The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Reading Between the Lines: A Q&A with the University of Southern Mississippi

Hattiesburg, Mississippi


A digital photo hunt was just one of The Big Read activities to take place in Hattiesburg during October. Participants took photos that represented themes from each chapter of The Maltese Falcon. The photo above represents chapter one?Spade & Archer. Photo by Lisa Foster

The Big Read website describes The Maltese Falcon as ?so much fun to read, it might be hard the first time through to realize how deeply observed and morally serious it is.? For its third Big Read program, the University of Southern Mississippi delved into both the novel?s fun side---through an outdoor jazz concert of 1920s and '30s film noir music and a mystery dinner theater---as well as why it continues to be seen as the quintessential detective novel---through numerous book discussions and a talk by a local scholar. We spoke with Dr. Jeanne Gillespie, associate dean in the College of Arts and Letters at the University of Southern Mississippi, to learn more about Hattiesburg?s 2011 Big Read.

NEA: This is the third time the University of Southern Mississippi has participated in The Big Read. What made you decide to participate for a third year?

JEANNE GILLESPIE: Each time we had such an exciting response that we recruited new partners and thought up new ways to get the word and the books out to a variety of audiences.  We also wanted to appeal to very different audiences, but we still have many ?repeat? participants.

NEA: A number of universities have taken the lead in hosting Big Read programs across the country. Why do you think a university makes a good partner in planning and carrying out The Big Read?

GILLESPIE: One of the important functions of a university is to connect its resources to the community in which it resides.  Events like The Big Read are perfect ways to showcase our local experts, to bring in fascinating scholars and experts to the community to interact with our participants, and to connect different disciplines in the exploration of our human existence.

NEA: How did you settle on The Maltese Falcon for this year?s Big Read?

GILLESPIE: We have done Their Eyes Were Watching God and Wizard of Earthsea.  We were brainstorming with a local writer, Ronnie Blackwell, who published a wonderful mystery novel Serve it Cold and he suggested The Maltese Falcon.  We decided to partner with our Forensics program and our Physical Anthropology students to do a CSI: Southern Miss exhibit and we chose to set it in the late 1920s to be in the time of the mystery.   Then a local musician, John Palensky, suggested we kick off the event with an outdoor jazz concert of 1920s and ?30s film noir music in our downtown park.  As we brainstormed further, mystery writer Mary Anna Evans, from Oak Grove here in Hattiesburg also came us as a potential participant.  The more we imagined, the more things seemed to fit together.

NEA: What has been your favorite Big Read moment or event?

GILLESPIE: I have to say it was our Live@Five concert with Palensky?s band Falcon Noir.  We passed out more than 500 books that night and the music was sensational.  Our scholar-in-residence, Andrew Haley, was passing out books and he got so excited at how enthusiastically people received them.  We had people of all ages, some with strollers, some on Harleys, all walks of life.  It was magical.

The University of Southern Mississippi?s Big Read events continue through November 18. Visit their website for a full list of events. And for more on The Maltese Falcon, visit The Big Read website.

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