personalities: award-winning author

This Writer’s Southern Roots Run Deep







In February, Haines will receive the Richard Wright Literary Excellence Award from the Natchez Literary and Cinema Celebration. The award recognizes living authors with strong Mississippi ties for their body of work. Since 1994, some of Mississippi’s most acclaimed writers have been honored. Haines’ name might not be as familiar as Greg Iles, Barry Hannah or Ellen Douglas, who have also received the Richard Wright award, but she has built a steady, successful career as a novelist over the past three decades. She has written fiction and non-fiction, but is probably best known for her “Bones”

series of madcap mysteries set in the Mississippi Delta and starring Sarah Booth Delaney, a private eye with a flair for the dramatic. The eighth book in the series, “Wishbones,” was released this summer by St. Martin’s Minotaur, and the ninth, “Greedy Bones,” will be published in summer 2009. Haines began her career as a photojournalist for the Hattiesburg American and Mobile Register in the 1970s, after graduating from the University of Southern Mississippi. In addition to the “Bones” mysteries, which started in 1999 with “Them Bones,” her books include “Summer of

the Redeemers,” (1994), and “Touched,” (1996), which were both works of general fiction with a strong element of mystery and suspense. Her first non-fiction book was “My Brother’s Keeper,” (2003) the true story of Mississippi native Peggy Morgan, who heard the confession of the assassin of Medgar Evers and had to testify against him despite the threat to her own life. She also has an essay in “Growing Up in Mississippi,” edited by Judy Tucker and Charlene McCord, and an excerpt from her novel “Shop Talk,” appears in “A State of Laughter,” a collection of Alabama authors’ humorous


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stories edited by Don Noble. Haines credits her gift for storytelling to her grandmother, Hulda Johanna Nyman McEachern, who told her ghost stories at bedtime, which she would then share with her girlfriends at slumber parties. “She emigrated to the U.S. when she was 6 years old from Sweden,” Haines said. “She was a marvelous storyteller and the county historian in George County for a number of years. She was, at that time, one of the better educated people in that part of Mississippi.” Haines, who now lives in Semmes, Ala., on a farm filled with a menagerie of horses, dogs and cats, sat down recently to answer a few questions about her writing career for South Mississippi Scene. SMS: Congratulations on the Richard Wright award. What does it mean to you to get an award that’s based on your body of work? HAINES: I’ve been writing a long time, and this award - to be honored and acknowledged by my home state - has touched me deeply. I live this dual life, where I reside in Alabama, a state I’ve grown to love and one that has honored me with an Alabama State Council on the Arts writing fellowship. I’m active in the arts world in Alabama and Mississippi. Because most of my books are set in Mississippi. I’m one of these lucky people who can claim dual citizenship. But to receive this recognition from the place of my birth, and a state that obviously

holds such a large part in my consciousness, is a terrific honor. SMS: When did you know you wanted to be a writer? HAINES: I grew up telling stories to the neighborhood children. My parents encouraged an active imagination, playing make-believe games and reading stories. My father made up stories about Leo the Friendly Lion. (He didn’t participate in the scare-athons that were the joy of my mother, grandmother, brothers and neighborhood kids.) And I can’t remember a time

when I didn’t read at some point during the day. I love fiction. I love the way a writer can tell the whole truth in fiction that simply isn’t available in non-fiction or journalism. Because fiction deals with emotional truth, not just fact. SMS: Your mystery series is set in the Mississippi Delta, and in your bio, you say that you first went to the Delta when you went to Parchman penitentiary for a story. Was that while you were at the Hattiesburg American?

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personalities: award-winning author

HAINES: No, I’d graduated from college and was working as a photojournalist for the Mobile Register. SMS: Do you make trips to the Delta for research when you’re working on one of your books? HAINES: I go to the Delta any time I can. I traveled this summer with another Hattiesburg American alum, Fran Hawkins Utley. We were both photographers back in the day. She photographed some of the blues musicians while I did some research and signed books. SMS: In “Wish Bones,” the main character, Sarah Booth Delaney, is cast in a remake of the Kathleen Turner movie “Body Heat.” Why did you choose “Body Heat” as the movie that’s being remade? HAINES: I love that movie. The script is great. I’m not a person who watches movies over and over, but “Body Heat” is one that I can always watch. It has a great twist to it. SMS: The movie is being filmed in Costa Rica. Why did you set it there? Is it a favorite vacation spot for you? HAINES: Actually, I vacationed in Nicaragua and had the opportunity to travel a bit in Central America. I won’t bore you with my political rants, but I was in Nicaragua in the late 1980s. Central America is a geographic paradise. “Body Heat” required, in my mind, a hot climate. So why not pick one of the most beautiful settings I’d ever seen? SMS: “Wishbones” is the eighth book in the “Bones” series. Have you set a number, like you’re going to only write 10 or 15 in the series, or do you see it going on forever? HAINES: I don’t have a termination point. If I’m lucky enough to keep good sales and get new contracts with publishers, then I’ll continue to write the stories as long as I have ideas. Sarah Booth and the gang are my friends (I know how nutty that sounds). I love spending time with them. But should those feelings fade, I’d stop the series. I’m one of those very, very fortunate writers who write more than one book at a time. And my readers have been tremendously generous to follow me to “the dark side” with books like “Penumbra” (2006) and “Fever

