Joseph B. Atkins grew up working in the North Carolina textile mills and tobacco fields that he has described in his writing. After service as a soldier in Vietnam, he traveled to his mother’s native Germany, where he studied philosophy before his belated start in journalism. He worked at newspapers across the South, as a congressional correspondent in Washington, D.C., and is now a professor of journalism at the University of Mississippi. His writing has appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, The Oxford American, USA Today, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Baltimore Sun, and the Guadalajara (Mexico) Reporter. He is the author of Covering for the Bosses, a book about the Southern labor movement and the press’ failure to tell its story. His novella, Crossed Roads, was a finalist in the Pirate’s Alley Fiction Awards in New Orleans. Atkins’ latest book is the novel Casey’s Last Chance, published by Sartoris Literary Group.
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Thanks for letting us interrogate you! Can you give us a go-for-the-gut answer as to why you wanted to be an author?
I’ve wanted to be a writer ever since I was in Mr. Watson’s 8th grade English class and being totally mesmerized by his tales of Edgar Allan Poe, Jack London, Herman Melville and all the rest. I went home each day and wrote Poe-like horror stories, epic poems, plays, all of them horrible, but still a seed was planted. Writing was magical, and I just knew I wanted to do it. After a lot of traveling, blue-collar work, and university studies, I started banging out stories for a small newspaper. Journalism can be a great teacher—writing crisp sentences with no extra baggage, feeling the heat of deadlines and editors with smoke coming out their ears--but, like Hemingway warned, the longer you stay in it the harder it gets to make the transition to fiction. He was right. The old formulas no longer work. In fiction you make all the decisions, and that’s unsettling to a fact-driven reporter. I hung in there, however, getting piles of rejection slips along the way. Then miraculously a short story got published, soon another, and I began to think, “Hey, this might actually work!”
Tell us (we won’t tell promise!) is it all it’s cracked up to be? I mean what are the perks and what are the demands?
The best perks are very personal and private. The magical moment at your desk early in the morning or late at night when you get a stunning revelation about your character or discover a new twist in your plot that’s so obvious now but wasn’t five minutes before. You jump out of your chair and do a little insane dance. It’s good nobody’s watching! Then there’s the day your published book arrives in the mail and you get to hold that little baby in your hands. You’re a mama bear at that point, and you’re going to fight for that baby that you struggled so hard to bring into the world.
As for demands, writing is a tough taskmaster. It’s a cliché, I suppose, but true. You’ll be honing your craft the rest of your life. It’s a lonely undertaking, and it’s one that requires a lot of perseverance and willingness to pick yourself up off the floor and dust yourself off a thousand times. You’ll ask yourself again and again whether this is really what you should be doing, but deep down inside you know you’ve got no choice. You’ve got to do it even if your fan club is so exclusive you’re its only member!
Which route did you take – traditional or self-published – and can you give us the nitty gritty low down on what’s that like?
Casey’s Last Chance is my third published book. My first two, both nonfiction, were with university presses, and they put a price tag on the books that put them out of the commercial market, much to my chagrin. I vowed never to let that happen again. My novel is pretty dark—although I believe it has some darn funny moments—and I don’t have an agent. For those reasons, I never even tried a major publisher, searching out instead smaller traditional publishers with an interest in mystery and crime novels like mine. I’m glad I found my way to Sartoris Literary Group, which also likes to publish books about the South (my novel is set in the South). So that was a good combination for me.
Tell us for real what your family feels about you spending so much time getting your book written, polished, edited, formatted, published, what have you?
It has been a long haul, and I’ve gone through a couple marriages along the way! My late first wife was very supportive, as is my wife today. Both were great editors with suggestions that made sense and helped. My children, too. They all know that when I enter the inner sanctum of my office at home I may not emerge again for several hours. I remember years ago the entire family scrambling to get an earlier manuscript pulled together, copied, and mailed at the last minute to make the entry deadline for a national fiction contest. It was my wife who told me about the contest, and I was honored to be named a finalist. This was a big encouragement to me relatively early in my fiction writing career.
