Thursday, 26 September 2013

Murder in Mississippi by John Safran ~ Abbey's Bookseller Pick

Murder in Mississippi by John Safran at Abbey's Bookshop 131 York Street, Sydney

ABBEY'S BOOKSELLER PICK ----- I've always enjoyed John Safran's personality, his banter with Father Bob on their Triple J radio show, and his candour in asking what he (and what we) are really thinking and want to know in his TV and radio interviews. He's not shy, he's up for anything and he surprises, which is why he is good talent. But meeting John Safran could go either way. He could be a ranting, attention-hogging opinion-pusher, or he could be the complete opposite of his broadcast persona and be cranky and aloof. With relief we discover John is forthcoming, polite and genial as he goes about signing his first book in the true crime genre.

I was curious as to how this tack in his career path emerged and how it fit with his previous work as professional provocateur, prodding people's core beliefs (primarily religious). John says it all comes down to his curiosity around the influence of family and our upbringing, as to who we are and what we do. So when he was exploring the prejudices around racial beliefs in his TV show, Race Relations, it was obvious to John, as a jewish white man, that one of his first visits would be to a cauldron of racial prejudice, Mississippi, to interview a high-profile white supremacist named Richard Barrett. When John heard news that, a year after their meeting, Barrett had been murdered by a black man, he was drawn to follow the case as fresh details emerged in news reports.

I'm surmising when I proffer that John is always surprised at his own motivations and therefore he willingly shares that surprise with us, to see if we are surprised too. This 'putting it all out there' is as clever as it is revealing. How exactly did this book come about? The first thing in the book is titled Gmails - two pages of John's email correspondence with 'Lally Katz' as the idea of writing a true crime book, and his very first book, firms in his mind.

I ask whether writing true crime leaves you feeling that you are wallowing in the murkiest swamps of the human psyche. He replies that his curiosity keeps him focused around his subject's backgrounds and their family life, and how that accords with John's own biases and preconceptions. He spent eighteen months working on the book, and six months of that in Mississippi. He says that after a while you start to feel some confidence in being able to express your opinions and thoughts.

Being his first book (it surprised me that he hadn't already had tie-in books with his TV or radio shows) John revealed the slightest hint of the nerves that attend anyone putting their writing out into the world for the first time. The book was embargoed until yesterday. No-one had read it. Even John had only just seen the final product. I felt sure that his experience at crafting words 'on air' for a living would work well if he could successfully capture the same energy on paper.

As I glean through the pages, John's preoccupation with the 'Us and Them' mentality emerges in his vibrant and humorous conversational style.

So John Safran is an accidental true crime writer. When asked whether he'll be writing another, he grabs a copy off the stack he has just signed, flips to the last page and points to the last sentence. There, in John's characteristic, quirky phrasing is a call-out to the public to get in touch with him about interesting crimes. And his email address.

John was here yesterday, so that stack of signed copies is available, but it won't be there long. Get in quick.

~ Craig Kirchner

On Twitter you can follow the hashtag #MurderinMississippi and chip in with your thoughts and questions. @johnsafran is happy to answer you. And of course, we invite you to follow @abbeysbookshop too!

UPDATE - BOOK REVIEW - Saturday 12 October 2013

I finished Murder in Mississippi today. I've only read one other true crime story, Peter Corris' Mad Dog which covered a crime from the 30's, which was interesting for the historical context as much as it was about the perpetrator and victims. But nowhere did Corris enter the story himself.

So it's probably safe to say that John Safran's approach to true crime writing is like no other. Safran's style recreates his documentary approach so vividly that I 'see' John leaning in to frame as he explains what has just occurred. Or gripping his hand-held video recorder as he does a 'selfie' to camera. The writing is engaging, with many amusing turns of phrase that paint an interesting picture of what it's like being a 'newbie' sleuth in action.

It's also a really tightly structured book that cleverly reveals all the way through, making it compulsive to read. I found my own assessments of the key people getting tangled at times. That is a big part of this book - different versions and opinions can leave you perplexed as to what the real truth is. Is there an objective truth? How deep do you want to go? Philosophy rears its ugly head. At one point John expresses this struggle, 'In Mississippi, the more layers of the onion I peel, the more I'm standing in a mess of onion'.

There were a couple of moments when I felt the 'John-ness' jarred against the tragic situation of the people he was discussing. These moments did dissipate (somewhat) with further revelations - although it is telling that John eagerly saved one revelation as his 'PC card', to be played in the event he gets attacked for being inappropriate. As I hope he will, because what good is a John Safran product without controversy?

But those who might condemn Safran for his tactics and modus operandi, can never fault his heart. He has followed his ingrained fascination with those who seek to vilify and categorise humans with a zeal that befits the most ardent white supremacist or religious zealot:

'I've been on a piece of elastic my whole life, being drawn closer and closer, to this meeting in this forest today. There is no one in the world - not one of the seven billion - who would appreciate this bizarre scene more than me.'

~ Craig Kirchner

#MurderinMississippi Hey @JohnSafran I been wonderin', you hear? Has murblestatic Vincent read your book, you know what I'm sayin'?

#MurderinMississippi @JohnSafran Fifteen years from now, I see you and Vincent clubbin' on Bondi. Real talk.

@abbeysbookshop yep, I'm sending out copies to all the Mississippians in the book this week & one is off to Vincent's cell.

@JohnSafran Wow. Do you expect some fiery emails? I expect that is why the book was embargoed. To give you enough time to get new digs! : )

@abbeysbookshop who do you reckon will be angry?

@JohnSafran Well John Moore definitely won't be happy. You made him look like a true politician. Vincent too. But he's a long way away.

@JohnSafran Oh and of course, Richard will be turning in his grave.

Murder in Mississippi by John Safran at Abbey's Bookshop 131 York Street, Sydney

 MURDER IN MISSISSIPPI: The true story of how I met a white supremacist, befriended his black killer and wrote this book.
John Safran

Buy this book at Abbey's (131 York Street Sydney) ~ An Aladdin's cave for readers

Abbey's ~ An Aladdin's cave for readers

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