Lisa Howorth, of D.C. and Mississippi, revisits an old crime in “Flying Shoes”

(Courtesy of Bloomsbury) (Courtesy of Bloomsbury)

Lisa Howorth co-founded one of the best independent bookstores in the country — Square Books — in 1979 in Oxford, Miss., with her husband, Richard. Sure, she knows lots of big-shot novelists. The couple is famous for having them stay over at their house, not far from the city’s popular downtown hot spot.

But when it came to writing her own first novel, “Flying Shoes,” the D.C. native found that the proximity to other novelists didn’t make doing it herself easy. (She’ll discuss the book at Barnes & Noble in Bethesda at 7 p.m. on Friday, and Politics and Prose at 6 p.m. on Saturday.)

The process took about 20 years, off and on (three kids, working as a librarian at the University of Mississippi, working at the bookstore, Richard was the mayor of Oxford for a spell, etc.). The subject material — the 1966 molestation and murder of her younger stepbrother in Bethesda — was difficult. She started the book as a memoir before switching gears to fiction. And she wrote the entire novel longhand on yellow legal pads, which generally isn’t the quickest way to do things.

“I also suspect that I was a little daunted and had trouble truly committing to revisiting the awfulness,” she wrote in an email earlier this week, her voice ravaged for a day or so by laryngitis. “There was probably some avoidance going on.”

But, she’s clear, the handwriting thing was no joke.

“I drove everyone pretty nuts,” she writes. “When the [manuscript] was mostly finished, I hired some friends to put it in the computer. Then I could do the edits sort of by myself, but was always shouting for help from one of my kids. My daughter, Claire, whipped the final that I sent out into shape…A friend suggested that I put the original on E-Bay as ‘The last handwritten manuscript in the world.’ ”

Though she has lived in Mississippi for decades, her D.C. roots are deep. A great-great grandfather shod horses for President Taft; another great-grandfather started the hardware chain, People’s Hardware, in 1914.  She was born at Garfield Hospital (which closed in 1958, merging with others to form the Washington Hospital Center) and graduated high school from Walt Whitman in Bethesda. The title of the book is taken from a Townes Van Zandt song; she met the troubled songwriter in Georgetown in the late 1970s.

In the book, some things are altered from from reality, of course — mostly notably the city, which is changed to Richmond. In part, this was to protect the privacy of family members still living in the area, she says, but also to let her explore more of her adopted home region.

“Richmond” “gave me a better chance to explore some of the thing I wanted to write about the South. I made two trips there to research the place and found neighborhoods that were similar to places in D.C.”

The crime itself would give any parent nightmares. Steven Johnston, a third-grader at Radnor Elementary, told his parents on Sunday afternoon, May 8, that he was going to look for stray golf balls along the edge of the nearby Kensington Golf and Country Club, then look for turtles along a creek. His body, stabbed repeatedly, was found in woods nearby Tuesday morning. “Police Hunt Knife-slayer of 9-year-old Bethesda Boy,” the Post wrote above the masthead on that day’s paper, with a front-page story saying that two dozen detectives were assigned to the case.

It was never solved.

In “Flying Shoes,” Mary Byrd Thorton, living in Mississippi, receives a call from Richmond police saying there is urgent new information about the slaying of her nine-year-old stepbrother, on Mother’s Day in 1966. From that near-factual recounting, the story meanders its way across small-town characters, weaving in Howorth’s ear for Southern speech, in all weird, wonderful glory.

“I’ve lived in Mississippi for almost 40 years, and all along I’ve continued to be knocked out by some expression, or pronunciation, that I’ve never heard before. If I’d grown up here, how would I recognize those things? It would all just be ordinary talk.”

 

Neely Tucker is a staff writer in the Sunday Magazine. He has reported from more than 50 countries around the world and from two dozen of these United States.

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Emily Yahr · June 19, 2014