Last year Kevin Sessums's memoir Mississippi Sissy about growing up gay in the South during the racially charged 1960s became a New York Times bestseller and earned critical praise. We chatted with Kevin this week in celebration of the book's paperback release.
What stands out for you from touring with the book and talking with readers over the past year?
I was very humbled by the stories people would tell me while in line to get books signed, or even on the book's blog. If you write specifically enough about your own life, it speaks specifically to other people’s lives.
My final reading was in Philadelphia and when I got to the bookstore there was only one woman in the audience, sitting next to this guy. I thought, "Who’s this woman? Is she a lesbian? Is she a fag hag? Is she the sister of the gay guy next to her?" She and the guy lingered afterward and she had two books in her hands. She said, "This is my husband. Will you sign one book to me and one to my son?" I told them they were very nice to come to the reading, but said they didn't look old enough to have a son who could be old enough to read the book.
"He’s seven," she said, "but he’s a Tennessee sissy, and someday I want to give him this book to read. We’re from Nashville and we didn’t get to see you in Memphis, so I convinced my husband to bring me up here for the day to hear you read because this book changed my life and made me a better mother." And she started to cry. And I started to cry. And then her husband started to cry. I was very moved and humbled.
She handed me some pictures and it was her son dressed up as the Wicked Witch of the West for Halloween, just as I did in my book. And now, she said, he had discovered theater, and he loved Ethyl Merman and Marilyn Monroe. Now when I go to the theater I collect Playbills and mail them off to this kid, saying I’m a friend of his mother's, and he writes me notes back. I’m his New York City fairy godmother that sends him Playbills.
I heard that during the book tour you were banned in Tupelo, Mississippi. What was that all about?
The owner of the store in Tupelo where I was supposed to read went to high school with Frank Dowsing, an All-American black football player from Mississippi, and the owner told me that after he read the book that he would not allow me to read from the book or carry the book in the store because he was so disgusted by Frank's portrayal in the book. I thought I portrayed Frank as very dignified and loving, but I assume the owner was offended by the sex scene [between Frank and me]. Some people can’t put "dignity" and "love" in the same sentence as "homosexual," but that’s his problem, not mine.
When I went for a reading in Oxford, Mississippi, they gave me a t-shirt with the cover of the book on it and across the top it said, "Banned In Tupelo—Who's The Sissy Now?"
There are also some very intense moments in the book, including the deaths of your parents when you were very young, then the murder of a dear friend, and sexual abuse at the hands of someone you trusted. What was it like to go back and write about those things?
In 12-step programs they say you’re only as sick as you’re secrets, so I was trying not to be sick anymore.
The hardest part was writing about the death of my mother. I wrote about that while in Provincetown. I had a loft on the third floor of this Victorian house looking out over the bay, and sometimes I’d have to grip the terrace to steady myself and keep from jumping. I’ve never been in that dark of a place in my whole life. And then it dawned on me that I was getting up every day and writing about the death of my mother and reliving it. It was like my mother was in the room with me, like I was with her in the hospital again.
Once I realized all of that consciously the depression lifted. I don’t know if writing the book was therapeutic, but it was cathartic. I don’t think I’ll ever be over what happened to me, but with the physical sensation of writing it was almost as if I felt the story leaving my body. It’s odd to talk about the book again after a year, so all these issues are coming up again as the book comes out in paperback. I had sort of moved on from all this in a strange way after writing it, and now it’s coming back again.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a sequel to Mississippi Sissy called I Left It On The Mountain. The title comes from climbing Mount Kilimanjaro and what I left on the mountain. I also just signed with a new agent and I'm working on a novel called The Sensual Music of Neglect.
You’re cookin' two at once!
I am cooking two at once. Oh honey, if you can have sex with more than one person at once, you can write more than one book at a time, too.