SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
"The Gone Dead" is a book about a small inheritance that leads to a great mystery. Billie James inherits a shack in the Mississippi Delta from her father, an acclaimed black poet who died one night when she was 4. She returns 30 years later with her dog and a gun for protection in the rural South. It's the first novel from Chanelle Benz, a story that swells with Mississippi swelter, blossoms, bugs, ticks, the blues, blood oaths, old grudges, conspiracy theories and everlasting mysteries. Chanelle Benz, an acclaimed short story writer who teaches at Rhodes College in Memphis, joins us now from WKNO in Memphis. Thanks so much for being with us.
CHANELLE BENZ: Thanks for having me.
SIMON: Billie James, your protagonist, is a cosmopolitan urbanite from Philadelphia. What does she see in the shack she inherits from her father in the Mississippi Delta?
BENZ: Well, I think that she is drawn to the place, you know? It's a place of her childhood. So I think it's more what she's looking for in the shack, you know, what she's hoping she can absorb or what she's - the kind of spirits or sense or memories that might still be there for her.
SIMON: She's in an area of Mississippi in the Delta where, when she tells people she's from Philadelphia, they think of the one in Mississippi.
BENZ: (Laughter) Yeah.
SIMON: And she discovers a circumstance about her father's death - let me put it that way - that she hadn't known before.
BENZ: She discovers that she was there on the night he died and that she went missing that night.
SIMON: Tell us a bit more about Billie. I must say she is the first grant writer...
SIMON: ...I have ever seen at the center of a novel. You know, usually, they're cops or detectives or...
BENZ: (Laughter) Yeah. I mean, I wanted Billie to be a character who is a bit undefined in some ways. She's a bit adrift in her life. You know, she doesn't have roots, or at least she doesn't - she's not aware of what those roots are. And so I wanted her to be this person who had had these sort of illustrious, very scholarly, sort of brilliant parents. She loses them. And so she sort of has their ghosts sort of looming behind her. And she doesn't even really attempt to try to live up to, you know, the lives that they led. They were both, at one point, civil rights activists.
SIMON: She's biracial, too, we should...
BENZ: Yes. Yeah. Her mother was white. And her father was black. And so, you know, growing up and ending up in Philadelphia in 2003, I think Mississippi of the '60s and '70s feels so far away.
SIMON: She steps into an old family relationship with the McGee family. And help us understand some of the tricky territory she has to maneuver here.
BENZ: So this family, the McGees - they once owned a plantation that her family worked on. And they were, you know, tenant shacks. And her family lived on those shacks. Her grandmother was a domestic worker who took care of children in the house. So when she comes back to this little plot of land that she's inherited, they are her neighbors. But at the same time, it's sort of like they have this complicated history. And one thing that I wanted to capture is they actually know much more about her family than she does.
SIMON: What does Billie learn about the legacy not just of slavery but of the civil rights movement in the Mississippi Delta as she tries to uncover this mystery right in front of her?
BENZ: I think similarly to most of us who may have learned about the civil rights era in school, who were taught about Martin Luther King - that much of that history is sanitized. And it was sort of like, well, the Voting Rights Act happened. And then everything was fine, and we moved on. But one thing that really interests me about the Delta was, well, what happened after Freedom Summer? What happened when that national attention and those cameras left? What happened in the early '70s? To people that had had these clashes and taken part in this intense time, how did they go on in that town?
SIMON: When is the past past - ever?
BENZ: Well, I think that we can lay the past to rest once we've had some kind of reckoning with it. I don't believe that there can be any kind of sort of healing or moving on or reconciliation with the past unless we've had a true confrontation with it.
SIMON: And then without giving away the play of the story, Billie James grows to feel that the death of her father, Cliff, has never had that moment of reckoning.
BENZ: No. And I think that's true for a lot of civil-rights-era cold cases and for those families who still live in those towns who still carry the loss of their father or uncle or brother or, in a few cases, actually, still, their child.
SIMON: Does Billie learn anything about justice or injustice?
BENZ: I think so. I think that it's more complicated than somebody going to jail or, you know, somebody being brought up on charges. It's more complicated than revenge. Even in cases where justice might be less than attainable or what people would hope justice would be, what's important is who controls the narrative. And I think one thing that sort of enraged me about these civil-rights-era cold cases is how these stories have just been swallowed and that those families sort of - not only do they suffer in silence, but they're told, just move on. And those are real people. And those are real burdens that they carry and affect the rest of their lives. And I think that's why I was sort of more interested in the beat after the civil rights era.
SIMON: Chanelle Benz - her novel, "The Gone Dead" - thanks so much for being with us.
BENZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.