Coincidences abound, but some are more surprising than others. Recently our local bookstore Neighborhood Reads celebrated its first anniversary. In the shop, I struck up a conversation with a reader looking for an adventure/travel story, something like “Wild,” by Cheryl Strayed, she said.
We couldn’t find another book that fit the genre when the faint memory of one about a man who’d taken a canoe down the entire length of the Mississippi came to me, an older book.
I recalled loving the non-fiction read, but couldn’t come up with its title or author. I turned to Maria Brady-Smith, who works at Neighborhood Reads. She couldn’t recall the author’s name either but remembered he was from Kirkwood and had done a book talk at Washington Public Library.
Google provided the answer: “Mississippi Solo,” by Eddy Harris. It was like a light went on. “I remember that book,” the customer said, adding how much she enjoyed it.
Imagine my surprise a few days later when Judy Feltmann of Washington contacted me about Eddy Harris. She remembered the column I’d written about him in 2004, and wanted to tell me he’d made a film about his experiences on the Mississippi.
“River to the Heart” would be showing on July 6, 7 and 8 at 7:30 p.m. as part of the Webster University Film series, she said. Judy provided me with Harris’ email address, and the miles slipped away in our online interview, which follows in this Q and A:
Sights: Since our first interview in 2004, where has life taken you?
Harris: Where has my life not taken me? Down the Mississippi River for a second time — for one thing. And I’ve since moved from Paris to a village in the southwest corner of France, wine and cognac country. I moved there for six months — to get away and write; I’ve been there for 12 years. It’s a different experience — being an immigrant in a small community as opposed to the anonymity of Paris . . . but it’s been great. It’s like the whole village adopted me.”
Sights: What books and other projects are you working on?
Harris: I’m working on the book that goes along with the film about my second journey down the Mississippi. It’s not a companion to the film, but rather something more political and even more reflective and personal. There were amazing things that happened on camera and when the crew was around. But on the one hand, you never know if what’s happening is real or if it’s because the cameras are turned on.
On the other hand, there were so many great conversations that ended up on the cutting room floor (so to speak). And finally, the crew wasn’t always near and some of the best moments happened when they were not around. I wanted to reveal some of those and talk about what this country really is early in the 21st century — specifically not what you see via the doom and gloom of the evening news. And I’m working on another documentary film idea.
Sights: Do you get back to the States often?
Harris: I love being in Europe — and elsewhere in the world. I travel a lot, get to Africa at least once a year, and seem to live in trains and planes zipping around Europe. That’s one of the nice things about being in France. The world is really close. Most of my close friends and family, of course, are in the States, plus the fact that my main work takes place in the States, my books, my lecturing (when I get invited), some teaching (I was artist in residence and taught last spring semester at William and Mary in Virginia), and now my life as filmmaker.
As long as my themes are American themes, I’ll keep contact with the U.S. And I come back fairly often. Especially lately because of the film: the pre-production, the filming, the post-production. It’s an American film.
Sights: What year did you make your second trip down the Mississippi? What special memories do you have from that journey?
Harris: We started hammering out details in 2011, and got on the river in 2014. We finished completely in 2017 — post-production and everything that goes with it. The film is beautiful. I am so proud of it. There was one big disappointment of the trip — the fact that I was not enveloped in the kind of solitude I enjoyed the first time down the river.
Sights: “River to the Heart” has received numerous honors. What can those attending the showing expect? What do you hope people take away from the experience?
Harris: I think it’s an important film — especially for this moment in our history when we feel so fractured as a people. What I hope this film does for us is in part to show us that we need not be afraid — not of the river, not of each other.
A very short anecdote: I decided one night not to camp out and to get a room instead in a little inn, which of course was closed for the season when I showed up. But the owner was in the window cooking — a little old white lady. I knocked, she opened the door and — I have no idea why — the first thing out of my head was, “What’s for dinner?” She didn’t miss a beat. “Soup,” she said. She opened up a room for me, and fed me. The take away line — and for me the take away for the entire film: Big black man comes to your door, what do you do; offer him soup.
It’s a far cry from people knocking on doors and getting shot at. This woman and that encounter are what America means to me, and I hope it’s time we all come to realize this other side of who we are.
Sights: America has vastly changed in the 30 years between your trips down the Mississippi. What changes did you notice?
Harris: I’m a lot older than I used to be. And the river is a lot cleaner.
For more information about “River to the Heart” and other events in the Webster Film Series go to http://www.webster.edu/film-series.