‘Glamour of distance’

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, February 19, 2003

NATCHEZ &045; A day in Natchez set aside to pay tribute to Mississippi writer Josephine Ayres Haxton will be a fitting honor for one whose life, work and family are firmly rooted in Southwest Mississippi.

Haxton, who writes under the pen name Ellen Douglas, will speak at 2:10 p.m. today at the Natchez Literary and Cinema Celebration and will take part in the formal ceremony that will name the popular annual writing workshops the NLCC Ellen Douglas Writing Workshops.

&uot;I’m pleased, flattered and delighted,&uot; Haxton said. &uot;I grew up around and about Natchez. My three siblings and I came every summer for a month or two or even longer.&uot;

Email newsletter signup

Born in Natchez, Haxton lived with her family in Hope, Ark., and Alexandria, La., during much of her childhood. In her adult years, she lived for 30-plus years in Greenville and now lives in Jackson.

Still, Natchez has remained central as an influence. &uot;Natchez was not home but was where you went in the summer,&uot; she said. &uot;Natchez always had the glamour of distance from the everyday life.&uot;

Further, Natchez fascinated with its rich stories, including &uot;layers and layers of my own family,&uot; she said. &uot;And there was this sense of a place that had a history that was accessible to anyone who wanted to take the time to listen, observe and read.&uot;

Her first book was published 41 years ago. Laughing as she refers to herself as a late starter, she said she worked on &uot;A Family’s Affair&uot; for six years. It was published when she was 40 years old.

She thought she was writing short stories. Somewhere in the process, however, she realized the work was meant to be a novel. That it was published was almost an accident.

&uot;I wrote because that’s what I wanted to do,&uot; Haxton said. &uot;I was sort of a small-town country girl, I guess you could say. Being published was not real to me.&uot;

A friend read that first manuscript and gave it to an editor at Houghton-Mifflin. The editor liked it. Her career began with that publication in 1962.

Since then, she has published &uot;Black Cloud, White Cloud: Two Novellas and Two Stories,&uot; &uot;Where the Dreams Cross,&uot; &uot;Apostles of Light,&uot; &uot; The Rock Cried Out,&uot; &uot;A Lifetime Burning,&uot; &uot;The Magic Carpet,&uot; &uot;Can’t Quit You Baby&uot; and, the latest, a work of nonfiction, &uot;Truth: Four Stories I Am Finally Old Enough to Tell.&uot;

Her most recent work is with her literary agent. It is a collection of her essays drawn from years of speaking and teaching. &uot;I found I had a lot of material I thought would make a book,&uot; she said.

Is there another work brewing within her? Well, yes, she said, obviously excited as she thought about it.

&uot;It’s still so tenuous that I don’t want to talk about it. It’s mostly notes now.&uot;

Will the new work surprise her readers? &uot;Well I hope it surprises me,&uot; she said. &uot;Every time you begin to work, from the beginning, you’re not sure where it will go or whether it will work.&uot;

Haxton describes her body of work as political. &uot;We live in an extraordinarily complex period historically speaking,&uot; she said. &uot;Everything in the South for the last 200 years is political. And as individuals we have enormous pressures on us.&uot;

In her latest published work, &uot;Truth,&uot; she found herself drawn to the techniques of writing nonfiction. She drew on her own family stories and said the whole long title has real meaning. &uot;I really did have to wait until I was old enough to tell some of those stories,&uot; she said. &uot;I began to think about illusions we have about the past and that truth is not exactly what you always thought about it.&uot;

A mother and a grandmother, Haxton also has enjoyed the role of teacher at several universities, including the University of Mississippi, where she earned a B.A. in 1942.

&uot;I tell those who want to write fiction that you don’t go about it by thinking about the answers but about the questions.&uot;

She advises students in the words of Henry James, she said, to let nothing go unobserved. &uot;I tell them all you have are words on the page. So you have to make the reader see and care about what you put on the page.&uot;