book that I’m going to be able to completely celebrate 100 percent. There’s always going to be a sadness, and worry and anxiety and the feeling that you just can’t describe your love for this person who is gone.
MS: What’s next? Are you planning on doing book tours in the future?
LH: I’m starting on June 17 here in Oxford. I’ve got my first signing — that’s the day the book comes out. And I’ve got a 10-city tour all over the country, from Seattle to New Orleans, and everywhere in between.
See Lisa Howorth in Oxford at Square Books today at 5 p.m., and view her full signing schedule here. We have one copy of Flying Shoes to give away courtesy of Bloomsbury. To be entered to win, just comment on this interview and tell us why you need the book through Tuesday, June 24. Only entries in the United States will be accepted, and winner will be contacted via email on Wednesday.