Black Panther novelist, Ole Miss alum Jesse J. Holland: ‘Journalists have to be great storytellers’

Published 10:47 am Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Ole Miss alumnus and award-winning writer Jesse J. Holland returned to the university Tuesday, delivering the keynote address for the Mississippi Scholastic Press Association state convention and hosting a question-and-answer session for the general public.

Holland, a Mount Pleasant native, has most recently gained notoriety as the author of the novels “Who is the Black Panther?” and “Star Wars: Finn’s Story.” He is also an accomplished journalist and nonfiction writer whose book “The Invisibles: The Untold Story of African American Slavery in the White House” won the silver medal in U.S. history at the Independent Publisher Book Awards.

According to Holland, the common thread running through all his works is history.

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“When people ask me what I do as a journalist, I tell them I write the history of today. I write the history of yesterday,” he said. “We as journalists have to be great storytellers. No matter how much you listen, no matter what facts you find, if you can’t tell a great story, you can’t be a journalist.”

In his keynote address for the MSPA, Holland highlighted the importance of ambition and hard work in building his career, and how others can pursue their dreams of being in the journalism field.

As a student at H.W. Byers High School, Holland was instrumental in starting the first school newspaper and broadcast program. He served as editor-in-chief for the Daily Mississippian from 1993 to 1994, as well as interning for the EAGLE, Better Homes and Gardens Magazine, the Birmingham Post-Herald, the New York Times and Associated Press in Columbia, S.C.

“My work as a high school journalist started me on the path that I’m on today, as an Associated Press journalist and author,” Holland said. “When I decided I wanted to be a journalist and a writer, Ole Miss at that time had the only journalism program in the state of Mississippi. Not only that, but we had the only program that offered broadcast, radio and print.”

In addition to his role at the Daily Mississippian, Holland also hosted a talk show on Rebel Radio and worked as a cameraman for NewsWatch. These opportunities in student media and internships, he said, allowed him to discover his niche and mould himself into the writer he is today.

Audience members at the question-and-answer session in Overby Auditorium asked a variety of questions, ranging from inquiries about Holland’s writing style to fans asking when the next Black Panther book will be announced. (Holland is currently speaking with Marvel, but cannot confirm anything at this time.)  

Kharisma Morris, a student who attended the session at the Overby Center, said finding out Holland attended Ole Miss was another fascinating part of the blockbuster phenomenon.

“When Black Panther came out, I was totally into it. It was a great movie, and I’ve been researching it, the small parts that went into it, like the people who worked on the soundtrack, the actors and writers,” Morris said. “Somebody told me a guy from Ole Miss had written this novel, and I thought, ‘That’s so dope.’”

The Black Panther film and Holland’s novel were written simultaneously, so the characters are the same, but two different stories are being told.

Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter said having Holland speak was a chance to inspire students to achieve their dreams, and see the possibilities the Meek School of Journalism and New Media and the university as a whole have to offer.

“It’s truly a pleasure, always, to get a very, very honored, influential, recognized alumni back to campus, because they’re role models for the university,” Vitter said. “[Holland] is a great example of what can happen when you develop your strengths and embrace the exciting opportunities offered, which is a great lesson for all of our students.”

Throughout all his accomplishments, Holland said he never forgot the reason he decided to pursue journalism – to meet interesting people, go to interesting places and see interesting things, all of which led him to writing his first books.

However, he said much of his story centers around taking advantage of opportunities as they present themselves. That attitude, he said, is what led him to accept offers from LucasFilm and Marvel to write his fiction works.

The self-proclaimed comic book geek had never written fiction before writing the background novel for the Star Wars character Finn, but said he tackled Finn’s story, as well as Prince T’Challa of Wakanda’s story, with the approach of a journalist.

“For years, I thought that writing fiction would make it more difficult for me to write in journalism. But when I started working on Finn’s story, I discovered that there was a common thread through all of my fiction and nonfiction,” he said. “We as journalists are basically historians. We just write the history of yesterday instead of 100 years ago. The Black Panther book is the history of that character. So I’m writing in the same way, just with fictional characters.”

Holland’s writing formula seems to be working. As of two weeks ago, “Who is the Black Panther?” sold out worldwide.

Overall, Holland said the most important words of wisdom he could give to aspiring writers is to “find your tribe.” A tribe of like-minded people, he said, will work with each other for the advancement of each individual.

“Find your tribe, no matter what tribe that is,” he said. “Whether it’s a comic book tribe, or science fiction or a journalism tribe, find your tribe and stick with them. They’ll get you on the right path.”


Originally published by The Oxford Eagle. Featured photo by Bruce Newman.