TurnRow Books owner Jamie Kornegay’s debut novel Soil is a longtime coming for both the author and the town of Greenwood, Mississippi.
Most people in the Mississippi Delta know Jamie Kornegay as their local bookseller. He and his wife opened TurnRow Books in Greenwood about nine years ago and have since been stocking the shelves with the latest fiction, signed books from the state’s best writers and plenty of titles on food and music.
All the while, Kornegay, who studied creative fiction at the University of Mississippi, has been working on his own novel. Soil (due out March 10) is the culmination of Kornegay’s life experience up to this point, his interest in farming and the impact writer Barry Hannah had on him in college. After recommending books to the people of Greenwood and beyond for years, Kornegay is humbly looking forward to sharing his own story with readers this month.
Fellow Mississippi writer Michael Farris Smith describes Kornegay’s prose in Soil “as thick and fertile as the Mississippi Delta landscape,” and it’s that landscape that plays a central part in the downfall of main character Jay Mize. An idealistic environmental scientist and farmer, Jay moves his wife and young son off the grid to a stretch of river bottom farmland in the hills, hoping to position himself as the forefront of an agricultural revolution.
Within a year, the dream is ruined. When a corpse floats onto his property, Jay is convinced he’s being set up and scrambles to dispose of the body while also trying to repair his relationship with his family. As Jay descends further and further into madness, a predatory deputy, along with a wandering criminal, begin to poke around only to heighten Jay’s paranoia. Both darkly comedic and disturbing, Soil traces one man’s struggle to survive in the Mississippi mudflats.
Morning reeked of barbecue and damnation. Pyre smoke hung like haunted fog in the trees, and below, scattered across the pasture floor, lay evidence of his midnight science. Jay shot up from sleep and flopped out of the lawn chair. He found the water jug and turned it up, drinking past the taste of tepid death.” – Chapter 11
Kornegay says the idea for Soil came to him while he was living in Oxford and working at Square Books. “The land really spoke to me there, the hills, just the kind of desolate little farm plots, not at all what it is here in the Delta,” he says. “I think that initial image of the dead body in a flooded field is what got me rolling.”
He began to ask himself what he would do in Jay’s situation, a process that resulted in the creation of a character the reader can empathize with even while he’s doing bad things. “I got really into creating this character and especially the things that he does and you have to kind of go to some dark places,” says Kornegay.
Deputy Shoals enters the picture to lighten the mood and add comedic relief, but he’s no angel either. “Some people would say that he’s disgusting and gross,” explains Kornegay. “I didn’t want him to be that typical fat, redneck Mississippi cop. I wanted him to be somebody maybe more smooth and manipulative, and his fetish just kind of came out. I read a lot of Barry Hannah and Jim Harrison and maybe they inspired that sort of lecherous, hilarious type character.”
Shoals had never once pulled over a female for personal gain, or flagrantly abused his position in any way. But that’s not to say his assistance had never been requested, or that he’d never engaged in a little mock interrogation with willing young ladies, a few of which resulted in backseat tussles, containment by handcuffs, and ultimately his brandishing ‘the full arm of the law.'” – Chapter 14
Jay’s wife Sandy is at the moral center of the story, and Jay himself is redeemed as a caring father, but in the end he can’t escape the choices he’s made in his life. Kornegay is no Jay Mize, but he is a husband and father, as well as a back yard gardener.
Jay’s obsession with agriculture starts with a compost pile and leads to a a crop of corn planted right in his front yard. Kornegay’s own obsession began several years ago when Alice Waters visited the bookstore. She got him fired up about starting a farmers market in Greenwood, and Kornegay began growing heirloom vegetables in his yard. The market is still in operation, but Kornegay’s garden has since gone by the wayside. “I think I understood there’s a reason why they only grow corn and cotton and soybeans here,” he says. “It’s hard growing, especially organically, in this heat with these pests. It can be done, but it takes a lot of practice.”
The author’s insertion of his own past life experiences makes Soil both relatable and fresh at the same time. If there’s something Kornegay learned from Barry Hannah, it’s what not to do. He was aware of the trap of falling into Southern and Mississippi stereotypes. “There’s so much more going on under the surface, and that’s what I really tried to get into in this book and to me that’s what’s interesting about the South,” he says, “not the memaws and mint juleps.”
Jay scurried around the junk-strewn yard, a clearheaded eagerness about him now as he switched on his scientific mind. If he could render the body to charcoal, he reasoned, it could be pulverized easily, dust until dust and so forth. It was more than achievable. It was brilliant.” – Chapter 7
Kornegay calls working at Square Books in Oxford his MFA, but he’s also had access to writers like Larry Brown, Donna Tartt, William Gay, Tom Franklin and Richard Flanagan — who have all visited TurnRow. Driving them to and from the airport or interviewing them for the bookstore newsletter provided ample opportunity to soak up their knowledge of writing and books. “I think not every writer has that advantage and that may be a large reason why people go to graduate school for writing just to get that sort of access,” he says.
As his own book launch party for Soil approaches on March 10, Kornegay is a little uncomfortable with promoting himself but is counting on the support of his neighbors and friends. He says he took the advice of Padgett Powell many years ago to not talk about wanting to be a writer and instead just write. “I hadn’t really made a fuss about it, so they don’t know that side of me so much,” he says about the people of Greenwood. “I will look forward to explaining, hey, I’ve been doing this in your midst and it’s come to something now and this is what I learned from Greenwood to put in this book.”
He promises his own book event will be more celebration than talking, although he will read a short passage from Soil and sign copies of the book. After that, it’s more booksignings from New Orleans to Atlanta and Nashville. And fans of Soil will be glad to hear Kornegay has already started another book that’s moving along much quicker than the first.
“It’s set in the Delta about large-scale farming,” he says. “I’m talking to these guys who farm thousands of acres. It’s completely fascinating to me the things they do and the things they deal with. They’re like artists themselves working on this huge canvas.”
Get Jamie Kornegay’s Mississippi Reading List of upcoming authors here.