Today we celebrate the publication of The Politics of Barbecue, a “spoofy thriller” by Tennessee author Blake Fontenay. Set in Memphis, this novel moves past landmarks such as Beale Street, Graceland, and Mud Island as an unlikely group of heroes gets a glimpse into the greed and corruption all too rampant in government. Already selected as an “Editor’s Pick from Book Expo America 2012” by Library Journal, this lighthearted romp sounds like a perfect read for a turbulent election year, don’t you think?
Today, we’ll let Blake tell you, in his own words, exactly what inspired him to write this novel in the first place. Enjoy!
Explaining why I wrote The Politics of Barbecue is about as easy as eating ribs without getting messy fingers. From as early as I can remember, I’ve loved reading and writing. That’s probably no huge shock, since my father was a newspaperman (I don’t think they were called journalists in those days) who also had published novels to his credit.
I don’t remember my dad ever pressuring me to follow in his footsteps. But he did read to my sister and me often when we were young—the Tolkien books, C. S. Lewis, anything he thought would be of interest. He also frequently took me to his workplace, the newsroom at The Tennessean in Nashville.
At that young age, working for a newspaper appealed to me more than becoming a novelist. There was something about the energy of a newsroom—finding out things before everyone else did, then telling the rest of the world—that struck a chord with me.
In elementary school, I started my own newspaper, The Cricket, which I was able to keep going with the support of neighbors and classmates. I’ll never forget the day I showed up at school without the fare money I needed to ride the city bus home, but with an armful of issues of The Cricket. I made enough sales to pay for my ride that day, which probably gave me a false sense of security about the financial future of newspapers.
Of course, I enjoyed writing creative stories at that age, too. And essays. Really, any type of writing presented a delicious challenge. Except for novels. I tried a couple of times, but getting from “Once upon a time” to “The End” just seemed too daunting. How could anyone possibly write something that long?
As I got older—and as I realized I had no future as a pro soccer player—the idea of becoming a newspaper reporter stuck with me. So I went out and did that. And I had a fun and exciting career. I got to cover nighttime launches from Cape Canaveral. Do first-person stories from the pits at NASCAR races. Experience the craziness of Daytona Beach’s Bike Week. And interview all sorts of people—regular folks, cops, lawyers, athletes, CEOs, politicians.
I gravitated toward beats that included the latter group, which eventually led to a job covering city hall for The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tennessee. When I took the job, I considered it no more than a way station in my journey of life. I thought I would spend one or two years there, then return to one of the newspapers in Florida and end my career there.
Then life happened. Before I knew it, I had spent a decade in Memphis, transitioning from my reporting job to one as an editorial writer and political columnist. I also fell in with a group that produced the Memphis Gridiron Show, an annual charity event in which local politicians and other public figures were satirized in song and skit. Pretty much by accident, I became the show’s head skit writer.
After 20-plus years of grinding out bylines, I finally decided I needed a new writing challenge. It was great to work on something a few hours, a few days, or even a few weeks and then see it in print. But I wanted something that took longer to create—and wasn’t just me parroting words other people had told me. I wanted to spin the kind of story my father had read to me when I was young. And if I’m totally honest, I wanted to do something that would make him proud as he was entering the final years of his life.
The inspiration for The Politics of Barbecue came from several sources. As a reader, I enjoy stories that have a strong sense of place. And Memphis has as great a sense of place as any town I’ve ever seen. It’s a gritty city with its share of crime, blight, and urban problems. But it also has a wonderful culture of food, music, history, and Southern hospitality. So part of my motivation was to tell outsiders about the Memphis they didn’t know.
Many people know something about Memphis’s reputation for great barbecue, but they really don’t understand the depths of passion many Memphians have for grilled meat. I remember a cookout I attended one Saturday during football season. The host and another guest got into a shouting match over whether or not it was okay to open the smoker door long enough to check on how the ribs were doing. Competitors in the city’s barbecue cooking contests are even more intense.
A story based on plans for a Barbecue Hall of Fame seemed like a natural fit. After all, Memphis has an ornamental metal museum, but not one dedicated to its signature food? And the cynical journalist in me said that no project like that could be built in Memphis—or probably anywhere else—without its fair share of political corruption.
I hope that The Politics of Barbecue both informs and entertains. It has serious themes dealing with corruption, urban problems, and the importance of civic engagement. But it’s also a story I hope will keep readers laughing and turning the pages.
Because it’s a story that reaffirms how messy life can be. Just like good barbecue.
Like what you’ve read? Blake will promote his new book while on tour across parts of Tennessee and Mississippi–check his events to see if he’ll be signing near you. Be sure to like Blake on Facebook as well.