The TripFiction Book Club July/August ’19 reads ‘A Summer Reunion’ by Fanny Blake
Talking Location With author J B Jamison – the Mississippi River
25th May 2019
#TalkingLocationWith… J B Jamison, author of Disruption, thriller set along the Mississippi River (The River: A Life-long Character)
As I write these words, the rivers throughout the Midwest are flooding. It is something that rivers do. My father was a Captain on river towboats for almost fifty years and always used to say that the river was a living thing. It was a beautiful, fascinating thing that could make you feel free and wonderful. But he always added, “It is also a living beast, always looking for some way to sneak up behind you and bite you.” Many people are being bitten by that beast today.
I grew up in a small river town. I spent hours walking the banks of the Illinois River, feeling the mud squish between my barefoot toes, watching the birds, snakes, turtles, and simply feeling the life of the river. As a child, we quickly learned the clues to watch for when the river was creeping up to bite. We watched the current to recognize the deep holes you might fall into. We learned the differences between friendly critters and unfriendly critters. We spent much of our family time in a boat, maybe fishing, maybe just watching and listening. The river was just another part of the family.
Years later, I got bit by the river. In 1993, I stood on the bank of the Mississippi River watching the flood waters close the last bridge between New Orleans and Minneapolis, and realized that the business I had spent the past three years building had just been washed away. I swear I could hear the beast laughing as it slid past. Even then, decades away from the mud in my toes and the family boat rides, the river was a part of my life.
The river is also the reason I am a writer. I had no intentions of becoming an author. Thirty some years ago, I got an idea for a story about a towboat. I thought it might be a neat story, so I told my ‘Captain’ dad about it. He laughed. He said it was the dumbest thing he had ever heard, and there was no way it could ever happen on a real towboat. He said I should just forget about it. So, I did.
My father died four years ago after several months of dementia. One afternoon he looked at me with his old familiar eyes I remembered. It turned out to be our last real conversation before he died. He looked at me and asked if I remembered “that story” I had told him a long time ago. He said it had scared him half to death, that it could really happen but he just didn’t what to think about it while he was still “out there”. He said I should write it down. So, I did.
I started writing Disruption, the story about a towboat and its crew, simply to get it out of my head. And to follow the Captain’s orders. I hadn’t thought anything at all about characters or the other things they say you should think about before writing. I didn’t outline anything or have anything you might call “notes”. I just found the old maps dad had used to navigate the Mississippi River and covered my wall with them, imagined that towboat in the river somewhere down by New Orleans, sat down, and started writing. The characters in Disruption showed up when they needed to appear in the story. Except for one. I soon discovered that the most important character in the story was in those maps on the wall. That river. It controlled where things happened, when things happened, and once again became that living thing in my life. At times it bit me when I thought I had a neat story idea but the river said, “No!”
As I followed those maps and wrote Disruption, I felt myself standing on the shore in places like New Orleans, Memphis, St. Louis. But even more, at the end of that road under the bridge below Cairo, and the other riverbank places most folks have never heard of. The river character is the big city with the walls and levees to protect it from the water, and is also the small, blip of a town that gets partly washed away every time the river decides to bite it. The river became my main character in Disruption, just as it has been everywhere else in my life.
Last December, my wife and I stood on the stairs overlooking the Mississippi River as it moves through New Orleans. Then we saw the riverfront parks of Memphis. Later this Summer we’re hoping to take another short trip and spend a bit more time with my favorite character. Only this time, we’re going to visit the other places like Caruthersville, Missouri. Or maybe Hardin, Illinois, where instead of finding the big parks and monuments on the riverfront, we’ll visit the place where, today, the river is slowly moving up the street into the center of town.
If you’ve never had the opportunity to spend time with the River, and feel its heartbeat, let me make a recommendation or two. Those riverfront places like New Orleans, Natchez, Memphis, and St. Louis are great spots to see how some cities have worked to link the city to the river and protect it from the river at the same time. You will find interesting and well-designed sites to see, nice accommodations, and are sure to have a good time. But I really encourage you to also visit some of the smaller places and experience the other river, the one I live with. Maybe someplace where you can see the flying Asian Carp. Heck, you might even consider a visit to Beardstown, Illinois, where I hunted turtles and tin cans.
The Mississippi River is a living character in my first novel, Disruption, but I think all rivers are. Some look like they have been better tamed than others, but don’t be fooled. The river is a giver of wonderful times, and a beast just watching for the chance to bite. For the best trip to the river, go where you can enjoy the nice riverfront parks, but also go somewhere you can take your shoes off and watch and feel the mud squish between your toes.
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