At the end of a 90-minute interview at Lost Forty Brewing last month, Oxford American senior editor, author and Little Rock native Jay Jennings mulls that end-of-the-chat chestnut: “So, anything else you want to add?”
After a few seconds, he says this:
“I guess the thing that’s been most amazing to me is that when I left Little Rock in 1986, there was nothing like the Oxford American here. And coming back after all that time, I didn’t have to give up any of my ambitions for doing great, nationally recognized, national quality work. That was not an option when I left, and I just hope that there are people in Little Rock — kids, ambitious writers and editors — who know that they can do what they love at a very high level without leaving home.”
Jennings had spent years living in and around New York and working for magazines such as Sports Illustrated, Tennis and Elle Design and as a freelance writer before returning to Arkansas for good in May 2007. Since then he has published a book, 2010’s Carry the Rock: Race, Football, and the Soul of an American City; compiled and edited Escape Velocity: A Charles Portis Miscellany, a collection of writing by his friend and mentor; and gotten what sounds like his dream job at the nonprofit quarterly Oxford American, the “Southern Magazine of Good Writing” that was founded in 1992 in Oxford, Miss., and moved to Arkansas in 2003. He’s also newly married to his wife Abby and is about to become a father for the first time.
“He’d built this super-interesting career in New York, and then came home and continued to do interesting things,” says Oxford American editor Eliza Borne.
While working as an associate editor, Borne says she would turn to Jennings for advice. After she became editor, she asked him to help with the 2015 Georgia Music Issue and later brought him on board as the magazine’s senior editor.
“Jay has totally been a mentor. He’s so kind and wise, but also so patient and giving with his time. When I was offered the editor’s job, as I was building my team, I really wanted to have Jay. I knew just having his expertise would be crucial to our success.”
Poet Danielle Chapman remembers working with Jennings on her essay “The Country Way,” which appeared in OA’s 2017 fall issue. “As an editor, every single suggestion he has makes perfect sense. I was more than happy to do everything he suggested because it made the piece better. He’s so sharp and knows exactly what needs to be done.”
Little Rock writer and producer Graham Gordy (Quarry; Rectify; War Eagle, Arkansas) has co-written a screenplay of Portis’ hilarious novel The Dog of the South with Jennings.
“Jay is fascinating because he is always fascinated by the world,” Gordy says. “He’s a cultural and intellectual ninja. He speaks softly, but always manages to be there with a reference or a quip. The first time I met him, I felt like we’d been friends for life.”
He is the the middle child of Walter C. and Medora Sifford Jennings’ brood — Walt Jr., came first, sister Elizabeth (or “Cesu,” young Jay’s cute mangling of “sister”) is the baby. His grandfather came to Little Rock from West Helena and opened Jennings Motor Co., a Chrysler-Plymouth dealership which Walter Jennings took over. Walter later worked at First Commercial Bank, where he became a vice president in the bank’s trust department.
Medora Jennings, who died Jan. 1, 2007, was active in politics, working for Dale Bumpers on his gubernatorial and U.S. Senate campaigns. She is tenderly remembered in “A Start Is Enough,” a beautiful essay by Jennings in the spring 2015 Oxford American. Walter Jennings died in December 2016.
Here’s Jennings when asked about his childhood with his family and friends on Normandy Street.
“It was really idyllic, like you would imagine. Small town, small city life. My dad had a good job, and we lived in a nice neighborhood. There was a lot less helicopter parenting going on then, so we had the run of the neighborhood, played pickup football, rode our bikes anywhere we wanted.”
He wasn’t always Jay. His first name is actually Earp, passed along from his grandfather and an uncle.
“I was Earp the III, and my birth certificate originally has the III there, but because it wasn’t a direct line through my father, they crossed it out,” Jennings says. “So I’m actually Earp Franklin Jennings Inkblot.”
He settled on Jay in the sixth grade, and has been Jay ever since.
CARRY THE ROCK
In elementary and junior high in the 1970s, Jennings was bused to different schools as the Little Rock School District grappled with integration remedies. As a seventh-grader at Forest Heights Junior High he played football and befriended his black teammates.
“I shared a football locker with a guy named Ezekiel Vaughn, who became a star player for Central,” Jennings says. “I ended up making pretty good friends with the kids on the football team at a time when there wasn’t always racial harmony in the schools.”
Those relationships were on his mind as he was writing Carry the Rock, his acclaimed nonfiction book about the 2007 Little Rock Central High School football team, the 50th anniversary of the desegregation crisis and race relations in Little Rock.
“I knew I wanted to find some way to do my Dubliners story about Little Rock,” he says, referring to the James Joyce novel. “I wanted to talk about the issues faced by the city, talk about white flight and private schools. It was drawing from my own experience and what happened to me in the public education system.”
