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Celebrating James Wilcox's Comedy of Manners

This year’s Louisiana Book Festival showcases the Hammond native’s debut novel Modern Baptists, first published 31 years ago.

The Louisiana Book Festival is a time for authors to congregate with other authors and their readers to enjoy book-related activities and presentations. The 11th edition of this free literary celebration is on November 1 from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. at the State Library of Louisiana, the State Capitol, the Capitol Park Museum and surrounding grounds.

In 2008, the festival began its One Book, One Festival program, where one book is selected and participants are James Wilcoxinvited to read in advance and then join in the discussion during the festival. This year’s book is Modern Baptists by James Wilcox and will mark the first year the author of the chosen book will be the one to lead the discussion.

“That will be a very interesting thing to present,” says Wilcox. “I think it offers an opportunity to get immediate feedback from people who have read it. I want to leave it open to getting responses and questions. It’s a very unusual first novel. From what I’ve heard, people generally follow their own life and upbringing. Mr. Pickens is just different from me in so many ways. I ventured out in a very different course than many first novelists, and I think that contrast will be very interesting for the readers.”

Modern Baptists is the story of Mr. Pickens, the assistant manager at Sonny Boy Bargain Store in Tula Springs, Louisiana. His ex-con brother recently released from Angola moving in is just one of the life-changing events Mr. Pickens is forced to undertake. Love triangles, entanglement in possible scandals, a nervous breakdown and a Christmas Eve party gone wrong wrap themselves together to tell the story of what life for Mr. Pickens has become.

And while the fictional town of Tula Springs is not comparable to Wilcox’s hometown of  Hammond, Louisiana, he says it is a mixture of the surrounding areas. Taking the best of the towns and smashing them together to create the setting, Wilcox says other forms of inspiration for his novel did arise out of his hometown. He recalls stores like Morgan and Lindsey’s and Woolworth’s from his childhood.

“I used to love to ride my bike down there to the dime store and to smell the cashews around the candy counter,” he says. “I always used to wonder about the people who worked in the store. When I was older and writing, I was searching for a way to evoke a particular place. I just remembered so strongly that feeling of loving to be in the store smelling those cashews and writing about what I imagined the life of the people who worked in the store might be like.”

The New Yorker calls his book “A wonderfully funny explosion of comedy.” But Wilcox says comic fiction isn’t always what he’s trying to write. He attempts his best to describe things and people so any sense of comedy appears to come from the situations themselves.

He prefers the description a “comedy of manners.” “I like that term,” he says. “A comedy of manners applies to a genre of novel that would talk about the way people behave. It has a broader literary scope. It’s not so much about slapstick or anything like that.”

The history of Tula Springs actually begins in a short story Wilcox wrote, which appeared in the New Yorker. The story centered on Mrs. Jenks, a minor character in Modern Baptists. After writing the story, Wilcox began to develop Tula Springs further in his first book. Afterwards, he continued thinking of other aspects and people in the small town, which eventually became some of his later novels. Wilcox expressed his interest in the “infinite variety that can be in one town.”

modern baptistsModern Baptists sets the scene for his other novels, most of which are loosely connected. He says this can be fun for readers, as major characters become minor characters, something he plans to talk about during his Louisiana Book Festival discussion. Combined, his books give a richer sense of the Southeast Louisiana he writes about.

“A lot of fiction that people read are stories of common, but heroic people who overcome great odds,” says Wilcox. “People like to identify with these characters. I’ve done something where my characters are very difficult characters and they aren’t people you would necessarily want to be around all the time. They tend to be more peripheral characters in many peoples’ lives. They’re struggling so hard and making so many mistakes and not being successful. There’s this different strain of reading my book than just simply identifying with glamorous or successful characters.”

Since its publication, Modern Baptists has been included in Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon. It was part of the fourth section titled “The Chaotic Age: A Canonical Prophecy.” Wilcox recalls attending a party in New York after he found out and mentioning it to someone and having them not believe him. “It was quite amazing,” he says. “I was thrilled by that.”

Wilcox says he enjoys being part of the Louisiana Book Festival because of the opportunities it presents to speak with other authors about his books, writing fiction and what it means to write about the South. His favorite moment was in 2011 when he won the Louisiana Writer Award and was interviewed by Roy Blount Jr.

Currently, James Wilcox holds the MacCurdy Distinguished Professorship in English at Louisiana State University. See him at the Louisiana Book Festival November 1 from 3:15-4 p.m. in House Committee Room 1 of the State Capitol for his One Book, One Festival discussion. He will be signing copies of Modern Baptists afterward.

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