In 1979, Lisa Howorth and her husband, Richard, founded what has since become one of the most iconic bookstores in the U.S.—Square Books in Oxford, Miss., PW’s 2013 Bookstore of the Year. From the beginning, she supplemented the store’s financing with income from outside work—first as a reference librarian and then as an art historian at the University of Mississippi and as a freelance writer. She also published two nonfiction books: The South: A Treasury Art and Literature (Hugh Lauter Levin) and Yellow Dogs, Hushpuppies, and Bluetick Hounds (Univ. of North Carolina Press).
Over the years, Howorth worked sporadically on writing about events that have haunted her since she was 15—the molestation and murder of her nine-year-old stepbrother. The case is still unsolved. That story is the basis for her debut novel, Flying Shoes (June), the lead fiction summer release for Bloomsbury, with an announced first printing of 60,000. In a note to readers of the ARCs, editorial director Nancy Miller calls Howorth’s writing “as sure-handed and remarkable as I’ve seen. Sometimes as an editor you come across a novel by a new voice so fresh and honest and full of energy that it takes your breath away. These are the moments we live for.” Or, as Bill Cusumano, book buyer at Nicola’s Books in Ann Arbor, Mich., said, “What Lisa has accomplished is just astounding. This is a novel of insight, intelligence, wit, humor, pathos and, knowing the background, one that is tremendously brave.”
“It’s very weird to be on this end of a book,” Howorth told PW during the ABA’s Winter Institute, where she was a featured author. “After being involved in the business for so many years, you think you know the business. But I couldn’t be more clueless. I did everything wrong. I sent out the manuscript to some editors I know, who published other writers who work similarly to me, and to agents, none of whom I knew. Two agents called me, and they both said, ‘I’m really interested in this book. But you need to do this, this, this.’ Meanwhile an editor called and made me an offer, and Lisa Bankoff took me on and shopped the book around.”
Although finding a publisher and agent came together relatively quickly, the book itself was more than two decades in the making. Initially, Howorth tried writing a memoir. “I couldn’t stay in the tragedy. I had to put it in a bigger world with lots of side stories,” she said. Howorth, who prefers to write by hand, filled dozens of yellow legal pads with the story of Mary Byrd Thornton, a mother with two young children in Oxford. Thirty years after her stepbrother’s murder on Mother’s Day 1966, she gets a call from the police, who notify her that the crime has been solved. That phone call sets the novel into motion, as Mary Byrd contemplates her garden, her relationship with her housekeeper, her husband and children, and her dead brother, Stevie, who is never far from her thoughts.
The action takes place over a single week, but despite the novel’s compressed time frame, Mary Byrd’s telling meanders back and forth in time, centering on Stevie’s death but also recounting tales of the old South and the new—touching on themes of race and class, the war in Afghanistan, the role of religion and the family all come into play.
Making up stories, said Howorth, “is how I rewarded myself, when I worked through some of the grim stuff, by getting to make up extra characters with their own stories. I wove them together. That’s the way it is in a small town. Everybody and every story is connected.” She also added humor. “Not,” she said, “that we were laughing about the actual tragedy. But humor was a lifeline in my family. And for me it was a way into my characters.”
The book in its current form took shape seven years ago at a residency at the MacDowell artists’ colony in St. Peterborough, N.H. “I was able to write off and on, day and night. It gave me a big chunk of time away from the day-to-day,” said Howorth. At home in Oxford, she tried to avoid reading books about Mississippi and books by local writers.“I was afraid of becoming discouraged or being directed in some way,” she explained. Although her editor sees hints of Mrs. Dalloway in the novel—Howorth likes to inhabit her characters’ psyches in Woolfian fashion—Howorth said that Mary Gaitskill’s writing was a bigger influence. “She sort of gave me permission to write about what I want. ‘Gritty’ for a woman.” She also admires Barry Hannah and Padgett Powell for the way they love their flawed characters, and Julie Hecht, for her insistence that the wackiness in a character’s head is worth talking about.
Although Howorth wrote Flying Shoes to honor her brother, after it was finished, she said she felt “deflated,” adding, “I didn’t feel the elation I thought I’d feel. I was left feeling a little sad, flat, and guilty. Here I was exposing my family, and I was making money off it. The guy’s still out there, and my brother’s still dead. And no matter what you write, I think it’s impossible to really evoke the horror of that.” She has, however, been careful to deflect attention from her family by loosely sketching the characters of Mary Byrd’s mother and brothers and fictionalizing them as much as possible. As for what’s next on the promotional circuit, Bloomsbury plans to bring her to BEA, and is currently in the midst of scheduling a 10-city tour that will include stops in Washington, Chicago, San Francisco, and New Orleans.