The book is a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at longtime Central High coach Bernie Cox, his staff and team. Jennings was embedded during practice, in the locker room, the coach’s office and even the players’ homes.
“Everyone’s model is [H.G. Bissinger’s book] Friday Night Lights, but I figured out about halfway through that this story was more about the coaches than the players,” Jennings says.
The Wall Street Journal said the book “transcends the season-on-the-brink genre.”
FIRST GRADE NOVELIST
Jennings attended Little Rock Catholic High School for Boys, where he continued to play football and discovered William Golding’s 1954 novel Lord of the Flies.
“I thought, ‘I’d love to be able to write a story like that.’ And so that’s sort of when I first got interested in writing.”
Long before, though, he’d written his first book.
“It was called What Is This Thing,” he says with a chuckle of his unpublished work from the first grade. “I was explaining emotions. I would draw a picture of an angry monster and say, ‘This thing is angry. He is very very angry.’ Or, ‘This thing is happy. He is very very happy,’ and show a smiling monster. They were all otherworldly creatures.”
He attended Vanderbilt University, where he briefly walked on as a football player.
“It lasted about six weeks before I decided that I should probably leave this dream behind.”
(With the benefit of hindsight, Jennings, a member of the Little Rock Roadrunners who won the 60-64 division in the 2017 Arkansas Grand Prix series and who has run five marathons with a personal best of 3:39 in 2011, says he should have been running cross country or track in high school instead of playing football. He also plays tennis.)
He wrote about sports for the school paper and published a short story in the student literary magazine. After graduation, he attended the University of Chicago where he earned his master’s degree in English.
“I was writing bad poems, bad short stories,” he says. “My favorite writer at the time was Saul Bellow, partly because of the Chicago connection, but I also loved the way he combined intellectual investigation with very funny characters. From Bellow I went to Philip Roth for the same reasons. They were writers I really admired.”
After graduate school, he ended up teaching at St. Mark’s School of Texas in Dallas, where he lasted three years before deciding to write full time in 1985.
That year, the 27-year-old Jennings came back to Little Rock for about six months before lighting out for New York. While he was home, he read Masters of Atlantis, Portis’ recently published fictional, comedic takedown of secret societies. Coincidentally, Jennings’ parents had sold their home and moved to Rivercliff Apartments where they were neighbors with Portis.
“I thought that if I’m going to pursue a career as a writer like he did, maybe he could give me some advice and sign my book.”
Portis had been a reporter for the Arkansas Gazette before leaving for the New York Herald Tribune. His first novel, Norwood, was published in 1966 followed by True Grit in 1968, The Dog of the South in 1979, Masters of Atlantis in 1985 and Gringos in 1991.
The two met for lunch at Town Pump, and a friendship began.
“We talked about New York some. I was surprised that he would take the time to talk to me,” Jennings says. “When I moved, we started corresponding. If he published something I would write him a note. When I came back, we would have lunch or a drink.”
In New York, Jennings was a freelance writer and did stand-up comedy.
“Don’t let his at-first taciturn demeanor fool you,” Gordy says. “I never saw him do stand-up, but he is a really funny guy. His type of comedy is wry witticism said softly.”
Jonathan Portis is Charles’ younger brother and a friend of Jennings.
“Jay may be one of the few true intellectuals I know,” he says. “At the same time, he may be the funniest guy I know. He has a great sense of humor.”
Jennings says he once performed stand-up at the Comic Strip between sets by Chris Rock and a newcomer named Adam Sandler.
But the idea of having to hone an act over hundreds of dates on the road wasn’t exactly appealing.
“I remember the owner of that club saying ‘You’ve got good material, but right now you’re a dilettante. You’re gonna have to work at it a lot harder if you want to be successful.’ That’s when I decided I was going to turn my attention to writing.”
Sports Illustrated accepted a piece he’d written about playing tennis in England — “Tennis the English Way” — and he took a job there as a reporter, working with senior writers on stories. He later was features editor at Tennis magazine, where he sent David Foster Wallace to write about the 1995 U.S. Open, which ended up being “Democracy and Commerce at the U.S. Open.”
“We contracted him for 4,000 words. He turned in 9,000,” Jennings says of Wallace, the essayist and author of the 1996 novel Infinite Jest, who committed suicide in 2008. “We were willing to give him the space because it was so unusual for the magazine. I think he was appreciative of getting his all-access media pass so he could go anywhere he wanted. I found him easy to work with and his powers of observation were pretty dead on.”
While on the East Coast, Jennings was married, but it ended in divorce. His brother, Walter, died in 2006 at age 50 and Jennings moved back home to be near his parents and begin work on Carry the Rock.
