Neil White

recorded in Oxford, MS

 

Listen More

Other Writers in

Listen

Neil White

My name is Neil White and I live in Oxford, Mississippi. I have a deep connection to this town. My great-great-grandfather was a student at Ole Miss, my great-grandfather, my grandfather, my father, me. I’ve lived off and on here all of my life. I spent my first three years here while my father was in law school, I went to college here, I started a weekly newspaper here, and then I returned here 17 years ago after spending a year in federal prison at the leprosarium in Carrville. I had dreams of maybe moving somewhere else and starting anew, but my wife at the time had divorced me and moved here with my children—and she divorced me for lots of good reasons, I’ll add—and I wanted to be in the same town as my children, so a six-year-old and a three-year-old are responsible for me living here. The town has been just amazing. When I came back, I tried to act like Ella Bounds, a woman I read about earlier in who had leprosy, but she never accepted the stigma of leprosy. She would roll up in her wheel chair and make eye contact with anyone she encountered, treating them with respect, a “Here I am, the way I am.” And although I forgot at times, I tried to do the same thing when I moved back here, and tell people, “Here’s what happened, here’s what I did wrong, here’s where I’ve been. I’m starting back here to try and be a good dad and rebuild my life.” This town has been so forgiving, and so willing to give me a second chance and has embraced the story and me as their own and I will forever be indebted to them for that.


The Knox Writers’ House

When did you start writing?


White

Well, I was always a journalist, and always enjoyed that, as well as publishing, but I didn’t really start writing until this experience at Carrville. Some people wake up every day because they have to write, and I woke up every day saying, “I’ve got to tell this story.” It’s a very different process from most people. This was the one story that I knew I had to tell, but I was terrified that I wouldn’t do it justice. I was given this amazing gift of the most colorful characters you could imagine—the last Americans in prison for a disease, Jimmy Hoffa’s lawyer, a governor of Illinois who was imprisoned, crack dealers who carjacked outside of fast food restaurants so that they would have something to eat on the getaway—an incredible lineup of characters. It was such a daunting task to do that justice on the page, what I decided to do was start writing the story and studying the craft of creative nonfiction. As a journalist, I was trained to keep myself out of the story, so I had to unlearn that and learn how to put myself in the story in that always-subjective, but-as-objective-a-way-as-possible. I spent ten years thinking about the experience and learning the craft of this, and then the next five years writing this book.


KWH

Do you think there’s a tradition, a Southern voice?


White

Sure, there’s Southern literature and there’s southern voices, and when you interview Tommy Franklin, he certainly falls into that. I think I fall outside of it. Barry Hannah never embraced that—and I’m not putting myself in his category at all, Lord, he’s just a god in that respect. I was obsessed with office supplies. I was the biggest nerd ever. The most boring, stupidest, whitest criminal anybody had ever met, so I don’t think I fell into the typical Southern Gothic writer thing at all. I think when you talk to anybody, place is important and hat sense that permeates all the writing, but more than that, you’re interested in a good story, and if it’s a good story, whether it’s in New York or Russia or Antarctica or South Louisiana, that’s what matters.


KWH

How do you handle the idea of permission in memoir?


White

When you talk to people about that, there is a vast array of opinions you’ll get. Most people will say, “Write it, then figure it out,” and that’s probably right. But I came from a little different perspective. I was so reckless before and lost so much money of banks and investors and friends, it would have been horrendous for me to write this memoir not being worried about hurting anybody else again, after I had hurt so many people before. So, I was very careful about it. I tried to get everybody who was in it to read it beforehand, not for approval, but more to talk to them about it. And I found out some great stuff. It was almost like fact checking, and what I thought they might be upset about was fine—it was some obscure detail I had included that mattered to them that was easy to adjust or take out. I think more people, if you have the time and luxury and you’re not exposing a deep dark family secret, that that’s the way to go. In my book, there’s only one bad guy, and that’s me. I didn’t write this to blame anybody else or to make anybody else look bad. I think it’s very important, just from a human standpoint.