Southern Comfort

An author’s trip to Mississippi revives her flagging spirits
Southern Comfort Southbound

Illustration by Oli Winward

Since I was a little girl, I’ve loved to travel: I’m still kept up the night before departure by that same heady feeling of anticipation and wonder. What will I see? Who will I meet? And, most importantly, what really good food will I be able to get my hands on? But last July, the night before I left St. Louis, where I live, for Jackson, Mississippi, I simply fell asleep, and slept hard. I was dog-tired, on the tail end of a twenty-two-city book tour.

Traveling for your book is a gift, I kept reminding myself. Everywhere I went, people were kind and gracious and had read my book from the first page to the last, and they asked generous, smart questions during the question and answer sessions at the end of my readings. I never minded the actual part at the bookstore—that, I looked forward to. But traveling to the bookstore—that part did not feel like a gift. The cities I went to started to dissolve beyond the endless taxi rides and hotel rooms: Seattle was a shroud of fog and a wake-up call that came an hour late. Chicago was a convention center. Jacksonville was a beach I saw from a window. 

By the time I arrived in Jackson, eighteen cities into my tour, my dog-eared copy of my book was starting to fray at the edges, and it felt like my brain was similarly deteriorating. I’d never been to Mississippi before, but the newness of the city, which normally would have excited me, barely registered.

I stepped outside the small airport and into weather so warm and humid it felt like I was being wrapped in a shawl: Southern weather always makes me feel a little bit at home, since I am, at heart, a Southerner, born in Memphis, raised in northern Florida. I started to feel a little better. Once at the Hilton Jackson, I decided to forgo my normal routine of wilted room service salad and sit in the dining room instead, where I ordered a meal of fried catfish and hush puppies and sweet iced tea. At this point, I started to feel like a new woman. I was the only diner in the restaurant, but my waiter, an elderly gentleman, wore a pristine white jacket, and my food was presented to me on a silver platter, with a silver lid. I was delighted by the ceremony, which felt uniquely Southern.

The reading, at Lemuria Books, was attended by a ladies’ book group whose members had Southern accents so thick and rich, I wanted to bottle them. My mother had arrived by then (is there any situation a mother does not immediately make better?), and that night we dined on fried oysters and sipped whiskey cocktails. The next morning we toured Eudora Welty’s house, and then, since we both love old homes, we spent a few hours driving up and down Jackson’s wide neighborhood streets, marveling at the gracious Southern estates, dotted with resplendent magnolia trees and enormous oaks.

It was a lazy morning—a perfectly Southern morning. And by the end of it, I was feeling excited about our next stop—Oxford, Mississippi. The South had rejuvenated me, as it always manages to do.

Anton DiSclafani is the author of the novel The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, which was a national bestseller. Born and raised in the South, she lives in St. Louis, where she teaches creative writing.