Thursday, July 26, 2018

Auburn's Ace Atkins: From football hero to best-selling crime novelist

July 25, 2018
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It's about a 15-minute drive from crime novelist Ace Atkins' home in rural Lafayette County, Miss., to the downtown office he shares with a bunch of lawyers on Oxford's historic town square.
The second-floor perch affords Atkins a bird's-eye view of Oxford's celebrated City Grocery restaurant, the upstairs bar of which is an occasional late-afternoon gathering spot for Oxford's ever-expanding but close-knit circle of writers, a group that includes Atkins' friends and fellow authors Jack Pendarvis, Tom Franklin and William Boyle.
"I can see the bar from outside my window," Atkins says. "It's kind of a beacon to get my work done before happy hour."
It has apparently proven to be great motivation for the prolific Atkins, who has just published his 23rd book, "The Sinners." It is the eighth installment in his Quinn Colson series, the continuing saga of a former Army Ranger-turned-Mississippi sheriff who fights to keep law and order in a county with more than its share of dope dealers, lost souls and good people caught in bad circumstances.
"When people ask me what these books are about, I say it's kind of like an R-rated version of 'The Andy Griffith Show,'" Atkins says. "The bad guys curse a little bit more.
"But I always liked that about Andy, that he was kind of the moral center of that town and brought us back to what's good and what's right."
Atkins, who played college football at Auburn in the early 1990s and moved to Oxford 17 years ago, knows the country roads and dark alleys of North Mississippi better than some cops.
A meticulous researcher who once took boxing lessons for one of his books and hung out with the Boston Fire Department for another, Atkins often rides along with deputies from Lafayette and other surrounding counties when they're out on patrol.
"His research is his boot leather on the ground, not hitting the search key on Google," Lafayette County deputy Dave Cullison says. "When Ace writes one of these (books), he can write it because he lived it. He may not have lived it 24/7, but he knows what the dust on the dirt road tastes like."
Cullison, a friend and a fan of Atkins, has read all the Quinn Colson books -- "and some of them twice," he says. The long-time lawman acknowledges there are practical advantages to having Atkins ride along with him.
"If you're in Orwood or Splinter and there is a fight going on in Abbeville, and most of the shift is in Abbeville, your backup may be 20 or 30 minutes away," Cullison says. "It is not a bad thing to have 6-foot-3-inches-of-continuously-working-out Ace Atkins in the car with you."
Although his playing days ended nearly 25 years ago, the brawny Atkins looks like he could still wreak havoc on the football field, just like he did that glorious autumn afternoon in Jordan-Hare Stadium in 1993.
A fifth-year senior defensive end who had played sparingly in his career at Auburn, Atkins had not made a tackle all season until he wrote the perfect Hollywood underdog story that Saturday, sacking Florida quarterback Danny Wuerffel twice in the second half of a huge upset of Steve Spurrier's fourth-ranked and previously unbeaten Gators.
"I've never been a part of a game like this one," Atkins said afterward. "It was like a movie. I don't think that Hollywood or Robert Altman could have scripted it better."
Saddled with NCAA probation and banned from playing on TV or in the post-season, Auburn finished that magical '93 season undefeated, and when Sports Illustrated published a commemorative edition celebrating "That Perfect Season," it was Atkins, towering over a fallen Wuerffel, on the cover.
Frequently, an Auburn fan will bring a copy of the magazine to one of Atkins' book signings and ask him to autograph it. Likely, he will sign a few more this Wednesday, July 25, when his book tour for "The Sinners" takes him to Opelika for a book signing at John Emerald Distilling Company.
"I'm always glad to sign those," the 48-year-old Atkins says. "It used to be kind of a joke. When I first got started (publishing books), I would say, 'Boy that seems like a long time ago.' And it would have been maybe five years afterward.
"Now, it's not a joke anymore," he adds. "It really is a long time ago."
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Ace's Auburn bloodlines
The son of the late Auburn legend Billy "Ace" Atkins and his wife, Doris, Ace was around football from the time he took his first steps as a toddler until he played his final down in college.
His father was the MVP of Auburn's 1957 national championship team, and after his pro career was cut short by a knee injury, Billy Atkins got into coaching, leading Troy State University to a NAIA national championship in 1968, his third season as head coach. Ace, who has an older sister, Paige, was born in Troy two years later.
