Neilson has things cooking at The Persia Cafe'

Melany Neilson will be at Off Square Books in Oxford Thursday to sign copies of "The Persia Cafe." She will begin signing at 5 p.m., then appear on Thacker Mountain Radio at 5:30 p.m.

By Danny McKenzie

Daily Journal

Subtlety, it seems all too clear, is a vanishing trait. These days, everything seems to be in your face, bawling and screaming, "see how great I am."

Thank heavens for Melany Neilson.

In her wonderful new novel, "The Persia Cafe" (St. Martin's, $21.95), Neilson proves time and again the power of understatement.

Subtlety, understatement, dry wit no matter its name, it is the most effective of the writer's tools, and none use it better than Neilson.

Consider: "So we sat down to the dining room table ..."

See? No telling how many writers would have chosen the word "at" instead of "to" when describing where the characters were seated.

Not Neilson. She remains true to her Southern upbringing, roots that run from her California home in Long Beach, to her "real home," Ebenezer, in Holmes County, Mississippi.

And it's her loyalty to the Southern language that makes "The Persia Cafe," a very moving story of a young woman's coming of age in a small Southern town in the early 1960s, the delightful read that it is.

Neilson will be at Off Square Books in Oxford Thursday to sign copies of "The Persia Cafe." She will begin signing at 5 p.m., then appear on Thacker Mountain Radio at 5:30 p.m.

She laughed when recounting experiences with her St. Martin's editor, and explaining such nuances of the South.

"It really was a process that was a lot of fun," Neilson said in a recent telephone interview. "I had a very wonderful editor who was aware that the grammar was not exactly correct in several places, so I had to translate to her what several passages meant.

"At one point in the book, I used the term moccasins' and she wanted to know what a pair of shoes had to do with snakes.

"But she was really fun to work with and she gave me a lot of leeway. I actually found the whole process of being published both fun and astonishing."

Neilson's character development makes "The Persia Cafe" a remarkable piece of Southern literature. It's obvious early in the novel that the folks in the fictional Persia, Mississippi, will be folks we know, or have known. Not liked, necessarily, but certainly people we know all too well.

Mattie, the black cook who shares her kitchen knowledge with Fannie Leary, the protagonist and narrator of "The Persia Cafe," is one of those characters, however, who gets inside the reader.

Neilson's introduction of Mattie is classic:

Mattie saw beyond the present, got quick flashes of coming events like radio waves briefly connected. She had been born with pneumonia; at three, witnessed a tornado uproot a giant oak; dreamed of cherry tomatoes the night before her brother got the measles. She believed in Jesus our Lord. She could make a perfect biscuit. Luna moths stopped on the back screen door to watch her on their annual flight.

And it only gets better, which should come as no surprise. This is Neilson's first novel, but it's not her first book.

Her memoir "Even Mississippi" won the Lilian Smith Award for Nonfiction, the Mississippi Author Award, the Gustavas Meyers Outstanding Book of Human rights, and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

The Lady from Ebenezer can flat-out write. And she can write in virtually any position. Really.

Neilson, whose husband, Fred Slabach, is the interim dean of the Whittier College School of Law, wrote "The Persia Cafe" while pregnant with her now 2-year-old twin sons.

"I wrote quite literally up to the day they were born," Neilson, a former campaign worker for Mississippi Representative Robert Clark, said. "The doctor put me to bed fairly early in my pregnancy, so about two-thirds of this book was written horizontally."

Like most Southern expatriates, Neilson is eager to embark on a book-signing tour that will take her to Atlanta, Blytheville, Ark., Jackson, Oxford, and Memphis.

"We've got a lot of really good friends out here'," she said. "I've written two books here, had my babies here; a lot of good things have happened to us here. But California is not home."

To that extent, Neilson said she saved one entire day at the end of her trip to get back to her native land for family, friends, food and, of course, a replenishing of Southern subtlety for her next book, also set in Persia.

"It's a love story in a more contemporary setting," she said. "It's about the ties that bind and ultimately threaten a family. But it's got to be a love story, or what's the point?"

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