Do your pets actually get their food on time or do they have to wait until you type just one more word?
We once had three cats, and now we’re down to one. I promise it’s not because I was too busy writing to feed them! One simply disappeared, another lived a ripe old age, and Gus the survivor is himself a hearty 15. My wife works out of town, and my kids are grown and gone, so the cats have been great company to me. Gus is always there when I take a break from my desk. I’ll talk to him about the latest chapter, and his silence is often very telling!
Are your plants actually still alive?
Our house is full of plants, very exotic, and I pride myself on having a greener thumb than my wife even if she’s better at identifying what they actually are. I sometimes talk to the plants just like I do to Gus. Like I said, writing is a lonely business, so you’re happy to have a living being nearby that listens, is not bothersome, and doesn’t interrupt!
In writing your book, how did you deal with the phone ringing, your family needing dinner or your boss calling you saying you’re late?
I’ve got a writer friend who’s so disciplined he refuses to even look at his email before he’s finished writing that day. I’m not that disciplined, but I don’t answer the phone. It’s only someone wanting my money anyway. Every writer has to learn how to deal with distractions, and the problem is you’re often seeking them out before the writing kicks in. When it kicks in, however, then it’s Katy bar the door if a distraction comes along!
What was the craziest or insane thing that happened to you in the book publishing process?
I recently had a short story scheduled to appear in an anthology. The editor okayed it, and nearly two years later the book’s initial online advertisement cited me as among the authors included. Then I learn the publisher decided last minute the story was too long and its setting wasn’t right for the collection. So he pulled it. “%$#@^&*%!” was my reaction, or something to that effect. I’ve had similar ups and downs in the magazine publishing business. A little craziness comes with the territory, I suppose.
How about the social networks? Which ones do you believe help and which ones do you wish you could avoid?
I’m a blogger, and I enjoy blogging as a means of getting stories and information out there that otherwise might never see the light of day. I’m on Twitter but principally use it in connection with my blog. Facebook can be a great way to get attention to your book, and Casey’s Last Chance has a Facebook page that lets readers know when there’s a new review or an event related to the book. Old-fashioned e-mail is another way to let friends and colleagues know the same. Don’t know of any social network I would rather avoid, but there are probably plenty I should use and don’t.
Book sales. Don’t you just love them (or lack of?)? How are you making the sales happen for you?
I paid limited attention to sales with my first two books although I pushed to get signings and was flattered when a second edition of one was published in India. I’m keen on the topic with my novel, however. Writers today have to be more involved in the business end than they had to in the past. Changes in the industry have necessitated it. I worked too long and hard to just let the novel drift into never-never land. I want people to read the darned thing! Initial sales went well as I did book readings and signings at some key bookstores and reviews and profiles were done in major newspapers and magazines in my region. When things began to level out, I considered other ways to give it a boost. I thought about getting a book trailer done, but the question nagged as to how then to promote or distribute the trailer. For the first time then, I decided to get a publicist on board. My publicist, Maryglenn McCombs of Nashville, Tenn., is doing a great job getting attention to Casey’s Last Chance.
What is one thing you’d like to jump on the rooftop and scream about?
Well, it’s pretty darn exciting that these characters I’ve known so intimately over the past several years—Casey Eubanks, Ala Gadomska, Martin Wolfe, Hardy Beecher—are now out in the world, and other people besides me are getting to know them! That’s worthy of a rooftop scream!
Okay, too much sugar for you today! Here’s a nice cup of Chamomile tea and come on over and sit under the cabana and watch the waves roll in. Now…can you tell us what you love about being a published author and how all those things above doesn’t matter because it’s all part of the whole scheme of things and you wouldn’t have it any other way?
It’s nice to know that all the years you put into something didn’t go to waste, and to be a little proud that you didn’t give up along the way. You really did have something worthwhile to say, and others want to know what it is.