Billy Atkins had picked up the nickname "Ace" during his playing days at Auburn, and when their son was born, Billy and Doris named their boy William Ellis Atkins Jr. From birth, though, everybody called him "Ace."
"You can imagine how many Ace Hardware jokes I had to hear, or 'Ace from Space,'" he says. "It was a hard name to keep, for sure."
The elder Atkins later worked as an assistant coach in the NFL, and his son recalls the family moving around from Buffalo to San Francisco to Detroit to St. Louis to Atlanta before they came back to Auburn, where Ace attended high school.
"Auburn has always been my hometown, even before going to high school there," he says. "My grandparents lived there, and my aunt and uncle lived there. My dad could have been coaching for the St. Louis Cardinals, but during Christmastime or summertime, we were always going back to Lee County, going back to Auburn."
As a teenager, Ace read all the Ian Fleming James Bond books and John D. MacDonald crime thrillers that he could get his hands on, scouring used-book stores to find out-of-print paperbacks.
"To be quite honest, there is nothing better in the world for a 15-, 16-year-old boy than to read Ian Fleming and John D. MacDonald because they would sometimes spend a couple of pages describing women and the way they looked and how beautiful they were," he recalls. "It was a very enlightening read for me at a young age."
That was also about the time Atkins discovered the blues of Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, whose music would also have a huge influence on his life and career.
"I saw the movie 'Risky Business,' and there is this great part where they are playing 'Mannish Boy,'" he says. "I had never heard anything like it. And it's the Muddy Waters version, the second version produced by Johnny Winter. It had so much raw energy to it.
"That started my appreciation and love of blues music. Muddy Waters led to Elmore James and that led to Howlin' Wolf. Once you get into it, it really captures you."
A sportswriter's dream
When he graduated from Auburn High School in 1989, Atkins had his heart set on going to Los Angeles and attending the University of Southern California.
"I wanted to go to film school there very badly," he says. "I wanted to be a screenwriter."
But USC didn't offer Atkins a scholarship, and Auburn did.
Between football practices and team meetings, Ace immersed himself in writing courses and literature classes at Auburn. He even took an introductory typing course to learn to type.
He was a sportswriter's dream, a football player who could talk books and authors as easily as he could schemes and alignments.
"Occasionally, some of the coaches would think that I was not serious about football if, in between meetings, I was reading a novel and they knew it was not class-assigned," he says.
In his backpack, Ace carried around notebooks and began writing short stories, many of which centered around a fictitious character named Nick Travers, a former New Orleans Saints football player turned Tulane University blues historian.
"I created this character, Nick Travers, and it was kind of this idealized way that I would like to live, which was in New Orleans and listening to blues music and eating good food," Atkins says. "So Nick Travers came from all those notebooks, and he ended up becoming the character in my first four books."
An English professor at Auburn, Marian Carcache, also introduced Atkins to the strange and wonderful Southern Gothic literature of Flannery O'Connor.
"That class meant more to me because it taught me more about how weird and fun the South can be," he says. "That made an imprint on my brain."
Years later, as a thank-you to his former professor, Atkins sent Carcache a personalized copy of "Wicked City," his true-crime novel about the corruption and clean-up of Phenix City in the 1950s.
"When Ace was in my class, I was teaching a survey American literature course that didn't lend itself to revealing a student's talents as a fiction writer," Carcache recalls.
"That said, any time a student in a required survey course was bright enough to enjoy Flannery O'Connor, I knew I'd been smiled upon by some heavenly power."
Ace Atkins, crime reporter
Atkins majored in communications with an emphasis on writing for radio, television and film, and after he graduated from Auburn in 1994, he still entertained dreams of going to Hollywood and becoming a screenwriter.
"I thought I would get out of Auburn and go get a movie deal," he says. "I thought it was like the 1930s, where you go out to Hollywood and they say, 'This kid's got talent,' and they set you up with a typewriter and you're working for (David) Selznick or Jack Warner."
A friend from Auburn, Tammy Trout, a journalism student, told Atkins that if he really wanted to be a novelist or screenwriter, he needed to work for a newspaper and get some ink in his blood first.
So he wound up in Tampa Bay Area, where he started out as a part-time stringer for the St. Petersburg Times. He took the grunt assignments that other reporters avoided, covering everything from the annual Santa parade to community fundraisers just to get a byline.
