It’s my mother’s fault.
Really, it is.
It all started when I was a kid, and she subscribed to three different newspapers, my hometown Texarkana Gazette
, The Dallas Morning News
and The Wall Street Journal
, plus a rotating group of magazines that included Newsweek
, U.S. News and World Report
magazine, Texas Monthly
, and Sports Illustrated
She read all of them faithfully, and so did I. I was 7.
I grew up reading much of the same fiction that my peers did, starting with Dr. Seuss
and making my way through The Wizard of Oz
and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
before diving into the Hardy Boys
and endless science fiction.
But all of that began to change when I turned 12, and I read in the newspaper about this huge heroin bust that was being made into a movie called The French Connection
I was intrigued and asked my mother if she could buy the book for me. She did, and I devoured it in days.
While students my age and older were busy pondering the adventures of Holden Caulfield
or discovering the poems of Sylvia Plath
, I was watching the detectives chase “Patsy” Fuca through the streets of New York City.
Then came Serpico
. Then came true crime and whatever book my mom happened to be reading.
I vowed to read nothing but books with prose that soared.
Other books followed, including Blood and Money
, Fatal Vision
and, of course, All the President’s Men
But none of this prepared me for what I would experience when I decided, mid-career, to get my master’s in journalism at Ohio State during the 1996-1997 school year.
One of my first classes was Literary Journalism. The course didn’t disappoint. I read Brent Staples
, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
, Tom Wolfe
, Hunter S. Thompson
, Tracy Kidder
, Ted Conover
, and John McPhee
Then I began reading beyond the assignments... Mary Karr
, Frank McCourt
, Annie Dillard
, Michael Herr
, and the inimitable Joan Didion
, whose 1968 collection of essays, Slouching Towards Bethlehem
, made me realize that nonfiction could soar: “This is the California where it is easy to Dial-A-Devotion, but hard to buy a book,” she wrote. “This is the country in which a belief in the literal interpretation of Genesis has slipped imperceptibly into a belief in the literal interpretation of Double Indemnity, the country of the teased hair and the Capris and the girls for whom all life’s promise comes down to a waltz-length white wedding dress and the birth of a Kimberly or a Sherry or a Debbie and a Tijuana divorce and a return to hairdressers’ school.”
This was not prose; this was magic, and I was entranced.
From that day forward, I vowed to read nothing but books with prose that soared, and I gave myself permission to toss aside any book that fell flat. Life, after all, is too short for bad books.
More than two decades later, I have resigned myself to the fact that I am no Joan Didion, and that is all right.
But I do hope that those who read Race Against Time
can better understand a place called Mississippi and the families who never gave up on justice, despite decades passing. It is their courage and grace that inspire me.
And so, I write...
÷ ÷ ÷
Jerry Mitchell is founder of the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit that exposes corruption, malfeasance and injustices, investigates cold cases, empowers citizens, and raises up the next generation of investigative reporters. His work has helped put four Klansmen and a serial killer behind bars. He is the winner of more than 30 national awards, including a $500,000 MacArthur “genius” grant, and the author of Race Against Time: A Reporter Reopens the Unsolved Murder Cases of the Civil Rights Era