I discovered the work of British writer Richard Grant after moving to Tucson, Arizona, in 2008. His second book, God’s Middle Finger: Into the Lawless Heart of the Sierra Madre had just been released and was a word-of-mouth hit in Tucson, where parts of the book are based and where Grant himself then lived. Detailing his ill-advised travels through the mountains of Northern Mexico (culminating in his being hunted through a forest by rifle-toting “hillbillies”), the book helped contextualize my own somewhat tamer foray into Southwestern living.
I’ve since read his other works with equal relish, from American Nomads, his debut study on nomadic subcultures of the American West, to 2011’s Crazy River, an account of his attempt to descend the Malagarasi River in East Africa. These books, like God’s Middle Finger, combine elements of travel memoir with historical erudition, steely political insight, and joie de vivre. Equal parts Kerouac and Kapuscinski, his storyteller’s eye for the exotic is grounded by a journalist’s commitment to demystification, and his depictions of disparate peoples and their cultures are always empathetic, but never sentimental. This sensibility is especially apparent in Crazy River, in which the author’s bid to make his mark as an explorer a la David Livingstone collides with the political realities of modern Africa, and culminates in a visit to post-genocide Rwanda for an audience with the country’s controversial president, Paul Kagame. Here, as elsewhere in his work, Grant’s willingness to abandon the security of his assumptions and embrace the journey reminds us there is no adventure like learning, no substitute for getting out in the world and making up your own mind.
Grant continues to produce wide-ranging profiles and articles for publications including The Guardian, The Telegraph (UK), and Port. Recently, he wrote about wild hog hunting for Al Jazeera America, presented a documentary version of American Nomads, and narrated an upcoming film on infanticide in Ethiopia. Born in Malaysia, raised and educated in London, Grant has spent most of his adult life in the United States and is now an American citizen.
After relocating to Atlanta, I was surprised to learn he had also moved, and now calls the Mississippi Delta home. Our proximity spurred me to contact him and he graciously agreed to an interview. His only stipulation was that I bring a bottle of decent wine to go with the dinner he and his fiancé would prepare when I got there.
Our interview took place at his home near Pluto, Mississippi, on a clear afternoon in July. We talked on the wide veranda in front of his house, watching birds come and go from a nest near the roof, with Grant stopping at one point to prevent his dogs from chasing down a passing tractor. Hundreds of acres of green farmland surrounded us as we discussed writing, travel, and life on the Delta. My line of vision included a cotton field, a shed that is now Grant’s writing studio, and, beyond that, the tree-lined banks of the Yazoo River.
Dan Holmes (DH): What brought you to Mississippi?
Richard Grant (RG): Sometime in the mid 90’s I was living in Tucson and I heard this blues album by Junior Kimbrough, “All Night Long.” It was like no blues I’d heard before. It was kind of a droning, hypnotic, stomping blues and I just loved it and found out it was put out by this label called Fat Possum Records, which was run by a couple of college kids in Oxford, Mississippi. They were going around recording the last undiscovered authentic Mississippi blues men, and they somehow managed to get a million dollars in debt doing this. I was like, “That sounds like a magazine story to me,” so I drove out here, went to Oxford, did the story, interviewed a bunch of these old blues men, hung out with the two white guys who were recording them and just really liked Oxford. I made friends there and kept coming back at least once a year. Always enjoyed Mississippi, just the storytelling and the conviviality and that kind of gallows sense of humor that you find. Then when my marriage busted up I didn’t have anywhere to live and my friend Bruce Watson offered to put me up in the Fat Possum trailer in Water Valley, Mississippi, which is next to their recording studio. So I spent the summer in there. T-Model Ford and Paul “Wine” Jones and these other blues guys would come and stay at the trailer quite regularly and give me advice on matters of the heart.
I thought hard about moving to Mississippi for a long time. I’ve always found it an interesting, complicated place. I didn’t know how to write a book about it. And my friend (chef and author) Martha Foose said, “You need to write a book about the Delta. It’s kind of its own place. Separate from the rest of Mississippi, nowhere is more deeply Southern.” So she was supposed to take me on a big tour of the Delta and it was supposed to jog loose a book idea. She turned up hungover and took me down here to Pluto, her family farm, and it was just so beautiful. It was a perfect spring day, and she drove me over the levy and showed me this house and told me it’s for sale and I could conceivably afford it. I was living in New York at the time, couldn’t afford to live in New York and was kind of losing my mind as well. My dog was depressed. My girlfriend was kind of on edge. I brought her down here and she just fell in love with the house and the people.
