Ole Miss English professor publishes collection of memoirs

Posted on Oct 9 2017 - 7:04pm by special contributor Natalie Seales

Beth Ann Fennelly, Mississippi’s poet laureate and professor of English at the university, is celebrating the publication of her new book, “Heating and Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs,” on Tuesday at Off Square Books.

Fennelly said she did not set out to write an epic tell-all. Rather, she was more interested in “little, tiny stories.” The shortest story is just one sentence, and the longest is only a couple pages.

“My goal was to find little tiny moments in my life that, when the surrounding noise is cleared out and you just focus on the one moment, seem to reveal something that elucidates,” Fennelly said. “Something that surprises, that is quirky or funny or helps me make sense of what it means to be a human on earth walking around with a weird brain with other people walking around with weird brains.”

This is Fennelly’s sixth book, and it rounds her catalog into three works of poetry and three of prose.

“I wanted to take the extreme compression and abbreviation of poetry,” Fennelly said. “I wanted to have the narrative drive of fiction, and I wanted to have the truth-telling of creative non-fiction.”

Because of Fennelly’s unique approach, “Heating and Cooling” is not the typical memoir. She focused more on the idea of smaller memories and moments she feels reveal the most about people.

“The moment something terrible happened to you or the moment you met your boyfriend — they have clear emotional weight, but we all remember things that we don’t know why we remember them,” Fennelly said. “It’s kind of curious to pause and think about why that might be. I was interested in memory and interested in the ways a person constructs their identity from the little things that make up their life.”

English professor Ann Fisher-Wirth, who was an early reader of Fennelly’s work, said the tiny narratives resonate beyond nostalgia.

“It’s like really delicious little hors d’oeuvres at parties,” Fisher-Wirth said. “You eat one, and you just can’t believe how delicious it is, and it’s only just a bite. And then you kind of have the aftertaste, and it just kind of ripples out from that experience of biting into it.”

Poet and essayist Molly McCully Brown, who completed her MFA at Ole Miss last year, has been an outspoken champion of this project.

“Watching, over many drafts, and many meals—and cups of coffee, and glasses of wine—as this collection came into being has been one of the great privileges of my reading and writing life,” Brown wrote on Facebook. “The book is innovative, funny, smart, tender, and a little bit raucous, all the extraordinary things Beth Ann herself is.”

Fennelly said it isn’t just one emotion she wants people to feel but rather the broad range of emotions that come with the human experience.

“A couple people have commented … ‘I started to just read one or two, but I read the whole thing,’ and I think that’s such an awesome compliment,” Fennelly said. “That’s really what I wanted. … I wanted the book to be fun. I think the cover is fun, and I think the design is fun, and I hope the experience of reading it is fun.”

As for her next project, Fennelly said she doesn’t know where her writing will take her.

“I think sometimes the next book that you want to write is not necessarily the next book you write,” Fennelly said. “When writing is going best, it’s because it’s coming from a place where you’re not controlling it.”

Fennelly will sign copies of “Heating and Cooling” at 5 p.m. Off Square Books and will read from the memoirs at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday.