Books | August 2016
Pluto, Mississippi, represents a small speck of a burg nestled in one of the poorest counties of the poorest states in the Union. For author Richard Grant, a self-proclaimed “adventure writer”, Pluto is an escape. It was here that Grant, a Malaysian-born world traveler from birth who spent most of his formative years in London, England, penned his 2015 book Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta. The book explores his time as an outside observer and eventual participant in small-town life. Grant will appear at the Hernando Public Library as part of its “Meet the Author” series on August 11.
Click Magazine: Why Mississippi? When you’ve got all 50 states laid bare before you, why keep coming back to this one?
Richard Grant: I’ve been coming to Mississippi for about 10 years. I have some really good friends down there and while I wouldn’t say I’ve felt at home my entire time in Mississippi, I have always enjoyed myself. I spent a summer living in Water Valley a few years before moving to the Delta, so it wasn’t like I was coming in totally unprepared.
CM: What made you pursue writing and this kind of journalistic style you’ve become known for?
RG: I studied American History at the College of London and my first priority was always to get out of England. I’ve never really felt at home there, either. I started traveling around the United States in my early twenties. That was back in the ‘80s when people still wrote letters and I would often write and send things to friends in London. I had written to a friend who works for a magazine and he convinced me that if we cleaned it up a bit, I might just be able to get published. I thought this sounded like a great way to travel and get paid for it. So I turned myself into a freelance journalist and lived on the road for quite a while, telling stories. I traveled the American West and started studying these truckers, cowboys and other people who lived on the road by choice. That was the subject of my first book, American Nomads.
CM: You’ve traveled to some of the most dangerous places in the world, including East Africa, where you and a team attempted the first descent of the Malagarasi River in Tanzania, as well as a lawless region of the Sierra Madre mountains in northwestern Mexico known as “God’s Middle Finger”. Has there ever been a point in your travels when you genuinely feared for your life?
RG: Yes, very much so, especially during my time in Mexico. I was hunted through the woods at night by a few Mexican hillbillies and it was very, very frightening indeed. In East Africa, I contacted Dengue Fever, which left me feeling very sick. All kinds of things went wrong on the river: disease; we found ourselves in the middle of a gun battle between poachers and anti-poachers; and eventually, the river ran out of water, leaving us to drag a raft through 115 degree heat. We failed the journey, so it’s still open for anyone else who would like to attempt to be the first.
CM: Any advice or road philosophy for those out there with similar aspirations?
RG: Never put your valuables in a hotel safe in a third-world country and beware of cops. The best thing you can hope to have in a foreign country is a local by your side who you trust. I was doing OK in Mexico while I had those sort of people around, but eventually I ran out.
CM: What one word would you use to describe Pluto, Mississippi?
RG: Beautiful. It’s a beautiful place. The oxbow lakes, the cypress trees, the very few houses, the big oak trees that lead to deep woods and the cotton fields that lead to nowhere. I think it’s quite a beautiful place and think I was fortunate that we were sort of adopted into that family during my time there. We’ve since sold the house from Dispatches from Pluto and moved 50 miles out to Jackson since my wife has a job down here.
CM: How are you adapting to the Southern palate? Do you have a favorite place to eat?
RG: I like Lusco’s in Greenwood. Love their fried chicken, even though they aren’t known for it. I also never quite understood how good ribs can be until I moved down here.
CM: Have you picked up any Southern hobbies like hunting or fishing?
RG: I wrote a little about learning to be a hunter in Dispatches from Pluto and I’ve kept that up. I’m definitely a meat hunter — no interest in the horns, trophies and all that.
CM: What is your workflow?
RG: I can’t really take notes. Too much worry comes to me about losing my notebooks. For Pluto, I wanted —actually, needed — to get a book out of the experience. I had no idea what kind of book or experience it would be, but I was determined to get something. I began to write down descriptions of places, conversations and things I saw at the end of every day. I read the local newspapers religiously — there’s some wild stuff in there. I wasn’t exactly sure what parts I was going to need, so I kept track of nearly everything. Of course, I didn’t use 90 percent of it for the book, but that was the method.
A Gentleman’s Journey
Adventure writer Richard Grant on how an Englishman becomes a Southerner
Interview by Casey Hilder