But I couldn’t get a mortgage. Free lance writing, you know, irregular income. Then Martha’s father, the man who was selling the house, took me to meet his banker in Yazoo City. He said, “Well I love to read books and I think it’d be great to have a writer around here. I’ll lend you the money right out of my bank on one condition.” I said, “What’s that?” He said, “Me and my wife, we don’t get out of Yazoo much. Y’all got to come over and have dinner at our place and tell us about the rest of the world. Tell us some stories.” That’s how I got the mortgage. That never happens in America, does it? So then rather than write a book about a journey, it’s a book about trying to settle down in the Mississippi Delta.
DH: It’s my first time here. It’s unlike anywhere I’ve been.
RG: It doesn’t remind me of anywhere else in the world.
DH: You said on The Guardian’s “Road Trip USA: Mississippi” documentary, “Nowhere on Earth is more American” than the Delta. What distillation of American-ness are you thinking of?
RG: There’s something in the music and folk art and the body language and the way people brag—how entertainingly people brag. There’s a rollicking swagger to things that I think of as American. We’re all armed to the teeth here. And if you look at political belief here in Mississippi, they’re about as far from European political beliefs as it can get regarding firearms and personal freedom, attitude towards government. I don’t know that Mississippi does very well without the federal government; it’s one of the few states that gets a lot more out of it than it puts in. It’s basically settled by a bunch of surly Scotch-Irish that have always hated central authority. Then put the civil war on top of that.
DH: And reconstruction.
RG: Yeah. You kind of see where that reflexive anti-government thing comes from. They just turned down a billion dollars in Medicaid expansion that would have created 9,000 jobs.
DH: The issue of race always surfaces when trying think critically about this region. Is that a help or a hindrance to you as you try to write about it?
RG: Life here is race relations. It’s so tied up in everything. The South does not process its history quickly. It’s a conservative place with a small “c”. Things change slowly. I remember when my fiancé and I first moved here. We’d be staying up under the mosquito net trying to figure out what race is, and what it means here. It seemed like every time you went out of the house there’d be some encounter that would baffle you. Maybe they’d be standard things in the South, but they were new to us. It’d be like some white person making racist jokes, and you’re like, “Oh he’s a racist.” And you’d find out he’s incredibly close to some black individual who worked for his family and he’d be weeping at his funeral. Another thing that’s hard to get used to—and this is very much a minority opinion—black people who denounce the civil rights movement. I don’t get it, but some older black people are nostalgic for the days of Jim Crow because the family was stronger and the church was stronger, black businesses were stronger, the black community was more cohesive. But I’m like, “Lynchings and Jim Crow justice?” You know? Having to act totally subservient? I don’t know. We’ve just been scratching our heads a lot. You also don’t hear about how there was a sizable minority of white liberals here in the Civil Rights era. They’ve kind of got written out of the history books too.
DH: There’s definitely a strong vibe to this area. It’s very compelling but I could see it being “playing with fire” a little bit, whether it feels positive or negative.
RG: Things are getting better, though, and I do like being around that. They’re not engaging in any racial terrorism around here anymore. They’re not hanging people from trees in front of spectators. There are a lot of elected black officials. Many of them are not doing a good job, though that’s a separate issue. It’s a pretty segregated place socially, but when I’ve been to these events where black and white people do come together and have a really good time, it really feels like it matters somehow.
The thing about Mississippi—especially the Delta—you just can’t beat it for stories. Stories that come out of peoples’ mouths, stories in the newspaper. It seems like the culture encourages idiosyncracies and eccentricities. Like people get to express their full individuality. In the Delta, more so that in the rest of the state. Makes for wild and entertaining stories often, especially when you throw in a little exaggeration, which people here know how to do.
DH: We’ve spoken about some of the complexities here in Mississippi. You’ve intimated that it’s good to write about, for one thing. Is that something you look for in a place to live?
RG: I just found it really beautiful here, that’s the main reason that I wanted to live here. I found it interesting and I found it difficult to make sense of. I like that too. On the one hand people are nicer here than they are in most places. On the other hand they favor incredibly harsh policies on the whole and they’ve done all these terrible things in their past. They’re full of contradictions like that. And I just had so much fun here as well. Mississippi was always the place I’d come when my spirits were down, if I was depressed or unhappy. It was like my therapy. I would go to Oxford and go for a ramble around Mississippi. I would always have fun and it would kind of fix me. I suppose I do like remote places.
DH: Southern culture can be easy on visitors but hard to penetrate when you move here. Do you feel like more of an outsider here than you do in other parts of the U.S.?
RG: Absolutely. I do find it hard to penetrate. Especially when you have to drive a hundred miles to get anywhere and then you’re confronted with something that runs five generations deep and is all tangled up. People are quite warm and welcoming on the surface but are quite guarded at the next level down. Everyone’s just been here so long. I’ll be living in Dr. Foose’s house for the next 20 years.
DH: Does the Delta have anything in common with Eastern Africa or Northern Mexico, at least as a journalistic subject?
RG: There are aspects of the third world here, I’d say. Not just the poverty but the way things don’t kind of work properly. Dysfunctional local government. Trying to think of some examples of that. It was really hard to get a driver’s license. First time I went down there, the electricity was out. Second time I went down there—there’s no computers, just these badly photocopied forms that look like they’d been originally written in about 1979. It’s blurry, like a photocopy of a photocopy. So I had to fill that in. And then I wanted to pay with a bank card but they won’t sit up for that so I had to come back another time. And then they want me to bring my naturalization as an American citizen thing because they’d just passed some anti-Mexican law. I mean it was a real hassle. Things get ramshackle and third-world here sometimes.
In Greenwood you can join the police force without any training. Sometime within a year of getting hired you have to go to the police academy, but you can just go get a badge and a gun and a car and a ticket book. In Itta Bena they found that on the books they have to elect their judges but they’d been appointing them for 30 years and that all those decisions that the judges had handed down over 30 years could be challenged. Then the sitting judge refused to leave. The judge they were paying couldn’t get in the courtroom, so she’s drawing a salary but not doing any judging. Stuff like that just happens all the time. Quite a bit of corruption too. Can’t talk specifically about that, don’t want to libel anybody without sufficient proof. But you hear all these stories about corrupt police, corrupt judges, corrupt business arrangements.
DH: What about music? Will the book touch on that?
RG: It’s going to be an aspect of it. I’ve been hanging around juke joints. There aren’t many left but I do love the blues and it would seem churlish to write a book about the Delta without getting into it. There’s a fantastic blues guy who lives about 25 miles down there called Jimmy “Duck” Holmes who’s got a juke joint. I got him up here to play a party. Love him. I don’t know if you know the blues but Skip James was this really spooky hypnotic blues player from the 20’s who got rediscovered in the 60’s. He taught the guy who taught Duck Holmes how to play. They’ve got this special tuning they use. It doesn’t sound anything like Chicago blues. It’s mournful but beautiful.
T-Model Ford is the blues man that I got to know the best because he was up in the (Fat Possum) trailer all the time. Telling me, “You’ve gotta live like a tree.” And I go, “Well what do you mean?” He says, “A tree keeps growing and growing and don’t give a motherfuck about any other tree, and when he dies he knock them down!” That was one of those events—they were doing a fundraiser for T-Model Ford, the house is in a pretty rough black part of Greenville, which is a pretty rough town, and a bunch of white people came down there because they’re fans of his music. At first it was like, black people over here, white people over here, then by the end of it everyone was having fun and dancing and eating ribs. When it happens here it feels like it matters a little bit more.
DH: How are the juke joints now?
RG: The one I went to down there, there was a couple from Montana and just a bunch of local farmers and tractor drivers and mechanics, what have you. The one up in Clarksdale is mainly European tourists at this point. It does change the atmosphere a bit. It’s more they want to take film and pictures of the blues man, whereas the one over here, people are there to dance and blow off steam. The tourists get all reverential, you know. Which is fine, it keeps the places going. It’s a gig for the musicians. First and foremost a lot of these guys don’t have a place to play. If it wasn’t for these tourists coming in it would be over. Some people say it’s artificial life support for the blues, but it’s fine by me. It was more fun in the juke joints when I was first going in to them 15 years ago.
DH: Have you seen a big change since then?
RG: Well there’s hardly any left. A bunch of them have burned down, closed down, and there’s like 4 or 5 left and there used to be a couple of dozen. That’s in the last 15 years or so. 20 years.
