Kevin Sessums talks about his book Mississippi Sissy, now in paperback
By Blase DiStefano
Kevin Sessums grew up in Forest, Mississippi. In the ’60s, the town’s population was about 3,500, and discrimination was the norm. Sessums talked to OutSmart about his book (which details his young life in the small town), the “N” word, and Sidney Poitier. He had recently returned to Forest to do a story for Parade magazine on the effects of immigration on a face of a little town. It was the most time he had spent there since he was 17 years old.
Blase DiStefano: Hi. Kevin?
Kevin Sessums: Yes.
Hi. This is Blase DiStefano.
Hi, how are you?
I was supposed to do an interview with you.
Yes, uh huh.
So, is this a good time?
Yes, sure, let’s get it over with.
[Both laugh] OK. That’s one of the questions I was going to ask.
You’ve interviewed a lot of people, and now you’re being interviewed, being asked the same questions over and over again. Rather than ask how boring is that…how difficult is that?
I’m better at being a top or a bossy bottom, I guess is the answer to that.
[Both laugh] I like the answer.
OK. Let’s just leave it at that. This is for a gay magazine, right?
OK, then your readership will understand what I’m talking about.
I grew up in Alexandria, Louisiana, so I’ve got an idea of what it’s like to live in a small town. However, Alexandria had maybe 40 or 50,000 people.
Oh, you are a city boy. You’re a city slicker.
It felt like a little tiny town, but, my god, compared to Forest, Mississippi…
I just went back there to do a story for Parade magazine.
How long were you there?
And how did that feel?
Umm. It sort of felt like any time I ever go back to Mississippi. If I stay in Mississippi more than three days, I just feel like I’m a little sissy all over again. I find it so culturally oppressive. It gets to me on a lot of levels.
But we never really leave our hometown. We carry our hometowns around in our heart. Even when we leave them, they never leave us. So no matter…I mean I grew up during the last vestiges of segregation and all that it entails. Although it was an awful time in a political sense to grow up in Mississippi, it’s still the only childhood that I had.
What religion are you?
Methodist. In fact, I went back to my little church, where I sang my solos and my mother had her funeral, and it’s now a Spanish-language church, completely Guatemalan. It’s the exact same church, but totally different congregation.
Your mother seemed like such a caring person—that whole thing with you spelling out the word sissy. I’m about tearing up just thinking about it. [His mother said, “Write down the word. S-I-S-S-Y.” After he wrote it, she said, “Now, whenever anybody calls you that again you remember how pretty that looks on there. Look at the muscles those S’s have. Look at the arms on that Y. Look at the backbone that lone I has. What posture. What presence. See how proud that I is to stand there in front of you.”] It’s a book as much about maternal love as it is about the coming of age of a gay kid, and maybe those two things intersect if we’re lucky.
I’m just about to go back out on tour for the paperback that comes out March 4, but when I was on tour for the hardback, I toured everywhere, and when I went to my last stop in Philadelphia, I thought, So who is going to be the last cute boy on line? Who’s going to be that last person on line that I sit there and I’m humbled by their life story? If you tell your specific story well enough then it speaks to lots of people.
So I thought, There have been a lot of cute boys on line and it’s Philadelphia, so maybe it’s close enough to New York I can get a phone number, right?
There was one woman in the audience with this young man next to her. I thought, Who is this woman? Is she a lesbian, or is she like the best friend of this guy? Is she his sister? Who is this woman? She’s the one who lingered, and when she finally made it up for me to sign the book, she had two books with her, and she said, “Would you sign one to me?” And I said, “Sure.” And she said, “Oh, by the way, this is my husband.” So the guy she was with was her husband. And she said, “Would you sign one to my son?” And I said, “You don’t look old enough to have a son that should be reading Mississippi Sissy .” And she said, “Well, I have a Tennessee sissy. He’s seven, and some day he will be old enough to read this book. I was reading your blog, and this was the closest we could come to hear you read. We flew up from Nashville, Tennessee, just to hear you read. I had to tell you in person what this book meant to me. It made me a better mother.” She started to cry. I started to cry.
I’m crying now.
I know. She said. “I brought you some pictures to look at.” Last Halloween, her son Isaiah went as the wicked witch of the west. [In Mississippi Sissy , one Halloween, Kevin dressed up as the same witch.] And she showed me these pictures. Since then I’ve become sort of like his fairy godmother from New York City. He loves theater. He loves Betty Hutton and Ethel Merman and Marilyn Monroe and all those things. So every time I get a stack of Playbill s, I send them down to him. He doesn’t know who the f–k I am, but that I’m his mom’s friend.
But he will know.
Yes. Exactly. So it’s a book about maternal love. It’s a book about race as much as about the gay stuff.
