Writer Ace Atkins, an Alabama native, went to high school and college in Auburn. He played as a defensive end on Auburn University’s undefeated 1993 team, planting him firmly in the footsteps of his father, Billy Atkins, who played on the Tigers’ 1957 undefeated team. Now he’s settled in Oxford, Miss, and it’s his career as a novelist that led him to revisit the area. His new novel, “Wicked City,” covers the slaying of Albert Patterson in 1954 and the aftermath that followed. Here are the highlights of the Ledger-Enquirer’s interview with Atkins. —Brad Barnes
Q: This is the closest you've ventured to home with one of your books, right? A: This is the first time that I've written something that's immediately home. I lived there, I went to high school and in college in Auburn. Being in Lee County, that's like 20-30 minutes from Phenix City. ... When we lived in Auburn we'd go to the malls and that sort of thing in Columbus, and we'd always go through Phenix City. We used to play Central High School in football. I just didn't know where I was and what it was all about. We were playing Central in football, but I didn't realize that was Idle Hour Park, and I didn't realize how close we were, and I really didn't understand until I was 16-17 years old what Phenix City had been.
Q: Been to Auburn lately? A: Well, I went there two years ago and was overwhelmed how much it had changed. When I was there, there really was nothing. We had, I think, maybe one or two bars. When I was there two years ago for some kind of book event I actually had to go to the Supper Club just to get oriented. That was the only place, where, when I walked into the Supper Club, I went, "OK. Everything's OK." I felt like George Bailey in "It's a Wonderful Life," when everything's turned into Pottersville. The same thing's happened here in Oxford. All these retirees moving to a college towns, it just changes the dynamic of the whole city so much.
Q: What made now the right time for this book. A: I think I was ready to write it. It's not a book I could've written right out of college, and it's not a book that I could've written even as a young novelist, when I was writing my first four books, which were more traditional kind of crime books but not necessarily full-fledged novels with all kinds of things going on. And certainly with the fact-based research that went into my previous novel, "White Shadow," and "Wicked City," it took a lot of time to get up to speed as far as doing the type of research that was needed for the books, and I was not equipped to do that type of work a few years ago. So I've just gotten to the point where I felt comfortable using that set of skills that I developed as a reporter. I think the biggest challenge, especially in a book like "Wicked City," is there is so much on Phenix City. When I was writing the Tampa book there was a limited amount of information as far as court record, police record, that type thing. Phenix City was so well-documented, not only in the press — you know, the Columbus Ledger winning the Pulitzer, the endless newspaper coverage — court files that I think were something like 6 linear feet, photographs, just everything. And not only that, also with people that are still living in Phenix City. Fifty years ago wasn't that long ago. So I could go interview people firsthand and meet people who had been at the clubs and worked at the clubs. So I guess I felt more comfortable doing that as a reporter than had I been just a young novelist.
Q: How willing were people to open up and talk? A: They were really willing. I didn't have a hard time talking to anybody. And a lot of folks i was talking to were sometimes people that were the children. Like Hoyt Shepherd — who was the big kingpin of Phenix City — his daughter Jan was very nice and very polite and forthcoming and she was a great interview. But to answer your question, I didn't meet anyone who gave resistance or who was stand-offish about it. You know, i interviewed John Patterson, who was absolutely in the center of everything with his father being assassinated. I interviewed him for, god, hours at a time. That was not one of the challenges of the book. ... My point of view is, one of the greatest things that could happen about "Wicked City" coming up, more so than just another history book, is that it would open up a dialogue and an interest in the history of Phenix City that could possibly open up tourism, could open up the uniqueness of what the town was, instead of an embarrassment. Something like what the old West towns have done. Places like Deadwood or Tombstone, they've kind of embraced that. I mean, certainly not welcome that back in. I think that's what everyone's afraid of. I don't think we're going to have prostitution and nightclubs and that kind of thing, but just embrace the past as far as this is something that's part of our town's history. And I think it could be something that could, I would love to see it reinvigorate the downtown area, which certainly needs it. ... I would love see, for instance, the Coulter Building — which is boarded up right now, even though there's a historic plaque in front of it — but it would be wonderful if that was a museum. To me, what's amazing that even people in that area of a different generation don't know about Phenix City and how powerful it was, and what a big deal it was. you know, they may know a little bit about it, that there was some corruption and that kind of thing. But as far as the Phenix City story, to younger generations, even people in Alabama, they don't know what was going on there. I think it would be good for the town to have a Phenix City museum in the downtown, especially in the Coulter Building.
Q: Tell me about seeing Phenix City for the first time when you came here as a researcher. What was that like? A: You know, someone asked me the other day, ‘If you were going to this much trouble, to go through the hoops and do the interviews, why not just write this as a nonfiction book?’ But really, what my goal was to bring the town back, to recreate the city and bring it back to life. That was one of my primary goals as a novelist. And I had to work a lot off historical photographs, and I had to work a lot with rebuilding the town from earlier newspaper stories. The downtown, as far as the red light district down on 14th Street, and on Dillingham is almost completely gone. You had to really use your imagination for what that looked like.
