Ace Atkins stays busy. In the last two years alone he has published three novels in the Spenser series, which he assumed for the estate of Robert B. Parker in 2013, plus three in his own crime series featuring Mississippi sheriff Quinn Colson, a former Army ranger with the fighting skills, deductive reasoning, and Southern accent that has made him a hero with suspense readers in the South—and elsewhere. Like C.J. Box’s Joe Pickett and John Sandford’s Virgil Flowers, Colson is a product of his rural surroundings, which Atkins portrays with knowledge and confidence.
In The Redeemers, the fifth book in the series, Colson has lost an election and works his last day as sheriff of fictional Tibbehah County (picture Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha with truck stops and strip joints). Lacking a badge or the authority behind it, he is drawn into a case involving a burglary that spins comically out of control. Colson tries to get his drug-addicted sister out of Memphis and into rehab, juggle the needs of others—parents, old loves, and friends—and look for a new job, but the threat of brutal violence is always close at hand.
In advance of his appearance at The Booksellers at Laurelwood in Memphis, Atkins recently answered questions from Chapter 16 via email:
Chapter 16: You have a background in journalism and continue to write occasional investigative pieces. How does reportorial work inform your fiction?
Ace Atkins: Well, no writer could ever make up the crazy and often wonderful world of Memphis and north Mississippi. I get out a lot among the good, the bad, and the ugly. I once got at least a dozen characters after going to a Jerry Lawler wrestling match at the Mid-South Coliseum. People love to talk, and Southerners are louder than most. If I’m ever stuck for a story, there’s always the Metro section of the Commercial Appeal, or my local Wal-Mart.
Chapter 16: Your portrayals of modern Mississippi seem unlikely to please the state’s travel and tourism bureau. Do you ever catch flak from your Oxford neighbors about Quinn Colson’s Mississippi?
Atkins: Very true. But to be honest, I think our governor is doing a fine job of tarnishing the state on a national level without any help from me. I’ve never gotten a bad word from fellow Southerners. I think it’s because I write about people they know and love and can’t deny. The South is often represented as somewhere between The Help and Mississippi Burning in film and in books. The fact is that it’s much weirder and more complex than that. The weird is what I like to write.
Chapter 16: This novel features a sort of Mississippi/Alabama rivalry when a pair of out-of-state crooks are hired for a safe-cracking job. Were you thinking of your time playing for Auburn—and the importance of football to both states—as you wrote these scenes?
Atkins: Even as an old football player, I’m constantly amazed by the crazy levels of fandom in the SEC. The 24/7-365 obsession has gotten out of hand. And there’s nowhere worse than Alabama. There are restaurants physically divided by which team you pull for: one side red, the other blue and orange. Even by Mississippi standards, this is nuts. And yes, as an Auburn grad I had to shine the light on some Bama people. I had a lot of fun writing “Uncle Peewee” and Chase Clanton—big-time Tide fans when they’re not robbing people.
Chapter 16: Information about Quinn’s past keeps evolving as the series progresses. How do you decide what to reveal when?
Atkins: At five novels, the series is truly expanding, not just with Quinn and his family, but with Tibbehah County itself: the geography, the history of its people, and how that has lasting effects on its modern life. (Much of that is in The Forsaken.) I obviously know a lot more about Quinn and his family history than I’ve told readers. What’s parceled out really depends on the story I’m trying to tell. No one wants to know everything at once. If they did, they’d quit reading, and I’d be out of a job. I can promise you there is a lot more to learn about Quinn and his family, going back to the founding of Tibbehah County.
Chapter 16: In their respective books, Jack Reacher has coffee, Stone Barrington has Knob Creek, and Quinn Colson has an expensive cigar. What is the appeal of Cubanas to you and the Mississippi sheriff?
Atkins: Most military folks I’ve had the pleasure to know are addicted to coffee and some form of tobacco. Many U.S. Army Rangers love chewing tobacco—a common trait. But for Quinn, black coffee and cigars are the perfect match while on patrol in Tibbehah County. This may be the only characteristic I share with Quinn. He wakes up far too early for this writer.
Chapter 16: In previous interviews you have described how being a devoted reader of Robert B. Parker prepared you as a writer. Who are you reading today?
Atkins: So many wonderful writers out there right now. As far as those working today, I’d put on my shelf anything by David Joy, Megan Abbott, Daniel Woodrell, C.J. Box, James Lee Burke, Don Winslow, Robert Crais, Martin Clark, Pete Dexter, and Peter Guralnick—really looking forward to that Sam Phillips book. I lament that there won’t be any more novels by Elmore Leonard. He was my personal hero.
Chapter 16: You write two crime series with very different protagonists. How do you balance the two and keep both fresh?
Atkins: I must write one at a time with very little overlap. I can speak both languages—deep South and deep Boston—but I can’t do both simultaneously. When I write Spenser, I have to really spend a lot of time in Boston and tune my ear. Down here, it’s pretty much natural and all around me. I get stories and characters everywhere.
Chapter 16: When will we see Colson on the big screen?
Atkins: Hopefully soon. The Ranger has just been optioned by veteran Hollywood director Jeremiah Chechik. I’m writing the script. He’s already been down to kick around North Mississippi and check out locations. I’ve turned him onto some music from Fat Possum Records in Oxford. If it happens, I hope it’s shot in the Mid-South. You can’t fake Memphis or North Mississippi life. We got that true grit!
Michael Ray Taylor teaches journalism at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas. He is the author of several books of nonfiction and coauthor of a forthcoming textbook, Creating Comics as Journalism, Memoir and Nonfiction.