Moon” (2007). But what this does is it allows me to stretch as a writer, to grow and explore. So that when I start a “Bones” book, I’m fresh and, hopefully, a better writer and eager to tell the story. SMS: How long does it take to write one of the mysteries? HAINES: Usually a year. But I do work on other things, too. SMS: Do you have it all figured out before you start to write or do you solve the mystery along with Sarah Booth? HAINES: I usually write a synopsis, and then I let the book happen. Knowing the direction of the story helps me focus, but I allow the characters to behave naturally. Sometimes that throws a few curves into my original plans, but it’s all good. I love to just sit down and write, but a mystery takes a bit of planning for the clues and red herrings to be properly set. SMS: The Kirkus review said it’s a glimpse into an alien culture. What do you think of that? HAINES: I’ll take it as a compliment, though the South is often the “whipping boy” for a lot of unjustified smugness from other parts of the country. I grew up at a time when the world wasn’t so homogenized, and there were unique aspects to the South that I relish. Those are things I include in my books, that sense of a world apart filled with rich and eccentric characters. I grew up in a household that valued such things. While there are aspects to the Southern culture that I loath, find me a single place in the world where that isn’t true. Human nature is human nature, geography doesn’t change that. SMS: You’ve written a variety of fiction and non-fiction books now. Is mysteries it for you now, or do you still want to write general fiction and maybe even another non-fiction book? HAINES: I read in many different genres, so I write in different areas. I love to read mysteries, both dark and light. Within that genre there are many different sub-genres. Like “Penumbra” and “Fever Moon” were called “literary thrillers.” Crime novels, cozies, psychological thrillers - there’s a lot of territory just within the mystery fold. But I’m also dallying with an idea for what is either a psy-

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chological thriller or horror. And I’m working on a short story for a collection I’m editing for Bleak House centered around the Mississippi Delta Blues and a crime/noir element. This is going to be a great collection of short stories by some of the more prominent writers working today, as well as some authors who haven’t gotten as much ink. We are going to have a blast. SMS: What books influenced you as a child? HAINES: I read anything about horses. The Black Stallion books, the “Blood Bay Stallion,” “Silver Birch,” “King of the Wind,” “My Friend Flicka,” and I loved stories of adventure such as “Tom Sawyer” and “Huckleberry Finn.” I collected the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys series (the Hardy Boys had better toys!) and Edgar Allen Poe (“Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “The Gold Bug”), which I think honed my love of mystery and the macabre. Sir Author Conan Doyle’s “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” was a favorite. In middle school, my teacher, Carolyn Nyman (she was my mother’s best friend and I was named for her) caught me reading a Harold Robbins novel in class, a scandal at the time. Instead of ratting me out, she took my paperback and gave me a copy of Eudora Welty’s short stories. “The Wide Net” was the story that did me in. Reading that story, the germ of actually writing stories was planted. I’d read mostly fiction which almost exclusively dealt with characters far removed from the small Mississippi town of Lucedale. Miss Welty brought me home. She showed me that the things I knew about and loved - the land, the woods, the people, the values of a community - that this was grist for fiction that moved into complex and wonderful terrain. Later I was exposed to Flannery O’Connor, Harper Lee’s wonderful classic, Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Doris Betts, Lee Smith - these wonderful Southern voices so unique and yet so comforting to my ear. In recent years, I’ve become a devotee of James Lee Burke he’s simply incredible in the power of his story, character and language - Dennis Lehane, John Irving, Barbara Kingsolver, Margaret Atwood. I read many, many things for different reasons. A book fulfills so many needs. In fact, there’s not a “type” of book I won’t give a try. SMS: Anything else you want to add? HAINES: I have 20 animals, mostly rescue, and I continue to urge everyone to please spay and neuter their pets. Also, I’m on the lookout for my clone. If anyone sees her, please restrain her and send her back to me. I need some help on the farm.

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