Thinking that Ace Atkins sounded too unprofessional for an aspiring reporter, he had planned to write under his formal name of William Atkins.
"I didn't think anybody was going to hire a writer named Ace," he recalls.
The editor who interviewed him, Jon Wilson, made the connection to the Ace Atkins from Auburn, though, and Wilson got on to him for not mentioning that he'd played football on his resume.
"I told him I didn't think that mattered," Atkins recalls. "He said, 'Why would you change your name from Ace?' That's a great byline.'
"He told me, 'Look, I'll get you work, but you have to promise me that you'll always keep Ace Atkins as your byline.' And I promised him that."
So Ace it stayed, and a year later, it followed Atkins across the bay to the rival Tampa Tribune, where he landed a full-time job as a crime reporter.
"The first thing that happened was, they wanted to change my name," Atkins says. "I said, 'No, I promised Jon Wilson, and I'm keeping it.'"
Working the cop beat at the Tribune introduced Atkins to a rogue's gallery of misfits, half-wits, tramps and thieves who would later populate his novels.
"Bad guys to me are sometimes the most interesting things in these books," he says. "Coming from a background of covering law enforcement, covering the prison system, federal court and that kind of thing, they're always the most colorful characters.
"You know, many of these people aren't the brightest people in the world," he adds. "When I was a newspaper reporter, one thing I found out was the worst criminals are bank robbers. I once covered a guy who robbed a big bank in Tampa with a salad fork."
A new home in Oxford
A few years after he got to Tampa, Atkins was covering a story about a University of Tampa student who had drowned following a night of heavy drinking.
As divers searched the Hillsborough River for the body, Angela Moore, a reporter for the St. Petersburg Times, arrived on the scene.
She saw a tall guy with short hair and aviator shades and, thinking he was a detective working the case, struck up a conversation.
"I went up and started talking to him, thinking that he was going to give me some information," Angela recalls. "And it turns out, he was the guy from the Trib, not a cop.
"So that's how we met," she adds. "We always say we met over a dead body."
They didn't start dating until a couple of years later, and in 2001, when Atkins decided to get out of the newspaper business and write books for a living, he convinced Angela to go with him to Oxford.
"Being a dumb twentysomething who was in love, I said, 'Yeah, that sounds like a fabulous idea,'" Angela remembers. "My poor mother nearly had a heart attack."
Although he had already published two novels -- "Crossroad Blues," a Southern noir about the search for the lost recordings of Delta bluesman Robert Johnson, and "Leavin' Trunk Blues," a murder mystery set in the gritty blues clubs of the South Side of Chicago -- Atkins found his groove in Oxford, the home of the late William Faulkner and the cradle of Southern literature, "the Vatican City of Southern letters," as Pat Conroy once called it.
He got a job as a visiting professor in the journalism department at Ole Miss, which allowed him more time to write. And he became buddies with a couple of his literary heroes, Larry Brown and Barry Hannah, both of whom are since deceased.
"That was one of the great things about moving to Oxford when we did," he says. "I was fortunate enough to spend time with both Larry and Barry."
Ace and Angela got married in 2005, and they started a family a couple of years later. They have two boys, soon-to-be-11-year-old Billy, who is named for his grandfather, and 7-year-old Jess, who is named after his great-great grandfather.
"I never intended to stay here," Atkins says. "I ended up moving here, and one semester turned into another. I ended up teaching for five years, and then buying a farm.
"Oxford just has a way of sucking you in."
Angela teaches a couple of communications courses at Ole Miss each semester, but Ace gave up his part-time teaching job several years ago to devote full-time to writing.
"It was simply a financial decision," he once joked. "I think there was one semester when I owed more in parking tickets than I made from Ole Miss."
Channeling Burt Reynolds
For the past seven years, Atkins has worn two writing hats.
In addition to writing one Quinn Colson book a year, Atkins is also under contract to publish one novel a year in the Spenser detective series created by the late Robert B. Parker. After Parker died of a heart attack in January 2010, his estate handpicked Atkins to carry on the series.
While the Colson books take place close to home in the fictional Tibbehah County, the Spenser novels are set in Boston. Atkins divides his time between the two characters and their respective settings, but he tries not to let them overlap.
"If I start writing a Spenser book after writing Quinn, the characters have kind of these Southernisms that creep into the dialogue," he says. "Then when I'm writing Spenser and start a Quinn book, I'll have things that feel a little bit more like Boston. That's the toughest thing.
