Jamie Kornegay has an Oxford education. He studied creative fiction under Barry Hannah at Ole Miss and learned the bookseller’s trade at famous indie retailer Square Books.
To ply it, Kornegay moved 80 miles southwest to Greenwood, a small city on the Mississippi Delta that proved fertile ground for both entrepreneurship and imagination. In 2006, he and his wife, Kelly, founded TurnRow Book Co. on Howard Street, and, today, Simon & Schuster publishes his debut novel, Soil.
“We’ve even more isolated than Oxford, but the people here—you know the life of the party? That’s 75 percent of the people who live here. There’s a fascinating array of personalities,” Kornegay says. “In the South we say we keep our skeletons in the closet. Here, they seem to trot them out proudly. It’s a novelist’s dream.”
Kornegay’s dream of becoming a novelist formed in second grade, when an ambitious teacher read aloud to the class from Animal Farm.
“It didn’t all stick, but enough of it stuck that it sort of make this crimp in my understanding of the world, and I think very much it has played out, these many years later, in this book,” he says.
Soil is atmospheric, allegorical and populated by a host of colorful characters: a lecherous young sheriff’s deputy, a mangled old wanderer, a sexy schoolteacher who’s also an emotional eater and her eccentric husband, formerly employed by the Farm Service Agency in soil management.
“His interpretation of historical patterns convinced him that poor soil management had led to the downfall of societies throughout time,” Kornegay writes of Jay Mize, who has a self-sustaining plan for his family’s future.
Jay convinces his wife, Sandy, to soak their savings into farmland on the floodplain outside town—which floods. The year’s crop is devastated when Sandy takes their son, Jacob, back to live in town.
Alone, Jay becomes obsessed with proving his scheme’s not all wet. He spends days training watermelons to grow in tree formations, compulsively composting and forgetting to eat—to the point of borderline hallucination.
“What the naysayers didn’t understand was that it wasn’t some quaint old notion of a naïve fondness for yesteryear, not even an entrepreneurial move toward trendy organic farming that made him come out here, all the way to nowhere, to invest the family savings in this house and the soggy field and all the tools and equipment required to make a proper start,” Kornegay writes. “He’d read the books on climate change, energy crises, and colony collapse....A comeuppance was due, and he didn’t want to be stuck in town among the bleating mobs when it all went down.”
Kornegay enriched Soil with his own experience growing food in the Delta—inspired by reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan.
“Like a lot of people, I think, [The Omnivore’s Dilemma] was a lightbulb for me. It just sort of turned my focus onto a way of life that I’d kind of dismissed, even though it was all around me. So I started my own garden, started growing things, started researching how plants go, and all this fed back into the book,” he says.
“Here in Mississippi, where it is so hot and wet and the insects are prolific, it’s hard to do it organically, which [Jay] was trying to do, and I was trying to do, and that frustration comes into it, too,” Kornegay continues. “You’re paying some sort of penance for society when you go out and you do that work, and then you realize, well, hell, nature’s against me, too!—I think it has the strength to undo a man.”
Whether the weather, the drifter or the deputy will be Jay’s undoing is Soil’s mystery. It seems fair to suppose that the human corpse found bobbing in water on his land might have something significant to do with it—especially when Jay reacts in a way no rational man might.
“Split-second decisions can often determine our fate. Whether they’re made valiantly or foolishly, it doesn’t really matter,” he says.
Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York. Follow her on Twitter.