- The Realm of Last Chances (2013)
- Safe from the Neighbors (2010)
- The End of California (2006)
- Visible Spirits (2001)
- The Oxygen Man (1999)
- Veneer (1998)
- Mississippi History (1994)
- Family Men (1990)
by Joey Sherrard (SHS)
The Mississippi Delta, with its rich culture and heritage, is a breeding ground for beautiful prose of all genres, and more importantly, a breeding ground for excellent writers. One would believe that a young writer would feel blessed to be born in a place so full of history ripe to be picked and translated to paper. But Steve Yarbrough, an excellent Mississippi writer in his own right, feels differently.
As a youth, Yarbrough wanted to escape from the stifling heat of the Delta. His reading expressed his desire to leave. “I read a lot, exotic stuff, Graham Greene, suspense fiction, and so on,” Yarbrough says of his youth. “Certainly, all the reading I did led me toward becoming a writer” (McMurtrey 1F).
Yarbrough has since changed his opinions about Mississippi. He now says, “I think Mississippi is the best place in the world for a writer to grow up. It’s not a bland place, and people there tend to be very passionate about life,” he said in a recent personal interview.. But his early readings and influences helped to spawn Yarbrough’s own unique style of writing.
James Yarbrough was born to John and Earlene Yarbrough in Indianola, Mississippi, on August, 1956. He attended Indianola Academy and graduated there in 1975. From there, he went on to attend Ole Miss and then he earned his graduate degree at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, working with fellow Mississippi writer James Whitehead. Yarbrough then taught at Virginia Tech for four years before accepting a position to teach creative writing at California State University in Fresno. He has remained there the past ten years (McMurtrey 1F). He also lived briefly in Poland in 1992. (Yarbrough) Yarbrough is married and has two daughters.
Yarbrough has published three books, Family Men, Veneer, and Mississippi History. The latter is a collection of short stories, all set in his hometown of Indianola, Mississippi. Yarbrough draws on many different experiences and backgrounds, including his time in Poland and his father, to weave nine diverse tales. Yarbrough has won the National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship for fiction writing and recently was awarded a Pushcart Prize for nonfiction for a story titled “Preacher” (Personal Interview).
Despite living in California, Yarbrough has kept in touch with his roots in Mississippi through his writing and interviews and appearances. He spoke at Mississippi State University after Mississippi History was published. Veneer, another short story collection, has just been published this fall (1998), and The Oxygen Man, his first novel, (for which he sold the screen rights before he sold the book) will be in bookstores in the spring (Personal Interview). See update below.
STEVE YARBROUGH is now the author of three story collections and six novels, the most recent of which is Safe from the Neighbors. In 2005, while teaching English at Fresno State, he was one of five people to be nominated for the prestigious the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction for his novel Prisoners of War, a novel about a group of World War II German POWs working on Mississippi farms as day laborers. In 2006 Yarbrough, then the James and Coke Hallowell Professor of Creative Writing at Fresno State was named to the B.B. King Museum Foundation advisory board. Both King and Yarbrough are from the Indianola, MS, area. Also in 2006, Steve Yarbrough who had his novel, The End of California, selected as a monthly selection by the Book of the Month Club. In 2009 Yarbrough became Professor Emeritus at California State University, Fresno. Now in 2010, he currently lives in Massachusetts and is Acting Chair and Professor of Writing, Literature & Publishing at Emerson College in Boston.
He is married to the Polish literary translator Ewa Hryniewicz-Yarbrough, and they have two daughters, Tosha and Lena. He lives in Stoneham, Massachusetts.
He published The End of California in 2006 and The Realm of Last Chances in 2013.
A Review of Mississippi History
by Joey Sherrard (SHS)
Steve Yarbrough once asked a fellow Mississippi writer, “Why have so many of us become writers?” The reply was that their writing was an attempt to escape (McMurtrey 1F). Escape is exactly what Yarbrough accomplishes in his collection of short stories Mississippi History. He does not escape from Mississippi, the Delta, or even his hometown of Indianola, but Yarbrough does escape into the lives of nine individuals who reside in Indianola.
The book’s rather bland title is a bit misleading. History does play a large part in the lives of Yarbrough’s nine protagonists, whether they are running from it or attempting to recall it. But the stories are more about life and the pain, joy, and sadness that come with it.
Yarbrough conveys the confused emotions of his characters convincingly through terse, tough prose. He manages to put the reader in the character’s lives to the point where the reader can sometimes empathize instead of just sympathize. At the very least, the reader can identify with the emotions felt, if not the experiences lived.
Yarbrough’s style is a double-edged sword, though. It can be slightly cliched and can suffer from an “artlessness,” as stated by literary critic Suzanne Berne (Berne 7). But life can also be artless and cliched, and Berne went on to say that “oddly enough, this artlessness is the book’s principal strength” (Berne 7). Yarbrough finds his best way to describe life is how it often is– unpoetic and rough.
A dominant theme in all of Yarbrough’s stories is internal conflict. All of his characters experience it to some degree. Some of the poignant examples that were created from Yarbrough’s imagination include a man dealing with the loss of his wife and his teenage daughter’s pregnancy simultaneously, and a woman facing an old flame that has come back to haunt her.
Perhaps the most interesting tale is the title story, “Mississippi History,” which deals with racism and friendship. Kenny, a middle-class white child, becomes best friends with the child of a successful Jewish family with connections to the all-white academy they both attend. Their favorite class is a Mississippi history class which they enjoy partly because the teacher tells racist jokes. But when the victim of one joke is Jew, Kenny’s Jewish friend becomes upset. Kenny begins to realize this double-standard, and the story deals with the ramifications that follow.
I found the best story in the collection to be “Hoe Hands.” Yarbrough draws on his musical knowledge as a child (Yarbrough, “Guitar Lessons”) and the classic picture of the agriculture-driven Delta to forge a beautiful story. Yarbrough shows how music can bridge the gap between two peoples, and how fear and hatred can push them apart.
The story involves the narrator and Tea Burns, a black tenant farmer who works for the narrator’s grandfather. The two share an understanding of the Delta blues, but it is short-lived because of conflict between Tea’s wife and the narrator’s grandmother. Yarbrough’s prose is at its best, and the reader can almost taste the Delta dust and hear Tea Burns’s wailing lyrics.
As in any collection, some of the stories are stronger, but I can truthfully say I enjoyed every one. Every story is memorable for the sole reason that each one highlights Yarbrough’s strength, and that is the translation of real life, sweet and sad, to paper.
Mississippi History is an excellent example of the literary talent that teems in the Mississippi Delta and a revealing glimpse into the “history” being made there every day.
by Joey Sherrard (SHS)
1. Where and when were you born? What were your parents’ names? What high school did you graduate from? Do you have any other information describing your life to date that you would like to have in your biography?
I was born in Indianola, Mississippi, on August 29, 1956. I graduated from Indianola Academy in 1975. My parents’ names are John and Earlene Yarbrough. I’ve published two books, Mississippi History and Family Men.
(Note: A collection of short stories entitled Veneer has just been published in the fall of 1998.)
2. Who is your favorite author?
I’ve got lots of favorite writers. But if I had to pick just one, I guess I’d say it’s James Salter.
3. What author do you believe has influenced you the most?
As far as who has influenced me the most, it may well be the Irish short story writer William Trevor–he’s another of my favorites. Also, Alice Munro. And certainly Salter himself.
4. Is Mississippi History based on people in your hometown of Indianola?
Mississippi History really isn’t based on people in Indianola, even though that’s where it’s set. Those characters are all products of my own imagination.
5. When did you become interested in writing? Was there anything in particular?
I got interested in writing when I was still in high school. I loved to read because books could take me places I never expected I’d be able to go. And now, even though I’ve been to a lot of those places in the flesh, I still find the trips I took to them in the books just as vivid and memorable as the real trips turned out to be. In some cases, more so.
6. How long did it take you to write Mississippi History?
I think it took me about two years to write Mississippi History. Part of the book was actually written in Poland, where I lived briefly back in 1992.
7. Are you working on a book right now? Do you have any information about it you would like to talk about?
I’ve got two new books coming out. A collection of stories titled Veneer will be published this fall, and my first novel, The Oxygen Man, will appear next spring.
8. Have you received any awards for your writing?
I won a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in fiction writing, and recently I won a Pushcart Prize for nonfiction for a piece titled “Preacher.”
9. What advice do you have for future writers?
As far as advice goes, the most important thing is to read widely. Don’t limit your reading just to Southern writers, or detective writers, or just any kind of writers. Read the best books you can get your hands on, and pay careful attention to the world around you; it’s a rich place.
10. What advice do you have for students today?
Your education will be the most valuable thing you ever get–I wish I had understood that when I was younger.
11. How much has living in Mississippi influenced your writing?
I think Mississippi is the best place in the world for a writer to grow up. It’s not a bland place, and people there tend to be very passionate about life. And despite what a lot of people outside the state might think, it’s a place where books still matter; people read there, and they’re proud of their writers. I wouldn’t trade my childhood there for anything.
- Sewanee Writers’ Conference Faculty listing
- Q&A with Author Steve Yarbrough (Clarion Ledger)
- Steve Yarbrough brings his literary touch from California to New England. The Oregonian. (2013)
- Steve Yarbrough’s Facebook page
- Berne, Suzanne. “Southern Discomfort.” New York Times Book Review 6 Nov. 1994: 7.
- Grier, Crystal. “Writers to Speak at Symposium.” The Spectator 13 Oct. 1994: 6.
- Jacobs, Nancy. “Photos of Steve Yarbrough.” 1997.
- McMurtrey, Linda A. “Indianola Writer’s Mississippi History Permeates His Work.” The Clarion-Ledger 25 Sept. 1994, natl. ed.: 1F.
- Yarbrough, Steve. “Guitar Lessons.” Oxford American 16 (1997) : 21-26.
- Yarbrough, Steve. Mississippi History. Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 1994.
- Yarbrough, Steve. Personal Interview. 13 Apr. 1997.