Kevin Sessums is currently a contributing editor at Allure magazine after spending fourteen years at Vanity Fair in that same capacity. Before joining Vanity Fair, he was executive editor for Andy Warhol's Interview magazine. His work has also appeared in Elle, Travel + Leisure, Playboy, POZ, Out, and Show People magazines. He lives in New York City.
I had the opportunity to interview Mr. Sessums after reading and reviewing his memoir Mississippi Sissy, which will be published in March, 2007.
LG: Mississippi Sissy reveals a challenging and often painful childhood. How difficult was it to revisit that and open it up to the world?
KS: There were times when it was very painful, yes. When I was writing the section about my mother dying I found myself very depressed. I couldn't figure it out at first - why this depression. I was approaching the book as a writer, not an orphaned son - crafting paragraphs and sentences and finding the right words and focusing on the arc of the narrative. But then when I found myself holding onto the railing of my terrace at my summer place in Provinetown and convincing myself not to jump - I had never had thoughts like that before - it finally dawned on me I was dealing with some very deep, surpressed emotions regarding my mother's death. I was literally reliving those months. And once I realized that the writing of this book was more than "writing" I was able to deal with the emotions that were surfacing.
Mostly the writing of it was like an act of prayer. I really felt at times as if my fingers were being guided by ghosts who were finally finding some solace after trying to convince me to write this book from beyond for many, many years. But now, the publishing process, is just the opposite. Everything has become an act of will in this phase of it all.
LG: Do you feel your early life experiences would have been any different if you'd have grown up someplace other than the South? Being from Mississippi myself, I know it's an understatement to say attitudes there are conservative. Do you feel living in Mississippi intensified your situation?
KS: As I've said many times, telling someone you're from Mississippi either stops or starts conversations. My life was, yes, heightened by living there and suffering through my childhood during the Civil Rights movement down there. I always identified with the African Americans because of their "otherness" in that world and how they were fighting back and claiming their place in a world that didn't want them.
LG: Some critics have said the quality of serious literary fiction is steadily declining, and that readers are settling for a lot more mediocre writing. A few critics go so far as to say it's the "dumbing down" of readers themselves that's driving the quality of writing down. What's your take on that?
KS: I've contributed to the dumbing down of readers in my writing celebrity profiles, I 'm sure. At least it's easy to blame me for it. Though I've always tried to lift the genre a bit. Writing Mississippi Sissy is a way to make amends for any contribution I made to this dumbing down. At least I hope it is.
LG: What writers do you most admire? Which have had the most influence on your own writing?
KS: I'm a southerner so Flannery O'Connor and Eudora Welty meant the world to me growing up when I discovered the joys of reading. I also like Michael Chabon a lot (Kavalier and Clay is one of my favorite books) and Ian McEwan and Michael Cunningham.
LG: What projects are you currently working on? What's next for you after Mississippi Sissy?
KS: I still write celebrity cover stories - now for Allure magazine - and have started a novel about a heterosexual love story set in Provincetown and have an idea about a non-fiction book set in Africa.
LG: What have you been reading lately? Anything in particular you'd recommend?
KS: I've loved Daniel Mendelsohn's The Lost and Colm Toibin Mothers and Sons (I also loved his The Master) and Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children and have just started reading Andre Aciman's Call Me Your Name. In recent years I've loved The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst.
LG: Do you have any predictions on the upcoming Oscars? Any films you think particularly stood out last year, whether or not they were nominated for an award?
KS: I don't make predictions ... I did love the German film The Lives of Others nominated for Best Foreign Film.
LG: Aside from your literary endeavors, what makes life interesting for you? Is there something you're particularly passionate about?
KS: I love riding my bike on the bike trails in Provincetown. Love going to the theatre. Love going to the opera . Love falling to sleep with my dog curled up next to me. The older I get the simpler life becomes ...
LG: AS a public library employee I have to ask, have libraries played any role in your love of books and reading?
KS: As a kid, I loved going to the library in my hometown and perusing the books - and sneaking a peak at the ones that the librarian kept under her desk when she thought they were too racy. It also subscribed to magazines and newspapers I couldn't find anywhere else so went in to read those every week. I checked out a lot of modern poetry - some books of it over and over and over.
I remember one big thick silver paperback with a modern looking cover of black lettering and silkscreened-like black and white pictures of poets on its cover I think I must have checked it out 20 times. As an older person in college, I once went back into the library to find that book. And there was the card still in it with my signature over and over and over written on the card. I don't think anybody else had ever checked it out. But that one book meant the world to me.
I still think of it - and the Forest Public Library - often and the solace I found in that book and in the building. I learned what it meant to be contemplative in the quiet there. There was comfort knowing that all those words were organized all around me and waiting to offer me some sort of salvation I could not then quite comprehend. I still can't, to tell you the truth: syllables as saints, I guess ...
Kevin Sessums's blog can be found at: http://www.mississippisissy.com/blog/