September 18, 2020

Beth Ann Fennelly: 'I don’t call myself a Southern writer because you could make a good argument that I’m not'

Beth Ann Fennelly didn’t mean to write her latest book, “Heating & Cooling.”

“The Tilted World,” a 2013 novel she co-wrote with her husband, Tom Franklin, had been a success, but the Oxford-based writer and Mississippi poet laureate had spent time afterward teaching at the University of Mississippi, raising their three children and, well, recovering.

“The novel took Tom and me about four years because we did a lot of research,” she says. “And there were high stakes. If a novel you write with your spouse doesn’t work, it’s not great for the marriage.”

“The Tilted World” did work, though, and Fennelly took some time off from writing. Or so she thought.

“I started scribbling ideas in my notebook thinking, ‘I’m not writing, I’m not writing,’” she says. “But I realized I was returning to my notebook with that same energy and interest as when I was writing. So, what if this is writing, and it just doesn’t look like what I’ve written before. It’s not a novel, not an essay, not a poem. Once I realized it, I had written half the book.”

That book would become “Heating & Cooling,” described as 52 “micro-memoirs.” Fennelly will read from and sign it at Square Books on Oct. 10 at 5 p.m.

It’s a book filled with a variety of styles, which isn’t surprising for a woman whose other work has included books about motherhood, poems that earned her the Pushcart Prize and magazine essays that have included one for Garden & Gun magazine about her and her husband’s love affair with the Flora-Bama Lounge and Oyster Bar on the Alabama-Florida line.

As for “Heating & Cooling,” it’s unlike anything Fennelly has written before.

“It’s a variety of essays,” she says. “The shortest ones are one sentence, and the longest is five pages. Most of them are quite short.”

There’s also a variety in the tone of the stories.

“Some pieces are wry, some are poetic or lyrical in feel, some are sad, some are funny,” Fennelly says. “They try to capture different emotions. These little pieces allow you to do that, instead of one long piece like a novel, where you don’t switch from being a serious novel to a comic novel in the middle.”

Finally, the autobiographical pieces vary in approach, according to the author.

“Some are snippets of conversation and are just dialogue,” she says. “Some are straightforward narratives with a beginning, middle and end. The variety was fun to play with.”

And the result is Fennelly’s most personal work, yet, personal enough for her to refer to it as a memoir.

“A lot of the pieces are about recognizable people, and I use their names,” she says. “I showed the pieces to everybody in the book, and people did sign off on them. I just didn’t want anyone to be surprised when the book comes out.”

That she’s even talking about this new book is somewhat surprising for Fennelly who, growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, decided in college that she was going to be a poet.

“It was only going to be poetry for me,” she says. “I was dead-on, 100-percent set for poetry. It was almost alarming the first time or two things came out in prose. I felt like I was almost cheating on poetry.”

Fennelly went to graduate school at the University of Arkansas, where she met Franklin, and the two moved to Mississippi 16 years ago, teaching at Ole Miss and, at least for him, writing books (“Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter,” “Poachers,” “Smonk,” “Hell at the Breech”).

Fennelly’s first book came, unsurprisingly, by surprise. She jokes that they call came by surprise.

“I accidentally wrote a book on motherhood in letter form, because it was letters I wrote to one of my students,” she says. “Then, I was tricked into writing a novel with my husband, and now here’s the third book.”

Along the way, she was named Mississippi’s poet laureate and continued to teach two classes each term at Ole Miss.

Does 20 years in the South mean this Jersey-born and Illinois-raised woman can call herself a Southern writer? She doesn’t think so.

“My feeling is that I don’t call myself a Southern writer because you could make a good argument that I’m not,” she says. “When I’m called that, I am totally flattered, and I certainly feel like a Southerner. I love it here. We even bought cemetery plots here in Oxford.”

And she’ll fiercely defend her adopted region.

“People love to disparage the South, and a lot of what they say can be true,” Fennelly says. “We have trouble with racism, and Mississippi is the fattest state in the nation with the highest teen pregnancy rate. I know that’s true, but I want to say, ‘Hey, we have the most Pulitzer-Prize-winning authors. Can we say that?”

Fennelly says she doesn’t quite know what she’ll write next, but she suspects it will be different from what she’s done before. “I’m kind of greedy and impatient, so I imagine there will be a new thing I want to do next,” she says.

Until then, she and Franklin will continue raising their children and writing.

“I think it’s awesome to have two creative types in the house because we understand what each other is up to,” Fennelly says. “There’s a lot of time where the rewards are few and far between in the writing life, but we can encourage each other and remind each other of why we’re doing this. We have three children, two jobs, and we travel a lot to give readings. It’s a chaotic life but a very rich life, and I’m so grateful every day it’s my life.”

Beth Ann Fennelly will sign and read from “Heating & Cooling” at Square Books on Oct. 10 at 5 p.m.