Q: How much time did you spend here? A: I spent a lot of time at the Alabama state archives, where most of the court record and police record and even the mug shot books from the old Phenix City Jail — all those things are housed in the Alabama state archives. So I spent a lot of time there. ... In Phenix City itself, I stayed at the Carson McCullers house and while I was there. ... I started amassing a Phenix City file to use for myself as I was writing. That became the basis of my research. So I started making my own file cabinet just on Phenix City. Then, what I would do — I mean, I’m not that far from Phenix City — is I would drive over there and I would look at where buildings used to be and I'd try to get a lay of the land where the old motels used to be on the Opelika Highway, before the bypass was built. And then I would go down to the downtown area and walk around the courthouse. I would just try to kind of get a feel for where everything was in the proximity and where the old Cobb Memorial hospital was, to get a feel for where that was in relation to Lamar Murphy's house. That was the other big thing, was really developing a wonderful relationship with Lamar Murphy, the sheriff's, daughter. You know, as much as things have changed, for me to recreate, Lamar Murphy's widow still lived in the same house that's featured in "Wicked City." And when you go into their backyard, Lamar Murphy, who was a former boxer, his boxing training equipment, where he put his heavy bag and speed bag, is still hanging up there. That's when I got a feeling that, OK, I've gotten really close now. You know, when I'm actually in the various spots where Lamar Murphy worked, and this was his routine, and this was where he lived. I felt very confident at that point with the story getting so close to the actual — beyond the printed word, getting to the physical places. That gave me a lot of confidence.
Q: Did the villains of this story, or their wives or spouses, cling to some idealized history of the events? A: I don't know. There's a tremendous amount of gray area with the people that we call criminals. People like Hoyt Shepherd, I wouldn't necessarily call him a ruthless, bad guy. I think he was a businessman. But as far as like Cy Garrett, who is the acting attorney general, or Arch Ferrell, I don't know. I don't how their families will react, as far as their children or that kind of thing. I had to base my characterization of those people on what we know was the truth and what was reported.
Q: How long did it take, in all, to research and write this book? It took me close to two years. About a year of researching and a year of writing. And while I was writing, frequently I'd have to go back and do some researching. What happens is, whatever you were looking into when you were researching, and the things that you thought were the most important are the things that you never use. And the things that you gloss over are the ones you need to know more about. Part of my plan in writing was I wanted to know everything I could know about Phenix City and put my hands on every bit of material and know all the little facets and all the players and everything. But when you flip over and write as a novelist, you have to leave a lot of that stuff out. And a great deal of that material is on the cutting room floor, because I’m not trying to write the definitive history of Phenix City in a four-volume set. I'm trying to write a really good, entertaining novel. That's the hard part, is figuring what to leave out. That's a struggle for me, especially in Phenix City, where everything is interesting to me.
Q: Were you surprised at how nasty things really were here? A: I was, actually. Several of the books I'd read kind of discussed Phenix City in more generic terms: There were prostitutes, there was gambling. And it sounds kind of like a Southern version of Las Vegas. That's how I always imagined Phenix City. Maybe a little bit rougher, but you know, maybe a kind of place that sounded like fun. Not that I like prostitutes. But you've got the B-girls, and Hank Williams used to hang out there. It sounded kind of like a fun place. But I didn't realize how gritty and violent it really was. The whole thing with forcing the girls into prostitution, you know, some really cut-rate pornography was shot above gas stations. The whole thing about the baby ring, where the children of prostitutes that were sold. The fact that people would routinely have the crap kicked out of them, that was absolutely true. It was so rough and low-rent that it was something you'd expect to find more in a Mexican border town. And I don't think it really dawned on me, you read about some of these people, you read about Hoyt Shepherd and you go, ‘That guy's not really that bad. That guy's kind of interesting.’ And Hoyt Shepherd is interesting. But he really rose above the people who were in the daily trades that were down in the pits of Phenix City. I think it really didn't hit home until I was going through, in the Alabama archives, looking at the mug shots and what people were arrested for, and their crimes, and these were some really, really, rough, rough people. You know, murderers, rapists and thieves. It was a haven for the morally destitute. I had thought of it more with a shinier, more interesting veneer. I didn't realize just what a haven it was for the really, really really, rough rough crowd. But that's an understatement, ‘rough crowd.’ There were people who should've been in prison, or had been in prison.
Q: How much did the corruption set this city back? A: I think it's a stigma, a reputation, they've had to live with a very long time. I'm sure some people will feel like I'm drumming up bad stories. But it has been 50 years. It's part of the history now, not part of the reputation.
Q: Do you get the feeling that the city is past the stigma now? A: I think it depends on your generation. I think a lot of the younger generation, who wasn't there, there's a genuine interest in the past. But I think the people that were there, that remember the corruption, that remember they couldn't vote, they can remember when people were urinating on the sidewalks, and the whole town was crummy, and the district attorney and the sheriff and everybody was rotten, I think it's still a very unpleasant memory. I think it's a generational thing.
Q: Are those people ready for this book? A: I don't know. We'll see. (Some) people seem very willing to talk about it. It'll be interesting to see. I don't know if this is the thing the Chamber of Commerce people probably want to read about, but that's a different crowd. The average people in Phenix City, we'll wait and see.
Q: What's your vice of choice? A: I've had five cups of coffee. If you catch me at noon, well, that's usually why I start off about 8 o'clock. I'm much slower in the morning. I almost dedicated the book to coffee.