/Richard Grant returns to Pluto

Richard Grant returns to Pluto

This is the weekly ‘Sip of Culture. It’s a partnership between Mississippi Today Magazine and The Sip Magazine. This is the cover story of our fall issue. It is available on racks across the Southeast. Visit The Sip’s website to see more stories like these and to subscribe to the magazine. PLUTO — Richard Grant drives his dustbowl-gray pickup along Bee Lake Road. The road is a faded blacktop that’s surrounded by Delta farmland, its namesake serpentine oxbow and Delta farmland. This swampy memory was left behind by the Yazoo River years ago after it changed its course. Grant stopped talking a few miles away, in the vicinity of Yazoo City. He found it as hard to move away from Pluto, where he wrote Dispatches From Pluto. Lost and Found in Mississippi Delta was his best-selling memoir. He has only been back to the house twice since he sold it in April 2015. He admits that selling the house was “very painful for me.” “I don’t want to go back right now. It makes me sad that it is no longer home.” Grant picked up his story again just before he left the U.S. 49 East levee road. He pointed out the shotgun-scarred sign welcoming Holmes County drivers. As he continues to weave the line through the corn fields, Grant sinks to Delta, where heat and dirt settles and the stalks rise, blocking out the horizon. The vast domed sky is almost cloudless and has a light hazy atmosphere. He announces, “Now we are on Pluto.” After a long, dusty journey, the truck comes to a halt at Bobby T.’s ranch home. He is enjoying the summer sun in his wheelchair in the yard. Grant speaks about the crops and the Thompson family, who welcome Grant into their home after he has moved from New York City. Bobby is friendly but his eyes retrace to a thousand-yard stare, which reaches beyond the fields. The road continues past Cathy Thompson’s home, which is nestled among majestic oaks and where Grant’s daughter Isobel took her first swimming lesson. We pass a group of white-sided buildings, lean-tos and other farming equipment before returning to the vast open fields and endless skies. Grant recalls his first visit to Pluto with Martha Foose. She is a renowned chef and author and convinced Grant to go. He said, “I laid down under the shade tree and ate fried chicken, drank wine, and listened to birds.” It was just a feeling of happiness. I felt relaxed. “I fell in love the place.” Grant commented on an old home they had passed as they toured the area. Foose’s dad owned the house, and it was up for sale at a steep price. He brought Mariah with him on his second Pluto trip. Grant began to think about how he could purchase the house by the time he returned to New York. * * * Grant is a natural wanderer who grew up in Malaysia and Kuwait before finally settling down in London. He is the son a British businessman and has Anglo-Scottish heritage. He was not content with his move to England and, having graduated college with a history degree, his wanderlust grew. He said, “I felt that I was always on the outside looking in, trying make sense of everything.” It’s been pretty much that way since then.” Grant felt claustrophobic in his homeland and worked as a security officer to make enough money to travel to New York. There he met friends. After moving to Philadelphia, Grant painted houses and then traveled to Los Angeles to earn enough money to buy a car. He spent the next few years traveling across the country, doing odd jobs, before finally settling in Tucson, Ariz. and making a modest living as a freelance writer. He said that $300 per month was enough to rent a small adobe house. Grant claims he didn’t work hard by design. Grant was able to write a lot about his camping trips, river expeditions, and other adventures south of the border. His journalism eventually led to books like God’s Mid Finger, which explores rural Mexico virtually without law, and Crazy River about East African travels — and these led to a BBC documentary. He was so successful that he decided to reconsider New York as the literary capital of America. This is where many of his friends live and where he expects to be busy. Mariah and he decided to move to Manhattan for a basement apartment in Manhattan with one sidewalk-level window. He said, “I had just made the documentary and had some money. I was like, “Let’s spend this money, let us live in New York for one year, just to have fun,” I had another documentary in the works. I was working on a book proposal. “I had my first commission from The New Yorker magazine.” However, after only two weeks of being there, both the documentary and the book proposal were rejected by The New Yorker. Foose invited Grant to Mississippi, promising at least temporary relief while he stared down at square one in one the most expensive zip codes of the country. * * * Grant approaches the driveway and flips on his turn signal. He picked it up again after moving to Jackson. Then he laughs and lets go. As he turns onto the driveway, Gravel clenches his tires under the tires. The trees surrounding Grant’s old home on Pluto are a verdant explosion muscadine-ivy. A pair of small ponds are shaded by cypress trees next to the blossoming crepe myrtles, which have been allowed to mature naturally as trees. When the wind blows, a shower of pink flower petals rises from the ground while hundreds of dragonflies chase the corn stalks. The canebrake is just beyond the house, as well as the levee that runs along Tchula Lake. Grant used to walk there when he was experiencing writer’s block. The cane at the property’s edge shade Grant’s cottage, which he used for writing. He observes that the new landlord has closed off the area where snakes used be able to enter. The biggest intruder was a five-foot chicken serpent that crashed down on a shelf in the backroom. Grant recalls that the windows were covered in insects his first night in Pluto. Their noise was louder than the traffic and squeaking brakes Grant was used to hearing in the city. The shock of moving from New York to the Delta was surreal for several weeks. Grant had a plan to write a book about his experiences in the Delta to help Mariah finish school. Albert Johnson, a nearby Stonewall Plantation tractor driver who was born in a sharecropper’s house, inspired Grant. Grant was helped by Johnson and others who helped him understand the complex relationships between whites and blacks living and working in the Delta. He said, “This is an extraordinary area that kind of defies explanation.” Grant stated that it causes people to attempt to explain it through music and writing. Grant said that he believed it had one of the most complex, richest, and contradictory cultures in America. Grant requested more time from his publisher after a year. He replied, “I told you, ‘This is really complex.’ I said that I had a pile of newspaper clippings and notes, and was trying to figure out how to structure the book.” Grant’s average writing output increased from one to four pages per day to this point. Grant wrote for up to 12 hours a day, drinking coffee throughout the day, and then settling down with whisky at night. His biggest achievements to date were a New York Times bestseller, and the Pat Conroy Southern Book Prize. * * * Today’s trip to Pluto is more than a trip down the memory lane. Grant is greeted by the new owners of the house. The task of retrieving the camper shell Grant needed to return to the house proves to be much more difficult than expected. He heads to Stonewall to find Johnson and Jerry Kimble who then follow him back to his home. Soon, Jaime Peaster (the grandson of Grant who built the house in 1910) pulls up. Johnson and he wager on the corn harvest right in front of the shed, where Grant’s firewood from the two winters here is piled up five- and six-high. While the Grants moved to Jackson’s Fondren to be near their work, a large part of them never left. The Thompsons have been their surrogate family, and they’ve kept in touch with Pluto. Cathy was the one who delivered Isobel and orchestrated Richard’s Delta wedding. Grant stated that she considers herself Isobel’s Delta grandma. I would hate to lose that connection, you see? It’s wonderful for our daughter to see Pluto around the corner with a loving pair of grandparents.” Grant’s 2003 book American Nomads chronicled his adventures among other itinerant adventurers in the American Southwest. Perhaps the most important thing for a man who claimed 19 addresses over 25 years was his sense of permanence as his new family took root in Mississippi soil. Scenes from Pluto (Photos: Melanie Thortis / c) The ‘Sip).