Author and journalist Richard Grant has spent his life traveling the world and made a living writing about it. “For the sake of convenience,” he says he is from London, England, but Grant was actually born in Malaysia and lived in Kuwait before moving to London with his family at the age of 8. After college, he set out for Mexico and the American West, selling magazine stories to fund his travels.
Tucson, Arizona, became his home base while he wrote about wars, culture and literature. In 2005, he published “American Nomads,” chronicling his experiences on the road with the likes of truck drivers, RV travellers, Indian impersonators and bull riders.
He followed it with “God’s Middle Finger: Into the Lawless Heart of the Sierra Madre” in 2008 and “Crazy River” in 2011, an account of his attempt at exploring the Malagarasi River in Tanzania, which the locals call “the river of bad spirits.”
In his most recent book “Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta,” Grant finds something more surprising than the drug smugglers and man-eating crocodiles of his past adventures — he finds some sense of home.
Grant dives headfirst into life in the American South, leaving his apartment in Manhattan for an old plantation home in the rural Delta community of Pluto, Mississippi, and brings his girlfriend Mariah and sun-starved dog Savannah along for the ride.
His move to “the most southern place on Earth” was not his first Mississippi experience. In the early 1990s, Grant had visited Oxford to write about Fat Possum Records.
“I kept coming back once or twice a year, because I really liked it there,” he said. “I really liked the friends I’d made; I really liked the feel of things. So, it’s kind of been in the back of my mind that maybe Mississippi would be a good place for me.”
It was on invitation from his friend and fellow storyteller Martha Foose that he visited the Delta and the Foose’s family farm on Pluto.
“We had a lovely picnic, and she basically persuaded me to buy her father’s house, which was three miles down the way from her house,” he said. “I kind of fell in love with the house.”
He returned to New York City to convince his then-girlfriend Mariah, an Arizona native.
“I had to say to her, ‘Look, I think we should move from 8th Avenue and 20th Street in Manhattan to the edge of Pluto, Mississippi, where it’s 30 miles to the nearest grocery store, with a bunch of people we don’t know in a place that we don’t know at all,” Grant said. “New York really wasn’t treating us well. We drove down together, and Mariah also fell in love with the house and some of the neighbors, the Thompson family. We sort of decided to do it on a whim. Part of it was to leave New York, and part of it was to plunge into something new and unexpected.”
The Delta transplants were surprised from the beginning by the hospitality of their neighbors, who they now consider family, even though the Grants have since moved to Jackson, Mississippi.
“We have a 1-year-old daughter, and we had her birthday party last Saturday in Pluto, and as far as I’m concerned, she’s their granddaughter,” he said. “And, I was expecting a life of kind of rural isolation, but it was a very, very social experience, and getting adopted by this family was a really big part of it.”
Grant found other small surprises in his new day-to-day: pink hunting gear for breast cancer awareness, 3 and 4-year-olds toting firearms and the baffling complexity of race relations.
“We thought it was a very simple, cut-and-dry thing, whereas in the Mississippi Delta, it is anything but simple and cut-and-dry,” Grant said. “It’s got many layers and nuances and contradictions and complexities. Making sense of that was probably the hardest thing to understand, the way that love can intersect with prejudice in surprising ways.”
As an outsider, he felt comforted that even many Mississippi natives seemed puzzled by the racial tensions. In a state seen by the rest of the nation as backwards and narrow-minded, a well-travelled Englishman believes there are lessons to be learned and mysteries left to be explained in the Magnolia state.
“I think it’s broadened my mind a lot, and I’m less apt to judge people than I was before I got here. I think it’s opened up my heart a little, too,” Grant said. “It’s hard to explain. I was a little bit colder before than I am now.”
Even with his often-brutal honesty and admitted confusion over many of the culture’s principles, Grant’s “Dispatches from Pluto” has seen incredible community response, especially in Mississippi, where it held steady at #1 Best Seller for several consecutive months.
“People have told me that I have held up a mirror to them. I think they appreciate that I didn’t take any cheap shots, and I think people appreciate the fact that the book is as honest as I could make it and as clear-eyed as I could make it,” he said. “I think that was the difference with this book. My other books were about journeys, so you’re reliant on first impressions a lot, but if you’re actually making a life for your family in a place, it forces you to think about it in a different way, in a deeper way.”
As for the state’s future, Grant remains optimistic.
“It’s kind of a fluid, evolving situation that’s slowly improving I think. Sometimes, you come into these moments where a room full of black and white strangers come together, and there’s alcohol and music and you can just kind of feel the tension lift away at some point in the evening, and you get a little glimpse of how great it could be if that burden was shed,” he said.
Grant, his wife Mariah, daughter Isobel and dog Savannah now reside in Jackson, where Mariah works at the Millsaps College library. They still travel back to Pluto on many weekends to visit their Delta family. As for his writing, Grant has recently appeared in the Smithsonian, New York Times and Garden and Gun. A new book is in the works, and he said it will indeed be about Mississippi.
To see what our staff members had to say about “Dispatches in Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta,” head over to the blog and mudandmag.com.