And speaking of race, tell me about Matty May.
She was the heroine of the book in a strange way in the racial aspect. She’s the one who taught me not to say the “N” word. There’s a scene in the book when Sidney Pointier wins the best actor Oscar in 1963, I guess it was for Lilies of the Field . She was making my bed one morning. She was our maid. And I said, “Matty May, can you believe a nigger won actor?” And the look on her face of utter defeat and sadness and how I’d truly broken her heart just stays with me to this day. In a certain way, she worshiped Sidney Poitier the same way that I worshiped Arlene Francis.
Years later…fade out fade in…I’m sort of an Auntie Mame to my niece and nephews. When they graduate from high school I take them out to Los Angeles for Oscar weekend. I take them to the big CAA party and I take them to Diane von Furstenberg’s picnic. I take them to the Vanity Fair party. I show them this whole sort of L.A. movie star lifestyle. My Cinderella life. So right before this book came out last year, I took my last nephew who graduated from high school in Mississippi out there, and we went to the picnic, and we went to get our plates with food, and I looked over and Sidney Poitier was sitting at one of the picnic tables.
So I said, “Price, excuse me, I’m not going to let this pass.” I went and knelt at his side and started to tell him the story of Matty May. I just felt like she was an angel sitting on my shoulder, like she had guided this whole thing to happen. He sat there for like 15 or 20 minutes holding my hand…he grabbed my hand at one point and started holding my hand. And when another famous person came up to say hi to him, I started to get up and leave. He said, “No, don’t leave, I want to hear this.” And I knelt at his feet and I told him all about Matty May. I thought, The circle has finally been closed.
Thank you. That was quite beautiful. My next question was going to be about the “N” word. But then you’ve already mentioned that.
Well, if you grew up in the South around certain types of people during the time I grew up, you heard the “N” word constantly. I knew from a very early age how complicated the world was, because if you saw my grandparents in a movie spouting hatred of civil rights workers and spouting the “N” word, you would think they were the bad people. And yet they were the people who, after my parents died, took me in, loved me unconditionally, saved me. I had to look at these people and find the goodness in them.
I learned very early on that the world is not, no pun intended, black and white. It is a very complicated world.
When I was growing up, we got the “N” word a lot, but it wasn’t used in a hateful way. That was the word that was used. But how did I know at such an early age that there was something very wrong with that?
I think it’s because we’re gay.
That’s what I think.
Especially if you are a smart little gay person and you’re sort of worldly innately. The first memories I have are of being stared at as if I was a creature, not a child.
It’s that alien thing like, You are a creature in our midst. We don’t know quite how to deal with you. Either they treat the creature as an alien that should be shunned or you are treated as a creature who is precious. So there’s that fine line that your family can treat you as. Sometimes they go back and forth.
[Laugh s] By the way, that photograph on the cover of the book—I don’t know that it could get any better than that.
And with that wonderful baseball mitt in your hand.
For Christmas this past year my sister gave me a gift. I told her not to get me anything, and I didn’t want to take it on the plane with me. She said, “Just open it, please.” I opened it and, unbeknownst to me, she had saved…because that was my father’s glove…she had saved that glove all this time. And she gave it to me for Christmas.
What a gift!
So how long did it take you to write the book?
About a year and a half ago. I had about three months where I had a hard time writing it, but once I…the whole mother stuff and her illness—that was very difficult to write. When I was writing that stuff in Provincetown a couple of summers ago, I became very depressed and almost felt suicidal in a way, like I was holding onto my balcony at times not to jump. I have never felt suicidal in my life. I had sort of physical sensations of real depression, and then it dawned on me what I was writing about. I kept approaching the computer every morning, OK, get the paragraph out, get the arc of the sentences. Get the music of the language right. And then it dawned on me one morning, You’re not just writing this, you’re living this. So that section of it was very difficult. Once I got passed that section, it flowed.
Did you have any classes in writing, because you are such an excellent writer.
I was a little boy who sat inside with the women. And listened. Because you’re Southern, and if you sit inside with the women and you listen to them talk enough, you pick up the musicality of language. I just loved language my whole life. When I get stuck in my writing, I don’t go back and read thoughts or ideas or what am I trying to say. I go back and listen to the assonance, the alliteration, the rhythms, the sound of the language. And it’s the sound of the language that propels me forward. Which could be a criticism of the way I write. But I really hear the music.
You mentioned earlier that you worshiped Arlene Francis. In the book you say that you wanted people to call you Arlene, and I think even your grandmother did.
Right, uh huh.
I thought that there was something awfully sweet about all of that. That they would do that.