DH: I didn’t know it was that dire.
RG: Yeah. And it’s really tourists that are keeping them open now.
DH: Can you talk a bit about when you were first starting out?
RG: Writing wasn’t something that I ever wanted to do growing up. All I had was clear ideas of what I didn’t want to do, which was live a 9 to 5 life and work in an office. My main thing was I just wanted to get the hell out of England. I worked crappy jobs and got myself over here and spent a summer doing odd jobs, traveling around, and started writing letters back to friends in England. This was pre-email, 1986, 87. People really liked those letters and one of my friends said—he had started working for a magazine—“you know if you clean this up a bit we’ll pay you.” And I thought, “Good idea. Keep traveling and write about what I’m discovering and I won’t have to get a straight job.” So once I started doing that I read a lot of good magazine journalism, picking it apart and thinking about what made things work and what made things not work. I would work slowly and work hard on each paragraph, try it four or five different ways and see which seemed to be more effective.
DH: When you were working out kinks, were you publishing at the time?
RG: Yeah, I’ve pretty much published everything I’ve ever written.
DH: Early influences?
RG: I went through a Bruce Chatwin phase. I always thought Hunter S. Thompson was really funny. Never liked British fiction that much. I like Wilfred Thesiger who is another British travel writer. That was definitely an influence. And I like American journalism from the 70’s: Hunter Thompson and Tom Wolfe. Still seemed lively and fun when I found it in the mid 80’s.
DH: What made you come to the US?
RG: It was mainly to get out of England and travel. I was 20. I was into the Beats. I used to DJ and I would always DJ a lot of American music. I was into American books. I had friends in New York and Philadelphia. It just seemed like the obvious place to go.
DH: How do you know when a topic is big enough to make a book? Does everything start off as an article or do you kind of know right off the bat?
RG: The first book, American Nomads, I was collecting a lot of things in notebooks that didn’t really fit into magazine stories, and it was all to do with these drifters and nomads and people I’d met on the road. I was doing an amazing story about rodeo cowboys. They were complete nomads. I was talking to a friend who’d been reading Deleuze and Guattari on nomadism. We talked about these people I’m meeting and I thought, “This could be a book here.” Then I started going out to interview other nomadic groups. I was trying to write the book—I’d never written one before, I was desperately broke—and I just couldn’t make it work. It was just, “here’s a group”, “here’s a group.” I was reading history books too and I was trying to make the history tie together and it was dead on the page. I decided I needed to have a character whose progress you could follow through the book and I was the only option. So I started putting myself in it and that pulled it all together.
For God’s Middle Finger, in Mexico, I just poked up in the Sierra Madre a few times and I was totally intrigued by it. Living in Tucson you hear all these stories about big canyons and the Tarahumaras and it’s a “no-go” zone. That one would be an adventure/travel book. I was also in a reckless frame of mind for a period there. My marriage had just broken up and I wanted to do something difficult and, I guess, yeah, dangerous. I’d just been going that direction.
DH: Do you see Crazy River as a deepening of that impulse?
RG: I suppose so. I just couldn’t get over that there was a river no one had gone down before. In a way it was the same thing as the Sierra Madre: I couldn’t believe that no one was in there writing about it. It seemed like the kind of thing where you need a travel writer to go in and find out this stuff and bring back the news. I mention in Crazy River that you’d Google the river and nothing would come up! I found that to be an impetus.
The first time I went to Africa I was really terrified. At the last minute I got invited down the Zambezi River in dugout canoes. It was the 150th anniversary of David Livingstone coming down there and seeing Victoria Falls for the first time—I’m not going to use the term “discover.” So all of a sudden I was in a dugout canoe with hippos and crocodiles everywhere and I was really apprehensive. But I had the time of my life on that river. It was the African wild.
When I returned to Africa to research for Crazy River I was hoping for this deep wilderness reverie, but life intervened. It turned into something totally different. I had this vision of what the book would be, this sort of nice, clean journey down a river. Then that started to fall apart and I’m staggering around the slums of Zanzibar with this golf pro and it’s like, “Might as well keep notes!” Then when I sat down to write it, it took a while to say: the way it actually happened is a good way to write the book. It is “plans falling apart and drifting helplessly” (laughs) without much control over what’s going on around you—that it would actually work on the page. I couldn’t see it for a while though.
DH: At the time you were writing it, did what had happened feel like a disappointment? Or could you see that it was turning into something else?
RG: In a sense it felt like a disappointment because it would have been a lot easier to structure and write the book if it had been just a nice neat journey from the start of the river to the end of the river. It would have had a nice, clean narrative line. I also think it would have been a lot more boring because, truth is, most days on the river are just not that interesting. You paddle, you scout, you eat lunch on the river bank. I really like it, but it would have been a more boring book, the one that I originally had in mind. I think the most interesting stuff in that book is not on the river. I ended up more interested in African politics and all of the other stuff going on.
DH: Do you do most of your research before or after, say with Crazy River…
RG: With Crazy River I read a whole bunch of stuff on East Africa beforehand, and stupidly, some people think, I travel with 15 books, getting rid of some along the way. On a journey like that there is actually a lot of reading time. Not much else to do at night, sitting in some squalid little African hotel by yourself. It’s a good time to read. I like to read about the place I’m in while I’m there. When I was in Mexico, again I read a whole bunch before I went and then I had a crate in the back of my truck—like a traveling library, about 30 books. I’ll read up on the newspapers and get my Google alerts for a year or so.
The newspapers here are great. They’re just full of weird things. Some of them have got really good local news stories. And I’ve got a shelf of books on the Delta that I’m kind of working my way through. But I guess not all travel writers or journalists do that. They just go in with a bunch of news clippings, but I have to find the best books and read them. I feel naked without that backbone of knowledge.
DH: In Crazy River there is a scene in a bar where you ask someone casual questions with what you describe as a “journalistic undertow”. What are some of the challenges of talking to people in other cultures where you need information for your work, but don’t want to be too pushy or rude?
RG: If you’re in that situation you need someone to be your friend, for reasons of personal safety as much as anything else. If you’re in that situation and you’re traveling by yourself in, say, central Africa, and you just pitch up in a town, you’re looking for someone that seems trustworthy that can be your friend, show you around, translate for you. The most important thing you can do is not antagonize that person. You can’t treat people the same way you would as a journalist here, in your own culture, because you’re dependent on their good will as a traveler. So you take your time and build trust slowly and get to the difficult questions subtly.
DH: That seems like another benefit to a more immersive approach to research, rather than someone who has a week to get everything they can. Lay the groundwork a little more.
RG: Yeah, as a journalist you get your clippings, you’d show up in a place and literally 9 times out of 10 everyone would have the story wrong as far as I could see it. Some journalists just bounced in and out with a bunch of first impressions. What I’ve found is if you stay a little longer and hang around the bars, and you don’t try to force things into a pre-existing framework that you often get a much different story. It seemed that the conventional wisdom was usually wrong. With a lot of journalists, you’ve got to pitch it to your editor, they go “here’s the story”, and they go to the place and try to make it the story they pitched to the editor. They’re trying to force reality into that shape.
DH: Have you had issues with that yourself? You go somewhere and it’s different than what you were going for?
RG: All the time. But I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some good editors who understand that it’s often like that. I want the freedom to write about what interests me. This book about the Mississippi Delta is not a travel book but it will have some similarities in that it’s a person who doesn’t know a place coming in and trying to learn that place. The difference is that I’m not passing through. I’m here. I’ve got more time to get to know the place.
DH: Do you expect to stay after the book is over?
RG: We’re hoping to stay. The people around here have just been fantastic. We’ve become very close with neighbors who live down there (points), and we’ve got really good friends over here (other way). You think, “We’re moving into the back woods and it’s going to be isolated.” But it’s quite social here.
DH: As an inveterate traveler has the concept of home been elusive?
RG: Yeah. I was always not that interested in it until I saw this place. I’m trying to get into it. But I do get restless here and bridle at the amount of chores this place gives me. I’m heading off to the Namibian desert quite soon and I’m looking forward to that. I do like it here. It’s just a big adjustment. I was never really attached to the places where I lived. I feel attached to this place and it’s kind of a new sensation for me.
—Richard Grant & Dan Holmes
Richard Grant is a freelance British travel writer based in Mississippi. He was born in Malaysia, lived in Kuwait as a boy and then moved to London. He went to school in Hammersmith and received a history degree from University College, London. He is the author of American Nomads, God’s Middle Finger: Into the Lawless Heart of the Sierra Madre, and Crazy River.
Dan Holmes lives in Atlanta, Georgia. His work has appeared most recently in Litro.