"Angela is always kind of the quality control person when she's reading the manuscripts," he adds. "She'll circle something and say, 'Nobody in Boston is saying this.' Inevitably, I will fly up to Boston and spend a week and tune my ear correctly."
The new Quinn Colson book, "The Sinners," involves dirt-track racers and the hijacking of an 18-wheeler that's carrying a load of contraband, and Atkins dedicated it to one of his drive-in movie heroes, Burt Reynolds. In a playful tip of the cap to Reynolds and "Smokey and the Bandit," Atkins also served Coors beer at his book launch party at Off Square Books in Oxford.
"I mean, there would be no Quinn Colson series without 'White Lightning,' without 'Smokey and the Bandit,'" Atkins says.
"I think Burt represented a lot of stuff that's good about the South. He would also sock it to the people that we don't like, the hypocrites and the racists, the loudest and the most obnoxious among us."
Jack Pendarvis, a writing buddy and fellow movie enthusiast, has read all the Quinn Colson novels, and he and Ace team up for an informal Q- and-A session in Oxford when a new one comes out each year.
"Ace does something really different with the Quinn Colson books in that the books don't get reset from volume to volume," Pendarvis says. "The story gets more complex and people age and the consequences of actions they took two or three books ago are going to come back and have an effect on them in later novels."
Atkins' dream of one day making it in Hollywood is closer to coming true, too.
Boston's own Mark Walhberg has agreed to star as the wisecracking Beantown detective Spenser -- a role made popular by Robert Urich in 1980s TV series "Spenser: For Hire" -- in a new series of Netflix movies adapted from the Robert B. Parker books. The first movie will be based on Atkins' 2013 novel "Wonderland," the second of seven Parker/Spenser books he has written.
Also, Atkins and his friend Pendarvis have co-written a pilot for a potential TV series based on his Quinn Colson books and are going out to Los Angeles to shop it around next month.
"You never know," Atkins says. "It could happen next year. It could happen in 10 years. As my old editor Neil Nyren used to say when I would talk about movies or TV, 'Let me know when the camera starts rolling.'"
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Twenty-five years later
The 25th anniversary of that undefeated 1993 Auburn football team is coming up this fall, but for William Ellis "Ace" Atkins Jr., that seems like another lifetime ago.
"That just blows my mind," he says. "In the last, say, 20 years, I do not get over there very often. I had a couple of nice honors that Auburn University brought me back for, but as far as being in Auburn and spending time there, it has been a long time -- to the point where I don't even recognize the city anymore."
Last year, Atkins appeared in a "You never really leave Auburn . . . because Auburn never leaves you" national TV commercial that also featured Apple CEO Tim Cook,  Comedy Central producer and other distinguished Auburn alumni.
With 23 books and counting, Atkins has published more novels than he ever made tackles on the football field at Auburn, and about the only time he talks about those days is when somebody asks him about it, just like we're doing here.
But it is football and this is Alabama, so he gets it.
"During football season, he's always on deadline," his wife, Angela, who played women's rugby at the University of North Carolina, says. "I've gone to games with him before, and I've watched games with him before, and, honestly, it's not enjoyable for him.
"He would far rather watch a movie from 1932 than watch a football game," she adds. "That doesn't mean he's not proud of it. It doesn't mean he didn't enjoy playing."
There is, however, one more Ace Atkins football story that's too good not to share, a wonderful story that connects William Faulkner, Ole Miss football and the ties that bind us in the South.
About a dozen years ago, Dean Faulkner Wells, Faulkner's niece and an Ole Miss season ticket holder, asked her friend Ace Atkins why he didn't go to football games anymore.
He told her that it was just too much of a hassle, with having to park and walk to the stadium and all that.
"And she said, 'There is no excuse,'" Atkins recalls. "'You are going to the Auburn game. You are going to take my ticket, and you are going to go with Larry (her husband), and I'm driving you.'"
Wells died a few years later, but her husband and Atkins have continued the every-other-year tradition in her honor.
" I feel kind of indebted to Dean to continue that tradition," Ace says. "This year, Auburn will be playing at Ole Miss. I'll go to that game, but that will probably be the only game I go to."
Mondays with Authors: A Conversation with Ace Atkins -

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