March 2007

Stephanie Merchant


An Interview with Kevin Sessums

What would it have been like to sit across the table and share food and wine with Eudora Welty? How horrible can a childhood be? Modern memoir has become a schoolyard game of one-upping. Who had the worst, craziest, saddest, grossest, most disgusting childhood? This kind of literary voyeurism has the same kind of appeal as driving past a multiple car crash; we glimpse the wreckage but quickly go back to driving.

With his memoir Mississippi Sissy, author Kevin Sessums has all the stuff to catch the eye: two dead parents, a bloody murder, a cadre of colourful characters, even a famous face or two. Here, however, in Sessums’s skilled hands, these childhood traumas are not the standout elements; instead he weaves them together with care and understanding so that it is how these events and people shaped him into the man he is today that is most compelling.

Literature, most notably children's literature, has always had a fascination with orphans. The protagonist is freed from the confinement of parental supervision and rules while at the same time left void of their love and support. The orphan-as-icon is the figure we simultaneously envy and pity. With his honest memories of loss and healing, Sessums presents us with a fuller understanding of what it means to lose both parents. His father died in a car crash when he was only seven and his mother of cancer only a year later. Within the pages of Mississippi Sissy, Sessums allows his parents to come alive again.These are not memories of saints. Sessums’s memories of his parents are complicated, colored both by their flaws and his love.

Sessums grew up with survivor’s guilt, raised by his devoted grandparents in the Deep South in the 1960s amidst the Civil Rights struggle. Mississippi Sissy is an intricately woven tapestry, rich with texture. Author and gay rights advocate Andrew Sullivan offers, “Kevin is a one-off. So at home and canny in the world of celebrity journalism, and yet the reason he's so good at understanding character is because he lived it. Underneath the urbane exterior is Flannery O'Connor on acid. The book made me cry."

Kevin Sessums was kind enough to talk to Bookslut.

You have been doing celebrity interviews for years. You've talked with and written about our stars of today for Interview, Vanity Fair and now Allure and Elle magazines. In Mississippi Sissy you write about your friendship with Eudora Welty just as she had won her Pulitzer Prize, walking into a diner the morning after you had been molested and seeing James Brown and his entourage eating breakfast, as well as your early devotion to Arlene Francis from the TV show What's My Line. How do you feel about fame, especially considering that relatively few people today can identify Arlene Francis?

I refer to fame as the cargo I haul in my truck driving job. I have no hoity-toity allusions as to what I do for a living from day-to-day in my celebrity interviewing mode. I have a very working class attitude toward it. I think of myself as a truck driver. I put the
glamorous cargo in the truck, haul it to deadline, dump it out, and then put some more glamorous cargo in it. "Celebrity journalist" is an oxymoronic term to me. If I thought of myself as a journalist, I'd really have an inferiority complex. I think of myself as a writer who is unintimidated by fame. I can structure a sentence; I innately know the arc of a narrative as if unfolds before me. But I'm not a journalist.

As for Arlene Francis, I hope this book revives her reputation. She got her start in the Mercury Theatre with Joseph Cotton and Orson Wells. Went on to star on the stage and screen (the film version of Arthur Miller's All My Sons and Billy Wilder's One, Two, Three). She was also Barbara Walters before Barbara Walters was Barbara Walters -- she had a television show called Home that came on after the Today Show in the early 1950s. But her great claim to fame was as a panelist on What's My Line. She was urbane and cultured -- two of the things I longed to be as a little sissy boy growing up in the country in Mississippi. She was my idol.

And her son is now a law professor in San Francisco and has discovered the book. A student brought it to class and told him about it. He loved it and told the documentarian, Jackie Sanders, about it and now I'm going to be interviewed for a documentary that Jackie is making about his mother. I'm thrilled and honored. You have no idea what that means to me as a little boy who worshipped her on Sunday nights when What's My Line came on.

You and your younger brother and sister were well known in your community due to the death of your parents within a year of one another. You were trotted out at community and sporting events as "The Sessums Orphans." When did you lose the "orphan" part of your identity or did you?

You never lose it -- though when I made my toast to the couple at the dinner they gave me for my book the other week and said, "Though you are charter members of a kind of elite club in Manhattan, I'm not feeling clubby tonight. I'm feeling friendly and familial and to an old 51-year-old orphan that latter word still packs a powerful and welcome punch," one of the hosts whispered behind me, "You're not an orphan. You are loved." So in that sense I'm not one. But there will always be a parentless hole in one's heart when, especially at a young age, that hole makes itself known. This book was a way to come to terms with that finally.

Some favourite moments in Mississippi Sissy are the ones with Matty May who worked as a housekeeper for your grandparents. The scenes where she uses her own name as a kind of mantra, repeating “Matty May-Matty May-Matty May” to herself even as those around her call her "nigger" are inspiring. Then when she finds even greater strength and poetry reciting the name "Poitier-Poitier-Poitier" after Sidney Poitier wins the Academy award for Best Actor in 1963 was just fantastic. Has Sidney Poitier read your book? (Shoutout to all readers, "Get this book to Sidney!")

I hope he's found it. As another example of how "the universe" works, I was recently out in Los Angeles for Oscar weekend. Each time I have a nephew or niece who graduates from high school I take them out to LA as an Auntie Mame gesture on my part. My latest nephew to graduate, Price, and I were at a picnic on the Saturday before the Oscars and two picnic tables over sat Mr. Poitier. I worked up my courage and went and knelt at his side and introduced myself and told him about the book and how at three critical junctures in the story, he surfaced to offer solace and inspiration. "You even become an incantation," I said. He grabbed my hand and graciously listened to everything I was telling him, all the while sitting on that backless picnic table bench with perfect posture, his 80-year-old spine as straight as the "I" in SISSY. It was a memory I'll cherish the rest of my life. It was as close to a blessing as I've had in a long time. I couldn't help but believe that Matty May somehow had something to do with making that happen from her perch in heaven. Call me corny and delusional -- I've been called each of those things before -- but I believe that.

The molestation scenes in Mississippi Sissy are acutely disturbing. Not only for their graphic nature but because it becomes apparent that you were targeted long before these physical encounters took place. As a mother of four, I would want all parents to read your book just to understand how cunning and manipulative pedophiles can be.
Did you realize later that you were targeted and that your status as the town orphan placed you in such a position of vulnerability?

I do think pedophiles find vulnerable children to befriend, yes. When people say that the book has a lot of graphic sexual scenes
though, I have to correct them and say there is only one real sex scene. The molestation scenes are not sex scenes because molestation is not sex. It is a physical act that is a perversion of trust. It is about power. What the molester leaves behind with the molested is the feeling of complicity you have to live with all your life. It's that complicity in your own victimhood that haunts you. One of the reasons I graphically describe those scenes is that often people's imaginations are even worse than what really happened. I wanted to be specific about what happened -- graphic if you wish -- because if I weren't then I would inherently be owning the shame of that complicity in some way.

Many readers may be shocked or surprised at your honest depictions of some whites’ reactions to blacks' first forays into asserting their civil rights in the Deep South. My mother who lived through that time as a “Yankee” was shocked that the teachers and children at your public elementary school in Forest, Mississippi openly celebrated news of the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

I'm curious how, having been raised by your maternal grandparents who were obviously devoted to you but also employed racist language and attitudes daily, you came out of that environment without those same views? Where did you develop your moral barometer for what was right and what was wrong?

I ask at one point in the book how my siblings and I had been born into such a confusing brew of chicanery, malevolence, and kindheartedness. I realized very early on that the world was a complex place. My grandparents were racists -- I can't escape that -- and if I heard the n-word once a day, I heard it 50 times. They hated Civil Rights workers. My whole extended family did. And yet my grandparents were the ones who took me in when my parents died and saved me and nurtured me. If you saw them in a movie about that time -- the 1960s in Mississippi -- they would be the bad folks, the social villains. And yet I had to find the goodness in them. There was goodness in them to find. But because of my own sense of otherness I had empathy for the African Americans who were struggling to gain their rights more than I had empathy with the views of my own family. In that sense -- among many others -- my otherness was a blessing.

Your gratitude and admiration for your former teachers is touching. I am thinking particularly of Mrs. Fikes who allowed you to do your 6th grade book report on Jacqueline Susann's Valley of the Dolls. Do you suppose with No Child Left Behind there is still a place in schools for children to give reports on Valley of the Dolls today? Do you know if Mrs. Fikes has read Mississippi Sissy?