I was a very willful child. And there was about six months of my life where I wouldn’t answer unless they called me that. Because I knew it made them crazy. And I also knew that if you are a little orphan, you get what you want. Manipulate the mother f–kers. That was my motto.
[Laughs] So then at around 19 you moved to New York. And you wrote for Vanity Fair .
I was at Vanity Fair for about 14 years, yes.
OK, that’s a long time. Anyway, you interviewed Cher and a number of other celebrities.
I’ve done them all.
I think you had said they were puff pieces. I’ve not read them, but do you not feel that…
Well, when Heath Ledger just died, they called me from Vanity Fair to post my Heath Ledger story, because I was the first person to do a big cover story on him. I went to Prague to interview him, and they posted it on Vanity Fair.com and they asked me to write a short little reminiscence to go along with the piece. I read the article for the first time since it was published, and I realized that I was very good at this. Some people think they were puff pieces, but they were very empathetic and well-written.
I haven’t read them, but my guess is because I’ve read Vanity Fair over the years that they’re probably quite good.
My attitude is, They are movie stars, they are not Nazi scientists. Some of these people aren’t nice and they have their own demons, but that doesn’t mean I have to make my name for myself by being mean to someone who is a movie star. That’s all they are is a movie star. They’re not evil people.
When you did these interviews, did very many of the people come across as rude?
No. When you are on the cover of Vanity Fair , you want it to be nice. You spend a few days with them, and back when I was doing it, they gave you time.
And they showed you their good side.
Yes. It’s a seduction. But the ultimate seduction is to allow one’s self to be seduced. You sort of sit back and just watch them and let them seduce you. Because it’s one of the few times in their lives they don’t have power, because you go home and write the damn story.
[Laughs] Did you ever ask questions that you shouldn’t have asked?
Of course. I was never unkind, but I was always impertinent.
[Laughs] Didn’t you at one time work with Andy Warhol?
Yes. I was executive editor of Interview magazine for a couple of years before I went to Vanity Fair .
What was it like working with him?
I was never a Warholite. Ever. I was never a big fan of that whole world. When I started working there, there was a woman named Bridget Berlin who was in a lot of his movies, and she was real factory girl. She was the daughter of the chairman of Hearst. I would always go over and give her a massage in the morning and feed Andy’s pugs, Fame and Fortune, some of my cranberry muffin.
So Bridget and I got very close. She told me one morning, “Look, honey, I like you and I’m going to give you some advice. There are two types of people who work here at the factory. There are lifers like me, and there are people who use it to get somewhere else. Don’t be a lifer.”
So I got that very early on. I was there for two years, and then Tina Brown hired me to work at Vanity Fair .
How was that?
It was sort of halcyon days. Tina was just sort of making it what it was, and I was there, and then Graydon Carter came in, and I worked with him for a long time. I sort of created that whole celebrity-interview- Vanity-Fair -cover-story thing. I did sort of create that. You can hate me for it or like me for it.
Oh, I like you for it.
OK. A lot of people hated me for it so…but that was sort of my spoke in the wheel there.
Where were you on September 11?
I was living in Paris at that point. I lived in Paris for a couple of years. I was jogging in The Tuileries when that happened. Came home and was watching Ready Set Cook on the BBC, and a friend of mine from New York called and asked what I was doing. I said, “I’ve just jogged in The Tuileries and am now eating a sandwich and watching this black queen hosting Ready Set Cook .” He said, “I don’t know what the f–k you’re talking about.”
“Turn on CNN.” And I did, and I sat there for three days and decided at that point I have to go home.
It brought me back, yes. I lived about five blocks from the World Trade Center, so that was my neighborhood.
Are you there now?
Yes. I moved out of New York for a couple of years and lived in New Orleans and South Beach and Paris. I sort of set up three little households. That was my mid-life crisis.
[Laughs] So you lived in New Orleans?
I had a little pied-a-terre for about five or six years.
Yes. On Governor Nichols and Royal in the upper French Quarter.
Did you like it there?
Yes, I always had a fantasy of living in Paris, and I’d always had a fantasy of having a little place in New Orleans, and when I went down to do part of a story on Courtney Love when she was looking for a house there, I was staying in a friend’s slave quarters, and he said, “I’m about to rent that slave quarters. Would you like to rent it?” He gave me a great deal on it, so I just kept it.
One word: elections.
I’m a political junkie, but I don’t want to turn people against the book by saying who I’m for.
[Both laugh] Ahh. Well, then we’ll have to discuss that later with your next book. But would you say whether it’s Democrat or Republican?
That’s what I thought.
Just wanted to be sure.
I truly appreciate your time and…
Oh, well, thank you. If you have any follow-up questions, let me know.
OK, and good luck on the tour.
Thank you, honey.