Columbus author wins top MLA award

December 11, 2010 11:46:00 PM

Jan Swoope - [email protected]


Author Deborah Johnson has been awarded the 2010 Mississippi Library Association Award for Fiction for her novel "The Air Between Us" (Harper Collins). The debut work, set in the fictional town of Revere, Miss., in 1966, looks at how the murder of a white man ripples through a town already struggling with integration. 


The annual award is the highest honor given by the MLA. Past recipients include luminaries such as Eudora Welty, Willie Morris, Donna Tartt, Steve Yarbrough, John Grisham and Larry Brown. Last year the award went to "The Help," by Kathryn Stockett. 


Johnson was overwhelmed by the news.  


"It''s just been an incredible thing; I couldn''t believe it," said the author, who accepted the award in ceremonies in Vicksburg in late October. "I remember I was in my pink pajamas when I got the call, trying to decide if I was going to have oatmeal or raisin bran," she laughed, "and someone called from my office to tell me I''d won a major prize. I thought they''d made a mistake." 


Even as Johnson, once convinced, was excitedly calling her son in San Francisco to share the news, another call came in from her agent to say Amy Einhorn Books wanted to talk with Johnson about her work. The first title published by Einhorn was the "The Help," which became a No. 1 New York Times bestseller. 




Praise for library 


The local writer is especially gratified the award she''s received comes from the library association. 


"Libraries were such a help when I was growing up. I came here and was amazed at what Chebie Bateman had done," she said, praising the former director of the Columbus-Lowndes Public Library. "We had such a fine library. She and Ben Petersen, who came after her, were a tremendous help to me." 


Johnson, a Missouri native who lived in Italy 18 years before moving to Columbus in 2002, is now working on her second novel, "The Secret of Magic." 


Set in 1946 in Revere, Regina Mary Robichard, the first woman lawyer hired by Thurgood Marshall at the NAACP Legal and Education Fund, investigates the death of a black lieutenant recently returned from the trenches of World War II. Nothing in Revere is as it seems, and Regina must navigate the muddy waters of racism, relationships and her own tragic past. 


"Oh, I''m loving this book," said Johnson of the manuscript in its final stages and due out in early 2012, published by Amy Einhorn Books/G.P. Putnam. 


The author prefers early mornings for her writing, occasionally interspersed with strolls at the Riverwalk, where she sometimes finds herself hashing out characters and plot.  


"I like it here," she said of the Golden Triangle. "People have been very, very supportive and helpful; I''ve been very fortunate." 


She''s been gratified to learn the Mississippi Library Association award is more known and well-regarded by others in the field nationwide than some may realize. 


" ... They think of Mississippi as a really literary sort of place. We have that literary tradition that is known well beyond the borders. ... I''m just so grateful about the award and just happy to have a small place in that tradition."

Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.