Joseph B. Atkins is a veteran writer and journalist who grew up in North Carolina and worked in its textile mills and on its tobacco farms before getting drafted into the U.S. Army and serving in Vietnam. After studies in Munich, Germany, and Washington, D.C., he belatedly started his journalism career, making the South his “beat” at newspapers in the region and as a Washington correspondent. A journalism professor at the University of Mississippi, Atkins probes that torn and haunted region in his novel Casey’s Last Chance, just as he did in his 2008 nonfiction book about the Southern labor movement and journalism’s failure to tell its story, Covering for the Bosses.
Congratulations on the release of your latest book, Casey’s Last Chance. Tell us about it!
It’s 1960, and the South is about to explode with the struggle over civil rights. Casey Eubanks is a small-time hustler in North Carolina on the run after a violent argument with his girlfriend Orella leaves his cousin dead. A crony sets him up with a big operator in Memphis, Max Duren, a politically connected former Nazi with a wide financial network. Duren needs a hit done on labor organizer Ala Gadomska, who’s getting workers at a Duren mill in Mississippi all stirred up. He hires Casey, but things go wrong, and now Casey’s on the run from Duren’s goons as well as the police. Enter Martin Wolfe, an alcoholic reporter who tries to recruit Casey to help him and rogue FBI agent Hardy Beecher in a plan to bring Duren down. Casey’s response is to steal Wolfe’s car and return home to Orella, where a bloody shootout with a Duren goon convinces him to join Wolfe and Beecher. It’s Casey’s last chance. They take off across the South to execute a plan that’s either going to work or blow up in their faces.
What was your inspiration for it?
A few of the significant characters in Casey’s Last Chance —Casey Eubanks, Orella Weicker, and Clyde Point–appeared in an earlier, unpublished novel of mine. I wanted to pursue these characters further and see what was going to happen to them. As I was developing this second novel, I visited my old hometown in central North Carolina, where a 90-year-old cousin of mine told me a story about the black sheep of the Atkins family, a man always in and out of trouble and prison. The black sheep tried to come back home at the end of his dissolute life but was sent packing by relatives who bought him a bus ticket to Charlotte. He soon died of a heart attack while walking alone down a street in that city. Relatives had to pool resources to buy him a grave and a headstone. That upside-down version of the prodigal son’s story helped inspire Casey’s journey.
What do you hope readers will get from your book?
I hope they get entertainment, of course, and I hope their encounter with Casey, Orella, and others in the book gets into their minds and hearts, the way a good book does me. I call this a crime novel, but, of course, I think it is more than that. These hard-luck characters are real people to me, and I want my readers to know them, to see whether redemption is possible for the seemingly un-redeemable. I’m also saying something about this region of the country I know so well, perennially the nation’s poorest and its most racially scarred. There are reasons for that, and for why its people often behave the way they do, and that’s a subtext—a very strong one—of this book. I hope at least some of my readers will see this.
Did your book require a lot of research?
I’m an old newspaper reporter, and I strongly believe good reporting is necessary whether you’re writing a news story or a novel. They say Faulkner, a notorious drinker, used to go barn dances near where I now live, park himself next to the beer barrel, and pull his hat down over his eyes like he’d had too much. Then he’d listen to folks uninterrupted, hear their stories, their ways of speaking. That’s good reporting. For my novel, I had to go back and see what was life really like in 1960. I’ve got some memories, of course, but I also had to know what roads existed, and which didn’t, what kind of gas you could buy at a service station, what beer you could order at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis. I interviewed a soon-to-retire FBI agent several times at length to get an idea of what it was like in the Bureau under J. Edgar, what kind of terms were used, how you could set up a listening device to hear conversations in a nearby building.
How do you keep your narrative exciting?
Writers have all kinds of tricks for that sort of thing. One of the best, I think, is to end each chapter on a note of suspense, to make that reader turn to the next chapter, next page. It keeps a flow to the writing, keeps it connected. As a journalist, I appreciate the value of being succinct, making each word count, each word carry its own weight. Rewriting helps you weed out extra baggage and keep that flow, not only from chapter to chapter but also sentence to sentence. I’m a great admirer of writers like Balzac, Erskine Caldwell, and Nelson Algren who have this quality of relentlessness, always pushing the envelope to see where it’s going to take their characters next and how they’ll react. Sometimes you’re surprised yourself! I read long ago a writer advise young novices to “make your characters do something!” I’ve discovered that I handle action scenes pretty well, and I’ve got enough in the novel to keep things stirred up.
Do you have a writing schedule? Are you disciplined?
You have to be disciplined. Look, this is work, a job, if you will. Reporters don’t wait around for the muse to inspire. They’ve got an editor leaning over their desk with smoke coming out of his ears. That’s their muse! It’s an old cliché but you need to write every day. I do my best writing in the morning, and when I’m on a project, I’ll be at my desk for two hours or more in the morning, then I’ll come back for another hour or two of editing in the afternoons. I’ve got a journal where I jot down each day’s work, which I also do on a calendar next to my desk. When I look at that calendar at the end of the month, I know exactly how good, or how lazy, I’ve been. Like most writers, I also have another job, so it can be tricky to make time, but make time is what you’ve got to do. I’ve spent many nights writing, too, but then there’s that glass of Jack Daniel next to my laptop, and when Jack’s in the picture, it often means a healthy rewrite the next morning.
What do you love most about the writer’s life?
Everybody talks about the loneliness, and that’s true, but those shining moments—whether early in the morning and late one evening—when the plot takes a new and exciting twist, or some revelation about your character suddenly springs off that page, that is what you’ve got to love as a writer. I’ve sometimes jumped up from my chair and gave a “Whoop!” when that happened. The writers I’d admire—Algren, Flannery O’Connor, Dostoevsky—well, I just know they had to have experienced that same joy, and in that way you’ve connected with the very people who inspired you do this thing.
What is your advice for aspiring authors?
It’ll often seem like all the odds are stacked against you, and you know what? That may be true. You don’t live in New York. You don’t know a single real-live writer? You don’t have an Ivy League degree or a rich mama and daddy. All those things were true for me. When I started, the best route for people like me was a newspaper job. So what if you’re a hack banging out stories about landfills and zoning meetings? You’re learning to write on deadline in a way to make people want to read your stuff. Now you’ve got blogs and not so many newspapers, but you look for every opportunity to hone your craft, to get people other than your mother and significant other to read your stuff and offer constructive criticism. Write, rewrite, polish, and listen. Don’t let your ego get in your way, but also hone an inner sense of integrity about what you’re doing. That means be the writer you were meant to be, not someone else. That’s where the writer connects with truth, and that’s what we all want.
George Orwell once wrote: “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.” Comments?
Orwell talks about “writing a book”, and that reminds me of something the great hardboiled crime writer Jim Thompson once said. He said his best training for book writing was writing all those countless short stories and true crime stories for the pulps. After the near disappearance of the mainstream short story market, online magazines are helping resurrect opportunities for writers to write short first so they write long later. Back to Orwell. Yes, a book is a hard taskmaster. Following that long trail from beginning to end makes you feel like Don Quixote, and just as nuts. Why am I doing this? Is anyone ever going to read this? Well, the truth is that if you’re really a writer, you’re doing it because you don’t have a choice. You’ve got to do it. For every question that seems to beg a negative, you’ve got one positive, and that’s this: I’m doing it because it needs to be done.
Cover art and photo published with permission from author and author’s publicist.
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