SEARCHING FOR PORTIS
The idea for Escape Velocity came after Jennings participated in a panel on Portis at the Arkansas Literary Festival. He mentioned he had diligently clipped Portis’ journalism, essays and other writings over the years.
Rod Lorenzen, who was manager of Butler Center Books at The Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, a department of the Central Arkansas Library System, was intrigued and said he would pitch the idea to Portis if Jennings would agree to edit the book.
“I had asked [Portis] a year or two before if he was interested and he said, ‘I don’t think so,’” Jennings says. “But Rod was more convincing.”
Along with the pieces he’d collected, Jennings scoured the Internet and microfiche files for Portis’ work for the book, which includes travelogues, short stories, an interview, newspaper columns, reporting and a play, Delray’s New Moon, produced as a workshop production by the Arkansas Repertory Theatre (it premiered April 18, 1996, with a teenage Gordy playing a character named Duvall).
“It was good that Jay had gone back and found these things,” Jonathan Portis says. “Some of the journalism I didn’t remember at all.”
Charles Portis, who is 84, has been in poor health for a number of years, Jonathan says.
Published in October 2012, Escape Velocity followed the Coen brothers’ 2010 film version of True Grit and reminded readers of Portis’ literary legacy.
In an ecstatic review on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross, critic John Powers said “… my heart soared when I learned about Escape Velocity: A Charles Portis Miscellany.”
BABY ON BOARD
Jennings met future wife Abby, 29, in 2016 at Christ Episcopal Church, where he was baptized and where he serves on the vestry. She is the development officer for the foundation of the Centers for Youth and Families.
“We started hanging out, having lunch and seeing movies, but it wasn’t too long before we started dating more seriously,” he says. They were married Dec. 30.
“I’m a pretty easy crier and tear up whenever I dwell on the wonder of having a child with Abby. I’m only sorry that my parents are not around to meet their latest grandchild.”
Jennings and Gordy volunteer with the Arkansas Cinema Society’s Script to Stage program, where for over eight weeks they work with a fifth-grade pupil at Jefferson Elementary to develop a script from an original story.
The pair’s screenplay for The Dog of the South is being developed by Arkansas native Jayme Lemons and actress Laura Dern’s production company Jaywalker Pictures.
The week before the interview at Lost Forty, Jennings helped put the finishing touches on the Oxford American’s annual music issue, which this year highlights music from North Carolina and will be out Nov. 20.
“We cover Nina Simone, James Taylor and others,” he says. “Then we find those interesting stories in the cracks that people don’t know about from North Carolina.”
Along with its print and online content, the magazine has special programming, such as last year’s tribute to the 50th anniversary of True Grit’s publication. And there’s a concert series that brings jazz, folk and Americana artists to the stage at South on Main restaurant throughout the year. On Wednesday, the OA will present Arlo Guthrie and his daughter, Sarah Lee Guthrie, in concert at the Central Arkansas Library System’s Ron Robinson Theater.
It’s all part of what makes Jennings happy he’s back home.
“The tentacles of the OA going out to stuff like the music series is incredible,” he says. “I used to haunt the jazz clubs in New York, and to come home and find that there’s this great jazz series here. And to come up with the idea to do 50 years of True Grit, and then have this institutional support to put on a weekend of events was just amazing.”
• DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH: Nov. 25, 1957, Little Rock (St. Vincent Infirmary)
• THE FIRST NOVEL I REMEMBER READING IS: A Wrinkle in Time.
• MY FAVORITE MOVIE IS: Local Hero (1983), by the Scottish director Bill Forsyth. It's a gentle comedy about a Houston businessman (Peter Riegert) sent by his bombastic boss (Burt Lancaster) to buy a entire Scottish town in order to build an oil refinery on the North Sea. The Mark Knopfler score is terrific, too.
• IF I COULD SPEND A WEEK ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD, I'D GO TO: Copenhagen.
• I DRIVE A: Honda CR-V
• MY FAVORITE TIME TO WRITE IS: Mornings. When I'm immersed in a project, I can write at any time of day.
• MY FAVORITE CHARLES PORTIS CHARACTER IS: Charles Portis. His short memoir, "Combinations of Jacksons," is a beautiful evocation of a midcentury Arkansas (and Southern) childhood, and the ending -- like the ending of True Grit -- is heartbreaking.
• MY FIRST JOB WAS: Working the summer before my senior year of high school for the Arkansas Highway Department.
• THE SECRET TO BEING A GOOD EDITOR IS: There's no one secret as every piece is its own puzzle, but attention to detail and encouraging a writer to reach for a story's full ambition are important.
• ONE WORD TO SUM ME UP: Reader.
Print Headline: Jay Jennings