I don't know if Mrs. Fikes is still alive -- she was pretty old when she taught me in sixth grade. And, no, I doubt that Valley of the Dolls would be allowed as a book report project in the present state of affairs in our school system. But I also knew I had to say that I had sinned and hate the book to get an A from Mrs. Fikes. So there is the conundrum of the South: eccentricity is an art form down there as long as you don't stray too far from the norm. The sixth-grade sissy was allowed to read Jackie Susann as long as he panned her - but, of course, maybe I was even then channeling Truman Capote who, if memory once again serves me correctly, referred to Susann as a truck driver on The Tonight Show once - hmmm, maybe that's the genesis of my first answer to you. "What she does is not writing," he said in that little-girl moan of his as a moue settled onto his then pudgy face. "That's called typing." I wasn't that mean to her.

Memoir is often loathed for its tendency toward the sentimental or schlocky. Too often writers take a handful of interesting things in their life and slap them together roughshod. In Mississippi Sissy, you use a novelistic approach taking great care with plotting, pacing and especially with your transitions between time periods. Tell us about crafting your memoir. When did you work? How long did this book take from start to finish? Did you stylistically steer toward or away from other memoirs you had read?

The Liars Club is my favorite memoir -- it made me realize that the genre could be a literary work of art.  I listened to a lot of Bach Adagios on my iPod while writing this book. Maybe that explains the structure in some way. I was very aware of weaving the narrative -- sometimes ignoring all temporal concerns when they got in the way of the weave of the story. That's the image I kept in mind: a well-woven narrative. I tell people it's like reading the Cliff Notes of my shrinkdom. I spent years figuring out how things connected in my life. E.M. Forster said, "If we could only connect," didn't he? I kept hearing that as my mantra as I wrote. Connect. Connect. Connect. It took me a year and half to finish the manuscript. I put myself on three-a-days in those last three months to get it done. I'd write all morning. Go to the gym and eat lunch. Go to Starbucks and write all afternoon. Have dinner. Then go to Barnes and Noble and sit at its cafe and write at night. I did this six days a week -- taking off Sundays to hang with the kid I mentor from out in Brooklyn. He'd wear me out so I didn't feel like writing on Sunday nights. I finished two days before a Christmas Eve. Went home and told my dog, Archie, that I'd written the last line of my book -- a line I had no idea I was going to write until it came out of my fingers or wherever its origin. But I realized I had written the last line when I typed it into my computer. It was as if the whole book had been written to get to that line. Then I had postpartum for a few weeks.

It’s not every writer who has their first book launched with a party hosted by Diane von Furstenberg. It sounds like something from a movie. Can you tell us what that evening was like?

I was trying not to drop names earlier when I was talking about my dinner for the book. But now you've dropped her name so I guess I'll have to. She's the one who whispered to me about not being an orphan. I told her afterward that when I take my nephews or niece out to LA for Oscar weekend that I always explain to them that they are about to get a glimpse of my "Cinderella existence," that most of the time I lead the simple, solitary life of a writer. When I told Diane that, she said, "But you are Cinderella! Start acting like it!" But so often I find myself hobbling around trying to find the lost glass slipper. Maybe this book, in some sense, is the glass slipper I've been looking for.

You’ve been on tour with Mississippi Sissy throughout your home state of Mississippi for the last fortnight. How has it been for you going home? What has your reception been like? I understand you were banned in Tupelo; will you be selling "Banned in Tupelo" t-shirts on your website

That’s a good idea. Maybe I can make myself some beer money. When I read in Oxford at Square Books they gave me a present. It was a t-shirt with the cover of my book on it. Above the silk-screened cover were the words: BANNED IN TUPELO. Below were the words: WHO'S THE SISSY NOW?

What’s next? I understand you are working on a manuscript just now. Is it fiction? What can you tell us?

I've written the first few pages of a novel. It's a middle-aged heterosexual love story set in Provincetown. The structure and story keep popping up in my head so maybe I'm being drawn to it. I live in Ptown for four months during the summer so perhaps it's just the longing I'm having right now on the road on my book tour to get back there and rock on the porch and watch the sunsets and forget about airport food by eating a lobster roll or two.