by Whitney Gilchrist
For a Fondren resident, Richard Grant speaks with a fine English accent. But he describes himself as “not from anywhere.”
“I tell people I’m from London, England, but I was born in Malaysia. I grew up in Kuwait. I got to London when I was eight and was told, ‘This is where you’re from,’” he explains.
As an adult, Grant became a travel writer. “I’m used to being the outsider looking in at the culture, trying to make sense of it, because that’s what I’ve been doing since I was a kid,” he says. Aside from numerous magazine stories, he has written three books about excursions in Mexico, Africa and the American West.
It was the blues artist Junior Kimbrough’s music, which Grant calls “totally hypnotizing,” that first drew him to “try to make sense of” Mississippi.
“I found out that two college kids were recording these bluesmen in the hills and that somehow they managed to get a million dollars in debt doing it. I was like, that’s got to make a magazine story,” Grant remembers.
In the process of writing that story, he developed friendships in Water Valley and Oxford that kept him coming back to visit for years. “When I would get sort of depressed or crazy, I thought of Oxford as my safety valve. If I could just get myself to Oxford, things would be okay because I knew I would have fun.”
With encouragement from Mississippian and cookbook writer Martha Hall Foose, he eventually decided to move to Pluto, Mississippi from New York. He and his then-girlfriend, Mariah, bought a plantation house. Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta is a compilation of encounters with Delta culture, written with a winning combination of love and historical objectivity.
“There’s a lot of reading that lay behind (the book) that I didn’t want to wear on my sleeve. But I probably read like fifty or sixty books about the Delta… I kind of believe in that: read what’s out there, and absorb it.”
More than just a piece of travel writing, this project proved unique because he stayed and formed relationships with the characters of the story. “The fact that I was making a life, me and Mariah, in this place, that just made it go deeper as well. I wasn’t just passing through to write about it. I was trying to establish a life there,” Grant adds. The closing chapter of Dispatches recounts Richard and Mariah’s wedding, held at Pluto.
A year ago, Mariah took a job as a librarian at Millsaps College. They sold the house to the great-grandson of the man who built it and moved to Fondren. Grant continues to write for magazines (most recently The Smithsonian and Garden & Gun).
Even though Fondren doesn’t offer what Grant calls the “elbow room” of the Delta, he savors Saltine’s fried chicken po’ boys, Apothecary’s “world-class” cocktails and neighbors like William Winter and James Meredith.
But he doesn’t get out much: the Grants now have a baby girl. “She’s born in Jackson, so she has a claim to being a Mississippian. We never will be, which is fine,” he says, then pauses. “I like how unpredictable my life has been. I was never going to get married, was never going to have a kid, was never going to buy a house. It never even occurred to me I’d end up having a house and a wife and a kid in Mississippi.”
Meet Grant on Saturday June 18 at 11am at Lemuria Books as he signs copies of his books.